How things are explained will, of course, have a huge impact on how they are remembered. I’m a fan of explaining things with analogy. So I thought I’d share the one I use with people when I’m explaining the need to develop more coping strategies.
Heroin as a strategy
A few years ago I had a young client about the age of 19 who had been dragged in by his mother because she was "sick of his heroin use". At one stage she said:
I’ve told him this is his last chance, I don’t know why he keeps using this heroin, he has to just stop for good this time.
The kid looked totally brow beaten, depressed and had obviously been having this conversation again and again so I decided to explain, at least from my point of view, one of the possible reasons for him repeatedly returning to heroin.
Well, think about how you cope with stress or things upsetting you, you probably have loads of things you do to get though a day. Buy some clothes, have a coffee with friends, maybe a glass of wine, hot bath, go for a walk or just sit reading a book. For most things you’ll have a strategy that works.
OK, now imagine instead of developing these over the years, you had found one thing that did the lot, physical, emotional and psychological pain or stress all dealt with. Do you think yo’d have come up with any of them? Well your son has been using heroin for a good chunk of the time of life that most people develop core coping skills. And heroin has worked every time he needs it to. The problem is though that as well as helping him cope, its also now one of the problems. What I’m going to try and do with him is help him develop more appropriate skills and the ability to come up with more as he needs them.
The mother now appeared to have some idea what her kid was going through, and he looked like he could jump the moon.
Unlocking a Toolbox
This is how I explain developing coping to people when I start working with people. Imagine you’ve moved into your first house, your parents might if you’re lucky give you a hammer and a screwdriver. And they work really well, those are your core ‘coping tools’ and they’ll serve you well. But after a few months your partner wants shelves putting up, you give the hammer & screwdriver combo a try but realise you'll need to go buy a drill. Over the years you’ll have many trips to the hardware store to get more tools for specialised jobs and you’ll end up with a shed full of them. But when a new job comes up that can’t be done by a tool you have you’ll normally give the hammer a try.
Well the hammer in this case is heroin, it’s a strategy that’s worked for you in the past, what we need to do is give you more tools, and to unlock the ability to develop more over time to stop you having to just whack things with a hammer.
I’d really be interested in hearing what approaches others use to explain this stuff, let me know in the comments, the more approaches we have in our toolboxes the better we can cope ourselves.
Nigel Brunsdon is the owner of Injecting Advice.com. He's been working in harm reduction since the 1990's, although he's previously a frontline needle programme worker he now spends most of his time developing online resources for drugs workers and users.