CREATIVE WRITING TO INSPIRE RECOVERY
Just as art and drama therapy have been proven to be effective as part of a recovery programme, so many clients can benefit from the therapeutic effects of writing – FIONA FRIEND pens a guide.
This article first appeared in Addiction Today 106, May 2007.
Many clients in recovery from addictions are highly creative and benefit from creative techniques incorporated into their formal treatment programme. This article describes how groups can run and shares feedback from clients who have used them.
Writing as tool for recovery.
I have always found writing immensely therapeutic. Then, six years ago, I discovered Gillie Bolton’s books on therapeutic writing, after which I attended Lapidus courses, which aim to promote healing and personal growth through writing and reading. I was determined to put the theory into practice in my work with recovering clients.
I was lucky to have received funding initially from Addaction and South East Arts, then to be encouraged by both the Kenward Trust and Prinsted to develop the work. The creative writing groups I run now are part of the latter’s second-stage 12-step based residential treatment.
Prinsted clients are generally more articulate and highly educated than clients at the two-day programmes where I worked in Crawley and Tonbridge. But in a great many respects they are very similar in terms of attitudes, likes and dislikes. All three groups have been highly creative and imaginative in terms of work produced.
To monitor our work, we carried out a very small-scale survey among the residential and aftercare groups at Prinsted about their experiences of creative writing while they were in treatment. The results are on page 52.
Friday afternoon fun…
The Prinsted group varies in number from about eight to 13, which is slightly large for a writing group. We were able to work with it because many of the group had already been attending for some months. Alice Owens had run the group for over a year before I joined the team.
The creative-writing group takes place on a Friday afternoon at 3.30pm. After a week of group therapy, yoga, keep fit, gym, household duties, one-to-one counselling and voluntary work, the clients are usually very tired. So I was initially somewhat apprehensive about the timing! However, they feel that the writing group is very different to all the other activities and a good way of easing into the weekend, so we can use the timing to our advantage. One person said “it helped me unwind from the long week” and another “it is nice to have on a Friday afternoon”.
Half of the first-ever group was taken up with establishing boundaries. This is a very important part of creating trust with the facilitator and reassuring the group members about expectations. Many of the group might have had negative memories of school or criticisms of their writing abilities. So it was important to establish the boundary that qualitative judgments would not be made unless they were positive and encouraging. Another boundary was that the groups would not be about writing essays!
An essential aspect of second-stage treatment is learning to take responsibility. We accordingly wrote our own set of group guidelines, which we periodically review and adjust. These include that group members should be encouraged to read out their writing where possible, that they have to give permission before it can be shown to the counselling team, and they should not preface their reading with negative comments.
We also negotiated a short break of 10 minutes in the middle of the hour-and-a-half group, and agreed that no one should criticise anyone else’s work.
We agreed to start the group with reading out the list of guidelines and closing it with the ‘serenity prayer’ in line with other therapy groups run at Prinsted.
…is also an important part of the group and one that most enjoy. Pebbles, feathers, objects from nature and postcards are all regularly used in both creative writing groups and in therapy. In our group, we use them regularly as prompts for writing and often run the session on a theme – so it could be the seaside with a selection of seaside objects and pictures and wave music, or a journey with games and writing exercises based around a journey.
Hats create characters.
Likewise, “dressing up’” can be hugely enjoyable. At a recent group with a young (18-35ish) group of clients, I brought in a choice of hats, which we used for role-play, creating characters and writing about their imaginary selves in the hats.
With the exception of two clients (who were more introspective that afternoon), they all really enjoyed ‘putting on hats’. They entered into the spirit of the exercise, putting themselves in another’s metaphorical shoes – or hat – with great gusto and empathy.
Introducing ‘warm up’ group exercises and games to bring in the element of fun and play is also important. The clients seem to appreciate this aspect of the group and often request a particular game.
Improving self esteem.
Positive feedback from the facilitator and from other clients can be so beneficial to this client group as they often lack self-esteem and self worth. Discovering or rediscovering their creative talent and potential for writing or using their imagination can be extremely empowering and an immensely positive force in recovery.
Prinsted clients’ comments included: “ It is a different activity which is really helpful to help me see what my creativity has to offer that day” and “the work I did round my Dad might be the best work I have done”. Another wrote “It provides me with a much-needed outlet. It is also beneficial for my self esteem when I am occasionally surprised by what I write”. One said “I love writing and realised from this group I have a talent”.
It is rewarding to work with a client group who are so open to ideas, so willing to trust and to share their writing, their emotions and thoughts. Seeing them change and develop their potential is a privilege.
What do the clients think of the Creative Writing Group?
The following are the results from 10 clients at Prinsted’s second-stage and aftercare groups who responded to the survey (anonymously).
1. Did you find the writing group therapeutic?
100% of the participants said “yes”.
2. If you did, in what way (please be specific)?
Answers ranged from “expressing myself as I have not done in years” to “It is almost like a release, being asked to put on paper how I truly feel about me, life, whatever” to “Writing past experiences and finding perspective on it allowed others in the group to see my perspective on the world, which in turn helped me to understand myself better”.
3. Were you initially sceptical about it?
70% admitted “yes”, 30% were not.
4. Do you think writing can help you in your recovery?
Yes: 90% One: “Not sure yet, too early to tell”. One commented “Yes, it is and effective and enjoyable way to express and release my emotions creatively. Another replied “Yes, if I can discipline myself to do it; I think it is valuable to look back over work and see where I was at during different parts of my recovery”.
5. What parts of the group did you most/least enjoy on a scale of 1-10 (0= not 10+ very much so): Games 1-10, writing exercises 1-10, music and relaxation 1-10, using props (pebbles/hats etc) 1-10. hearing others’ work 1-10.
Answers to this varied widely as we might expect. Two participants rated hearing others’ work at 10 and one at -3, which was interesting in itself. Similarly, the enjoyment rating of games ranged from 9 by two clients to -5 by one person! They all highly rated the music and relaxation and writing exercises.
6. Would you recommend creative writing groups to other people in treatment?
100% of the participants said “yes”. Comments ranged from “definitely, because it helped me so much to release my thoughts and feelings” to “Yes: it is surprising what you find out about yourself in a seemingly meaningless piece of writing” and “Yes, give it a go – you might be pleasantly surprised”.
Ed. Bolton, Howlett, Lago and Wright: Writing Cures, An introductory handbook of writing in counselling and psychotherapy. Published by Brunner-Routledge 2004.
Bolton, GJ: The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing: Writing Myself. Published by Jessica Kingsley 2000.
Bolton, G: Reflective Practice, Writing and Professional Development. Published by Paul Chapman.
Chavis/Wesberger: The Healing Fountain, Poetry Therapy for life’s Journey. Published by North Star Press 2003.
Hynes/Hynes-Berry Biblio: Poetry Therapy, The Interactive Process: A Handbook. Published by North Star Press 1994.
Fiona Friend is a qualified groupworker at Prinsted in Surrey, where she runs a weekly creative writing group. She has worked in the drug- and alcohol-treatment field for over five years, having worked at Addaction in Crawley and at the Wealden Day Centre for the Kenward Trust.