Writers In Treatment: Melding Recovery, the Arts, and Information

By John Lavitt 11/12/20

The primary purpose of Writers in Treatment was to promote treatment as the best first step solution for addiction and other self-destructive behaviors.

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Leonard Buschel, Reel Recovery Film Festival
Leonard Buschel, Reel Recovery Film Festival

When people in the addiction treatment industry consider the most innovative recovery figures, their thoughts often turn to Leonard Buschel. As the founder of the nonprofit Writers in Treatment, he started the REEL Recovery Film Festival, the Experience, Strength and Hope Awards, and the weekly Addiction Recovery eBulletin. All of these ventures have survived the test of time, thriving year after year by offering a vision of hope that life doesn’t end once a person embraces the path of sustainable sobriety. In truth, recovery opens the door to creativity and long-term success.

For the past twelve years, Leonard Buschel has been an instrumental force in adding flavor and culture to the recovery community by filling a creative and intellectual void while helping those in need. As he expresses with passion, "There is life after sobriety. Getting sober doesn't mean losing touch with the creative and intellectual side of your personality. You don't have to be bored or boring."

People recovering from substance abuse disorders and alcoholism often talk about how they could realize their dreams of giving back if they only had financial resources. However, when a person actually experiences a windfall, they tend to buy a new condo, a shiny sports car, or stash the cash away for a rainy day. They never seem to put their money where their heart is. They never take the big risk.

What's inspiring about Leonard and his impressive achievements is that he is a noted exception to this rule. Hearing about how his friend, the late Buddy Arnold, had founded the Musician's Assistance Program to help musical artists recover from addiction and mental illness, Leonard decided to do the same for writers. But where could a guy working as a counselor in the treatment industry find the capital to make it happen?

Leonard Buschel

Driving his Volvo home one night from his job at a Los Angeles rehab, Leonard experienced a life-changing event. Without warning, a distracted driver in an SUV ran a red light and T-boned Leonard's car, sending it flying through the air. He did not realize this near-death experience was the beginning of his new life. Given a well-deserved insurance settlement, he took the funds, paid off some of his debts, bought tickets to a few plays and concerts, and hired an attorney to form a 501-C3 non-profit organization called Writers In Treatment (WIT).

From the beginning, beyond sending people in the field of the written word to rehab with scholarships, the primary purpose of Writers in Treatment was to promote treatment as the best first step solution for addiction and other self-destructive behaviors. Struggling to raise funds, Writers in Treatment decided to rent the historic 175-seat Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles and put on the seminal REEL Recovery Film Festival.

The first feature shown was Permanent Midnight, written by Jerry Stahl and starring Ben Stiller. Based on Stahl’s novel, it is one of the best films about the journey from addiction to recovery. Afterward, Jerry Stahl and Ben Stiller had a conversation about the film in front of a packed house. Engaging, fun and informative, everyone loved it, and Leonard Buschel knew he had stumbled upon something truly exciting. The promises were coming true as he envisioned a film festival to promote recovery.

For the past twelve years, the REEL Recovery Film Festival & Symposium has focused on increasing awareness about the prevalence of substance abuse and mental illness in society. Unlike many one-and-done film festivals, it has continued to grow and expand year after year. The REEL Recovery Film Festival helps to reduce stigma through honest, realistic depictions of the difficult challenges plaguing families nationwide. It also provides opportunities for filmmakers to show artistic and innovative shorts, documentaries and features. Moreover, Leonard and programmer Ahbra Kaye have given away thousands of free tickets to rehabs and sober livings on both coasts.

The REEL Recovery Film Festival has become a recovery staple in Los Angeles and New York. It also has taken place on multiple occasions in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Denver, Houston, Fort Lauderdale, and Vancouver. Leonard transformed an innovative idea into a valued institution by focusing on consistent execution and precise marketing. Time and again, professionals in the recovery and film communities nationwide ask if REEL Recovery can come to their city.

Beyond the REEL Recovery Festival, Leonard Buschel is also the creative force behind the Experience, Strength and Hope Awards. Held annually at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, it is a cherished event in the SoCal recovery community. The genesis of the ESH Awards was a party celebrating the publication of Christopher Lawford's recovery-oriented memoir. From that moment, a cutting edge awards show was born to honor the courage behind such published stories. In the past decade, honorees have included Academy-Award winning actor Lou Gossett, Jr., astronaut Buzz Aldrin, actor and activist Mackenzie Phillips, Emmy-Award winner Joe Pantoliano, Duran Duran bass player and co-founder John Taylor, and actor Jodie Sweetin who said in 2019, "It's incredible that such an inspirational event has now been happening for over a decade."

In 2012, wanting to do more than these annual events, Writers in Treatment began publishing the Addiction Recovery eBulletin, a comprehensive news source with over twenty thousand subscribers. The weekly newsletter is now the most widely-read and highly-regarded source of information and news among industry professionals for the latest addiction and recovery stories. Beyond sponsorship of the festival, the Addiction Recovery eBulletin offers advertisers access to the eyes of the industry.

Twelve years later, one man's passion for recovery continues to pay dividends, both in relation to giving back and adding an unconventional dimension to the sober world. Today, as the COVID-19 pandemic restricts cultural offerings nationwide, Leonard Buschel continues to think outside the box. He started a topical online recovery web series, Chasing The News… Stone Cold Sober, with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. As hosted by William Cope Moyers and featuring many well-known sober artists and celebrities, it provides an engaging online Zoom-like offering for people in recovery and beyond. Indeed, there is no question that after thriving for so long and through so many challenges, Writers In Treatment and The REEL Recovery Film Festival continue to turn this sober vision into a vibrant reality.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.