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Writing Your Way to Recovery: How Stories Can Save Our Lives

Patrick O'Neil and I are in the process writing a book called Writing Your Way to Recovery: How Stories Can Save Our Lives. It's about using creative writing as one of just many tools in getting clean and sober.  Below is the opening piece, and Patrick  (https://patrick-oneil.com/publications/) and I welcome your comments and feedback.                                   

 

                                      Foreword: Beyond Journaling

 

      The idea is to see yourself.  The idea is to see inside yourself and better understand who you are, what makes you tick, and why.  I could be talking about anyone here, but I'm thinking about people like me and my co-author Patrick O'Neil.  Alcoholics.  Addicts.  We're the ones who got stoned or drunk to escape our feelings.  We wanted to numb ourselves.  We wanted to kill the thoughts rolling around in our heads, and if a drug or a drink did it for us, what was the harm?  All we were after was a little escape from the drudgeries of life.  And in the beginning, at least, getting high seemed to do the trick.  We enjoyed getting high.  We enjoyed getting drunk.  But give it some time.  If you're like Patrick and me, and tens of millions of others, you'll eventually find yourself alone and lost, cut off from your loved ones and the world as you once knew it.

     The question is, how do we turn our lives around and get back

on track?  Clearly there's no easy answer, and certainly not one

that applies to us all.  AA works for many but not everyone and the same can be said of the different approaches and methodologies of the hundreds of rehabs across the country.  I wish Patrick and I had the solution, but if we pretended that we did, we'd be like all the other addiction gurus and self-help authors who tout ridiculously high success rates for saving people like us from self-destructing.  This isn't to say that the so-called experts don't have our best interests at heart.  I'm sure most do.  But Patrick and I are cynics, as most alcoholic-addicts are, and I'm inclined to believe that many are also simply out to make a buck off our misery.

     The one thing we've noticed, however, the one thing the many programs and methods of recovery seem to have in common is the use of journaling.  

     Write about your addiction, they say. 

     Write about your feelings.  Write about your thoughts.  Write about your resentments, likes and dislikes, your fears and anger.  Write about all the drugs you took and all the booze you drank and all the insane things you did while you were high or drunk.  Other times they just want you to vent, as if venting alone will alleviate your rage, self-pity, self-loathing, anger, guilt and pain.  And maybe sometimes it does.   We're not saying journaling isn't useful.  It is.  The sheer act of writing is in and of itself a great way to confront our emotions and thoughts and their possible psychological connections to our addiction.

     Journaling is one of many tools used in recovery, and it's a fine one, but could we do more with it?  Could we do something different with writing that might be as helpful if not more so than journaling, or at the very least a therapeutic adjunct to it?

Patrick and I think we can.  

     That's why we've written this book.

     The idea, as I said in the beginning, is to see yourself.  The idea, as I said in the beginning, is to see inside yourself, so as to better understand who you are, what makes you tick, and why.  But does that mean you necessarily have to write solely about yourself to more clearly understand yourself?  My friend and I don't believe it does. 

     Not exactly, anyway.

     With distance comes clarity.  And with clarity comes a greater sense of truth.  That person on the page of your journal is and is not you.  What we're suggesting is that you write about someone other than yourself in order to gain the necessary distance in time and place to see beyond yourself.  We want you to create a person that may or may not be like you.  We want you to place that person in scenes and situations that you know all too well because you've experienced them or something much like them.  We want you to write about what you know, so it sounds real, but it doesn't have to be true.  It doesn't had to have happened. 

     You can make things up. 

     We want you to make things up so that you're not bound to literal facts.  We want you to create a small space between yourself and the written page.  And in that space we want you to find a sort of sanctuary, some breathing room, some safety from having to own up to everything you write as being all and only about you.  Here, in a world of your own making, you can do and say whatever you want.  You can be anyone you want and no one can judge you.  Someone could say, hey, that person your writing about is really fucked up, and maybe that person is, but they can't be talking about you.  Because it's just a character you made up.  Maybe it is you, or based on you, but that's your business.  You're safe.  You're protected.  That's the freedom of imagination, and in exercising that freedom you'll discover things about addiction that you hadn't thought about before. 

     Call it fiction. 

     Call it lying if you want.  Given the license to create, you're bound to uncover truths about yourself and others that you'd never find through journaling.

