She came into her first therapy session telling me she didn't need therapy.
Recovery was a foreign concept, and she was honest in disclosing that she had little to no desire to be sober.
Her parents had forced her to receive help. They stated they would kick her out of the family home and told her they would no longer support her habit.
To my new client, this seemed both dramatic and excessive.
But terrified of homelessness, she entered an inpatient treatment facility, where I was her assigned therapist.
She Didn't "Want" To Get Better
There is a common misconception that individuals struggling with drug or alcohol addiction need to hit the proverbial rock bottom. There is also the notion that one must desperately want to get better to achieve sustained recovery.
Both of these misconceptions undoubtedly have their merit because, for many people, these philosophies apply. Some do need to experience severe consequences, and some do need to have the inherent motive to change their behavior.
But she wasn't one of those people. Aside from her parents setting healthy boundaries, her addiction hadn't resulted in unwanted consequences. She had relationships and a job she loved; she had graduated from college with honors, and she was known for being a kind and loving friend. In almost all senses of the term, she was 'functioning.'
At the time, she didn't want to surrender her relationship with alcohol and cocaine. The alcohol kept her "fun" and helped her relax. And all her friends binge-drank—what could be so bad? The cocaine, she insisted, was an "occasional vice," one that she assured me helped her stay thin.
She was in her young twenties, and I understood. Her life revolved around her current mood; she couldn't project into the long-term implications of today's actions.
We live in a society that celebrates letting loose. We have destigmatized the dangers of frequent partying. We laugh at stories of drunken foolishness and commiserate over stories of wicked hangovers. By all means, her choices were acceptable and, in many cases, they were completely normal.
The Changing Tide
My client was both insightful and intelligent. Logically, she understood why her parents were worried, and she respected their concern.
At the time, other staff and peers continued to harp on her alleged denial and rationalization. This, in my opinion, is one of the most significant pitfalls in the recovery community. Everyone believes they have a credible belief about someone else's problem.
We delved into her frustrations with the community. She didn't like being told how she felt. She didn't like people labeling her without knowing her at all.
During our fourth session, we talked about the meaning of life in the most cliched discussion two people can have about the topic. She wanted to leave a legacy, she told me, she wanted to impact people deeply. She wanted to help others, although she wasn't sure in which way.
With this client, I never labeled her feelings. I never gave her a label, and that's because I don't believe in giving people labels. I never told her that she needed to change or needed to stop using.
Instead, we talked about life, and we talked about fear, and we talked about shame and happiness and family. We talked about what a life could look like without alcohol or cocaine—just in a casual and roundabout way. We talked about why that life scared her.
A Life She Could Love
During her eighth session, she sat down and told me that she was willing to be sober for a year. Just as a personal experiment. Just to see how it felt. Just because she was interested in seeing what changes or benefits could happen.
I didn't give her much of a reaction beyond telling her that I was interested to see how it unfolded. This is the art of psychotherapy. We don't want to overreact or underreact; we don't want to carry our personal agendas into the room.
The year passed. Her parents started trusting her again. She was promoted at work. She met a decent man and didn't need to be intoxicated to feel comfortable being intimate with him. She began eating healthier and exercising.
Today, we're at over four years into our relationship. She still calls her recovery an experiment; only it's the experiment that's changed her life.