What is it about the holidays that causes us to feel emotional, anxious, and stressed? Zach and Michael interview Claire Fierman to kick-off a series of episodes with various guests that will help listeners prepare emotionally for the holidays. In this episode, Claire talks about everything from wearing family holiday pajamas to creating healthy boundaries. She shares about how her family found recovery after addiction and offers advice on codependency, how to set up healthy boundaries, and ways to be there for your kids when they have been impacted by trauma. Claire is a Licensed Professional Counselor based in Birmingham, Alabama, holds a Master’s degree in counseling with a concentration in Marriage & Family Therapy from the University of Montevallo, and she specializes in treating trauma, anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders. She has over 11 years of clinical experience, having worked in residential treatment as a primary therapist and clinical director, and starting her own private practice. Claire’s expertise and interest in the field stems from her personal experience having family members who have struggled with addiction and, more importantly, found recovery.
Landmark Recovery is dedicated to helping you or your loved one find the road to recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. Call us today at 888-448-0302.
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6:40 Whatever age you were most wounded, that wounded self is who will likely show up to family holiday gatherings.
9:30 How to soothe your loved one’s nervous system through sensory responses.
13:16 Why do the holidays cause us to be up in arms?
16:00 COVID-19, the holidays, and a saturated mental health field.
18:05 On being kind to yourself and remembering the holidays can be a high-stress situation.
19:37 What are some of the signs of substance abuse to look for around the holidays?
21:00 What is co-dependency? What are boundaries? And why people don’t have to agree with your boundaries.
24:54 How do you start recovery?
29:00 Addiction as a family disease, and how each person has a responsibility to do their own work to find recovery and emotional wellness.
33:35 How does addiction impact children? How can families and caregivers have conversations with children who don’t understand?
38:21 How do you find a good therapist? How do you find a good child therapist?
Welcome to Recovery Radio by Landmark Recovery with your host, Zach Crouch. In this program, we will discuss the root causes and treatments of alcohol and substance addiction, speak with experts in related fields, and help navigate the road to recovery. Now, here’s the host of Recovery Radio, Zach Crouch.
Zach: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the show. I’m Zach Crouch. We are actually adding some video elements to the podcast episode so be on the lookout on our Instagram and YouTube account at Landmark Recovery. For those of you who have wondered what I look like now is your chance to see if I’m anything you thought I looked like, might be a good thing or a bad thing. It doesn’t matter, I guess. I’d like to reintroduce Michael Walsh. Michael joined us earlier this month on the podcast to discuss the history in the field of addiction and recovery and also, his experience as an interventionist. Please be sure to go back and listen to that interview. It’s great. Michael, thanks for joining me as a co-host today and also in upcoming episodes.
Michael: Thank you, Zach.
Zach: With the holidays coming up, Michael and I are going to be rolling around and a lot of these topics, a lot of good practical conversations in our next few episodes. We’re thinking about our listeners who might be struggling with addiction and especially in their families or themselves. We have a great line of guests who are coming on to speak about family dynamics and also navigating the holidays. Whether that’s from not sort of putting wine on the table to everything about seasonal depression, those are all topics that we are going to be discussing.
For those of you who don’t know, this is our field. We work for Landmark Recovery, which is a growing network of treatment centers that specialize in alcohol and drug addiction treatment. If you’re concerned about your loved one or drinking too much or are addicted to drugs, get in touch with us. We are dedicated to helping you or your loved one on the road to a full recovery and a better life. You can call us today at 888-448-0302. I’ll also include this number in the podcast episode description. Now, to introduce today’s guest, Claire Fierman. Claire is a licensed professional counselor based in Birmingham, Alabama.
She holds a master’s degree in counseling with a concentration in marriage and family therapist from the University of Montevallo, and she specializes in treating trauma, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse disorders. Claire has over 11 years of clinical experience, having worked in residential treatment as a primary therapist and a clinical director. She also has her own private practice now. Claire’s expertise and interest in the field stem from her personal experience having family members who have struggled with addiction and, more importantly, found recovery. In her own words, and I love this, she decided to take a deep dive into my own darkness in order to heal. In doing so, she became passionate about helping others do the same. Claire, welcome to the show.
Claire: Thanks for having me.
Zach: Glad you’re on.
