Ohio State Newark Professor of English Uses Poetry to Help Recovering Addicts
“I swear to you that in forgiveness, I have found a whole new freedom.”
These simple, profound lines were penned by an anonymous Licking County resident charged with felony drug possession. But instead of jail time, the author was offered a chance to work at getting clean — and staying clean — in part, through poetry.
For David Ruderman, PhD, using poetry workshops to help recovering addicts was a natural fit. He developed his workshop, Writing and Rewriting the Self, to help people in recovery gain confidence and meet the daily challenges of staying clean. And when he was contacted by the Licking County Adult Court Services Day Reporting Program (DPR) about bringing his workshop to their clients, he jumped at the chance.
Since early 2018, the associate professor of English at Ohio State Newark has led weekly poetry workshops for scores of individuals in DPR. The choice is theirs. Each DPR client is offered the option of jail time or participation in the program, which also provides job counseling, drug testing, stress management, GED assistance and art therapy classes.
“Most of the participants have struggled with drug addiction for years, mostly heroin, crystal meth and opioids, but occasionally other drugs as well,” said Ruderman. “Many of them seem to be living very close to the edge, often living with family or friends, ‘getting by’ from day to day and week to week.”
In his workshops, group members share experiences and feelings in a non-judgmental space — both giving and receiving positive feedback, noted Ruderman. Participants, usually around 20 in a cohort, vary widely in age. Education level and past exposure to poetry also differ greatly. But he believes that poetry’s intense attention to rhythm, sound patterning and flow make it a perfect medium for this type of work.
“Anyone who listens to the radio has absorbed poetic (metric/lyrical) form and cadence,” said Ruderman. “If they like rap, country, blues — it doesn’t matter. The musicality of poetry often allows for a more direct expression, freeing up thoughts, memories, feelings and images that are often unavailable to conscious thought directly — either too painful or conflicted.”
And although Ruderman does share some literary tools and poetic conventions, he encourages participants to write in whatever form that allows them to get their ideas and feelings out and onto paper.
“It doesn’t have to rhyme, have a fixed rhythm, or make sense — just try to make it real,” Ruderman tells his workshop groups. But more important than his expertise in poetry, Ruderman approaches the DPR clients as an equal, rather than as a university professor. A recovering addict for more than 25 years, he facilitates the group but is quick to remind participants that he is also an addict in recovery.
This allows for intimacy and connectedness to spring up alongside the discomfort and unease that usually accompany early recovery, noted Ruderman. “Unlike in a therapeutic session, I am not on the other side of some invisible line of neuroses, achievement, wellness, awareness or sobriety. As we say in the recovery community, whoever got up the earliest that day is the person who’s been clean the longest.”
Ultimately, Ruderman’s goals for the workshops are that they not only aid in recovery but also build trust in the group and personal self-esteem for participants as well as an appreciation of verse.
“It is beautiful and heartening to watch them grow in confidence and ability, carrying their poetry books with them (they each receive a hard-bound blank ‘moleskin’ book); writing poems that are powerful, direct, raw and immediate; and supporting one another in their self-discovery and in their attempts to stay clean.”
Are the workshops successful? Graduates tell him that they are. Many continue to write, but more importantly for Ruderman, many of them continue to stay clean.
Beginning with a line from Czeslaw Milosz:
I swear there is no wizardry of words
to describe the feelings I endure
not only from addiction
but also my body, mind, and soul
a sense of serenity and peace
I’ve never felt before
every day to
mind, body, and spirit –
more about forgiveness
I swear to you that in forgiveness
I have found a whole new freedom