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Triggers: An Exercise in Creative Writing Regarding Relapse

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 ( or me know if you think it's a helpful approach.  We'd love to get some feedback.


Jim Brown








    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. 








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The Recovery Handbook of Creative Writing

Patrick O'Neil and I are in the process writing a small book about using creative writing as one of just many tools in getting clean and sober.  Below is the opening piece, which will soon be revised to include Patrick's role as colloborator and co-author (  We welcome your comments or feedback.                                   


                        The Recovery Handbook of Creative Writing



     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.  Addicts.  Alcoholics.  We're the ones who get high or drunk or stoned to escape how we feel and think.  We want to numb ourselves.  We want to kill the thoughts rolling around in our heads, and if a drug or a drink will do it, what's the harm?  All we're after is a little relief.  And in the beginning, at least, getting high seems to do the job.  We enjoy getting high.  We enjoy getting drunk.  But give it some time.  If you're like 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 and hundreds of rehabs across the country.  I wish I had the solution, but if I pretended I did, I'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 some of the so-called experts don't have our best interests at heart.  I'm sure many do.  But I'm a cynic by nature, as most alcoholic-addicts are, and I'm inclined to believe they're either ignorant, or, more likely, simply out to make a buck off our misery.

     The one thing I've noticed, however, the one thing all 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 or both. Childhood trauma is also a popular topic in the recovery community that you may be asked to write about, as if having a lousy childhood is the reason if not an excuse for why we drink and use.  But to what end?  Besides, I don't know of many people, addicts or otherwise who've escaped their early years without some horrible things happening to them. 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 sometimes it does.   I'm not saying journaling isn't useful.  It is.  Very much so.  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 only 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?

     I think we can.   

     That's why I'm writing this little 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?  I don't believe it does. 

      Not exactly, anyway.

      With distance comes clarity.  And with clarity, we hope,  comes a greater sense of truth.  That person on the page of your journal is and is not you. 

      What I'm 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.  That'll be where the real insight comes from.  I want you to write as if you were someone else.  I want you to create a person that may or may not be like you.  I 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.  I want you to write about what you know, so it sounds real, but it doesn't actually have to be true.  It doesn't actually had to have happened. 

      You can make things up.  

      If fact, I want you to make things up so that you're not bound to literal facts.  I want you to create a small space between yourself and the written page.  And in that space I 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 anything 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 yourself and others that you never before thought possible. 

     Call it fiction.  

     Call it lying if you want.  Given the license to create I bet you'll uncover truths about yourself that you'd never find through journaling. 

     I've spent thirty years battling addiction.  I've also spent thirty 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 that deal with drug and alcohol addiction, suicide, and madness.  And that writing has helped me to get clean and sober and stay that way.  Now it's time to take what I've learned about writing and literature and apply it to the recovery process through techniques of storytelling designed to help people like you and me express ourselves, creatively, without being judged. 

     I've put together a series of writing exercises that deal with real life issues facing those of us in recovery.  One exercise, for instance, 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?  This one is about relapse.  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've hit bottom multiple times before I was able, as of this writing, to put together fourteen consecutive years of sobriety. 

     Other exercises are based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, such as Step One, where we have to admit that "we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable."  Personally 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 your head.  One tells you that your life wasn't unmanageable, the other tells you the opposite.  In it's own strange way it's 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 I'd remiss if I didn't also add that they could be dangerous.  Some require you to go back to 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 lead us to drink and use 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 backward to take one forward.  Recovery doesn't always follow a linear path, or at least it didn't for me.  I can't and shouldn't speak as if I'm any kind of an authority. 

     I'm not. 

     As an alcoholic-addict I have only my experience, strength and hope to offer.  And as a writer and professor, I add to this offer the very small but perhaps very important tool of creative writing. 

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Opiates and the Elderly

      When I think of an addict, I see a skeleton-thin man or woman with abscesses up and down their arms, trembling and feverish, looking for that next fix.  I don't for a second picture a retired elderly couple with two Subaru hatchbacks parked in the driveway of their quaint cottage in the mountain community of Lake Arrowhead, California.  But that's the case with my next door neighbors, though instead of street drugs, it was all about prescription medications.

     I don't know exactly when their addictions took hold, but their seemingly good lives went downhill fast after they each suffered a fall one cold winter.  Freddie slipped on their icy driveway and had to have a hip replacement.  About a month later her husband, Neddy, wrenched his back dragging their garbage cans down to the street for the trash collectors to pick up.  His was a watch-and-wait situation, but he told me that if he bent over a particular way, or turned a particular way, that it sent a paralyzing jolt of pain from his spine down through one leg.  In both cases, I later learned, doctors prescribed them a number of medications, from opiate pain killers to sleep aids and anxiety


     I like to remember them before their accidents.

     I like to remember Freddie tending to her rose bushes and tomato plants in the summer, dressed in bright yellow culottes and a matching yellow sleeveless blouse.  I like to remember Neddy working alongside her.  They seemed happy.  They seemed healthy and strong.  Often, on those warm summer evenings, they liked to relax on their deck on lounge chairs and watch the sun set behind the mountains in the distance.  If I had to guess, I'd put them in their late seventies.