     Together, if you add it up, my friend and I spent roughly fifty years abusing dope and booze.  For Patrick, eighteen of those years were as a full blown IV junkie.  For me, in the beginning, the needle was an off-and-on occasion, but toward the end it became my preferred method of delivery.  Faster acting.  Bigger bang for the buck. But Patrick and I now also share between us over three decades of sobriety. 

     I've spent about that same number of years teaching literature and creative writing as a Professor of English.  I've written novels.  I've written short stories and screenplays and three memoirs dealing with drug and alcohol addiction, suicide and madness.  Patrick has also published a memoir, Gun, Needle, Spoon, covering his life in the world of punk rock, his slide into addiction and armed robbery.  One more arrest and he would've been doing twenty-five-to-life rather than writing this book with me.  Today, with an M.F.A. under his belt, he, too, has taught creative writing at the university level as well as in prisons.  And he's a Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor currently working in the recovery community.  Since he cleaned up, Patrick has done such exemplary work helping other alcoholic-addicts that he was given a Governor's Pardon by California Governor Jerry Brown in 2016.  In short, writing has helped us both to get clean and sober and stay that way.  Now it's time to take what we've learned about writing and literature and apply it to the recovery process through techniques of storytelling designed to help people like us express ourselves, creatively, without being judged. 

     We've assembled a series of writing exercises that deal with real-life issues facing those in recovery.  One exercise, for instance, deals with relapse and asks you to create an alcoholic-addict character coming home after leaving rehab.  They've got six months clean and sober and want to keep it.  But what sort of triggers and pitfalls are they likely to encounter returning to their old neighborhood? 

     Another exercise focuses on hitting bottom and asks you to create a character and put them in that moment, time and place when they finally realize they have to change or die.  People like us have all been there, most of us more than once.  I hit bottom multiple times before I was able to put together a good chunk of clean time.     

     Other exercises are based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, such as forgiveness, honesty, and making amends.  Or Step One, where we have to admit that "we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable."  I had trouble with the "unmanageable" part of this Step, and for me that meant wrestling with two voices in my head.  One told me that I had a problem, no doubt about it, but had my life really become so bad as to be "unmanageable"?  This one voice kept telling me I could manage my life just fine if I only tried harder to limit and control my drinking.  The other voice in my head kept telling me I was full of shit:

     "C'mon, get real.  How many times have you tried to control your drinking and screwed up?  You can't even count them.  Quit lying to yourself."

     So this exercise is about writing a dialogue between the two voices in the head of your character.   One tells him that his life wasn't unmanageable, the other tells him the opposite.  In it's own strange way it can be kind of fun going back and forth between the voices, and at the same time we're learning about how we think, divert, rationalize and even downright plain lie to ourselves.  Actually, a lot of these exercises can be fun to do, but Patrick and I would be remiss if we didn't add that they could also be dangerous.  If in creating your character you draw on material from your own past, some of these exercises may take you back to a period or event in your life that you'd prefer not to revisit, and if going there is too painful, too stressful, it could put you at risk of relapse.  Alcoholic-addicts aren't the greatest when it comes to handling stress or pain.  These feelings are, in part, what might've contributed to our drinking and using in the first place, and you may have to put down your pen if you find yourself getting too uncomfortable.  At the same time, to make things more complicated, a certain level of uncomfortableness is necessary and unavoidable in the recovery process.  Self-examination doesn't generally bring back wonderful memories, and it's memories, like feelings of guilt and resentment, that we ultimately have to confront in getting clean and sober.  The key here is striking the right balance as to what we can safely handle emotionally and what we can't. 

     And this balance is elusive.  What you're capable of dealing with today may be not be the same tomorrow.  Or vice-versa.  Sometimes we have to take two steps back to help us leap forward.  Recovery doesn't necessarily follow a linear path, or at least it didn't for Patrick and me.  We can't and shouldn't speak as if we're some sort of ultimate authorities on recovery. 

     We're not. 

     As alcoholic-addicts we have only our experience, strength and hope to offer.  And as authors and teachers, we add to this offer the small but perhaps very important tool of creative writing. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

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Triggers: A Creative Writing Exercise on Relapse

Below is just one of many creative writing exercises related to issues in recovery taken from Writing Your Way to Recovery: How Stories Can Save Our Lives, a book that Patrick O'Neil and I are working on.   Please let Patrick (https://patrick-oneil.com/publications/) or me know if you think it's a helpful approach.  We'd love to get some feedback.

