If you have been thinking about attempting to recover from your addictive behaviour, it’s possible that you have not even considered what approach you will be taking. The medical model of addiction has become so prevalent in our (western) culture that you may be assuming that it is both the correct view of your ‘condition’ and the only way to bring about a recovery. I am here to tell you that there is another approach, and it may work much better for you!
So let’s be clear from the start. I’m not saying that your addiction does not fit the criteria of an illness. Much cleverer people than I have concluded that it does. Things like recognisable symptomatic behaviour and typical physical emotional and mental patterns lead us to this idea of ‘illness’. What I am saying is that, like any other ‘condition’ that is attitudinal and mental in its presentation can also be usefully viewed in other ways. I have been working in this field professionally for well over twenty years and I want you to know that what neuroscience has discovered in the last ten has changed the game forever.
Understanding your behaviour relationally
Imagine, at least for a minute, that all the problems you are experiencing have originated because your brain is working very well! Not because you are ill or broken. I know, this is a radical idea, right? You may be in so much trouble as you read this that the idea that you are operating well seems like a sick joke. But stick with me for a minute and see if I can’t convince you to give this approach a try.
The first thing I want you to do is separate ‘pre’ and ‘post’ difficulties. What this means is that you need to recognise and separate problems that originated with your vulnerability and problems that have developed because of your vulnerability. They are quite different and need to be understood that way. Take the typical alcoholic drinker. They start drinking because of their vulnerability to alcohol and the effect it has on them. But once the habit takes hold, post problems develop because they start lying and covering up their habit and spending etc.
Step two would be to see the post problems as a consequence of the ‘pre’ problems. This will help you to understand that post problems will simply dissolve once the pre problem is dealt with. I know that some of you will be reading this and realising that you are spending all your time dealing with post problems since things got worse. But suddenly it seems obvious that this is getting you nowhere since the pre problem is not even getting a look in. But the size and nature of the post problems are convincing you that you must be really ill or spiritually sick.
Or you may have been trying for ages to overcome your ‘sickness’ using various forms of ‘cure’. I won’t go into these forms here because my assumption is that if you are reading this, it’s because they are not working for you. Well, be encouraged. There is an alternative. It is based on the latest findings of neuroscience and the practice of IFS therapy. It is a relational approach and the first relationship to work on is the relationship with yourself.
The Relational Approach
When a person has a vulnerability towards alcohol, drugs, or behaviours, there is always an accompanying difficulty in the relationship with themselves. Just think about the way you talk about yourself to yourself. You know, that stuff that goes on in your mind that no one hears? If you work on improving your relationship with yourself, your relationship with everyone and everything else will automatically improve.
Essentially, neuroscience has shown that the two separate parts of you (your mind and your brain) can either work together harmoniously, or they can be in conflict. The first hurdle you will have to get over is to understand that this difference within you is perfectly normal! The medical approch has trained us all that this difference between our parts is indicative of an illness, and that is why you have never herd of this apprach, until now!
The second hurdle to get over is to be able to accept that your brain is not going to change until you provide evidence for that change. In other words your brain will continue to offer you solutions that you have trained it to offer you, until you produce evidence that you would rather have something different.
The best example of this comes from your own experience. How many times have you told yourself that you did not want to drink again or do X ever again? But you did didn’t you? The decision to stop was conscious, in your mind. But the training was unconscious, in your brain!
Improve your relationship with yourself
The first and most important relationship to work on is the one with yourself. Ask yourself this, would you be happy if everyone could see what you say about yourself, to yourself? Would you talk to anyone else like that? In order to recover, you need to grow. In order to grow you need to learn. You will not learn much in a state of self loathing. Don’t poo poo this idea, it is going to take real courage for you to stop judging yourself and to stay calm and relaxed enough to learn from what just happened! Remember, the main comittment is to learn from everything that happens.
Your relationship with yourself will improve once you see a good enough reason to work on it. Well here it is. You need your brains agreement with your mind. You probably cannot force it, so you need to negotiate it. I have a three step process for this which will help you practice.
Improve your relationship with people
It is well known and universally accepted that people with strong family ties do better in life. Stability and solidity are generally improved by better connections with the living world. Of course there are some of you that need to break off all ties with your family. This is an exceptional circumstance which general comments cannot cover. For the vast majority of us, improvements with the family will result in improvements in your recovery. This is mainly because when we reconnect with our close ones, we are reconnecting with the living world. The idea of addiction and the dead world is a very powerful one. When you first started to practice any dependent behaviour you were escaping from the real world into the dead one. How many times have I heard addicts say that “alcohol is my only friend”.
Not considering your parts may be restricting your progress
After nearly forty years working in the field, I am in no doubt about the biggest difficulties you face when trying to make positive lifestyle changes in your life. It is not considering the complex nature of the human condition. You are complex, and you need to take this into account! Learning to understand this complexity and work with what we call your ‘parts’ will offer you the best opportunity for the growth and progress you have been seeking.
