Every Addict Needs to Play

By Ken Wells - 10/27/2020


Series One: Blog Fifty-One

“It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.” -Leo F. Buscaglia

I never really learned how to play very well as an adult. It’s not attractive, it’s just the truth. My dad was kind of a forced workaholic. He quit school in the 8th grade and got a job to take care of his mom. My mom and dad raised 12 kids, so they worked all the time. Sometimes my dad had as many as 3 jobs at a time. He never played baseball with me; my mom showed me how. What I learned as a kid was that work was essential, play was a luxury. If you were going to make something out of yourself, you’d have to work hard, not play. My son Sam figured it out. He works so he can play. He has always known how to figure out how to have a great time playing. I credit his ability to play to why he is so adventurous and accomplished as an expert kayaker on the river and great outdoorsman. 

Yet, Buscaglia was right. There is a vital connection between work and play. Piaget said, “If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society.” Charles Schaefer reflected that we are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything than when we are playing. Diane Ackerman said that play is the brain’s favorite way of learning. This made sense to me as a kid. I learned to memorize important historical dates by associating the dates with the jersey numbers of my favorite baseball or football players. I still do that to this date. Important passwords are often best remembered when I utilize the jersey numbers of my all-time favorite players. 

For sure as a kid I created all sorts of games to address loneliness, boredom, and childhood drudgery. I spent days playing make believe baseball, football, and basketball games. I would lose myself in the games I would make up in my head and pit one professional team against the other, all the while keeping stats about who scored while strategizing a win down the stretch for my favorite team. Since I grew up in Illinois, my favorite teams were the St Louis Hawks in basketball, the Cubs in baseball and the Chicago Bears in football. The games I created as a kid were endless around sports. I used my imagination to get through boredom and childhood drudgery. One of the most challenging experiences had to do with church attendance. As a kid, I considered going to church as one of the most boring experiences I ever had. I attended an evangelical holiness church. All of these names meant something specific but for the purpose of being a kid they all really just meant boredom! I used my imagination for play to get through a lot of hell. I recall as a 5 to 7-year-old boy our church would conduct tent meetings. What this entailed was putting up a tent on a vacant piece of property, hiring an evangelist and plenty of barnstorming type gospel music and conducting a revival service. The same antics in worship often took place during revival tent meetings. It was a time for some who liked to think of themselves as “filled with the Spirit” to showcase their ability to shout in the spirit and dance a Holy dance. The tent meetings would last 2 weeks, every night and twice on Sundays. It was murder. I remember trying to pass the time away as a little kid by burying June bugs underneath a pile of sawdust then waiting to see how long it would take them to crawl out.  The sawdust was used to cover the ground underneath the tent. Play helped me get through many crazy moments of boredom in church

As a kid I was required to attend church twice on Sundays and Wednesday night prayer meeting. It was murder. However, sometimes the Wednesday night prayer meeting took place in someone’s house. They called it cottage prayer meeting. The only good thing about that was that they always served banana cream pie. I tried my damnedest to sneak a piece of pie and then out the back door, but my dad always caught me, and I had to endure the long prayer meeting. They were intent on praying heaven down, but I always felt like I had ended up in hell. 

The worship services were the worst. Sunday morning was 3 hours. The time always ate into the opening kickoff for the Bears game. It sucked. My only escape was that my brother and I created a basketball game that we played during church. We would sit in an empty pew at the back of the church sanctuary. We had memorized the names of the Sweet 16 top rated high school basketball teams, and we played a 16 team elimination tournament during church. We rolled up Wrigley’s aluminum foiled wrappers and made a little basketball. We then would cup one hand against the back of a pew, forming a makeshift basket. Each basket made was 2 points and we would play first to 20 points, win by 4. We played an entire tournament during church and still had time to kill. Once the tournament ended when my brother banked a shot off the back of the pew— won the game and the tournament. He forgot where he was at and jumped to his feet shouting “SCORE”. My startled dad came over and shut the league down!

For certain, in many ways play helped to get through some otherwise difficult times in childhood. At times, I learned to change drudgery into delightful experiences. Creativity is often the derivative of play. During times of addiction recovery, addicts need to learn to balance the intensity of their lives with play. Working through the uncertain times of a pandemic also requires cultivating the capacity of play. Panic and unsustainable dread grow when I get stuck wondering “when will this pandemic or addiction ever end?” Play fuels resiliency and helps you to stay in the moment. Here are some considerations: 

1. Take time to re-create and play.

Whether it be a full protracted vacation or stepping out of the rigors of a difficult day to play which can include video games for some, a social distance walk for others, a round of golf, a swim or a myriad of other options. Purposeful play is a necessity to being present in the moment while working through an addiction or a pandemic

2. Relapse prevention requires responsible play.

Some people use their play to escape or numb out from taking responsibility. This would be a poor unproductive use of play. Yet, most addicts struggle with utilizing healthy play which always renews and revitalizes vision and healthy life balance.

3. Play becomes a fuel to creativity.

Carl Jung said that “the creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” Long term recovery and serenity requires more than following a recovery formula whether that formula be the 12 steps or any other path. It requires the capacity of creativity within the soul and intellect of the addict. Creativity dries up when there is no time for play. You will need your creativity to meet your needs as life unfolds. Play is the secret pathway to access all the creative measures necessary to fuel your passions and resilience in times of pandemic or addiction recovery.

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