are a year-round after-school and summer performing arts program. Its mission is to build supportive, creative communities and to put on great shows. Now in its eighth year, the program includes: the HILLTOWN YOUTH THEATRE SUMMER WORKSHOP providing intensive training, artistic and professional skill building and leadership development for young performers, musicians, artists and set designers and a six month THEATRE ENRICHMENT PROGRAM for nine towns and five small, community-based elementary schools underserved by the arts. In 2015, in response to a statewide opioid crisis, we launched our newest project the RECOVERY THEATRE, a performing arts experience for young people overcoming addiction, trauma, anxiety, depression and other behavioral health challenges. Our programs emphasize sustainability, innovation, creativity, and leadership and foster these values in every young person whose life we touch.
Perfomances: August 4th, 5th, 6th & 7th @ 6:45PM!
Winter Intensive and song documentary 2017
Over the course of three days participating in the Winter Recovery Intensive, I made more positive changes then I have all month. When you are in the recovery, you seem to become very mindful of your current situation whatever it may be. Personally, I struggle with anxiety, depression, and insomnia. The anxiety has gained the strength to prevent me from attending high school along with occasional social events. Anxiety has altered my life drastically, brought me to rock bottom, and taken power over the majority of my days these past two years. Attending the recovery intensive is like going on a mental vacation where nobody labels me by my anxiety disorder. Instead, I was surrounded by amazing loving friends that have problems just like I do. These experiences (this was my second recovery event) give me the opportunity to refuel and face the reality of my anxiety ridden day-to-day life. After each, I return to the real world ten times stronger and more confident in myself.
Every activity that occurs during these few days has had a different effect on me. Some are quite bizarre yet beautiful and deep. You will discover the feeling of another stranger’s hand, or the way they dance and howl before you get to know their name or struggle. Introductions always come after our first training or leap from a 30 foot high board atop an aerial trapeze, talk about first impressions! Friday night we trained by lantern light followed by writing “Goodbye Letters.” It never ceases to amaze me how a dozen people, all with messy lives and loads of luggage, have the ability to create the most calming and therapeutic environment for one another. We had the whole building to ourselves, only lit by a total of four lanterns. I was so worry free I lost the concept of time. My only focus was breathing to the music and matching my body movements to everybody else’s. It sounds strange but it’s the best therapy I’ve had in my whole life in comparison to sitting on a couch with my muscles tense and ready to bolt out of the room at any second. After the training, we gathered again in the lantern lit space to put some words into writing.
The purpose of my “Goodbye Letter” was to come to terms with the fact that my anxiety and I aren’t ready to part ways yet and that’s okay. Of course I was jealous hearing other strong people actually say goodbye to an issue of theirs. I wanted to be able to do the same but it’s nearly impossible to ditch the main attraction of this show called my life. So I made a compromise with myself. I agreed to let my anxiety float by my side as I work to get better, but it is not allowed to take control anymore. From now on I get to decide my happiness and what I get to do on a day-to-day basis. And for once I got to share that with everybody else in the room without trying to hide it or pretend like I’m perfect. I felt supported and I knew that I didn’t have to cover it with lies because this was a family and a safe space with no judgment. Nobody was going to ask me one hundred questions I can’t answer or laugh at me because I got teary-eyed. I felt good in my own skin, and that’s something I haven’t felt in a while.
My big breakthrough happened when the next day arrived. One of the workshop leaders was Zach Arfa. I first met Zach at the Hilltown Youth Theatre Summer Workshop. He was our music director. We also trained together twice a day in a
weeklong pre-workshop Recovery Intensive. Zach is a warm, loving guy with a crazy head of hair. This winter, he was experimenting with something brand new he was learning about in college. Another summer workshop ensemble member, Franklin Speck, was assisting him. Franklin is a musical genius who, like me, has a little bit of an anxiety situation. During the summer spectacle the two were an unexpected sanctuary for me. We became close friends, which pretty much describe my feelings for all seventy performers who participated in the program. After a very brief explanation of the activity, within seconds our director Jonathan Diamond volunteered me. I panicked. I wasn’t mentally or physically prepared to be the guinea pig for this project. But I took a deep breath and agreed to go along with it. The project we were all working on is called documentary songwriting. The first step is to write a few lines that represent my take on my anxiety. After multiple conversations and stealing some words from my “Goodbye Letter,” Zach helped me capture five or six lines that offered a small glimpse of my story. I felt liberated when I was told to scream the lyrics of my song at the top of my lungs while standing proudly on a tall wooden spool. We followed that with a few singing exercises together and I still felt good. Then we moved onto the next step, which was singing it. Given no tune or rhythm to work with, Zach looked at me and told me to just sing the lyrics on the page. With that one look my heart dropped into my stomach and my hands nearly dropped the laptop in my hands, which I, suddenly, lacked the strength to hold. I knew this moment was coming but once I was forced to face it I wanted to run through the doors and never come back. My anxiety skyrocketed. I am not a singer. In fact, singing is one of my biggest fears. I was sure I’d embarrass myself. I was totally frozen and felt vulnerable as ever. So I did the one thing I knew how to, cry. And not, as another anxiety plagued writer once described, “a genteel twin trickle, but a great heaving, wracking burst, zero to fire hose.” I was experiencing a full-blown panic attack. This shocked both my caregivers. But something was different this time. My body didn’t go into fight or flight mode. And while I thought about it, I didn’t try to run for the hills. I felt safe. Franklin reassured me with many comforting words while Zach just held me. I finally picked myself up and remained stable enough to attempt singing. Gripping my friends for dear life, I got the courage to softly sing the lyrics while only experiencing a slight miniature breakdown between each line. The second time through I only broke down twice, and the third time I made it all the way through without a single tear. That was my biggest accomplishment in six months. It was an emotional rollercoaster. But I don’t regret a second of it.
