• 5 Things to Look For in a Recovery Therapist
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    5 Things to Look For in a Recovery Therapist

    Therapy for recovering addicts has many benefits and finding the right therapist is an important factor in achieving the best recovery.

    Although most therapy programs will include course material on addiction and treatment, this does not necessarily give all therapists an understanding of addiction and recovery.

    It is important, therefore, that those who enter therapy have this basic understanding. Therapists working in the field of addiction have undergone years of work and training on the subject and their knowledge of behavior patterns and effective therapeutic interventions are crucial to working with a recovering addict. Here are five things to look for while choosing your recovery therapist:

    1. Experience with Recovering Addicts

    The first, and most important, factor in selecting a therapist is one that has experience working with recovering addicts. This should be an extensive piece of their background and active experience. Not just educational credits, but first-hand experience, along with the understanding of addiction and recovery that comes from that experience.

    This is an essential component because there are boundaries and ego strengths required in working with an addict in recovery. Most therapists go into the field with the idea of becoming “helpers” or to guide people in working through their issues and problems. This is great for working in family dynamics, emotional dysregulation and marital or work relationship issues. However, working with addiction, a whole new set of skills are required. These tools will need to be perfectly sharpened to work with addicts.

    Most addicts have been past masters in manipulation and blaming others for their addictive behaviors, and often the addiction itself. While some therapists can see through these denial structures, many cannot. Even seasoned therapists working in addiction can be occasionally fooled by addicts who are charming and emotionally seductive in their approach to the truth.

    2. Support for Outside Recovery Tools and Techniques

    It is seldom recognized that therapy is the end-all and be-all of recovery. There is personal work in most recovery models that falls outside the realm of therapy. This can be the 12 Steps of the Anonymous programs, such as Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, or other types of individual recovery work. There are sponsors and support groups that may be involved in this process. Much will depend on the individual and their personal plan for recovery.

    Most therapists who are familiar with treatment models will inquire about the addicts’ ongoing plan for recovery. They will insist on the addict being actively engaged in some form of recovery program in order to maintain abstinence while in treatment with them. If therapy is the only method your therapist is planning to utilize for ongoing abstinence, there may be problems since it is seldom enough to ensure ongoing recovery.

    3. Firm Stance on Abstinence

    Most therapists are aware of the ethical implications of working with a practicing addict and will insist that the addict maintain abstinence while in their care. If they do not recommend a plan for maintaining abstinence, beware of their stated familiarity with recovery. Those who do this work frequently have a fairly sophisticated idea of how that should unfold for their clients, with a clear plan for what happens if the client relapses into active addiction.

    4. Basic Acceptance of Addiction as an Illness

    Since the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have accepted addiction as a disease, there should be little or no doubt about where therapists weigh in with this diagnosis. Those who do not see it as a mental illness will have trouble assisting a recovering addict in therapy.

    There may be moral judgments or beliefs that addiction is no more than “bad behavior.” This is seldom the best way to ensure ongoing recovery for an addict.

    5. Clearly Defined Goals

    Anyone entering therapy should be aware of why they are seeking help. It is often the process of hitting emotional triggers that determines the need for therapy. In recovery, this may be the recurrence of old memories of trauma, abuse, neglect or other issues that were not emotionally powerful for the addict until they stopped practicing their addiction.

    These issues have been suppressed by drugs, alcohol or other addictive patterns of behavior. Once the addict is no longer practicing addiction, memories and emotions begin to surface. Often, addicts come to recognize grief, anger and anxiety that were not present when they using. Dealing with emotions can be terrifying when an addict has a long-term practice of avoiding emotions with addiction.

    Being clear about goals in therapy gives an addict the opportunity to focus on their recovery process with the therapist. Most addicts have limited insurance or resources for therapy so there needs to be focus beginning to end within the period of time given. Goals should be discussed at the very first session–it is unethical for a therapist to refuse to discuss the purpose of therapy and do otherwise.

    Many clients fear that therapy will go on for years. In today’s therapeutic environment, this is very rare. Most therapy is completed in a few sessions which is why it should not act as a replacement for a recovery program but more as an enhancement.


    Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions’ counselor.

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