“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.
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.