I later took part in all the other fun and eventful activities we did throughout the day. Before we all leave, the group gathers in an appreciation circle. This is where you are given the chance to say something that you were thankful for. Zach, Franklin and Recovery Theatre co-founder Alyssa all appreciated me for being so brave and pushing myself to achieve my goal even though it was difficult. I’ve never felt so happy after having a panic attack. The typical reaction would be for me to feel ashamed or disappointed about what transpired after exposing my weakness to others and ending up in tears. But this time my story ends differently: I did not run or surrender to the anxiety; I fought. And if I can win the battle just once, that’s a huge step in the right direction.
John Wiley & Sons, 2006 © Jonathan Diamond, Ph.D.
This is a book about death, but it starts with a birth. My son Julian was born on June 17, 1997, at 11:01 on a Tuesday morning. The first person I wanted to share the
news with was my father, so I called him from the delivery room. Dad was exuberant.
He kept repeating, “That’s wonderful news, just wonderful” over and over, and then
There was joy inside Dad’s tears, but there was also great sorrow. My father had
waited his entire adult life to become a grandfather. When the moment finally arrived
he had little time left to enjoy it. He died six months and ten days later, his body ravaged
by multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer.
When my father died, some friends could not understand how I could miss someone
in death who had been the source of so much pain and anguish when he was alive. They
had witnessed how the contrast between my father’s rageful and loving sides created
more than an emotional crisis in my life, it was a spiritual state of emergency. They were
the ones who helped me put myself together after yet another caustic, if not violent,
run-in with the old man. However, it wasn’t until he was diagnosed with cancer that real
healing took place and the connection between my dad and me was transformed.
During one of my last visits with my father, I was sitting next to him while he held
his grandson in his lap. After a few moments, Dad very tenderly put his hand on my head
and left it there. “Does that mean I’ve done good?” I asked. “That means a lot of things,”
Many friends called to ask me how I was and offered to help in any way possible.
Three months after he died, people still asked how I was doing, but there was a hint of
impatience in their voices—they were ready for me to start feeling better. After six
months, they stopped asking altogether. After a year, most had pretty much forgotten
about my loss.
It’s been more than five years since my father died, and my relationship with him
still has a hold on me. If time heals, it works in much larger increments: Five years is a
Although my own clan and circle of friends grew tired of my mourning, people
outside my circle shared their stories with me. Sometimes complete strangers would
approach me at gatherings, “I heard you just lost your father. My dad passed away six
months ago,” “I was with my father when he died. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever
done.” When we dive beneath the particulars—cancer, abandonment, suicide, one year,
two years, ten, twenty—we find our experiences are uncannily similar. Sometimes we
even use the same language to describe them: “Our father was the glue that held the
family together,” “The old man was like a rock, he was always there with a hand when
you needed it most,” “My father was dead five years before I discovered how much I
loved him,” “I never knew my father but when news of his death arrived it felt like a part
of me had died too,” “No one understood me like my father.
To begin naming and finding words for a pain that’s unspeakable, for some,
involves having to recall unthinkable acts of terror and betrayal. At times, mourning
requires no less than what analyst Hans Loewald says about psychotherapy—that is, to
transform the ghosts that haunt us into ancestors.
In all our myths and metaphors about dying, death isn’t an end, it’s a passage. We
talk of “crossing over” and speak of a person’s “voyage” to the next world. This theme of
travel shows up in our dreams about death as well, in which we visit and receive loved
ones who are no longer with us.
There is an Aboriginal creation myth in which legendary totemic beings wander
over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crosses their
path—birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes—thereby singing the world into existence.
Over the course of time, these songlines become a musical road map tracing the territorial
spaces and paths that people inhabit and share with the spirits of their ancestors.
Individuals are born into one of the songlines but only know a section of it. The way to
extend one’s knowledge of a particular songline is to go on periodic “walkabouts” that
lead to encounters with others living far away who knew of other melodies or parts.
Fatherless Sons represents my own walkabout of sorts. It is an effort to come to
terms with my father’s death and the multitude of feelings and territorial spaces I’ve
inhabited in my grief.
In researching and writing this book, I wanted to get close to sons’ experiences of
their fathers. This is a book about relationships, a collection of men’s experiences with
death, dying, desertion and I-Thou encounters with their fathers as well as their own
children. I’ve met many fellow travelers along the way. Some through my therapy
practice, others who sought me out when they heard I was researching this subject. Their
stories gave me hope.
Losing a father is one of most profound events in a man’s life, and like the waves a
stone causes when thrown into still water, the ripples of loss continue on and on. This
book is written to help men understand the correlation between their past experiences and
how events continue to affect their relationships with family and friends, lovers and co-
workers, and themselves. To those whose fathers are already gone, the book illuminates
the possibility for a second chance—an opportunity for rediscovery—for men to feel
compassion and forgiveness for their fathers and thereby free themselves from the
emotional bonds that keep their present tied in knots, their future out of reach, and their
past chained to a wounded soul.
Many of the stories collected here are a tribute to survival of abandonment, abuse,
and neglect. However, even sons with mostly positive memories of their fathers must, as
another writer observed, “endure the separation of death, the affliction of mourning.”
Fajcing death takes great courage. No matter how confusing or painful a man’s
relationship with his father may have been, experiencing grief is heroic and sacred work.
While the path you embarked on when you opened the book was about grieving, the
journey is about healing.
My father, Malcolm Diamond, was a fixture at Princeton University for forty years.
It was a mostly uphill ride from John Witherspoon Elementary School on Walnut Lane to
my father’s office in 1879 Hall, the medieval fortress that houses Princeton’s religion
department. It was hard work for my ten-year-old legs and I always arrived out of breath.
For me, fourth grade had started a week earlier but it was my father’s first day of classes.
I climbed the spiral wooden staircase all the way to the top of the gothic spire of McCosh
50 and peered down from the balcony—the vantage point many students watched from.
