After nearly 30 years in the therapy world, I know that many clinicians struggle with the same issues their clients deal with. Often, that understanding is part of what makes them good therapists. The downside of this, particularly for addiction therapists who are also addicts, is that therapists seeking help in the usual venues (like 12-step meetings) can be awkward, difficult, and even detrimental to the therapeutic alliance.
This topic interests me quite a lot, so I reached out to my friend and colleague Tim Stein, who has spent a great deal of time working through this issue in his own life, while also researching and writing about it. His take on being a therapist in recovery who works with addicts in his practice interests me greatly, so I decided to have a conversation with him about it, and to share a little of that here.
Tim is a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) at Willow Tree Counseling with offices in Santa Rosa and San Rafael, CA. He primarily works with sex addicts and their partners, providing individual, group, and couples counseling. He blogs regularly for the website SexandRelationshipHelaing.com, where he also hosts a weekly drop-in discussion group for recovering professionals.
Tim says he was already working as a therapist when his sex and love addiction took off. About this he says, “When I realized I needed help, rather than going to a 12-step program in my area, I decided to see a CSAT who lived 45 minutes away. I wanted to talk about my issues where nobody would know that I was doing it.” He also says that despite his reticence his therapist urged him to attend 12-step meetings to find support from fellow recovering addicts. She suggested numerous meetings that might be a fit for him but he steadfastly refused to attend until finally she told him, “Go to this meeting.” So he finally went, and he found that he got a lot out of the meetings.
About a year into his recovery, Tim started to work with a few sex addicts in his therapy practice. Soon thereafter, he started training to become a CSAT, and his practice shifted more and more toward sex addiction treatment. He says, “During that time I had the meeting that my therapist sent me to. That was my home for 12-step recovery work, and I knew how important that doing that work was for me. So I would give my clients a huge list of all the local meetings, but I would highlight the meeting that I went to and I would ask them to not go to that one because that’s the meeting I was attending.”
Over time, Tim says that even that became problematic:
- He would see people in his meeting who weren’t clients at the time but later came to see him as a therapist.
- Other meetings were growing and thriving because he was sending his clients to them, while his own meeting was starting to dwindle.
Over the years, I have heard countless addiction therapists voice the same basic concerns. Unlike most, however, Tim took action. He says, “I reached out to Tami VerHelst, who was at IITAP back then (the organization that trains CSATs), she’s at Seeking Integrity now, and told her that I wanted to start a 12-step phone meeting for CSATs. She thought that was a great idea and gave me her blessing. We put an announcement on the CSAT list-serve and people showed up. I’ve been attending that meeting, which is now a video meeting, ever since.”
Tim says that he has found this meeting, along with the weekly drop-in discussion group for sex and porn addicted professionals that he hosts on SexandRelationshipHealing.com, to be incredibly helpful to his personal process of recovery and healing. “I needed a place where I could continue my recovery, where I could be completely honest and continue to do my 12-step work. I needed a safe space where I could talk openly and honestly about my life and my addiction, and I couldn’t do that at the local meetings anymore. So this was the answer for me.”
That said, many addiction-focused therapists do choose to attend in-person 12-step meetings. What they find, however, is that they tend to only speak about strength and hope, and they keep their experience with active addiction and any current issues they may be struggling with to themselves. It’s just too awkward and therapeutically un-boundaried to share about these things on a meeting level when past, current, or potential clients are in the room. This, of course, prevents these therapists from ‘doing the work’ of 12-step recovery. It also prevents them from enjoying the obvious benefits of honesty and accountability that 12-step rooms provide.
This is not to say that addiction therapists can’t or shouldn’t share their experience with clients in a boundaried way as part of treatment. I actually find that tactic helpful, as does Tim. Both of us also share stories about past clients (without using names, of course) when we believe that will be helpful. This is because we believe that stories are more powerful than simple information.
Tim says, “One of the stories that I tell is about what I call sleeper waves of addiction. I let clients know that in my early recovery I would be going along just fine for two or three months. I was used to and dealing with the ebbs and flows of life and recovery, but then I’d get hit with a big sleeper wave and that would drag me back into my addiction. Because it wasn’t the usual ebb and flow, I wasn’t ready for it, and I didn’t know how to handle it. Then I tell clients that I had to figure out what was my motivation to stay sober at all costs. For me, it was knowing that my addiction was negatively impacting my wife and kids. I didn’t want to do that anymore, so that’s the thought that I was able to hold onto during my sleeper wave moments to stay sober.” To this he adds, “I know that I could just tell my clients what a sleeper wave is and why they need to identify their motivation for recovery, but when I tell my story as part of that, it tends to stick with the clients in a more impactful way.”
Tim adds that for any number or reasons there are stories of his that he tells, but not as his own. I sometimes do the same thing in my own practice. I will share a story of mine as something that happened to a client, not myself, because the story feels too close or too intimate. So even when it’s my experience that I’m bringing forth, I may choose to keep some distance between myself and the story.
At the end of the day, both Tim and I believe that it’s important for addiction therapists who are also addicts to find a place where they can do the work of recovery. Yes, there is legitimate fear and discomfort about going to local 12-step meetings and running into past, current, or future clients. And yes, it is difficult (borderline impossible) to share about current struggles in front of a client. Doing that is awkward and it compromises the therapeutic relationship. But this does not mean that therapists can rest on their laurels as ‘the expert.’ Instead, we need a place where we can share openly and honestly about our addiction and process of healing. Otherwise, we are as vulnerable to relapse as any other addict who’s not doing the work of recovery.
If you’re an addict and also an addiction therapist and you’d like to learn more about support groups and 12-step meetings specifically for professionals, please contact Seeking Integrity via email or phone at 747.234.4325. We will be happy to answer any questions you may have.