Writing therapy for addiction recovery

by Eve Whittaker

Young addicts who enter a rehabilitation center to overcome a powerful addiction to substances and/or alcohol are usually introduced to a 12-step program, the kind employed by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Author Anne Fletcher, a specialist in addiction and rehabilitation, however, notes that while these programs have doubtlessly been successful for many, studies show that just 25 to 35 percent of those who attend one AA meeting go on to become active participants. Others may find that the 12-step approach is not for them, yet they are not often told of the many alternative treatment approaches that exist. These approaches include Women for Sobriety (WFS), founded by Jean Kirkpatrick and focusing on healing the emotional causes that may lead to addiction; or SMART Recovery, which uses cognitive-behavioral therapy to recognize triggers for drug/alcohol use, and encourages those recovering to identify and utilize with new ways to respond to these triggers.

Yet another interesting approach involves the use of writing therapy as an adjunct in the treatment of addiction. Writing has been found to help recovering addicts recall and recover from possibly traumatic experiences and to discover different parts of their identity through the creation of fictional characters. Writing can also help those recovering discover a new talent, thereby increasing their sense of self-confidence and give them hope about the future.

Documented benefits of writing

Some of the benefits bestowed by writing on those undergoing therapy include:

  • The ability to express one’s feelings in an immediate manner.
  • A sense of greater control over how much the writer reveals, at what pace, etc. Recovering addicts sometimes complain about feeling ‘pushed’ into revealing more than they are ready to reveal.
  • Less shame: Writing can make one feel anonymous, thereby making it easier to express emotions and recall experiences without the fear of being judged or criticized.
  • Active participation: Writers can feel more confident because through their writing, they are taking an active role in their recovery.
  • Permanence: Writers can look back and note the progress they have made as time passes. They can also identify past situations and experiences that may have led them to relapse.
  • Benefits for therapists: Having a document to consult prior to a therapy session (written by a recovering client) can aid therapists when preparing for sessions.
  • Less anxiety: In an excellent study entitled Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing, one clinical psychiatrist notes “I have found expressive writing to be a useful addition to my repertoire of short-term psychological interventions for people who harm themselves… and for out-patients with stress-related symptoms, anxiety and depression. I use it together with daily mood charts, problem-solving, goal-setting, relaxation, mindfulness, exercise prescription and other interventions…”. In a study published in the journal, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, writing therapy was found to be as efficient as cognitive behavior therapy in lowering levels of ‘intrusive symptoms, depression and state anxiety’ in persons suffering from acute stress disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. Since recovering addicts are forced to face extremely stressful situations as they battle temptation and worry about their future and the effects of their actions on family/friends, writing can form part of an integrated approach to addiction that also values mindfulness-based approaches. Yoga is another popular complementary therapy for the treatment of drug abuse; with its focus on controlled breathing and ‘staying in the moment’, it has been found to lower levels of stress hormone, cortisol; yoga has also been found to battle fatigue. A nutritional regime comprising whole, seasonal foods is likewise a crucial pillar of embracing a healthy lifestyle that promotes both physical and mental well-being. In this sense, writing is just one of many complementary therapies that can address the same problem from various standpoints.
  • Writing has been found to increase the amount of exercise performed in therapy groups: Often, those recovering from addiction are in a poor physical state; the pursuit of an active lifestyle is thus vital if lost strength, flexibility and fitness are to be restored. In addition to encouraging more physical activity, expressive writing has been linked to a host of positive outcomes, including higher grades for college graduates, higher rates of re-employment following a period of unemployment, fewer visits to general practitioners and health centers, and the consumption of a better diet.

Eve Whittaker is a full-time feature writer, as well as an art and photography aficionado. She has written for numerous sites on various topics over the past few years.

Hello, readers!

As the new editor, I wanted to take the time to properly introduce myself. My name is Marissa Matton and I will be in charge of the content for this blog until the end of the Spring 2015 semester.

I am in my first year of the Professional Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. I graduated last spring from UMass Dartmouth with a bachelor’s degree in Writing, Communication & Rhetoric and minor in Literature & Criticism. I have worked in the field of web writing for the past year, and I look forward to this new position.

With your help, my goal for this year is to produce articles on a regular basis. I am eager to work with previous guest writers and I hope to see new writers as well. I encourage any readers who may not think of themselves as writers to try their hand at writing a piece or to contribute by actively commenting.

We are accepting submissions. If you’re interested in writing an entry, please read our guidelines and contact us at cltl@umassd.edu. I look forward to your comments, submissions, and questions!

- Marissa

Is Blogging A Threat to Quality Writing?