 

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                                                Triggers

 

     I wish I could say that I got clean and sober the first time I attempted to get clean and sober.  I wish I could say that I got clean and sober the second or third or fourth time I attempted to get clean and sober.  But it didn't work that way.  Call me stubborn.  Call me stupid.  Or weak.  Whatever label you want to slap on me, the fact remains that I had a really tough time giving up alcohol and drugs.  I'd used and abused for so many years that getting high and drunk was far more natural to me than not using and abusing.  Alcohol and drugs were my best friends, or so I thought, because they were always there for me when I needed them most.  Stressed?  Have a drink.  Feeling depressed?  Take a pill or snort a line.  Feeling happy?  I could feel even better if I celebrated with my best friends. 

     Of course I was lying to myself. 

     In the beginning, if I took a drink or a drug, I could  predict how they'd effect me, and that effect was usually good.  But in the later stages of my addiction, when I put booze or drugs into my system, all bets were off.  Sure, that initial sweet rush that comes with the first line or the first few drinks was still there, but after that my moods and behavior became unpredictable and erratic.  I said and did things I'd never do sober, things that filled me with shame, regret, guilt and remorse, much of which I still carry with me today.  My best friends had turned on me with a vengeance.  And yet, when I tried to shake them, they kept reminding me of the good old days when we used to have a lot of fun together. 

     It's called "euphoric recall," and it's just one of a hundred triggers that can lead to a relapse.  Admitting you're an alcoholic-addict is the first step in recovery (if you don't believe you have a problem, you certainly can't begin to fix it), but getting clean and sober, and staying clean and sober, are two different matters.  Weathering the early stages of physical withdrawal is a cake-walk compared to the far more vicious battle waged in the mind.  Let the mere thought of drinking and using roll around in your head for any amount of time and you're well on your way to a relapse.  The obsession to drink or use is our deadliest enemy, and we must, at all times, be conscious of its presence.  Sometimes it's like a ghost, there one second, gone the next, without a discernable shape or form.  Other times it's standing right in front of us, only we have our eyes closed and don't see it. 

    The goal of the following exercise is to help us open our eyes. 

    It's to help us see. 

    In recognizing those people, places or things that might endanger our sobriety we can better protect ourselves from relapsing.

     What I want you to do, in two-to-three pages, is write a scene showing an alcoholic-addict character returning to his or her old neighborhood after being clean and sober for six months.  Describe the neighborhood and what it looks like.  Describe the character, what she looks like, how she walks and talks.  Feel free to dip back in time, comparing her looks now to what she looked like six months earlier.  Face bloated as a drunk?  Skeletal-thin as a tweaker?  And tell us about her situation, how she's just gotten out of rehab, or maybe she's been locked up and recently paroled.   Is she returning to family?  Does she have a kid?  Is she nervous about seeing him again?

     Whatever the situation, when she arrives home, what sort of triggers does she need to look out for if she wants to stay clean and sober?  What memories does she have that might cause her to think about drinking or using again?  What about her friends?  Would one of them tempt her with a drink, a line, a pill?  Would other friends or relatives want to throw her a party to celebrate her homecoming?  What about driving by an old bar your character used to drink at, or her old connect's house, or even pushing a cart down the liquor aisle of a grocery store?  Is any of that dangerous?

     It was for me.

     The list of potential triggers is long and varied.  Your job is to show us what she's up against returning home, and the many  temptations she'll need to recognize and resist in order to keep her sobriety.   It's about vigilance.  It's about being hyper-alert to our surroundings, all the hidden landmines, IED's, and snipers just lying in wait to take you and me out the second we look away. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Killing the Addict

     Poverty.  Lack of education and opportunity.  Big pharma.  Unscrupulous doctors.  A broken justice system.  These are just a few of the usual suspects dragged into the court of public opinion when we talk about today's opioid crisis.  Before that, in the 90's, it was all about meth.  And before that, in the 80's, it was all about crack cocaine.  The ugly truth is that the wide-spread use of narcotics is hardly news, at least for those of us who've been partaking of them for God knows how long. 

     What's changed, I think, is public awareness of the  magnitude of our growing numbers.  And that magnitude, I'd suggest, is directly related to the magnitude of the sheer amount of drugs pouring onto the streets and suburbs of America.  Increased availability equals greater access.  And greater access equals an ever increasing likelihood of the use and abuse of opiates and other narcotics and ultimately

our addiction to them.

