The Space Between Stimulus and Response

Reflections on addictions counseling and creating change

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.” -Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977


         I grew up in a household where I witnessed very little substance use— my mother did not smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or use any other illicit or prescribed substances. I suppose I learned about alcohol and other drugs through D.A.R.E in elementary school, and at that time I thought they were dangerous. My brother, 7 years older, was a recreational user of marijuana and alcohol, and he smoked cigarettes in his teens through mid adulthood. At a young age, I recall “ratting” him out to my mom for having marijuana (found while snooping in his room)… He gave me my first beer as a young teenager. I drank it eagerly, impressed that he would include me in a custom he shared with his friends, though it left the room spinning. As a teenager, I can recall wanting to have the pleasurable altered state of consciousness achieved through substance use. I cannot recall how I heard about these effects. I recall the desire to rebel and to have the experience of being intoxicated more than the desire to fit in with peers. In fact, I had friends that never used any mind-altering substances. I experimented a little, but always feared losing control or jeopardizing my health. These fears deterred me from experimenting with most substances. This interests me because many of my clients coping with substance use report debilitating anxiety, and yet it is not the sort that stops them from taking risks with respect to their use.

         My view of substance abuse is somewhat different now. I still understand wanting the experiences of drug experimentation, and I do not have a problem with people who choose to use safely in moderation (not everyone can do this, of course). And actually I sometimes wish I had experimented a little more, so I could relate better to my clients. But fundamentally I realize I don’t need to have matched their highs to understand them. We relate instead through shared feelings and shared human experiences, which for them underlie use.

         I take substance use more seriously now. In my work, I have witnessed substances do harm to so many people; use has cost them jobs, homes, friends, family, and their lives. Being confronted with the risks of use daily makes the idea of using and witnessing others use less entertaining. I realize now that many people will use in college or high school, just like their peers, and yet their peers will stop experimenting, stop partying, and these individuals will go on to ruin their lives through use. Many people do not know how they are predisposed to use through learning and genetics, until they are hooked. Even “experimentation” is risky for those who are predisposed. With the exception of occasional instances when I have been surprised by the risks my clients have taken to use, I have never encountered an instance where I have judged my clients for making the choices I did not make. I believe everyone has their own path, there own tasks to learn, and I recognize that I have made many mistakes and not always lived well, despite not having developed a debilitating addiction.

         I also truly believe, and always have, that people can live rich lives without any mood-altering substances. Other than school drug education, no one close to me ever advised me about use or pressured me into using. Yet I think advisement can be subtle; people in my family modeled that we could feel feelings safely and that we did need substances to cope, and my social circle modeled that people can enjoy themselves without using. And for these influences I am grateful.

6 thoughts on ““Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.” -Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977

  1. Hey! Awesome post! I agree that there is a lot of subtle messages through the media encouraging the public to engage in drug and alcohol use. I think everyone is able to make their own decisions but if you are unsure about who you are, you might be more vulnerable to these messages.

    I think a life without drugs and alcohol is do-able. For some, there is an association with using substances in their social life which is fine in moderation. I think alcohol and legal drug use should enhance your life, not take it over.

    Thanks for posting!

    • Thanks for your reply, Jennifer!

      I love your insight that development of yourself and knowing yourself– core values, interests may combat vulnerability to subtle and not-so-subtle messages about using.

      Take care, Meg

  2. Meg, I really enjoyed reading your blog this week. I think that no matter the education we receive from our parents, school and friends at the end of the day we make our own choices. I myself have never tried drugs, but I like how you mention that maybe knowing how it feels, can help us understand our clients better. I can be emphatic and understanding, but there are certain things I probably have more trouble understanding.
    I like how you mention that all of us are capable of living rich lives and experiences without any mood altering substances. Especially for adolescents, I think there is a myth that if you don’t experience with drugs and alcohol you are stupid, or a coward. Sometimes there is so much social and peer pressure that young people get lost and end up doing things that maybe they were not sure they wanted. I think education, both at home and school are important, but it is also important for people to learn to make their own decisions and be responsible of what they do. It is not an easy thing to do, especially when you want to feel accepted in a group and sometimes adolescents end up committing big mistakes because they are not able to say no.
    Thanks for your reflection.

    • Hi Virginia,

      Thanks so much for checking out my post, and for your thoughtful reply. I love how you emphasize personal choice and responsibility. It is empowering to learn that we do not simply have to be the products of our up-bringings or social context! Thanks also for mentioning how difficult it can be for adolescents not to use. There is an athlete in recovery who discusses his experience speaking to students in the documentary on addiction, Anonymous People. He says that 4 girls wore purple t-shirts to one of his high-school talks to signify their commitment to abstinence. He said that nearly the entire school laughed at them for their beliefs when they spoke of their commitment during his talk. He was horrified, and his description of this event broke my heart (though the documentary is good, thought-provoking). I can only imagine the courage it took for those girls to stand up for what they believed in. The messages about using are so strong as a time when young people are so impressionable. So tough!

      I’ve so enjoyed getting to know you this semester. Thanks for your insights. I truly hope we can stay in touch! 🙂 Meg

  3. Meg,

    Great post! Very informative.

    I wanted to thank you for your insight on my blog throughout the semester. Also, thank you for sharing your experiences as well on my blog. I was enlightened by your comments and posts throughout the semester. Most importantly, thank you for just taking the time to read my blog.

    I know you will continue to be an asset to our field. Hopefully we will see each other in another course. If not, I know you will do great in the rest of your studies.


    • Hi Adam,

      I truly enjoyed reading your posts because you were so open and honest. (What a tremendous skill that is for a clinician!)

      So enjoyed getting to know you through your posts! Wishing you a smooth fall semester, Meg

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