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The Miracle Question That Can Help Keep Sobriety on Track
By Alisha Irby, MS, Primary Therapist, Men’s Co-Occurring Disorders Program at The Ranch
Imagine that one night while you were asleep there was a miracle, and the problem that brought you here is solved. However, because you are asleep, you don’t know that the miracle has happened. When you wake up in the morning, what will be different that will tell you the miracle has taken place? – Steve de Shazer
And so begins the “miracle question.” It is one of the tools I use as a therapist to help clients consider an alternative reality.
The question is a key element in solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT), which was founded by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg. It’s a goal-oriented, short-term therapy that focuses on a client’s current life and future rather than dwelling on past problems.
In this model of therapy, therapists extend the invitation to clients to focus on more of what does work in life. Hence, the miracle question is a way for them to explore what life may be like without their current burdens and concerns.
Studies have shown that projecting into a future in which problems are solved can help with depression, family issues and conflicts in many aspects of life — as well as helping to reduce stress and increase contentment. I use this especially for substance abuse relapse prevention because it can help people move beyond negative memories into positive memories and hopefulness. It gives them hope when they can literally see the possibilities of sobriety. It also allows a client to recognize the positive aspects in their answer and that demonstrating the opposite is a warning sign for relapse.
For example, someone might answer, “I would want to go and participate in activities I enjoy.” The warning signs might be, “When I start noticing that I’m no longer interested in participating in the activities I enjoy, I might be in trouble and need some extra help.”
Miracle Question Process
Consider a composite client who comes in for treatment. This person may have relapsed two or three times, and is looking to get back into life and keep their sobriety.
Typically we will first discuss the problem. This brings awareness to the current state of reality.
Then I will ask the main question about what would happen in their lives if there were an overnight miracle and I will follow up with at least five other questions about what they would be doing and how they would be feeling. A session may go like this:
- You wake up in the morning and you no longer have addiction. How would you know it? I stress that this is hypothetical and that there is no actual cure for their addiction.
If someone is confused by the question at first, I try to ease into other things that can help them fine tune their focus.
- What are the first things you would notice?
Asking the client to visualize the differences that could occur when sober and enjoying life is a helpful tool in beginning to believe it can be possible. Examples I often hear are, “The first thing on my mind would not be using a drug” or “I would look forward to my day and I would want to get out of bed.”
- What differences would others notice about you?
Examples I often hear are, “They would notice that I am interacting more, paying attention, listening.” This part of the question plays into recognizing that the impact of addiction is present in others. It allows for positive future thinking.
- How would you feel?
Oftentimes people answer, “I would feel better.” I will follow up by asking them to describe what “better” looks like. That question is also very important for helping with depression, when people need to visualize themselves facing the day in a more positive way.
- What else?
Taking it from there, questions fall into a more natural flow based on the answers that each client shares. The goal is to encourage them to paint the picture as fully as possible: You wake up and you don’t have the urge to drink or use. Then what?
A client may share a scenario such as, “I would want to have breakfast, shower and brush my teeth. Then I’d make my bed.” Or, “I’d talk to my kids, wife or parents.” Or they may say they would look forward to just planning the day and not being consumed with thinking about drinking or using. Everyone has different goals, but I often hear: “I would be honest. I would be accountable. I’d actually look forward to my day.”
How This Translates in Recovery
- Implementation puts words into actions. Everyone has different scenarios and ideas surface as we go deeper into the questions, but essentially the miracle question process helps them to name the things that could be part of their recovery plan. They are articulating their unique needs for sobriety. A recovery plan has to start somewhere. Identifying these things is the first step, and then while a client is here at The Ranch, actually implementing some of those things grounds the process and brings the miracle into real life.
- Makes relapse signs clearer. Familiarity with the scenarios that indicate when a person is on track can help them recognize when they have strayed. For example, a client may assess: “I know when I stop showing up for therapy I’m in trouble. When I stop wanting to get out of bed and shower I might be in trouble. When I start noticing that I don’t want to spend as much time with my dog it means I need some help.” When people recognize the things they would enjoy in life if addiction were not constantly consuming them, they can correct course and ask for extra help, whether it be from a therapist, sponsor, friend or doctor.
- It can motivate people. Addiction can bring a sense of hopelessness but looking beyond the current reality is an exercise in possibility. There is no real overnight miracle, but people can work toward creating something in their minds that moves them in the direction they desire. The miracle question could be the foundation, the thing to keep people pursuing a brighter future.
Even outside of the therapy room, if someone asked themselves every morning what life would be like today if a miracle truly occurred might help them focus on the health and sobriety they crave.