By Jeff Vircoe of Aurora Recovery Centre

NOTE: Dr. Allen Berger provides training for clinical staff, and provides patient lectures for Aurora Recovery Centre

Allen Berger is wandering about the kitchen in a plain black T-shirt and grey sweats. While he talks, the camera shows him chopping veggies, doing a sniff test of a container pulled from the fridge, shrugging and placing it on the cutting board.

You know, just another guy living the COVID life. A husband, a dad. Multi-tasking, prepping his lunch between clients.

Of course, Berger is not just another guy, and the clients he serves are not just ordinary clients. Together, they are fully engaged in a fight to save human lives on the front lines of a battle which has taken an understandable, yet tragic, back seat to the pandemic.

In the field of addiction and recovery, Berger, 69, is a legend. 

Prolific author, recognized expert in family and couples therapy, scholarly doctor and psychotherapist, Allen Berger Ph.D. has been trained and mentored by some of the best in the business. He is probably best known for his development of the concept of emotional sobriety. A level or stage of recovery which moves well beyond abstinence, emotional sobriety is the difference between merely not using substances or unhealthy behaviors and a balanced, responsible, content life.

Berger has made a living researching, developing, training, and speaking about the intricacies of recovery, and is a much-sought-after keynote speaker at behavioral health conferences. With 50 years of abstinence under his own belt, you could say he is the living, breathing, learned embodiment of what recovery can look like.

These days, he is bringing his wisdom to Aurora Recovery Centre, a 70-bed facility near Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has been providing virtual lectures to clients, called patients at Aurora, and training the centre’s clinical staff on his Process Focused Recovery Counseling.

Jeff Vircoe

“It is an approach to recovery counseling that I have developed that is based on principles of Gestalt Experiential psychotherapy, as well as principles of 12 Step recovery and emotional sobriety,” Berger says.

With Aurora being under new management the past 15 months, new president Steve Low and his clinical team has been focused on taking the centre in a direction that incorporates the best of time-tested modalities with newer, more current evidence-based approaches. With an eye on recovery capital and a model known as Recovery Oriented Systems of Care (ROSC), Aurora has been busy combining staples in the treatment industry – individual and group therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, 12 Step and alternate facilitations – with more modern approaches: Dialectic Behavioural Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, EMDR, and trauma-informed care. As well, the centre has elevated family therapy into a major thrust of its integrative philosophy with its New Dawn Family Program.

Bringing Berger into the mix was a natural fit and a big part of where Aurora wants to go.

“They are doing it the right way,” says Berger of Aurora’s progress. “What I mean by that is they are committing resources to train staff. Very few programs, in my opinion, see the importance of pouring resources into the frontline staff. That is where the program meets the road, right? Where a patient meets recovery. You want that saw to be as sharp as it can possibly be.”

Berger’s views on emotional sobriety are at the crux of his training with staff and lectures to patients currently at Aurora. Over Zoom, he is literally and virtually meeting them where they are at and encouraging them up the path to become leaders in the field of addiction treatment.

“I still think the missing piece is emotional sobriety,” he says when asked about what treatment centres need to do to affect better outcomes. “I think people have to learn how to cope with life, instead of expecting life to be what they think it should be. If you don’t embrace that, you are going to be running into trouble all the time. And how do we deal with trouble? Might as well get drunk.”

Teaching the patients and staff about emotional sobriety is asking them to understand the concept of humility, something Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous wrote about in a letter penned in 1956. Wilson called emotional sobriety the next frontier, describing it as real maturity and balance in recovery.

Berger agrees.

“Well, the American Psychological Association has a psychology dictionary, and they define humility as, one, a low focus on self; and two, an accurate, not over- or under-estimated sense of one’s worth and accomplishment; and three, an ability to own one’s mistakes, to own one’s limitations and gaps in knowledge. That’s humility. Those three components,” he says.

“That is the heart of emotional sobriety. If I get that, then I start letting go of my expectations about what I think life is supposed to be. I am no longer able to, in a self-righteous way, impose my ideas of life on you and on life itself. So, now my job is to learn how to cope with life on life’s terms, rather than to expect life to be what I think it should be,” says Berger.

“I like to think about it as owning who we are not. That is a big shift in consciousness.”

That shift is ongoing in the treatment industry as a whole as it becomes more aware of the many paths available to those looking for help.

Berger’s own decades-long training in Gestalt Therapy is all about helping his clients, and Aurora’s members, meet on common ground, get curious about how they ended up in this place, and more importantly, find a way out. He developed his Process Focused Recovery Counseling format and rooted it in the Gestalt.  

“Gestalt has always been distinguished by meeting people where they are at,” says Berger.

“I am looking to activate the person’s healthy self. So, I am more focused on the recovery aspect and not the pathology aspect. I am focused on the assets in a person, not on what is wrong with a person. I am focused on increasing awareness and promoting awareness as a path to healing. So, that is all from Gestalt Therapy and it is incredibly powerful.”

“This is a very intense, experiential approach to treatment that begins where people are at and challenges people to take a look at themselves. Try different things on, experiment, discover new possibilities. It is very powerful.”

As Berger tries to get his message across in these unique times, he says he is hearing from Aurora staff that they are excited by the training and the gift of finding new ways to help those who are in treatment at the centre.

It is all about curiosity and being willing to look at things from a new perspective.

“Part of our work, as counselors, is to help our clients discover that they are not just their addictions. The identification with the addiction, the shame comes from realizing I am not living up to who I think I should be. Well, when people start to really get recovery, they realize that, look, I am not responsible for my addiction, but I am responsible for my recovery. That can be a shame buster. Because what it says is I have a disease. I am also a victim of this thing, but I am also responsible for it. It is a weird duality, isn’t it? But it is an important one, because it gives you enough of a break to be able to feel worthy enough of trying to get well.”

And Allen Berger, the entire Aurora Recovery Centre, its owner, its president, staff and members, are all about self-worth in recovery.