What I would prefer not to remember is how radically their lives soon changed.  They became reclusive.  I rarely saw them outside, and when I did, no matter the time of day, Neddy was usually in his bathrobe and pajamas.  And Freddie, when I sometimes spotted her on their deck, never seemed to change out of her white, flowing nightgown.  Where before my wife and I never heard a peep out of them, now they frequently had loud bitter arguments, mostly about money.  The friends who used to visit them, and they were few, stopped coming around all together.  Then one day I noticed that their Subarus normally parked in the driveway were no longer there.  I assumed they had to sell them.  Or, worse, that they were repossessed.  In either case, this is when they started calling Paula and me, asking if we'd be kind enough to drive them to the grocery store or one of their many doctor's appointments.  We helped them out whenever we could, which was often, but we felt that we had to stop when Freddie said she needed a ride and it turned into an all day affair, taking her to two doctors, one on the mountain, the other in San Bernardino, and then to two separate pharmacies to have her prescriptions filled.  Outside the first pharmacy, before we even got back to the car, she opened one of the bottles, shook several pills into her hand and swallowed them dry.  Helping your elderly neighbors is one thing.  Enabling them in their addiction is another, and as a recovering alcoholic-addict myself, now with twelve years of continuous sobriety under my belt, I'd seen this sort of behavior many times before.  And it sickened me. 

     After that episode we quit answering the phone when their last name appeared on the little screen.  Freddie started leaving angry messages, saying she saw our cars in the driveway, she knew we were home, and ordering us to pick up.  And if they weren't angry calls, they were desperate, pleading ones, begging us to help. It got ugly.

     They began calling 911.  I'm guessing the paramedics came to their home more than the two times I observed and carted one or the other off to the hospital, and I'm guessing, too, that in calling 911 so often they placed themselves squarely into the cross-hairs of the County of San Bernardino.  Then, on Christmas day, Paula and I put together a nice turkey dinner for them, and when I went to deliver it I found a bright orange eviction notice stapled to their front door.  Though it was dated several days earlier, apparently Neddy hadn't seen it yet, because when he answered the door, he tore it off and grumbled.

      "Bastards," he said.  "Miss one goddamn payment and this, this."

       I wanted to say "Merry Christmas," but given the circumstances it didn't seem appropriate.

Clearly, if they had reserves, they'd exhausted them.  Even  with Medicare you have deductibles, and along with the regular bills we all have to pay, it can be hard if not impossible to make ends meet when you're on a fixed income.  Add multiple doctors and prescriptions to the list and maybe that, mixed with poor judgement clouded by drugs, pushed them over the brink.  I can't say for sure, but I've known others who hit on hard times and lost their homes.  Never though, until Freddie and Neddy, have I witnessed the former owners actually whisked away.  But that's what happened.  Two paramedics, two deputies, and a woman in a pants suit who was probably a social worker came and took them.  Neddy must've known they were coming, because he was dressed in slacks and a short-sleeved shirt.  Freddie, however, was still in her nightgown and

slippers with Neddie's bathrobe draped over her shoulders.

      The house remained vacant for close to a year, and in that  time, when it seemed clear that they weren't coming back, I thought about the lounge chairs on their deck.  It would be nice to have them, so Paula and I could sit out on our deck and watch the sun set over the mountains in the distance.  Any day, I figured, the house and everything in it would go up for auction, so I rationalized that it wouldn't exactly be stealing if I grabbed them. 

     I last recalled seeing the chairs on the west side of the deck overlooking the mountains, and when I didn't find them there I thought that maybe thieves had beat me to it.  But when I walked around to where the deck was hidden by the forest, I spotted them, barely, peeking out from underneath bags and bags of garbage that Neddy had been unable to drag to the curb for the trash collectors.  The coyotes and raccoons had torn into them, scattering coffee grounds all over, plastic milk jugs and crumpled paper towels, old corn husks and shriveled up banana peels, the rib cage of a rotten chicken carcass, and some empty prescription bottles.  I picked up one and read the label. 

Vicodin.  Use as needed. 

     I picked up another and another.  Valium.  Use as needed.  Oxycodone.  Use as needed.  Halcion.  Use as needed.  Xanax.  Use as needed.  Several were prescribed by the same doctor, others by different ones.  I even found an empty for Fentanyl.  This one  is so powerful that it's often given to the terminally ill in their

last days.  I'm sure there were more little bottles in that garbage

but I didn't keep looking.

     What, I thought, does use as needed mean?

     Combined, or used separately in large doses, these drugs are potentially lethal, particularly for the elderly whose systems can't process them as well as a younger person.  What really gets me, though, is why so many doctors prescribe so many tranquilizers and pain killers when they know they're addicting.  Is it because the patient is always complaining of this or that and becomes a nuisance and it's easier to just give them what they want than correct the source of their pain or condition?  Or is there no fixing what ails them?  Do the doctors figure, well, they're old anyway, they'll die soon enough, what does it matter if they become addicts?   It's a small but important step that new laws have since gone into effect that keep an eye on doctors too quick to prescribe addictive medications.   

       Of course all the laws in the world aren't enough to solve  the opiate crisis in America, but one thing is for certain.  The problem is real and it's growing and it infects us all, from the homeless to the wealthy, every race and gender, and, very possibly, your sweet, elderly next door neighbors.

      So what happened to Freddie and Neddy? 

     I got a call about a year after they were evicted.  Their last name appeared on the tiny screen on the phone and I picked it





     "It's me.  Freddie."

     "How you doing?"

     "We're doing good," she said.  "I had to go the hospital for a while but I'm okay now.  We both are.  No more, well, you know.  Anyway, Neddy and I are living in a seniors apartment in Palm Springs and we wanted to give you our number.  Got a pen?"

     "Sure," I said.  "Shoot."

      But I didn't have a pen.  I knew I'd never call them, but I'm glad she called me.  I had worried about them, and I was heartened, as I am heartened now in writing this, from one recovering addict to another, that she and Neddy had reclaimed their precious last years together. 


(Note: This is a condensed version of "The Good Neighbors" from the memoir, Apology to the Young Addict.)





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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.


     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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