Making Progress in Writing and Recovery
Originally published on www.psychologytoday.com on October 27, 2015
I write and I recover from a loved one's addiction. Granted there are significant differences between the two, but several similarities. I struggle to master both. And let me tell you, it's hard.
Both involve steadfast discipline. Writers need to establish routines--to get their butts in their chairs, to face a blank computer screen and compose a first draft. Without a regular routine, ideas disappear and creativity is stifled. Likewise loved ones need to establish boundaries--to get out of the addict's way, to reverse course and change their behavior. Without boundaries, addicts continue to abuse drugs and alcohol and family and friends suffer. None of this is easy. For example, when I put my butt in my chair, I often waste precious writing time by checking emails, surfing the web, or reading and posting messages on Facebook and Twitter. And when I failed to establish boundaries with my adult son, I wasted years worrying and obsessing. I couldn't control my need to control him. Taking action to change both my writing and enabling behaviors has been an ongoing challenge.
Anne Lamott wrote, "For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way to get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts". To polish a first draft a writer must revise. Often again and again. She has to figure out what to leave in and (more importantly) what to leave out. For loved ones, addiction is a burden. And the only way to lessen the load is to revise our thinking, attitudes, and behaviors. So what should we leave in and what should we dig out?
Even though our loved ones drive us crazy with their reckless behavior, we need to leave a space in our hearts for compassion and hope. Compassion because they are physically sick, emotionally wounded, and spiritually broken. Hope because there are no hopeless situations, only people who give up hope. During my son's twenty year up and down battle with addiction, I often lost hope. Although I didn't abandon him, I learned how to keep my spoon in my own bowl. (This took a long time.) I told him I loved him and encouraged him to get help. I'm grateful that for the past three years he's drug free and rebuilding his life.
Often writers are relentless and leave out large chunks of their rough drafts. In an interview, Mary Karr shared that she threw out several hundred pages of the first draft of her memoir, Lit, which is about her journey from drunk to sober. Rather than letting go of words, loved ones need to let go of their compulsion to fix someone else by enabling and manipulating. "If you promose to not drink while driving, I'll lend you the car." "If you go to your AA meetings, I'll pay this month's rent." How do we change the conversation and get on with our own lives?
Ryunosuke Sator wrote, "Individually we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean." My writing and twelve-step support groups are a significant part of my life. Each provides a safe space and offers valuable support. In my writing group we share our shitty, first drafts and help one another make them better. Our goal is to produce a polished draft because in writing, as in much of life, perfection is elusive. Margaret Atwood said, "If I waited for perfection, I wouldn't write another word."
Just as a draft is a work in progress, so are members of twelve-step groups. We share our experience, strength, and hope. Our goal is to help one another focus less on enabling and more on changing our lives and taking care of ourselves. When we fall back into old, destructive behaviors, we remind one another to revise our thinking. When we berate ourselves for relapsing, we focus on "progress not perfection," and then we move on.
Some loved ones do not wish to dive into self-help groups. I get that. Since it's almost impossible to change co-dependent behavior alone, consider other options. Consult a therapist, clergy member, or talk to a trusted friend. Search online for blogs, articles, books and websites such as the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. Like writers, you need to begin somewhere. Do something--anything--to get the process going.