There are several reasons why you may have not considered your ‘parts’ when attempting to recover from addiction, dependence, or make spiritual, financial or relational progress in your life. Here are two of the most important.
You may not have heard of the idea
It’s not that long ago that Richard Schwartz developed the idea of taking what we knew about how to work well with families. Things like the dynamics, relationships, and struggles. And to then apply these ideas internally. That the same relational dynamics that existed in a family also existed within a person. The idea of Internal Family Systems was born when he discovered that these same principles relationships and pressures were also present internally, within each person. When he applied these ideas he found that they worked! As people developed better relationships with themselves they managed their ‘parts’ better and created more harmony and less internal conflict, just like we had been doing with families!
You may have thought you were ill or mentally strange
Because the medical model has had us thinking about ourselves as unified or ‘just one thing’, you may have been embarassed or ashamed about your inner ‘thought’ life. How you sometimes think, what you seem to believe. Especially when it comes to your behaviour and how it stacks up with what you see others doing. They may have seemed much better than you in the way they appear or behave. You may have proceeded on the asumption that there was something wrong with you and that you just had to put up with it, or, worse still, that you had to fight it. It is this failure to ‘beat’ this part of you that frustrates people the most. I want you to know you have been on the wrong track!
Your parts are a healthy and normal human component
The storing of traumatic and problematic experience in your brain is what we are calling your ‘parts’. It is your brains reactions to perceived threats and its way of protecting you. So there are essentially two hurdles to get over before this understanding can be useful.
Number One – This is normal and healthy! The activity in your brain that watches out for you and acts to protect you is not happening because you are broken or malfunctioning. It is hapenning because you are functioning well. You are not suffering from multiple personality disorder or have evil spirits living in you.
Number Two – This is useful and necessary! Imagine being in a dangerous situation without your brain acting to protect you! No fight or flight reactions! You would be very vulnerable to almost any danger. Your brain will always get you out of danger better than your mind will. For brain think reaction, for mind think response.
Your parts are constructed through your experience
So the problem is not that we have parts, that’s normal and useful. The problem arises when your lived experience trains your brain that certain things are a threat to you when they weren’t, or are no longer threatening. There are lots of things that feel threatening to a baby, a toddler or a young child, that would not be threatening to an adult. Let me give you an example. When I was about five or six, I remember standing on my Grandmas back step. She was washing clothes in the kitchen and getting on with her day. She didn’t seem to sense the danger! You see it was raining, hard! The rain was bouncing off the garden path and the puddles were growing visibly. I could see the rain across the feilds, for miles, and I was scared!
So what was the problem? At my age I did not have the experience to know that the rain was not a danger to us. I did not understand that it would stop soon and the water would drain away. In my childs imagination I saw the rain never stopping and everyone drowning. This type of thing is typical of childrens experience as they do not know the limits of the natural world.
Your parts are in sequence
As you develop your relationship with those parts of you that you have recognised, you may not remember exactly when and how they were constructed. What experiences shaped them and formed them. Don’t worry about this, this approach does not rely on psychiatry or even psychology. Think of yourself as an explorer rather than a detective. Your brain already knows everything about this, and will work with you as you make progress.
Having a sense of how old a part is is a good start, and give your parts names so you can distinguish between them ( and your self). Becoming curious about certain ideas like “what is this part protecting me from”? And “Is there anything I can do to give this part confidence that I can handle these situations”? Are good ways forwards as you develop better relationships with these parts of you.
One of the main ways to develop your understanding of the way your brain creates these parts is to realise that they are constructed in sequence.
Each part covering the one before
Just like the Russian doll set I have pictured here, your parts are covering each other. If you picture the smallest doll as your earliest moment of suffering or trauma, the next doll in the sequence covers that pain and protects you from the suffering of the first part. Being slightly older, each subsequent part offers a more sophisticated strategy or distraction in order to cover the previous issue. As the parts get older and bigger, there is more to cover and needs more and more radical strategies.
When we get to the larger, older parts we tend to see the typical startegies of addiction, dependence, gambling, affairs and control. It is these startegies that are so confusing to people, given the radical nature of the behaviour and the disastrous results. When first trying to understand the strategies of these older parts and to separate them from your true or authentic self, always remember that these strategies will be radical, naive and immediate.
Basically, this means that the future will not be taken into account when developing these strategies. It also means that they will not be wise or caring in their construction. It also means that they will be extreme in what they have you doing. It is from this perspective that you can start to understand your drug taking, drinking, gambling or poor relationship choices. Once you understand that your brain has no sense of time ( it’s always ‘now’ in your brain) then it’s easier to understand why it develops ideas that seem to help in the moment but are often disastrous within a day or two.