Literary expression takes many forms; from short stories to expanded documentation covering myriad subjects.  Throughout history, authors have set themselves apart offering written works as diverse as romantic novels and epic tales of adventure, spanning several volumes.  Within each genre, sub-specialists write in styles running the gamut from concise academic form, to sprawling embellishments of everyday encounters.  Thanks to technology and the proliferation of the World Wide Web, there is a relatively new player on the field, begging the question:  Are bloggers a threat to literary integrity?

Motivation Dictates Value

Before people had pencils and pens, drawings and symbols left on cave walls were effective communication.  So who took responsibility for preserving thoughts in this way?  The cave people skilled at drawing most likely bore much of the burden, but lesser illustrators surely weighed in too.  As communication became more important to society, formalizing language and alphabets, more and more people took up writing as a form of expression.  Early writers were not necessarily highly-skilled. But they wrote anyway, because they could. So the slippery slope of unskilled writers sharing ideas, whether or not they have the slightest clue how to do it properly, is nothing new.

It could even be argued that the same motivation existed for cave drawers as for some of today’s bloggers.  Fame and recognition, the desire to be heard and remembered, are motivators for taking pens to paper, charcoal to cave walls, and most recently, fingertips to keyboards.  What has changed over time is the relative importance of fame, heightened in an information age placing great emphasis on celebrity and adulation.

The evolution of the World Wide Web continues to change the landscape for fame-seekers.  An instant audience, perhaps millions, is a powerful draw for those committed to being noticed.  As a result, many bloggers put the cart before the horse; adding to the blogosphere, before they really have something to say.  Blogging’s greatest threat to quality writing is found among ‘vanity’ blogs, serving only their authors; rather than informative, relevant content shared by capable writers blogging online.

Blog Economics

In addition to personal rewards for bloggers, the practice of sharing online carries cash benefits, once bloggers establish followings.  Unfortunately, poorly written blogs yield returns for bloggers able to draw traffic, in spite of themselves.  When poor content is rewarded with cash, it might appear as though it undermines quality writing, but it may be too soon to judge.

Blogging is an evolving pursuit, subject to corrections as it matures into a long-term phenomenon. And just as competition influences other economic trends, bloggers face free market influences, which may eventually serve to elevate good writing and take incentives away from bloggers spewing drivel.

Purely promotional blog content, disguised as education, is increasingly being called-out for what it is, filtering-out blogs without intrinsic value. Spam gives blogs a bad name, but it also makes legitimate content shine amid the noise.  In other words, bloggers with something meaningful to share will prevail, but only with a firm commitment to high quality content, and perseverance sharing their messages.

Discouraging signs may show themselves in the short-term, but blogging is not a threat to quality writing over the long haul.

 

This guest post is contributed by Rebecca Gray, who writes for Backgroundchecks.org. She welcomes your comments at her email: GrayRebecca14@gmail.com

Could Writing Your Own Story Help You Sort Out Problems?

By Ken Myers

Many people will use literature in order to find solutions to real life problems. Stories involving similar situations have a way of lending insight to problems we face on a daily basis. For those who are unable to adjust to social changes or opposition, reading about them has a way of making emotional and mental connections. Along with reading about these circumstances, could writing your own story help you develop a deeper connection to how you can resolve problems in a healthy way?

First-Person Narrative - Writing in the first person provides the reader with a sense that the story is being told from the individual experiencing the problems. When you read your own material based on true situations, you step outside of yourself and gain a different perspective of your own thoughts. Even if you change the names and places in order to protect others, the entire experience could create understanding beyond what someone else can try to explain to you. Not only are you processing the information from your own point of view, you can then examine yourself as the narrator for the story.

Third-Person Storytelling - One of the most common methods of writing is the use of a third-person point of view. This is when you are telling the story of someone else. This can help you in the same method as mentioned in first-person as you are constructing the story based on your own experiences. Using this method of writing can disassociate you from the situation. However, reading over your own work can put things into perspective based on what your characters perceive. How would each person in your story react to the actions your main character has committed? Are you able to put yourself in their shoes in this manner?

Character Development - One of the hardest parts about writing your story as a form of therapy is the understanding of human emotions within others. You need to have a sense of empathy in order to really give your characters life. While you may think this is absurd, it can greatly help you comprehend the consequences of your actions. Your behavior impacts more than just yourself. Each time you make a decision, everyone around you is affected – and more consequential actions could involve the people around those individuals. It could be a detailed interconnecting web that can alter the lifestyle of so many people.

Honesty - Another difficult aspect of writing your story is the ability to be honest with yourself. You can lie to others if you wish, but you can never lie to yourself. Writing your story in an honest method is the only way to really connect to the issues and make progress towards sorting out your problems. It takes a great deal of courage in order to look inside oneself and realize the problems he or she has. You are the only one that can truly sort out what is going on inside yourself. As long as you are honest with yourself, you could gain a great deal of wisdom to help overcome virtually any situation.

