Spirit & Place performance depicts true stories of addiction and recovery

Sally Wasmuth, Ph.D., OTR, was a research fellow at the Veterans Administration when she sought some kind of intervention that would be beneficial for the population she was working with – military vets dealing with addiction and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Her answer: theater.

“It serendipitously addressed all the things we were seeing in addiction literature,” the assistant professor in the University of Indianapolis’ School of Occupational Therapy said.

Specifically with theater, you’re seeing others on a regular basis, thinking about future performances at every rehearsal rather than focusing on the immediate moment and instant gratification (which is usually the case in active addiction) and working on things that facilitate neurological restructuring like memorizing lines.

“We found this really nice match between what theater offers and what people in addiction recovery need,” Wasmuth said.

She created a six-week intervention for her VA clients based around theater that had a good outcome. Along with Victoria Garcia-Wilburn, DHSc, OTR, of Indiana University’s Department of Occupational Therapy at IUPUI, they co-founded Art of Healing, Inc., to provide more such opportunities for positive lifestyle recovery.

When they facilitated a second theater intervention at Fairbanks, a collaboration was formed between the nonprofit drug and alcohol treatment center, its recovery high school Hope Academy, Art of Healing, Inc., and the Indiana Addiction Issues Coalition to stage such an event at the Spirit & Place Festival.

The play “I’m Doing This for the Rest of My Life!” will be performed 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5, at the Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Ave., Indianapolis. Admission is free but RSVPs are encouraged by Nov. 3.

The performance features four personal stories of addiction, long-term recovery and ultimately hope through a new play written by local playwright Tom Horan, spoken word performance and discussion. It incorporates the idea of narrative medicine, which helps extrapolate the details of a person’s story.

“Often when we meet with clients, we start with just asking them to tell their story,” said Garcia-Wilburn, who’s also president of the Indiana Occupational Therapy Association. “Through that we can tell where they’re at with their processing, their social support system, if they have goals, what their readiness for change is and what their habits and routines are.”

Art of Healing’s goal in staging “I’m Doing This for the Rest of My Life!” is to educate the public about the current opioid crisis and addiction in general.

“We see addiction not just as a problem in individuals but in society and in our culture,” Wasmuth said. “We don’t want to just treat individuals, but also provide community-based events.”

Stories from the Spirit & Place event – performed by actors and actresses – include a man who struggled with alcohol addiction starting in adolescence, a professor who abused both alcohol and food and a self-described “beach skater kid” who became addicted to heroin and is now in recovery. The production also includes spoken word performances by Hope Academy students.

Wasmuth says it’s compelling for her collaborators to witness their stories told by someone else in these theater interventions. They’ve shared these experiences in meetings and therapy sessions many times, having the ability to edit as they see fit. When it’s interpreted through someone else, they no longer control the narrative.

“All of them have told me, at various points, how powerful it is to have their own story projected back to them,” Wasmuth said. “They say it’s given them new insight and understanding.”

It’s been impactful on audience members too, even those who’ve experienced addiction firsthand.

“Seeing those lived experiences in this way was really powerful and brought home a new understanding for people in the audience, many of whom have family members struggling with addiction,” Wasmuth said.

Garcia-Wilburn notes how common stereotypes still are in our increasingly blended society, including with addiction.

“We often think addiction should look like this, or this is the person most likely to be an addict,” she said. “Bringing this play to life and seeing how addiction affects people from all walks of life re-humanizes addiction.”

For more information on “I’m Doing This for the Rest of My Life!” including registration, visit http://www.spiritandplace.org/Festival.aspx?access=Details&Year=2017&EventScheduleID=52