Recovering in Shoreditch: a counsellor’s perspective

Outside Acorn House, on Shoreditch High Street, the clouds darken and it starts pelting down. Shaun rushes to the window with a look of wonder and delight on her face and exclaims, "I LOVE this! I love when it rains like this!" 

Shaun is very good at seeing the bigger picture. She probably thinks the rain will be great for the beautiful gardens surrounding Shoreditch Church, that we have to have the rainy bit as well as the sunny bit. It's an apt metaphor for the recovery process. You have to have the crying bit before you get to the peaceful bit. 

"In therapy speak , there is what we call counter transference," she explains. "It's when the person I am speaking with is recounting and reliving something or someone so painful, that all the emotions associated with that time come rushing up, and sometimes they speak to me as if I am that person who was hurtful or damaging. It's part of the process and you have to let them go through it." 

"...sometimes they speak to me as if I am that person who was hurtful or damaging. It's part of the process and you have to let them go through it." 

Effusive, warm, and clearly a person who is passionate about the work she does with recovering addicts, Shaun likes to see how clients engage with the therapeutic process and become, in her words, " as different as night and day, when you look at how they were at the beginning and how they come out. It's like a new person."

"There is so much guilt and shame and anger around addiction, and those are exactly the sort of feelings that, in their using days, would be a reason for someone to use drugs or alcohol to suppress the feeling.

"There is so much guilt and shame and anger around addiction, and those are exactly the sort of feelings that, in their using days, would be a reason for someone to use drugs or alcohol to suppress the feeling.
My job is to let them feel those feelings and find alternative ways of dealing with them."

 My job is to let them feel those feelings and find alternative ways of dealing with them. It can be very painful for them, or some come in and say nothing, and I have to think, OK, this is how they want to use this time, and explore with them why they are resistant."

Maybe they don't want to stir all that mess up, I suggest. I tell her my favourite quote: "If the past rings you, don't answer it. It has nothing new to say."

"That's great, she enthuses, before adding, "but you can learn how to respond differently to the past, learn how it impacts on your present and deal with it in a more grown up way. 

There are studies that show how continuous using can actually change brain chemistry.  Part of what I do is to change what we call automaticity, that is, that automatic response to use when something triggers it. So it's about changing that thought pattern which leads to unhelpful behaviour and looking at a more helpful response."

She says she has been trained to treat, not to "relate", but she says it's difficult, when hearing a very sad story, not to feel sad herself. "You have to be professional, but I'm genuine as well. If something I am hearing is making me very sad, it's natural, but we learn in counselling to 'bracket' our own stuff, to not let what our clients say trigger things from our own pasts."

"It's about changing that thought pattern which leads to unhelpful behaviour and looking at a more helpful response."

Shaun got into addiction counselling partially through experiencing the impact of addiction in her own family, though she has never been an addict herself. She has though, as part of her training, had to be the "client" in a group situation, and tells me how she started crying and had all her colleagues crying as well.

 "They were coming up to me and they really never knew those things and many were surprised that under the circumstances, I didn't resort to using, but that's not how I respond. What I learned, and the message I like to pass on, is that you are not responsible for the actions of other people. You are responsible for yourself and your behaviour. Once they (the clients)  get that light bulb moment, they really get it, they become empowered, and it's one of the better parts of my job, getting to facilitate that change."

"You are not responsible for the actions of other people. You are responsible for yourself and your behaviour. Once they (the clients)  get that light bulb moment, they really get it, they become empowered, and it's one of the better parts of my job, getting to facilitate that change."

But there is a downside, too.  Addiction is a stubborn animal, and there is a very high rate of relapse. It must be frustrating, I guess, to watch someone go out into the big world, all guns blazing, ready to deal with "life on life's terms" and then going running for shelter in the form of drink or drugs. Again. 

Shaun explains that her training prepares her for this, the high relapse rate is a given, but it still is hard to witness. "I had one client, he had three or four sessions and then relapsed and I asked myself why didn't I see it coming, but then I realised how could have I have known? When someone makes that decision, it is his choice, not mine."

"What I like about my work is getting people to understand the answers are within themselves. I help them, but don't instruct how to get from 'addict' brain to 'recovery' brain."

"What I like about my work is getting people to understand the answers are within themselves. I help them, but don't instruct how to get from 'addict' brain to 'recovery' brain."

 Addicts and those in the early stages of recovery can be very challenging, at best, manipulative and controlling at worst. it can't be an easy job, I imagine, listening to this torrent, this outpouring of despair. What does she do to keep herself safe?

She says she takes half an hour between each hour's counselling session to debrief, to get a clear head for the next client. Though the stories are often similar, as are for those who ultimately wind up homeless, every client is different, and she favours the person centred approach.

"I ask them to tell me about themselves, what life was like, not so much about the addiction itself but what led to it, and what was its impact on their life and the lives of those around them. They have to find this themselves. I just guide them on the journey."

And how does she relax?

"I go home, I chill, I have a grandchild now and  I'm really enjoying that. But like everyone else, I like to go home, just chill and watch the soaps." 

As if on cue, the sun comes out just as our interview ends. I had been dreading walking home, umbrella-less, in the torrent, but I can't help thinking that inside Acorn House, as well as outside, the future can be a brighter place for those who have the good fortune to find Acorn House and start their journey to recovery.  

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