What No One Wants to Say: The Truth About Change

By Heidi Smith 08/19/20

As funny as it sounds, I often must explain to parents that we cannot give their child a personality transplant.

Image: 
Young man, chin in hands, serious.
Character change does not always happen on mom and dad’s timetable. Photo 19180053 © Denise P. Lett | Dreamstime.com

I often find myself intersecting with families and their sons at a unique place in their journey. The program we run works with young adult men whose families are early in their understanding of the disease of addiction. Many of these families are only a few weeks into a brand-new set of diagnosis and they are eager to know how long it’s going to take for their son to recover and get back on with his (productive and healthy) life.

The reality is, while some individuals can live productive and fulfilling adult lives when their treatment process ends, others may always experience long-term limitations to independence. This is not an either/or outcome but a spectrum on which every unique individual will fall. It can be complex to identify an accurate prognosis. This is because every young man’s addiction problem intersects with their personality, character, and mental health, all of which present their own limitations and challenges. Our transitional living often serves as a true tool for diagnosis – we have the chance to work with these young men once sobriety is established and they are re-engaging in society.

In the middle of this process we get many frustrated parents who do not understand why, even after months of intensive clinical work, their sons do not have a grateful attitude, an unyielding drive for success, and healthy emotional regulation. We must be direct in explaining to them the complexity and limitations of the process of change.

PERSONALITY

What we can’t do:

As funny as it sounds, I often must explain to parents that we cannot give their child a personality transplant. They have a specific God-given personality that is unique to them. They may be quiet, they may be boisterous, they may be funny, maybe they are serious, they may be driven, or they may be unmotivated – these are things that will not likely change. And unfortunately, let’s be honest, not everyone likes the personality of their family members. Maybe they are the “odd man out” with the family and do not connect and interact the way the others do. All the therapy in the world cannot change basic personality traits.

What we can do:

Most individuals seeking treatment have maladaptive patterns of thinking and behavior. Perhaps they tend to self-sabotage potential successes or use an overblown sense of ego to cover up for perceived inadequacies. For some people, they have been operating this way for so long it seems as though it might be a part of their personality. Through consistent and well-executed clinical intervention and 12 step work, we can help an individual begin to undo some of these thinking errors and behavior patterns. Once these issues are resolved, (and this really is the coolest part about recovery), it often releases an individual to be their best self, so hopefully the unique parts of their personality will again be experienced by those that love them.

MENTAL HEALTH

What we can’t do:

Lots of clinical and therapeutic issues can be resolved or significantly improve through medications and targeted psychiatric interventions. Unfortunately, however, a significant number of individuals with mental illness, neurological disorders, or early childhood trauma will always have trouble relating to these diagnoses. Though we would like to believe that becoming a well-educated, consistently employed, and emotionally regulated member of society is just a matter of finding the right cocktail of medications and therapies, this hope often sends families in a near constant search for a cure that will never come. Complete remission from mental health difficulties is not possible for every individual.

What we can do:

There are incredible medications, specific skills-based therapies, neurofeedback, and numerous neuro-psychiatric interventions available today. Although not every client will be able to experience complete remission from their mental health complications, that does not mean they cannot experience significant relief and increased quality of life. Modern science and psychology have made incredible and progressive discoveries for many issues our clients face and we have seen that even serious mental illness can be improved to a degree.

CHARACTER

What we can’t do:

If a person is committed to being dishonest, enjoys a life of crime, has no empathy, we cannot make them a “good” person. We cannot make someone motivated to be a better person if they truly have no interest. Parents who are investing in treatment want their child to show gratitude for their sacrifice, remorse for their behavior, and a genuine change in character. Unfortunately, this character change does not always happen on mom and dad’s timetable. Treatment staff literally cannot make an individual be nice no matter how hard we try.

What we can do:

Character issues is where the best opportunity for change exists. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states that the ideas, emotions and attitudes that are the guiding force in one’s life must be completely rearranged. This is where the 12 steps, therapy and spirituality really can produce real change. We all have a specific way that we see the world and through self-discovery and therapy, time and allowing God to work in our lives we can change the way we respond. What treatment programs can do is create the space and the appropriate environment for individuals to see the truth about their lives, repent and repair.

Lastly, the other key conversation around what we can and cannot do relates to timing. The reality is that how quickly a person, even a very motivate one, experiences life change varies from person to person. We are not always in control of all the variables. While some clients do experience quick and drastic change in their life and behavior, others will experience a slower (but no less drastic) change over time. It is understandable that parents and loved ones yearn to see overnight change. Their families and their loved one have been hurting for years and they just want to put this all behind them. Therefore it is important to have this conversation with parents of young adults especially; we must replace the ideas of fixing and curing with more realistic and helpful concepts like growing and improving. This allows families to adjust their expectations, help create realistic goals, and focus on celebrating the progress that is being made. When this happens, there is a chance for real relationships to heal, even if the individual is not fully “cured.”

With contributions and edits by KC Davis.

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Heidi Voet Smith is a licensed professional counselor in both Texas and Maine and is also a licensed counselor supervisor. With nearly 17 years of working specifically with addiction and chronic relapse, Heidi has become a trusted voice, author, and blogger on treating individuals suffering from addictive disorders. She has been featured in A&E’s “Intervention” as well as the National Geographic series “How Drugs Work.” In addition, Heidi has presented at the Cape Cod Symposium for Addictive Disorders, the National Association for Addiction Professionals Annual Convention, the Texas Association for Addiction Professionals Annual Convention, as well as numerous other national and local addiction conferences. After completing graduate school, Heidi worked at a non-profit women’s treatment center with pregnant and parenting women struggling with addiction. Heidi joined the staff at a long-term treatment center for chronic relapse early in 2007 and served as the Clinical Director until 2014. Heidi has also worked with thousands of families of addicted individuals through co-facilitating family program workshops. Heidi, along with her husband, founded Chapter House in 2014, a transitional living for young adult men with a history of chronic relapse and dual diagnosis. Heidi resides in Dallas with her husband Michael and their son Elliott.