Addiction Counselling in Narrative Therapy

Addiction Counselling Conceptualised

The founder of Narrative Therapy, Michael White, had an interesting approach for conceptualising the journey for those wishing to free themselves from alcohol and other substance dependencies. White used the analogy of a rite of passage, where the person would go from a separation phase to a liminal phase – where there was a great deal of displacement and confusion – to finally reaching a reincorporation phase, where life without the substance(s) becomes the new norm.

Addiction Counselling as a Process

Many people fail initially in their goal to break free from substance abuse. This can be incredibly disheartening. There is a tendency for many to minimise our successes and maximise our failures. Those who are not immediately able to give up alcohol or other substances can become discouraged and give up on their attempts at freedom. White attempts to get clients to conceptualise freeing themselves from addiction as a process.

Perspectives on Freeing Yourself from Addiction

Few of us would be able to attempt a marathon without rigorous training. If we attempted to do so, we might make it a few kilometers, but would we become despondent and say negative things to ourselves? Likely not, as we know that running a marathon is a significant task and requires training for all but the most advanced atheletes. Comparing to addiction, I have known a couple of people who have given up alcohol “cold turkey”, but in both cases they were told they had months to live if they did not. That is inspiration that most of us wouldn’t want!

Preparing to Free Yourself from Addiction

So, in this conceptualisation, the client realises that preparation and training are required. The finish line may not be reached on the first attempt. There is a lot that supports addiction, from friendship with others also caught in addictive behaviours, to social gatherings that focus on addictive substances. Preparing for a marathon requires getting up earlier in the morning to exercise, changes in diet to meet new energy needs, having appropriate shoes, seeing your doctor to make sure there are no immediate physical risks in you training for a marathon, etc. White’s separation stage involves consideration of what re-enforces addiction and planning for success.

Understanding Your Feelings While Freeing Yourself

The liminal phase is what is to be expected when life has changed dramatically and you are trying to get your footing again. Perhaps you have lost friends who are still addicted to substances, perhaps you don’t know what to do with yourself when you have all of these now free hours that you used to spend drinking or perhaps you are looking for a new focus for your life. This phase is going to be unsettling. You need to be ready for this. Knowing that this is a normal transition will help you get through it.

Celebrating a Life Free From Addiction

Finally, the reincorporation phase arrives when you have started to get settled in a life of being substance free. This is what you have been longing for. You have prepared for this journey and you have struggled through the hills, heat and exhaustion of your marathon of freeing yourself from addiction. There can be a number of ways to celebrate crossing the finish line, including Narrative Therapy’s Definitional Ceremonies.

Perhaps you will want to help others, once you are free?

[While I referenced my Narrative Therapy text in writing this article, White’s original article is (at publication date of this article) available online at]