I was working in residential treatment a few years back; one Friday night, a new resident, Ryan, approached me. He was a teenager, 5’6” with big, kind eyes, natural dark circles, and a face that turned red at every feeling or change in temperature. He asked, vulnerably, if he could speak with me. I took him to my office, we sat down and I asked, “What’s up?”
“I got out of Heroin detox two days ago. I’m 8 days sober. And I’m craving shooting heroin again.”
I could see that he was quite sincere and on the razors edge of going this way or that. I looked him in his eyes and asked him: “How are you going to use?” This question surprised him; I think he thought I was going to talk him out of it.
“I’ll smoke it,” he said dryly.
“Do you have Heroin on you now?”
“No,” he said.
I asked, “How will you get Heroin?”
“From my dealer” he responded, clearly getting impatient and annoyed.
I proceeded, “Do you have money?”
“Ten bucks” he answered.
I said “Give it to me,” and he did, and I put it in my pocket. “Do you have a cellphone?” I asked.
“No,” he was beginning to catch on to our game.
“How are you going to call him?” I pressed.
With some finality he said, “I’ll panhandle, get the money, I’ll call him from a payphone at the gas station, and get high.”
“So he will come drop it off and you’ll get high at the gas station?”
“No.” Ryan said, “my dealer doesn’t deliver, I’d have to take the bus to Inglewood and meet him.”
I continued, “After you meet him and get the dope where will you get high?”
“I’ll get some tinfoil and a straw from burger King and smoke it in the bathroom there.”
“And then what?” I asked accusingly.
“I’d be high,” he replied.
“And then what?” I asked.
“I’d go home,” he answered.
“To your parents?” I asked.
“ No, they kicked me out. I’d come back here,” he admitted.
“To rehab?” I asked, “and then what?”
“I’d get sober,” he answered.
“You’d get sober? But you’re sober now!” I replied, too loud, revealing my inner judgement.
“Yes but when I am High I really want to be sober,” he said.
Aha. “So let me get this right, in order for you to stay sober you have to get high?”
Two days later, Ryan was on the street getting high. Ryan wanted to be sober. But he wanted to be high, also. By the eighth day in treatment and sober, he had run out of motivation to stay sober. Why did Ryan need to get high in order to stay sober? When he went into his memory he realized that when he was high, he found the motivation to get sober; the crisis of addiction created an energy, a desire in him to get well. Ryan was cutoff, he was stuck in his own thinking, and his thinking was cut off from the world. He was stuck in a narcissistic bubble of addiction. Ryan was rational, but his reasoning was driven by an unconscious craving to get high. He didn’t want to get high, that’s why he asked to talk to me, but it was almost as if once he engaged me he was sleep talking, unable to wake up and stay where it was safe and welcoming. Underneath the mechanics of Ryan’s thinking there was something else going on. Ryan was numb, and underneath his numbness was pain, fear and sadness.
I wonder if I had been able to break out of my role in that moment: warm and clever counselor and instead become loving and vulnerable with him, would the effect have been different? If I had held his hand, been there with him 2 or 3 hours or however long was necessary, listened to his pain, given him a hug, could I have broken through to a different part of him and changed his trajectory? As it was, I believe we were both stuck in our roles at the time, him the out-of-control addict in need of saving and me the young-smart-(slightly)-distant counselor. Ryan recovered from his condition; I am still working on mine.
Ryan ended up in treatment two weeks later and has been sober ever since. So it turns out he was right, he had to get high in order to get sober.