The auditorium, which held five hundred, was packed. No one noticed me enter; all eyes
were fixed on my father. His brown tweed jacket with beige leather patches on both
elbows, was tossed on the floor behind him. The sleeves of his sweat-soaked white
Oxford dress shirt were rolled up, exposing his hairy forearms. A bright orange cotton tie
hung loosely from his open collar.
Dad was just a speck on the stage, but his presence filled the hall. Ivy League
decorum gave way to Hasidic delight, Talmudic contentiousness, and Borscht Belt
comedy. His listeners were enthralled. At the closing lines of his lecture, you could hear
your own heartbeat, so thoroughly had he seized everyone’s attention. And then,
spontaneous and prolonged applause. It is not unheard of for a professor to receive such
an enthusiastic ovation at the conclusion of a course; my father would get one after his
On a faculty roster that included names like Toni Morrison, John Nash, Elaine
Pagels, Ruth Simmons, Cornel West, and Andrew Wiles, Malcolm Diamond was
certainly not the most celebrated or well-known professor to pass through Princeton’s
hallowed halls during his tenure. Few would dispute he was its most beloved.
When asked what he did for a living, it was my father’s habit to simply say, “I teach
college.” If pressed further, in a lighthearted reference to the movie Goodbye, Mr.
Chips—the sentimental James Hilton tale of an all-boys school in England and the prim
and proper professor who lives for its existence—he would answer, “I am Princeton’s
My father wasn’t well enough to travel the summer Julian was born, so six weeks
later I took my son to meet his grandfather. During that visit Dad sat me down, along
with his wife, Denise, to go over what sort of service and burial he wanted. Dad asked me
to deliver his eulogy, as he had done for his father. I felt like one of his students
negotiating a deadline for my final assignment. I remember that the juxtaposition of the
two events—meeting his grandson and planning for his death—felt both surreal and
natural at the same time.
Trips to the doctor or the hospital due to complications from his cancer or his
medication had become a routine part of every visit with my father. A cold would quickly
become flu, and flu became pneumonia without any warning, which immediately meant
another trip to the hospital. The stays varied in length from a few days to a month in
During one of these stays, in a phone call from his hospital bed, my father got the
Hanukkah prayers confused. He had sung those prayers for seventy-three years. Each
evening at sundown during Hanukkah, I called his room and put Julian on the phone. The
first night he cried because he never thought he would be singing them to his grandson.
The third night he said them backwards.
We had been planning to visit him after the holidays. The next day I received a call
from Denise asking if I could come sooner. Dad’s condition had worsened. She was very
upset because against my father’s wishes his doctor had put him on a ventilator.
On the way down I drove like the wind. I had made this trip from western
Massachusetts to New Jersey hundreds of times in my life. Crossing over into
Connecticut, past Hartford, down Route 91 to the Merritt Parkway, the Merritt to the
Hutchinson Parkway, the Hutch to the Cross County Parkway, the Cross County to the
Henry Hudson Drive. It was a clear night so traveling over the George Washington
Bridge on route 95 I could see the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center, and
the Statue of Liberty—beacons of my childhood, lighting my way home.
I pulled up to the gray parking monolith adjacent to the hospital and took the
elevator to the main floor. Up another set of elevators, I pressed “3” for Oncology. When
the doors opened I stepped off, paused, quickly stepped back inside, and pressed the
button next to the letters “ICU”. I had never been to the Intensive Care Unit before. When
the elevator opened to the basement, I hesitated so long, the doors almost closed on me
again. I was turned around and surprised to discover the floor containing the hospital’s
most fragile patients located in the basement among all the plumbing, wiring, and the
building’s other infrastructure.
When I walked into the room, I barely recognized the man in the bed. My father
had always been a strikingly handsome and charismatic man, even when sick. Now there
were wires and tubes connected to every part of his body. The breathing apparatus
pumping air into his lungs caused his chest to slowly rise and sink over and over. His
eyes were bulging from all the pain medication and anesthesia he’d received when they
put him on the ventilator.
I gave my father a kiss and placed a picture of Julian on his pillow.
The first doctor I came in contact with was a resident on call, a very well-meaning
woman who wanted to place a tube in my father’s stomach so he could be fed in this
semi-comatose state. After considerable discussion, she agreed to abide by Dad’s wishes
not to take any extreme measures to prolong his life. “Your father and you appear to have
talked a good deal about these matters,” she concluded. I spoke by phone with my
father’s own doctor, who said he would arrange to have him taken off life support the
Dad’s nurse, Laura, saw Julian’s picture and brought me photographs of her four-
month-old. She and I sat at the foot of Dad’s bed, comparing stories about sleepless
Dad had only a short window of consciousness the entire evening. Laura asked him
to squeeze my hand if he knew his son Jonathan was here. He did. Then she asked him if
he was cold or in pain. He shook his head no.
My father always said that one of the worst things he could imagine about dying
was his family feeling obligated to keep some sort of a “death watch” over him, so I like
to think that the relative quiet in which we sat together was comforting to him. I say
relative because at four in the morning, alarms and whistles sounded from the legion of
machines that were monitoring his vital signs, bringing nurses from every direction.
Mercifully, the nurses did not call the doctor right away, which avoided any further
Talmudic debate over the fine points in my father’s living will.
A few minutes later, at 4:10 in morning, one of the nurses said, “He’s gone.”
Several of the staff bowed their heads in silent prayer. I tried to join them but I could
barely hear myself think. The doctor I had spoken to earlier arrived shortly, but neither
she nor the nurses could figure out how to turn off the alarms, so we all stood silently
around my father while the hospital’s shofars announced his ascendance to the heavens.
It’s odd the things we remember about the events surrounding a person’s death. We
don’t remember days, we remember moments. The details of the events that led up to and
followed my father’s death are very foggy, but those last hours spent with him before he
died are emblazoned in my mind. There was no white light or divine moment when he
crossed over. It was all a bit chaotic, very real, and in many ways, a fairly typical day
with my father.
