Treat the Problem not the Symptom

Before I was a trainer and long before I started my pursuit of a degree in psychology I was a voluntary counselor at a county jail. I worked with a group of men sponsored by several local churches that went into the jail each week to teach a class, talk to the men about their issues, and more than anything else listen to them. I was unique among the group of volunteers. One was a lawyer, another; a retired cop, and the other a minister. These were all great men but none had ever served time in a jail. They were on the outside looking in, observing the results but never understanding the motivations that led people to crime or the thinking behind it. As a young man, a former Marine, and a bit of a dare-devil, I must confess I’ve spent more than my fair share of time locked behind bars contemplating the stupidity of the actions that landed me there.


The problem these men faced was that they had no credibility to those they sought to teach. Observing a thing, and working around it your whole life may make you an expert in that field, but it will never give you the understanding of what it’s like to actually live that life. The wealthy will never truly understand poverty unless they started out that way. Lawyers will never understand the desperation of criminals and cops will never know the life of a crook. I think maybe that’s a real problem today; there are too many experts who really don’t know the first thing about the field they teach or work in.  The best lawyer would be a former convict, the best cop a former crook. But both are prohibited from entering these fields and adding their unique experience to the prevention of crime.


The best man to counsel inmates on how to turn their life around would be a former inmate who’s done exactly that. Who better to say “you can change, you can go to school, you can be better,” then someone who’s done it. Those guys listened to me because my very presence in the room was proof positive that I knew what I was talking about. I had served time with many of the men in our classes in the very jail we were teaching at. They knew how much I hated being there, and how uncomfortable I was in that building, because I had been one of them. That I would volunteer to come back spoke to them about the depth of my concern for them and their situation.


Now to be blunt; I make no excuses for crime. I do not advocate going soft on inmates. I think jail should be an experience so horrendous that no man should ever be able to adjust or become comfortable there. But what good does it do to incarcerate a man and punish him for his crime if you’re not going to address the issue behind it. Taking a person out of a situation for months or years then setting him right back into it again with no means to work then telling him not to do it again is insanity on the highest order. It’s no different from the results you get when you detox an individual then send them back out into the streets, family life, or stress that he or she drinks to escape from in the first place.


Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous are set up to fail from the start. The organizations begin their treatment by telling the addict that it’s not their fault. This brings me to mind of all the parents I would witness on visitation day telling grown men convicted of felonies that “It’s not your fault.”


Yeah I’m sure it’s not your fault! That person you robbed asked for it, and the cops just threw you in jail because they were picking on you. No big boy it was your fault just as it was mine. I paid for it now so are you. Telling someone that, it’s not their fault; eliminates them from culpability and responsibility. It also precludes them from taking the steps they need to change. Before anyone can change they must believe they can, and telling them they suffer from a disease that they are powerless to change is akin to telling them they’re doomed, and have no hope. Pardon me AA, and NA but you can take that BS and put it somewhere dark and warm.


I see parallels in recidivism rates for convicts and addicts. Those who take accountability for their actions and determine that it is up to them to turn things around usually do. Likewise those who actively seek to remove themselves from the atmosphere that encourages their criminal activity and addictive habits usually kick both. We are who we surround ourselves with. “Show me a man’s friends and I will show you the man,” has never been truer.


Programs like AA don’t seek to address the root issue. Addictions; even in food are about escape and comfort. People turn to drugs, alcohol, and food because it makes them feel better, more secure, and more comfortable. Often times they are trying to escape some sort of dissatisfaction, some trauma, some stress. It’s a coping mechanism. How are you going to cure someone’s addiction if you don’t remove the stimulus that drove them to it in the beginning? You can’t and that’s where most treatment falls short. It’s no different then the problem facing healthcare; we treat symptoms not the disease itself.


Today I work with people trying to lose weight, find their health, and adopt fitness. Though it certainly is a better experience than the badly lit classes in a jail, the psychology remains the same. Just as with the men in jail I have intimate knowledge when it comes to weight-loss. I suffered through my own issues with weight and overcame them. Now I use that experience to help others. Before I can address a person’s food addiction I need to understand why they eat. I know they eat too much or aren’t active enough the evidence is right in front of me. But what’s behind all that? What’s the motivation, the trigger for this destructive behavior? If you’re someone trying to lose weight, begin by looking deeper than just what you see in the mirror.


First understand that you are not powerless. Just as your own habits led you here, new habits will lead you away. You are responsible for enacting those habits and you are responsible for reversing the condition your choices caused. First you have to accept your part in it, recognize that you are here and stop denying it. Now if you want to be fit, you have to live fit. It’s time to remove yourself from the atmosphere that encourages your addictive habits. You don’t literally have to move, but it is time to clean out the pantry of all those bad food characters hiding there. Surround yourself with people who live healthy, not just physically but mentally. You need positive upbeat people in your life, people who believe in change and will support you in yours.


Don’t just treat the symptoms of bad habits; strike at the root of the problem. Accept your part in instituting change then embrace it. No longer are you a victim of circumstance and your environment, you will now make your environment and control the outcome. You can spend your life locked away in the darkness, or you can choose to leave that all behind and come into the light. Either way you are the one responsible for the results.

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