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Overcoming Addictions: The Intensive Journal® Method and Twelve-Step Programs

by Beverly A.

Writing in Recovery

The value of writing in recovery from alcohol and other addictions has long been noted in treatment and twelve-step circles. The twelve steps, which are the recovery tools of Alcoholics Anonymous ("AA") and other programs patterned after it, include two written inventory steps, and there are many twelve-step guidebooklets available, designed to promote inner awareness in the recovering person through a question and answer format. In addition, many twelve-step sponsors recommend that their "pigeons" (the AA term for sponsee) keep a journal as their recovery journey progresses. When used under the tutelage of an available sponsor, counselor, or spiritual guide, these writings can provide the newly recovering person with an excellent recovery tool.

However, as the recovering person becomes more autonomous, just how effective is writing, and specifically journal writing, as a recovery tool? Dr. Ira Progoff has written about the decreasing effectiveness of unguided journal writing over time (At A Journal Workshop, p. 28). Whereas unguided journal writing often declines into behavior analysis and circuitous thinking, says Dr. Progoff, the Intensive Journal process does not. Instead, through its non-judgmental, non-analytic nature, the Intensive Journal method, created by Progoff in the 1950s and 1960s and based upon the principles of holistic depth psychology, gives the writer a mirroring capability that increases the power and effectiveness of the process over time. This experience of seeing oneself through one's own uncensored words, without the burden of judgment or analysis, has an empowering effect upon the user.

In AA, the recovering person experiences this principle of non-judgmental self-awareness through the mirror of admitting powerlessness in the first step. When the burden of analyzing the whys and wherefores is lifted, the opportunity exists to see one's situation more clearly. On that basis, the recovering person begins to move naturally in the direction of change.

Yet according to the steps, that change comes from a "Power greater than ourselves." Through step two, one becomes aware of that power, and in step three, one makes a decision to let that Power guide his or her life. For some that Higher Power may be the recovery group, for others a sponsor, and for others the god of their understanding.

Similarly, through the Intensive Journal method's catalytic process, one becomes connected with that power, experienced as a power from within that is somehow wiser than one's everyday thought processing. This empowerment may appear in the form of a talent or inclination for creative writing or other previously unexpected creative behavior.

In the Intensive Journal method, as in the Twelve-Step program, one's understanding of which doctrine or belief system, if any, to attach to that power, is a personal decision. The experience, however, of combining these two powerful recovery tools, the twelve steps and the Intensive Journal method, is synergistic.

My Personal Journey

I have been using the Intensive Journal method for many years. As images of my life began to cover the pages of my Intensive Journal workbook, I began to feel more at ease with my life as it was unfolding. The quiet atmosphere of writing and reflecting with other inwardly focused individuals in a group setting has a renewing effect upon me. Since that first workshop, I have attended several Intensive Journal workshops, and each one has offered me valuable perspectives in my recovery journey.

My Intensive Journal workbook has been my friend and confidant through many life passages and transitions. It has accompanied me to Alanon and to Overeaters Anonymous ("OA") meetings, many of which have given me additional information about myself to add to my use of the Intensive Journal method.

As for my Twelve-Step journey, I attended my first OA meeting in 1978, and weaved in and out of the program for several years as I struggled to figure out if I was indeed "powerless over food." One of the most powerful experiences I had in finally making this commitment to work on the twelve steps and my food compulsion came during an Intensive Journal workshop when we did the "Dialogue with Body" exercise in our workbooks. I came out of that experience both amused and deflated after dialoguing with my body by its powerful response concerning my abuse of it. After the workshop, I continued these conversations and gradually became able to look into the mirror of my writing and see the next logical step, which was to work the twelve steps.

The dialogues with my body were only part of the puzzle that the work revealed to me. The Journal FeedbackTM process utilized the structure of previous exercises as it helped me look back on what I had written to work with it in new sections. Using this mirroring process, I was able to see the inner pain playing itself out in my life and relationships. I felt an inner core of strength that would carry me through whatever I needed to go through to heal. The Intensive Journal method was a major factor in my returning to twelve-step work with a commitment that had previously been absent. The mirror and push from within that it somehow created in my life were instrumental in my readiness to begin the recovery process anew.

Once I made that decision to begin working my Twelve-Step program in earnest, I realized that I needed to connect with my Higher Power, to whom I refer as God. I was able to do this by turning to my Intensive Journal workbook. I spent a summer doing exercises in a section in which I dialogued with my inner wisdom figure, who was in my case my Higher Power. It was in this section that I looked to my inner wisdom figure for guidance and ultimate knowledge. I would preface each writing session with a prayer to be guided to do His will and would then sit in quiet meditation for ten minutes or so before beginning to write. I found this section very helpful in keeping me God-centered, rather than self-centered during the day.

At one point in my journey, a sibling of mine decided to begin working the AA program. I then joined Alanon in order to understand my role in her illness and recovery, and also to team up with alcoholics and addicts in all sorts of endeavors.

Today I can say that Alanon and the Intensive Journal method have been my constant companions in keeping track of myself and what is best for me in the middle of the many ups and downs that work with addicts can bring. Through this inner work, I have met and become consciously connected with a strong core within myself. This inner calm, coupled with increased creativity in all areas of my life, has emerged naturally over the years, and continues to grow as I grow in my Intensive Journal method and twelve-step recovery process.

As with any skill, using the Intensive Journal method takes practice, especially when being balanced with the twelve-step program. For a while, I used my Intensive Journal workbook as a daily personal inventory stop. I would diligently record my character defects in the daily log section and then leave them there to gather power with each rereading. What resulted was an impasse in both my Twelve-Step and my Intensive Journal work.

