Transcript: Write to Recovery - four years on

Erin Crombie (Group work facilitator) and John McCormack (Project Manager) from the Scottish Recovery Network give an update on the project.

Podcast Episode: Write to Recovery - four years on

Category: Mental health 


What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

MD - Michelle Drumm
EC - Erin Crombie
JM - John McCormack
A - Audrey
D - Dorothea

MD - You’re listening to, Scotland’s social services podcast. “Write to Recovery” is celebrating four years this year. Erin Crombie, Group Work Facilitator, and John McCormack, Project Manager, from the Scottish Recovery Network give an update on the project four years on.

EC The project originally started out as a story-sharing tool. So it’s a website that anyone can use. You can go on, create an account, post your writing, as kind of tools that kind of prompt writing that you might want to do, so different topics you might want to write about. The intention or the ethos of the website is that there’s something kind of inherently useful and inherently good about sort of writing your story and having some autonomy and some authorship over what’s happened in your life and what’s happened to you, and that it’s kind of inherently therapeutic for people and people find it useful, and there’s also something useful about hearing other people’s insights and hearing other people’s perspectives about experiences that you might have had, hearing about it from a different perspective. So there’s something in the kind of collective and in the sharing and for me at least that’s my, like I understand that’s where the kind of power of the group work comes from. So the group work sort of emulates that. It’s sort of bringing that into our room, bringing those people who might be kind of sharing their experiences and giving different perspectives of the same problems or the same issues, bringing those people actually into a room together and giving them the opportunity to actually speak to one another and actually create writing together in the same space.

MD Is there an evidence base behind its setup?

JM The evidence base for “Write to Recovery” was originally based on work that’s been done in America on what happens when people actually write their story down, and the evidence base on what happens when you write your story down is rock solid. So there is an infinite amount of papers out there that will tell you how, will tell you that writing and recounting your story is definitely good for your mental health and helps, and none of the papers can tell you why it works. They just know it works, and I think at the moment there’s about fifty theories as to why it’s actually doing something, and there’s theories about the fact that it solidifies a story in the sense that an anxiety thought train will have thoughts zooming about all over the place and re-circling round the same concerns. If you then put yourself through the discipline of writing it down you then get a different kind of story, and it’s like this happened and therefore that could happen, and finally the worst case scenario is this could happen and that’s the end of the story. Whereas if you just think it, it could go on all day, all night, forever and ever. Oh but what if, oh but what if? So there’s all sorts of theories about why it helps, but the one thing that we can say with complete confidence is it definitely helps. So that was the reason we went down the writing and the website in the first instance. We used another rationale which is based on best practice. So, you know, thinking about what is best practice in working with people. You could think about worst practice, and worst practice is what typically happens when people are invited to tell their story over and over and over again to Social Workers, Councillors, Therapists, Prison Officers, and they’re invited to tell this totally deficits led story. So the questions that illicit the story are when were you homeless, how much have you been drinking, when were you last in jail, what’s the most debt you’ve been in, how depressed are you on a scale of one to ten, when would you say you’re at your most anxious? So people then develop this story, they’ve rehearsed this story so many times that when somebody says, “Who are you?”, like a Social Worker for example says, “Tell me about yourself”, out comes this deficit story. We were incredibly aware that that isn’t actually who people are and it’s not the whole story. So there’s this whole other side that typically for many, many years has never been explored, which is the resilient story, and it’s the question of why have you survived? So all this stuff’s happened to you, why have you survived it? And people are able to, people are invited to articulate that and then we would, you know, the prompts on the website would invite people to say, so if you’ve got a particularly useful maxim or motto or saying that gives you strength, what would that be, and people are saying things like, “That which doesn’t destroy me makes me stronger”, and as they say these words they become more aware of the flipside of the deficit story, and so then other prompts are very much about things like what would be your preferred future? So “My Fabulous Future”, which is a flippant title, is actually inviting people to project into the future, into a world where they’re doing what they want to do and living the life they want to live and being the person they want to be. And of course we believe that unless you can visualise and imagine that it can’t happen. So there’s something fairly subtle going on. We’re trying to illicit a totally different story than from people normally tell, and of course within the storytelling people inevitably spend time talking about losses and pain and deficits and there’s tears and emotion, and that’s absolutely fine. We don’t like, you know, we’re not trying to say, “Don’t be emotional”. There’s a lot of sadness and anxiety and problems in the world and people can talk about that, but then we ask them, “But you’re still here and you’re surviving all that, and to be honest we’re just very, very interested in what it is you do that causes that to happen.” And you can actually see people then starting to reflect on that aspect of their life.

