A few summers ago, I was home in Colorado with some friends and we decided to go on a guided rock-climbing outing at a national park nearby. I was stoked: I couldn’t stop talking about it in the days leading up, practically bolted out of the car when we got there and volunteered to go first. But not until the moment I got clipped in, took my first step, and felt the harness take on my weight did I fully realize what was about to happen. 

I did really well at first, but about halfway up, I got stuck. I couldn’t find an easy handhold, caught a glimpse of the ground beneath me, and started to panic. My knees started shaking and my hands started sweating and that made me panic even more. I called down to our guide John in a terrified voice that I tried to make sound calm, “I think this is as far as I can go. Can you help me down?” He didn’t. Instead, he pointed out a few handholds that I’d thought were out of reach but in fact weren’t. I was grateful, kept going, but then got stuck again about 10 minutes later. Even further from the ground now, my shaking, sweating, and panicking were that much more pronounced. So I again called down, hoping John would let me give up this time. On the contrary, he told me to extend my knees, shift around the area that was giving me trouble and over to an easier section of the rock that I hadn’t seen from where I was. 

Finally, about two feet from the top, I froze. Everything I had tried up to this point wasn’t working here because the way the rock jutted out at the top meant that my visual field was completely blocked. I was so frustrated and desperately wanted to finish. I’d come this far and would be so disappointed if I had to come down now. But I had no choice. I called down for a third time and John again refused to belay me down; he’d guided this route before and knew the area I was stuck because a lot of people got stuck there. He talked me through where to move my hands until I found the holds and was able to pull myself up. 

I can’t describe how proud I was to have made it all the way up. When we started the day, I wasn’t really planning on making it the whole way: I just thought I’d do my best and have fun. And that’s all I would have done if I’d tried to do this on my own. Instead, I have this awesome story to tell for the rest of my life, a great memory with my friends, and a reminder that I am capable of way more than I give myself credit for. 

When I got back down, I realized that it really wasn’t as high up as it seemed when I was up there. When my friends who went after me got stuck, I was able to see the solutions way easier than when I was climbing because I could see the whole rock, not just the bit directly in front of me (and also because I wasn’t so busy hyperventilating). I was able to use that perspective to help them the way John had helped me.

I think of this experience sometimes as it relates to recovery. From outside perspectives, I’ll sometimes hear comments along the lines of “why don’t people just quit?” These comments come from community partners, well-meaning friends, and random people on airplanes after I tell them what I do for a living. And they’re genuinely confused when people can’t or don’t “just quit”. 

They’re at the bottom of the rock wall wondering why you’re freaking out, because from this perspectiveit’s really not that high. From this perspective, the next hand hold is just a few inches further, just reach your hand out a little further, you idiot. To be honest, I fell into that mentality as I watched my friends struggle up that rock wall mere minutes after I did, forgetting almost immediately how when it’s you up there, that hand hold feels miles away, not a few inches. When it’s you up there, you’re just certain that your sweaty hands will slip off the rock when you grab it, and if they don’t, then your shaking legs will slip and you’ll fall 1,000 feet to your death. 

Logically, you know that that you’re in a harness and that it’s more like 50 feet. But when it’s you up there, none of that feels true because our brains are like helicopter moms. Their main job is keeping you alive. They’re very good at it, but they’re also super dramatic and don’t listen to reason. When I was on that rock wall, the Helicopter Mom part of my brain woke up because I was in survival mode now, and some of the things that were obvious to the people on the ground just did not feel true for me. 

My clients are in survival mode almost all the time. “Just quit” is a pretty bold statement from someone standing safely on the ground looking up. 

Someone much smarter than me once told me that our goal as therapists is not to get anyone to stop using drugs. My goal as a therapist is to help get my client to a point where they can choose. Because believe it or not, when someone is in active addiction, living in survival mode with no other viable coping skills, their decision to use is not truly a choice. If after 18 months of successful treatment and a significant period of sobriety my client makes the decision to use again, his capacity to make that choice is very different than it was while he was clinging to the edge of a metaphorical rock wall with no way down.  

My goal as a therapist is to do what John did for me. He didn’t come up there and climb the rock for me. He didn’t trap me on that wall and force me to climb higher than I wanted to. He simply got me to a point where I could choose whether I wanted to come down, but not because I was panicking and felt that I had no other option. He just pointed out solutions that I either hadn’t considered, couldn’t see because of my vantage point, or didn’t know were there. And once I had those solutions, I was able to make the choice to keep climbing or come down anyway.

I’m grateful to John for his help because without it, I probably wouldn’t be walking away that day feeling accomplished and proud of myself. But when I tell that story now, I don’t tell the story of how this guy John climbed a rock wall. It’s the story of how I climbed a rock wall, because at the end of the day, it was me who made the choice to keep going. When everything goes as planned, that’s what therapy looks like. I get to watch people make the choice save their own lives every day. They own 100% of that story. 

Sarah Bruhn, LADC-US, LPC-US