Natalie Gray recently accepted the position of CEO at Clarendon Behavioral Health Services in Manning. Gray sat down for an Editors Office Interview to discuss her position, and the journey to get there.
We can start easy, where did you grow up?
I actually grew up in Goose Creek, SC.
I assume you went to high school there, what about college?
I got my masters from Clemson University. I actually went to college long after I graduated high school. I got my undergrad when I was 40, and my masters at 44. I’m a little bit of a late bloomer.
Well, it’s never too late to do that.
No, no, not at all. I was an accountant for more than 20 years, and I ended up working in the behavioral health field.
So, what pushed you to get your degree?
One of my mentors committed suicide, and that led me to get my masters in counseling education. I just fell into the substance abuse disorder field. I was living in Greenville at the time, and I worked in Pickens as a counselor. Soon after I got a promotion into a pregnant/parenting women’s program in Greenville. I worked there for a while before moving to Seattle to live near my sister.
What pushed you to come back this way?
I worked in Seattle for about four years, and eventually I just wanted to come back home. My kids are here, and this position was open. I also have a strong love for how small towns work. I love the community and camaraderie here. People really work together in this field, especially in small towns, because they know who needs the help and the best way to help them.
When you work in a position like this, do you think it's best to have a close understanding of what these patients are going through?
I do. I think, for me, my catalyst was my mentor committing suicide. It was someone that I never knew was in pain. In my journey through schooling and my first experiences in the field, I really got to understand that there are a lot of people suffering silently in this world. There is a lot of guilt and shame attached to their suffering.
What other ways do you have to relate to your patients?
I am a cancer survivor. I clearly remember my first chemo treatment and how much that stuck with me. It was like the thing that was making me better was also killing me. My patients and clients are going through a very similar feeling. I had to go through something that was very restricting and tough, and they are experiencing something similar.
I feel like a big part of the addiction recovery process is knowing what it's like to grieve. Because no matter what, they are going through a loss.
And I think with clinicians that empathy is so important. However, we also have to get in touch with our own grieving process and really adapt that into how we are serving our clients. We have to find those commonalities, not to the point where we are enabling them, just to the point of relatability.
How did you get into the substance abuse disorder field?
I think it was by divine intervention. My degree is in counseling, which usually acts as a mental health degree. Because I started working at Pickens Behavioral Health, I really got to see substance abuse disorder with additional disorders like depression, bipolar, and anxiety. That was kind of my first view of those conditions, and it pushed me to stay in that field.
What were some things that stuck during that time?
It is really a tough road for these patients. I have seen a lot people in a lot of pain doing what I’ve done as a clinician. You see people from all walks of life. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you have or don’t have, your education, or anything. Addiction is a true disease of the brain. When it comes to treatment, not everything works on everyone. That is why we really focus on client-center treatment. It’s such a horrible disease.
I thought about entering the field of counseling, however, I heard that there is just so much patient loss.
Vicarious trauma is definitely something that a clinician has to pay attention to. There is a lot of loss, however there is so much joy in watching someone find hope again.
What are some of your career highlights?
I did have the opportunity about 10 years ago, when I was working at the Phoenix Center, to be on the Anderson Cooper Show. They came in and looked at our program. We focused on opioid use for the investigation he was doing. We got to talk about how that drug had really started taking over. At the time two-thirds of our patients had an opioid addiction, and all of them were pregnant or parenting young children.
That’s a high percentage.
It is. Looking at the opioid epidemic from a family standpoint really sheds a new light on the subject. At that point it doesn’t just affect the person that you are treating. You have to look at all of the collateral pain that it is causing. So, I learned a lot about family dynamics and how important that is in treatment. It isn’t just about the bubble a patient is in, its the bubble surrounding them at least two layers deep.
Is Clarendon Behavioral Health a residential program?
No, we are outpatient. We have the whole spectrum of services related to outpatient, except for intensive outpatient. As we come out of this pandemic we really want to plan and adjust our services to what the community needs. Right now, however, we are just adjusting to the new normal.
How is the adjustment?
We are doing tele-health right now, and checking temperatures at the door for anyone who is entering the facility. We also have to ask all of the questions related to the COVID pandemic. And all of those questions are coming before the main question of: “Why did you come in today and how can we help you?”
When did you start in Clarendon?
So, you are coming in at a very strange time for healthcare.
I am. There are a lot of new normals in the behavioral health field now.
Well now you’re a month in, how has it been?
It’s been really good. I’ve been doing a lot of orientation work. It’ll take a couple months, though. Every place has it’s own culture. Getting to know the staff here, and getting to know their new normal and how they’re adjusting will take some time. It really has been easy though.
What has impressed you the most?
The collaboration among the staff. Being a smaller agency, most people have to wear more than one hat. This team is really great at figuring out what needs to be done and getting it done. We are serving our population the best that we can, given the circumstances. It has been so nice having such a great team of great people.
They say a leader is only as strong as their team.
Right, and I have always valued leadership in service. My job is to support the team. I can only be a good leader if I’m a good server. I am a team member, not a dictator. I am not working with the patients most of the time, so I don’t have a clear line to what the patients need. So, if I don’t rely on my staff, then we aren’t going to be serving the community as best we can.
Well, I hope Manning has been welcoming to you.
It has. It’s a great town, and I can’t wait to be able to actually experience it after this whole pandemic.
You mentioned earlier how much joy you found in watching someone find hope again. How important do you think that is today?
In times like this, hope is a commodity. It is such a privilege to be in a position to help someone else find it.