EC Yeah, and as you described John it’s sort of undertaking an activity where you’re inviting people to see the positive things that are maybe being overlooked in that negative story and in that trauma story, encouraging people to see that actually there was something helpful maybe that happened or so this terrible thing happened but we’re here, so what has been useful, how did you come through that, and when it’s in a group and some people are maybe thinking about that and identifying what had been useful, it has the benefit as well of other people in the group hearing it. So you have this atmosphere of people sort of picking and choosing and sharing in each other’s stories and almost kind of seeing themselves kind of each other’s stories.

MD So it launched four years ago.

JM It did.

MD So you’re celebrating the fourth birthday. Would you say that it’s met the expectations of when it launched and what you hoped for it?

JM It’s exceeded them by about a million miles. So when you launch a website you wonder will anyone even use it. Does the world need a new website? The world does not need a new website. We’re drowning in websites. So putting a new one out there is a very high risk strategy and it may well be honestly that nobody ever looks at it again, that it’s either too complicated, it’s incomprehensible, nobody understands what the point is, does anybody want to write on it anyway? So it’s exceeded it by a million miles. We got many people immediately using it and that gave us the confidence then to develop the group work side of it which at that time we’d only been piloting in a very, very, very small way and getting small groups of small numbers of people in one or two places in Scotland, and that gave us the confidence to apply for some funding which we got from The Alliance to employ a couple of workers, Facilitators, who’ve now been all over Scotland, and the demand honestly seems insatiable and bottomless. We’re not running out of demand for this project in any possible way, and the interest is significant. The Scottish Government gave the money to The Alliance and we put in a bid for it and it was against intense competition, and won enough money to get, employ Group Facilitators for a couple of years, and my colleagues at The Alliance are saying to me they’ve never seen a project with so much reach, and everywhere they go - they tour Scotland doing bits about self-management and they’ll end up in Aberdeen or Inverness, and people are saying, “Oh yeah, we were doing that “Write to Recovery” group work, it was absolutely brilliant and we’re still running it.” So the reach is phenomenal. So the short answer to your question is it’s done much, much better than we would ever have, it’s beyond our wildest dreams what it’s turned into.

MD That’s fantastic. Erin, you’re involved in some of the group work is it …

EC Mmmhmm.

MD … around this? Would you like to say a little bit about what that involves?

EC Yeah, so we work in partnership with all kinds of people and places, different organisations from universities to mental health organisations. We work with youth groups, we’ve worked in prisons, basically in anywhere that has an enthusiasm for working and delivering the project, and I think that that’s kind of the key is a willing group of people who are interested in recovery and in doing it in a creative way. So we sort of aim to open it to not just your sort of groups that you might first think of, you know, like that kind of people who are maybe struggling with diagnoses or have a mental health condition. We sort of have the approach that distress is universal and everyone can benefit from this kind of group work.

JM I’m just thinking about what you said earlier about what is the purpose of the project and what’s the purpose of the group. We don’t often mention it but there is a rather sort of high level plan which sounds quite grandiose and quite moral, and what we’re actually trying to do is reduce the amount of distress in the world caused by trauma and pain and mental suffering. So it’s kind of like we’ve got this high level aim. We’re going to attempt to reduce the distress and get people in touch with their resilience and their inner strength. So it’s nothing short of an ambitious transformational aim that we’ve got. So all the stuff that we do serves this higher purpose and people do tell us that they feel less distress and more in control as a result of engaging with the project. So yeah. We don’t say that too much cos it sounds a bit embarrassing to say, “Here, we’re trying to reduce the distress in the world.” It’s saying, it’s like what are you all about?