Your parts are protecting you
In order to make the most of this approach it is essential that you understand this key idea. Your parts are trying to protect you! Take some time now to consider what ideas you are going to have to let go of before you can approach your parts from this perspective. Let’s look at two of the main ones.
You are not ill
You will have to let go of the idea that you have some sort of mental illness and that this is why you do these things. How long have you been fighting this apparent illness or ‘spiritual malady’? How long have you been fighting with these tendencies as if they are your enemy? How much have you hated yourself for being ‘flawed’ this way? It should come as a relief to you that you can now let this idea go.
You do not have an evil spirit
You will also have to let go of the idea that you have some sort of evil spirit that is controlling you and making you do these things. How long have you been seeking spiritual guidance on how to rid yourself of these things that came from outside of you, that attacked you, that hate you and are damaging you? How long have you been wondering why others seem to have improved whilst you are still the same? It should come as some relief that you can now let this idea go.
Appreciating your parts
Once you let go of these ideas, you can start to work with yourself instead of against yourself. You can start to appreciate your parts for what they are trying to do, rather than just keep lamenting the results. Your parts are doing the very best they can with what they have. Imagine asking a six year old what to do about an adult issue! What do you think you will get? Now you see where the radical, naive and immediate comes from.
Also remember that the ‘self’ they are trying to protect is not the grown up you, it is the younger self that they first saw. They do not know what happens after them, they only know what happened before them, the smaller part that they are covering.
How does understanding help us to work with our parts?
The main shift you will make with this understanding of what neuroscience has shown us, is that you will now start to work with yourself instead of against yourself. One of the main ways you will do this is to understand that you are in charge! Think of your self like a family car, Your family is in the car with you. They all have ideas and motivation, they all have ideas about what should happen next, and they all have ways of protecting the family. But there is only one steering wheel!
No matter what ideas are emerging from the back of the car, or even from the passenger seat right beside you, you have the steering wheel. It is ultimately up to you which road you go down. The main difference now is that you will be explaining you reasoning to the others in the car differently, since you now know they are just parts of you and that they are trying to help.
Working with overwhelm
Here is only one time when having your hands on the steering wheel does not help you. This is when you are ‘overwhelmed’. Anyone who has suffered with addiction or compulsive behaviours knows this well. It is the moment when you are going to do something you should not, when you are going to do something you do not want to. But you cannot seem to stop it! There are two versions of this moment, one is where you go ahead and there seems to be no other opinion present, it’s almost like you have decided to do this, even though you have probably said quite recently that you never would again! The other version is where there is another opinion present but it doesn’t seem to have any strength to it. You may have heard yourself saying “why am I doing this”?
The difference between these two versions is that the first one is a complete overwhelm, whilst the second version is where there is some core self present but not in any strength that can influence behaviour. These two versions are both examples of the strength of your brain and its ability to ‘take over’ your body. You will still get the results you want, even in these cases, if you are patient and understand that your brain is following the training it has been getting for years. Remember, this part of you believes that it is protecting a younger self. Ask yourself this, if you believed that you were protecting a younger sibling from danger, would you be talked out of it?
Learning to work with your parts
The approach with overwhelm is to work in advance as much as possible. Remember that there is no timeline in your brain (the neuroscientists say that the amygdala cannot tell the time). This means that your brain doesn’t see much difference between when you think about these difficult times and the real thing. This is why we have real feelings even when we are watching a film. Even though we know in our minds it’s just actors. lighting and scripts, with a little music thrown in.
So when you think about the next time you are likely to face a situation where you will be overwhelmed, talk to the part that will be protecting you. You will probably find that just thinking about this time will ‘trigger’ the part to some extent. This is the best time to speak to it. The process is ‘appreciate, educate, request’ and the more you practice, the better it will work. Ask your part to trust you. Assure your part that you are willing and able to deal with this situation.
Be patient – go for the long game, not the quick fix
As you practice this more and more, you will notice yourself reacting differently to situations. Not because you demanded it of yourself, but because your brain has rewired itself to the new training. It’s always a good idea to congratulate and celebrate such moments. Even though this can feel a little ‘over the top’, it is really good for retraining the brain to build new pathways. These neural pathways lead to behaviour and are often where the overwhelming experiences come from. When you celebrate these ‘different and better’ experiences, you give valuable information to your brain that you like this new way of understanding things. Your brain is brilliant at picking up new learning, so give it all the encouragement you can!
