When I work with younger people in their journey of recovery, one of the first roadblocks I encounter is combating their very destructive ideas about what fun and excitement looks like. I once had a mentor of mine describe insanity as changing our goals to meet our behaviors! To most individuals, running from police, getting beat up or exploited sexually, using chemicals and being on the verge of overdose and narrowly escaping death on a weekly or daily basis sounds awful. However, for many young addicts, especially those with histories of unresolved trauma, it sounds like a typical Tuesday. It is their reality, and to survive such a chaotic and self-destructive way of life, rationalization kicks in and the abnormal becomes normal.
I’d like to say that when younger recovering individuals come to treatment they realize the gravity of their current situation and immaturity goes by the wayside and they get to work. Sadly, this is rarely the case for young adults OR older adults for that matter, and they need a lot of help staying on the path. It can be quite a shock and even feel quite boring to suddenly step away from a lifestyle where these young adults were on high alert at all times; vacillating between hustling to get high and being high, “running and gunning”, and desperately trying to avoid withdrawal and emotional turmoil on a moment-to-moment basis. Three meals a day, quiet nights and people providing affirmation and support 24-hours a day is a totally foreign and often unsettling contrast from their normal day-to-day in addiction. So many times these young women and men will create the chaos and drama they crave in treatment! They will gossip and create dissension amongst peers, “hook-up” with the physical manifestation of their unresolved traumas, engage in process addictions, create drama with roommates, pull inappropriate pranks on fellow clients and staff, and sometimes they find obscure and bizarre ways to relapse on chemicals in treatment.
What’s so destructive about this struggle to re-define fun and excitement is that more often than not, a client will be labeled as defiant or resistant to authority for these behaviors, deemed too much of a threat to the clinical milieu and discharged. I have worked with countless young clients who were discharged for these types of behaviors, who wanted to get better, craved a chance to heal and grow, however they were never given the skills and tools necessary not to shoot themselves in the foot in the interim. It’s important that we understand why many of our clients engage in this self-destructive behavior in an effort to have fun and stimulate themselves. Essentially it’s a desperate attempt to not be in their own skin, or the moment, and at all costs. The truth is its hardwired and connected to the central foundation from which our minds develop: Attachment.
Attachment shapes who we are, how we gauge and respond to danger and how we organize and process the information with which we encounter in our worlds (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991 ). The first three years of a child’s life is critical for healthy attachment to be developed via consistent and secure connections with parental figures. Many of our clients did not have parents that were around, sometimes for reasons that were truly negligent and tragic and sometimes because they simply had to work and work a lot. That was their reality. Other clients had parents that were physically there but due to their own addictions, were a million miles away emotionally and psychologically. Countless clients remember dad being there but always being drunk, or mom being there but always being half asleep with her bottle of pills never too far away. Kids are very perceptive and because of their size in relation to the rest of the world, they have to be to survive. Inebriated parents do not allow for that central foundation to become established.
I have had the pleasure of attending some weekend trainings with Dr. Dan Siegel, a man whose books you’ll find on many clinicians shelves at The Refuge. He discusses how the attention a child receives from their parents reflect back to that child their place in this world, and their worth. It is the cement of that foundation we’ve been talking about: It is the formation of a child’s internal process, or as Dr. Siegel calls it, “the subjective See-Inside (Siegel, 2011)”. When this “see-inside” is not fostered, when no attention is given to that child, the story they often make up is that it’s because there is no one to know. Thus, no internal process is established and no see-inside is developed; certainly not a healthy one. So these children, our clients, are constantly seeking fulfillment outside of themselves to spark an internal sensation and response. To feel excited they smoke crack. To feel relaxed they shoot heroin. To feel sexual they engage in exploitive and toxic relationships, in and out of treatment. To not feel empty/to feel full, they eat until they throw up… Get the idea? That internal process and any skills or ability to regulate their internal dysphoria, is simply not there. No wonder, on occasion, we find a baby alligator in a client’s bathtub: It’s about so much more than a prank. It’s about an individual that doesn’t have any connection to their internal process, no ideas how to understand or regulate their emotional states, and is desperate for either stimulation or relief. (I want to say here that I am not trying to diagnose or define addiction as a linear, cause and effect behavior, or that addicts engage addictively to simply “spark” something within. What I am asserting is that the addictive behaviors our clients engage in began for a reason, they are but a symptom of a larger issue, and it should be of no surprise that that same addictive logic spills over into other areas of our clients reasoning lives…)
It is so important that on top of all the recovery tools and healing, that our clients be shown how to re-define and re-experience fun! I loved when a client would complain to me on a Saturday, saying they were bored and that they had nothing to do. I would remind them of the fact that The Refuge was literally an old YMCA camp; a place parents would send their children so they would have lots of things to do and that they were in treatment in a part of the country that most families can only dream of vacationing to. So I would play kick ball, softball and touch football with them, ride the canoes down the river, very hesitantly climb our ropes course, ride our horses around our beautiful 90+ acre property in the Ocala national Forrest, and hit golf balls while talking about their fears and goals. Every once in awhile I would catch them smiling or laughing and point it out to them: “SEE! Sober fun is possible.” This usually elicited an annoyed response but I knew, that they knew, they had been caught enjoying themselves, and that I was right. That maybe there was something to this sobriety business.
We can help remove the emotional burdens of our clients and give them skills to maintain their recovery, but if we do not teach them tangible ways to entertain themselves and consume their days, they are far more likely to relapse (we cannot expect to remove a behavior that consumed 100% of our clients lives and not expect them to be left with a significant hole and no clue how to fill it!) At The Refuge we have lots of fun and exciting things to do, an amazing and full-time recreational and adventure therapist, and a beautiful property. We do this not because we are trying to sell who we are with cosmetics, but because our clients need help, support, and lots of different and unique opportunities to re-define who they are and how to be with themselves! We have an opportunity to help our clients and the wounded little girls and boys within to re-discover what makes them laugh, smile and get excited. We have the opportunity to help them re-define what fun means, and in the process, who they are and how amazing a sober life can be!
Ainsworth, M. D. S., & Bowlby, J. (1991), An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46, 331-341.
Siegel, D. [PsychAlive]. (2011, March 3). On Avoidant Attatchment [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/qgYJ82kQIyg