Syringes to Sobriety

Stories and Advice from a Real Heroin Addict
art therapy and addiction

Art Therapy and Addiction-Effective or Bullshit?

Interested in whether art therapy actually works to help addicts recover from substance abuse disorders? In this post, I will share personal experiences with art therapy and addiction, as well as explain what art therapy for recovery is. I implore you to read this article with an open mind. Afterward, by all means, make your own judgment whether art therapy is an effective recovery tool for an addict.

Hello readers! It has been a while since I have published a post on the site. I apologize for keeping everyone waiting, but aside from working two jobs on top of maintaining two blogs while attempting to write a book (phew that is a mouthful!), I have been consumed by a new project.

The very project that inspired this post actually!art_therapy_for_addiction

Yup, you guessed it, I have been working on a new art project, more specifically, experimenting with a new medium I have never worked with before. Therefore, I have been consumed with completing a bunch of different pieces, each one using a different method, trying to perfect my skill. I have grown to love the work, more than other arts and crafts projects I have worked on in the past.

An Addict and An Artist

Both art therapy and addiction play a huge role in my day to day life. Obviously, art therapy is a healthier hobby than getting high.  I am constantly trying to crafts and hobbies to fight my substance abuse.  The more art therapy hobbies I identify as enjoyable, the more tools I have in my toolbox when I need to adjust my thinking, in other words, stop major urges to get high. Amazingly, my tendencies to crave getting high have been quelled many times with art therapy.

I have always been crafty. Since I was a child, arts and crafts always excited me, but I was never considered particularly talented. Judging off my final art pieces, it seemed I was great at following directions or copying other artists’ methods, but I was not known for original creations and I was never able to create anything eye-catching enough to set me apart from millions of other artists’ creations.

I still do not feel I am exceptional at this new medium I have been experimenting with. However, I enjoy this work more than any I have ever done in the past and in return, my pieces are turning out beautiful. I am proud of them and others seem to think I have some skill. (Whether they are protecting my ego is yet to be determined :)) Either way, the feeling of accomplishment after completing a piece is more than I ever could have asked for so I am happy with this hobby of mine!

“I am not artistic or crafty.”art_therapy_and_addiction

As stated above, in my thirty years of life, I have found a few artsy projects that I was decent at, but none of my final pieces reflected those of a naturally gifted artist. It became easier to say “I am not artistic” or “Creativity is not my strong suit” than to apply myself to a hobby that I could potentially fail at.

This fear of failure was holding me back. Interestingly, creative people do a few things differently than those of us ‘non-creatives.’ Check out 22 Things Creative People do Differently Than the Rest to help yourself identify where you may be holding yourself back creatively. This article sure inspired me and it may also help others struggling to stay clean.

What do you have to lose? It may feel good to get your creative, hobby-driven mind juices flowing.

A note to my fellow substance abusers: Did you ever carry around a bunch of markers in your bag while on the streets? Does the following picture get you excited?art_therapy_and_addiction Could you spend hours in the marker aisle at Michael’s Arts and Crafts store? Do you remember spending hours tweaking out on adult coloring books? Did you ever sit, tweaked out of your mind, writing raps or poetry? This may seem like total G-ed up from the feet up behavior, but you can not tell me you did not enjoy yourself while doing these activities. Imagine what beauty you could create with your mind at full clarity, off of drugs.

Art Therapy and Racing Thoughts

If you are an avid reader of my blog or know me personally, you know I am the queen of taking on too many things at once. Reading the list of projects (described above) I am working on currently; you may be tempted to diagnose me ADHD. Well, I do not have attention deficit disorder, even though I frequently feel like I do!art_therapy_and_addiction

In my recovery, I have accepted that it is normal to have racing scattered thoughts when a person tries to take on too many things at one time. I have always been like this, in school, in work, and even within my own family, playing the family mediator role in adolescence.

It is no wonder I loved the way Adderall (and eventually meth) made me feel like Superwoman. In the beginning. I could get ten times as much done when on stimulants. Obviously, I took it way too far, like many of you I am sure. (Taking a downer to fall asleep in the evening should have been a huge red flag back in the day of law school exams and all-nighters :/)

Eventually, the uppers did not work the way they did at the beginning.

My mind became tolerant of them.