Michael: I’d like to welcome Claire to it. I was listening to Zach talk and the first time I met Claire, she was about 12 years old, I think. Her dad talked about interventions, kind of a pioneer in this thing. Claire and her brother have grown and done so well in this field that Keith kind of went from the big man in the family to Claire and Michael’s dad. It’s been a cool thing to watch. I watched her grow up from afar and become just a well-regarded therapist in this industry. I know she’s got a lot of personal growth work on her own. I’m proud today to introduce you, Claire, and all of the cool things that you’re doing these days.
With the holidays coming up, I was thinking about you in particular because I know your family. I know your brother, Michael, your mom, your dad, and all of the things that you guys have come through and grown through over the years, and your own families now, and helping them grow up a little bit differently maybe than your mom and dad than I grew up. I think it’s really important for the people out there to have some practical knowledge around the holidays, with the stressors between COVID, and the holidays, and all of this stuff going on in the world.
How do we get through this crazy period of time keeping our wellness and our mental health in check? Thinking about bodies, minds, and emotions, going into the holiday season, it’s stressful again for all of us. I know I have a lot of things that I do personally to keep me healthy for my home life and professionally because doing this work takes a lot out of us. How is it that we can help people prepare, whether clients or family members prepare for the holidays with the in-laws coming over with the kids wanting more attention, having their own relationships to deal with, and keeping their own emotions in check?
Claire: That’s a lot. First, I want to say just for everybody when Michael says he met me when I was 12, I’m the second generation in this field. I was raised with an actively using addict that was also like a salesman of the year at his job and a preschool teacher, mom. None of us knew what recovery was, what addiction was, what Al-Anon was, any of it and this was the early 90s. There were no social media to give you positive and inspirational quotes to get you through the day. And so, I was brought up in this field watching my family go from an addicted and unwell family truly into wellness. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect and clean but it’s honest and it’s loving and it’s wonderful. My Internet just went red and I just want to make sure you all can still hear me. Am I good?
Zach: We’re good.
Claire: Okay, good. I just wanted to say that and to say that as I talk about this, I have lots of good ideas and beliefs but I also want you to know I still do my own work. I just got back from 3 days as a client, not a therapist. That’s the first thing I want everyone to hear. You have to do your work and you have to consistently do your work. When I say, do your work, I mean, therapy, coaching, 12-step recovery, exercise, whatever it is for you to do your work. You must keep going whether your family is in recovery or not. Okay. Let’s move into holidays and I’m going to tell a one really quick story about myself and then that might give you some and I want more specifics. I’m very emotional around the holidays.
I don’t like to admit it until the train has left the station. Last Monday, I’m in a new relationship. I’ve been married, divorced, all that. This is in my new, really healthy, stable relationship, which is wild. I have one of those. We’re doing holidays together. My partner told me how they do holidays and I started crying. I’m like, “But that’s not what we do. We wear pajamas in the morning on Thanksgiving.” And I’m like, I’ve turned into this child throwing a tantrum about pajamas and the Macy’s parade because they do other stuff during the parade. And I’m like, “You people don’t watch the parade?” I’m anxious. I can hear my heart in my ears. I’m crying. And he’s like, “I got to go to work.” And I’m like, “Well, I have to go to work.”
All day, I’m harassing this kind and stable man. One more thing about the Fierman family. At 03:00, after sending 50 texts like a psychopath, I’m like, “Hey, I’m feeling emotional about this. I’m going to take a step back and we can talk about it later.” He’s like, “Yeah, it’s a great idea.” I got home. We hugged. I’m like, “Hey, I recognize I really turned into little Claire and I’m sorry about that.” He said, “Just to get this straight. Were you upset about pajamas?” And I just died laughing because that was true. Around holidays, typically, our most wounded little selves come out and we kick and scream.
At the age we did, we were likely most wounded. My dad started getting sober when I was 6, in 7th grade. That’s like a girl heading into her teenage years. When I’m upset, when I’m wounded, I’m a teenage little jerk with hormonal issues that aren’t balanced out but when grown-up, Claire recognizes that. That’s Claire, a mother of two. I know how to engage with her. I can own it and talk about it. That’s the first piece I want to talk about is we act like little jerks or scared kids during the holidays. And you have to find one person in this world that can be like, “Are you crying about jammies?” Just one person that isn’t going to be mad about it. One person that will laugh and love you anyways through it and then you have resiliency and repair.
