Using the Cards in a Court-Mandated Program for Substance Abuse Recovery

Joan Stockbridge Writer & Storyteller

Auburn, US

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Every Wednesday afternoon I go to a substance abuse recovery home in the Sierra foothills of Northern California. Six women live there. They have just been released from prison or have received alternative sentencing for two to eight months. Most of them have engaged in long-term, serious criminal activity. Each of them also has children who are monitored by Child Protective Services, and they face losing custody if they don’t make significant changes in their lives. While the stakes are very high and the obstacles are huge, the women generally strive with everything they’ve got to transform themselves and their situations. I’ve volunteered there for seven years, inspired by the women’s heartfelt, heroic efforts to overcome the odds and beat addiction, violence, poverty, and abuse.

I started at the recovery home as a storyteller, using myths and folktales to open up conversations about patterns in the women’s lives. I’m not a therapist, but have been through much training in expressive arts, so I approach groups cautiously and orient towards healing rather than exploration of past trauma. When I discovered OH cards, through the Healingstory listserve, I was immediately intrigued and ordered the original set. I removed the images of genitalia, which were too much for me to handle in that setting of rambunctious, sexual, abused women, and have used the cards in a variety of ways with great results. The women choose cards that depict their past, present, and future, and share stories of their pain and their aspirations. They draw cards blindly and freely associate. This is helpful because making connections and expressing feelings is necessary for recovery, since most addicts have spent a lifetime numbing their feelings. The women also puzzle over connections between the framing words and the images, extending their imaginations further than they might have otherwise. Cultivating the imagination is also vital to recovery, enabling one to imagine living and thriving using very different life skills.

In August 2012, I was fortunate to be able to do a short workshop with Mo Egetmeyer, the publisher of OH Cards, which has enabled me to extend and deepen my use of the cards. At the recovery home, I now use the COPE deck more than any other as both a teaching tool and an expressive tool. A typical two-hour COPE card session is described below.


The check-in allows me to hear what is alive in the group right then. I may adjust the session depending on what I hear.

Introduce COPE Cards

I show the group the deck and explain the background of how they were created. Typically, there is a lot of interest in hearing about the international background. Often, the women feel less alone and less defective as they consider other types of trauma, including the traumas of war, famine, and natural disaster. I briefly review the various types of traumas and traumatic responses.

Describe the six coping strategies

I’ve made six large, laminated cards, one for each coping strategy: physical, cognitive, emotional, spiritual, communal, and creative. On each card is a summary of that particular strategy. We pass the cards around and discuss each coping strategy, including how much they use that strategy and how it affects them. This is a great opportunity for increasing communal awareness and support among the residents in the house. Usually, this discussion is very affirming, as the women realize they already use a great many of the coping strategies but had not been aware of it.

Explore the deck

I explain that the COPE deck contains four different types of images, artistically depicted: a traumatic event, a traumatic response, a coping skill, or a way of healing. I tell them that each card can be interpreted in multiple ways, and there is no single correct way to “read” a card. I put out four index cards labeled “event,” “response,” “coping skill,” and “healing.” Together, we sort through five to ten COPE cards, discussing which of the index card categories each of those COPE cards might fall into, and placing the COPE cards in the respective categories. This leads to good general discussion about trauma, responses, coping, and healing. Then I divide up the rest of the COPE deck and hand cards to each woman to sort into the categories on their own. Usually, we don’t have time to discuss what they do regarding their sorting, but that step allows each woman begin to process the material individually.

Use the cards to explore a personal story of trauma and recovery

At this point, the cards have been sorted into categories of trauma, response, coping skill, and healing. I tell the women I want them to look through the cards and choose images that tell a story of a personal experience of trauma and healing. I explain that they are free to choose whether they want to explore a larger or a smaller experience. I also recommend that they don’t think too hard but let their hearts and their intuition guide them. Usually, the women choose events that are part of bigger patterns of trauma in their lives, which indicates to me that this process feels safe and enables them to work at deep levels. We do this part of the group in meditative silence, and I usually play classical or acoustic music.

Share the cards and the stories

When everyone is finished choosing their cards, we go around the circle and share the stories. This is always emotional and also very supportive. Very often, someone begins by saying, “I haven’t shared this before but….” I believe one major reason why people are able to explore and share previously undisclosed traumas is that the trauma is explored in conjunction with a response and a coping skill and an envisioned or experienced healing. The trauma is already contextualized and presented as dynamic and capable of transformation. In other words, the ground of healing is the foundation for the exploration and exposure of the trauma. This is much the same dynamic that applies to the use of myth, particularly versions of the heroic journey, as a template for exploring personal challenges. The great patterns of wholeness, recovery, healing, giftedness, and community are present to sustain the individual’s struggle.