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 (https://patrick-oneil.com/publications/). 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.
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.