February is Psychology Month. To mark this year’s theme, “Psychology is for Everyone,” Eastern Health psychologist Dr. Heather Quinlan talks about her work with clients who struggle with addiction.
In the words of physician and addictions expert, Gabor Maté, “addiction starts with pain, and ends with pain.” I am a psychologist at The Grace Centre, a provincial inpatient addictions treatment facility operated by Eastern Health that is designed to help adults struggling with addictions issues begin their journey to recovery.
I am a member of an interdisciplinary team which includes professionals from the disciplines of social work, addictions counselling, occupational therapy, recreation, pharmacy, and nursing. We work collaboratively, with a common purpose, to set goals, make decisions, and share resources and responsibilities to help our clients begin a healthy recovery.
As a psychologist, I study how people think, feel, and behave, and more importantly, apply this knowledge to help clients understand – and change their behaviour. Psychologists are also trained to assess, and diagnose mental health issues, as well as help people to manage their problems using a variety of different treatments and therapies.
In my role at the Grace Centre, I’m always curious what psychological processes, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress, ADHD or personality disorders, underlie my client’s addiction. But that’s not always the whole picture. Other factors can contribute to an addiction such as trauma (e.g. physical, emotional and sexual abuse), family conflict, grief and loss, genetics, chronic pain, and injury, among others.
Ending the Stigma
To address these issues, the clients need to talk to me, and trust me. However, they have often been stigmatized by society, and consequently feel ashamed and untrusting. I believe that building a strong working rapport through compassion, empathy and genuineness, is a necessary first step to creating a space where they can share their stories, feel validated and heard, and begin to work on change and recovery from their addiction.
One of my clients recently said to me,
“At the Grace Centre I learned that I’m not alone, I’m not a bad person, and it’s okay to talk about addiction. I learned to stop beating myself up, and accept what’s happened in my life. I learned that to stay sober I can’t return to the same life and expect different results; recovery involves creating a new life for myself, where being sober is possible!”
Fortunately, the unique residential setting that is the Grace Centre, helps me connect with my clients in a more meaningful, genuine way because I work in their living space. I spend most of the day with them, every day.
This gives my clients more access to me, because in addition to scheduled groups and appointment times, I am present in their everyday lives. I see them in the hallways, and in the kitchen, they walk past my office regularly, often dropping in to update me on their day; this creates a unique client – therapist relationship which may not occur in a different setting.
Healing and Recovery
One of my favourite responsibilities, as a psychologist, is group therapy. For many clients, it is the first time they hear another person tell their story. They learn they are not alone, and begin to feel understood. During group therapy, interpersonal learning occurs and an installation of hope begins. The clients begin to practice acceptance, compassion, and self-forgiveness. They work to accept their past, and to let go of the guilt and shame that has been consuming them. Many of these clients suffer emotional scars, yet some of them manage to leverage the pain that created those scars to transform themselves in positive and powerful ways.
In the words of one client,
“When I entered the Grace Centre, my anxiety was out of control. I felt so ashamed; I was embarrassed to admit that I am was addict. Now as I leave the Centre, I feel accomplished; my feelings of shame have lessened, and my self-worth is restored. I can proudly say that I now have a solid foundation to build my recovery on.”
I witness our clients work through their pain every single day. The road to recovery is not easy, but once they learn to accept their past and be with their pain – rather than find ways to escape it – they begin to create a new life for themselves.
My clients at the Grace Centre are some of the most resilient people I have ever met. I feel honoured that they trust me with their stories. Because of this, I look forward to going to work every day. My job is challenging and rewarding; it is everything I wanted when I decided to be a psychologist.
For further information about the Grace Centre, visit the Eastern Health website. ■
This story was written by Dr. Heather Quinlan, a psychologist at the Grace Centre, an adult inpatient addictions treatment facility operated by Eastern Health.