Monday, August 15, 2011

Healing: You've got to play to win

Even my first husband, who suffered from alcoholism to the point of suicide, would have drawn a line between him and the seventeen men and women in my Canton-Potsdam Chemical Dependency Unit workshop (read the first post on this workshop here). Ron would have said he had nothing in common with them. I heard that same line-drawing from one of the participants, who upon hearing that I was an editor, was eager to share some of his poems with me.

“This isn’t court ordered for me or anything,” the poet said. “I’m here to get clean for my wife and kids.” I hoped that would be enough incentive—I noted he left himself off that list. “And the piece I wrote says I used heroin but I didn’t, I used cocaine. I just thought the rhythm in that line benefitted from the sound of ‘a needle in my vein.’”

This guy was tall with big blue eyes and sun-kissed hair and he followed everything I said with great interest, nodding his head and offering insightful comments about work read by others.

I was thrilled to find two poets among the rehabbers in my "Healing Through Writing" workshop. Emma (left), the social worker who hired me, had told me that some of these people would not be willing participants. Although the workshop was a required component in their treatment, some of them may have no inherent interest in writing. Even she didn't really know what to expect, as the arts component in the program was new, and they'd never had a writing workshop before. She warned me that the participants might be so freshly parted from their addictive substance of choice that they’d be physically unable to sit still and pay attention. Which did happen—at one point, Emma gently chastised a man who, in the middle of the workshop, suddenly snapped open a newspaper and held it before his face as if checking sports scores. Gambling is one of the addictions represented here, Emma had told me.

So I wasn't expecting much. A recovering addict I know, an experienced rehabber, suggested I might expect to reach one person. Then, if I connected with two or three, I’d be pleasantly surprised. But I wasn't without hope: Emma said that this was a motivated group.

Any anxiety I felt was immediately relieved as we dove into the first interactive element‚ filling in the drawing above. It's supposed to be a man, but the rehabbers called it a gingerbread man. My questionable visual arts talents aside, this illustration is an effective tool. The man starts out empty. "What goes inside here?" I asked, and the room bounced to life. As participants called out suggestions, I filled them in. Among other things we added a heart, bones, kidneys, and a stomach. “Vomit,” one of them said—okay, that was a new one. I drew some speckles in the midsection, to their delight.

When they had reached the limit of their biological awareness I said, “How about anger. Is there anger in there?” “Hell yes!” I heard. When I asked where I’d put that, one called out, “All over the place!” We added other emotions and then the title, “The Person With Too Much Inside.”

I moved to the next whiteboard and, as the participants called them out, listed the reasons people might want to write. I've given this workshop in many settings and I’m usually thrilled to get five answers; I’ll fill in the few extra needed to illustrate my talking points. So imagine my joy when this crew came up with 17 reasons—so many I had to go back and squish them in, leading to jokes that I didn’t know how to number correctly. This is what they came up with (excuse the cell phone pic):

They really got into this part of the discussion so we lingered there, talking about all the ways writing can help people. I modified the drawing of "The Person With Too Much Inside" to relive some pressure: the opening in his brain lets inspiration in, the opening through his hand lets his feelings and ideas out. After a break I prompted them to do a writing exercise and to my great surprise, all but one of them shared what they wrote. Some of it was quite good.

Even though the workshop exceeded all expectations, I couldn't help myself: my gaze kept drifting to the one non-participant, a guy with heavy lidded eyes who would alternate between nominally paying attention and checking out. In looks and attitude, of all the people in the room, he reminded me most of Ron. He didn’t call out answers. He stared into space when the others wrote. And during the sharing period, when he finally moved his hand and I looked hopefully in his direction, he was pointing to the person on his left, signaling that I should call on his neighbor rather than him.

When the workshop was over, I saw this guy one last time. As I walked to my car I saw him outside smoking. He was petting Strawberry, the unit's therapy dog, as if the animal were the only being capable of loving him and accepting his love. As our lives diverged I wondered if he was going to make it, because in so many ways, this young man was Ron.

Yet this time there would be no suicide drama. I was free to walk away. And as I did so, I was able to smile at him one last time, and say goodbye.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Healing with the Enemy

The young man reads his hastily scrawled words from a spiral notebook. He has soulful eyes, a short, hard body, and bad teeth. In his story he is high and drunk and stealing and crashing two trucks. While he reads he reaches beneath the table to pet Strawberry, the lab mix therapy dog curled up at his feet.

“I was scared and went to the only safe place I could think of—my grandmother’s house,” he reads. “It was there I was arrested for the theft of two vehicles and DUI and a bunch of other stuff I was too messed up to hear.”

The writing prompt I’d asked him to incorporate into his story: “grandmother’s house.” Is that how you would have used it? Not me.

But this is not my milieu. This young man is now out of prison and doing a stint at the Canton-Potsdam Chemical Dependency Unit in Potsdam, NY, where yesterday I gave my “Healing Through Writing” workshop. Previously I’ve given this workshop at libraries and writers’ groups and bereavement groups. None of which bandied about words like: Addiction. Prison. Court-ordered rehab. Heroin. Cocaine. Relapse. Escape.

I tried to pretend this was just another workshop. "Healing Through Writing" has always worked its magic before, and I prayed it would do so again. But somewhere deep inside I felt I was crossing enemy lines. For a good eight years after my first husband Ron committed suicide, I’d explain gently to my children (and anyone else who would ask) that Daddy was sick with a disease that had eaten him up from the inside out. I was speaking from my head, through the filter of obtained knowledge. Even my heart wanted to jump on board. But inside my muscles and bones, I held tight to my anger that he would choose alcohol over our children and me. I released that anger, slowly, through my writing.

In any other setting, I would have been afraid of this young man, who told me he writes so that he won’t beat up on people with his fists. Except here in Potsdam workshop, there's a difference: during the break he came up to show me his poetry. It contained sweet, sensitive, insightful musings on life and death—the same kind of stuff I like to write about. I told him his writing moved me. "You have to do something to pass the time in prison," he said, telling me that when he wasn't writing he was reading and re-reading books obtained through the black market.

He told me he writes as if speaking to his best friend, who was killed in a car crash by an erratic driver three years ago. The young man was to pick up his friend that night; instead, he went to get high. This odd fact may have saved his life, and he has some survivor guilt. “But he’s always with me,” the young man said. He shyly rotated his forearm to show me his friend’s name, tattooed on the white vulnerable skin of his forearm.

I asked him if he had hope. Without missing a beat, he said, “Every day. And I’m going to work on my poetry even more when I get to the halfway house.”

Everyone has a story, and if willing to share it, you can find common ground. That’s what I love about these workshops.

I’ll share more about this amazing experience in my next post. For now, I’ll leave you with this:

I just conducted a Google image search for “Canton-Potsdam Chemical Dependency” to try to find a picture to accompany this post—and while scrolling through the images, on page four, I found the picture of Ron and me “torn asunder” that I created for a previous post. Why would it be there, I wondered—“chemical dependency” wasn’t even a keyword phrase associated with that post. Then, on page five, I found my headshot. When I put the cursor over my face, it said, "Healing Through Writing."

Maybe Google knew something I didn’t. Maybe I was right where I belonged.