You will soon be experiencing different and much better reactions to circumstances which used to floor you. As you learn to work with yourself the inner harmony you create will produce a state of calm clear confident courageous compassion towards yourself and especially your younger parts. Thanks for taking the time to read this today. If you want to know more about this approach or discuss the idea of working with me personally, please contact me at email@example.com
It always amazes me when I see art reflecting the deeper things in life, particularly in film. Patterns and themes that can often take therapists years to learn and recognise are often portrayed by artists with no training or apparent expertise. These themes and traits are often included in their work primarily as observations from the life of the artist themselves and are all the stronger for that. In this post I am going to take a look at the main theme of my work, which is the family pattern of addiction and reverse addiction. And the way I see this reflected in storylines of Films and TV series. Particularly in the way people caught in this pattern, attract each other, live with each other, affect each other and frustrate each other.
Addiction and reverse addiction as relationship patterns
Years before my own recovery, it was obvious to me that certain people would react to me more favourably than others. Whilst some would clearly be affected by some form of empathy around my ‘problems’, others would be unaffected (I thought they were cold) and would say I had a ‘chip on my shoulder’. I also noticed a tendency to ‘flip’ or change my personality depending on who I was with. When I was with someone who was very giving and generous, I would tend to take advantage, whilst also developing a state of hoplessness. On the other hand, when with people who acted more selfishly, I noticed a tendency to feel responsible for their welfare, even down to shopping, cooking and cleaning
Although I did not understand it yet, and was still some years away from my own recovery, I was experiencing part of the pattern of addiction and reverse addiction. Years later, after I had recovered from my own addiction, I studied and became a therapist. This led me to an understanding of narcissistic tendency and co-dependence as medical terms. However, being trained as a systemic therapist, I did not see these things as conditions. Instead, I learned to use communication theory as a way of recognising patterns and themes around the way people engage in relationships.
Moving away from simple medical diagnosis
Using my own experience as well as my training, I learned to see issues as things co-created in relationships, rather than immutable personal traits or conditions. In other words, that the way we are is, at least partly, contingent on who we are with. It is from this perspective that we can relate the positions of addiction and reverse addiction more closely together. As opposed to unrelated ‘conditions’ such as addiction and codependency.
As I started to develop these ideas in my practice and rehabs I worked in, I started to notice a great deal of consistency in the way people were attracted or repelled by each other. So this started to make sense to me based upon their history and tendency. For instance, an addict that had been extreme in their behaviour will tend to attract an extreme reverse addict. Whilst a more high functioning addict who has no history of drifting into chaos, will tend to attract someone with a milder form of reverse tendency. In other words, there is a form of unhealthy balance here which is unconscious but extremely consistent.
My main aim in this post is to look at the examples of this pattern in film and TV. There are many examples so I will restrict myself to three, one film, one TV series and one book. Finally I will look at the greatest example the world has been given, which is the story of the Prodigal from Luke 15 in the Bible. The purpose of introducing these ideas through mainstream media projects is to help you to see the patterns more clearly for yourself, and to use this understanding in your own recovery. There is no better way to gain a better understanding of something than to see it as part of a story. Let’s first look at a very current series Happy Valley, with the amazing Sarah Lancashire and Siobhan Finneran.
The purpose of introducing these ideas through mainstream media projects is to help you to see the patterns more clearly for yourself
The pattern of addiction and reverse addiction is strongly present in the BBC series Happy Valley. There have been two seasons already produced with a third due to be aired on January the 1st. In the story Catherine Cawood (played by Sarah Lancashire) is a Police Sergeant in a small Yorkshire Town. Her Sister Clare (played by Siobhan Finneran), lives with her along with her grandson Ryan (played by Rhys Connah).
Initially not much is made of Clare’s addiction, it’s only later in the series (series two, episode two) that the complexity of the sisters relationship is exposed through the vulnerability of Clare when she is left at a funeral by Catherine for several hours. She gets drunk with the daughter of the deceased Anne Gallagher (played by Charlie Murphy) who is also alcoholic. This begins yet another chaotic night
Components of the theme
There are many recognisable components of the above mentioned theme present in this series. Notice that when Clare gets drunk, it is when she is left for five hours at a funeral because Catherine is so busy trying to meet many other obligations. This weight of responsibility for others, felt by the ‘reverse tendency’ is a strong component of the theme and one of the main ways that reverse addicts become burned out. There often seems to be no defence for the reverse addict against the consistent needs/demands of the addict., and the continual pressure of meeting others needs.
This pattern is primarily seen inside a family and we always remember that Catherine and Clares attitudes were both born out of the same family, the same parents, the same upbringing. Any dysfunction in the family tends to pressurise the children into one or other of these extreme patterns. The interesting thing is why do people in the same family tend to go in apparently opposite directions? Whilst Clare became a heroin addict and did not manage to make any progress in her career, Catherine grew up with the huge burden of responsibility for others. This led to a career in the Police force and an unhealthy pressure of responsibility to be looking after others.