Many people will keep journals of their lives in order to express their emotions about situations throughout any given day. It is one thing to describe a day in this manner, but it’s completely different when you’re telling a tale with a solid plot that you need to address. Even if you don’t plan on showing your writing to everyone, at least keep it for yourself to help reflect on problems you face throughout your life.

 

Ken Myers is a father, husband, and entrepreneur. He has combined his passion for helping families find in-home care with his experience to build a business. Learn more about him by visiting @KenneyMyers on Twitter.

The American Dream in Literature

By Sarrah McGraw

Do Dreams Come True? It depends on the Dream

The greatest thing about the idea of the American dream is that it’s different for everyone. Though it began as an American ideal, it has spread across the world. After all, other nations have visions and ideas of destiny too.

But the question may be asked: What aligns the idea of the “American dream” in the forefront of our thoughts, when it comes to destiny and personal and national advancement? The answer is that it was the first of its kind to be expressly enunciated in written form. The prophetic words written by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence define the contours of that same dream. Phrases such as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” “all men are created equal” and that these same men are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” are words that have formed the American dream into what we know it to be.

 

The American Dream and Literature

Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald have used the idea of the American dream in their famous works.

Twain’s prolific American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, seems smitten by the notion of freedom and what it means for the American dream. For the novel’s protagonist, Huck, the dream is all about freedom of movement without constraints or restrictions. Twain’s work is revolutionary because he envisions Jim the slave as a free person as well. Twain describes Jim as being not only free from physical shackles but free from the prejudices of Southern society.

 

Evolving but not Changing the Dream

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 and was mainly concerned with the commercialization of the American dream. Through Gatsby, the novel’s protagonist, Fitzgerald dreamt of an American society where you “be all you can be.” For Fitzgerald and for the characters in his most famous novel, the American dream comes with an influx of wealth and exorbitance, rendering it devoid of true love and joy.

How Far are we From Realizing the American Dream?

In 1931, James Truslow Adams wrote, “we dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

The stipulation with Adams’ dream is that one’s achievements and abilities are dependent upon various external factors–economic situation, social status, gender, sex, etc. Have we, as a society, given up the idea of the American dream?

The 1776 dream was about America’s future. Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Are we any closer to realizing our forefather’s American Dream? Or is this dream not attainable?

Sarrah Mcgraw is a graduate of University of Pennsylvania with a Master of Science in Criminology. She currently resides in Dayton, Ohio and she regularly contributes to http://www.learninglaw.com.

CLTL Featured on “Writers Who Kill” Blog

The following was written by Shari Randall for the “Writers Who Kill” blog.

By Shari Randall

Can a paperback copy of Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter do what jail cannot – change an offender’s life for the better?
Readers know that books can take us to other worlds, provide entertainment, information, insight, solace. Now there is evidence that literature can also transform the lives of people in the justice system.
Seasonal Wanderer

Seasonal Wanderer

The Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program was created in 1991 by UMass-Dartmouth professor Robert Waxler and his friend, Bob Kane, a judge. Kane was fed up with a “turnstile” justice system that saw the same people commit the same crimes as soon as they walked out the jail door. Waxler was determined to test his belief in the power of literature to reach places inside the minds and hearts of offenders where real change could take place. New studies support Waxler’s hypothesis, showing that among other things, reading helps develop empathy, and that increased empathy can lead to changes in behavior.

The original CLTL program included eight men who had 145 convictions, many of them felony convictions. Waxler wanted to test his program with “tough guys” who would prove that he hadn’t stacked the deck with more highly educated, less dangerous participants. At the end of the program, the tough guys’ recidivism rate was only 19 percent, compared to 45 percent for the general prison population. The results were impressive, but Waxler said that the statistics were not what interested him. He knew the program was working when one young drug dealer told him of his excitement at reading Jack London’sSea Wolf, and how his newfound love of books led him to start reading to his three-year-old daughter.
How does CLTL work? Offenders serve part of their sentence by meeting in small groups to discuss books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Just Listen by Sarah Dessen. These and the other books chosen for the program have characters that face serious choices and issues. The most unique part of CLTL is the participation of members of the legal and law enforcement communities. Participants could find themselves talking about Langston Hughes’ poems with a judge or a probation officer, and a college professor facilitator. By sitting around a table, listening to each other, participants feel valued for their ideas, not judged for their crimes. Participants see each other as human beings, not as statistics or faceless uniforms.
CLTL programs are in place in 14 states and have been adopted in the UK. One longitudinal study of 600 CLTL participants in Massachusetts showed a 60 percent drop in recidivism for those who completed the program and a 16 percent drop for those who did not. In cases where participants reoffended, there was a significant drop in the number and severity of the type of crime committed. These are better results than many more expensive programs, and the program has been particularly effective for juvenile offenders.
With U. S. Bureau of Justice statistics stating that prisoners cost U. S. taxpayers more than $70 billion  and the New York Times reporting that 1 in 100 Americans are currently or have been in the criminal justice system, we need ideas and programs like CLTL.
Compare $70 billion to the cost of a box of paperback books, a facilitator, and an hour a week around a table in a library.
As the CLTL webpage states, literature has the power to transform. Yet, one article I read stated that CLTL has been a “hard sell” to government officials, who doubt the effectiveness of a literature based program.
You have to wonder. Why would states prefer to spend billions on jails instead of buying a few boxes of books?
Is there a book that changed your life?