     I'm reminded of that old movie "Field of Dreams" where the main character hears a voice telling him to "ease his pain," that  "If he builds it [a baseball field], he will come," only in this case that baseball field is a field of drugs, and that "he" is a "they."  In building this field of drugs, they'll come all right, the users and abusers, in numbers far larger than every baseball stadium in America could ever hold. The price of admission is also a whole lot cheaper than a ticket to a ball game.    

     Where a bag of junk in the 70's used to cost, say, $30 or $40, now you can get it for $10, sometimes $5.  That's not even factoring in for inflation.  By any measure, it's a better deal than dropping $60 on one 80 milligram tab of Oxycontin off the street.   The quality of illicit drugs is up, too.  Way up.  Which accounts, in part, for the record breaking number of overdoses.  The other part is that so much of today's heroin is cut with its far more potent cousin known as fentanyl.  If it sounds like I'm being flippant, I apologize, because in fact I'm deadly serious.  Because the opioid crisis is in fact a deadly serious issue.  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 70,200 died of overdoses in 2017.  That's a two-fold increase in a decade.  And unless something changes, particularly the supply (demand, sadly, is a self-perpetuating, built-in component of the product itself), more will continue to die in ever increasing numbers.   

     So how do we stop this plague?

     I don't have the answer, but let me tell you a story. 

     Twice a month for a couple of years I used to visit a prison in San Bernardino and speak to the men there about drugs and alcohol, how they destroyed me, and how, once I got clean and sober, my life changed immensely for the better.  I don't think I've ever talked to a single prisoner with a serious drug or alcohol problem who hadn't been dealt a bad hand in life.  Mother an addict.  Father AWOL, assuming he even knew him.  Beatings.  Childhood molestation.  High school drop-out.  Joining a gang.  Getting knifed.  Shot.  Living on the streets.  I didn't exactly have a carefree childhood, either, but this isn't about me. The point I'm trying to make is that I could identify with much of what these men told me, and after listening to the horrible things they endured and empathizing with them, I still had to ask them the same hard question I eventually had to ask myself.

     "Damn," I'd say, "after all you've been through, it's a miracle you're even alive.  But what are you going to do now?"  This is the part where they look at me like I didn't hear a word they said, as to say what do you mean now?  Don't I know how hard they had it?  Don't I see why they shoot up, drink, hit the pipe or snort that line?    

     Of course I do.

     Except the drugs and alcohol you used to numb your pain and

escape your troubles has become its own problem.  And it's very possible that it's a much bigger and uglier problem than anything you've encountered in the past.

     Like so many addicts, I started using when I was a teenager, and like so many teenagers I was stupid and reckless.  I didn't need school, parents or the government to tell me that drugs were bad.  That you could get addicted.  I already knew these things, but, frankly, I didn't give a damn.  Because I also knew that once I pressed the plunger on that syringe, or snorted or smoked that powder, that I'd be in nirvana.  For a few hours anyway.  Then I'd have to do it again.  And again. 

     It's all about the now. 

     Feeling good in the here and now with no regard for the future consequences.  Don't let anyone tell you different: Addicts become addicts because, in the beginning, anyway, drugs make you feel good.  Even great.  As kids, I don't think any of us started out saying, hey, when I grow up I want to be a drug addict.  But that's not what the drug says.  Give it a few months, in some cases weeks, and it'll do all the talking for you.  And once it's taken over the conversation, no amount of riches, education, or job opportunities are going to shut it down.

     Ever. 

     The only one who can change the conversation is the addict.

     But he first has to want to change.  Sincerely.  He first has to want to quit.  Sincerely.  Of course it'll help our long, uphill

battle to get clean and sober if we have greater access to medical attention, rehabs and recovery homes.  As for more early education, myself aside, it could well reduce the size of the next generation of addicts.  And if the access and availability of narcotics is related to addiction, as it most certainly is, then we must do whatever is necessary to stop the flow of drugs into our country, whether they're made here by big pharma and distributed by unscrupulous doctors, or smuggled in from China or across our southern border.  If the drugs weren't there, I never could've used them.  But they were there and I made the bad choice to use them and now it's up to me, and those like me, to make the right choice and stop.  I have no answer to the opioid crisis, but I can tell you that there's hope for each and every addict who's fallen prey to it.   

      I'm living proof. 

      Like it or not, once we take all the usual suspects out of the line-up, we're left right where we started.  With ourselves.  No more looking back.  No more pointing fingers.  In the end, for the addict, it's only about the here and now.  And it's the addict, and only the addict who has the power to kill the addict inside them and turn their lives around or become another casualty in the next study for the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

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