The day before my father’s memorial, I took a walk across the campus. Everywhere
I looked I saw little slumped over professors wearing Burberry trench coats, wool
scarves, tweed hats, and thick-soled shoes. For the next three blocks I watched myself
repeat the same futile march up to each one of them just to be sure it wasn’t Dad. Did I
say three blocks? I meant three years.
The service was held inside the same building in which my father had taught his last
class. I climbed the twelve steps up to the podium. Seeking a brief respite from the sea of
faces waiting for me to start, I gazed up at the balcony and spotted my father’s ten-year-
old step-grandson Jarret wading through a row of empty seats where no one would notice
him hiding. I wanted to join him.
I tried to stay present and composed while delivering my remarks, but speaking
about my relationship with my father caused me untold pain—the pain of all the words
and images I chose to share, as well as those I chose not to.
Breakfast, Sunday morning. My father was eating, hurrying to get to the office. Dad
demanded his toast. My mother turned from the other plates she was preparing, stepped
into the dining area, and shouted, “You want your toast, here’s your God-damned toast!”
and hurled the side order over his head. Neither my brother nor I had ever seen my
mother stand up to our father in this fashion. Whenever our father wanted something that
wasn’t on the table, he acted as if he was complaining about bad service at a restaurant,
behavior we already found equally disturbing and even more upsetting when it was
directed toward our mother. But throughout all the bullying tantrums we witnessed over
the years, she always responded the same way, ignoring or placating him. This time was
different. Her defiance gave us a vicarious thrill. You never talked back to Dad when he
was in one of these moods. I threw my brother a knowing glance. Suddenly, my father
rose from his chair, walked into the kitchen, picked up each plate of bacon and eggs my
mother had prepared, and started smashing them down, one at a time, on the counter.
Shards of glass and food flew everywhere. My brother and I cleared out fast. After my
father left the house, I went back into the kitchen. My mother was crying.
I began picking up the pieces.
This and other incidents like it were faith-shattering. Although they weren’t
everyday occurrences, they happened often enough that the memory of the last one had
not quite faded when the next episode occurred. And the terror of this or some other type
of violence was part of daily existence, although on some days the fear rested closer to
the surface than others.
I always wished my mother had left my father sooner, but I understood why that
was such a hard thing for her to do. Dad was capable of great expressions of love. This is
what made his rages so painful and hard to bear—they undid such good.
My stepmother knew about my father’s abuse of my mother, but thought it would
be different for them. That makes her a statistic; another victim of men’s violence against
women. She also thought she’d met her soul mate, someone who wanted the same things
from life that she did. That makes her human. It’s important to hold on to both
I was more traumatized by my father’s marriages than by his parenting. Dad spent a
lot of time in therapy with me, trying to make what happened between us right. However,
not until the very end, when he went to a batterers’ group, was he willing to take
responsibility for how he treated the women he loved, at which point it felt like too little
After my father died, I felt great relief knowing that his violence died with him. I
hoped that his death would bring all of us who were hurt by his anger (including him)
some peace. These thoughts, like so many memories of my father, occupy my own
dreamtime and helped me come to terms with both the men my father was. Even though I
didn’t share the words in this particular stanza with the hundreds of people in attendance
at his memorial service, I consider them part of the same songline.
Breaking the Silence
Speaking the truth of Dad’s violence in this book has been an important way of
mending our relationship, and very healing for me personally; but for others, particularly
my father’s former students and clients—the ones he saw in a small psychotherapy
practice he hoped to retire to—the reality of some of the shocking events depicted may
take a while to register. It will not fit with their memories of the encouraging and
nurturing professor who loved and guided them, and it will, no doubt, bring unexpected
and new grief.
At bedrock, the two guiding principles I drew from my father’s life were sympathy
and love. Dad had a tough time living up to these ideals as a husband and father. “We
teach what we need to learn most,” he used to say. However, he applied both generously
as a teacher and therapist, where he recognized that the task of healing others is the only
true way of healing oneself. I believe telling this part of my father’s story serves the same
purpose—that is, to transform experiences and emotions of derision and shame into gifts
I can share with others, many of whom, I imagine, have had to struggle with similar
experiences with a parent or someone they love.
Interviewing other men who lost their fathers, writing their stories and trying to
understand what they meant, while writing about my own father’s death wasn’t easy.
Every conversation brought up some previously overlooked aspect of my own painful
On the other hand, I found the process healing beyond all expectation. It wasn’t
simply the catharsis of releasing long-suppressed emotion, although that did happen. It
was the act of storytelling itself; it was my listening to other men’s experiences and their,
in the course of our conversations, witnessing mine. It all made me think of the Eugene
O’Neill lines, “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is the glue.”
The kind of grace O’Neill speaks of is hard to come by, but that shouldn’t stop us
from trying. In this book you will find, set between the chapters, some reflections on my
relationship with my own father. In her Long Life, Mary Oliver invites readers to think of
her poems as “little alleluias.” Poetry is her way of offering praise to the world,
especially the parts she can’t explain or which aren’t easily understood. Similar to the
way Oliver writes about her verse, the passages about my father are not trying to explain
anything, “they just sit there on the page, and breathe.”
What I miss most about my father are his hugs. When I was a small child, I used
to crawl into bed with him after his morning exercise. Dad smelling like sweat and Icy-
Hot, me burrowing my whole self into the crook of his arm while he read the newspaper.
I can still feel the intense heat his body threw off. Even his love cast a fiery warmth.
When it was time for him to get up and get ready for work, he would engulf me in a bear
hug that would leave me smelling like him for hours. Like his spirit, Dad’s embrace
didn’t just hold me, it lifted me up. And I haven’t yet resolved the fact that the most
violent and the most loving touch I’ve ever known came at the hand of the same man.
