Spend any time with Steve Hardenbergh and one thing becomes overwhelmingly clear: he’s an optimist who believes in the innate goodness of people, through and through. His hearty laugh and easy smile proclaim it. The life in his eyes shows it. And most importantly, his actions prove it.
For more than 25 years, Steve has worked with people at or close to rock bottom because of their substance use disorder who had made their way to Central City Concern’s (CCC) treatment services. He’s seen people suffer, relapse or pass away. But before that, he saw rock bottom in the mirror.
“In the late 80s, I was using a lot of drugs and drinking too much while I was in acupuncture school. I was the one who reeked of alcohol during morning class,” Steve says. “So I ended up going into treatment back when CCC ran the Portland Addictions Acupuncture Clinic (PAAC).”
For more than 25 years, Steve has worked with people at or close to rock bottom…. He’s seen people suffer, relapse or pass away. But before that, he saw rock bottom in the mirror.
Steve committed himself to a life of recovery, and slowly but surely, his fortunes turned. He finished his acupuncture studies and came back to be an acupuncturist at PAAC (which would eventually become Portland Alternative Health Center, then the CCC Recovery Center). Since he also had a degree in social work, he was asked to step into a counseling role, too.
“People were always willing to test the waters of opening up to me,” Steve says. “I can only be honest and genuine with them, and they can know what to expect out of me. I think that helps.”
Today, two decades later, Steve is a mainstay at the Old Town Clinic: he’s (still) an acupuncturist, a counselor for patients utilizing medication supported recovery as well as those managing chronic pain while simultaneously in addiction treatment. He draws from his glass-half-full approach to remind even the most hardened clients that change is possible. Merely showing up to receive support, he’s quick to remind, means they’re listening to their inner selves.
“I give them encouragement that they’re good people. I strongly believe that listening to our true self is a real good way to help change behaviors. I want to help clients feel and realize that they are more than labels, that they’re more than an addict, more than an alcoholic. Inside, they are good.”
Steve’s message has won him scores of fans over the years. But even when clients linger after a group session to chat with him or come search him out when they’re at the clinic to thank him for his support, he points the conversation back to the client.
“He always reminds the patient that no matter how much he’s helped their recovery, ultimately, they're the one doing the work,” shares a colleague. “This happens a lot!”
While it may be tempting to reduce Steve’s optimism into a tidy belief about individual value and willpower, Steve says that tapping into one’s innate goodness and true self is only half the story. Finding people who can offer support, empathy and wisdom is crucial to making positive changes.
“Finding a community that understands you and what you’re trying to do can give you the confidence to change those behaviors,” he says. “It’s hard to see someone not experiencing connection. It’s hard enough to give people confidence that they don’t have to rely on drugs. It’s just as hard to give them the confidence to know they’re worthy of love and connection.”
“I want to help clients feel and realize that they are more than labels, that they’re more than an addict, more than an alcoholic. Inside, they are good.”
Counting on community is a lesson that Steve leans on in his own work, too. He knows he’s not perfect—“when I make mistakes, I have to own them and be more mindful and be better moving forward”—but he feels grounded by others he finds himself around daily.
“Whenever I feel like helping a person change is all on me, I remind myself that there are so many other awesome people at the clinic involved in their care,” he says. “And that’s a good thing, not just for me, but for our clients!”
In the rare times when Steve feels discouraged, something or someone eventually comes along to remind him that his eternal, vibrant optimism for those he works with is warranted.
“Once in a while, someone will come up to me, maybe at the grocery store or something, and ask if I remember them. And they’re there with their kid and they tell me they’ve been in recovery and sober for eight years,” Steve says, his eyes lighting up recollecting the last time it happened. “Things like that… they’re really good. Real good.”