There Are Many Paths to Successful Recovery: An Interview With Julie Bakley
Many people in the addiction treatment and recovery community feel that we have to give up the single pathway recovery model and adopt a multiple pathway model that is conducive to the needs of each individual, while also taking into account multiple patterns of addiction. This means using a variety of treatment approaches, recovery philosophies and support services, and sometimes combining or sequencing them as they apply to the unique needs of each person who quits drugs or alcohol and begins the journey to recovery.
Julie Bakley, MSW, LCSW is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch in Pennsylvania, who has been working as a counselor in mental health and addiction treatment for more than 15 years. Julie believes there are many paths to recovery and introduces clients to a variety of traditional, holistic and spiritual approaches so they can achieve lasting sobriety and find their unique purpose in life. Julie recently discussed her views and experiences in the recovery field, as well as some of the tools she uses to help clients.
Elements Behavioral Health (EBH): Hi Julie, thanks for taking time away from your clients at The Ranch to speak with us. Let’s jump right in! Do you agree with the view that the traditional approach (i.e., a 12-step program) is not the only path to getting sober and achieving long-term recovery?
Julie: I agree with that view. I think people have started to realize that those with addiction do not fit into one “box,” and this is why a single approach to recovery hasn’t been effective for everyone. I know people who have chosen a single path and it has worked for them — whether that path was a 12-step program or a chosen religion. For me, in the very beginning of my recovery journey, I needed a lot of different approaches and tools: a 12-step program, a sponsor, counseling, anxiety medication, Benadryl for sleep, and a visit to church every so often to help me develop the ability to sit in quiet prayer and meditation for an hour. I don’t think we should eliminate the single pathway recovery model because the people who are benefiting from this model may not need additional support. While the newer multiple pathway model also works for many people, I think it is important to remember that there isn’t one path or another that works for everyone. We need to allow people to have input in designing or customizing their own program. To a certain extent, we need to allow them to choose their own pathway to recovery. We can guide them into finding it by offering multiple tools. For example, some need art and music while others need to delve into the mind and understand what makes their brain work the way it does. Others just need a hug.
EBH: The most well-known approach to recovery is less an addiction treatment or therapy than a support system through mutual aid groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which follow a 12-step program. Do you think that 12-step programs are a necessary path to recovery?
Julie: I believe 100% in 12-step programs, and I have seen the steps work for many different clients in different situations. I had a client who was a senior in high school struggling with an eating disorder that had totally ruined her high school experience. I took her through the 12-steps, but focused them toward her eating disorder, and she did very well. When she went off to college, she faltered in her recovery because and did not have me or her supportive friends to help her stay on course. I suggested she start a 12-step program for eating disorders at her college. She did that and the last I heard from her she was doing very well. So, the 12-step program can work for many types of addictions or issues. While it’s not the only way, I believe it’s the easiest way. I would not have celebrated 17 years clean and sober without going to AA my first few years because what they taught me was how to love myself and how to accept love from others – which is a vital part of recovery.
Problems with 12-step groups arise when the groups themselves become more of an obstacle to people in recovery than a help. It’s important to separate the group from the program. To explain, some people are attending meetings but not reading 12-step literature. They may be receiving advice there that comes from somewhere other than 12-step program. There are also groups that focus on what we call “war stories,” which can be really traumatizing to hear, leading many people to leave meetings with more of a craving to drink or use than when they went in. But this is not really any different from what can happen in any other organized group. People interject their own opinions, values, beliefs and personalities into the original concepts and group structure and the waters can become muddied. So, it is important to find the right group or the right meeting for you, where you feel good, at peace and supported.
As I said, there are many ways to recovery, and you have to find the way that works for you. But whichever way is chosen, a healthy support group is vital. I would like to make the point that the ideal support group is not a spouse, parent, sibling or close friend. We need to give them a break and not put all of our challenges on just one person or family member. It’s sometimes difficult to reach out to others but there are people everywhere willing to help.
EBH: Have you seen clients succeed in addiction treatment and recovery when they didn’t use or follow a 12-step approach at all?
I know several people who are succeeding in their recovery through a religious organization, but in most cases church is not enough because there is a lack of understanding of how the addicted mind works. An excellent book on this topic is Addictive Thinking by Abraham J. Twerski. When I give my clients this book to read, I get positive responses such as, “I do this! I thought I was the only one who thought this way!” When I give this to a family member to read, I hear responses like, “I don’t get it! What makes them think this way? Is this for real?”
