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Anyone who has survived more than a decade or two on this planet has stories to tell. Often, however, people who struggle with addiction never get the opportunity to sit down and tell or write their stories, not even for themselves. All available energy is directed toward surviving. But when a person lands in a halfway house or day-treatment program—whether by force of will or by default, if it’s the place to which that person is sent when the prison doors open, or the easy option when faced with a choice of treatment or incarceration—then, suddenly, there is time to tell the stories that need telling.
As a writer, creativity coach, and social worker, I believe that creative writing, particularly poetry, can be a great recovery strategy. I’ve been leading recovery writing groups at New Choices Recovery Center in Schenectady, New York, for more than a decade. Along the way I became one of John Fox’s “Poetry Partners.” John is the director of the Institute for Poetic Medicine (IPM) in Palo Alto, California, and travels around the world and across the United States to bring “Poetic Medicine” to hospitals, retreat centers, and community programs—places where poetry is not very common.
In late August, with funding provided by Poets &Writers’ Readings & Workshops program, we were able to bring John to New Choices to facilitate poetry immersion workshops for clients in day treatment. Each participant in John’s workshop gets a packet of poems—some by well-known poets, others by participants in previous IPM programs, both children and adults. The poems are relevant and evocative and serve as prompts to inspire participants to create poems of their own.
John has a way of helping poetry “sneak up” on people. He has a gentle but fierce commitment to focusing on the words, whether in a poem he is reading to the group or one that a participant is reading. Everything is read twice, slowly, with time to absorb the impact of the work. This creates an intensity of focus and leads to deep responses. Often folks who never dreamed of writing anything will find the courage to not only write, but also read their work aloud to the group.
On a hot, humid Tuesday morning in August, John visited New Choices, which is housed in a historic building that was once a grand Masonic Temple, to work with two groups of adults who are clients of the addiction day-treatment program there. The theme of the sessions was taken from the title of one of John’s own poems: “When Someone Deeply Listens.”
John created a space of focus and reverence in that cavernous room, where the sounds of traffic three stories below would occasionally intrude. One woman, who tends to be very quiet and not keen to participate in groups, wrote and shared a powerful poem. A young man, new to day treatment, read several of his poems and stated that he never had written a poem before—and had never considered that he might. The effect of poetry on these two participants was evident from their comments (and smiles).
Since John’s visit I have received great feedback from clients and staff. One young man told me that after working with John, he got the courage to request a pass to go out and read his work at a local open mic. Another client, who has been in the program for more than a year, working hard to put her life back together, not just for herself, but for her children, told me that after she heard herself reading her own words in John’s session, she finally realized how far she has come, and that this will help her keep going when she feels impatient or discouraged.
John and I are dedicated to bringing the healing power of poetry to folks who have been struggling with other aspects of life. We want people to experience the elation of creating poetry and sharing it. Thank you to Poets & Writers for helping us to make this possible.
This essay appeared, in slightly different form, on our Readings & Workshops Blog on August 13, 2018. Learn more about Readings & Workshops.
Judith Prest is a poet, photographer, mixed-media artist, and creativity coach. A retired school social worker, she now works part-time at New Choices Recovery Center in Schenectady, New York, where she leads writing and art groups. She lives in upstate New York with her husband and three cats.