Less superwomen, more tweakerwoman.

Not quite as glamorous.

Action Items vs. Self-Care Items

Art Therapy and Addiction

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Obviously, taking on too many things at once is an issue of mine, as well as many others who have substance abuse disorders. It has the potential to create great stress in my life, which we automatically want to fix with drugs. Since I started my recovery journey, I have tried to be very cognizant of this issue. I keep my to-do list short and I break each item into little steps, trying not to overburden myself with action items. I also make sure I have a steady, healthy balance of action items and self-care items on my list.

Action items, self-care? What the hell are you talking about, ANA?

Don’t worry! You know I am going to tell you.

Action items are important, must do, potentially, if put off for too long, stressful tasks.

Self-care items are activities that help you stay healthy, mentally and physically. Most self-care activities help you relax while accomplishing them, like art therapy, meditation, or journaling. Occasionally, self-care activities are daunting, but they will always help you feel more relaxed when accomplished, like exercising or taking night classes.

Self-care is incredibly important for a successful recovery. Other forms of self-care are eating healthy and spending time with the people you love.

Self-care activities require a clear mind, imagination, and force you to stay grounded.

For example, exercise gets rid of excess energy and keeps our bodies strong. Spending time with family increases bonds that are very important for helping a user stay clean. (Sometimes spending time with family helps you identify bonds that will not help you stay clean. It is important to identify these as well, so you can break them.) Art therapy is not only relaxing, making it a great self-care activity, but, when a project has been completed, a substance user wins back some pride lost while using drugs.

Trying to Find a Balance

art_therapy_and_addictionPersonally, a healthy balance between action items and self-care items on my to-do list looks a bit like this:

-Fill out five resumes (Action Item)

-Finish entrance essay (Action item)

-Meal prep for the week (Self-care item)

-Finish Resin Art project (Self-care item)

-Post a new article on my blog (Action item)

Note: Doing an art project does not count as an action item on my increasingly large list of daily action item tasks. It will always go on the self-care side of my list.

(If your profession is art, this will be different for you. Most of us are not able to earn enough from our craft projects to support ourselves. However, sometimes, if we are lucky, we can have a decent side gig selling our art!)

If completing your art therapy projects starts to feel more like an action item than a soothing self-care item, reassess the project you have picked as your art therapy. Maybe it is time to try something new! There are, after all, countless, different art mediums to try out there, some that are yet to even be discovered. Maybe, you will be the one to discover them!

Take Away: Tread carefully if an art project becomes stressful. Stress will not help you stay clean.

How to Know an Activity is Self-Care

Art Therapy is a Form of Meditation

Art or other hobbies you are passionate about fall into self-care and will help with staying clean if they are relaxing. When working on a project, you should feel relaxed, some even report feeling meditative.

The focus required to learn a new craft forces the user to clear their mind of distractions, just like meditation. A clear mind is required to create something beautiful.

Note that even your breath becomes steady as you work on a project you are passionate about completing.

This is wonderful. After all, we all know the benefits of meditation for recovering users. art_therapy_and_addiction

After completion of an activity, you feel a sense of accomplishment. Own this.

Let the haters hate. Do not let anyone take away your BIG. Trust me, beauty is completely subjective. In one person’s eyes, your work may be hideous.  The same work may be stunning in another person’s eyes. Have you ever seen famous paintings that look like they could have been done by a three-year-old? Look how much the following pieces sold for. (Bet you can do something a bit more creative than these!)

This 1970, Untitled painting, by Cy Twombly, sold for $69.6 Million:art_therapy_and_addiction

Source: Christies.com

This 1961 untitled painting by Mark Rothko sold for $28 million!

art_therapy_and_addictionSource: WikiArt

Art Therapy and Addiction-Talent not Required

As described above, I have some ADD tendencies when creating, but I promise you arts and crafts have played a HUGE role in my recovery.

Wow, that statement sounds ridiculous and you are probably wondering if I have officially fallen off my rocker… I promise I have not. Still safely rocking in my rocker, knitting needle in hand!

Okay, okay, my art medium of choice is not and has never been knitting, but you get the idea. I have tried all sorts of art projects throughout my life. I made lanyard key chains at summer camp as a child. In elementary school, I was pro at creating friendship bracelets with all sorts of colorful thread. Here are some pictures of some of my earliest craftsmanship:

art_therapy_and_addictionart_therapy_and_addiction

So, nothing to be too excited about, obviously. I already told you though! I have always been creative, but never an art world prodigy.