The clients I have seen succeed in treatment and recovery have found a support system of other people in recovery — whether through a 12-step program, SMART recovery or something else. As strange as it sounds to others, when an addict is with other recovering addicts, they are able to laugh at their challenges, face them and move on. I can’t explain it, that’s just how it works. So, a 12-step approach isn’t necessary, but developing a support system of others in recovery is.
EBH: I have heard there are four key ingredients to successful recovery, regardless of the approach or path a person chooses: 1) Humility (asking for help), 2) Motivation (the need to change), 3) Sustained Effort (persevering through periods of discomfort), 4) Restoration of life’s purpose (building your recovery around things that give your life meaning.) Would you agree or disagree with this view?
Julie: I think these four things are imperative to recovery. Humility is important because people with addiction are typically wrestling with their ego, and often feel that everyone is out to get them. They cannot find peace until they realize they are not the center of everyone’s universe. People with addiction are above asking another person for help. In their eyes, asking for help is not humility, it is humiliation. And how do they get this way? In most cases their self-esteem is so low that they construct a large ego that helps them rise above everyone else (in their eyes) so they will feel somewhat equal. It does not work. They fall into a vicious cycle where, “I put myself above you, now you are angry at me, I’m worthless. So, I’ll show you, I’ll TOWER over you and show you I’m somebody, you get even more angry at me, I’m really worthless — where’s my beer?”
Motivation is important because, ultimately, we can’t get clean and sober for anyone but ourselves. Our reason for getting sober has to be personal. It has to come from deep within ourselves — it has to be our own personal “Why.” I love the book Start with Why by Simon Sinek, because it explains how until that “Why” is personal and comes from deep within your heart, you are simply going through the motions — in recovery or anything else.
Nonetheless, my first year in recovery I was staying sober only for my children. After the first year, when I realized how alcohol and medications had been controlling every aspect of my existence, I found my “Why” and that has sustained my recovery.
I see two ways to sustain effort or persevere through tough times in recovery: having a daily routine that provides positive structure, and having a strong support system comprised of people in recovery who understand you and are supportive. The 11th step in AA provides a great daily practice that would benefit anyone, whether they are in recovery or not. It suggests that we start each day by asking God to lead us and free us from selfish motives, and that at night we look back at our day and see the positives we have done and the things we have done that may need to be improved. If we need to ask forgiveness, we do that, including forgiving ourselves.
Restoration of life’s purpose or building your recovery around your passion and the things that give your life meaning are vital because these are what make your recovery sustainable.
When I had one month clean and sober I was working as a newspaper reporter and started back to college to work toward a degree in history and political science. I somehow ran into the head of the social work department in a hallway at Bloomsburg University and we started talking about my past. When I told her that at a young age I had received training to volunteer for a crisis hotline and had later volunteered for inpatient drug and alcohol facilities because I loved helping people, she asked me, “Why don’t you switch your major to Social Work, become a counselor, and get paid for doing what you are passionate about?” I thought about it and agreed. Even though there was no space in the social work department at that time, she found a space for me. And here I am. This is my purpose and my passion.
EBH: I understand that everyone must drive themselves down the road to recovery, but which “navigational help” seems to work best for different people and why? How do you determine which treatment path to use to help them navigate (i.e., traditional approaches, holistic approaches or spiritual approaches)? Or, do you let them choose?
Julie: Clients can’t choose every aspect of their program because there are certain groups which everyone must attend. There will always be some clients who don’t feel fulfilled with some of the group topics, but it is important for everyone to try different things to find their way.
Right now we have one client in our program who is 100% for anything spiritual and thought-provoking. He likes to discuss Chakras, meditation, auras, essential oils—he is even into reading angel oracle cards, but he hates the outdoors. There are bugs out there and it is hot! Another client in the program wants nothing to do with spirituality and would rather be outside doing archery, walking to the medicine wheel, doing the ropes course — anything to get outside!
This is something I love about The Ranch. We have a large variety of options for recovery and it is important to offer as much variety as we can. We have a Buddhist 12-step meeting which most clients love. Others, not so much. As long as we present this variety to each client as something to consider and we don’t try to force any of our own ideas on them, everyone’s program seems to work out fine. The important thing is to gear their treatment plan to best benefit them, even if a few of the groups or topics are don’t resonate with them.
For example, the 12-step program is offered here, but even though many of our staff are in recovery and believe in the 12-step program, this path is never forced down anyone’s throat. We can guide them but, ultimately, they must choose their own path.