June 9, 2000
Family Therapy Networker
When I first met 14-year-old Miranda, she had a full head of frizzy pink hair and a
sassy, cooler-than-thou persona to match. She also had the phyisical symptoms of full
blown alcoholism usually found in adults twice her age, including stomach ulcers, a fatty
liver, and early signs of nerve damage. Miranda’s parents had divorced when she was six
and she had never heard from her father again; in the meantime, she acquired a new
stepfather who battered her mother and made frightening sexual remarks to Miranda
whenever he got drunk. By the age of 11, Miranda had started nipping from her stepdad’s
bourbon bottles. Now she was putting away a pint of hard liquor a day, usually
accompanied by several joints. Often, she drank until she passed out.
The difference between Miranda and many of the other teens I was seeing for
alcohol and drug problems was her attitude toward her addiction. “I gotta quit,” she told
me fervently. Before she came to me, she had tried—and failed—to stop drinking
numerous times on her own. Miranda’s feisty energy and will to survive impressed and
touched me, and for the next six months, I threw myself into helping her get sober. In
both individual sessions and a group I led for substance-abusing teens, I encouraged her to
talk about her feelings and her troubled family life, while also urging her to try out AA. I
also recommended that she try “sobriety days—designated days on which she would
forego all mood-altering drugs as a kind of stepping stone to recovery. At another point, I
encouraged her to participate in an adventure-based addiction treatment program
especially designed for young people. Miranda valiantly tried all of my suggestions, but
she couldn’t wrest free of alcohol or pot. One afternoon, she trudged through my office
door and slumped into a chair. “I’m such a loser,” she whispered. It was then that I asked
her to write a goodbye letter to alcohol and drugs.
I had recently begun to experiment with this approach with people who were
having a particularly hard time letting go of their addiction. While I didn’t fully
understand its power at the time, I noticed that letter-writing sometimes helps my clients
and me move beyond an all or nothing focus on quitting to a more liberating understanding
of the passionate dance between clients and their chosen substance. “What I’d like you to
consider,” I told Miranda now, “is writing a letter in which you imagine yourself saying
goodbye to alcohol and drugs. You don’t have to actually give them up right now. But
let’s see what comes up.” At our next group session, Miranda handed me her letter:
Dear Narcotics, Pot (acid, alcohol) etc.
thanks for all You’ve done for me. You’ve helped me forget my problems.
You’ve made me feel good, You’ve made me see the world in a whole new
perspective. You’ve made me fail out of my freshman year, You’ve made
me Ruin the lining of my esophagus and stomach. You’ve made the
Relationship with my Parents go down hill. You’ve given me a who gives a
shit attitude. I’ve gotten fucked up Emotionally and Physically
(Relationship wise also) I’VE gotten used by abusing you: even after all
those complaints I don’t want to give you up Because I’ll be alone.
I knew that letters often took on greater meaning for clients when they read them
out loud, so I asked Miranda if she would be willing to share her letter with the group.
Bouncing up from her chair, she began reading in her usual dramatic, rapid-fire style. But
within a few sentences, her voice began to wobble. As she continued to read, taking deep,
shaky breaths between sentences, the other kids listened with rapt attention. When
Miranda sat down again, I asked what the writing-cum-reading experience had been like
for her. “I can’t believe how much shit I’ve taken from this stuff—it really blows me
away” she said quietly. “Especially the booze.” She tried to laugh. “It’s like a rotten
I too, was blown away by the contents of Miranda’s letter. For the first time, I
understood the depth of her attachment to alcohol. I realized that for the past six months,
I had been trying to take away the one thing in this girl’s life that gave her any solace, any
relief from her sense of utter isolation. “Yeah, a rotten boyfriend who you can’t quite give
up,” I responded. She gazed straight at me. “You got it.”
Miranda’s letter marked a turning point in her therapy. In subsequent sessions,
she began to talk about herself with more compassion, often checking back to her letter as
though to the North Star, to orient herself. She began to understand how desperately she
relied on alcohol to assuage her loneliness, and to try, ever so tentatively, to begin
connecting instead with real people, starting with me and the other kids in our group.
This process was full of stops and starts, and it would be two years before
Miranda could stop drinking for an extended period of time. But bit by bit, I witnessed
this young woman begin to recover her faith in herself and to peel back her flamboyant,
hyper-cool veneer. In the past, she had presented her hard drinking to the world as just
another facet of her glamorous, tortured-soul image; now, we worked together on helping
her accept, and show others, who she really was–a vulnerable, scared kid who yearned to
belong somewhere. By the time she left therapy at 16, she had begun to make links to AA
and to develop a closer relationship to her mother, who became a strong ally in her
recovery. When I ran into Miranda again at age 19, now sporting tangerine-hued hair and a
new tattoo, she proudly told me that she was taking courses at the local community
college and was hoping to transfer soon to the state university. Currently, she was living
with three other young women, all AA members, who were supporting one another’s
recovery. She had been sober for three years.
THERAPY WITH ADDICTED PEOPLE is soul-trying work. The reason isn’t
hard to fathom: Most people don’t get better—or stay better for long. Fewer than 50
percent of alcoholics are still sober one year after treatment, while fully 90 percent
experience at least one relapse during the first four years following treatment, according to
the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Relapse rates are similar for
many other drugs.
Addicts repeat self-destructive behavior with a stamina that can wear down the
patience of the most seasoned and committed clinician. Even when people do get better,
the therapist often isn’t there to witness the recovery. Often, clients drop out of therapy,
or their insurance runs out, long before they are able to get clean and sober. In short,
working with addicts is a set-up to feel like a failure as a therapist—and in my 15 years of
addictions work, I have often felt like one.
