I was born in Calgary as one of the last of the baby boomers but have lived and traveled all across Canada. I am in my early 50s and have a loving and supportive wife of 33 years, two adult children, and so far, four grandchildren.
Early Clients taught me humility
I attended the University of Calgary for my first degree, a BSc. in psychology and worked in group homes for emotionally disturbed children and multi-handicapped adults; writing assessments, developing treatment plans, and providing behavioral interventions. My clients taught me much about humility and the value and dignity of the human soul through their (at times) cheerful acceptance of a life that most of us consider incorrectly to be less valuable then our own existence, fueled as it is with education, career goals, and the pursuit of wealth and possessions. I do not devalue these things but have strived since then to put them in their proper perspective – behind the goals of a healthy relationship, a good night’s sleep, and family. Like many of us, I have not always succeeded in staying true to these values. Our consumer based world pushes very hard on all of us to spend, consume, and repeat. However, I like to think that the work begun by my clients in my early career to teach me a balance of perspective was not wasted.
What I learned about families as a social worker
My next job was as a social worker in northern Ontario at a community agency working with intellectually challenged/developmentally disabled children/adults and their families. I enjoyed the contact with the families. It provided the opportunity to bring counsel and support to the whole family. I was beginning to see the weaknesses of dealing only with the “problem child.” I like so many before me recognized that more could be accomplished by working with the larger group of people that make up any individual’s environment. Doing only individual work often resulted in disappointment once the client “went home” and the pressures of the family and the environment reasserted themselves.
Learning about adjusting the program to fit the individual
My next career move was as a program director for a daily vocational program for long-term psychiatric clients in Hamilton, Ontario. I am very proud of the fact that we were able to move the program from a sheltered industry model into a psycho-social rehabilitation model years before the model became accepted across Canada as the standard for community treatment. The jargon aside, this meant that instead of assembling muffler clamps and tire recycling – both dirty and demeaning jobs- we decided to focus attention on providing individual case planning and counselling services to each and every client. We developed more individualized treatments and training efforts that allowed people with long-term mental health problems to reintegrate into the community. What I liked about this job was the opportunity to work in a team where we made the client the central focus of our work. We remade the system, sometimes on a weekly basis, to fit the challenges of our individual clients. Years later, when the sheltered workshop system was itself disassembled in Ontario, this program was one of only two that were retained due to their innovative design and results.
The advantages of flexibility
While in Hamilton, I decided to take the next step and seek out master’s level training in counselling in support of my long-term goal of developing a private practice. I enrolled in one of the earliest distance based MA programs for counselling through Liberty University in Virginia. The program used a combination of on campus courses and video based instruction. This worked well for me in that it allowed me to pace my education to the demands of a growing family and a job that often involved evenings and weekends. The advantages of flexibility and meeting the student’s needs rather than the institutional need for order and regimen made an impact on me. To his day, I value the ideal of meeting people where they are and providing what they need above the needs of the system.
Broadening my skills
Around the time I graduated twenty years ago, we moved to Nova Scotia and I eventually connected with a position providing counselling services in the community to people and families that were dealing with addictions. It was a great time of learning. While the systems around me changed repeatedly with the regionalization of health care, I was able to see a large volume of clients for a wide range of issues. It is not a well-known fact outside the field of addictions therapy, that addiction work necessarily involves facing a wide range of past issues that may be driving the addictive behavior for the individual and the affected family members. Multigenerational patterns of trauma and neglect, family violence, sexual abuse, and repetitive negative relationship patterns abounded among my clients. This necessitated developing therapeutic skills in family therapy, couples therapy, parenting skills, treatment of PTSD and trauma, disassociation, relaxation/meditation, self-hypnosis, acupuncture, inner child work, and a wide range of supportive counselling techniques for anxiety, chronic pain, and depression.
My clients taught me an eclectic – holistic approach
This experience caused me to develop my counselling practice into the eclectic tool bag approach that I use today. It means that no one theory or explanation of cause and effect is necessarily more effective than another is. Each client must be seen as an individual, unique and deserving of all of my attention. This is often referred to in the addiction field as the holistic or bio-psycho-social-spiritual model. It places the client at the center of the circle of interventions, theories, and treatments. It is the theories and approaches that are broken apart and cannibalized for parts to rebuild the client, rather than the other way around. Too close an adherence to any one theory or approach tends to mean that the client is treated like an object and often only the parts of the client or the client’s story that fit the particular model the therapist is using get treated. The rest is unfortunately often left out. This contributes to my client’s frequent complaints to me that in previous forays into counselling they felt that they were to some extent ignored. They felt that the therapist did not really get them, that the therapist was listening through a filter that was a theory or approach that only partially fit/met their needs. They had the impression that the therapist was just looking for whatever would connect with their pet theory rather than the client being seen and treated as a whole person.
The explosion of knowledge about addictions, families, and our brains
It was a great time to be in the addiction field as research was developing in two directions simultaneously. Interest had already been extending into the multigenerational patterns in the addiction-plagued or dysfunctional family system leading to the development of the concepts of co-addiction, co-dependency, and ACOA or Adult Children of Alcoholics syndrome. On the other hand, research into brain imaging and neurobiology started to confirm what many had suspected, that addiction was a much broader concept than had ever before been realized.
Brain imaging in particular supported the idea that It was possible for people to become addicted to behaviors that did not involve any recognizable external chemical stimulation. Gambling was pronounced a process addiction, and governments that backed the explosion of gambling for reasons of revenue and greed were forced to provide treatment. Tobacco (nicotine) was added to the chemical or substance based addictions, and to the repertoire of the addiction specialist.
Strong parallels between substance based addictions and eating disorders, over spending and shopping, sex/porn, the internet, and gaming started to be validated by brain imaging studies. They were confirming that in addition to a genetic link between these problems there appeared to be a common biological brain based system underlying them all. We started to see addiction as not residing inside the bottle or the needle but rather in the brain of the individual. Addiction could indeed be present, even when no substances such as alcohol or recreational drugs were consumed.
Addiction affects us all
With this discovery, still in dispute in some quarters, we can start to see addiction not as a strange and rare phenomenon that attacks and takes down a few people on the periphery of society, but rather as a common problem that occurs throughout life and across society. The vast majority of us will struggle with addictions in some form whether it is in ourselves or in someone we love. Their addiction will affect us, as we affect them, and their chance for recovery. Addiction will influence us all, possibly repeatedly throughout the trajectory of our life. A wide range of seemingly innocuous behaviors, attitudes, and experiences may drastically curtail our chance for a mature and balanced adult life rich in relationships.
Connecting real life, counselling, and research
Because of this realization, more than a decade ago I started a little project to get my PhD in psychology and study the research behind the changing field of addictions. Little did I know where that would take me or how long the journey would become. I received my degree in October of 2013 From Capella University after 12 years of hard study and the interruption of many life events. Like all hard work, it had its own rewards, but it also gave me a deep and abiding interest in research and its application to the real world of counselling and psychotherapy. So many new and exciting theories and approaches let alone treatments are being developed even as we speak. They are revolutionizing our ability to work with people in the counselling room. It is indeed a very exciting time to be a therapist, and an even better time to seek treatment and make changes in one’s own life.