MD It’s a very clear message though, isn’t it?

JM It’s crystal clear.

MD Yeah.

JM It’s crystal clear.

MD I think people will identify with that I think.

JM Mmmhmm.

EC Mmmhmm. And it is that kind of I suppose when you put it that way as well, we are trying to reduce the distress in the world, and it’s not even as if we’re trying to do it by going in and doing it to people.

JM Yeah, we’re trying to promote self-healing, you’re right.

EC Yeah.

JM And the other thing that happens in the group at some kind of subtle level is another ambition that you won’t necessarily find on the website or find out there is to provide people who have got mental health challenges and addiction challenges and been in and out of prison, whatever kind of social problems people have got, to provide them with the kind of education that is normally only provided to Psychologists and professionals, very esoteric knowledge that only the few know. We want that knowledge out there. So just last week men in a jail in Perth Prison watching a Ted Talk with Nadine Burke Harris teaching them on video about adverse childhood experiences, and the guys are just totally taken away by the fact that they’re sitting there saying to us in the group, “Actually, now I know what I’m recovering from. So I thought I was recovering from an addiction and I thought I was recovering from bipolar disorder, I’m in this group and I can now see I’m actually recovering from a bunch of adverse childhood experiences and trauma”, difficulties that they’ve not spoken about, and sometimes it’s been like one chap had witnessed a murder. So he was going about his normal life at the age of nine and had witnessed a brutal murder and his life had spiralled out of control after that, but oddly enough he hadn’t made the specific connection between that event and ending up with a drink drug problem, you know, through self-soothing, leading him to be arrested and end up in a jail, and he’s now thinking what I’m actually recovering from here is this horrible set of memories that have affected my trust in people and then my life spiralled out of control. That’s the truth of it. In the prison work for example we don’t even mention the writing, and it’s very difficult to hand out pens and papers in a jail anyway, and we’re having conversations and people are as moved. So the theory is still the same. People are going into pairs to talk about their story and share their story from a different perspective. So they’re still doing the same exercises. They’re still doing why am I resilient, why have I survived, what am I going to do when I leave here and how am I going to create a better future? They’re still doing the same work but not through writing, because apart from anything else there’s enormous literacy problems in some of the places like prisons for example. So it’s not worth going down that road and it is very much the story, as long as there’s a story emerging that is a different story from the one you normally tell yourself. Write it, speak it, dance it, act it. Actually, that’s something we’re quite interested in actually is in developing other ways in which you could work on this story through animation or film. We’re thinking more and more broadly all the time to include all the creative arts as part of reinventing. It’s actually, that’s what it is. You’re reinventing yourself and seeing yourself in a new light.

MD And has there been any other changes or developments to the “Write to Recovery” since it launched?

JM I think the changes are organic and pretty much the modern parlance would be co-production, but in other words what we’re saying is, “People in the group have their own ideas but why don’t we do this?” So we then go, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So there’s stuff happening all the time in that a lot of the time if I’m completely honest with you we’re going into facility groups with no absolutely clear idea of how this is going to play out, because the group will take control of it and have agency and decide. We might go down and we might think well today’s theme is “My Fabulous Future” and somebody says, “Do you know, I’ve got shocking insomnia”, and then other people in the group go, “I’ve got this incredible insomnia too, I can’t sleep”, and suddenly the whole room’s talking about insomnia and sleeping problems and then the emphasis shifts on how are people managing sleep and has anybody got any good ideas, and suddenly we’ve got a workshop going that’s co-produced. They’ve decided the agenda, other people have gone, “Well I’ve tried this and that works”, and other people are going, “Well I’ve tried this and this works.” You also get that kind of normalisation going on where people don’t feel they are alone in having poor sleep. It’s quite comforting to realise that ten other people in the room also can’t sleep and that it’s a sort of shared difficulty if you will. So yeah, so new things come up all the time and we’ve incorporated bits of drawing and painting have occurred at various points and …