Zach: I really appreciate that, Claire. The thing that came up for me is you were talking about your partner. What do you think is so important about him just simply being there and hearing what you had to say versus jumping in and maybe trying to insert an explanation or a solution or something like that from your perspective?
Michael: Fix. What do you like? I would try to do it.
Claire: Everyone wants to solve it. I made it clear when I came into this relationship. About a year ago, when I told you a problem, it’s not your job to fix it. Can you just sit by me? And so, we have a lot of language around that. He sees me and I see him. What do I mean by that? I don’t mean the quotes like, “We must be seen and heard.” That’s all over Instagram. But what I mean is today, again, 07:00 AM, we’re having coffee in bed. I threw in another holiday curveball. I saw him get tense and his eyes got a little bit bigger. And I’m like, “Hey, I can see that you’re fearful but we don’t have to decide anything today.” And both of us have lived by what the Fierman family says or what your family says. We’re making our own. We call it the couple bubble.
If one of us is anxious or scared, we’re like, “Call a meeting couple bubble.” And so, this morning, instead of us being right or wrong or who needs to do what, I saw his feelings and I soothed that. That’s first. Before you resolve the issue, make sure your partner’s nervous system isn’t off the rails. What happens when we’re upset? I say upset generally, defensive, afraid, frozen, angry, whatever our survival response is. My nervous system goes up, likely my partner’s nervous system goes up, or my parents or my brother. That’s what happens when you’re close to someone. If you can have the ego strength to just see them in that and say, “Okay, let’s just pause for a second. What is it that you need now? That’s not a solution. Then we’ll talk about the holidays later.”
That’s what you do. You soothe your nervous system. You soothe your nervous system through sensory response. I’m going to say it again. You serve the nervous system through a sensory response. What that means is talking someone out of what they are doing or having a solution, makes them feel like shit. I don’t know if we can cuss on this podcast but it makes them feel bad. If George, that’s my partner’s name, and he was like, “Hey, I thought we had other plans for Thanksgiving.” And I said, “Well, my plans are just as important.” Then we’re going to keep matching each other.
Instead, I put my hand on his arm. That’s soothing, right? And said, “Hey, we don’t have to worry about it right now. Why don’t we talk about it tonight? I don’t have all the information. Do you want more coffee?” That’s it. Go for a walk. Take a deep breath. I wish it was more complicated than this but that’s not all. 20 minutes of walking, something cold to drink, a hot shower. Literally, a safe person holding you, hugging you, loving you. That’s it. When your nervous system isn’t up here and it’s down here, then you talk about the hard stuff.
Zach: Awesome. Thanks, Claire. Michael, you mentioned some stuff too that you…
Claire: You all can give me time out. I’ll just keep preaching the nervous system.
Zach: I love it.
Michael: I love it too.
Zach: Why is it that around this time of year you think, Claire, that we become so up in arms? Why is it the holidays? You think of all the times of the year, we’re supposed to be the closest and maybe that’s the reason because we’re up in arms sometimes.
Claire: I think this year is different because of COVID and how it’s impacted us. I’d like to speak on COVID as well as historical, while holidays are like this. Kind of my general belief around the holidays is there’s pressure and expectation which never in my life is pressure and expectation felt good. My mom will probably listen to this sorry stuff. My mom, you make the right cookies on the right day. If you don’t, it’s a problem. And then you have to make the iced version of the sprinkled version because my dad likes the yellow iced cookie. It’s crazy. It’s crazy. And then she wants the grandkids to make sure they’ve experienced the nutcracker but they’re 4 years old and they’re terrible at the nutcracker so we’re sweating and trying to get the kids to the nutcracker.
It’s this idealistic belief of what it’s going to be. Now, we’ve all done enough work that we laugh about it or we bitch at each other and then we repair it. We’re lucky. I can go back to my parents and say I was a jerk. I’m sorry. My mom can say, “I know I hurt your feelings. I’m sorry. She’s getting better at that. I think I taught her the beauty of an apology.” There’s pressure and expectation of the shoulds. In Twelve Step Recovery, we say, don’t shoulds all over yourself. That’s the thing. When we put should on us, it does not feel good. And then you have the grandmother that still wants to talk about politics. We have an uncle that might say a racist joke.
