Unpublished Anecdotes

Real-life client stories. Don’t quit before the miracle happens!

Rebalancing the Addictive Mind

A Never-Give-Up Attitude

The moral to this story is that the weakest, least-able client served as one of the greatest motivators I have ever had for my clients. It was also a lesson in how those in the action and maintenance stages of change can develop the self-efficacy to increase the odds against slipping into relapse.

Barry was 65, but appeared much older. He had neuropathy, which left him with a partially paralyzed body. He used a walker, but dragged it along the floor, hunched over, very slow and fragile. His right arm was deformed from multiple falls, breaks and surgeries to repair the elbow. Just watching Barry move around the group room scared me.

But the doctor had cleared him for fitness group. Honestly, my first thought was, “No way this guy can go with us.” But he approached me with enthusiasm and said, “Hi, my name is Barry and if you can swing it, I would love to be able to go out to your fitness group. I was hoping you could find a way to help me start getting better.”

Wow. Really? I had how many guys (adults and adolescents) who had nothing wrong with them (besides a bad attitude) and they whined about going to fitness group because they “were too tired”?! I had to find a way to get Barry out there. “Sure, no problem!” I replied.

I did not get an increase in staff or support when I had disabled clients, but that didn’t matter. I had a plan. Many of our clients had been sentenced to rehabilitation by the court system. This meant that many were in treatment for three to six months and had time not only to have worked on their own treatment, but to take on leadership and operational responsibilities as well.

I got some of these older clients together and said, “We need to get Barry and his walker into the van, get him in and out of the gym for fitness group and return him safely to the house. He wants to go to fitness group every day.” They looked at each other and at me and said, “No problem.”

We went the next day. It was a thing of beauty. Two guys would lift Barry in and out of the van, one took charge of the walker and others alternately volunteered to walk with Barry or help monitor him and his needs in the gym. At first, Barry couldn’t even buckle his own seat belt. I never had a shortage of volunteers to help. In fact, some of the regular “assistants” got possessive of someone else attempting to “take their spot” with Barry.

Barry started out with exercise consisting of getting to and from the gym and walking part of one lap on the indoor track. At discharge from treatment 40 days later, Barry had worked up to walking (with his walker) six laps of a 200 meter track, pedaling the stationary recumbent bike for 10 minutes and doing some light lifting on the machine weights. His posture improved, as did his strength. But the thing that reflected the greatest change was Barry’s self-esteem. He was proud of his hard work and the results. I think he was also proud of how he served as a role model for the younger, healthier guys.

Everything about Barry was “can-do” and “best-effort.” Not everyone was aware of Barry’s progress, so I made sure they were. In our daily community meeting before heading out to the gym, I would regularly report on Barry’s progress and the milestones he attained. The cheers in support of his effort and results were worthy of a Super Bowl victory.

Rebalancing the Addictive Mind

It’s a “We” Program

The following is an example of fusing the principles of recovery, camaraderie and good will.

The residential supervisor, Reggie, told me about having held an informal football game on Thanksgiving the previous year. He had called it “The Turkey Bowl”.
My thought was to expand this idea. I got my team leaders together. We had a large group now – 38 potential participants. Although the Turkey Bowl would be optional for clients, all were encouraged to participate.

I sat with my fitness group team leaders. We drew up “street” rules that were designed to maximize fairness and consistency and to prevent injury, fights, arguing or rough play. At the next community meeting, we announced we were seeking team captains. From those volunteers, I chose four who I felt best exhibited commitment to his recovery, was up-to-date on his treatment work, demonstrated responsibility with his job functions and who been in treatment longer than 30 days.

The captains then picked teams. We had enough players for four teams of six, plus a few alternates. Those who could not or chose not to play, but wanted to participate, became referees and linesmen.

The teams got together and chose team names. Team names were drawn from a hat to fill out the brackets. There was a lot of boasting, bragging and kidding going on in the week preceding the game. The holidays are almost a universally difficult time for those in early recovery, especially those in treatment. The pending tournament was a great source of healthy distraction.
I took “football commissioner” job, supervising the games and clients participating. Reggie joined one of the teams. Reggie’s participation always lended a bit of excitement to the game –whatever it was. There was a lot of good-natured teasing and playing that went on. And it diffused from the fact that often, disciplinary matters and client consequences were Reggie’s decision. Joining with the clients broke down the rigid perception some clients had of him, and of staff in general.

The games went well. We did have some arguing about “bad calls” but one of our rules was “There is no instant replay. Right or wrong – the Ref’s call will stand”. When the arguers were reminded of their personal acceptance of the rules as a requirement of playing in the Turkey Bowl, they acquiesced.