 

Books that Change Lives

By Billy Mitchell

Ant Jackson

Ant Jackson

I’ve always been under the impression that literature has the power to change the way we think. We always seem to hear people toss around the idea that some piece of art can change lives, yet I’ve always been skeptical of this notion. My way that I understood it, was that while experiencing a piece of art can work to change our lives, it works in conjunction with other factors; almost as a vehicle for the change as opposed to the motivator for change.

But as I think more on this subject, where does the power to change lives exist, if not in our own minds? If a piece of art causes us to think differently, isn’t it, in a sense, changing our life?

Let’s be clear with something. I’m not talking a massive, move-into-the-forest-and-live-off-the-land or suddenly take up an Eastern religion, change. I am not stating that reading a life-changing book means that we have to alter our lives in some large way. I’m talking about smaller—but pronounced—changes that take place in our minds; changes in how we see ourselves, how we see others, how we think about a certain situation or about morality or mortality. These characters’ interactions or these settings or situations that we read about slowly begin to take shape and create meaning within us, if we let them. While it may be too romantic or grandiose to come out and say: “This book changed my life,” it really isn’t that off-base. In fact, I don’t feel it is at all. Because small changes lead to big ones.

I had difficulty coming up with a concise list of books that have changed my life. Because, as I’ve been saying, these changes are not immense. They are small, sometimes miniscule shifts in consciousness. Without reflection, they can go unnoticed.

Without bringing my whole Kindle library into the picture, I’ve included two books that I can confidently say have changed the way I think. I’m sure I’m not alone in these choices.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac
I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.

Some pretty important people have claimed Kerouac’s rambling, methamphetamine- driven scroll has changed their lives. I first read On the Road in high school and I didn’t quite know what to think of it. I knew what I was reading was good (whatever that means) but I didn’t quite understand the magnitude of what was being said.

Lyndsay Dee

Lyndsay Dee

In its most stripped-down sense, On the Road is a novel about a character in the 1950’s who travels across the country. The plot revolves around Sal Paradise, his group of friends and a number of different characters that he meets in his travels in the United States and then in his final journey to Mexico City. Holding the story together is Dean Moriarty, Sal’s delinquent friend, a representation of the Road itself.

What always catches me while reading this book is the definition of “The Road.” During my first read, I thought of it as exactly what it is: a literal representation of a road, a means in which you travel from point A to point B. But “The Road” that is so important to Sal—who, of course, is a fictional representation of Kerouac himself—is really a physical manifestation of a symbol. The Road, “The Holy Road,” is the ability for us to change our way. The Road gives us the freedom to go anywhere and do anything. The road is a means of living, as opposed to merely existing.

I’m not really in the business of recommending books, but if I was, you bet I’d be recommending this one. It may not get you to stand up and hitchhike across the country…but then again, it just might.  

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.

In the movie, “Silver Linings Playbook,” a manic Bradley Cooper has this great scene where he has just finished reading A Farewell to Arms, and proceeds to throw the paperback out the window.

“I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is, guys,” he screams at his parents, the father played by Robert Deniro. “Can’t somebody say, ‘Hey, let’s be positive. Let’s have a good ending to the story?’”

His mother then tells him that he owes them an apology for waking them up at four o’clock in the morning to talk about the ending of a book.

“Mom, I can’t apologize. I’m not gonna apologize for this. You know what I will do? I’ll apologize on behalf of Earnest Hemingway. Because that’s who’s to blame here.”

Eifion

Eifion

I won’t lie. I had a relatively similar reaction to the ending of this novel. Although it has been described as Hemingway’s “bleakest” novel in its depictions of the horrors of war and the soldiers that partake in it, the moments of brightness that come through are what create something memorable. That, as Hemingway says, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” This is the truly amazing sentiment.

I think this aspect of brightness in a novel that is mostly dark is best summed up in a dialogue between Frederic Henry, the protagonist and Catherine Barkley, his nurse and the woman he loves:

“And you’ll always love me, won’t you?”
“Yes.”
“And the rain won’t make any difference?”
“No.”