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The art of recovery

Special Report Writer

The men who arrive at St. Christopher’s Inn in Garrison, N.Y., -- more than 1,200 of them each year -- have come because they are addicted to alcohol, drugs or both. They have -- in the words of step No. 1 of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous -- admitted they were powerless over alcohol and/or drugs and that their lives had become unmanageable.

Not all of St. Christopher’s guests make this admission at the door, but all stay for up to 21 days -- during which time they get meals, clothes, housing and counseling, and learn the 12 Steps. Fourteen full-time counselors offer them a program that combines spiritual, physical and emotional healing, leading many to a life of hope and recovery.

While some of the men have been homeless and most have hit rock bottom after years of substance abuse, few upon arrival expect to replace the drink or drugs in their hands with a paintbrush, crayons or clay. But at St. Christopher’s -- operated by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement of Graymoor -- art is part of the recovery agenda.

“Most of these men don’t verbalize well, many have been abused as children,” art therapist Kathryn Olsen told NCR . She puts them into teams, helping to build cooperation and to overcome the years of isolation and alienation many have experienced.

“The men get their validation and approval from other men,” Olsen said, noting that teamwork helps to build self-esteem.

At first nearly all are resistant to her daily hour-long class, believing that they have to know how to draw. But Olsen insists that she doesn’t want “pretty art,” that this is not a competition and that no one may make fun of another’s work.

“I don’t get any inappropriate art,” she said. Often the men best express themselves by making collages from magazines, newspapers and other materials. “Let the pictures choose you,” she tells them.

Olsen, who counseled alcoholics for 23 years and has done art therapy for seven, said she may “see things” in their art. While she does not disclose her psychological interpretation to the men, she shares it with the other counselors.

Often men who have been sexually abused in their youth are used to the “no talk rule.” “When you put these feelings into art” -- they may be rage, fear, hate, she said -- “you can talk about them.”

Recently the men of St. Christopher’s Inn held an exhibit of their art, which included paintings, sculptures, clay figures and even a church crafted from egg cartons. One of the artworks titled “Powerlessness” and sculpted by James K. and Fabio C., depicts a man in chains to his addiction. Another statuette shows the inner horns of addiction.

More than 400 viewers saw the artworks, which were displayed during a recent month-long exhibit, during which time the New York archdiocese marked its first Recovery Sunday, Sept. 26, 1999.

“The wonder is that we have waited so long to declare this once-a-year Recovery Sunday,” Cardinal John O’Connor wrote to the priests of the archdiocese. He noted that the disease of addiction affects not only the addicted but “devastates marriages, families and children. It drains the resources of Catholic Charities. It clogs our courts, crowds our prisons and … pains the whole Mystical Body of Christ.”

The 90-year-old St. Christopher’s Inn, located 50 miles north of New York City, is thought to be the oldest continuously open shelter in the metropolitan area. About $1 million of its $2.6 million annual budget comes from government sources, the rest from grants and private donations.

“If we as a society are to reap the benefits of detoxification, we need to help individuals address their addiction as a disease with multiple components,” said Atonement Friar Bernard Palka, the inn’s executive director.

Palka greets each man who rings the inn’s door with open arms. He refers those who seek further help with their addiction to the St. Anthony Outpatient Clinic at the inn, where they may extend their stay up to 90 days.

Guests of the inn attend lectures, group therapy and 12-Step meetings. They also receive individual counseling and medical attention. Some work in the kitchen and library and as housekeepers and groundskeepers. Others assist in the thrift store and flea market.

Following Recovery Sunday, the archdiocese inaugurated a toll-free Recovery Line, staffed by professionals 24 hours daily. The line is averaging five calls a day, said John Shima, coordinator of publications and publicity for Catholic Charities.

Professionals take calls on any addiction, Shima said: gambling, abusive relationships, sex and tobacco as well as drugs and drink. They refer callers to psychiatric, medical and social services available in the archdiocese, especially those nearest to them.

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2000