In the series Catherine is holding down a difficult Police Seargents role in a small Yorkshire Town. Underfunded and unsupported from upstream, she has chosen to step back from her detectives role in order to look after her Grandson. Left when her daughter commited suicide. She is also housing her sister Clare who is volunteering locally but not yet secure in her recovery. You might ask, “who made Catherine responsible for everyone else”? What makes Clare sometimes give up on everything and return to the drugs whilst her sister cannot leave her post? It is this bifurcation along family lines that is not natural, they were not born this way. It is the effect of dysfunction in the family.
How we build relationships, and who we build them with, form another strong theme. Addicts and reverse addicts are like magnets, forming very strong attractions and repulsions. Because of the subconscious nature of this attraction, the unhealthy aspects of the bond are often not apparent until much later. If you ask someone who struggles with these things why they do what they do, they will often answer vaguely or with a somewhat glib reply. Those of you who have watched the series will see this in Catherines responses. The moral sense that they are supposed to do something is a force that is present in the brain more than the mind and, as such, is not easy to get to grips with. The good news is that the brain can be rewired.
It’s also important to review how you think about yourself. If your thinking is built on ideas like “I’m like this” or “I’m too much like that”, then there isn’t much you can do. However, if you can start to think of relationships as the way of understanding yourself, then you are opening up all kinds of possibilities for growth and development. Think about who you are in this, or that relationship, and why. It’s very noticable in this series that Catherine is very different depending on who she is with.
The moral sense that they are supposed to do something is a force that is present in the brain more than the mind and, as such, is not easy to get to grips with.
Explosions often become inevitable in the intensity of such unhealthy, unbalanced relationships such as the Sisters in this series. What the reverse addict sees as caring, helpful and necessary, the addict eventually experiences as restricting, smothering and controlling. Notice in the drinking scene how Clare is desperate for Catherine to “leave her alone”. This pattern or theme naturally strangulates over time to become an unbearable tension for both. The more the reverse addict notices the addict’s problems, the more they act to help. The more the addict perceives the help as controlling, the more they attempt to be free of it, and so on.
Flipping as a relational phenomenon
Following the intensity of the explosion in the relationship, the typical way Catherine and Clare relate is itself reversed, in other words they can ‘flip’ or swap positions. It is part of the pressure of the unhealthy balance. So, following the explosion we would tend to see reflection on behaviour. The addict might be concerned about the extent of their selfishness, the reverse addict eventually cracks under the pressure of meeting everyone else’s needs. Flipping then, is something that happens not only within an intense relationship but also, as a natural consequence of who we engage with.
Only when I laugh
In the 1981 film “only when I laugh” adapted from the play of the same name by Neil Simon, Georgia Heinz (played by Marsha Mason) is recovering from alcoholism. The story covers Georgia’s return from rehab and her attempts to return to her acting career. There are many great observations in this piece and several themes are present.
Notice in this clip from the movie, how the friend and the daughter go from lively animated chatter to a kind of limp lifeless silence once Georgia has left the room.
It was fascinating to me that in her interview with Bobbie Wygant Marsha confirms that she did not have alcoholism in the family, but had seen people who did not realise that they were embarrassing themselves with alcohol. Neil Simon grew up during the great depression and was said to have had a volatile upbringing with the family splitting up several times, but alcohol l was not the problem. So, again, they were derived from observation and human understanding.
Far from the madding crowd
I can’t finish this brief look at these patterns and themes without a mention of Mark Clark. A character most of us can recognise in our lives. In Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the madding crowd, he introduces the character briefly.
“True, true; it can’t be gainsaid!” observed a brisk young man–Mark Clark by name, a genial and pleasant gentleman, whom to meet anywhere in your travels was to know, to know was to drink with, and to drink with was, unfortunately, to pay for.
In Hardy’s novel this character is portrayed as somewhat more universal, as if he would have the same effect on everyone. And there are some that appear to have this effect, but most people have different effects on different people.
The greatest example of this family pattern comes from the Bible and is found in the Gospel of Luke. In Chapter fifteen we read the story of the Prodigal Son. Possibly the most famous story in the Bible. Along with Noah and the flood, Adam and Eve in the garden, the Prodigal is so well known that people of all faiths and no faith are familiar with it.
Of course the typical way this story is taught and understood is in the context of the Fathers love for his sons, and this is clearly the main idea, but there is another underlying theme here and it is so important that when I am teaching counsellors and Church leaders about how to help people in their recoveries, I say that everything we need to know about addiction, rock bottoms and recovery is in this story! It’s all there if we dig a little deeper.
So we see all the usual suspects in this tale. Isolation, selfishness, poor decisions, chaotic behaviour and wild living. Rock bottoms and repentance. Acceptance and reconciliation. But wait! There is also another theme emerging right at the end! Look at the way the older son is so angry at the reconciliation that he refuses to go into the house. The Father goes out to him but he will not be comforted. This issue is so serious that we do not even see the resolution of it in the story.
