In 2010, three poets from the east end of Long Island, New York—Maggie Bloomfield, Susan Dingle and I—met at a local open poetry reading. We enjoyed one another’s work, and after the reading, we decided to meet again. When we met a few weeks later, we shared our personal histories and realized how much we had in common. Not only were we all published poets, but we were also all clinical social workers. Most important, we were all in recovery from addictions and/or mental illness
We felt that our stories were important and could be inspiring to individuals still suffering from addiction. We believed that writing had helped us to recover and that it might be a tool that others could use, as well.
Maggie had worked as a director at a recovery center for several years and still had contacts there. We asked if we could do writing workshops for the people who were in the 30-day recovery program. They thought it was a good idea, so the “Poets of Well Being” first took their show on the road.
Today, the audience at our workshops is usually made up of about 40 young adults—and a few much older individuals. Susan starts each session by introducing us as therapists, poets and recovering alcoholics. She talks briefly about using writing as a tool for recovery, a theme we pick up later in the session. She then explains to the audience that we could very easily be sitting where they are now, and invites Maggie and me to tell our stories. When we do this, the audience generally settles down in rapt attention. We finish by reciting a short poem.
We then give the audience a prompt and invite them to write for five minutes. We encourage them to get out of their comfort zones and simply let their pens move across the page. Susan often quips, “How many of you would rather be at the dentist right now instead of writing?” We advise them that they do not have to write a poem. We ask them to try to withhold any self-judgment and just write whatever comes to mind.
The prompts are always positive: Who was the person you most admired growing up? How and when were you the most courageous in your life? What do you believe is your best attribute? Alternatively, we make available the “BMW” option (bitch, moan and whine).
After 10 minutes, many are willing to share what they have written. We ask that they introduce themselves and include at the end that they are now “a writer.”
The writings they share are very often so emotional that they fight back tears while reading. We do, too. Many share their personal stories of loss and regret. In poetry, prose and sometimes rap, they talk about their children, their parents, friends—all of those who have tried to help them, all of whom they have let down. They talk about their struggles in fighting their addictions, how much they want to stay sober or away from the drugs that have taken hold.
After they have shared, we discuss what and how they felt about expressing themselves. The workshop becomes a de-facto group therapy session, with individuals sharing their deepest feelings.
The didactic part of the session comes when we ask the audience to think of ways that writing can help them in their quest for recovery. We write their responses on a large board. They volunteer a variety of answers and, depending on the group, they are usually very willing to share their insights: It’s a way to get your feelings out. It helps you see your real self. It’s a diversion that can affect our impulse to drink or take a drug. It’s a way to build your self-esteem. It helps you to see how far you have come. These are just a few common responses.
If there is time (a session lasts an hour), we give a second prompt. Usually we ask them to “check in with themselves” and write about how they are feeling “right here, right now.”
After the session ends, we stay and talk with members of the audience, asking them about their plans for when they leave the facility, how they are feeling about going back and what happened to encourage them to seek recovery in the first place. We do two sessions per month and, because it is a 30-day program, we often see some people a second time. In the first session, we give a take-home prompt and invite people to write for five minutes a day. Those who do are presented with a signed copy of our book of poetry, The Poets of Well Being.
It has been more than a year since we began the workshop and we have earned a reputation at the center as “the golden girls.” The work is rewarding and inspiring.
Today, it sometimes seems that addiction to drugs and alcohol is becoming the norm in our high schools throughout the country. There are so many contributing factors to this problem and so few successful programs to help youngsters and adults in recovery. Our hope is that writing can provide a conduit to self-expression and creativity that encourages those of us struggling with addiction to value, love and accept ourselves and others.
CalSouthern PsyD learner Nina Yavel is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice working with developmentally disabled children and their families. A published short story writer and poet, she has won awards from numerous organizations, art guilds and literary journals. Her story “The Pinochle Game” was included in Risk Courage and Woman, an award-winning anthology. She expects to complete her degree in 2015, at age 71.