That makes our heart rate increase, which means our brain is responding as if those people are actual bears in your living room. The brain can’t tell the difference in that. When we get information, a racist uncle said an appropriate joke, it’s going in the back of our brain. It doesn’t filter through logic. It filters through emotion. So then, your brain is like, freeze, fight, get out. That’s it. And so, I have to tell myself, “It’s not a mountain lion. It’s not a mountain lion. It’s my mom wanting to make the second bag of cookies at an inopportune time.” That’s our first piece. The second piece is COVID. This is what I watched as a clinician happen. For the first time, and maybe the history of therapy or modern therapy, I was going through what my client was going through.
We were having a mutual traumatic experience. As a mother, walking a journey with moms that are saying, “Do I send my kids to school?” And I’m like, “I don’t know. Do we send our kids to school?” And I had to really pull back and just put on the therapist hat, not the mom hat. I’m constantly activated by my clients. That trauma, that collective trauma, and everybody all their old stuff come up, so then maybe we’re talking about COVID for the first 15 minutes of the session but we’re processing trauma that they hadn’t talked about from when they were 7. It just peeled onions quicker than I think we’d ever seen before. I can’t find a therapist that’ll take a new client right now. Business is booming.
Zach: Everybody’s booked.
Claire: Everybody’s booked, which is a lot of people in the business world like, “That’s a great problem to have.” I’m like, “I don’t know.” Because we can’t keep up with the demand. People can’t afford it. We’re depleted. It’s intense right now. And then people are banking on social media and TikTok to give them hope or advice.
Zach: Crazy. Right.
Claire: And so, we’re coming to the holidays… I’m sorry, Michael. I interrupted you.
Michael: That self-care piece for the clinicians is so much more important now. I’m really glad you brought that up because we are having a collective experience. I hadn’t thought about it that way and it is the first time probably in my lifetime anyway.
Zach: Michael, you mentioned some stuff earlier around the holidays that you do sort of self-care activities. What has worked for you?
Michael: My little boy comes out around the holidays. All the unmet expectations of my family and the promises never kept because I grew up in it. I used to think that we were a healthy family and what recovery has taught me is we were maybe the healthiest family in my neighborhood. It was a pretty low bar. I’ve gotten to learn from guys like Claire’s dad and our friend John Southworth that I need to take care of the little boy because I’ve learned that my wife’s little girl comes to the holidays and my little boy shows up at the holidays. If I’m not taking care of myself, I’m going to be eating too much, I’m going to be eating more sweets than I normally eat, I’m going to be worried about meeting other people’s expectations, and I going to get my own needs met, and all of that stuff just kind of builds up to where anything like pajamas at the holiday or the nutcracker can be that tipping point.
I think it’s really important for us to be kind to ourselves, to understand that it’s a high-stress situation. We all want to see our families but we have these hot buttons that we’ve installed in each other and we start triggering without intending. It’s really sad that years ago, Claire’s dad and I, our busiest time with the holidays because when families got together, someone was going to get treatment. It caused a lot of stress and anxiety. I think leading into that I want to help kind of some of the families out there that might be listening. What are some of those things to look for around the holidays?
I know that one thing that my family should have picked up on was my mom died the night before Thanksgiving when I was 25. I loved Thanksgiving and I went on to miss 10 or 11 Thanksgiving in a row. I look back maybe somewhere around the second or third Thanksgiving when I didn’t show up, some might have thought, “Michael might need some help here.” I’d love to talk about what are those things to look for, Claire, if your family is coming together so that we don’t jump down their throat but we can learn how to pay attention to the signs and maybe get some people some help?
Claire: That’s a great question. We had a family tradition of my brother going to treatment around Halloween for 10 years. He planned it perfectly because he wanted to be home for Christmas. If you are admitted to treatment around Halloween, you could blow through Thanksgiving and then be at home for Christmas for gifts and then relapse on New Year’s Eve. He had it down. It’s a really powerful time. And honestly, the precious part of that is we are so loving in our house like he was willing to stay sober for that chunk of time just to be with us. I want to speak to the codependent first. Let’s miss buzz codependency first. If you’re codependent, that’s a super big buzzword.
