[caption id="attachment_4859" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Jennifer Bingaman"]
I started out at my internship counseling a batch of men who had little experience with detox, rehab, or counseling. At first, that revelation was scary. I was going to be the first counselor they’ve ever had. I would be their first experience with a real attempt at sobriety. It turned from a fear into a feeling of purpose. As my clients’ first counselor, I had the ability to influence how the client sees therapy for themselves now and in the future. I found I really enjoyed treating this population.
Recently, I was assigned a client who has been a longtime drinker and other drug user. This client’s history with substance abuse and dependence is chronic, with several attempts at detox, rehab, and other treatments. He has issues, wrapped in subscriptions, wrapped in novels of things we can and should work on if he is to get clean and stay sober. All I know is that I have 30 to 60 days with him. It doesn’t feel like much time.
This is scarier. This client’s substance dependence has left his cognitive abilities in disrepair. The clients at my facility have pretty clear outlines for treatment work which require reading and journaling, but I’m not sure if my client can even read past a third grade reading level. My client is extremely invested in the treatment process, but his narratives of his life are all over the place and have yet to answer the questions I ask in session. We commonly call the term “being pickled,” because at some point the brain cannot return to the fresh form of a cucumber. So many years of alcohol change the brain. This much we know.
I was frustrated last week after another session where my client rambled on for an hour, but we didn’t really get anywhere. I heard a lot of fascinating stories about this man’s life. Stories he clearly wanted to share with someone. I started to get frustrated. I wanted to get an answer to some of my questions! I need to know how to help this man! Then, I remembered a quote I had recently read that I felt applied to my profession and one that bubbled up right when I needed it; “What people really need is a good listening to.”
The session instantly shifted. The client’s stories became less frustrating and more interesting. I nodded and I gave him all the active listening I could muster. I made eye contact, I asked questions relevant to the client’s story in the moment, and I just showed that I was interested in my client’s life. At the end of the session, I felt like I had done the best with what I was given and I was okay with that.
A few hours later, my client approached me and told me how grateful he was to have me as his counselor. He said he felt we had a great session and was really happy he got to share some of his story. He said he looks forward to future sessions and really getting started on his treatment work.
Even after all these treatments, all these attempts at sobriety, and after these long years of drinking, I still made an impact on my client. Maybe it’s not the impact I was aiming for, but I learned a lesson that I needed to learn to be a better counselor. Sometimes you just need to listen to your clients in the place they meet you. For whatever reason, sometimes they are not ready to begin your “treatment work” and they really just need to feel like they are being heard. I think I knew that truth all along, but I needed the reminder. I’m glad I got it.
Jennifer Bingaman is a counselor-in-training and freelance writer. She blogs about her experiences as a client and a counselor with a few life musings thrown into the mix at The Pursuit of Sassiness