But therapists’ efforts to help clients recover is made still harder, I believe, by the
gaping inadequacy of the dominant disease model of addiction. The DSM-IV definition of
alcoholism that therapists are encouraged to use as their guide to understanding this
disorder is full of sterile pronouncements about physiological decline and dysfunctional
behaviors; like most medical diagnoses, it favors the disease over the individual who
suffers it. This definition isn’t so much wrong as it is limiting, for it tends to blind us to
the very heart of the addicted person’s experience. If the problem, to quote the DSM-IV,
is “a maladaptive pattern of alcohol use leading to clinically significant impairment,” then
getting the client sober becomes the first and foremost goal of treatment. But in the
process, the felt experience of the addict—the loss, yearning and terrible loneliness that
courses through his or her soul and continues to drive the addiction—can easily get
pushed underground. It is this profoundly emotional and relational world of the addict
that writing a “goodbye letter” can often coax into the light, providing both therapist and
client with a more comprehensive view of the client’s addiction and a more hopeful and
loving way of working with it.
When I began experimenting with letter-writing with addicted clients more than a
decade ago, I simply saw letters as a promising way to help people feel less identified
with their alcohol or drug use. Inspired by the pioneering work of narrative therapists
Michael White and David Epston, I hoped that writing to Alcohol or Drugs might allow a
client to feel enough separation from his or her addiction to begin to challenge and move
beyond it. But as I carefully read and mulled over the letters my clients wrote, I began to
see that the act of letter-writing also seemed to unmask the client’s chosen drug as a
partner in a genuine relationship—fierce, seductive, at once breathtakingly destructive and
I have found that honoring this relationship—especially its positive, selfpreserving
elements—radically changes the terms of therapy with addicted people.
Contrary to the dictates of traditional addictions counseling, I no longer insist that my
clients get clean and sober before we can profitably work together in therapy. The reason
is grounded in simple reality: Many addicts are not yet ready to let go of their addiction
when they first walk through a therapist’s door. Many simply hope to find a “smarter”
way to drink or use that will allow them to maintain better control of their lives; they are
far too terrified of facing life drug-free to instantly swear off substances. In my
experience, to insist that a client immediately cease all drug use or leave treatment is to
abandon a lot of addicts who can be helped by a gentler more gradual approach. Rather
than engaging in aggressive, confrontations with my clients over quitting, I find it far more
effective—and more personally rewarding—to facilitate a peaceable breakup.
Letter-writing can be a powerful first step in this facilitation process because it
offers such a clear window into the legitimate, urgent needs that the addict is trying to
meet via his or her “drug connection.” Writing letters allows clients to find their own
words for what’s important to them, rather than being subjected to a series of
psychological tests and other mental gymnastics that we hope will somehow crack their
soul’s code. If therapists can then collaborate with the client to discover healthier ways to
meet those self-identified needs, he or she may experience less of what AA calls “whiteknuckle”
sobriety—the I’m-miserable-but-sober variety that rarely lasts—and instead
create a more sustaining way to live.
I often tell my clients to think of the letters as a form of compost (or spiritual
mulch): Writing tends to rake our conscious minds, taking shallow thinking and turning it
over. While therapy tries to accomplish the same thing, I have found that the process of
letter-writing often helps a client rapidly uncover buried feelings and insights that might
take months to unearth via the usual, talk-only therapy hour. The poet Audre Lorde once
wrote, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” So,
too, with the letters of desire, fury and unspeakable sadness that my clients write to their
addictions. While the particular letters and stories shared here come from adolescent
clients, I have found letter-writing to work with equal power and impact with adult
Let me be clear: Letter-writing is neither a quick nor sufficient fix for addiction
problems. By themselves, letters rarely provide dramatic “aha!” moments that spur
people to immediately foreswear a substance. Instead, they serve as a kind of jumping-off
point for therapy, giving both my client and me a trail map of the harrowing work that
lies ahead. To support this arduous effort, I strongly urge my clients to get involved in
AA or other 12-step programs. Groups have a way of breaking down the walls of denial
and isolation that surround the addict, locating him or her within a protective circle of
humanity. I also encourage clients to explore sources of spiritual support for their
recovery, which could range from God to Buddha to a less traditional Higher Power to a
felt connection to nature. I believe that the yearning for unconditional love and protective
care—from a group, from a therapist, from a spiritual presence, from the self—is nearly
always at the root of the addicted person’s cravings.
ONE OF THE KNOTTIEST CHALLENGES of addictions work is determining a
person’s commitment to change. Some addicts will tell you they want to get clean and
sober when they have no intention of doing so, while others’ perpetual stop-start dance
with their chosen drug masks a desperate desire to quit for good. In my experience, letterwriting
can serve as a powerful assessment tool to help determine how seriously a client
wants to stop using substances. When I first met Gwen, a 16-year-old inpatient at the
hospital-based drug rehab program where I worked, she was both deeply depressed and
furious at being forced to participate in a program for “druggies,” which in her estimation
did not include herself. Though she smoked so much pot that she was stealing from her
parents to pay for it and had gotten into trouble with school and legal authorities, she
claimed repeatedly that “I don’t smoke that much—mostly just on weekends, at parties.
It’s no big deal.”
Between Gwen’s depression and her denial, it was hard to find a foothold for our
work together. In years past, I would have just tried harder, redoubling my efforts to get
her to acknowledge the true extent of her pot smoking, then press her to commit to
quitting. Instead, I asked Gwen to write a goodbye letter to marijuana, which she thought
was a monumentally stupid idea because she felt she had nothing to say goodbye to, since
pot was putatively a minor player in her life. “No problem,” I told her. “Whatever kind
of relationship you feel you do have with Pot, write about that.” The next morning in
group, she shoved this letter into my hand:
Hello old friend, what’s up? It’s been a long time since we last saw
each other. I miss you. I want you back in my arms. Everyone here wants
me to forget about you, but I won’t. I miss hanging out with you, and the
familiar way you made me laugh. I miss the way you cheered me
up—brightening even the darkest day—and the way you made me feel so
accepted all the time. As a result of being locked up in this program, I will be unable to see
you and smile at your great jokes. Hopefully I will be out soon, and we
will be able to party with each other again. I can’t wait to get home to see
you. You bring me a kind of happiness no one else can, and I can’t find
anywhere else. When I get out we’ll spend every minute of our day
together. I will be yours and yours only, all day and all night.