Learning from our greatest teacher
Well, what is the older brother’s complaint? What is the problem? Shouldn’t he be happy that his younger Brother is back in the family? Well, if all his work, contributions and commitment were genuine, he would be. But his issue is exposed right at the end of the story when he cannot contain his resentment. He did not get the outcome all his efforts were aimed at. So here it is again. Two siblings from the same family, with the same Father, the same environment and the same history. And yet they grow up in completely opposite ways! One trys to gain acceptance and success by following all the apparent rules and meeting everyones expectations. Whilst the other escapes into selfishness and thinks only about what he can get! Looking at this story again through this apparently ‘modern’ lens is fascinating. It shows us that this family pattern has been around forever and will continue to emerge wherever families are formed.
I really hope that this brief journey into art and the way it has reflected life has given you some food for thought, Especially if this is a subject you are struggling with yourself. Our aim in recovery is to improve all our relationships. With everything, and everybody! This means achieving a balanced position in relation to our boundaries with others. This can be very difficult and take time, so be patient with yourself. Take another look at this post for guidance on balance and what it looks like.
Thanks again for taking the time to read this. All the best with your progress.
So you want to recover from addiction? You want to lose that dependency? What is your number one commitment? Say no to drugs? Come home at a reasonable time? be more honest? I say that your number one commitment in recovery is to learn from everything!
This post follows on from the idea that we can get caught in a trap of success and failure. I now want to talk more about what the solution looks like. Learn from everything!
Traditional treatment methods
Residential Treatment Centres go back to the 1860’s when the first asylums were founded based on the size of the problem in America at the time.
The Keeley Cure
From around 1880 the ‘Keely cure’ as it was know was not only popular enough at the time to become huge (over 200 Centres were founded across America and Europe) but, with it’s emphasis on time (31 days) and fresh air and exercise, this approach largely formed the basis of Treatment Centres ever since.
How do treatment Centres work?
Before launching into a critique of treatment Centres, let me first say that, for the right person at the right time, they can and do work. Later in this piece you can read some of my experiences of working for, in and with some centres and what was achieved. My main difficulty with them is that in my experience only around 20% of those wanting help achieved recovery. This would mean that rehab is not the most appropriate treatment for 80% of people who go there!
There are lots of treatment Centres offering treatment for alcoholism and addiction generally. The approaches are varied in length and approach but the idea that they are based on is the same (I am discounting methods that include medical approaches offering a ‘cure’ such as Ibogaine, and only include talking therapy approaches here).
The approach is generally based on two things, both of which are questionable. namely, stress reduction and theory. I will explain both briefly.
Essentially, this is the idea that people who become addicted are not coping with the stress of their situation and need to be removed from it in order to really concentrate all their efforts on their recovery.
The problem with this is that most addiction is based on avoiding problems and difficulties. So when someone arrives at rehab they not only have a tendency to put their feet up (since there is no stress any more) but what is worse they now have a sense that they are doing much better than they really are (they often report that they “don’t even feel like using”). And since they are officially ‘in treatment’, they assume this must be the ‘treatment working’. How wrong so many of them are!
The theoretical approach is again varied and based on different therapeutic approaches etc. The confidence in it helping is based on the idea that the patient can use good information to help themselves. Well as the saying goes ‘it’s dynamite on paper’. But when you realise that the basis of most approaches to addiction is the the addict is ‘powerless’ over their addiction, it makes less sense.
Now I’m not saying theory isn’t a good thing. Coherence and theory are part of every approach. My approach uses theory but it’s theory that is immediately applied in ‘real life’. The problem I have with residential treatment is that it’s all theory! It has to be because the patient has been removed from real life! You will realise the difference between theory and practice when you get home and try to practice it. By then it’s often too late. But there’s always the option of going back to rehab? If you have the money.
The problem with these traditional approaches
Using the ideas mentioned above traditional treatment sets up and promotes an internal conflict that most people lose or are forever struggling with. The two extremes of denial or fighting are both very difficult and unnecessary as there is a much better and stress free method. That of developing a better relationship with yourself.
Think about it. How much are you going to do for someone you don’t like? If addiction is an inappropriate relationship then relationships are where your recovery can develop. And the first relationship you should start with is the one with yourself.
I wanted to say some things about my own personal experience of being caught in this trap and how I learned to avoid it and help others to do the same. Let me assure you, you can do the same.
When I was struggling with dependence on drugs and alcohol I was a young man with ideas that plague many of us. Like I would only be acceptable if I was a success. The word ‘success’ means different things to different people but for me it was sporting success.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to blame others for all of this. The money that sporting success brings would allow me to live a life separated from most people which, at that time was very desirable to me. I didn’t like people and I wanted to be separate. I didn’t realise that I was being slowly attracted into a dead world.
The problem with trying to change
Like a lot of people I didn’t like myself and knew that I needed to change. There are no end of books selling this idea that you can change and you have the power to do so. And there are no end of people making a lot of money from people who are failing to do so.