Art Therapy and Addiction-Just like Xanax?

In college, I started having panic attacks. Whether the cause was family problems, taking on too much in school, boyfriend drama, or everything mixed together, I started to have trouble calming myself down naturally. A university doctor kindly prescribed me Lorazepam after a particularly frightening panic attack landed me in the E.R.

Lorazepam, like Xanax, worked wonders for relaxing me, but ultimately, I would fall asleep after taking a pill and that did not do much in the way of helping me to navigate my anxiety. Asleep, it is difficult to identify the cause of anxiety. Without identifying the cause there was no way I could put a plan in place to prevent another attack a few weeks later.

After running out of my prescription of these magic pills a couple of weeks earlier than I should have, I found myself feeling antsy as hell, using all my energy to fight off panic attacks. Impending doom with every breath I took knowing the pills were gone.

I had some acrylic paints and a few canvases lying around my apartment and decided painting would provide a welcomed distraction from the anxiety I was feeling.  Hopefully, I would be distracted enough to avoid the inevitable panic attack I knew would arrive sooner than later.

art_therapy_and_addiction

Sounds awful right? I would become more anxious just knowing I was out of the very medication that helped control my anxiety. What a catch 22!

Group Art Therapy and Addiction

That evening, I set out to paint and something interesting happened. My mind started to clear with each paint color I chose. My thoughts slowed to the pace of my paintbrush. My heart rate slowed and became the beat to which I created a wonderfully colorful, albeit not a masterpiece, acrylic painting. Here is a picture of one of my paintings from around that time in my life:

art_therapy_and_addiction

You can see there is a lot going on in this painting. Interestingly, each part of the painting means something to me, even if some parts look a little ‘schizo’ to my readers.

As friends would visit my apartment, they would ask about the mess of paint and canvases I had on my kitchen table. Surprisingly, most wanted to come over and paint with me. I started leaving my working canvases on the living room table and when friends came by, they could pick from my many art mediums, including acrylics, puff paints, paint markers, spray paint, and much more, and add whatever they wanted on the canvas.

Interestingly, every single person, the majority of whom were college-age at the time, whether they came over to eat dinner or just to watch the U of A game, ended up contributing something to a canvas. Instead of drinking games, we were painting. In the photo below, two of these collaborations hang behind me on the wall:

art_therapy_and_addiction

Fall of my Freedom of Expression

Unfortunately, when I started getting into hard drugs, I stopped expressing myself artistically. I carried my paintings with me from apartment to remind me how I felt when creating those. Eventually, as I sunk deeper into addiction, it became harder to remember this feeling.

Finally, everything started to catch up to me and I was evicted from my apartment. I asked a neighbor to hold on to my art_therapy_and_addictionpaintings. I had her hold four or five pieces that meant the world to me. When I returned a week later to ask her for the paintings, she said she had given them to Goodwill. (Along with my flat-screen television, which looked strikingly like the new one she claimed to have, but that is beside the point!)

I was pretty much devastated that I lost those canvases. I had spent hours, my friends had spent hours, painting those. There were memories attached to those canvases. No one else would appreciate those. In fact, someone probably bought them at Goodwill to paint over them for their own art project.

The paintings above, in the background of the picture where I have on a “Make Art, Not War” tank top, are the very paintings that ended up at Goodwill. The photo I posted here is the last remaining image I have of them. I was lucky to find any record of the paintings. Thank God for Facebook!

The whole photo is a sign for me. Some sort of cosmic message to start creating again because I promise you, I did not plan to be photographed in that very shirt in front of my own paintings!

Who knows, maybe someone reading this found them at Goodwill and will return them to me one day.

Inmate Creativity: Art Therapy and Addiction

This is not uncommon among substance abusers. I can not stress how much talent is wasted when drugs enter the picture. Take inmates in jail for drug crimes, for instance. It is unbelievable the creativity expressed by inmates. You would be amazed by how many talented artists, rappers, vocalists, even sculptures there are in there.

