Let the river take me: Learnings from facilitating an at-risk group

I originally wrote this article for Chrysalis, The Journal of Transformative Language Arts (which is currently under maintenance), April 2016 

 

Let the river take me,  a compilation poem

Let the river take me —

Even when it hurts, it breathes with the joy of laughter, undulating.

I choke on life, I’m really here in the world.

I keep trying. I am a survivor.

Manipulate the truth; truth to be heard.

The road to hell is as slow as molasses.

Sometimes it feels like a web of pointlessness — all shit.

I keep trying. I am a survivor.

Let the river take me, to be free.

I’ve come to acknowledge that… my life has been heavily influenced by broken relationships, terrors of my past bad influences or bad teachings from my childhood. Breaking free of the twisted mold of my childhood is no easy task. Knowing, acknowledging, and a desire for change is a beginning. – Grant, “Write to Recover” participant

I can’t deny it: I’ve lived a sheltered existence. I have seen only glimpses of the tougher sides of life – a couple screaming at each other as they walk down my street, an addict sitting in a car on my corner before the dealer’s house was busted, the child at the street fair asking for more free cotton candy because she’s hasn’t eaten all day. 

I’m white, female, educated, and middle-class, and for the past six or seven years I have been facilitating writing groups for white, middle-aged, educated females. I don’t plan it that way, that is the population my workshops seem to appeal to.

But when I tell people that I run therapeutic/self-discovery writing workshops, most often they’ll say, “Oh, have you considered working with  ____?” That blank is always some “at-risk” population: inmates, addicts, problem teens, etc. Unfortunately, these suggestions would fill me with both guilt and fear; guilt because I was afraid. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able relate to those raised or living a different world than me, and that they wouldn’t relate to, or feel safe, around me. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to help them.

Several years ago I was asked to run a writing group for teen moms – girls who were working towards their high school diplomas in an off-campus program while learning to care for their babies. I prepared for the three short sessions I was allotted and called it “Dream Big!”

I asked them to record how they felt at the beginning and end of each session hoping to see–and for them to see–some positive movement forward after an hour of writing (and eating snacks). I asked them what they enjoyed doing and what they dreamed of doing in the future. The responses were variations on the same theme: they were tired, bored, and had no plans beyond teen-hood other than “getting outta here.” I left that first session frustrated and broken-hearted. At home I cried for the apparent hopelessness of their world and for the children they were bringing into that world. But (even more so?) I cried because I didn’t know how to help them. I couldn’t fix them. I had failed.

From that point on, I shied away from “at-risk” populations, focusing on those who sought me out to help them with their writing and well-being. But last year, seven years after my experience with those teenagers, I was asked if I would consider running a writing group at Turning Point, a safe place where those in recovery can go to socialize and support each other, free from the pressures of their addictions. I was nervous, but with more experience under my belt and a desire to help, I said yes.

Having no idea what to expect–who would come and in what state of physical or mental health they’d be–I put together a program based on a curriculum I had previously designed called “Voice Quest: Writing Yourself Home.” The writing prompts follow the theme of a journey, or the mythical Hero’s Quest, and are undefined enough to be open to personal translation. They never specifically refer to recovery or addiction. For example, one of the first prompts is, “I began this journey today…,” and another has the writer ponder who or what they’d like as their guide or traveling companion. Some prompts lead them to reflect on the past, some on the future, and all invite them to see things from a new perspective.

I agreed to show up at the center once a week for ten weeks. The first week no one showed and I sat alone writing in my journal, listening to the laughter and chit-chat of a group in the adjacent room. I felt a bit foolish and disappointed, but I returned the next week. Of the two who showed that week, although she attempted some writing, one was more interested in the cake in the kitchen area, where she eventually disappeared to get a slice. Week three saw three people different people walk through the door, all of them curious but ready to take the work seriously. They wrote, they shared, they came back. By week ten, I had a core group of four with three or four additional periodically joining. I was asked to come back on a regular basis.

