Residential Settings

Years ago, recovering substance abusers stayed in treatment for one to three years in order to learn how to live without drugs and alcohol; today three months is considered long-term treatment and 28-day programs are the norm. A drama therapist is lucky to get one session per week with clients over four to twelve weeks.

I worked thirteen years in long-term residential treatment program with recovering substance abusers in the Washington, DC area. A drama group of 12-14 residents ran between three and six months. In the beginning weeks, we focused on drama games and improvisation to build group trust, social skills, drama skills (although recovering addicts are already excellent actors – skills honed during their addiction), communication, and understanding, and the idea that we can learn life lessons through metaphor and action.

Later we worked on deeper psychological issues through Psychodrama and Gestalt therapy. One of my favorite success stories involves Henry, an older recovering alcoholic, who revealed during our check-in one day that he was on the verge of being kicked out of the program for “lack of motivation.” He had always participated fully and enthusiastically in drama, so I was surprised. He reported that he never talked in other groups and he wouldn’t work on issues in individual therapy sessions with his primary therapist. When I asked him why, he said, “Well, I hardly know what my feelings are! How can I talk about them?”

“Maybe you can’t talk about them,” I offered, “because you’ve ignored them for so many years that they feel like strangers to you. How would you like to meet them?”

“Sure!” he said, “That would be great!”

He picked four group members to represent four of his feeling and sculpted them in chairs. “Fear” hunched over in his chair looking at the floor, his arms across his chest, protecting himself. “Pain” looked away, afraid to make eye contact. “Sadness” bent over into her lap and covered her face with her hands, as if crying. “Rejection” sat defiantly with his back to Henry.

Henry introduced himself to each Emotion one by one and asked them questions so he could get to know them. As he did, each Emotion came alive and spoke about how much they missed being part of his life. They expressed how deeply they cared for him and that they wanted to help him complete treatment.It was a turning point. Henry began to talk in his other groups and in his individual sessions. He started to acknowledge his feelings, to identify and understand how they related to his

It was a turning point. Henry began to talk in his other groups and in his individual sessions. He started to acknowledge his feelings, to identify and understand how they related to his behavior. He also began to take more risks in revealing secrets and shames he was carrying inside. And because he was able to reveal them, he could let the negative ones go.

The exercise worked for him on a metaphoric level, a practical level, and a relational level. On a metaphoric level he was able to reconnect with emotions he had “cut off” during his addiction; on a practical level, he was able to practice talking “with feeling to another person; on a relational level, he made a deep connection with the group members he chose to play parts in his psychodrama. This then made it easier for him to trust and open up to them and fellow residents in other groups and interactions. The group members learned about their own relationships to the emotions they portrayed, as they gave voice and body to them. They felt more connected to Henry, more connected to themselves, and more connected to each other.

Henry graduated from the program six months later. He proudly and successfully made it through treatment, and members of his family were there to see him “walk across the stage.”

Members of a Drama Therapy Group at Second Genesis perform wearing half masks.
Members of a Drama Therapy Group at Second Genesis perform wearing half masks.

Mask work was an extremely powerful technique for these clients. Sometimes we made half-masks, painted them with designs representing their behaviors or issues, and performed a poem or created a play about “wearing masks” and “being dishonest” in life.

Sometimes we would make full life masks, paint the outside to represent one of the metaphorical, behavioral masks they wore in life, and paint the inside to reveal what they were really feeling. Then they would imagine that the outside mask and the inside mask could come to life and speak. They wrote down the monologue or poem that came from each and we shared them in a dramatic reading for family and friends. Often it was the most honest, revealing work they did their entire time in treatment.


The Mask of the Bully

One woman, who created an outside mask of bullying and intimidation, told me that after she graduated she still kept her mask on display in her home and whenever she felt threatened and, in turn, became threatening to others, she meditated on her mask to remind herself that she doesn’t need to make negative behavior choices, and, in fact, can’t if she is to remain healthy and sober.

© Copyright Sally D. Bailey, Registered Drama Therapist. All Rights Reserved.