Years ago, I was giving a lecture to clients in an addiction treatment program. A young man in the front row was giving me a hard time throughout the lecture, being extremely rude and obnoxious and clearly not wanting to be there, but he stuck with it to the end. About an hour after the lecture, he came up to me with tears in his eyes and showed me the most beautiful, detailed drawing of a hand crushing a world. He said he had not picked up a pencil and paper to draw in over five years. He was an artist and thought drugs had robbed him of that. He found his path by attending a lecture he did not want to attend. Somehow that lecture allowed him to face his past and work through something. That’s the importance of everyone attending groups even when they feel they will get nothing from them.
EBH: What is involved when you apply a “traditional” approach to recovery? What kind of therapies do you utilize with clients following this path?
Julie: A traditional approach can include several therapies or modalities, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and related therapies like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Reality Therapy, as well as mindfulness. CBT helps us understand how our thought and feelings influence our behaviors. For example, the client who is constantly telling himself he is worthless, remains worthless in his mind. When he starts learning to focus on his strengths and the positives in his environment, he begins to accept himself more, and to have a brighter outlook on life. He starts accepting compliments from people around him, rather than focusing on any negativity he senses from them.
Reality therapy is an important part of recovery because addicts and alcoholics tend to focus on the pain of the past. I guide my clients to focus on the present moment. In a session I will say things like, “No one is hurting you right now and you are not hurting anyone. At this specific moment in your life everything is OK.” We can then extend this moment to an hour, a day or a week. I ask them to list their problems, prioritize them and work on them one at a time, while also reminding them that, at this moment, all is well.
I use DBT combined with mindfulness to help clients control impulsive behaviors. I have them focus on reoccurring patterns of behavior and force change. For example, a client’s current behavior may be: I eat, I weigh myself, I purge. I help them change that to: I eat, I call someone from my support group, I talk about my challenges and fears. Or it might change to: I want to eat, I call someone, we eat together so I am not binge eating. Another example would be: I visit my children, I get depressed, I drink. Let’s change that to: I take my sponsor with me to visit my children, we go out afterwards and have coffee, I’m not as alone as I think I am. Mindfulness comes in as, with practice, we learn to focus on talking to the supportive person, drinking coffee and the actual visit with the children, rather than focusing on the pain that is expected afterwards.
EBH: What is involved when you apply a “holistic” approach to recovery?
Julie: Here at The Ranch they call me “The Oil Lady” because I believe in essential oils and aromatherapy. It works! I have had clients discharged from treatment who are not allowed to take medication for other issues, yet they are able to use essential oils and find they can work great for sleep, relaxation and stress reduction.
I had one client who could not sit through a group session, and several who were antsy throughout. We started diffusing a mixture of essential oils in the group room and the entire atmosphere changed. One young lady who had been afraid to talk in group went from shaking and leaving the room at each session to standing next to me, putting her PTSD aside, and co-facilitating a session with me on domestic violence awareness.
I also teach classes on chakras and find that even people who have no idea what chakras are, or who are against learning about them, are amazed at the benefits they get from these sessions. I tell them beforehand to focus on the process of change rather than on a belief in chakras. I use many books, but the one I utilize most is “Chakras and their Archetypes” by Ambika Wauters.
I teach clients the importance of grounding and balance through the chakras. The first chakra helps us change from being a victim to caring for ourselves as a mother should care for her child. The sacral takes us from playing the martyr — sacrificing ourselves for the sake of others — to understanding our worth as a person. The solar plexus takes us from being a servant or a doormat for others to being a warrior and understanding our personal power. Finding real love within you is the key to an effective heart chakra.
Many people in treatment have learned what they are supposed to say and no longer communicate their true feelings or needs. The throat chakra helps us with effective, appropriate communication skills — it is the “third eye” that teaches us to think for ourselves. Finally, the crown chakra helps us leave behind our ego and grasp on to a higher spiritual awareness which opens us up to the beauty in ourselves and in our surroundings.
What I have learned through my own journey as both a counselor and a person in recovery is that there are many paths to achieving and sustaining sobriety and everyone can find their way there with support.
Recovery: The Many Paths to Wellness. The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health, 2016. https://addiction.surgeongeneral.gov/executive-summary/report/paths-to-wellness
All Paths to Recovery are Cause for Celebration. John M. on the work of William L. White. AA Agnostica, 2013. http://aaagnostica.org/2013/08/18/all-paths-to-recovery-are-cause-for-celebration/
SAMHSA’s 10 Rules for a Successful Recovery. John Lee. Choose Help Blog, 2015.
Choose a better life. Choose recovery.