Could Recovery Storytelling be considered a “pathway” of recovery? If you’re not comfortable with that terminology, let’s explore how participation in Recovery Storytelling workshops enhances and strengthens individual and community recovery, using creativity to unlock new perspectives about ourselves and helping us build connections inside and outside of recovery.

There are many aspects of the Recovery Storytelling experience that incorporate recovery principles. The shared experience of intimate stories is very powerful and builds connection with others. Vulnerability, honesty, humility, and authenticity are practiced and celebrated. Playfulness, humor, and love are essential. We celebrate our successes and offer acceptance, forgiveness, and amends to our old versions of self. We honor people from our past, even ones we didn’t appreciate at the time. Gratitude is awakened. Curiosity is sparked and an open-minded and willing approach to a new experience draws us out of our comfort zone and into a space of growth. Miracles of healing happen.

Creativity acts as a magical key, bringing us in closer contact with the childlike, playful self who loves to explore, investigate, and try new things. It’s the toddler who pushes every button to see what it does, and the six-year-old who spends an hour in a small patch of woods inspecting every plant and bug they can find, trying to make sense of things and create order. Recovery Storytelling gives us a safe sandbox to play in with others. We can rip our jeans, lose a shoe, and get hopelessly muddy. We can laugh, cry, fail, and make mistakes. The other kids in the sandbox are right there with us, holding the hand sanitizer and offering snacks. We don’t have to explore and learn alone. We are free to change.

“I’ve already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” – Joan Didion

For years I lived inside a box labeled, “Addict/Felon.” I constructed this box over several decades of churning through institutions – treatment programs, homeless shelters, and the criminal justice system. It became the way I defined myself, and society seemed happy to agree. I felt quite comfortable in there. The boundaries, definitions, and self-limiting views of myself made for some pretty solid walls. I lost a definition of myself that existed outside of that paradigm.

After establishing my recovery I began working in recovery advocacy and criminal justice reform. Still limited by this narrow concept of self, I leveraged my dramatic story to highlight flaws in systems and advocate for better treatment and resources. I wanted the world to see people like me not as labels but as humans. I had the best of intentions and did good work. But I’d gotten really stuck in my box.

When I discovered personal narrative storytelling, the way I saw myself began to change. This new art form gave me the permission and power to destroy my box of labels. I awoke to the potential of all the selves I could become by letting go of the old ones. I felt more connected to myself, the people around me, and my larger community. I grew into a more complete person without an empty box to hide in.

Most of us carry around a core belief system about ourselves, a “personal mythology,” and we make a lot of decisions based in these beliefs. We’ve created stories about ourselves and our experiences over a lifetime that help us define and understand ourselves. I have a friend who experienced a bad car accident in his twenties while not wearing a seatbelt. Because he escaped serious injury, he decided he’d always be safer without a seatbelt and has never worn one since. His belief sprang from an emotional response to a traumatic event, and he has not allowed anything to change it in the twenty years since, despite much evidence to the contrary. I relate. I’d grown out of my box in my recovery journey, but I still had a lot of these kinds of beliefs.

Recovery Storytelling gives us a way to question our mythology by revisiting these old events with a fresh perspective. We recognize how the old beliefs may not serve us well anymore, or are simply inaccurate. We use creativity and the group process to peel back those notorious onion layers and shine some light into our dark corners. We unlock ourselves from the old myths and step into a new truth, free to more fully embrace and embody the best version of ourselves today, unbound by the limitations of past versions of ourselves.

We become free to wear our seatbelts.

The group forms bonds quickly and does its own healing work. An environment of mutual trust and vulnerability is created that allows us to witness each other’s awakenings and discoveries. We bring our old selves and stories into the group space, to be celebrated, loved on, or even mourned by others. Recovery Storytelling gives us a safe place to revisit those spaces and selves with kindness, tenderness, love, and forgiveness, and to be truly seen by others, maybe for the first time. We bring light, love, humor, and joy to these old versions of ourselves and we even have a little fun with them. Humor is an amazing tool for healing! Today I can laugh about the surprise of discovering miniature Bob Barker toiletries my first time in jail. Recovery Storytelling has turned that 20-year-old wound into a scar. It doesn’t hurt so much anymore.

We nurture our new, “baby” stories together. We find ways to dig in, pull back and set our own boundaries. We bear witness to the growth of ourselves and our stories, and the connections grow ever stronger. As we come together in a greater acceptance of our past and present selves, we become freer to continue evolving and learning more. We‘re empowered to step outside of the group with our newer selves. We let go of shame and emerge able to share our stories more freely and openly. If someone listening chooses to feel shame about our stories, that’s their problem!

We step into the larger community armed with our new perspectives and empowered to be our truest selves, and in turn we connect with others in a more authentic way. My favorite definition of integrity is, “when my outsides match my insides.” When we’re able to share ourselves from a place of authenticity, we can become more powerful and feel at greater peace with ourselves. We’ve cleared away a lot of the clutter. We continue to evolve, grow, change, and allow ourselves to become the many new selves we strive to be. Our recovery has been deepened and strengthened by the process of rediscovering and re-authoring our own mythology.  With this new, authentic self, we can be ever more effective faces and voices for recovery.

Recovery Storytelling is a powerful tool for advocacy and a pathway of change, growth and recovery. My vision is that we will draw strength from the larger Recovery Storytelling community as we encounter others who speak this new language with us. With alumni groups, advanced classes, story slams and showcases, we will continue to connect and gather together with this shared experience. More and more of us will participate in the workshops, and our voices will rise to make the recovery movement ever stronger. Our stories will reach well beyond our own recovery communities and connect us with the rest of the world, bringing ever more allies to join our mission. We will continue to seek out these growth experiences for ourselves and support others in the process. Recovery Storytelling will become another beautiful thread in our universal tapestry of recovery and community.

In 2017, I enlisted the help of Andrea Lovett, award-winning professional storyteller, teaching artist, and wonderful friend, to help me develop this workshop process. Together, we created the Recovery Storytelling curriculum. She will always be known as the co-founder and original co-creator. Thank you for your gift to recovery, Andrea!

5 Comments

  • Kath Schilling says:

    Am very interested in exploring this further…particularly in terms or racial/social equity as well as histories of prior trauma & how its impact plays out in recovery

    • Hi, Kath! I’m totally with you on that! This process can be applied to many different things. Trauma in particular comes up all the time in the workshops. I’d love to explore more about Recovery Storytelling and both of the things you mentioned!

  • Rick Pacukonas says:

    Well said.
    Storytelling is the conversation that births the conversion. I dare offer a few insights; be careful that you do not confuse mythology with history. I was a drunk and a thief, that is the historical truth, not a myth. Yet, I do not need to remain in that mirrored box, but I must not deny or toss that box, for much of it’s sad truth is the fertilizer for the future. In the telling of our stories our mirrors become windows.
    A true story; when my alcoholic mother came home from her 5th rehab, she brought a plaque that I still have 60 years later. It said “Lord help us to laugh again, but God don’t us ever forget how we cried.” In truth, remembering is the lifeblood of storytelling.
    You have a powerful ministry before you, may God’s grace be with you as you inspire others toward transcendence.

    • Thank you for your comment, Rick! You make a good point. In Recovery Storytelling, we don’t try to change the facts, just our relationship to them and to our old selves. We’re removing some of the shame, blame, and pain without letting go of the lessons and insight they give us. I hope I never forget what it used to be like, so I can hold the gratitude that stems from it close to my heart.

  • Cindy Hamrick says:

    As a worthwhile woman in recovery, this speaks to me. I too, would love to explore this “story telling” more. Love louder than fear =)

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