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  • Atara Vogelstein, LCAT & Founder @TherapyWalks

Permission to Play

Play with Adult Men in a Substance Abuse Treatment Facility: Do We Need Permission to Play?


Most of the adult men on the all-male identifying inpatient detox and rehab units in Harlem where I’ve been working for the past ten months have never had permission to play. You might not think they need it. Permission. Play. See, play is a privilege. Play comes with permission. Play comes with rules. In order to play, you must be able to respond to stimuli, to be spontaneous, to be able. Play requires a certain sense of ease, of comfort, of safety. A sense of one’s surroundings, and one’s presence within those surroundings. Most of the men with whom I have worked have lived most of their lives in instability. Maneuvering around the rules. Around unsafety. Around neighborhoods, shelters, friends’ couches, streets. Trying to survive through homelessness, hunger, trauma. Looking for their next fix or quick fix, because patience is hard to come by when you don’t have food, or a bed, or a home. Access or education toward receiving proper care. Toward giving yourself proper treatment. These men have resorted to substances for substance. These men don’t ask for permission to use. They use in order to survive. Or to drown what they cannot live with. When they come through the doors in Harlem, it is mostly because they want to survive. Does one need permission to survive?


When oppressed by addiction, the answer is yes. One needs permission from oneself. To find shelter, relief, recompense. To find a way out. To find a way in. To recover.


Play allows a relief from harm. Play allows a new reality to unfold. Play permits a person to be alive, responsive, breathing. Even if just for the moment, to have that moment of living, of freedom, choosing how to respond. Play provides a boundary, and a choice; structure and flexibility. Balance.


As a drama therapist, I invite my clients to be playful. To feel safe in laughter. To feel safe in sadness. To take on roles they feel ashamed of wearing outside, on the street, or upon arrival to treatment. To interact with one another. To feel human, a role they have grown accustomed to numbing out. To respond to one another with openness, respect, consideration. To reflect inwardly, and express outwardly. To answer honestly. To feel brave in their willingness. To recognize the effort it takes to be. To arrive to group. To carry oneself and be present with oneself in each moment. In each battle. Each struggle. Each day.


Playfulness facilitates being, awareness. Playfulness does not rely on joy, nor is it guaranteed to produce it. Playfulness relies on receptivity to an inner and outer experience, to oneself and to others. Receptivity requires permission. And so a new pattern is produced. A new way of being. A way out. A way through.

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