Learning to Live in My Head

– Playback Theatre Possibilies with People in Early Recovery from Addicon

In this short piece, Brian Tasker (UK) provides some insights into the context and background of introducing Playback Theatre to people in early recovery from addiction. He illustrates some of the paradoxes and conflicts in the world of addiction and recovery and gives thoughtful consideration about the way Playback Theatre might assist.

Stories of recovery from addiction could offer a rich vein for Playback Theatre within the contained setting of a residential Rehab. The importance of containment, boundaries and structure are crucial to replace the chaos and unmanageability of active addiction and the ritual of Playback Theatre can support that.

In my years as a counsellor in a rehab, listening to the stories of addicts, by far the majority started using in their early teens, cannabis, sniffing glue, alcohol etc., it doesn’t really matter as twenty years later when I met them, their lives were in ruins as they had predictably moved on to harder drugs or just drunk themselves nearly to death. Everyone thought they could manage it but no one could. They’d often spent time in prison, smashed up their families, lost contact with their children and badly affected their health with collapsed veins, hepatitis and liver damage and were plagued by self-hatred, shame and low self-esteem. I’ve heard these stories, seen the results, witnessed the difficulties with recovery and heard about the deaths so many times that an aversion to substance use seems a fair response – it stopped looking like fun a long time ago. This gives rise to the conflict of the ‘serious’ worker (holding the boundary) and the spectrum of responses from clients that recovery includes – not everyone in treatment is committed to their recovery. Ambivalence is a regular visitor to a treatment centre and conflict is a constant theme as the dynamics of addiction are played out in how the rehab functions.

Honesty is really the only antidote to what can sometimes feel like an enduring negativity. From the outside, treatment can seem harsh and unrelenting which is exactly what addiction is to the addict from the inside. Perhaps that is why so many rehab staff have their own stories of recovery. Personally, I stopped using substances more than twenty years ago to support my interest in Buddhist meditation and my childhood experiences of growing up with alcoholism in my family taught me an aversion to euphoria. But what supports me in my work is accepting my powerlessness over the behaviour of others which also empowers my boundary and capacity to continue to say ‘no’ when necessary. I don’t have to play. The alternative is repeating the co-dependence that maintains addiction in the family and other relationships and perpetuates the ‘feel-good’ culture that undermines honesty and encourages distraction.

Recovery is not just about letting go of a substance, but letting go of the behaviours that underpin the addiction. The dramas, games and unpredictability and the lies, collusion and enabling that undermine recovery remain the biggest challenge facing the individual trying to get well. Often the emotional loyalty to the substance maintains the inner struggle through cravings and a longing for dissociation from reality. If addiction is a lonely experience without real friends only using asso- ciates, then recovery is a collective experience hopefully mirrored by the support of a recovery community.

In the case of trauma, which is often the result of a situation where the person’s defences, both physical and psychological were overwhelmed, resulting in a freezing or sense of being trapped or stuck that makes the traumatic incident (or the feel- ing of it) the point of reference from then on. The painful and often horrific reality of the trauma settles into a fiction of worthlessness as the affected person learns to think from that place. Addiction flourishes in such a distortion. Addiction also has the paradox of an exaggerated sense of entitlement alongside this perpetual sense of low self-esteem. It’s no surprise that clients are often heard saying ‘I can’t live in my head’. Perhaps the compassionate distance of Playback Theatre could have a role here, in bringing what’s going on in someone’s head out into the open and in doing so, lessen the loneliness through the mutual identification that is the cornerstone of recovery.

This article is part of a longer work being prepared on this theme. A PT workshop template on addiction for your group is freely available from

Brian Tasker is a Graduate of the School of Playback Theatre (2008), a counsellor with senior BACP accreditation and has worked in the area of substance misuse for 15 years.

1 Comment

  • Michele CHUNG : Hi, Brian, this is great work that you have done. My experience with substance users would be they are often lack of motivation to come regular to the group if they are already back to their own living space. How did you tackle on that?

    One of my touching stories was actually from a home for substance users to get better. A woman shared her story about her relationship with her mother and I have felt that we have supported her in that storytelling and her witnessing what have happened in that period of her life. But the challenge for us was the the centre was quite remote from the city so it was hard for us to get there regularly. I wish I could be back again soon.

  • 11 Mar 2015

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