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.
In 2015, in response to this statewide epidemic, we launched The Recovery Theatre, a new initiative within the Hilltown Youth Theatre Performing Arts Programs. The Recovery Theatre is a strength based, holistic model creating change for area youth through theatre and the arts. It began with a pre-workshop, five-day Recovery Intensive for ten young people overcoming addiction, anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. As one seventeen year-old participant observed: “In the mornings we collaborated with guest artists on voice work, movement, puppets, make making, documentary songwriting and work on large apparatus (e.g., aerial fabrics, spools, flying trapeze); in the afternoons we wrote ‘goodbye letters’ to our addiction, created small monologues and complied them together. We chose pieces of people’s recovery stories and turned them into dramas. I’ve been in treatment for a few years. That lying on the couch therapy didn’t really help. This was active therapy!” (Greenfield Recorder, 2015.) Our goal is for participants and graduates to become advocates who continue utilizing the arts for their own growth and healing.
At the heart of addiction and craving is traumatic stress, the stuck, and hence repeating, energetic survival states of fight, flight or freeze. For adolescents, especially, substance use is also a risk-taking activity that releases dopamine and endorphins and activates parts of the brain associated with pleasure. Consequently, the field of addiction medicine is paying more attention to the neurobiology of trauma. The thinking is that we don’t just process trauma and addiction mentally and emotionally but physiologically. With this renewed focus on the mind-body connection and somatic psychotherapies, the challenge is to develop creative ways to intervene in and disrupt self-destructive patterns of abuse. Interventions are needed that take into account adolescents developing endocrine and nervous systems, incorporate families and social supports and emphasize peer interactions so important to this age group.
Attachment theory, bringing adolescent substance users back into healthy connection and community, is another vitally important piece of the puzzle when designing programming for this population. Writes Paul McNeil, Director of the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County “Your theatre-based intervention offers young people access to networks of safety and unconditional peer love. We see theatre and performing arts as another tool in the toolbox of existing Complimentary Alternative Modalities (CAM) of therapy. In a way, your mission prescribes plays over pills.” Feedback from participants’ parents and guardians support these observations.
Thanks to successful fundraising, Recovery Intensives are now offered year-round and our summer intensive has been expanded to two weeks. Critical to the project’s success is an after-school program and a three-week summer workshop, which provide meaningful friendships and experiences where participants can continue to push themselves to explore their newly found skills and confidence. (To date, 30/32 participants chose to enroll in our three-week, outdoor, traveling summer spectacle—all received full scholarships.) Additionally, both programs provide year-round paid-employment opportunities essential for at risk teens and their families.