The basic psychological approach is to develop various methods that will promote change in the individual. Largely they promote the trap I write about in the link above. But I was no different and I knew no better than anyone else. So I tried, and tried, and tried! The more I tried the worse I felt when I failed. The more I failed, the harder I tried the next time. On and on it went, as I got worse and worse.
Art to the rescue!
I love films. Especially films that speak to me of human struggle that I can identify with. One evening I was watching a film about a person who was suffering from ‘multiple personality disorder’. I can’t remember much about the film but there was a ‘break through’ moment for the main character when she returned from her ‘session’ with the psychiatrist and, entering her bedroom, saw her ‘younger self’. Just a child, and very sad looking, for a moment she did not know what to do with this ‘younger self’. Finally she sat down beside her and put her arm around the youngster.
Her break through turned out to be my break through. A healing relationship with myself began when I found an old photo of myself. In the photo I was about ten years old. I reassured my young ‘self’, saying that he ‘had no chance’. And that it wasn’t his fault. I saw for the first time that he had only done his best.
As my recovery developed over the years, I did what I could in local AA groups. For twenty years I helped to run a group and supported new people in that group. At that point I trained as a counsellor.
I was asked to supervise some of the workers at a treatment Centre and was inspired to work with them. Before long I was running them, developing treatment programs and training counselors. Just like my experience in AA I saw what worked and what didn’t. Which attitudes worked well and which didn’t.
What I learned from running Rehabs
I worked in the field for over ten years. Again I won’t dwell on this period but let me tell you some of the main things I learned from all this.
The most difficult phone calls I used to take were from friends partners and relatives of the clients. Often these callers had spent their life savings on sending their loved ones to treatment. In some cases several times.
The main theme of these calls was usually “how are they doing”. But my main memory of them was learning about the way that, with the best of intentions, they were often making things more difficult.
I also saw that, although their loved one was obviously the one that needed the ‘help’ that they were suffering and struggling just as much in their life struggle. But the difference was that they were getting no help!
Later, or in some cases sooner, following treatment, they would be reunited with their partner or child. But because they had not been party to any development or growth often what the client had learned about the ‘theory’ of recovery got overpowered by the emerging of old patterns of relating to each other. Resulting in another ‘failure’.
In places like the AA fellowship I was told that it didn’t matter what others said or what they understood. You could ‘get well’ in spite of all of this. I also learned that it was a ‘family illness’ and that no man is an island. All true! But didn’t they seem to contradict each other?
As extremes they may seem to. But they work together once you understand that the difficulties and the solutions belong in the area of relationships! You have been attracted into a dead world! Your recovery starts when you decide to come back into the world of the living!
Ask yourself how you could improve your relationships today. Just a little bit. How could you be a little more honest with people? Who could you be a little more authentic with? What relationships are asking too much of you? Which ones do you need to do more in? Could you be a little more vulnerable in your important relationships?
Growth means learning from everything!
So, what does this mean for you and your recovery? Some people recover and never return to their habit. Other recoveries include lapses. Don’t be like the rehabs and throw away the most valuable learning you have. If things go wrong. As they do for everyone, Ask yourself what you can learn from the experience. I have a technique which can help you with this. It’s called the recovery box.
Stop worrying about success and failure and how good your recovery looks like to other people. Stop stressing about how long it’s taking and make a commitment to learning from everything! Whatever happened you can’t change it now. So learn from it. Squeeze every last drop of learning out of it.
When you commit to this approach you will become unstoppable and your recovery becomes inevitable. Thanks for taking the time to read this.
This is the third article in the series – Addiction as an inappropriate relationship. In this final post we will be looking at one of the worst aspects of the inappropriate relationship. Namely that it looks good but is really bad. Inappropriate relationships are always presented as something good healthy or wholesome. In fact it is one of the most insidious things about them.
Always connected with something desirable like love or spiritual enlightenment, inappropriate relationships are at best cheap imitations of these things. Deliberately harmful and deceitful, they lead the innocent into damaging and abusive places.
The worst inappropriate relationships always involve the innocent or vulnerable. Young people who are easily tempted with things they cannot get for themselves like a ride in a car or a bag of sweets. Addiction is similar in that the temptation is always about now! So it appeals to the child in us. It always offers instant gratification. There is never any thought or promise for the future, only now.
Big picture versus little picture
Large Cinema screen
Small picture view
This one of the methods I use frequently with my groups. The idea of small and large ‘screens’ as a way of understanding how you are ‘seeing things’ right now. It’s also one of the main reasons why personal growth, development and maturity are the answers for you as an addict. The more mature you become the more your view is ‘big picture’ not the ‘small picture’ of a child.
