Below is just one of many creative writing exercises related to issues in recovery in the small book that Patrick O'Neil (author of Gun, Needle and Spoon) and I are working on. This exercise focuses on relapse. 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.
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 for me. 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 friends.
Of course I was lying to myself.
In the beginning, if I took a drink or a drug, I could pretty much predict how they'd effect me, and that effect was usually pretty 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 never before thought possible. 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 dear 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'll be like a ghost, there one second, gone the next, without a discernable shape or form. Other times we're standing right in front of it, 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 one-to-two 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 might've been locked up, how she's just been paroled from County. Does she have a kid? Is she nervous about seeing him again?
Or maybe it's a guy and he's returning from rehab.
Whatever the situation, when he arrives home, what sort of triggers does he need to look out for if he wants to stay clean and sober? What memories does he have that might cause him to think about drinking or using again? What about his friends? Would one of them tempt him with a drink, a line, a pill? Would other friends or relatives want to throw him a party to celebrate his homecoming? What about driving by an old bar your character used to drink at, or his 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, assuming the role of the character you create, is to show us what
she's up against returning home –- and the many obstacles and temptations she needs to recognize and fight to keep herself sane and sober.
Again, it's about keeping our eyes open, staying alert and vigilant to the dangers we're bound to encounter on our path to recovery, the many landmines, IED's, and snipers just lying in wait to take you and me out.