How The Right Therapists Don't Just Talk And Listen, They Save Lives

by Christopher O'Connor

I have been through 500 million rehabs and worked with a googolplex of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, coaches, sponsors, healers and spiritual advisors.

Some of them were great, some bad and some mediocre. In hindsight, the ones who were the best were those who were capable of reaching me.

It was no easy feat; my ego rivaled the Titanic in enormity, as did my capacity for self-destruction.

Drugs opened my eyes to the possibility of recovery or more specifically, a physician’s knowledge of drugs. I met Dr. John Halpern on a frigid winter day at McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA.

My treatment history was already extensive. I had received therapy from those who were considered the best and brightest in the field, including a few significant names, like Dr. Drew Pinsky.

Yet, the progress in treating my addiction was zero. Occasionally, I’d avoid substances for a short period of time and seem to make a few forward steps, only to take giant leaps backward.

A few things come to mind when I think about that first meeting with Dr. Halpern. He was late for our appointment. His hairdo was unique, to say the least: long on the sides, totally bald on top.

He bravely sported a colorful coat with elbow patches and masterfully matched it with an ensemble of disheveled clothing. Even if this were the only time we ever met, I probably would still remember him for his appearance alone.

After a glance at my file, he asked me a few questions, the same ones I had been answering for the past decade of my life. The word “Suboxone” came up and I felt tired.

I don’t intend to demerit this drug, I was just well beyond the possibility of maintenance therapy at that point in my life.

Then, the man perked up a bit. He asked me about my experience with hallucinogens, which was surely a box I checked on my drug abuse history. I checked them all.

I broke it down for Dr. Halpern. I figured I would pummel the man with my elaborate knowledge of hallucinogenic drugs, perhaps even make him feel small in his own profession. Yet, he met me tit for tat.

Actually, his knowledge and passion dwarfed my own. He knew everything about the “research chemicals” I was taking, an impressive feat 10 years ago, when most psychiatrists were in the dark about these substances.

Finally, for the first time in many courses of treatment, a conversation ensued that had depth and meaning to me. I connected with Dr. Halpern because he really understood what I was seeking when I took drugs.

In fact, he understood it better than I did. While I was a run-of-the-mill junky, alcoholic and cokehead, I was also an aficionado of consciousness-expanding drugs.

Every drug alters your perception, but hallucinogens do it in a unique way. I dabbled in them when I could, despite the laborious efforts it took to keep a steady stream of opiates and ethanol in my bloodstream.

For the first time, I didn’t feel the need to apologize for wanting to achieve an altered state of mind. Years of substance abuse in an attempt to alter my consciousness made me equate both things as negative. Dr. Halpern gave me license to change my perspective.

He actually encouraged it, which helped me realize it could be a healthy aspect of my personality. I learned this drive was within the fibers of my being, and how I chose to explore it would dictate the quality of my life.

Most importantly, though, was the fact that I was willing to listen to Dr. Halpern, I respected his words and felt hope.

He suggested I try yoga, even telling me where to practice and which style. And, I followed his instructions. I actually did something on my own for personal wellbeing.

It might not sound like much, but at that point in my life, it was revolutionary. Remember my Titanic ego? I was not one for following advice.

The next year of my life, I practiced yoga vigilantly and experienced something akin to what I was searching for with drugs and alcohol. I still practice yoga occasionally, but not to the extent that I once did.

This piece isn’t about the details of my recovery though, or how I came back from a seemingly hopeless state of mind.

It is about how I opened the door to consider a different way of life, to consider following the suggestions of other people who have recovered or who have knowledge about recovery.

It all started during that meeting with Dr. Halpern. His knowledge and ability to communicate with me on common ground led me to ultimately change my life. And, it should be noted that the spark for that conversation was drugs.

Thinking back on all professionals who came before him, what was lacking in most was a way in. Dr. Halpern had a tiny key to a remote door on the immense walls of bullsh*t that kept me sick.

By opening it, the walls began to crumble and I was capable of listening to other people who had sound advice to offer.

The increasing trend toward medicalization in the field of behavioral health is a good thing. I am all for credentials and oversight, for evidence-based therapies and substance abuse research.

However, if this comes at the expense of a skilled practitioner, I am not so fond.

Schooling doesn’t necessarily equal skill in a field that is so heavily reliant upon person-to-person interaction. Treatment centers, the addicted individual and his or her loved ones often seek out those who have the highest credentials.

This can be dangerous, in my opinion. The behavioral health field abounds with PhDs, MDs and PsyDs who are inept or even atrocious, at their jobs.

My link to open-mindedness happened to occur at the hands of a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction and teaches at Harvard Medical School, but every person thereafter who has been helpful has held lesser degrees, or no degree.

Some recovery coaches are better at treating addiction than board-certified addiction psychiatrists.

Sure, they can’t prescribe medication and may not understand the science behind substance abuse, but they can be extremely capable at communicating with sick people.

This isn’t to say that all recovery coaches are better than psychiatrists at reaching people. That is very far off from the point. It boils down to keys, doors and walls.

Dr. Halpern was so effective because he had the right key to the right door at the right time.

Some clinicians have more keys than others, and are better at using them. It means that they have the knowledge, something unarguably significant, but also, something that isn’t very useful on its own.

I’ve found that the best clinicians have all of the following: Knowledge, passion, innate ability and experience. And, most importantly, they care.

Their professions aren't just jobs, but callings. When all of these things converge, their ability to help someone surpasses anything taught in a classroom, learned on the street or in a moment of meditation.

They become conduits of health, and are capable of influencing the sick to heal themselves, simply by taking action.