Creative Writing as Addiction Therapy

Creative Writing as Addiction Therapy –  an article by Jennifer Bowden

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The nature of addiction has been debated for as long as addiction has been recognised.  Addiction has been viewed as weakness, mental illness, physical illness, crime and a symptom of past trauma. It is now understood that addiction occurs when a substance – or indeed behaviour – leads to a pleasure reward when neurotransmitters in the brain are triggered. The person involved repeats the action to repeat the reward, soon a tolerance for the substance is acquired and more must be taken to keep receiving the reward. Eventually the substance no longer gives any pleasure but the addict keeps taking it in order to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.  Even with this much knowledge there is much about addiction which remains mysterious; it is not possible to accurately judge who, from a group of people, are likely to become addicted. No one knows what makes one person more vulnerable to addiction than another. It seems likely that the reasons behind a person’s addiction are as complicated and individual as the person themselves, and that being true, it also seems likely that the routes out of addiction may well be equally diverse. The traditional treatments are useful in many cases however there are a wide number of newer, alternative therapies also available. Some of these therapies make use of the healing power of creative writing in its different forms. Creative writing can be an effective and potent therapy, enabling addicts to face their demons and come to terms with their past lives, thereby clearing the way for them to move forward out of addiction.

Traditional Addiction Treatment

Traditionally there are two main approaches to treating substance addiction, both of which are helpful for many people. The first is detoxification, which involves a medical professional administering an alternative to the substance, in order to avoid, or minimise, withdrawal symptoms. One common example of detox is the use of methadone to assist heroin addicts. The other traditional treatment is rehabilitation, usually involving an inpatient stay at a clinic or treatment centre. The benefit of this is that addicts are monitored and removed from the lifestyle which may have contributed to the addiction initially. Many secondary treatments can be offered during rehab, including one on one and group therapies; the intent being to re-educate the addict while helping them physically give up the substance. Many addicts try to quit their addiction alone, however, given that the very nature of addiction is an involuntary behaviour, this approach is difficult and has poor success rates. Some addicts do find it possible to quit alone, especially if a change in situation motivates them, however many others find it impossible to give up their habit without help or may give up for a short time and then slip back into their addiction.

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The Use of Creative Writing Therapy

Although traditional treatments for addiction are respected and often successful, there is also a constantly expanding range of alternative therapies which can stand with detox and rehab to aid an addict’s recovery. A number of these therapies involve the use of creative writing to help addicts leave their destructive behaviour behind. Creative writing can help individuals get in touch with their feelings, and face painful memories and unpleasant truths. It enables people to express their fears, anger, pain and regret, creating the possibility for self-forgiveness and healing. Many addicts have turned to the pleasure associated with substance abuse due to painful and damaging situations in their lives; most addicts have, through their addiction behaved in ways which have hurt themselves and those closest to them. The negative feelings caused by these things can build barriers in an addict’s mind which prevents them moving forward towards healing. The strength of creative writing is that it can allow that barrier to be breached in a powerful but non-threatening way, which can be profoundly moving.

Creative writing therapy can be used in many different ways. Addicts are sometimes asked to write letters to individuals who have been affected by their addiction, or to their younger selves; forgiving, blaming, expressing their feelings. Journals can be used in a positive way to enable addicts to put their emotions down onto paper; this can be very freeing and also creates a history which may help the individual spot patterns or triggers in themselves which push them towards using their substance. Journals can serve as a trusted friend and allow the addict to express damaging or unpleasant thoughts without fearing judgement or disdain.

Poetry is another area in which creative writing is used to help fight addiction. Poetry therapy is an established treatment for a range of issues, including substance addiction.  Poetry therapy sessions will vary but they commonly contain a range of activities, including the reading and responding to a chosen poem or song. Poetry is incredibly personal and helping people find their own authentic reaction to someone else’s words can open them emotionally to their own feelings. This can lead to a creative writing element where addicts use their own words, creating poetry which is as individual as they are and which expresses their own stories. The feelings generated may help them to face truths which they had not previously considered and by doing so lead the way to a brighter future, free from substance abuse.

These alternative therapies are usually part of a wider range of treatment which may include both detox and rehab; however they are no less important or effective than the traditional treatments. As there are still so many unknowns surrounding the issue of addiction and so much about a person’s addiction which is deeply individual, so the use of creative writing can only help the addict to find their own answers and aid them on their way to freedom. 


blog by jennifer bowden


2 thoughts on “Creative Writing as Addiction Therapy

  1. Reblogged this on Carolyn Pajestka and commented:
    Bowden wonderfully described the benefits of writing in addiction treatment. However, it was surprising this was described as an “alternative” to traditional therapy. In my observations, writing and the use of journals are routinely incorporated into treatment… from AA meetings to acute stabilization to residential settings.

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