The PLAY of RECOVERY

“Conscious recovery of the playful child within is both a means and a joyful end to the journey.” -Marcia Singer

When was the last time you “played?” You know, did something enjoyable with your whole heart and soul, got so involved that you forgot what time it was, just having fun? If you are like most people, it’s probably been way too long. And if you’re currently struggling with an addiction, you’ll have especial trouble trusting spontaneity, an essential component of natural play. Yet the powerful connections among losing our facility for playing, finding our authentic selves and recovering “joyfulfillment” have barely been explored.

We live in a society of stressed out, “deadly serious” people, habitually attempting escape from registering life’s heartache, pain and shadows. Addiction is the name we give to the habit of avoiding disquieting feelings or thoughts on a regular basis, as well as to our particular anesthesia or distractions of choice. The Recovery movement in the U.S. is an enormous grassroots effort to heal the shame and debilitation associated with addictive lifestyles, and restore people to healthier, happier lives. Happy people are naturally playful, indulging in, childlike, unadulterated, free hearted self-expression that helps keep us fit in every way Bin physical, mental, emotional, sexual-creative and spiritual facets of our being. Remembering how to play is a context in which to remember who we Are.

I have found over the past thirty years as a therapist who works with healing addictions, and as a woman who has suffered from her own, that the skills, connections and insights offered in Play retraining offer a powerful, natural means to heal. My own discoveries came out of a branch of recovery called inner child work. This process focuses on uncovering within the adult a vulnerable childlike self which has been unconsciously hidden or pushed away for protection. Unfortunately, these attempts to protect and control also interfere with joy, trust, spontaneity, creative breadth or depth, vital energy and intimacy with others. These qualities of the “free” or “divine” child are also qualities of authentic play itself. And yet the utilization of play as a tool specifically for rehabilitation and for soulful restoration in therapy programs has yet to be exploited.

The idea that Play can be our “13th Step” in recovery is an exciting one: now we can imagine ourselves “playing through” our fears with courage and heart, until we are free enough at last to engage the world as Friend. Everything that has been interfering with our aliveness and confidence in our own inherent value will arise in play recovery — the same stuff associated with any addictive or compulsive pattern we’ve been running.

The process of recovering play shows that distrust deeply underlies addictions. Whatever deep hurt, shame or anxiety we experienced as children that took root in us as an expectation to distrust life, ourselves and others, also keeps us from playing, because true play requires a free, trusting heart. Envisioning ourselves as players underneath it all gives a wonderful, compassionate twist to the work of soulful recovery.

Our 13th Step program begins with admitting we are in need of healing, and proceeds with a compassionate, in-depth examination of our hidden inner needs and current outer actions. We may discover our innate connection to a Higher Power by “playing through” the fears we encounter along the way with courage and increasing faith in positive outcomes. Finally we are “in play” with Life itself, with Spirit, and the joyous possibilities of living a soulful, fulfilling life.

The recovery movement embraces hundreds of thousands of men, women and young people learning to value themselves, empower their dreams, and change unwanted behavior. Changes may involve habits relating to health, relationships, sexuality, work, sense of purpose, worthiness or recreation styles. Whether it’s the abuse of drugs , an eating disorder, unhealthy sexual or co-dependent relations, anger displays, pack rat syndrome, smoking or even compulsive neatness or jogging, recovering our right to free hearted, innocent self expression has an immediate positive effect on dissolving the anxious distrust beneath the addictive patterns.

Some of the most wonderful playmates and actively spiritual people I know are former ‘addicts.’ We understand that addictions and compulsions are unconscious, often-desperate attempts to “fix” a lingering, shadowy sense of impending doom — a sense of disconnect with what is good and meaningful and promising in being alive. Remembering how to engage as Friend, how to live with an open heart and mind contains the practical and spiritual fodder needed for the journey of Recovery.

Whatever the addiction, there is a “13th Step” possibility: Play mode. Playing can be both both a means and an end to resuscitating the ageless child within us and to assuage the longing for the uplift of creative spirit, and the longing to belong.

Step out of identifying with being a defective, disconnected human being. One day at a time, become a Player for Life. Although we may live in an addiction-based society, as each of us recovers the art of true Play, we may mentor others around us in the joy of being alive again.

AFFIRMATION: I put my whole self back into Play, and with faith and courage, open to recovering the joy of being unflinchingly, overwhelmingly alive.

Originally published in Steps To Recovery, March 2004.

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