I work with a young woman who identifies herself as a “problem drinker.” Very long story short and for the sake of confidentiality purposes, she experienced a highly-traumatic childhood and lives with a mentally-unstable mother. Alcoholism runs through her family, as it frequently does with addictive disorders. She drinks to self-medicate; she drinks to avoid feeling; to avoid the constant reminders of her broken past.
She’s been sober since I began working with her several months ago. We’ve worked on depression, anxiety, exploration of childhood pain, recent relationships. She’s a motivated client, and we have built very strong rapport (which I consider the single most important therapeutic skill).
Recently, she relapsed. I astutely observed as she told me this in session. The cowardly look. Eyes gazed down at the ground. Embarrassment. Shame. Lowered voice. I’ve started drinking again.
If shame had an emoji, it would have been the expression on her face. At one point, it would have been mine too.
It’s a painful truth to admit, and I know how much shame arises in just telling your therapist you’ve, in your opinion, fucked up. I hated doing it with my own therapist. So much transference occurs: so much fear of letting your therapist down, so much resentment and pain at letting yourself down. All people with addiction struggle in recovery, but it is far more important to examine how they acknowledge relapse.
I know this is true for me. Every time my therapist told me relapse is part of recovery with that smiling, you-can’t-possibly-disappoint-me expression, I wanted to knock that grin right off her face and yell at her for instilling doubt rather than hope. I obviously understand her intentions now, but back then…hell no. I thought I was the only one screwing up; I thought I was the terrible client; I thought I was somehow responsible for wasting her time and ruining all her hard work. I wanted to always be the exception; I wanted recovery. Perfect, black-and-white recovery…clean, concise, and predictable.
A good therapist, however, never works harder than his or her clients. Thus, when the therapist keeps that mentality in check, it is impossible to be disappointed by any content the individual can bring into the room. Am I concerned about my client’s relapse? Yes, absolutely. But…I recognize this is part of her process. She’s not a bad person for using a “bad” behavior. She made a mistake, as all of us humans do. Alcoholism is a mufti-facted, complex disease that isn’t as easy as stone-cold sobriety. I understand that.
I’m so fucking proud of her for being able to tell me. For being able to own up to that shitty part of herself that she hates, that she believes nobody can accept. Because…I can accept it. I can hold it. I can give her the love and validation she deserves to give herself, but, for obvious reasons, cannot do right now.
My therapist used to do that for me. And it felt good. It is something I always promised I would give to my clients, and it’s something I try and transcend in every single session with every single session. Validation. Support. Constant hope and reassurance that things can and will get better, that they are good enough regardless of what they do or do not do.
Some people never get told that by anyone. My aim is to tell that to anyone who needs to hear it.