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What Are You Living For?

By Gray Otis, PhD, LPC, CCMHC, 
Co-Chair, AMHCA’s Professional Development Committee

The recovery group members were discussing ways in which to avoid falling back into drug or alcohol dependence. Many good ideas had been voiced—“avoid boredom,” “don’t get triggered,” “stay away from old habits and haunts,” and “get new friends,” were just some of the suggestions. Then one of the group said, “Yes, but what are we living for?”

So often in our desire to overcome problems, we concentrate on those measures that will keep us from harm. Certainly this is necessary to avoid falling into old behaviors that are repetitive and destructive. But devoting all of our mental and emotional energy to staying away from negative influences can result, for some clients, in a terribly restrictive vision of the rest of their lives.

As important as it is to not repeat harmful patterns, it is equally essential to learn what we are living for. “Milt,” a young man recovering from dependence on alcohol noted, “I was in a residential program for almost 11 weeks before I realized that my recovery only meant; ‘I could never drink again.’ It was then that I knew I had to have something to commit my life to, something more than just sobriety.”

He assessed his life up to that point and recognized his previous jobs had just been the means to getting the lifestyle he envied in others. Although he loved his wife and children dearly, most of his time had been spent pursuing “the good life,” often ignoring their needs.

For the first time, he thought hard about what was really important to him. Someone has called these vital needs, “the critical success factors.” Although most often applied to business ventures, critical success factors affect each of us. They reflect our deepest values, and they can serve as reference points to guide our way. 

As Milt considered what was crucial to his success, he knew that his family was his first priority. He also understood that his greatest satisfaction came from helping others through difficult periods. 

From that point on, Milt’s alcohol recovery took a dramatic turn. As he said later, “Instead of focusing on what I should not do, my life became centered on what I love to do. Of course, I still must be wary of drinking when things get tough. Now, however, I am more likely to get more involved with my children or go the extra mile at work for someone who is depending on me.” It is interesting to note that one of the individuals he is helping said recently, “If I could have any life I wanted, it would be just like Milt’s.”

The question posed in the recovery group is a decisive question for each of us as clinical mental health counselors: What is it that we are living for? 

Likewise, it is just as crucial for our clients. Many struggle with extreme challenges that must be addressed. As we help them deal with their issues, we should also help them take stock of what they want, what gives them fulfillment, what they do that positively impacts others and brings them joy. As we work with them to answer these questions, we truly promote emotional well-being and mental health.