By Tom Holmes
Growing up, the last thing Phil Schneeberger thought he would be doing when he was older was helping alcoholics, drug abusers and compulsive gamblers pick up the pieces of their lives.
The road he travelled from his family home in Forest Park to the Way Back Inn rehabilitation facility in Maywood, where he has worked as an addictions counselor for 19 years, has been bumpy but he learned something about himself every step of the way. He is now helping others do the same.
Schneeberger summarized his days at Grant-White Elementary School, Forest Park Middle School and Proviso East High School by saying, "I was a terrible student." College was not on his radar when he graduated from high school. Instead, he got a job installing conveyor belts, married at the age of 23 and bought a house. But 10 months after getting married, Schneeberger was laid off.
"I had a brand new wife, a brand new mortgage and no job," he said, laughing.
"I looked around," he continued, "and knew I had to do something with my life that makes money."
Schneeberger got a job with a security company, which gave him a salary and something even more valuable. "I noticed that I was able to talk to people," he explained, "and relate to them even if we had nothing in common." Because of those relational skills, he was promoted in quick succession to manager, site supervisor and then field supervisor, a position in which he was responsible for hundreds of people.
"I should figure out how to make use of this ability to work with people," he thought to himself. At the age of 29, Schneeberger decided to try college. He registered for one course at the College of DuPage (COD)—Introduction to Law Enforcement—and told himself that if he passed, he would continue with more course work. At the end of the course, he received an "A."
"I had never gotten an A in my life," he said with a smile. "This was really something, so I took the next class and the next class and finished all my course work with almost straight As."
Another bump in the road, or maybe a detour, came when Schneeberger started visiting prisons in preparation for a career in corrections. What he discovered during those visits was a system that was not healthy.
"What life in prison demanded of everyone there was a way of behaving to just survive and was as unhealthy as you can get," he said.
So he switched his major from corrections to counseling—with a focus on addictions—which he saw as a move to let him work with people in a healthier environment. In 2000, he got an internship with the Way Back Inn in Maywood and was hired as a counselor there at the end of his internship.
Schneeberger said his life experiences and academic training both inform his perspective as a counselor. To start with, his grandfather was an abusive alcoholic. Experiencing that toxic relationship and seeing the effect it had on him and his mother made a big impression.
Then at Proviso East, he was sometimes the only white kid in his classes.
"That experience of being the 'only' gave me a perspective," he said, "that many other people don't have. Those experiences gave me some of the insights and empathies I have today."
One big reason why he has stayed with the Way Back Inn for nearly two decades is that the culture there is consistent with how he has matured as both a clinician and a man.
On the one hand, the program at Way Back Inn is clinically certified and is based on science, he said, as it treats alcoholism as a disease and not a moral failing. "We look upon alcoholism or substance or addiction to gambling as diseases just like cancer or diabetes in which there are medical and genetic components," Schneeberger said. "What makes this disease different is that instead of displaying itself in a tumor, for example, is this disease manifests itself most often in behaviors."
Three nights a week, the clients living at Way Back Inn—some for as long as 15 months—attend clinical meetings. The other three nights a week, clients—who pay just $500/month for room, board, and care—go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. AA is clear that it is a spiritual program which believes that "a power greater than ourselves can restore us sanity."
Schneeberger therefore supplements his clinical approach to the disease by encouraging his clients to explore what it means to have a "higher power." He'll use terms like powerlessness and surrender to facilitate the spiritual side of recovery.
"We spend a lot of time here looking at powerlessness," he said. "Men don't like that. We like being powerful. At first it often seems to clients to be counterproductive. 'You want me,' they protest, 'to surrender myself to being powerless?'"
"As far as the disease goes, I tell them yes," Schneeberger said.
He said that because the disease manifests itself in behavior, the Way Back Inn program is very structured. Clients must acknowledge their powerlessness over a substance or a behavior, along with using a lot of personal power to submit to a rigorous recovery program.
Matt, a client at Way Back Inn who declined to provide his last name, said the Way Back Inn gave him confidence in himself, and the opportunity to help others along the way.
"Way Back Inn is the only place I know of personally that really holds you accountable for your actions and will give you a hand up if you're willing to grab the help," Matt said. "It gave me my life, family and friends back, and new people that I call my family as well."