Financial Planning and Financial Triggers in Recovery
Jan 11, 2024
As tax season approaches, it brings with it the potential for unexpected financial windfalls like tax refunds. That makes this time of year tricky with an often-neglected aspect of addiction recovery: financial planning and its triggers. CleanSlate addiction treatment clinician, Joy Delisle, brings years of expertise in guiding individuals through the complex interplay between financial health and recovery.
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Could you please introduce yourself and explain your path to addiction treatment?
JD: I’m Joy Delisle, Regional Director of Behavioral Health at CleanSlate, where I’ve been for two a half years. I’ve been working with addiction and mental health for over 20 years. My experience has shown me that whenever you work with one, you’re working with the other. My very first internship was actually a 90-day rehab in New York. I then branched out to mental health generally, before returning to addiction treatment. When I first moved to Kentucky, substance use disorder was worse here than it had been in other states where I had worked previously. So that drove me to work in that area, and be able to touch more people. At that time, the model of care in Kentucky was abstinence-based, with IOP [intensive outpatient] as the standard of treatment. I wanted to open doors and let people know that harm reduction is really effective. It was a challenge then, but we’re in a much better place now as it is perceived as a viable treatment option.
What are financial triggers and how might they affect someone in recovery from addiction?
JD: Having extra money is the most common kind of financial trigger. This often occurs with the lump sum people get from income tax returns. When people were in active addiction and they had extra money, it was easy to obtain their drug of choice. So this is a huge trigger because of how the brain works. Even when people are doing well and on the right path in recovery, having extra money can automatically activate those receptors in the brain connected to past behavior. It can be easy to fall back into old habits precisely because this is such a powerful trigger.
How significant is the role of financial planning in the recovery process?
JD: Financial planning in recovery is absolutely significant, because it’s such a huge trigger and one that most people don’t even recognize as a trigger, since it may not come up very often. But we have to address it and come up with a plan ahead of time. We worry about day-to-day triggers, changing people, places and things. But it’s seldom that we actually address this huge financial trigger.
Apart from the financial triggers that come with a lump sum, what are some other kinds of financial challenges that individuals in recovery face?
JD: People usually come to us when they’ve hit rock bottom. They might be homeless or about to be evicted and living in shelters. So it takes time with financial planning to help get to a better place with food, housing, employment and income. So they reach this point, develop financial skills, and then all of sudden have a lump sum with something like a tax refund, and they think “what do we do with this money?”
What we do is have a plan in place. First, we need to make sure we’re catching up on all our debt. Once debt, bills and other necessities are addressed, I emphasize the need to treat themselves. I know that sounds kind of odd, but that’s the thing. Money is an impulse. We’re going to do impulse buys, right? The impulse buys feel good. They’re all these wonderful brain chemicals like dopamine that make us feel happy. So let’s make sure that we’ve got our other financial wants and needs covered, so we can pre-plan what those impulse buys are going to be.
Are there additional strategies that you recommend to handle sudden financial gains without jeopardizing recovery?
JD: If there’s anything left over after you’ve paid your bills and treated yourself, it’s time to start to save. And we can do it in two ways. One way is to pay our bills ahead of time. We think, ‘I know what my rent is going to be. I know what car insurance is going to be.’ And then we can get some stuff paid ahead of time. Then we’ll have some extra money coming in, and we wonder what to do with it. So the second thing is to open a savings account. You always want to have a little cushion in case something happens, like your car breaks down. With that, the recommendation is to open the savings account with a second person—a trusting, recovery support figure—so that both of you have to be present to withdraw money. This prevents impulse withdrawals on rough days.
How do support groups and therapy help with financial planning in recovery?
JD: Let’s start with support groups. They’re particularly helpful when we’re dealing with something like income tax returns, because almost everybody is going to be going through the same thing at the same time. It’s really nice for everybody to be able to work together on a common problem. They can help hold each other accountable, making sure they’re budgeting and preparing. Support groups are phenomenal for this.
With individual therapy, it’s important for people to bring it up with their counselors. Unfortunately a lot of people drop out of treatment, and the tax-return-triggered relapse is not infrequently the reason why.
How does financial planning fit in with addiction and mental health treatment overall?
JD: When we know something is coming up, we prepare in advance. We did it for holidays in recovery. Starting on November 1, we began to work on holiday relapse prevention plans with patients. In anticipation of tax season, the behavioral health staff, starting in January, are proactive with patients in developing financial budgeting plans. Of course, throughout the year CleanSlate care coordinators help patients navigate financial barriers.
What clinical approaches do you apply to financial triggers and in addiction treatment generally?
JD: First and foremost is motivational interviewing. ‘OK, so what are your goals? Your goal is to stay in recovery and do this and that. So when you get this lump sum, if you do this, how will that help you reach your goals?’ Motivational interviewing is really effective, and all our staff is trained in it to some degree.
We also use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help change skewed thought patterns around money. CBT challenges those thought patterns and replaces them with more positive and adaptive thinking patterns in matters of money, budgeting and planning.
Without revealing any identifying details, can you share a success story of someone in recovery who overcame these financial challenges?
JD: I had a patient who struggled especially with money. And so when income tax time came, we had a solid plan in place. The patient had me also involve a family member, who was good recovery support for them. We set up a savings account together, and came up with a really nice plan sorting out wants and needs, catching up on debt, what can be put aside, and what can be paid ahead of time. Come June, this patient was still in treatment, and was actually able to buy a car. This patient was very open about how in the past they never would have gotten here. It was awesome to see them improve their lives, and financial planning was a significant part of that process.
How do you think addiction treatment programs could do a better job addressing the financial aspects of recovery?
JD: Unfortunately many programs don’t bring up financial planning at all. They know what’s going to happen, but they don’t take the steps to prevent it. What we’re doing at CleanSlate is helping our patients come up with a plan to prepare. So my hope is that more places focus on this because it really is a significant part of recovery.
Any final thoughts?
The general takeaway is that you have to have a plan. Planning is key.
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