I came to realize that I had eliminated the most important part of the method: its unique Journal Feedback process. The Intensive Journal method is not simply taking an inventory of oneself or a daily log of occurrences (emotions as well as events). It involves going back and forth between the sections of the workbook that helped me to realize connections and relationships between different areas of one's life.

Even though I no longer use the Intensive Journal method merely for the inventory work, it has taken the sting out of inventorying for it has helped me to see my life as an unfolding process instead of as a series of wrongs and rights along the way. For Twelve Steppers, the slogan "Utilize, don't analyze," reminds one to use one's life experiences as lessons for growth rather than for self-bashing, and which goes to the core of the Intensive Journal method.

One story told, told by Dr. Progoff on his tape, "Non-Analytic Ways to Growth," was of the greatest help to me for weathering the storms of life's ups and downs. He tells of a monk who suddenly found himself unable to complete even the most mundane of tasks without error. Since the monk's work was to maintain the monastery, these small mistakes were to him disasters. Nothing seemed to help, so the monk decided to go into solitude in the woods, to spare his fellow monks his incompetence, which for all he knew would be permanent.

In the woods for several months, the monk was able to relax and simply observe the goings on around him. He noticed the autumn leaves falling off the trees. Yet, during winter, the trees still stood strong, and with the arrival of spring, buds appeared and soon blossomed again. Watching this process was healing for him, for in the seasons of the trees he saw the seasons of his own life, at times in full bloom, at times barren, but always rooted, and thus always alive. He realized that his old self would return by simply being and accepting the cyclical nature of life.

The recovery process itself involves work and willingness to take action on one's own behalf. At times, talking to one's sponsor or other spiritual guides or a fellow traveler will help. It may also be helpful to make amends, change one's behavior, meditate, or help someone else. But at times, these things are not enough to alleviate pain or deal with a difficult situation. The above story and my Intensive Journal work have taught me to accept life's seasons and thus have carried me through trying moments in my own recovery and life journey, as well as those of others in my life.

When all else fails, Dr. Progoff's story about the monk, and my Intensive Journal work, give me a helpful reminder which in twelve-step language is stated "learning to accept God's timetable rather than my own." The impetus to act when necessary, along with patience, a willingness to accept reality, and the ability to see the value of all life experiences without having to label them as good or bad, are qualities that grow over the years through the practice of both Intensive Journal work and twelve-step work. The combination of the two allows these qualities to manifest in a more timely manner in the recovering person.

In the Twelve-Step programs, a story circulates about a person drowning in a lake. Another swimmer comes to his rescue, but is unable to do much good, because the drowning person is carrying a large, heavy rock under his arm which keeps pulling him downward. No matter how hard the rescuer tries to extricate the rock from the other's grasp, he cannot do so. Finally, he screams, "Drop the rock."

Recovering people, and many others for that matter, often carry rocks of past and present pain which keep them drowning in a sea of misery and unhappiness. This is another way in which the Intensive Journal method can be of help. When life seemed overwhelming, I realized that if I spent some time writing about the current period of my life (Period Log), the clouds would lift more quickly and everything would seem to fall back into place. After using that tool several times and getting results, I found that just the thought of what kind of period I was going through would be enough to help the inner storm pass.

These days, the Intensive Journal method has continued to help me in ways such as dealing with difficult and disturbing dreams. I recently took an old dream that had gnawed at me for years and wrote a new ending for it in a section known as Dream Enlargement. Just this simple exercise eliminated the gnawing and gave me a new way of seeing myself in relation to my family of origin. As I moved on to other sections of the workbook, this new perspective on my life was verified as I realized a new attitude I noticed myself having. This is yet another example of how the Intensive Journal method has helped me "drop the rock" and get on with the business and joy of living.

In my early recovery, a long-sober friend told me that the time would come when my life would be so full of positive activities that I would think back on the "old toxic days" and be amazed at my own ability to do so much without binging or going crazy. Today, several years later, I feel that amazement, though at times I still feel overwhelmed even by the positive stress. Last week, for instance, I recorded the many inner and outer thoughts, events, opportunities and changes occurring in my life over the past few months. As I wrote, an image of myself standing shakily on a weak tree limb which was hanging over the edge of a cliff appeared in my mind's eye, and so I recorded it. Upon rereading the entry, I felt relieved and somehow brave in self-pity at having found a picture to attach to the feelings. But work in the method often continues after the book is shut.

When I closed my eyes later that night to go to sleep, the limb reappeared in my mind's eye. I was still standing on it. But under the limb this time I saw steel supports holding it up, and there I was standing firmly on the limb, looking out over the terrain of life fearlessly. This image reminded me that today my inner life is much stronger than it was in the past and that I am indeed capable of handling a wide variety of activity. The self-pity dissipated. Increased feelings of inner strength, serenity, and gratitude replaced it and I drifted into a peaceful nights sleep. Another rock dropped through use of the Intensive Journal method.

Now, after nine years of using the Intensive Journal method, I have been able to sort out the conflicts of recovering from addictions of my own and from the effects of others' addictions. I believe that the method has, does, and will continue to work as a tool for accessing my inner capacities and wisdom and for spiritual development. As we say in the twelve-step programs, "It works if you work it."

"Intensive Journal" is a registered trademark of Jon Progoff and licensed to Dialogue House. © Copyright 2019. Reprinted with permission of the author.