Reflections by
Cathy McNeilly

Interviewed: Mar, 2018

From book: Urban Pace: Footsteps

Message from Cathy McNeilly:
Adler University has a real commitment to continuing the pioneering work of Alfred Adler. His work as a theorist and practitioner and his model for working in the community at large—not just with individuals in an office—lives on at the University.
As an Adler graduate, I wanted to give back to the institution in a concrete way by showing students the value of this social responsibility-based training. I attempt to model the openness, empathic listening, and respectful attention that students will need to successfully practice psychology. These characteristics will help them treat clients and succeed in working with colleagues in an increasingly transdisciplinary model of service delivery. As a result, I encourage students to look beyond traditional roles in psychology and commit themselves to social change on a personal, local, and global level.

To start us off, is there anything you’d like to preface to the audience?

I would like students and the general public to think about their attitudes toward people with addictions, and think about the stigma attached to the disorder. We still have a moral model in this country – you need willpower, or you are weak if you become addicted. The truth is, it is a biological disease and we all have the potential to become addicted so we need to encourage compassion and hope to share with those who suffer from the disorder. When I first meet clients struggling with addiction, I began by asking “What is important to you?” and “why do you like drugs?”

What drew you to this field? Any particularly pivotal experiences?

I came to work in addictions almost by accident. I had completed a Masters degree right after college, but got married and raised a family. When my youngest child started to school, I looked around to see what I could do to refresh my skills. I got a CADC (Certified Alcohol & Other Drug Abuse Counselor) certificate. Once I started working with people with addictions, I was so impressed by the strength they had. One of my first positions was working with pregnant women who used drugs and wanted to have healthy children. I wanted to do all I could to help them.

My goal in this field is to reduce stigma on how we treat and think about those with addictions. About 25% of our society is affected. People often think “How could you do something that is hurting you?” However, this is a very complicated human disorder that needs the proper care. Fortunately, there are positive surprises, in our field. I have had clients that I thought would not make it, but have had turnarounds. One of them is now a counselor helping others with addictions.

Are there any approaches you find useful in supporting others in recovery?

One of the great changes in the treatment of addictions in the last decade is the development of a variety of treatment models that are proven to work. Many people believe that addictions can’t be treated because we hear so much about relapse. But addictions are chronic conditions, like diabetes and heart disease. And research suggests that people treated for addiction have better compliance with treatment recommendations than those with diabetes, etc. We also now have medications that can help people on the path to recovery. These are called Medication Assisted Treatments (MAT), though they often work best accompanied by more traditional therapy. I am committed to using Motivational Interviewing as a theory because this model believes that it is “a collaborative conversation style for strengthening a person’s own motivation and commitment to change.”

Cathy McNeilly at interview with Digital TapestriesDo you have a favorite tea or coffee?
I don’t drink much coffee, but I do like teas, mostly green teas. I love the teas that start out looking like dry bulbs but open into flowers in hot water. I can spend a lot of my money on tea, it is a kind of self-care.

Are there any connections between the field of art and psychology?

Yes indeed. Many people with addictive disorders shut down their feelings in order to deal with pain and addiction. It can be very hard to verbalize feelings if you have repressed them for a long time. Art is a way to free feelings and unleash creativity which I believe is important to recovery. Art connects with all aspects of healing, and can take many forms where each person finds their own path to creative expression. This is another path to reach that person.

Do you have any particular forms of art you like to use with clients?

I like to have a variety of materials: legos, crayons, paper, ink, small journals. It helps give clients choices, which gives them a sense of control and responsibility. I consider using art materials from a broad spectrum from painting to furniture; it is about the creative process. Personally I do needle work and embroidery.

What can family and friends do to support those struggling with substances?

This is a challenging question! I do believe people with addictive disorders have to find their own motivation. Family members can encourage steps toward change. But for many, family members living with a person with addiction can result in anxiety and depression. So often the best thing is to take care of themselves and move away from the blaming, yelling, and let some natural consequences happen. Of course. This is easier said than done!

Are there any inspiring moments of awakening you have had with clients?

Yes – there are many! Seeing families reunited, people forgiving themselves. I learned early on that I could not really predict who would do well in recovery, so watching someone do well keeps me going. I always want to keep learning so that I can keep up with clients and do my best to help them.

Who in your life has been most inspirational person to you?

My mother! Mom was truly a renaissance women. She graduated from college before most women even considered going past high school. She was a wonderful wife and mother, but was widowed when I was twelve. So she returned to work to support my brothers, sister and myself. Her passion was science. She taught high school chemistry, microbiology in nursing school, and chemistry and physics in college. She earned two Master’s degrees. She also worked for OSHA in her later years doing inspections for workplace health and safety. She also taught me how to cook, supported my sister through years of dance lessons and my brothers through music lessons. She was a Girl Scout troop leader, and also a painter of great talent. She set a high bar for us and lived to be 91 years old.

Are there any places you like to visit to find moments of peace?

I do find peace and renewal by connecting with the world around me. I don’t have a favorite place, but sitting on my balcony and looking at the park and cemetery across the street grounds me. That may seem weird.

If you had one word to describe life what would it be?

Enduring! This is hard work, addictions are never over.

Do you have any favorite quotes you live by?

Yes — since I practice Motivational Interviewing, both as a form of therapy and way of being with clients, I often think about this quote from Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe:

“If you treat an individual as he is he will stay as he is,
but if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be,
he will become as he ought to be and could be.”
Art canvas hanging at Cathy McNeilly - interview with Digital Tapestries

How do you keep balance in our fast paced society?

This is always a challenge. I like to think I do good self care, but I became very ill last fall because I pushed on at work when I was sick. So I go back to my mom’s example. I love to read and to cook, I do needlework and garden just to move away from my professional identity for a little while.

Years into the future, what would you like your students to take with them?

Compassion, humility and openness to the world.

Thank you for coming…

This interview is from our book Urban Pace: Footsteps.