Leading Horses to Water
I work at Meridian Health Services as a licensed clinical-addictions counselor. Most of my time is spent seeing people in group or individual counseling sessions at Meridian.
Some of my time is spent at the Delaware County Jail doing an addiction-treatment program. I meet with a group of inmates twice a week for three hours in the initial phase of the program. I think of my group like a teacher thinks of a classroom: You don’t just go in and run the group off the top of your head. You have a plan, which can include handouts, assignments and discussion topics. The next phase takes place after their release and consists of a year of outpatient follow-up at Meridian. I may see them in individual or group counseling, where the focus is on recovery from addiction and transitioning back into the community.
I start the groups at the Jail with 12 people, but it’s not very often that all 12 finish. This group is closed, which means people don’t join after it has started. On the other hand, my group at Meridian is open, and new people have a specific day of the week to attend their session.
I enjoy working with people and watching them get better. I run into people in the community whom I’ve worked with, and I don’t always remember their name, and I never say their name in public, but I remember their face and ask how they’re doing.
The people I work with at the Jail have acknowledged they have a drug or alcohol problem, and I’m trying to prepare them for their release and re-entry into the community. The Jail staff is cooperative because they know Delaware County has a major drug problem. I find the program rewarding, and the vast majority of the people who complete all three stages of the program don’t fail any drug screenings or re-offend, so we’re doing something right. Some of them do play the system, and that can be frustrating. Someone can’t do the drug program more than once. If they drop out, then they have my information and need to demonstrate initiative and reach out to me on their own when they get out.
The advantage I have that people in the court system, such as judges and probation officers, don’t have is that they don’t see the successes, and I do. They see the revolving door of repeat offenders, and I think they just wonder if anybody is being successful because they see so many people coming back to the Jail. I get to see people be successful in recovery, stabilize their lives and restore relationships that were strained or severed.
I like group work because it seems to resonate more with clients than individual therapy. If I’m working with somebody individually, and I say things to them, they could walk out the door and say, “Well, that’s his opinion, and I don’t agree with that.”
But when that same person is in a group with other people who have the same kinds of problems that they do, it’s a little bit harder to discount the same advice from three or four other people in the group. I hear over and over again that people feel comfortable in the group because they’re each struggling with their own recovery and the group develops a sense of community.
I get together with one friend every year on a Saturday in August for breakfast to celebrate his sobriety. I don’t know when we started this tradition, but it’s been over a decade. He always calls and says, “Where are we going to get together this year?” We’ve moved around from IHOP to Sunshine Café to Bruner’s to Bob Evans. This past August, he got his 31-year AA sobriety token. I was his counselor 31 years ago, and we went to a restaurant this past year where a current client of mine is a waitress. I introduced them, and he showed her the token, which impressed her. It’s just a way to celebrate his accomplishment. We send each other Christmas cards as well.
An old expression is “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” I like to think of it as you can lead a horse to water and make him thirsty. The horse would have never gone to the water source on its own will, but once it’s there, the horse realized that’s where it needs to be.
If I have a client who is coming to me by court order, I tell them: “You’re here — get something from it. You can be resentful or bitter, or you can say, “Well, I gotta be here, so I might as well make the best of it.”
One of the things that’s sometimes a struggle for clients to come to terms with is that addiction is an irreversible condition. If someone is an alcoholic, then they’re never going to be a social drinker again. They have alcoholism. Once you cross the line into alcoholism, your choices are to either continue drinking and experience all kinds of problems or to stop drinking. Drugs are the same way: A client will never go back to being a “recreational” drug user. A big part of recovery is accepting that reality and giving up the fight of trying to control the addiction and learning to live without the alcohol or drug.
Addiction is comparable to a volcano. Say there’s a volcano in Delaware County that hasn’t erupted in 100 years … that doesn’t mean it’s turned into a mountain. It’s the same thing with addiction. If someone starts using again following a long period of abstinence, then it doesn’t take long for things to get out of control and the person starts using more than they intended.
Using more than intended is a cardinal sign of addiction.
You can compare addiction to my heart attack in 2013. I now go to Ball Hospital for cardiac rehab or walk for 45 minutes. There are days I’m not too excited about doing it, but I know I need to go because it’s in my best interest. For my clients, going to group therapy, individual counseling sessions and/or getting involved in Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous is their medicine, and they’re less likely to relapse if they’re doing those things. With addiction, we know that there are definitely things you can do, such as working with a recovery program, that can keep addiction in remission.
A big part of recovery is not just being drug-free, but it’s about making changes in a person’s lifestyle. It’s more than not doing drugs or not drinking, it’s about who associates with you. If you have a drug addiction and you’re still spending a lot of time with your friends who are still doing drugs, your chances are slim to none that you’re going to be successful in recovery — and a lot closer to none than slim.
Part of the process of recovery is realizing you have to set some boundaries and change your people, places and things. There needs to be a filtering process for the circumstances you put yourself in and the places you go.
People mostly use drugs as a source of comfort, pleasure or relief.
One client of mine thought he would have to give up fishing because he took a cooler of beer every time he went fishing. He started fishing when he was 8 or 10 years old and didn’t take beer then, so somewhere along the line, he associated drinking and fishing together very strongly. Now he had to accept the fact he had alcoholism and had to start disassociating fishing and drinking to recapture the joy and pleasure he used to get from fishing instead of giving it up altogether.
Personally, my faith and my family sustain me after over 30 years of being an addictions counselor. Professionally, knowing I’m having success sustains me. I don’t worry too much about numbers, as long as I’m seeing people getting better. When their lives are getting better and they’re experiencing restored relationships, it’s very rewarding.