It truly just means if you wake up today and look at the addicted loved one and say how are we feeling today, that’s your codependency. Your day is dependent upon how they are. If you’re putting in place how they are going to stay sober through the holidays, that’s just not your job. Maybe, you’re a mother, a spouse, a sister or brother, that’s your role for the holidays. I’d first really clearly define that role and your expectation around that. I will also say tough decisions can be made during the holidays that will feel scary. Oftentimes, years of someone’s addiction gets magically wiped away and we’re like, “Let’s let Timmy come to Christmas this year.”
He’s not sober but he’s been nice lately. When Timmy’s been nice and maybe has not been hammered at the last family meal, we decide to let him come in. There’s no one named Timmy and my family. Timmy’s made up. We might say, “Timmy, you come over for Christmas.” And then Christmas is a nightmare. You get to say, “Hey, our expectation is that you have 30 days sober before you come to our house for Christmas. If you can’t, we understand but you’ll have to go elsewhere.” That’s painful. But if it’s to keep the greater goods safe and you’ve offered Timmy a solution, “Hey, if you need treatment, if you need a phone number, we got you but you cannot come to eat this Turkey with us.”
That’s okay. That’s at a bigger level if the family is not ready to do it. Now, there are much smaller levels, maybe you’re an existing recovery, and you’re the only one. Have a plan. Have a person. My partner is in recovery. We will be the only people at Thanksgiving not drinking and we have little things in place. It is like sometimes a cup in your hand where no one’s questioning it and it has club soda or ginger oil, great. You can do little things and it’s not anybody else’s business. That’s okay. And we have each other to say things like, “Oh, my God, this is a nightmare.” Or “Did you see what so and so did?” You can team up with your people and you can choose not to go. You can choose not to go. You can do your own thing and take risks.
Boundaries risk making someone else uncomfortable but for the sake of courage and love. If I set a boundary and say, “I’m going to stay home this year.” which I’m not like I’m doing 18 Thanksgivings, it is fine. I’m ready to do that this year. If I choose to stay home and just have my neighbors over which I have done before, someone’s going to be upset and I can say, “I know this wasn’t my ideal Thanksgiving either but this is what feels right for me and you all do not have to agree.” That’s what I teach people all the time. A lot of people are often wanting someone to agree with their boundaries. I haven’t set one yet where someone says, “Thank you so much. I appreciate you putting that boundary in place for me.” I haven’t had it once but I can live with it.
Michael: I always tell families that it’s okay to tell your loved one we’re not going to put wine out because you just came home from treatment. Maybe next year it’ll be okay but someone gets out of it. Like your brother coming home for the holiday just out of treatment, it’s amazing to me how many people wouldn’t think to not put a bottle of wine on the table. He doesn’t drink wine so it won’t be a big deal. Maybe let’s just not even go down that road this year.
Zach: I think it’s important, too, as we’re talking about substance use, addiction in the holidays, Claire, you shared with us you were personally affected by addiction in your family and it’s incredible that your family members found recovery and that you also found healing and purpose from it as well. I think so many people still don’t recognize the reality of addiction even though it’s so prevalent in our culture. Would you mind sharing just a little bit about the reality of the situation that you went through of addiction, but also how your family found hope through all this?
Claire: That’s a big story and a big question. Let me see where I want to start. I mentioned that we didn’t have these words. We were like any other family in that the pride didn’t happen at our house or I can’t even say that was denial. It was just under-informed and no one has looked at that before. But genetically, we were destined for that. Historical trauma in the family, we are destined for that but we didn’t know trauma is probably going to make you Medicaid at some point. Family members started getting into recovery. And then my dad will say that interventions fell into his lap.
If listeners out there don’t know what an intervention is, that means someone is coming into your home to help a loved one get treatment because it’s not your job to do it. I still explain almost daily that if your husband, wife, sister, brother, or partner had a broken leg, you would not mandate yourself. You would get them the help that they need. And so, that’s what we started believing in is we knew that someone else had to come in and help our family. If one thing people heard from this podcast from me, it is not your job. You likely don’t have the awareness. I’m a therapist. I don’t do therapy for my family. A doctor is not going to do surgery on their family.
We outsource this stuff to people that can truly help us. That’s vulnerable and that’s uncomfortable to do. But remember, you would do it for any other medical condition and that’s what we’re talking about. This one is just not as visible but you have to do it. We were willing to do that. Years later, I was having dinner with someone and they said, “Don’t you wish your family was normal?” “What do you mean?” He said, “Don’t you wish you could go out and have a beer with your dad.” That had never occurred to me. I said, “No, I didn’t even have to consider it. Absolutely not.”
