When you start the process of getting sober, you’ll experience shifts in mind, body, and spirit. If you’re thinking that you might want to seek some professional support to guide you through these changes, that’s a great instinct. A therapist who specializes in addiction and substance misuse can help you identify, manage, and heal addictive behaviors and symptoms of trauma.  

A good addiction specialist can assess where you are in your recovery and help you figure out your best course of treatment moving forward. The path to sobriety is extremely personal, so you’ll want to work with someone who realizes that your needs are unique and wants to help you create an individualized and empowered path to recovery.

A program that feels like you is one of the many advantages of finding a therapist who’s really familiar with the impacts of addiction. We consulted Dr. Kevin Gilliland, Executive Director of Innovation360, an outpatient addiction treatment center in Dallas, for actionable advice.

Dr. Gilliland says that working with an addiction specialist as you navigate out of your substance misuse or addiction can ensure you’re getting the best level of care. “You wouldn’t want your OB/GYN to do your knee surgery, and you wouldn’t want your neurosurgeon delivering your baby,” he says. “We live in an era of specialized healthcare, and most of the time that’s a good thing.”

No single treatment works for everyone, so find someone who thinks broadly about you, your lifestyle, and your goals.

Start With a Trusted Source, or Use a Vetted Resource

Finding a therapist who’s right for you might not be a quick process . But no matter who you are, the right one is out there.

Dr. Gilliland suggests getting a referral from someone you know—preferably someone in healthcare like a physician or nurse—or from other people you know who use addiction specialists in their own active recovery.

And if you don’t have any contacts, you can reach out to the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry for a physician that specializes in addiction treatment or Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is actually a government site. Psychology Today’s “Find a Therapist” feature is another great resource.

But those aren’t the only ways to find the right therapists for you! I personally found my therapist through a Google Search of my area, and we’ve been working together for three years now. Therapists will list on their personal websites that they specialize in working with clients in recovery, and you can also check review sites. Whatever you do, start with the method that feels most comfortable for you.

Make Sure Your Therapist is Properly Qualified

Addiction treatment is a wide field, so Dr. Gilliland emphasizes that you’ll want to be careful that whomever you pick doesn’t mistake personal experience for credentials. A sobriety coach or peer is different from a therapist—and they all have important but separate roles to play. Support from others who share similar experiences and are in recovery can be hugely beneficial. But especially when dealing with mental illness or trauma you’ll likely need additional support from a specialist.

Look for someone with at least a master’s degree or a doctorate in the counseling field, Dr. Gilland says. Consider their education, additional speciality training, and a personality that works with you, too.

Dr. Gilliland adds that it’s easier to look for physicians who have a specialty in addiction than for counselors, as they may be American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) certified, or they may have done an addiction fellowship.

“We don’t really have an addiction certification that spans the entire field,” he says. “So, I would ask them what their experience is in working with addiction, how long have they been treating addictions, and what kinds of professional development they have done to stay current on addiction treatment.”

He says that the types of therapeutic orientation that have been researched and used in the field for decades include approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, group therapy or 12 Step-based meetings, and individual therapy. For some, medication management is also beneficial and should be considered.

Remember that no single treatment works for everyone, so find someone who thinks broadly about you, your lifestyle, and your goals.

When you speak with your potential therapist, make sure that they’ll cover the scope of your life—not just your substance use.

Ask About Addiction Assessments

Along with checking in about qualifications, when you’re initially meeting with a specialist make sure assessments are something they offer. As Dr. Gilliland explains, a therapist adept in the field of addiction knows the areas to assess, the questions to ask, when to press and when to wait, and can help you get connected with other specialists that you might need.   

“This should address how long, how often, and how much has someone been using a substance,” Dr. Gilliland says. “But it should also address the negative consequences of use and the ways in which it has negatively impacted their life.”

Make Sure They’ll Evaluate You as a Whole— Not Just Your Substance Use

Therapy for addictive behavior isn’t just about your substance misuse. To make certain that you’re benefiting, it’s important to talk about what’s going on in your relationships, and the history your family might have with addiction or mental illness. Considering all that information, the clinician can then determine a beginning level of care, like detox, inpatient care, partial hospitalization, outpatient care or some other path. When you speak with your potential therapist, make sure that they’ll cover the scope of your life—not just your substance use.

Dr. Gilliland also adds that equally important is assessing other key areas of a person’s life that are often disrupted, before or because of the addiction. “Areas to cover include other mental health diagnoses, family relationships, work or school, physical health, social life, and community involvement,” he explains. “A good assessment casts a wide net and narrows on the appropriate areas.”

And, of Course, Make Sure You Actually Like Them

You don’t have to be best friends, but having a therapist that you both like and respect is key. You definitely don’t want to work with someone you don’t feel comfortable around or who has an approach to sobriety and recovery that really doesn’t align with your own core belief system.

At the end of the day, the person whom you choose is going to be helping you navigate a totally new way of life, learning and unlearning behaviors and mindsets. So, getting along with them needs to be high on your list of priorities. And keep in mind that you can always call and interview a therapist before you go see them, if fact, you should. Any therapist worth their salt will be happy to accomodate you. You’re also not obligated to keep going with someone, even if you’ve started a few sessions already. (Breaking up with a therapist is a real thing!)

“A good therapist is also mindful of the needs of other family or friends, and laying out what to expect in recovery. Combine that with the type of person that resonates with you,” Dr. Gilliland wisely suggests. “Someone that challenges you to answer difficult questions and presses you to be curious about your life and struggles.”