Joe Williams, Cornerstone of Recovery’s Activity Therapist, sees it on the faces of those who walk into his domain for the first time.
They show up with slumped shoulders and downcast eyes, carrying an albatross of guilt and shame around their necks. Their addiction has pummeled them into submission, and during those first few days in treatment, they feel as if peace and contentment will forever be beyond their grasp.
Joe, however, knows different. For one thing, his “domain” is wherever he decides to hold the day’s Activity Therapy. It might be a room in Cornerstone’s fitness center; it might be on the sprawling lawn that slopes gently downhill behind it; it might be in the flittering sunlight filtered through gently waving branches that stretch skyward from towering trees around an on-campus ropes course.
For another, it’s difficult not to find a reason to smile when Joe takes the lead. His activities may seem unorthodox within the framework of traditional drug rehab, but as part of Cornerstone’s whole-person approach to substance abuse treatment, it’s a crucial way of demonstrating to patients that the misery they may feel is temporary.
“People’s true personalities come out while they’re playing, because they can’t hide behind a mask,” Joe says. “It gets them out of their comfort zone a lot, and it helps them start to build relationships with others, to handle frustration and to put all of the tools that they’re learning here in treatment to use.”
Activity Therapy, as part of a treatment regimen that includes equal attention to the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual conditions of those who come to Cornerstone for help, is vital at helping patients forge connections – with one another, and with themselves, he adds.
“The activities we do together help the patients learn to work with others, how to handle frustration, and the activities help them build confidence,” he says. “They learn to think outside the box – to step back from the problem and get a different perspective, and that helps them cope with the different emotions that are going to come up during the treatment process.
“If they’re willing to just have fun and learn to be a kid again, they can learn how to relieve that stress that shows up in their daily lives in positive ways and with positive people.”
Joe joined Cornerstone’s therapeutic team eight years ago, after interning here from the University of Tennessee’s therapeutic recreation program; previous stints at Peninsula Hospital and Helen Ross McNabb Center introduced him to therapeutic recreation in the treatment of addiction, and in that he found his calling.
“You get to see people smile again,” he says. “You get to see that hopelessness dispelled.”
As Cornerstone’s Activity Therapist, he’s created a unique program that’s experiential and, weather permitting, outdoor-centric. Various treatment programs attend Activity Therapy multiple times a week, and Joe keeps a revolving door of regular exercises and recreation at the ready.
“A lot of them are what we call Initiative Activities, like ‘Stepping Stone,’” he says. “With that one, we try to get a whole group of people across the room without touching the floor, using different tools and materials, and they learn to take their tools with them as they work their way across. It’s a lot of fun!”
Some days will focus on art therapy or music therapy; the goal is self-expression, he adds, not to uncover the next Picasso or Eric Clapton – although many patients discover a new hobby, or rekindle the love of a forgotten one, during the Activity Therapy process.
“A lot of them may find hobbies they used to do and want to get back to them, or they learn to do the hobbies they love without drugs and alcohol, and that they can still have fun without those things,” he says. “Activity Therapy also provides a lot of mindfulness. When they’re being in the moment, they’re forgetting about everything outside, and they’re dealing with what’s right in front of them. That’s problem-solving.”
Such skills come into play most apparent during a patient’s time on the ropes course. A series of personal development and team-building activities carried out in a wooded area of Cornerstone’s campus, the course includes both low and high elements.
“The low elements are the activities on the ground, which helps with team-building and working through problems and issues, as well as building trust and self-confidence,” he says.
One such exercise involves a giant, unsteady platform that rocks back and forth like a seesaw; patients have to work as a group to mount it, one at a time, while keeping it balanced. The bigger lesson, he adds, is to teach them the necessity of balancing work and play in their lives beyond Cornerstone, and the need to find support to do so from like-minded peers.
“A lot of it demonstrates how important it is to surround yourself with positive people, in meetings and in life,” he says. “We are who we hang around.”
Higher elements involve activities that require safety gear: helmets, belays, harnesses and more, and take place on platforms mounted on nearby poles and trees. Those elements, he added, are described as “challenge by choice.”
“Their choice is to challenge themselves at their comfort level, and then I ask them to take one step past that,” Joe says. “For instance, if their comfort level is climbing halfway up a ladder, I’ll ask them to go three-quarters of the way. It’s about overcoming any fears that they may have, to focus on letting go, and learning to trust.”
Once patients take that initial leap of faith and push through the fear that has paralyzed them for most of their lives, the reward on the other side is unlike any they’ve known outside of drugs, Joe adds.
“The first step is the hardest, but once they take it, they realize they’re going to be OK,” he says. “It’s a scary step out into the unknown, especially if they’ve never done it, but having encouragement from their peers while they’re up there helps them. And when they’re finished, a lot of them can’t believe they were able to do it, and they’re pleased that they gave themselves a chance.”
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