This journey of recovery has not only given us purpose and meaning in our careers but we all do it. My immediate family for every one of us has a career path and an education around this but we love each other in it. I love my family more deeply now that I have this language now that I’ve done this work, now that little Claire doesn’t always show up for the holidays, grown-up, Claire shows up for the holidays, and I’m recognizing Michael and I are both using that term. What we mean by that is our old selves, the little boy or girl inside of us that had some icky or hard things happen, or he or she wasn’t nurtured, how he or she wounds.
Zach: Unhealed wounds.
Claire: Yeah. They come out but now we know how to heal them.
Michael: I’m still waiting for the pony.
Claire: Say that again.
Michael: I said I’m still waiting for the pony. I grew up in Boston. I didn’t realize I wasn’t ever getting a pony but my father told me of the year, I was getting a pony.
Claire: Okay, I’ll admit this.
Zach: There’s still time.
Claire: There is time because when I was like 20, I can’t believe I’m going to say this on recording, I found out what treatment costs like I didn’t know. My brother had been to 94 treatments at this point. And I was like, “Hey, I think I want a horse.” And they did it. Those people bought me the horse. And so, I’ve grown a lot. I don’t hold my family hostage anymore. My work as the sister and the daughter of addicts and alcoholics has been seeing how it impacted me, but also how I’ve shown up. So, not victimized by it. It’s not like, “Here’s what you did, and here’s what you did.” Which I have absolutely done.
I’ve had resentment. I’ve had a wound. I have pain from their addiction but I’ve also harmed them in my codependency, in my anxiety, in my love-addicted behaviors. I had to own that, too. And so, I keep going to therapy. I keep showing up and I keep messing up and saying I’d like to do it better. It is a family disease. We talked about that. What we mean is every single person has been impacted and you have impacted every single person so you might as well get rolling on your own recovery.
Michael: That is an awesome point. I think that there are so many families out there that the goal is for someone like me, your dad, to come in and shuffle Johnny off to treatment, and then nobody wants to do their own work. I think one of the messages I hear loud and clear from you is, Claire, that all of your family is in recovery, whether you’re a drug addict or alcoholic or not, that the whole family has bought into this process of healing and wellness. That is the goal for guys like me is not to get Johnny out the door. I’m pretty sure I can get Johnny out the door, but how do I help all of the rest of you find what will benefit you?
Claire: That’s right. I was at a dinner last night and we were talking about the families that place their child in treatment, even an adult child and then they’re like, “We got to go to Costa Rica to decompress from all this.” And we have to say, “Wait. You’re actually going to go to seven days of your own work or a four-day intensive or whatever it is because it’s not vacation time.” You’ll probably sleep better because your loved one is safe but you just went through a trauma. You got to show up differently. And so, yes. I have an easier time putting someone in treatment than I do getting a family member to go to Al-Anon.
Zach: I think that piece that you mentioned, Claire, about the family disease, them having as much of the impact and the symptoms and everything that goes along with being a person abusing substances. From your experience, having worked with a lot of people and sending people off, I think one of the things we’re happy with Landmark is that we do a family programming piece that goes on each week with families a full day. Our treatment centers across the nation are still kind of missing the mark on family work.
Claire: That’s tricky. It’s a complex component. I have been lucky enough to have worked with several treatment centers. They’ve asked me to write their family programs and I have. And so, I’ll write about their family programs from a truly clinically indicated point of view. And then I’ll train their clinicians or I’ll come in and do some of them because I’m a survivor of that. I did that work and I had to. It was wildly awful and uncomfortable and sad and scary. And I’d do it again.
Because the addicted loved one is at higher risk, it’s life or death at that moment, we’re like get them to triage, get them to the emergency room. That’s residential treatment. That’s just become the primary focus, but more and more I’m seeing it come up in treatment centers or as independent programs. There are several places that are doing more short-term workshops for families to go and get that care. Yes, it is still an issue. Yes, it’s a lower or secondary priority, but I see it shifting and changing.
Zach: I think one of the things, too, that addiction has, is a significant impact that we’ve talked about today on kids. That’s also something you understand and have experience with. If mom or dad is in rehab, especially around the holidays, the kids can get into this sort of place of blaming themselves around that. I’m wondering, from your perspective, what are some practical, helpful things that any caregiver should incorporate into a child’s life when addiction is present in the family? And how might families have conversations with kids who are struggling or don’t understand?