If when the temptation of this inappropriate relationship came you could summon up a picture even a tiny bit bigger than ‘right now’ you would be very likely to say NO THANKS. Even considering tomorrow morning would probably be enough, but in the past this has been beyond you. Your addictive relationship is only attractive in the ‘right now’ of the ‘small picture’ view.
Avoiding the ‘quick fix’ by changing your ‘screen’
Of course there are times when it is appropriate for you to go the other way and I teach this in the group I run. Ask yourself now is your problem in the past, future or present? Where is the thing that is making you feel bad? If it is in the past or the future it is a ‘big picture’ problem and you must shift to a ‘small picture view’. You do this by bringing yourself into the moment and asking yourself “what am I actually doing right now”? If it’s making a cup of tea, then make the best cup of tea you can and concentrate on it. Small picture!
If your issue is in the present then you must shift to a ‘big picture view’, in which you will feel better and gain some perspective. This is why when you are first presented with the substance that later leads to addiction it appears to be the perfect answer! Instant bliss! You can be transported to a place that has no problems or bad feelings associated with it for just a little money. As long as your health and money last you really have what appears to be the perfect solution to your issues. The perfect answer but only in a small picture view!
I was no different from you in my youth. I felt terrible and the thought of drinking and smoking weed gave me an instant ‘brain shift’ and better feeling. As I got older it was worse! Now I wanted to feel good not only without earning it, but in spite of all the wrong things I was now doing! So because you are doing the same this means that your ‘perfect’ answer is now somewhat more tarnished than when you were young. But it still offers you a powerful relief from the bad feelings you have.
Defining the appropriate relationship
We hear so much about the inappropriate relationship these days. A simple search on the internet brings up heaps of material on Teacher – Student relationships, incestuous relationships, as well as the more common extra-marital relationships.
The more subtle forms of inappropriateness such as the controlling partner and the psycho boss are harder to find but are still plentiful if you search a bit harder. When it comes to things that are more challenging to define such as manipulative friends and people who are over keen to be in the spotlight of leadership or be ‘running things’ there is a lot less information. It is here that the boundaries get a little blurred.
What if we started at the other end? What if we started by defining what makes an appropriate relationship? This is problematic because it is much harder to generalise around health than it is around the unhealthy. Here are a few things that appropriate living relationships include. Along with some links to further reading.
Equality – except where the power differential is written into the relationship such as counselling or a work hierarchy.
When you make a decision to move towards recovery, you are saying that you want all your relationships to be healthy, have good boundaries and able to grow and develop! You will understand the unhealthy nature of the relationship you have with your substance/behaviour much better after reading this series of episodes on the inappropriate relationship .
I have an appropriate relationship with poison. I avoid it! Of course developing more healthy relationship with your substance or behaviour of choice also means developing your relationships with those around you. If your friends, work colleagues, or even your family are using and constantly tempting you towards these substances or behaviours you must consider placing strong boundaries in these relationships, or at the very least strong time constraints. I am not saying it is as simple as saying no! I have written extensively on how we develop a better relationship with our ‘drug of choice’.
Looking at your part
We have been talking so far about the idea of inappropriate relationships with you as the victim and the substance or behaviour as the perpetrator. That’s how it feels a lot of the time as you are extremely vulnerable once you are in an addictive pattern. It’s far too simple to see this relationship that way so now we need to look at your part in this unhealthy relationship.
It is important to realise that you are the abuser, not the substance. That’s why they say you are ‘abusing substances’. I want to take alcohol here as the typical example. It works well as an example as it has an accepted social use and is legal. As well as this it was my ‘drug of choice’ and so I do speak from experience!
Think about a friend or neighbour that you have and you need to borrow something or ask them a favour. Fine, they are okay with it. But now you ask again, and again, and again. You can see where this is going. Even the most patient and giving person is going to get to the end of their patience as you continue to abuse the relationship. I used alcohol beyond it’s socially accepted use and this is what happened. I abused the friendship and I lost it!
Developing better boundaries in all relationships
“When all your relationships with everything and everyone around you are healthy, or are becoming healthier, you are recovered”. I use this definition of recovery a lot and find it very useful in supporting people when they are reflecting on the way forwards for themselves. It locates the issue inside the ‘relationship’ rather than inside themselves or others. Ultimately it is what we make together that forms our world and our experience.
Try this exercise now. Think about specific relationships. With things as well as people. How could you make that relationship more healthy? I often advise looking for 5% improvements rather than going for broke! Now think about how you might go about that improvement. Remember, they don’t have to do anything or say anything to make this work. It all comes from you!
Of course we all must have relationships with inert things, such as sailing, football, television etc. But we are not ‘bonded’ with them! Always try to maintain healthy boundaries around them. I hope this series of articles has helped you to evaluate your relationships and given you a way of thinking about your addiction that offers a way forward. Thank you for taking the time to read this.