During my jail stint, our dorm organized a talent show once a week to keep our minds distracted and remind us that we were not just trash even though society had thrown us out like we were. I know, very “Orange is the New Black” of us, right? I guess, but honestly, we just needed something to keep our mind from turning to mush.

There is not enough opportunity in lockup to express yourself or learn new skills.

I was blown away by some poetry I heard.

Some girls had voices you could easily hear on American idol.

A couple of girls had a talent for stand up comedy and the images some inmates could draw with only a tiny, eraser less, golf pencil were unbelievable!

All this talent locked behind bars for using drugs.

What a waste.

Here are a couple of pictures of some art I was gifted in there:

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art_therapy_and_addictionart_therapy_and_addiction

I recently found an event showcasing artwork done by inmates. The event is a professional art show in Tempe featuring artwork by inmates. After some more research, I found two fantastic online resources featuring brilliant inmate art pieces. The coalitions who run these websites also host art showcases and mentor events around the U.S. so follow them on Facebook if you are interested. If you are or were an inmate and would like to submit artwork I highly suggest you GO FOR IT!

Safe Streets Art

The Justice Arts Coalition

My Art Therapy and Addiction Today

Recently, many hours of my free days from work involve a new type of art. I have been learning the intricacies, techniques, do’s and dont’s of pouring onto a canvas. I started with pouring epoxy resin I had colored with acrylic paints. Eventually, I began experimenting with alcohol inks, mica powder, and even nail polish! The first piece I created was inspired by the following video:

Mrs. ColorBerry Facebook Video

Mrs. ColorBerry makes some coolest geode art I have ever seen and, after watching her video, the technique looked so fun to try. Here is how my first piece turned out:

art_therapy_and_addiction_resinness

After creating my geode, I was hooked. Hooked. Ha, it seems odd to use that word to describe my relationship to anything besides substances. Here are a few more of my pieces:

art_therapy_and_addiciton_resinness

I started my own Etsy shop recently and I am proud of the work I have created. I have also started experimenting with acrylic paint pouring techniques. The method involves mixing acrylic paint, Floetrol (or some other paint pouring medium: even Elmer’s Glue-All works!) and a bit of silicone oil. Here is one of the most recent acrylic pour paintings I created:

art_therapy_and_addiction_resinness

My intent in showing you my work is not to gain credit or recognition. My intent is to inspire you.

Whatever type of art relaxes you, distracts you, or even just catches your interest, you should not be afraid to try it.

What do you have to lose anyway? If you are trying to get off drugs, read How to Get off Drugs: The Power of Imagination. Maybe you can add Purchase Art Supplies to your new to-do list.

In conclusion, you do not need to be a prodigy to enjoy art. Creating something is therapeutic. It relaxes your mind, ridding you of stressful thoughts that may trigger using thoughts.

Art as a therapy is not a magic pill with the potential of curing substance abuse disorders, but it is a tool to help build that drug-free lifestyle we all crave eventually. Art therapy and addiction pair well together.  With an addictive personality, art gives an outlet to be obsessive in a healthy way, as opposed to obsessive about staying high.

Stay tuned for an article about the best art therapy activities for recovering addicts.

Thank you for reading and please share any artwork you have created in the comments below. We would also love to hear your personal experiences with art therapy and addiction.

If you have any questions about how to get started with your own paint or resin pouring projects, feel free to ask. All the best to each of you and happy creating!

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19 comments on “Art Therapy and Addiction-Effective or Bullshit?

  1. Having watched someone very close to me , in my own family, your insight and your willingness to be so open about your experiences has helped give me, and I hope, other parents have a greater understanding for what people afflicted with these addictions go thru…….Keep up the wonderful art work and keep up the incredible effort you are putting into your life now…….You have a lot to be proud of

  2. Dear Ana.
    Thank you very much for your fantastic website. It is amazing that you show people where to start and what steps to make towards love and happiness. I hope more people will know about your website and follow your guidance.
    Kind regards,
    Andrey

  3. Hi Ana, I enjoyed reading your article on Art Therapy and Addiction-Effective or Bull Shit? There’s a lot of helpful and interesting information. You’re such an inspiration to others. I think your art is so beautiful.