The process is simple: I give a prompt, start the timer, and they write. I then ask around the circle who wishes to share, always with the option to pass – which rarely happens – and they read. Some writers write a lot (I’m always surprised how much they can say in five minutes), some write just a sentence or two. The results are as varied as the individuals, but no matter the content, how it affects me emotionally or does (or doesn’t) impress me as a writer, I smile warmly at the reader, say thank you, and move to the next person in the circle.

When I was given a prompt and started writing in this group I’d just start writing whatever was in my head, it didn’t matter what came out. Somehow my insanity started to make sense and without knowing it I began to break down that wall and free myself. Without realizing it I was making progress in important aspects of my life that had become stagnant for ages. – Grant, “Write to Recover” participant

 

And what they write is beautiful. Beautiful in its grittiness, in its sadness, in its honesty, and for a number of them, in its poetic creativity. But most of all it is beautiful in its hopefulness. Beautiful in its looking forward and onward down a road they cannot clearly see but pray they will navigate with strength, self-forgiveness, and for many in the group, the love of God.

I love the journaling, it has given me a new freedom. My brain empowers my pen to write and it makes me feel whole.  – Rhonda, “Write to Recover” participant

 

And so I have learned something over the past few months: No matter the label society has given or what struggles we are facing, we are all human. Those in my writing group at the center are not so different from me just because they happen to be “in recovery,” and my ability or in-ability to relate to any other population doesn’t depend on whether Someone has or hasn’t deemed them to be “at-risk.”

These labels seem unfair, especially when those designated as “at-risk” or “in recovery” are often seen as “bad” or “broken;” it cannot be someone’s entire identity. We are all broken in some way and we all have some bad aspects. No matter where or how we grew up, what experiences we have gone through, we are all “at-risk” –  at risk of being hurt, of making bad decisions, of facing death, of being silenced, of feeling unloved and unappreciated. We are just humans who like everyone else need love, to belong, to contribute, and to feel confident in our abilities. We need the opportunity to see things from a different perspective, allowing our eyes and hearts to open to new and healing personal connections and knowledge.

Further more, we’re all recovering from something. Some do this silently, some openly, some secretly, some shamefully, others with forgiveness and self-love, other with regret and self-loathing. We’re all survivors, we’re all battling something. I say this not in any way to diminish or dismiss anyone else’s experience or struggle; pain, trauma, and grief exist on a spectrum and are relative to each person. Depending on our life’s circumstances we are all more or less rough around the edges. And it is only through compassion and understanding that we might see beyond these edges to the softer center that is in every human being. To see that no one is truly “Other.”

At the recovery center, unlike in other workshops or groups where I open the floor for discussion, I have found I don’t need, and shouldn’t, say anything but “Thank you.” What I might know and what I’ve experienced is of no consequence when they are sharing the depths of their hearts and souls. This group needs–and deserves–only witness. And so, we quietly and respectfully listen to each others’ writings, words, voices. We witness each others’ struggles, pain, strengths, dreams, regrets, hopes, anger… in silence and respect. We hear each other, we hear the stories, we glimpse into each others’ worlds and communicate through our silent listening: I see you.

At the end of the session, I read back to the group phrases which jumped out at me while they were reading. Once back home, I compile these into a poem. For me, this is a fitting symbol of their/our journey as writers and human beings: Each word and phrase is perfect in itself but when grouped into a whole, it becomes a story that many–if not all–can relate to no matter who they are and what their own “at-risk” label might be: addict, teen mom, married dad, divorcee, employee, boss, student, teacher… human being.

Over these past few months, I have learned something else: Creating safe space is my only job. As with any group, any “population,” my job is not to help them; to believe so would be hierarchical self-flattery. Beyond providing guidance, it is my job to “just be,” so, as the beginning poem says, they can let the river of their words take them, to be free. It is my role to bear witness without judgment to the struggles the writer is facing or the road they are on, no matter how different it may look from the one I’m traveling. I am not there to teach anyone anything but to provide them the opportunity and safety to express and learn from their own innate wisdom,  It is my job to listen, to see, and to say, “thank you for being here, I’m glad you are.”