EC Yeah, I would agree. It’s like it’s difficult to respond to a question about how have there been kind of changes because I mean yeah, the group work framework is so open for kind of flexible application that as John says, like there’s been all kinds of different groups and it’s as individual as the collection of people that you have in the room and about how they want to run the group. So some groups will kind of have more dominant writing sessions. It’ll be they’ll maybe come in and check in with ourselves and how we are and go straight into doing some writing before there’s even been some conversation. So whereas other groups will be talking and talking and trying to lasso them into getting down and applying to the writing.

JM The theory behind storytelling had its origins often in group work and in the kind of the folk tradition and people telling their stories, and the one thing that stays true - and yes, the group work does go off in different directions for example insomnia - but the one thing that stays true all the way through is the type of questions we ask. In the face of a whole room of people distressed by insomnia the questions will always come back to well you’re here and why are you surviving it and despite the incredible insomnia you’ve still managed to get up today, come to this group, participate in it, get something out of it, share a bit of your life, how are you making that happen in the face of insomnia, and it switches people’s thoughts to, “Yeah, I am actually surviving it and well I got here because I love it and it’s great meeting other people”, and so the story they’re telling themselves starts to shift regardless of what the issue that comes up. The process leads us back to yeah, but you’re surviving it and we’re interested in that. Tell us more about that.

MD We also hear from Audrey and Dorothea who share their experiences of using “Write to Recovery”.

MD How did you both get involved in “Write to Recovery”?

D So I got it through the counselling services at my university. Essentially they send out an email saying that there is this new group starting and it’s about writing and you kind of write in the group right away so you don’t need anything prepared, you just go along and it’s a group, and so I thought that sounded very interesting, and university is kind of stressful for everyone but if it gets a bit more difficult as well you just need a bit of support, and so it was just something that was available right away. So I thought I’d try it out and so I signed up.

A For me I was looking at university as well. We have a little program called the Researcher Development Program where they give you the professional things that you can do to make yourself a better researcher and I’d been to different writing courses but for science, and then I saw this just cos I typed in writing courses, and at this point I’d already been two years diagnosed with depression, I was not having a good time and saw it and thought, “Why not?” Like at that point I was not really sort of big into new creative things helping you. As far as I was concerned anything that involved like mindfulness or taking time for you was just a sort of like hippie kind of stuff and just kind of went along cos I thought, “What have I got to lose? I’m feeling this rough, I’m going to try it”, and I’m really glad I did. It was just kind of by accident I kind of came across it cos I was looking for another writing course for science and then saw “Write to Recovery” and thought, “I’ll have a go at that.”

D And so we both had this eight-week course with different themes and topics that we explored and then wrote about, but we actually only met once both of our groups were finished because then we decided to continue on with the group self-led. So now we’re, yeah, we’re still running the group and we’re all facilitating week by week.

MD So you’re involved in facilitating groups as well?

A Yeah, yeah.

MD Oh, I see. Okay, excellent.

A Yeah, so we both attended a “Write to Recovery” group at the university. They were just on at different times and after that we weren’t finished with what was going on, so we decided for kind of bringing people from the groups that want to continue together with the help of Sarah from the counselling services and see how we can make it progress, just pick themes each week, get everybody involved in picking a theme and we can take turns at facilitating, but yeah we’re kind of like regulars at it I would say.

D Yeah.

MD Could you give me an example of a theme that you would use?

