Life's a circus!

Meet Rebecca Nemecek, our SUD Program Manager

Life’s a circus! Meet Rebecca Nemecek, our Substance Use Disorder Program Manager

Rebecca Nemecek didn’t grow up planning to be a therapist or a drug and alcohol counselor. In fact, she might tell you her life was quite a circus before she chose this career path and ended up at Healthy Minds in Las Vegas.

Rebecca never knew her biological parents. She was adopted and grew up in the suburbs of Chicago as an only child.

From an early age, she was drawn to gymnastics, and competed throughout high school. She chose Illinois State University for college, which just so happened to be one of two colleges in the country offering a collegiate circus program (the highly renown Gamma Phi Circus). After giving circus performance a try, Rebecca was hooked and immediately joined Gamma Phi.

Rebecca Nemecek performing aerial silks in the Gamma Phi Circus at Illinois State University.

Rebecca Nemecek performing aerial silks in the Gamma Phi Circus at Illinois State University.

Flying trapeze, hand balancing, tightwire, aerial silks… All of the circus skills Rebecca honed in college not only required enormous physical strength, but psychological strength as well. Overcoming fear and self-doubt, pushing beyond her boundaries, trusting her partners, using “failures” as milestones on the way to eventual success – all are requisite mental tools to possess when you’re swinging through the air with a partner 35′ above the ground.

“I’ve always been interested in the way that people interact with each other, and why they do what that they do,” Rebecca reflects. “I was adopted, so I often wondered what my life might have been like had I not had the great parents that I ended up with – all the different possible ‘Rebeccas’ that could have been.”

Perhaps it was this curiosity that led Rebecca to want to study the human mind and behavior. In addition to her many circus achievements, Rebecca earned a Bachelors in Psychology in 2008, and a Masters in Developmental Psychology in 2010, both from Illinois State.

From Illinois to Las Vegas, via Cirque du Soleil

Another benefit of being part of Illinois State’s Gamma Phi Circus was that Rebecca met her future husband, Jason, there.

Rebecca Nemecek performing hand balancing in the Gamma Phi Circus at Illinois State University. Rebecca's husband is the base (holding her and the other performer).

Rebecca performing hand balancing in the Gamma Phi Circus at Illinois State University. Rebecca’s husband is the base (holding her and the other performer).

After getting his Bachelors and Masters degrees at Illinois State, Jason began looking for a job. “We had a connection to someone who worked at Cirque du soleil, and a job opportunity opened up, so Jason jumped on it,” says Rebecca.

Upon moving to Vegas with her husband in 2010, Rebecca got a graduate assistant job and entered UNLV’s Marriage and Family Therapy Masters program. Upon graduation in 2012, she needed to complete an internship before she could begin officially practicing as a therapist.

Ever the daring over-achiever, Rebecca tried to take on two internships at once: one at Healthy Minds (focused on foster children and families) and the other at a provider that dealt exclusively with drug and alcohol treatment (specifically working with people who had multiple DUIs as well as individuals transitioning back into the community from prison and those who were in pre-trial or or probation programs).

Ultimately, the workload proved to be too much, and Rebecca left Healthy Minds to focus on drug and alcohol treatment so she could get her Certified Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (CADC) license.

Rebecca Nemecek Comes Home to Healthy Minds

In 2015, Rebecca Nemecek came back to Healthy Minds. She’d missed the holistic, team-based approach to mental health treatment and the quality of patient care that resulted.

Three years later, Rebecca is now the Program Manager of Healthy Minds’ new Substance Use Disorder (SUD) program, spearheaded by Melissa Paller.

“I learn something new from Melissa every time I talk with her,” says Rebecca. “I have some experience in this field, but she’s done this kind of work far longer than I have. She’s incredibly well-versed and intelligent, and always aims to elevate everyone on our team.”

Rebecca Nemecek’s Next Act: Becoming a Mother

Rebecca is currently eight months pregnant with her first child. Since she was adopted, she makes an interesting observation: “my child will be the first blood relative I’ve ever known.”

