Samantha Smith took her usual seat near the front of the class, relieved that her first semester as a graduate student in the School of Health Professions and Human Services was nearly done. The Army veteran had been nervous about coming back to school, but she was learning a lot and enjoyed interacting with her professors, especially Dr. Genevieve Weber, who had a specialty in substance abuse counseling.
When Weber walked in, Smith sensed something was not right.
“Rough day?” she asked.
“More like a rough week,” Weber replied.
The two women locked eyes for a moment.
“Oh Sam, I wasn’t going to say anything,” Weber began, before telling the Counseling and Helping Relationships class the devastating news: Her older brother, Todd, had died a week earlier of a heroin overdose.
The revelation momentarily stunned the class. They listened intently as Weber reflected on her family’s lifelong struggle to help her brother overcome his drug abuse. Countless interventions. Stays in rehab. All to no avail. He was found dead at age 42 on his mother’s kitchen floor in the northern New Jersey home where they had grown up.
Some students cried, others began opening up about their own experiences with family or friends battling addiction.
“As a teacher, she completely captivates you and draws you in, but now we were seeing her in her humanity, going through these raw emotions of loss,” Smith said. “I couldn’t imagine what she was feeling. Here she was, so good in this field, and I wondered if she was thinking, ‘But I couldn’t help my own brother.’”
Todd Weber played football and baseball. He was popular and charismatic, with a wicked sense of humor that cracked everyone up. As young kids growing up in a close-knit family in Washington Township, he and Genevieve would spend their days fishing together in a little row boat on the lake near their house.
“My brother was the star of everything. He was handsome as hell, great at sports, and everyone wanted to be his friend or date him,” she recalls. “But he was also the drunkest guy at the party.”
There were middle-of-the-night calls from the police about Todd’s underage drinking, and by the time he started college, his substance abuse grew to include marijuana and cocaine. His parents pulled him out of school to attend rehab.
“After he was home from college, I kept telling my dad, ‘Todd’s on something different,’” she said. Her parents never suspected it was anything other than marijuana until they found him in the basement, unconscious from his first heroin overdose.
She was 15 years old at the time. “I saw the signs – the change in skin color, the slowed speech, the nodding in and out. Ever since then, I’ve had this awareness, this way of knowing when someone is using. I can spot it from across the room.”
The experiences with her brother cemented her career path in mental health and substance abuse counseling, beginning with an internship at 17 at an in-patient drug rehab facility. She went on to earn graduate and doctoral degrees, and worked professionally in Pennsylvania and New York, before joining the Hofstra faculty in 2006.
All through those years, she and her family tried desperately to help Todd. His attempts at recovery were complicated by a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which Weber said can be common among addicts as they self-medicate to stabilize their highs and lows.
“We did everything we could, used every resource we had, to help him, from multiple rehab stays to enrolling him in clinical trials, to interventions, estrangement, and even tough love where we had him incarcerated and limited his access to his child,” Weber said. “My brother tried many times to get sober. He wanted a healthy life, but his demons were too powerful.”
She was in a faculty meeting in Hagedorn Hall that Friday in May 2017 when an unfamiliar number kept ringing her cell phone. She silenced it, thinking it was a telemarketer. Finally, her older sister, Lynn, texted, saying it was an emergency. Weber stepped outside to take the call.
She gave herself five days to grieve before coming back to teach. In that time, she leaned heavily on her family as well as colleagues for support. She spent many late-night hours talking to her friend and mentor, Professor Laurie Johnson, who has expertise in trauma and loss, about how best to help her mother, who was inconsolable after Todd’s death.
She also learned a lot about herself and the power of her own resilience.
“We know from the research that the ability to bounce back is what pulls us through tough times, and I had the opportunity to experience this in my own life for many years,” she said. Ten years earlier, in the midst of her brother’s troubles, her father lost his five-year battle to thyroid cancer just as her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. Each bad turn fortified her resolve to keep going.
On the drive to work that first day back, she thought about whether she would tell her students, and if she did, how much she would reveal and when. Counselors are typically taught not to share personal information with clients in most cases.
“When you consider self-disclosure, you always have to take a big step back and think about how helpful this disclosure will be, and usually, it isn’t as helpful as one thinks, but at other times, it might be beneficial,” she said. “In this case, my disclosure wasn’t about my own gain, but about helping my students really understand a real-life example of the issues that I teach them through the curriculum.”
Samantha Smith’s concern when she walked in the classroom, and the ensuing questions from other students, convinced Weber to be completely honest.
“So much about addiction counseling is breaking the cycle of secrecy and encouraging communication and dialogue,” Weber said. “Some of them wanted to know how to help friends in the same situation. We talked about resources, and even counselor self-care. Sharing my story gave them permission to talk about a subject that is often shushed.”
In the days that followed, Weber was moved by her students’ overwhelming support.
“She was so transparent about everything she had been through, and we could see how every family is affected differently by addiction,” said Smith, who was so touched by Weber’s story that she signed up for another class with her this past spring. “She took her life experience and made it a teaching moment.”
Weber welcomes the interest because the need for compassionate, qualified counselors is great.
“When my brother died, his was the second body found that day in my town,” she said. “That same year, more than 500 families on Long Island got the same phone call I did, and nationally, more than 64,000 families lost someone to a drug overdose,” she said. “Unfortunately, addiction counseling is a growing field. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a field where you can make a difference.”
After Weber’s sister, Lynn, recovered from breast cancer, the two vowed to always be there for each other. They now live in the same town, a half-mile from each other. Their kids go to the same school, and they take care of their mom, who has been unable to return to the house where her son died.
“It’s an energy that is beyond me,” she says of sharing her loss. “I was resilient, but I did not do it alone. My family, my colleagues, and my students gave me the strength to carry through, and it’s a story that I need to keep telling.”