Claire: I’m so glad you asked that. A couple of pieces. First, I want to say that when my dad went into treatment, I was still in elementary school and I don’t remember it. I don’t have a really clear picture of that. What’s interesting is one of my dear friends—I’m from the south so we all sit together. If you go to kindergarten together, you’re still friends today. — One of my dear friends today that I went all through school with, I called her on her home phone and told her that my dad had to go somewhere for nurses to help him. She has the memory of me telling her about this. I have nothing. That’s not uncommon. I don’t even think I need to go that deep into it. That’s not any fault of my parents.
That’s what happens when a parent is removed from the home. I wish we could say that kids can go unscathed. If I did not experience abuse, I did not experience neglect. I lived in a beautiful home. I was fed. I was loved. It was not scary, but there was an addiction. That in itself is a trauma. Now, I’m divorced and I wanted my kids to come out on skates. I’m like we can be alone. We co-parent and they didn’t come out on stage. We’re dealing with that right now. And so, first, I just want to name for any parent listening or a caregiver that this will impact them but they can have a wonderful life and live well. The real practical truth is to meet them where they are and it doesn’t have to be very complex.
Answer the questions that they ask. Identifying their feelings. If they’re younger, it’s going to come out wonky and sideways. Absolutely. They’re not going to come to you and say, “Is it my fault the dad’s having to get sober?” They don’t know that. They’re going to be sad. They’re going to be angry. They’re going to miss days of school. They’re going to get sick more often. You’re going to see those things pop up. Caregivers, look for the indirect ways that those little ones are being impacted and show up for them in that way. My kids go to therapy and I promise they aren’t like my parents got a divorce and I’m sad. That’s not what they say.
They’re like, “I get mad when mom turns off the TV.” I’m like, “That’s your biggest complaint right now.” But they do. And so, that therapist meets them where they are. That’s what we have to work through. When my little girl gets big and angry, I don’t take it away. I put her in my lap and I’m like, “I know this feels big right now.” And when she says things like, “I wish you and daddy were still married.” I’m like, “I know that hurts big right now.” I’m not like, “Well, listen, sister. We’re better friends.” I don’t explain. I sit right. I can answer the question.
Why did you get a divorce? I make it appropriate for a seven-year-old. When a loved one goes to treatment, you make it like a story. I mean, it’s the same when your kids start asking like. “What happens when you die? How are babies born?” All parents are like, “Oh, my God. I don’t want to have to answer that.” You find an appropriate way to answer the question because untruth or lying by omission will be just as bad. Their little hearts are racing. That part of their brain I talked about earlier. Their survival responses are kicking in and it’s your job to help them move from survival to thrive. That’s your job. Not to fix it.
Michael: Love it.
Claire: I hope that was clear.
Zach: That is great. I thought at the beginning of the episode, you mentioned Michael just how great of a therapist Claire is. I have a question for you and then I got a question for Claire. How do you identify Michael as a good therapist if you’re searching for something?
Michael: That’s a big question and that’s changed for me. I’ll tell you what. My first therapist, when I got out of treatment, I didn’t know what to look for. I was so damaged and in need of so much help that I was lucky. I got a experienced therapist but I didn’t know that at the time. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some unhealthy therapists over the years. I still do my own work. We just moved. My wife and I were talking about finding a therapist here and now I am interviewing them. I want a therapist who’s doing their own work. I don’t know that we teach enough of that while we’re training therapists. I was fortunate. My first boss in the field, after he congratulated me for getting this job, sat me down and talked to me about how much more work I was going to need to do on myself in order to stay healthy and thrive in this industry.
I look back now and I thank God that he was my, he was actually my boss’s boss. He was a former priest who was in recovery and he set the stage for me to be able to continue to do that work. I think one of the important things I look for in a therapist is someone who’s doing their own work and continuing to do their own work because life is life for all of us. As Claire mentioned earlier, everyone’s going through COVID. I’ve been fortunate to be in a group with her dad and some other gentlemen who are in recovery. We’ve talked every day since COVID started, first thing in the morning. It’s amazing the things that this group of guys has gone through in the last year and a half plus and had the support we needed to navigate that.