One of Rebecca’s motivations is creating the best possible home for her baby. Since she considers Las Vegas and Southern Nevada her home, she wants to do everything she can to make the community she loves even better: safer, healthier, more educated and prosperous.

“Many people don’t realize that Nevada is ranked #51 in mental healthcare (Washington, D.C. is included in the total state count). One of the things that really excites me about working at Healthy Minds is that our new mission is to move Nevada from 51st to 1st in mental healthcare, and we’re actively taking steps to make that happen.”

What Does A Typical Substance Use Disorder Patient Look Like?

Even though she’s now both a program manager and an expectant mother, Rebecca still works and sees patients daily at Healthy Minds.

She describes her typical client as follows:

  • 16 years old male, referred by their DFS case worker;
  • heavy marijuana user;
  • uses marijuana in an attempt to self-medicate for a co-occurring disorder such as anxiety or depression;
  • thinks marijuana is safe because it’s legal for adults in Nevada and “natural” (not realizing that marijuana can actually be quite dangerous for young people);
  • exhibiting interpersonal problems, skipping school to smoke marijuana, not coming home on time, disobeying parents;
  • does not want treatment.

As you might imagine, these are difficult circumstances for both patient and therapist alike. It’s challenging enough to treat an adult patient who WANTS to get help; it’s a whole other set of challenges to help a struggling teenager with co-occurring disorders who does NOT want help.

How does Rebecca approach such a daunting challenge?

Rebecca always tries to meet the patient where they are, from a position of non-judgment. She aims to establish good rapport and eventually a trusting, safe relationship where the patient feels comfortable sharing thoughts and feelings they don’t share with others.

“You learn a couple of things very quickly,” she says. “First, you can’t make anybody do anything they don’t want to. Second, it’s very hard to deal with a patient’s underlying issues when there’s substances [drugs and alcohol abuse] involved.”

Over time and after building a trusting relationship, Rebecca and other Healthy Minds experts (including psychiatrists, psychologists, and care team members) aim to help the patient realize that their drug use is masking and often compounding their underlying problems. Ideally, the patient will reduce or eliminate their drug use so the team can more effectively help them address their root problems.

Ultimately, Rebecca tries to help her patients find the internal motivation they need for positive life changes, while working with them to create a clear path towards that change. If the personal motivation and self-improvement plan are truly “owned” by the patient, they can continue to be healthy, productive members of society even when they’re no longer receiving professional treatment.

Self Care: An Important Lesson For Other Mental Health Professionals

Another important lesson that Rebecca has learned is the need for self-care, something that many professionals in the mental health fields often overlook.

“Our work is both incredibly challenging and incredibly rewarding. It’s also easy to get exhausted. Despite our best efforts, we can’t ‘save’ every patient, but we do have control over our ability to take care of ourselves.”

Rebecca is mindful of the risk of “enmeshment,” wherein she runs the risk of allowing her own mental state and overall wellbeing to be too impacted by the experiences and outcomes of her patients.

“I have to remind myself, ‘I’m over here and you’re over there.’ I care deeply for my clients, and I also know that to continue doing my job well while also being there for my family means I have to set boundaries.”

Rebecca makes healthy, home cooked meals with her husband as often as possible, because she knows what she eats profoundly impacts her health and wellbeing. She also makes sure to exercise regularly. Does she still perform circus routines now that she’s pregnant? No! However, she plans to return to her lifelong passion after she’s officially become a mother.

Rebecca performing flying trapeze in the Gamma Phi Circus at Illinois State University.

Rebecca performing flying trapeze in the Gamma Phi Circus at Illinois State University.

Rebecca Nemecek teaches us that life is like a circus, full of daring leaps, grand adventures, and uncertainty. At key moments, we have to know when to let go of the past so we can arrive at a better place or a new vantage point. We have to trust family and colleagues to catch us when we’re in need.

At Healthy Minds, we’re so proud of the great work that Rebecca does to make Las Vegas and Southern Nevada a better place to live for all of us. We couldn’t ask for a better, more talented partner. May the show go on!

2019-01-15T15:36:12-04:00July 23rd, 2018|Addiction Treatment, Team Stories|

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