Sporting activities lend themselves to simplifying the principles of recovery in ways people can relate to, and understand.
Cliff was a 51-year-old former high-school basketball star whose booze and marijuana habit blew his opportunity for a full college basketball scholarship. He admitted his alcoholism began in his teens. He had been through several treatment centers over the years, beginning in his early 20’s. But he had always relapsed within a couple months of discharge. Despite doing everything asked of him during treatment, Cliff had little belief in himself. “I’ve been doing this since I was 13,” he said. “I don’t think I can change. I’ve tried. I just don’t see how it can happen.” The only reason Cliff was in treatment this time was because of a health scare.
I realized that what Cliff wanted was what so many alcoholics and addicts want: immediate results and the freedom to do it (treatment) their way. In other words, some sort of magical intervention. In a case like his, sports analogies can help clear the scales from the client’s eyes.
I asked Cliff when it was he first became a 95-percent free throw shooter. He looked at me like I was crazy.
“What?” I said in response to his look.
“I was never a 95 percent free-throw shooter, Miss Shelley. I don’t think anyone is. I would have thought you knew that.”
“Well, I just assumed that you must have had some supernatural talent that allowed you be great at things immediately, with little or no effort.”
He gave me a partly defensive, partly curious look.
“OK then,” I continued, “what did it take for you to become a reasonably accurate free-throw shooter?”
“Well, of course, we had a lot of coaching and shooting practice at school. I also spent a lot of time in the driveway in front of our house, shooting at the hoop over the garage.”
“So, I said, “it’s fair for me to assume that your free-throw shooting ability developed over time, with lots of practice – repetition, coaching on form and support from your teammates. Let me guess: lots of times you thought it was boring, frustrating or that you weren’t making any improvements? But you kept at it? Didn’t give up?”
“Oh, I get where you’re going with this,” he said.
“Because you knew,” I continued, “that effort and tenacity were required for improvement? And that you believed in yourself and the importance of hard work and practice if you were to achieve your goals?”
“I get it,” Cliff said. “OK. You’re right. No seriously, you are right. It totally makes sense to me now. It just seems like I should be able to stop drinking and using — just like that! — if I want to.”
“Well, you can’t,” I told him. “That’s what addiction is. It changes your brain and wires you to use, despite all of the horrible consequences. We need you to stay clean and sober in order to give yourself time to retrain your brain.
“Remember when you first picked up that basketball? How long did it take you until you could reliably repeat automatically and under any conditions, all the little things that make up proper form: ball on fingertips, poised at your forehead, elbow underneath, knees bent, fluid, coordinated push with legs, energy flowing through body into arm, arm extending and hand following through straight toward the basket, eyes on the back of the rim?”
“Yeah,” Cliff said, transfixed. He seemed to be back on the court as a kid, imagining just what it took to become proficient in hoops shooting.
“Well, I asked, “if you’re ‘training’ your brain to think and behave in new ways, why on earth would you NOT assume it was going to take time, practice and involve setbacks? Trees don’t grow straight to the sky!”
Cliff made remarkable progress from there during his 60 days in treatment. He seemed to slow down and approach each day with purpose and patience. He learned to modify his temper (he was also an enthusiastic weightlifter in our groups). Cliff became open to trusting the recovery process.