    I am not an artist but I love to paint my walls at home. I find this relaxing and calming. I can’t relate to addiction personally, but I have a 17 year old son who has an addiction vaping and juuling. I have been struggling with him trying to get help for him to overcome this addiction. I’m afraid this might lead to other drugs. Their are so many school kids are vaping and juuling. Do you have any advice you can give me to help with my son? I would be so appreciative.

    Best Wishes ~ Margaret

    1. Margaret-
      I am so glad you stopped by and thank you for the compliments. Interestingly, I have been thinking about writing up an article about the vaping epidemic that has hit our high school-aged kids as of late. I used to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day before I switched to vaping. While smoking cigarettes I would frequently suffer from bronchitis, pneumonia and other respiratory issues. To make matters worse, my doctor would prescribe me codeine cough syrup and, as I am sure you can tell from my article, codeine was making matters worse when it came to my painkiller use.
      Anyway, when I switched to vaping regular vape juice, I stopped having respiratory illnesses. I also found it easier to work out, walk upstairs, and overall I was breathing deeper and better. Juul pods are different than regular vape juice, however.
      Juul pods contain salted nicotine juice, which is much more potent than the original vape juices, giving vapers more bang for their buck. Also, the small convenient style of Juul pods makes them easy to hide. They also produce less smoke than the original vapes, so highschoolers can hide them from the staff at school.
      I hate to recommend more vaping to help your son, but switching to regular vaping will help him to ween off the nicotine. Nicotine patches and gum are also a great replacement if you can find a doctor willing to prescribe a 17-year-old. :/
      As far as I can tell, the illnesses and deaths that have been reported are mostly linked to smoking THC vape products containing vitamin e acetate.(Click here for more info) Unfortunately, the news or ‘fake news’ has GREATLY misreported the data. Lung Disease Outbreak Caused By Black Market, Not Vaping may help clarify any further misunderstanding.
      I know it is tough to handle when the substance abuse is taking place in the family, especially when it is your child you are worried about. My best advice is to keep channels of communication OPEN.
      Do not get mad when he disagrees with you or lies about vaping in an effort to not make you upset.
      Stay cool when he slips up, the road to recovery is not easy, but his courage will come from you believing he can change.

      Hope this helps! Let me know if you have any further questions.

      1. Thank you so much for all the helpful information. This really does help a lot to understand the difference between the juul and vape. I always thought that both were the same thing.

        I read the article on THC Smoking link that you gave me. I have never heard of this before. Thank you for enlighten me on this drug. Now I am more aware of THC smoking, I can keep my eyes open and know what to look for in the kinds of respiratory symptoms(cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain).

        Thanks again ~Margaret

  4. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Thank you for this outstanding post and for your perfect honesty about your journey. I’ve read all of the post and it’s staying open on my screen while I work today. The inspiration value is very high. Some years ago I became addicted to prescription drugs due to an illness, it was not a fun journey but I found release and grounding by writing fiction. It helped enormously and continues to do so even though I am now med and addiction free. I love your art, the colors alone brought a great sense of relaxation.

    1. Steve- Your comment made my day. It is feedback like this that keeps me moving forward every day. Sometimes it takes all the energy I have just to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but hearing from people like you makes it all worth it! I would love to read some of your work. I have a feeling it is wonderful and creative. I hope you have a wonderful day and thank you so much for reading my article.
      P.S.- You should be extremely proud of yourself for getting off of the meds.

  5. Hi there, first of all I’d like to say thank you for being so vulnerable, it is very brave of you to open yourself so much! It’s really inspiring. I think art as a therapy is very healing, I think a lot of addicts (I worked with addicts before) suppress their feelings, they don’t want to feel the negative things or they didn’t learn how to deal with them, which led them to numb themselves. Art is a way of expressing yourself and your emotions, so it might be a way to learn how to cope with your emotions. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Great point and very insightful thoughts about substance abusers. You are right about suppressing the feelings, but I would take it one step further. Most substance users, myself included, are extremely empathetic. We can walk in a room and feel the emotional energy. It affects our mood almost immediately. If the energy is too high, anxious-ecstatic-depressed-or a mish-mash of emotions, I feel physically ill. Expressing emotion through art is a great way to ‘let the air out.’ If the air is not able to seep out slowly, we will eventually pop! Thank you for reading and for your comment.

