When Games Can Help With Recovery
By: Lakeview Health Staff
Published: January 10, 2016

Many people first encounter drugs and alcohol as part of a leisure activity. For patients in recovery at Lakeview Health, recreational activities are part of learning how to have fun in sobriety. Recreational therapy goes well beyond fun, though. While participating in the activities, patients acquire important recovery skills. “Learning through doing is a common feature of this treatment,” says recreational therapist Emily Dugan. Some of the activities on offer include arts and craft, sports, community outings, dance and movement, drama, music, and team-building games. The games in particular can be quite interesting, not to mention therapeutic. “Patients practice skills discussed in their primary group,” explains Dugan. “We’re doing games for a reason.” “Not too long ago, we had a values auction after talking about what’s important in people’s lives. We had a number of cards with values printed on them, and everybody had $ 5,000 to bid for them,” says Dugan. “You had to decide what’s important to you and what you are willing to give up to hang on to these values.” After the auction was over, the group discussed questions like “How much is sobriety worth to you?” “Patients learn that wanting something and making it happen are two different things,” she says. One of Dugan’s favorites is a game called “The Twelve Step Path.” It’s played on a tarp that has different squares. It’s focuses on the 12 Steps and finding the right road. “Patients are working as a team to find the right path to take,” explains Dugan. “We typically get a lot of feedback, even while people are playing, and eventually it gets to the point where we discuss that we know people who went into rehab, relapsed, restarted the 12 Steps, and relapsed again … until they were out of the game.” Participants realize that in real life, being out of the game can mean being in jail or even deceased. Dugan often gets comments such as “I didn’t think of it like that. I didn’t realize what it means to play again, to get a second chance at the 12 Steps.” The helium stick game teaches a different skill set. Participants form two lines, standing and facing each other, presenting their hands palms up and index fingers out. Dugan then places a long, wooden stick across the row of fingers. The required task seems easy: lower the ‘helium stick’ to the ground. But it will only work if the group works as a team, as their fingers must not lose contact with the stick—which sounds easier than it is. Sometimes the stick actually rises as players tense up. Through this activity, they learn how to handle frustrations, how to finish a task even when difficulties emerge, and how to build on skills for anger management and effective communication. “In recreational therapy, we’re not just talking about how patients can manage their anger. We actually put them in a situation where they start to realize they are getting frustrated with the activity. Then they pause, and we ask, ‘What are you feeling right now? Can you relate to this in some way?’” says Dugan. “We also do a lot of activities that are revisions of the 12 Steps, explaining that, to complete these, people have to work together. You cannot complete this task on your own, just as you can not complete sobriety on your own. You have to be able to rely on others.”