Chris Nicol BSc, MA, RCC
Registered Clinical Counsellor
Our childhoods leave in us stories we never found a way to voice.When we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us—we dream these stories...or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand. Steven Grosz
"Addiction treatment—in all of its forms—is the work of liberation”
"Depression is not the soul’s annihilation; people who have recovered...and they are countless...bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable."
Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it." Kahlil Gibran
I believe that pain is at the root of any addiction. Loss, injury, abuse, neglect; these are the reasons why we turn to substances or other behaviours—because they offer some degree of pain relief.
The Latin roots of the word "addiction" are associated with enslavement, and for many people, moving away from addiction is an act of liberation and a reinvention--of--self. But what and who are we once we've removed the shackles of addiction?
Shedding an identity, even when that identity has become a source of distress to you and others, can be scary. It means ending a relationship, often many relationships, and that leaves a void that needs filling. I see my role as a facilitator, a partner with whom you can explore who you are, who you want to be, and how you want to live your life. It is an act of discovery that can be daunting, inspiring, exciting, and ultimately liberating.
Over the years depression has come to be associated with many experiences: fatigue, hopelessness, trouble concentrating, loss of pleasure, insomnia, and diminished self-esteem, to name a few.
Less often do we talk about the causes of these experiences. Loss is often in the picture, and collaborative talk therapy can help in identifying and understanding loss, which in turn can loosen depression’s grip. I also believe in the therapeutic power of exploring context, the big picture, and the role of culture and society in what ails us.
Our experiences and beliefs—the stories that we have authored for ourselves—can often fan the flames of depression, and I approach this work with curiosity about the potential for re-authoring those stories, and re-casting depression from antagonist to extra.
Climate change and extreme weather events, a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, fractured social networks and a growing emphasis on individualization and self-reliance; is it any wonder that, according to some studies, by the age of 32, 50% of the general population qualify for a diagnosis of anxiety disorder?
When we can clearly identify the cause of a source of distress like anxiety, when we can think of anxiety as "expectable" given the circumstances of a person's life, then we may not be talking about a so-called mental disorder, but rather a normal and, in many cases, appropriate response to threat, stress, and potential loss.
Psychotherapy is about contextualizing, and often validating, those responses, and collaboratively exploring ways to lessen their impact on your mood, relationships, and quality of life.
I believe in the transformative power of kindness, acceptance, and attentiveness. These are the cornerstones of my work as a therapist.
Whether its sadness, worry, loss, substance use, or something that you can’t quite put your finger on, I see my role as both a compassionate witness to whatever it is that’s causing you distress, and a facilitator of conversations that you may not be used to having, conversations that actively seek out insights, that lead you towards heightened self-awareness and personal growth.
Even with (or maybe because of) the many trainings, certificates, and hundreds of hours of counselling I’ve provided over the years, I try not to approach therapy with any preconceived ideas about what might be helpful for any given person.
There are some over-arching ideas that I draw from—narrative therapy, attachment theory, and Buddhism, in particular—but I believe that the answers often reside within the individual I’m working with. But those answers aren’t always easy to see; often they’re buried under years of distress, and they become obscured by our attempts to compensate for what we’ve lost, or never had.
My role is to help you unearth those answers, to help you clear away enough psychological ‘debris’ so that you can catch a glimpse of those answers, those insights. Over time, those insights can become the stuff of growth, wellness, and peace of mind.
Substance Use and Addiction
For many people, the road to addiction begins with an attempt to cope with pain or loss, and it ends with the realization that substance use or other behaviours have just compounded that pain and loss. As Eckhart Tolle reminds us, "Addiction begins and ends with pain." We could also say that it begins with liberation (from pain) and ends with liberation (from addiction itself).
My own addiction was triggered by a loss of identity. Certain events in my life derailed my developing sense of self. I lost sight of who I was. When you can't make sense of who you are, where you belong, or what meaning life holds for you, it's easy to be pulled towards anything that offers some relief from that loss, pain, fear.
For me, addiction was nothing more or less than the result of an ill--fated attempt by my 17--year--old self to cope with losses that I was not equipped to deal with. Substances not only offered immediate pain relief, but also a sense of belonging, a group--identity that was unhealthy and, at the same time, better than feeling utterly psychosocially adrift.
As a therapist, I'm realistic about what my role is in supporting people who are struggling with substance use or addiction. The key to successfully lifting oneself out of addiction is being sure that you have somewhere to land, that there is something to replace the lifestyle and identity that go hand--in--hand with addiction. To paraphrase Bruce Alexander, a counsellor's role is helping to set the stage upon which psychosocial integration can flourish.
Maybe you’re wondering, “Do I have a drug/alcohol problem?” or "Am I addicted?" Maybe those who care about you are more concerned than you are. If that’s the case, then that’s where we would start—determining if there is a problem, and if so, the extent of the problem. And then we'd go from there.
Whether we call it recovery from addiction or discovery through addiction, there are many paths leading to it. My role is to walk alongside you, pointing out the pitfalls, and helping you to unearth and reclaim the values, strengths, resources, and dreams that still belong to you, but that addiction may have buried along the way.
Depression, Anxiety, and Loss
"Depression" and "anxiety" have become popular terms associated with common experiences, including low mood, guilt, fear, trouble sleeping, loss of motivation, loneliness, low self-esteem, restlessness, trouble concentrating, and fatigue. These are all very real and distressing experiences for many people, but rarely do we see mention of the context, the factors that cause or contribute to these 'symptoms'. And are they really symptoms, or are they normal, even expectable, responses to life and its many sources of stress, worry, sadness, uncertainty, and disconnection from self, others, and the world around us?
The novelist William Styron wrote that "loss in all of its manifestations is the touchstone of depression." Many of the clients I've worked with over the years would agree, and they've taught me about the manifestations of loss that Styron speaks of: loss of safety, trust, love; loss of a parent, sibling, child, or other loved one; loss of connection; loss of self--esteem; loss of identity, purpose, meaning. It's no surprise that Styron, like so many others, turned to substances to help him cope. He referred to alcohol as his "shield against anxiety," and when he made the decision to stop drinking, he added alcohol to his list of losses.
In Styron's story, we find loss, addiction, depression, and anxiety, all conspiring to "obliterate any enjoyable response to the living world." And yet, like so many others, he came to believe that depression is not "the souls' annihilation....that it is conquerable."
When we think of our pain, distress, sadness and anxiousness as responses to adversity, it can open the door to new opportunities for healing, to powerful ideas that many people, including myself, have found helpful. One of those is the practice of self--compassion. We often think of compassion as something that we have for others who are suffering. But what if we redirect some of that compassion inwards? What if we were to take some of that cognitive and emotional energy that's being dedicated to sadness, guilt, fear, anger and worry, and convert it into compassion towards self?
Another related practice is mindfulness--paying attention to our moment--to--moment thoughts and experiences with acceptance, and without judgment. I say 'related' because we now have plenty of research demonstrating that mindfulness increases self-compassion, and for many people, cultivating self-compassion enhances their psychological well-being.
Self--compassion and mindfulness are just two examples of practices that have helped me and others over the years, and they align with a more general idea that acts as my philosophical foundation, as a human being and as a therapist: life is difficult, and when we pathologize people's responses to life's inherent pain and suffering, we run the risk of missing opportunities to come to terms with adversity.