Gwen’s letter was a dramatic example of the power of letter-writing to excavate
unconscious material. “I guess I am doing it a lot,” she muttered when I asked her what
she got from writing her letter. Meanwhile, I got the critical information that it would
have taken a crowbar to separate this girl from pot. This didn’t mean that I gave up on
Gwen–far from it. The letter had helped to break through her denial, which meant we
were now able to talk about how she relied on marijuana to keep her company when she
was depressed, but how it would then “betray” her by making her feel still more
despondent. I was looking for an opening, a wedge, to allow her to explore the notion that
her life might hold other, more sustaining, possibilities than a love affair with pot.
But Gwen continued to feel discouraged; she wasn’t at all sure she could survive a
break up. My own intent, at that point, was to genuinely embrace Gwen’s feelings of
powerlessness over marijuana, while still energetically supporting any movement toward
change. Therapists who work with addicted people find themselves walking this knife
edge of faith and despair with alarming frequency, and it is essential to try not to fall off.
In my experience, if therapists can’t tolerate the feelings of failure and discouragement
that accompany facing an addiction—to accept them as part of the journey–clients won’t
be able to learn to do so, either. I believe that therapists are most able to hold on to this
kind of open-hearted acceptance when they become conscious of personal encounters
with powerlessness that have served as a prelude to liberation in their own lives.
In my case, my mother continues to suffer from alcoholism, as she has throughout
most of my life. When I decided to marry my partner Dana, I became very anxious about
my mother’s drinking. Unsure of how to handle the presence of alcohol at our wedding
and apprehensive about how she might behave, I sought advice from my colleague, Roget.
After listening patiently to my dilemma, Roget asked me to entertain the following
scenario: “Imagine, Jon, if tomorrow morning you went out to your mailbox and discovered
a telegram. You opened it and read: ‘Dear Jonathan, I am sorry, it is not in the stars for
your mother to get better. Love, God.’” As he spoke those words, I fought back tears.
As never before, I understood thewell-worn words of the AA serenity prayer: “God,
grant me the serentiy to accept the things I can not change the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.” I got, in that moment, that my mother and I were equally
powerless over her drinking, and that I could not, and never would be able to, “fix” her.
I often recall this moment as I work with addicted clients who struggle with letting go
of their substance–it both keeps me connected to my client and restrains me from engaging
in futile rescue missions. While not every therapist can call upon a personal encounter with
alcohol or drugs to guide them, virtually all of us can identify a painful experience of powerlessness
in our lives that can help us stay present with those who feel overwhelmed by their
But my sense of partnership with Gwen notwithstanding, she and I made little
real progress together. When she left the program, I knew in my bones that within 24
hours, she would be smoking a joint. And, give or take a few hours, she was. Gwen’s
reunion with marijuana was painful for me. The mantra in the addiction field is “you can’t
take it personally” when people relapse. But when you work intensively with a client and
come to really care for him or her, there is no way not to feel a twinge of responsibility,
and some deep sadness, when you watch them dive back into their addiction.
But Gwen’s “goodbye” letter made the difference between feeling sad and
plunging into paralyzing self-doubt and discouragement. The letter helped me keep my
expectations realistic, so that when she returned to her “old friend,” at some level I knew
it wasn’t about me.
The reality is that there are some people for whom you could put a
million dollars on one side of a table and a wad of drugs on the other and ask them to
choose, and they would take the drugs every time. Gwen was one of those people. With
all my heart, I hope she someday won’t be. But during our shot at therapy, my
knowledge of what I was up against kept me from the demoralizing and exhausting
position of working harder than my client. Gwen didn’t burn me out. When she walked
out of the rehab unit, visions of freshly-lit joints dancing in her head, I still wanted to
work with addicted people.
FOR MANY ADDICTS, DRUGS SERVE AS STAND-INS for human
relationships they haven’t yet dared to create. But for other people, substances provide a
kind of distorted connection with a critically important person who is already in their
lives. When I first began working with 17-year-old Randy, a wary, uncommunicative
high-school athlete, he was smoking pot daily and using cocaine on weekends. He hung
out with a rough crowd and had serious problems at home, including a moody, violent
stepfather and a mother who dealt drugs to pay the rent. In Randy’s mind, I was just
another adult he was forced to tolerate. His only motivation for joining my group for
substance-abusing kids—the result of a school referral–was to keep from being kicked off
the football team.
Several weeks into the group, Randy revealed that three years earlier, his father
had died of AIDS from IV drug use. His public attitude about his dad’s untimely death
was stoic: “Shit happens.” But he also told the group that when his father was alive, the
two had spent little time together. In fact, one of the only things Randy knew about his
dad was that he did drugs. It occurred to me that at an unconscious level, perhaps
Randy’s own drug use was a kind of desperate bid to maintain some kind of connection to
his lost father. If so, I thought it might help him to try to contact his father at a deeper
level. On a hunch, I asked Randy to write a letter—not to Pot, but directly to his dad.
“What kind of relationship would you have liked to have had with him?” I gently asked.
“Write to him about that.” After some initial eye-rolling and foot-dragging, Randy brought
in his letter:
I wish you would have came to me instead of just running away from me. I
would have loved to been with you. I just wanted to be your son. When I
spent time with you it was great. And now you are gone and I will never see
you again: I wish you were here now because I could realy use you as my dad.
Even though you whernt around when I was younger I could use you. You
could make up for it now I miss you so much.