I am able to express myself with the feeling of safety, caring and non-judgment. I am able to open up in the meeting with what I trust is needed for my recovery. – Wendy, “Write to Recover” participant

 

Today, if I were to work with those young mothers I would do things differently. First, I’d request more time so I might gain their trust as someone who was not going to judge them or lecture them. I also wouldn’t name the class, “Dream Big!” I now realize that was the equivalent of telling them what to do. Yes, I do want them to dream big(ger) things for themselves than “getting outta here,” but it is not my place to impose my hopes onto them. Instead I must meet them where they are and to encourage each step they take by witnessing it and listening to their hopes and fears. Today, I wouldn’t talk as much, I would let them tell me what they wanted to write about, the world they know, the things they’ve seen, what they’re afraid of, and what they like to do. I’d give them a prompt then step away until it was time to listen and thank them for sharing their story and for their bravery for doing so.

Over the past seven years, I have learned that through writing, if given time and space and a sense of safety, anyone can begin to find the love, the belonging, the confidence, the ability to see things from a new perspective that is essential to a meaningful life. Through the sharing of stories, of experience, of hurts and pains, of confusions and grief, and joys and dreams, we can begin to understand that underneath it all we all have similar fears and needs. We may be “in recovery” or “at-risk” but we don’t have to recover or risk it alone.

 

More compilation poems using the words of Rhonda, Paul, Grant, David, Jacob, Sarah, and Wendy (not their real names)

This story has yet to see its end

Trying to get out of this body — childhood prison.
No one noticed me
dreaming of ice cream and donuts, dope –
brain food –

kicking my spirits into space.

Uselessness of my imagination,
ideas disintegrate into dust.

Give me a break! Why am I doing this everyday?
It’s all been said before.

But!

I’m letting go of the demons in my head;
stop being who I am and become who I am supposed to be.
I am in control of me.

I feel love, it never left me — there are cracks I can get my fingers into.
This story has yet to see its end;
I’m onto the next right thing:

The best me I can be.

I am strong enough to live through hell

My fear is to melt
Into the status of a nothing.
I’m already quite empty,
There’s just this comfort place inside my head.

Sick people with good intentions
Draw me back into the insanity, where
Behind the smile is a knife,
Under the mean is fear.

Fear’s right in front of me on that
Train back to hell.

I need stilts to boost me into the sky
Where I will not get sucked in.
Thoughts can be redefined —
I can be accountable,
Live without the chase to drugs.

I want to preserve humanity,
Build people, walk with them
Connect with everybody,
To be a part of life, a life with hope.

It’s OK to fail –- but I passed.

The day is here and
I feel strong.
I will find peace and make
Sense out of insanity
In the cracks and crevices of my gray matter.

I keep coming back to the best of me.
There is always something better waiting.
I can give myself a break without breaking myself
Because
I’m strong enough to live through hell.

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4 thoughts on “Let the river take me: Learnings from facilitating an at-risk group

  1. Thank you for sharing, your self, your writing, and your experiences. Your concluding paragraph bears witness to the profound healing power of full-hearted presence. “Over these past few months, I have learned something else: Creating safe space is my only job. As with any group, any “population,” my job is not to help them; to believe so would be hierarchical self-flattery. Beyond providing guidance, it is my job to “just be,” so they, as the beginning poem says, they can let the river of their words take them, to be free. It is my role to bear witness without judgment to the struggles the writer is facing or the road they are on, no matter how different it may look from the one I’m traveling.”

  2. Joanna, thank you–for sharing this wise and beautiful post with us and for the work you do with so many people. You are helping to make the world a better, more compassionate place, one class, one person at a time. As Katherine, above, said, your last paragraph is key to the process of witnessing we can do with journal facilitation.

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