We had some very good efforts by people who were not very good players. And we had some very humbling actions on the part of those who were heads above the competition. One player, Andy, ran circles around the other players. He scored multiple touchdowns and didn’t drop anything thrown near him! Yet rather than hog the glory, he benched himself much of the time – so others could play. It was sportsmanship at its finest. And everyone noticed.

At Thanksgiving dinner, Reggie presented Turkey Leg Awards. We had two turkeys. One turkey leg went to the MVP (Andy), one went for “Best Effort”, one for “Sportsmanship” and the final one was collective for the Referees and Linesmen.

The games served as a metaphor for the use of social support and resources for recovery. The games were a success and we all had fun because the final “product” was dependent upon the participation and effort of all concerned. It wasn’t just about the quarterbacks and touchdown-makers. The games don’t work without blocking, referees, linesman, the staff who drove the vans, etc.

It’s a WE program. –AA saying.

The Turkey Bowl provided the clients the full gamut of how you can have fun in recovery, build camaraderie and cordially debate differences. I used the day to reinforce the following recovery principles: Trust, patience, teamwork, asking for help, helping others, humility, hard work, you don’t always get your way, life can be unfair, make the most of the time you have, live in the present, and, most fittingly on Thanksgiving, GRATITUDE.

Rebalancing the Addictive Mind

Replacing Darkness with Light

Anita was a 25-year-old who was a former high school and club- sport basketball star. But she hadn’t played since dropping out of college at 19 to pursue full-time using with her also addicted boyfriend.

Her arrival in treatment was motivated by her boyfriend’s suicide five days ago. Anita heard the gunshot from the other room and witnessed his last moments of life. She was traumatized, severely depressed and just finishing a detox protocol for opiates and alcohol dependence.

Anita was present, but she was not engaged in any activities or groups. Her face was mask-like. No expression. Dull eyes. She refused to go with my women’s group to fitness at the gym. Peer intervention and encouragement were not working. Fellow clients told her how much fun they had at fitness group and how good they felt when they returned. “Come with us! Seriously! We have so much fun!”

Anita wasn’t buying it. Only when told that the entire group had to go, or no one could go, did Anita grudgingly comply., “I’m only going so you guys can go. I’m not doing anything!” She insisted, glaring at me.

“No problem” I said, and promised that all she was required to do was get in the van and go. Which she had now chosen to do. She could sit on the sidelines or participate once she arrived. Her choice.

Sure enough, as soon as Anita arrived, she headed for the TV area in the community center and flopped down on the couch. I got the others up and running in their warm-up, for team sports, or strength and aerobic activity inside the gym. Then I returned to Anita. I tried to normalize her ambivalence; then asked her about her sports background, accomplishments, fondest moments, etc.

In the course of conversation, I described the evidence-based data and real life progress some of her house-mates had been making in using exercise to mitigate PAWs. We shared mutual knowledge of players and championship teams, as well as our similar pasts as former athletes who had succumbed to addiction. Eventually, I convinced her to participate by appealing to her ego: I challenged her to come out and shoot baskets with me.

The more we played, the more I could see that mask starting to crack. Frankly, the other clients in the house had been very worried about Anita’s near catatonia and fragile emotional condition. They were shocked to see her on the basketball court. One of them, Tina, came over after about 15 minutes and asked if she could join in. I had her take my place in the game of HORSE, but it quickly became apparent that she was a terrible shooter. So I offered Tina positive feedback for her courage to try something new and “get out there.” I started to show her how to shoot better. Then I looked at Anita and said, “What am I thinking? We’ve got a basketball expert right here. Hey, Anita, why don’t you help Tina with her form. I need to check on the clients in the weightlifting room.”

Sure enough, Anita accepted the ego-stroke and started helping Tina. This got her out of the inside of her own head, away from replaying the “tape” of finding her boyfriend clinging to life, and ruminating about all of the “what ifs.” Instead, she was teaching and it brought back positive memories of teaching younger girls at basketball camps during her pre-addiction days. Tina missed about 95% of her shots, but each one she did sink was like the winning goal in the 1980 Team USA victory over the Soviets. Wow! A perfect “swish” from the free throw line. It was a “victory” Anita shared, and served as the catalyst that gave her a sense of purpose and cast light into the bottomless well of her depression.

Clearly, this was an atypical case. But the funny thing is, the more I work with client in this context, the more “atypical” cases seem to materialize. Exercise and sport provide a healthy, therapeutic escape from self-destructive thought and worry. Activity also serves a vital function in providing a break from the seemingly non-stop responsibilities and demands we face in our day-to-day routines.

Rebalancing the Addictive Mind

Improvement is a Process

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.

Rebalancing the Addictive Mind