Recovering Words

The Healing Power of Poetry in Addiction Recovery

“Writing poetry is the best way I know of untying the knot of obsession. It’s cheaper than therapy and better for you then getting drunk.”
Gwyneth Lewis, Poetry Book Society Bulletin

“Writing poetry together heals loneliness. What is true for someone on the deepest level is often true for us all. Reading a poem aloud and listening to the poems of others can heal the alienation which is so much a part of our world…..Poetry wears no mask. In taking off the masks we have worn to be safe, to protect ourselves, to win approval, we becomes less vulnerable. Less alone. Our pain becomes just pain. It is no longer suffering.”
Rachel Naomi Remen M.D., Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal

“Writing and reading poems is a way of seeing and naming where we have been, where we are and where we are going with our lives. Poetry provides guidance, revealing what you did not know you knew before you wrote or read the poem. This moment of surprising yourself with your own words of wisdom  or of being surprised by the poems of others is at the heart of poetry as healer.”
John Fox, Poetic Medicine – The Healing Art of Poem-Making

“Whenever we shape our disorder into poetry or song, we’ve taken control of what had the power to control or overwhelm us.”
Gregory Orr, The Writer’s Chronicle

Since 2007 recovering addicts in alcohol and drug recovery centers in coastal B.C. have experienced the transforming power of words – their own. Led by Richard Osler, poet, and workshop facilitator, many men and women have been profoundly influenced by these writing workshops. In particular their writing, regardless of previous creative writing experience, has added to their own self-understanding in unexpected ways and supported their on-going recovery. In a recent workshop in 2013 a recovering addict said:  This isn’t about poetry, it’s about what it is to be human. Precisely, but in that sense it’s all about poetry! Poetry is the compact delivery system for what many consider is the best expression of what it is to live here, as a human with consciousness, on this planet

Osler, 72, draws on his own experiences with addiction in his family, and his own life journey as a money manager (now retired), poet and on-the-ground observer of war-ravaged areas of Africa, to create a richly creative context for healing and recovery.

Osler’s workshops prove this: words matter; words can change lives in recovery. How is this possible? It is possible because poetry picks the lock of the persona. Thoughts, feelings, images, often long buried, appear on the page as if written by someone else’s hand.

Using the extraordinary resource of contemporary poetry the Recovering Words workshops introduce recovering addicts to poems that speak to their lives, their circumstances. Using poems written by published poets, some with backgrounds with addictions, others not, the words of these poems strike home. Poets pay attention. They are experts of our world, of our human hearts. It is their voices that begin the conversation in the recovery centre meeting rooms. Time and distance shrinks. Workshop participants are inspired to write their words. Tell their own stories. And to stand up and share their creative words with each other.

Many people have never shared deep and intimate words with themselves let alone with twenty others or more in a room. But when this happens the shared space becomes sacred space. Men and women, some just a few days off their addictive substances of choice, begin to lean forward in their chairs. They volunteer to be the next to read; listen to the others as if their lives depend on it and somehow, when their turn comes, almost always find the courage to read their poem. And not just once but twice.

Patrick Lane, the celebrated Canadian poet, writer and recovering alcoholic describes his addicted days in his poem Half-Hearted Moon. “….you might think it hard, / the part about Moon./ But she is here and she is stoned/ and she’s paid nothing for the trip./ She will. / The dark will come soon and eat her alive.”

Jimmy Santiago Baca, the Hispanic-American poet, recovering addict and former inmate of a maximum security prison tells his story. He is in a life or death fight in prison, he stands triumphant and in a blood-rage over his opponent with a knife in his hand. As he starts the killing stroke he hears the voices of two great poets Neruda and Lorca “praising life as sacred and challenging [him]: How can you kill and still be a poet?” He drops the knife.

Christopher Locke says “There are no more highs/ exquisite lows. There are / no more evenings collapsing / into morning, the horizon / rolling up its sleeve/ to bleed pink and red / against the kitchen window.”

Mary Oliver asks “Tell me, what is your plan to do/ With your one wild and precious life?”

These and many other voices provide the poetic springboard for each workshop participant to reply with the authentic poetry of their own lives. They begin to write and somehow discover that a poem is writing them. That somehow the edge of their fingers, holding a pen, is full of words they didn’t know were theirs, words of deep truth just waiting, in many cases for years, to be told; to come out of hiding and remind their writer who they are.

Richard Osler, a retired money manager, writes poetry as much as he can, leads weekend poetry retreats and poetry workshops in recovery centers. He can be contacted at or (604) 836.7875

“Richard Osler has been leading poetry “workshops” for our inpatient population and family members for the past year.  The time Richard spends on our campus is always a treatment highlight for all those who participate.  Richard has a magical way of engaging everyone in his passion – poetry!

His ability to guide people out of their comfort zones and to do and appreciate something that was completely alien to them provides for a powerful therapeutic experience.

His poetry sessions are a grand experience involving the possibilities of recovery – with the support of “fellowship” everyone comes to an understanding that they, in fact, can do things they thought they never could – and survive , and enjoy.

Richard provides a tremendous value to all of us each time he visits with his remarkable talent, I only wish we could have him at Cedars more often.”

Neal Berger
Executive Director
Cedars at Cobble Hill

“In working with a very vulnerable clientele, he is sensitive to their needs while challenging them to move beyond their comfort zone. Richard has a unique ability to help people access their deeper emotional world. His approach is disarming and inviting. Richard has mastered the art of appropriate self-disclosure which creates a bond with those who are fortunate to work with him.”

Daryl Samsom, M. Ed
former Program Director
The Orchard Recovery Centre, Bowen Island. BC

“Poetry is what makes the invisible appear.”
Natalie Aarraute, quoted in Staying Alive

“A poem is partly grace, partly discovery, and partly a struggle to squeeze out a little bit more, to conquer another foot of territory from the unconscious.”
Agnes Nemes Nagy, A Hungarian Perspective

“A poem is a smuggling of something back from the otherworld, a prime bit of shoplifting where you get something out the door before the buzzer goes off.”

Nuala Ni  Dhomhnaill, RTE I Television

“Poems are words that take you three kinds of doors: closed doors, secret doors, and doors you don’t know are there.”
Stephanie Strickland, Here Comes Everybody blog

“Poetry connects us to what is deepest in ourselves. It gives access to our own feelings, which are often shadowy, and engages us in the art of making meaning. It widens the space of our inner lives. It is magical, mysterious, inexplicable (though not incomprehensible) event in language.”

Edward Hirsch, The Washington Post

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