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.

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Changing Lives through Literature in Action

The following post was written for the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries blog. The personal story that is included, I feel, exemplifies what is at the heart of the Changing Lives through Literature program. The original post can be found here.

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An alternative sentencing program has been reducing recidivism in Massachusetts for over twenty years.  In 1991, UMASS-Dartmouth Literature Professor Robert Waxler, Judge Robert Kane and Probation Officer Wayne St. Pierre started the program called “Changing Lives Through Literature.”  For 12 to 14 weeks, probationers, Judges and probation officers read and discuss six or seven literary works. The program ends with a graduation ceremony in a full courtroom.
 At the twenty year anniversary, the Trial Court participated in a day-long symposium to assess the program’s  impact. Numerous testimonials and studies proving the success of the program have been listed on the CLTL website.
“I was walking through the streets of the city the other night,” a student in Robert Waxler’s class told him once. “It could have been any city, any street, any of us. ‘And I was thinking about Santiago [ in Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea ],’ he continued. ‘I came to a corner where all my old buddies hang out up the street. You know, I’ve been struggling to stay clean for a long time. But I was depressed. So I began to make the turn, to go down that street, back to the old neighborhood. Then I heard him, the old man. It was like listening to his voice. I remembered how he had gone out each day for almost three months without catching a fish. He hadn’t caught anything, but he still got up each morning, tried it again. He must have felt terrible, but he didn’t give up. So I didn’t make the turn that day. Stayed strong. Thanks to the old man. I heard him.’ “
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                                                                               Photo by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

Last May, the Trial Court announced that it will be expanding the program to reach more Courts and more probationers. Herein is “What you need to know about Changing Lives Through Literature.”