Therapist James Wickersham Specializes in Recovery after Facing his own Addiction

Therapist James Wickersham Specializes in Recovery after Facing his own Addiction

(Mel Corrigan, June 15, 2018)

I sat down with James Wickersham at a coffee shop recently. Dressed in a button-down shirt, face adorned with glasses, he sported a steady, serious yet approachable demeanor. Wickersham is a Licensed Master’s Social Worker (LMSW) and a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CAADC) whose therapy style is “collaborate, empathetic and genuine.”

As a therapist at the Troy and Novi locations of Sollars and Associates, he employs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Motivational Interviewing and Solution-Focused Therapy when counseling adults affected by anxiety, depression and substance use disorders.

He also offers counseling for young adults who are transitioning to independent living. James offers individual and group therapy as a substance abuse counselor with Meridian Health Services in Flint. He’s experienced with both inpatient and outpatient care for those struggling with substance use disorders.

But Wickersham wasn’t always a therapist. In fact, he started out as an elementary school teacher.  It was a job he loved, but lost because of his own alcoholism. “You lose something that you’re passionate about. And that’s how strong addiction can be. You can lose sight of what’s truly important in life: your passions, your family.”

For James, it began during his college years. The weekend binge drinking common among many students was the impetus for his two-plus-decade battle with alcoholism. As time progressed, so did his addiction. Alcohol became a higher priority. He moved from beer to hard liquor, requiring more of it to get the effect he was seeking. He tried giving up alcohol multiple times. He started experiencing withdrawals. “According to the DSM-V, the diagnostic and statistical manual, I met all 11 criteria of a full blown addict/alcoholic.”

Slowly and not gracefully, over an eight-year period, James managed to find sobriety.

What was James’ first step on his road to recovery? It started with a shift in his perspective. “My world was really small,” James said of his time during heavy alcohol use when he was losing control of his life.

But when his mother said to him, “Jim, I’ve lost one child; I don’t want to lose another,” her sentiment cracked-open his perspective a bit. It made him realize that he was impacting everyone, not only himself.

Then came the acceptance and conviction. “At one point in my odyssey, I decided that I would not kick myself anymore. I would not kick myself if I had a relapse. I would learn from it,” James explained. This was wise for many reasons, one of them being that relapsing can almost be expected as part of the recovery process. Estimated relapse rates for those trying to recovery from substance use disorders is estimated range from 40-60%, according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse [1].

When asked how critical his mindset was to enabling his recovery, James answered, “When I stopped beating myself up…and I accepted that I was an alcoholic, I knew I had to do something about it. And I knew I was struggling doing it on my own.” He opened his mind. He asked for help. “And I started setting goals for myself: I want to be married. I want to have a child,”James explained.

At one point in our ninety-plus minute conversation it occurred to me how scary and isolating addiction must be for those who come to the realizations that James had, to recognize the harm a substance is wreaking on one’s life. To have made many attempts to kick it, to no avail. To recognize that this thing is bigger than oneself. To accept that one does not know how to evolve beyond it on one’s own. And that all of these things are likely to perpetuate the addiction rather than cease it. Despair set in for me. I could only imagine the despair substance users might experience.

But, there is hope. James has found sobriety. The way James sees it, “It’s never too late to experience the joys of recovery.” And he is living proof of his own sentiment.

Wickersham went back to school in his mid-40s to become a therapist. At age fifty-one, he now has a wife and a young child. “You can’t look at what you’ve lost; you have to look at what you’re gaining in life,” James said.

As a therapist, Wickersham guides others along their path to do the same. “I try and help clients to find their own motivations to change. And to find the hope and confidence that they can do it,” he said.

Having lived through many of the same struggles as his clients, he can easily offer empathy when counseling them. And James develops an individualized recovery and relapse-prevention plan for each client, which includes elements such as short- and long-term goals, high-risk situations and obstacles to recovery, developing a system of support and much more.

But James’ interest and expertise as a therapist are not limited to substance use disorders. He counsels clients with mental illness, such as anxiety and depression. There is significant overlap in mental illness and substance use disorders. According to a 2014 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an estimated 18.1 percent (43.6 million) U.S. adults 18 or older have a mental illness. The same survey found that of the 20.2 million U.S. adults reported to have had substance use disorder in the past year, 39.1 percent (7.9 million) of them also had mental illness in the same year [2].

James is a big believer in the power of goal-setting, and as such, works with these clients to understand and establish goals and objectives, and offers support and empathy as he guides them toward achieving them.

Before interviewing James, I was under the impression that he had recovered from being an alcoholic and went on to counsel others struggling the way he once did. After sitting down with him for nearly two hours at a coffee shop and listening to his sprawling saga of use, recovery and a life of sobriety, I recognized that he is still very much a recovering alcoholic. It is not a zero-sum game.

One does not simply use a substance and then stop using a substance, at least not for most users who become addicted. James has intentionally created a life for himself free of alcohol, and he remains cognizant of his former addiction and the element of himself that is, technically, still an alcoholic. Alcohol is no longer the focal point of his existence, but to say it no longer has a role in his life is absolutely wrong. He acknowledges its power, and, by applying the principles he recommends to his own clients, manages to keep his former addiction exactly where he wants it: in the past.

These days, his hobbies include spending time with family and working in his mother’s butterfly garden. He no longer looks to alcohol for pleasure or enjoyment. Instead, he enjoys the outdoors, a summer breeze, and engaging with the people he loves.

In the vein of the importance of goal-setting, I asked James what was next for him. He is looking forward to a vacation with his family. Longer term, he envisions establishing an online therapy practice. He wants this medium of counseling to be a beacon for those in need of help who might otherwise be unable to get it. Of equal importance, it is a personal goal he has set for himself, consistent with his belief that goal-setting is a way to maintain motivation for long-term recovery.

References

  1. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Drugs, Brains and Behavior: The Science of Addiction, Treatment and Recovery,” per figure in Journal of the American Medical Association article JAMA, 284:1689-1695, 2000, accessed June 7, 2018.
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Behavioral Health Trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health”, accessed on June 7, 2018.

James Wickersham, LMSW, CAADC is a substance abuse and mental health counselor with Sollars and Associates in Troy and Novi and offers individual and group therapy at Meridian Health Services in Flint. We also welcome James as an advertiser here on Oakland County Times. Check out his online profile at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/james-wickersham-troy-mi/393281

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