A We’ve used courage as a theme because a lot of the time you feel quite helpless, especially when you, like if you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition you can feel kind of lost and not know what to do. I know I did when they said, you know, “We’re treating you for depression.” I felt like oh well, that’s me, I’m depressed. Like I’m not a person with depression, at that point I was just depressed, but when we spoke about courage and how it does take a lot of courage to, you know, go and get that diagnosis and it takes courage to face every day when you’re feeling like that, it began to kind of open us all up to say, “Actually, I feel like that too”, and you can leave, especially with themes like that, feeling a bit more positive then when you came in cos you feel like you, like you were saying John that you kind of own your story. It’s you’re owning how you feel. You’re not apologetic for it. You’re saying, “This is how I feel and I’ve done well to get to this point.” So that’s one of the themes that we’ve touched on.

MD Mmmhmm. What would you say it really means to you in terms of being involved in “Write to Recovery”?

A It’s given me something that can not only help me but also distract me from when I’m getting really sort of stressed or upset about what’s going on in my life. It gives me a welcome distraction but also a tool to help me deal with that because it’s so, it’s a thing in itself. It’s a creative thing that is so unrelated to my university course or any other work that I do. It’s something that’s purely for me. It’s for me, it’s like a time to be selfish for me and I can do it and it’s enjoyable and I get something from it. Compared to last year when I thought, “What’s this all about?”, now I’m telling people like, “If you like writing or you want to have a go, go to this website, it’s so good”, and it’s definitely made me consider writing more and maybe even out with “Write to Recovery” doing a bit of creative writing. It’s definitely kind of opened my mind up to being more creative and that’s given me a bit of a boost as well because I’ve realised that I can be creative and it’s something that I’m quite good at, so I don’t know, it’s been really quite positive. It’s gave me a nice wee boost.

D One part about it was that like that you actually do this writing right in the group so it’s very much limited to the group, or at least at the beginning it was. I felt okay now I’m just going to give myself the freedom to just write stuff and it doesn’t have to be pretty, it doesn’t have to be like publishable. It’s just like thoughts, it’s just stuff that I’m thinking about, about this specific topic like courage or happiness or “My Fabulous Future”, and I think that really liberated me to just develop writing as a tool and not have it as something, “Oh, I have to make it pretty and I have to make it make sense or be like impressive”, or anything like that. No, it’s just kind of an expression of myself at this point in time.

MD So there’s sort of connections built up between people who attend the groups and do the writing?

A Yeah.

MD Is that network quite important then as well?

D Yes. I think there’s having a group that you every week go to and you kind of check in with each other. Yeah, what was good during the week? We also then kind of added what’s bad each week to it and just to hear what’s happening in your life a little bit and just have this like, “Oh yeah, these people again”, where I can just be myself and check in with myself each week, how am I doing, how am I doing compared to like last week? You just like see a bit of progress throughout the semester.

A And I think for a lot of people as well it’s a place where they can go and be listened to without judgement. So when you come to the group you can share your story and nobody gives you unwanted advice because a lot of the time when you speak to people about things that you’re struggling with they could be like, “Oh well it’s not that bad, this is happening to me or …”

D “Maybe you should just cheer up!”

A Yeah, “You should just cheer up! Don’t think about it. Go for a walk”, and it’s these wee things that they might, you know, their intention might be really well placed but it doesn’t help you. Sometimes you just need to say something and have someone listen and go, “I get it. I understand.” You’re not asking for advice, you’re just wanting somebody to talk to and I think you could see that over the weeks in the group, like people come in and you’re kind of staring at your shoes like, “Oh hi, I’m Audrey”, and by the end of it you’re sharing, you’re talking freely. You’re giving your experience and if somebody says they don’t know how to deal with something could you help them. They’re asking for your advice. You’re kind of using your experience to help others even if you don’t deliberately mean to. Hearing someone else’s story that’s similar to yours can really help you if they have found a way to overcome something that you haven’t yet. So it’s quite useful I think that.

D Yeah, and it goes away from this idea of therapy or like self-improvement or recovery as this thing that happens like with one other person behind closed doors like with a Therapist somewhere, and I’m not going to tell anyone that I’m going to therapy.

