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.
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.