Most people I know haven’t had that and when I talk to some of the other guys that do this group that is very similar to what we started, they’re like, “You talk every morning every morning?” “Yes. We’re not all on every day now because we’re back to work and stuff but we’ve continued to connect and check-in.” For example, my wife almost died of COVID last year. She was in Mayo Hospital ICU for 11 days. I was able to walk through that in a way I wouldn’t have been able to on my own had I not had this group of guys. I would recommend that you’re looking for a therapist to interview the therapist. As Claire said, that’s more dangerous now because they’re so busy. It’s hard to get one. I also look at it like if somebody’s got an open plate right now, maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe you want to wait for a slot to open up with somebody who’s full. I don’t know.
Zach: Maybe. Awesome, man. Thank you. I think it kind of builds on the question I was going to ask for you, too, Claire. You brought up kids or ask a question about kids. What would go into your thought process in finding a good therapist for a younger person, a child even?
Claire: Okay. Can I speak to what makes a good therapist, too?
Claire: A good therapist did not learn to be a good therapist in a book and they found a mentor. My first and greatest mentor was Ryan Salter. He runs a sound recovery in Utah. For a year, a year when we met every Wednesday and we’d go to Taco Bell or some random Taco place and we’d sit in his truck and he would talk to me about me and what was going on with me. He would guide me through my journey to show up better for my clients. Mentorship. Knowing that they were mentored in greatness. He gave me that. He gave me mentorship and greatness. I am forever grateful to that person. If you’re an up-and-coming therapist, get you a mentor, not a book. Self-help books didn’t make anybody a good therapist. I’ll echo what Michael said. I see a therapist. Every good therapist sees a therapist.
In my interview process with my current therapist, I said to her I was like, “Listen, lady. You’re going to hear some things and you’re going to want to process that trauma.” I’m like, “Heroin addict, dad. Oh, my gosh. That’s like every therapist’s dream. I have later trauma in life that I don’t need to get into in this podcast.” And I’m like, “I can’t talk about it for another day. I’ve done it for 20 years. I’ve talked about this shit.” And I’m like, “I need to get rid of some of this ache I carry, some of this hurt. I want to do something different.” We do 90 minutes of echo therapy every month. We are in the woods and I’m moving my body, letting stuff come out, and I don’t have to talk about it anymore. It’s a miracle. But I did the other work first. You find something that you know in your soul you need. The therapist isn’t like that’s so interesting. I didn’t want to smile and nod therapist.
I can smile and nod to my dog like he’ll listen anytime I want. I wanted someone that would get in there and meet me at work. And then at the end, we’ll be like, “Do you want a hug?” “Yeah. Give me a hug.” As far as the child goes, I’ve had my kids with two different therapists. The first one is precious, adorable. My kids liked her. It was a lot like coloring and not getting to the meat of stuff. And then I put my kids on a 6-month waitlist because we weren’t in crisis. If you’re not in crisis, get on a waitlist. If you’re in a crisis, have someone that can support you in the crisis, in the meantime, might not be your lifelong therapist, I waited 6 months for a brilliant psychologist that could help my kids. It was totally worth the wait. I would say that, get in if you’re in a crisis. Find someone for long-term awesome.
Michael: Great advice.
Zach: I love it. By saying this guy, first of all, thank you, Claire, for coming on the show today. I know that you’re a busy lady. You’ve got a call coming up pretty soon. How do people find out more about you? Is it clairefierman.com?
Claire: I’m not taking clients. You all can’t even trick me into but if people need resources or questions right now, I’m working with Ocean Recovery, so you can email me at email@example.com. My personal site is clairefierman.com. Email me at Claire at clairefierman.com. What I’m helping with a lot right now is treatment placement and making sure people are going where they need to go and happy to do that right now.
Michael: And for those of you that don’t know, Claire’s got a wealth of resources again. Her brother, her mom, her dad, who may have seen more treatment programs than I have, probably, one of the only people out there that have. And Claire, I am so glad you came on today. I feel like I’ve known you most of your life but I’ve learned so much about you today, and you are awesome.
Claire: Thank you. This was so fun. I appreciate it. Thanks for letting me preach my like Ted talk. It was great.
Zach: This has been awesome. Thank you, everybody, as always, for listening. Catch us next Tuesday for our next episode. Have a great day, guys. Thanks.
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