When I asked Randy to read the letter aloud in group, he got as far as the second
sentence when his voice cracked and his eyes began to tear. The group of kids was silent,
utterly present with him as he half-read, half-wept his letter. As I sat with them in the
circle, absorbing Randy’s torrent of grief and loss, I was reminded why I so persistently
encourage clients in my groups to read their letters out loud. Again and again, I find that
when feelings move from the heart to paper, then from paper to spoken word, our felt
connection with our experience deepens. And when that experience is witnessed by other
people, our capacity to embrace our own pain—and the caring of others—deepens still
more. Bearing witness is a very profound thing to do for another human being, and we
don’t forget the people who have done this for us.
Randy didn’t forget. After that session, he slowly began to let go of some of his
bravado and stoicism. Randy’s letter seemed to provide a kind of makeshift memorial
honoring his connection to his missing parent. He brought the letter to our next several
group meetings and started sharing more about his dad. He began, also, to soften
noticeably toward me. Where in the past, I had been a tolerable but essentially clueless
adult, now, as a result of several conversations we had about his letter, Randy began to
trust me with parts of himself he had carefully edited out before. I listened to his tirades
about his stepfather’s cruelty, the depth of his ache for his own father and his admission
of how brutally hard it was to break free of pot, especially living with his mother, who
smoked and dealt the stuff. I looked for ways to support his strengthening desire to quit,
eventually helping him move to a supervised, independent living program that enabled
him, for the first time, to stay clean for an extended period of time.
For me, the turning point in our new, trusting relationship was the day Randy
invited me to come to one of his football games—even though it turned out that he wasn’t
starting and wasn’t as good a player as he had made himself out to be. I wasn’t his dad,
but at that moment, I was a good-enough stand-in. I went to the game and cheered like a
This slow tending and deepening of my relationship with Randy, culminating in the
reparenting he allowed me to do, embodies for me both the limits and power of letterwriting
to create change. If I had merely instructed Randy to write a letter to his dad with
minimal follow-up, I would have continued to be a meaningless, expendable adult in his
life. I can’t say for sure, of course, but I doubt that he would have bothered trying to quit
drugs. The letter was vital in our work together because it allowed Randy to uncover and
experience his longing for his dad, which in turn created a space for a relationship with an
adult man who was willing to care for and guide him. His letter wasn’t therapy, but it
created a generous, fruitful opening for therapy. It gave us a chance, and we seized it.
Jonathan Diamond, Ph.D., is the author of the new book Narrative Means to Sober Ends:
Treating Addiction and Its Aftermath, and is in private practice in Northampton and
Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. Address: 5 State Stree, Suite #2, Shelburne Falls MA,
01370; e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
SHELBURNE FALLS — Standing in front of a group gathered at the Senior Center for an Opioid Task Force community meeting, Eric Fahey talked about how he dropped out of school at the age of 16 and later battled addiction.
It is in that life that Fahey learned to repair things. He became sober in November of 1989. Shortly thereafter the carpenter by trade was asked to help out with a theater program.
“You grow up in a situation where you have to figure out how to survive you become a fixer,” Fahey said. “Unfortunately that’s what addicts bring to the table.”
It is at that theater program where he eventually turned to performing to help him manage his recovery.
“Once you have that experience of doing that,” Fahey said about acting. “It is all about the continuing support of building self esteem and self worth.”
Now 28 years sober Fahey has helped the community in Greenfield turn to theater as a means to help them with their recovery too. A couple years ago he formed the Mustard Seed Theater at The RECOVER Project, a two hour, self-produced production that invited people in the community to sing and perform spoken word among other acts.
“I was really blessed that I was able to stay sober and part of that experience was in my third year of sobriety, getting involved in theater.”
At the second of four town meetings the Opioid Task Force is holding, members of the community gathered to share stories of how the task force can continue to fight the ever-present opioid epidemic.
Last week in Deerfield some of the conversation was focused on the potential strengths in medically assisted treatment, like with suboxone or methadone.
Once again a panel of representatives from the region were present, including Northwest District Attorney David Sullivan, Baystate Franklin Medical Center President Cindy Russo, Register Probate and co-founder of the task force John Merrigan and Greenfield Community College President Bob Pura, among others.
Both Fahey and, to his surprise, another advocate for theater to help fight the epidemic came forward Tuesday evening.
Jonathan Diamond, the founder of the Recovery Theater, spoke about his project that helps young people with a range of issues including addiction, anxiety and depression.
Diamond, also the co-founder of Hilltown Youth Theater, has helped students from across the county feel comfortable in their own skin in various seasonal programs.
With young adults, substance abuse doesn’t come in neat, little categories and boxes,” Diamond said. “It comes with trauma and addiction.”
The program combines theater with trapeze arts too.
Arlie Hart, who leads the trapeze part of the program, discussed his own journey: from a household of alcoholics to a builder of trapeze to a teacher of it to kids battling various mental health and addiction issues.
“If you teach someone to fly on the flying trapeze,” Hart said. “You learn that you can do something when you’re afraid and you can make a choice and function even when you’re afraid.”
Hart added: “Recovery just doesn’t start and stop; recovery is a process. It’s continuous. We have to work as a community from the perspective that funding and support and education has to be continuous. We can’t just throw money at a program and say ‘ok, this is going to be it.’”
Next meetingThe next Opioid Task Force town meeting will be June 1 at Athol Hospital.
Massachusetts is currently experiencing an epidemic of opiate addiction that is ravaging our communities and our youth. It is in the headlines on an almost daily basis. Task forces have been formed and prevention budgets bolstered. However, if we expect young people to “just say no” to a chemical high we must recognize the healing alternative: their own creativity. Theater is the real anti-drug program.
The geographic position of Franklin County off of Interstate-91 has made our community a prime target for drug trafficking along the I-91 corridor, which has been nicknamed the “heroin highway.” In the past ten years, heroin use has grown exponentially in our community and in the past three years the rate of youth prescription drug misuse and abuse has nearly doubled, making substance use in adolescence an extremely important problem to address in order to meet the needs of local families. [Read more…] about Recovery Theatre