  6. What a wonderful inspiration you are. I must say being creative also calms me down. Many don’t know the struggles of an addict and those suffering of mental health issues. This is a great grounding method helping you to focus on other important things. It also feels like I have more energy after bei g creative. Keep strong in your recovery as we all know it is a daily struggle. 

    1. Hanlie- Thank you for reading and commenting! I love the term grounding method.  It is definitely a great tool to help me stay grounded,,, in more ways than one honestly.  I get to relax and I am constantly brought back down to earth as I imagine the awesome artwork I will create and it does not turn out as I imagined. haha, Thanks again.

  7. Hello,

    Wow and wow. I am at the point of  no return when you read something and feel a tear form because really, you are only 30 and to read this short but intricutive insight into a part of your life and thoughts has been mind blowing.

    Honestly, it’s just like reading an excerpt about myself! There are too many people like yourself that have found their inner force to be brave enough to share their woes and graces with the world, and for that, I tip my hat to you and give you a (virtual) hug because that is amazing!

    As a fellow addict, art was and still is my release or passion to get through hard times so I can relate to you fully in that sense. I love how you say that there’s basically no need to follow or try to be (arty-farty) (my view!)) but to do and express what feels natural to everyone.

    Many, many congratulations to you on your sobreity…you have sooo much talent and amazing work that I will look at in Etsy.

    You are an inspiration.

    Thank you. I wish for you all the very best on your journey.

    Gayle

    1. Gayle- You have put a huge smile on my face. Thank you for your extremely kind words and I am so happy to hear you use art as therapy for your recovery as well!!! Finally, someone who really gets it. I would love to see some of your work as well! Please post a picture of something, or a link to Etsy if you sell your pieces. Thank you again for sharing. 

  8. I love the action vs self-care description. It is a balance that many have trouble making. Something is always falling off my scales for sure. I cannot personally relate to the addiction and art therapy but I do know about anxiety. It is truly wonderful to have something you can use for an escape when those feelings some. Something healthy and safe and productive. I have a few friends I am going to suggest to Art Therapy! Thank you for all the wonderful information.

    1. Thanks, Ashton. The wonderful thing about art therapy is that it works for all types of stress. It can help brighten the day of the depressed. It can help focus the mind of the distracted. It can help soothe the mind of the stressed…and so on. Amazingly, I find when I view, read, or touch the art of those who created pieces during therapy, I feel the emotions in the work. You can almost imagine what an artist was feeling while creating certain pieces, especially if he really poured his soul into the work. Basically, I love the idea that art therapy works both ways, It is therapeutic for the artist as well as his audience. Thank you for stopping by and commenting!

  9. Excellent post, thank you!  I also have to commend you on this website.  It’s a seriously excellent site, one, but mostly the fact you are putting yourself out there discussing your addiction openly in an effort to help people.  Seriously, I’m proud of you.

    As for art, I think it’s a well-known fact that art is therapeutic for anything, really, and yes, that includes addiction.  I myself am not visually artistic.  Not even a little.  I love colored pens, not markers.  But that’s because my visual stuff goes in my planner in different colored pens.  I also love writing.  But painting or drawing?  And poetry?  I get bored.  I’ve done it before in High School, with poetry, back when every crush seemed like true love and everything felt life or death.  So many emotions you feel you just have to get out in poetry, even if mine really, really sucked!

    When I was 20, I discovered writing helped me much more, and by writing, I mean stories, or anything, but not poetry.  My painting is nothing to write home about either.

    But writing is a form of art, too, so if someone gets bored with colors and painting or knitting or whatever, they can try crafting stories, too!

    I love the geode paintings!  I hadn’t heard of that!  They’re gorgeous.  Good luck with the etsy shop. I’m rooting for you in your goal to stay sober.  Thanks for sharing with the world.

    1. Jade,  I agree with you completely.  Like you, writing is and has always been my number one passion,  Short story writing, novel writing, journaling, poetry, even research paper writing requires a different type of creative skill (in my opinion) than visual art.  For example, a writer has to get the reader hooked using only words so he must create extremely catchy titles or captivating introductions if he is to gain a readership.  A visual artist has the benefit of using colors, sparkles, or other eye-catching materials to bring in his audience.  I commend you for following your passion as a writer and would love to read some of your work.  

      Thank your for reading and for the compliments.  I appreciate you stopping by!

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