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Message in a Bottle: Creativity and Alcohol Recovery

“Is there anything else you think I should know about you?”

My new therapist made a final note on his clipboard before looking up at me with a gentle smile, letting the question rest between us. We were coming to the close of our second session together. The requisite discussions of family background and life circumstances had taken up our first two sessions, laying the groundwork for a relationship that continues to this day. I thought about his question. “I guess I should mention that I drink at least four beers every night, definitely more on the weekends. I know it’s probably a bit much.” I saw his eyebrows raise ever so slightly. He thanked me for my honesty and made note of my confession. I didn’t know at the time that so much of our first year together would be centred around this single habit–compulsion–that had been dissolving every structure I’d tried to erect in my life, structures built like sandcastles just before high tide.


The process of changing a habit might seem simple–just decide what you’re going to do and do it. Nevertheless, by the end of January each year, most of us are palpably aware that this simplicity is an illusion. There’s a whole theory about how people make these changes, how we recognize the things we’re doing that are keeping us stuck, and then choose to act differently [1]. I learned about this "Stages of Change" theory while I was in school for psychology, ironically stuck in the very first stage, non-contemplation. That’s where I’d been for the last ten years; unconsciously refusing to take a sober look at the impact that alcohol was having on my life. As long as my grades were high and I was getting to work on time, I thought alcohol couldn’t be a real problem in my life.

My first year in therapy pushed me past non-contemplation. I could see that alcohol was a crutch for me. If I was feeling anxious about attending a party, I’d have two drinks before arriving to take the edge off. If I was having difficulties in my relationships, I’d use that as an excuse to drink heavily, anything to direct my attention away from the emotional pain. Therapy helped me notice these patterns and open my mind to the possibility of handling these situations in another way. Still, I stayed put in one safe little region of the stages of change for months. I moved from anti-contemplation to contemplation, avoiding the issue and then staring it in the face once a week. But this was all just in my conscious mind; what was happening to me was much, much deeper.


My therapist and I began to explore my inner world through my dreams and creative projects. Each week I would bring a dream into our session together for us to discuss and contemplate, noticing themes that seemed to correspond to what was going on in my external world. Around the beginning of our work together I dreamed that I opened up a beer in my bedroom, releasing noxious fumes that blackened the walls and made the air painful to breathe (my subconscious was not beating around the bush). Another creative process my therapist suggested was creating collages out of magazines and newspapers, each focused on a theme in my life, like family or intimate relationships. We would interpret these creative works together, discussing why I chose the images and what they represented for me. Each symbol said so much, enough to fill an hour if we let it.

The idea that there was "something more" to life than the daily work of living became increasingly palpable. The symbols in my dreams and art projects weren’t only able to capture my pain, they also provided ideas around ways that I could heal. These symbolic messages surprised me, and I began to feel connected to something beyond (or deep within) myself–a creative, spiritual place. The symbols arising from my inner work provided me with a sense of companionship and strength. A dream bear isn’t just a bear, it’s a part of me that is capable of reviving after a long period of hibernation, a part that I’d begun to make conscious. I started to feel like there might be a powerful antidote to life’s inevitable pains and anxieties, and that it might not require anything outside of myself.


While all of this inner transformation was going on, I was still drinking heavily every night of the week. I was somehow holding it all together–work, university, relationships–but the cracks were beginning to show. It became harder and harder to return to that place of anti-contemplation, and when faced with the choice of getting sober or drinking again, my defenses would come up and the rationalizing would begin: "I’m not that bad. I can learn to moderate. I’m much more interesting when I drink........"

“It's like how I lied about getting sober: it was hard. I'd pretend it was a road trip,

that I'd be drinking again on Saturday, and the Mondays and Wednesdays would

tick by until it was Saturday, and I'd lie to myself again, it's too humid to drink

today, I'll drink tomorrow, and tomorrow would be my mother's birthday, then

Monday would arrive…”

(From Step Two: Higher Power by Hala Alyan)

Then suddenly, without conscious warning, sobriety came to me. My mind somehow made the leap from anti-contemplation to action. I made a change. After a long night of partying left me bedridden for days afterward, plans canceled, and friendships damaged, I somehow knew that I was no longer going to drink. Sobriety comes differently to everyone. For some, years of contemplating the change can result in multiple false starts. Quitting smoking was like this for me, a painful, shame-inducing struggle to pull myself out of the quicksand of addiction and become, after dozens of attempts, free. I don’t know for certain why this particular change was different for me, but I have an idea. My engagement in therapy cracked open the door to a renewed spiritual connection with myself and the world, just enough to show me that there was another way to fill myself up that required no material substance. Deep down I knew how to access this space, what I had been practicing in therapy–through creativity.

Poetry was one of the many things that helped me maintain my sobriety in the early weeks and months when I was still learning who I was without a substance. In reading poetry about alcohol use, I felt part of the greater community of people who were having the same ineffable experiences that I was having. Poetic symbols can capture the terror and awe that accompany the onset of any meaningful change. Symbols can represent the rich, complex, paradoxical, painful, and hopeful experiences of human life that are too much for our everyday language to convey. Art can bring us out of ourselves and into a transcendent place. Human experience can become a spiritual experience, and sometimes a few lines of poetry is all that it takes.

Not everyone has access to or wants to engage in the same therapeutic process that I did. Luckily, we can take steps toward creativity and spirituality in a myriad of other ways. Poetry is one accessible way to get there. Reading poetry can open us up in places that may have been locked shut for years or decades. Writing poetry can tap into that creative force inside of us, a force that in some way resembles the very origins of the universe. There is something beyond the work of daily living–my sobriety journey has brought this truth home for me. I hope it does the same for you.


“…And I think in the end this was the question that destroyed Agamemnon, there on the beach, the Greek ships at the ready, the sea invisible beyond the serene harbor, the future lethal, unstable: he was a fool, thinking it could be controlled. He should have said I have nothing, I am at your mercy.” From The Empty Glass by Louise Glück


Looking to start writing and reading poetry, but not sure where to start?

Head here to begin the process through a mental health lens:

Curious about how poetry and other art forms can help improve your mental wellness? Check out these resources:

Want to read more poems about alcohol use, abuse, and recovery? Check these out:

References

[1] Freeman, A., & Dolan, M. (2001). Revisiting Prochaska and DiClemente's stages of change theory: An expansion and specification to aid in treatment planning and outcome evaluation. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 8(3), 224-234. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1077-7229(01)80057-2


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