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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
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
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
"Intensive Journal" is a registered trademark of Jon Progoff and licensed to Dialogue House.
© Copyright 1991. Reprinted with permission of the author.