Counseling Men Who Aren’t Serious About Recovery

Here’s the key to counseling men who aren’t serious about recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction. I’m working in a residential alcohol and drug treatment program, and was recently told by a resident that 85% the men in counseling aren’t serious about recovering from their addiction. They’re here for shelter and food, and to get off the street. They don’t want to work towards recovering from their addictions.

How do counselors stay positive and supportive when working with men who don’t really want to recover from alcoholism and drug addiction?

On my first day, one of the counselors in this recovery program said, “Don’t let your heart harden.” He encouraged me to stay loving, open-minded, soft, and non-judgmental. And now I know why. I also believe I know how I’ll counsel men who aren’t serious about saving their own lives from the hell of addiction.

Counseling Men Who Aren’t Serious About Recovery

Remember who you’re working with. One of the guys in this recovery program told me that these guys are “pros.” When I asked what he meant by that (though I think I know), he said they know how to work the system. They’ve been in it for years – sometimes decades – and they know what to say and when to say it. They know what counsellors and social workers and doctors and cops want to hear.

Guard your heart and mind. As a counselor, I don’t want to become negative or jaded – even when I work with men who know how to work the system and even if they aren’t serious about recovering from their addictions. I don’t want to get trapped in a negative thought pattern about our clients. I don’t want to think that most of the guys are just using us – but I also don’t want to be naïve. I want to find the balance between protecting myself, and giving the guys the benefit of the doubt.

Know that you’re no different. I believe we ALL know how to work the system, whether it’s social services, school, work, our families, taxes, etc. That’s partly how we survive, isn’t it? We learn how to live within and make the system work for us. These guys are survivors. Of course they know how to work the system…but do they know how to succeed? Do they know how to identify their dreams and goals, how to find their callings, how to work towards fulfillment and whatever their definition of success is? There’s a big difference between knowing how to work the system and knowing how to find and pursue your goals.

Focus on connection, not judgment. Ultimately, I want it not to matter to me which man is serious about recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, and which man is skating. I don’t want to waste my time or energy trying to figure out who is milking the system and who is worthy of extra time and attention (eg, if I know Jeremiah is skating (which I think he is), then I’m less likely to sit with him at lunch. I know Jeremy is serious about recovery (unless he’s snowing me), so I’m more likely to reach out to him outside of class or counseling).

Let the men in recovery take care of their own business. My job as a counselor for men in this alcoholism and drug addiction recovery program is to connect with and relate to each man as if he was 100% committed to and serious about his recovery. His true intentions and motivations are his business. My business is reaching out to each man with genuine respect, sincerity, curiosity, and the love of Christ. I seek to suspend judgment and withhold my opinions on another person’s heart, motivations, actions. This, I believe, is part of increasing self-awareness as a counselor.

counseling men in recoveryLet the counseling relationship unfold naturally. It’s possible that my acceptance and compassion will offer the guys the space to be themselves, let their guard down, and open their hearts and minds to God or whatever they deem their Higher Power to be. If I approach them with reluctance, judgment, and hostility (stemming from the belief they aren’t serious about recovering from addiction), they’ll shut down – even if they were sincere about their recovery. I could create a self-fulfilling prophecy if I believe the statement that 85% of the men aren’t serious about living outside of their addiction.

The key to counseling men who aren’t serious about recovery is to hold each man in high esteem, and believe that they are in the recovery program because they want to save their own lives. I don’t know what’s in their minds or hearts, but I can connect with them in this moment. I know recovery is painful and there is a lot of ambivalence in learning how to live with addiction without using. I know it isn’t a straight path to recovery. I will let each man follow his own journey without judging him or imposing my expectations and beliefs on his life.

As a counselor, how would you approach men who aren’t serious about recovering from their addiction?

P.S. This would have been a golden counseling moment, but I missed it! When the resident told me that 85% of the guys in the recovery program aren’t serious, I could have said, “How does that make you feel?” or “It seems like this realization has got you down. Tell me about it.” Instead, I focused on WHAT he said, not the EMOTION or thoughts behind it. Ah, the mistakes of a new counselor!