A Mmmhmm.

D But instead it becomes this thing like, “Oh yeah, I know what that’s like.” Like it becomes like a bit more normal like you’re not this kind of freak anymore that can’t deal with the terrible world, but it’s just like, “Yeah of course you’re suffering. Like this is so hard. Like deadlines are so difficult to deal with and I’m so stressed and I know exactly what that feels like.” And so I think for me it also really reduced a lot of self-stigma I think …

A Mmmhmm.

D … about like struggling with mentally ill health at times. So I think I’ve become a lot more open about it. I really want to like help and support reducing the mental health stigma that’s still out there as well and I think that’s really been yeah, supported by sharing these things with a group. By even sharing like writing and evenings and by publishing some writings online and there’s then just being more genuine about my life experience really.

A Yeah.

D Well I think everybody that goes to a writing group at the beginning is a little bit apprehensive, like you don’t know who else is going to show up. You don’t think that you can write well or you don’t really know if is that for you or not, but I mean you don’t have to say anything, you don’t even have to write. You just go along, but I think what I saw in all of the groups that I’ve participated in there was always that at the beginning people were a bit shy and then as they heard other people talk about their experience and share their writing they felt like okay, maybe I can just write a little bit as well and open up a little bit as well. So I think at the beginning there’s always a bit of a fear how it’s going to be, but the Facilitators were always just really amazing at making us feel comfortable and at ease. So it was always just a very good environment to be in. We both participated in, or well when was the shared night of reading - what was it called?

EC “An Evening of Reading.”

JM “An Evening of Reading.”

D “An Evening of Reading”, yeah. So at “An Evening of Reading” we had all different people from various groups from all over Glasgow I think who shared their writing, and so both Audrey and myself shared some of our writing as well and like until the evening I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share or not, like I kind of still worked on it on the bus to the evening, but then I decided to share and I was like so, so nervous, but it was also really great to then go from the sharing something in a group which already was like really like frightening at the beginning, to actually share something like in a bigger setting on a stage basically. From all of the different groups that are in Glasgow everybody wanted to come along and share some writing that they did in the group or even outside of the group as well. They were welcome to share and we did, and that’s, I think that’s where we met the first time actually, yeah.

A Yeah that, cos you read before I read and we had a chat in the little interval thing.

D Yeah, that’s the thing, like it really connects people. Something resonated with you or you really appreciate a piece of writing and say like, “Hey, that was so good. I really enjoyed that.”

A Mmmhmm.

D Yeah. And the second reading that we participated in it was with the tenth anniversary of The Alliance where we just presented “Write to Recovery” as a project, and so we also shared some of our writing and said a little bit about it.

JM People loved it.

D Yeah, people were …

JM Oh, they loved it.

D Yeah.

A Yeah. I think there was one person when you were reading had to actually take a wee moment cos they got a bit teary.

D Yeah.

A So it just goes to show that the work that people are producing actually is, you know …

JM It connects.

A It connects with people. It’s not just words on paper, it’s so much more. The power it kind of gives back to folk because they feel comfortable sharing in public and bringing attention to something that before they might have felt, you know, ashamed of. I know with myself when I first got my diagnosis I was like, “That’s it. I can’t tell anyone. They’re going to think I’m weird. I can’t share this”, and then I’m out there telling people like, “I’ve got depression, it’s nothing to be scared of.” You can write these things and you can still be fun with it. You can be like self-deprecating humour that there’s so many different ways to deal with it and I think writing has definitely helped me deal with recovering from depression so much in a way that I would not have seen last year, and it’s just if it can do that for me what’s it doing for everyone else?

D Well it is also doing things for other people, like as you’ve said how people got like really were touched by our readings for example. They’re like to see that what actually comes from you, from like a dark place can actually bring like joy or something positive to other people as well and that way I think you can actually turn it into something, yeah, something quite positive.

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