Creativity and Recovering from Addiction

Over the past several months I have had the honour of facilitating weekly SMART meetings at Lugar Brae Uniting Church. For the uninitiated, SMART is an acronym for Self- Management Recovery Training. Its purpose is to use a range of cognitive behavioural tools to help participants manage addictive behaviours. SMART functions differently than other models of addiction recovery. Unlike the philosophy underlying Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART seeks to separate the person from the addiction. Step six of AA’s twelve-step program, for example, associate’s addiction with a perceived ‘defect of character.’ The SMART approach instead suggests that the addiction can be understood as a kind of second entity operating within an individual’s life. Given what we now know about the ability of the brain to recalibrate itself with simple retraining exercises (neuroplasticity), it is unsurprising that newer approaches to addiction are changing the old assumptions about how recovery takes place. These comparatively recent developments in neuroscience have given those struggling with addiction new hope that they can manage and even eliminate their unwanted behaviours. Despite its scientific rationale, however, a victory in the battle of addiction cannot be achieved with simple lifestyle or cognitive changes. Such changes may certainly contribute positively toward an individual’s recovery, but for many they do not ultimately address the underlying issues present in the lives and backgrounds of those seeking help.

Having spent some time listening to the stories of those who struggle to manage various disruptive habits in their lives, I have observed that there seem to be two consistent themes that emerge. First, addiction often springs out of past trauma, be it sexual abuse, domestic violence, war, relationship breakdown etc. For those with this background, a reliance on drugs, alcohol or other substances may begin slowly; emerging from the chaos of life not just as a way of numbing pain but as a means through which some form of consistency can be assured. As dysfunctional as it may sound, addictions can often be interpreted as a way for individuals to ground and orientate themselves in a life that has been marked by pain, guilt and distress. The nightly bottle of Scotch, for example, becomes a familiar ritual, and the process of drinking is something looked forward to as anchor which can be relied upon in the tempest of life.

As a heartbreaking case in point, several years ago I worked with a young person who had what I would describe as a particularly severe history of sexual abuse from within his family. At just twenty-one years old, he had already developed an addiction to alcohol and cannabis. He had no education qualifications, was unemployed and in the eyes of a harsh world he would likely be confined to the too-hard basket. His romantic and social relationships were fractured and marked by transience and discord. The memories of his past, he told me, haunted him the most in the evening, and so he used alcohol and drugs in order to send him off to sleep-the only time of his day that wasn’t tainted by shadows. An average day’s drinking would include three bottles of wine- one in the morning before work and the other two during the evening. However, the feeling of being out of it was for him, only part of the allure. The way in which he described the process of preparing alcohol was thoroughly Hemingwayan in its detail and reverence for the so-called art of drinking. It was as if the consumption of booze offered him a reason to live and a skill to be mastered.  As he was unfolding his story I remember thinking how inadequate it so often is to insist that such people simply stop indulging- as if the gift of abstinence can be achieved with a mere assertion of the will. Whilst it is true that many addicts do experience an instantaneous, life-changing moment of redemption, for others it is not so simple. In these cases, the question becomes less about quitting a particular substance and more about finding out an individual’s passions, and then gently leading them to consider an alternate vision for the future based on their interests and longings.

The second theme emerging from the SMART meetings is that most participants have some sort form of creative interest which has lay dormant under the -all-consuming monster of addiction. As a component of therapy, I suggest that actively pursuing these creative interests as an ongoing feature of addiction treatment promotes a deeper respect for life and one’s own potential of self-determination. In other words, the more creative and artistic one can be throughout recovery, the more positive the outcome. The place of arts within the process of recovery is well-attested to and has strong empirical support. Writing in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, art historian and therapist Holly Feen-Calligan describes the place of art in recovery as one of allowing individuals to engage with the spiritual aspects of addiction.[1]Through the use of visual arts and music therapy programs, individuals with addiction struggles were shown to have improved significantly when they were able to express themselves through structured creative activities.

‘Creativity,’ however, should be understood broadly, and not just as relating to those mediums traditionally understood as being ‘art.’ I am convinced that the creative impulse is embedded in all of us, but we each have different areas of interests. The so-called ‘artistic’ quality can manifest itself in all sorts of ways and is really just a reflection of our deepest passions and curiosities. If we take the tame to listen to our inner-voice we can each get in touch with these passions and transform it into some form of creative output- be it music, carpentry, jewellery making etc. Yet it also seems to me that one of the tragedies of life is that as we grow older the world around us squeezes out our imaginative capacities and our self-identity becomes bound up in our practical function and professional roles. Instead of incorporating our creative spirit into our daily life, we are forced to relinquish such ‘indulgences’ in service of the ruthless machine of efficiency that is the modern work place. Yet the suppression of our creative energies is hardly a phenomenon unique to our own ages. In his first work of philosophical reflection, Fredrich Nietzsche mourned the loss of what he referred to as the Dionysian impulse within the world. For Nietzsche, the cosmic order was marked by a struggle between the representative forces of Dionysus and Apollo. Apollo was a major deity within the Olympian pantheon, and Nietzsche understood him as representing order, reason, logic and (ultimately) the suppression of creativity. By way of contrast, Nietzsche extols the god Dionysus for his classical attributes, which include fertility, wine, madness and ecstasy. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche depicts Dionysus as representing chaos, the creative urge and unbridled passion- and it is these qualities (yes, they are interpreted as qualities here!) that are missing in the world.

Written in Germany 1872, the work proposes an alternate way of existing in a world that Nietzsche felt was marked by pessimism and nihilistic meaninglessness. The way to rise above this bleak reality was to become an artist. Nietzsche understood this as the only way in which man can rise above the mediocrity of the everyday and grasp some measure of transcendence. In the suppression of the Dionysian force in the world (for which Nietzsche blamed Socrates and Christianity), each individual finds themselves facing an internal struggle between the order imposed from without and the raw passions and creative potential that lie within. What is needed is to embark on a new journey of self-discovery that had the search for one’s creative voice as the driving force. Nietzsche attests to this when he writes of art as being the ‘highest task and the truly metaphysical activity of this life.’[2]

When it comes to addiction, then, an essential part of the recovery process involves re-awakening the creative spirit within. The battle with addiction must be seen in the context of the whole individual, and not as a mere cognitive distortion leading to chemical dependency. A therapeutic approach that advocates for creative expression will help bring an individual back into contact with the suppressed elements of their own potentiality. Addiction, in whatever form, deprives us of the qualities that make us unique. It numbs and distracts, distorts and destroys. Addiction demands total fidelity and will tolerate no dissention. When entrapped in this maze we quickly lose sight of who we are, what we feel and -most importantly- what it is we truly love and value. Yet by re-engaging with our creative selves, the arduous journey of recovery can be experienced as a way of getting to know ourselves again in a deeper and more spiritual way.


[1] Holly Feen-Calligan, “The Use of Art Therapy in Treatment Programs to Promote Spiritual Recovery from Addiction,” Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, Vol. 12/1 (1955): 46-50.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Douglas Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 17-18.

About Ryan Buesnel

Welcome to my page! I am a writer and musician from Melbourne who enjoys reading philosophy, theology and military history. I am a Ph.D. Candidate through Charles Sturt University, with my thesis exploring the activities of the German State Church during the Third Reich-era.
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