The Artist's Way

By Jane Doe 03/27/13

Practical, action-based tools can restore your creativity in sobriety.

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I always thought that in order to be creative, I had to be connected to some kind of pain or trauma. Ever since I was a little girl, making art was always a big part of my life. However, the passion around art began to shift when my addiction to food, and then alcohol, began. After years of addiction, pain and misery felt like the only entry points to access creativity. Recovery has allowed me to slowly reconnect to art-making in a deeper, more loving and practical way, one step at a time.

I started abusing food at the age of 13. My addiction took on the form of bingeing and restriction. By the time I was 15 I had developed bulimia. As my disease grew, my art had less and less room to grow. I still drew and painted, but I was stifled by perfectionism. I wanted to be the best and I was afraid to make any mistakes or to look weak. Food and my body was a way to feel in control—and at the same time feel relief—from the pressure I put on myself. More and more of my energy became consumed with secrecy around bingeing, purging, hiding food and isolating in order to cater to my addiction.

Today it is more painful to hide my art than it is to pursue it

I had my first drink on my 16th birthday with my best friend. We were in her parent’s house and stole some of their liquor. It was an amazing feeling. I was laughing and I finally didn’t care about anything anymore—not my body or school or anything. Eventually I threw up all over myself and my friend had to clean up after me. I felt like I had entered a rite of passage into adulthood and went home hungover and proud.

The consequences around drinking came fast. Three months later I was at a bar with friends and some men in their 30s. I came to with the three of us in a hotel room at 4am. That did not stop me from stealing my family's liquor; my father started measuring the bottles to see if I was stealing alcohol.

My art became darker. My inspiration came from the daily pain I felt. The summer before my senior year in High School, I went away to an art program. Rather than taking advantage of it, I retreated into addiction. It was painful to be around artists who were as talented or more talented than me. Instead of putting my energy towards going through the uncomfortable adventure of creativity, I did a minimal amount of work, and indulged my addictions. Twice I tried paying other people to buy me alcohol: The first ran away with my money, the second time, security guards caught me and threatened to kick me out of the program. So I relied on caffeine pills and food to medicate myself.

I went on to a liberal arts college and my drinking and food addiction progressed. The first year I attempted to major in Fine Art, but by the second year I dropped out because my drinking and partying took up too much of my time. Some of the consequences of my drinking were: blackouts, an ambulance being called, going home with strangers, damaging relationships, and alcohol poisoning.

My drinking continued for five more years. As each year went on, managing my addictions became harder and my art not only became darker, but became less of a priority. In the last year of my drinking, I moved to New York thinking that a move would change how I felt about myself but my drinking only got worse. Five years ago a friend confronted me about my drinking, inviting me to come to an AA meeting. I cried because I had tried everything to fix myself other than quitting drinking and nothing had worked. I was 23 at the time.

The first year in sobriety was the hardest for me. I was unwilling to change my lifestyle at first and eventually I tried drinking again after five months sober. In just two days, I quickly came to realize that I had no control: The second night I came to at Coney Island, having passed out on the train, and peed and defecated in my dress. Only after a further humiliation was I willing to admit that self-knowledge was useless against alcoholism.

After surrendering again, I got a sponsor who brought me through the steps. I also received a lot of outside help. After about a year sober, I began talking to my sponsor about my art. I was too terrified to actually do anything about it. I thought that since I had stopped making art I could not be an artist anymore. She asked me practical questions like, ‘What artists do you like?’ and ‘What galleries do you like?’ I had no idea. Practical ideas about art were not tools I had acquired. I had a fantasy that if I was really talented, I could do it by myself and someone would discover me somehow.

Very slowly, she began introducing action-based tools around creativity. One of the most powerful tools was discovering I had choices. She told me to draw for five minutes a day and to text her "I chose to draw for five minutes" or "I chose not to draw for five minutes." I felt ashamed to tell her that I had made the choice not to draw. That small action of drawing for five minutes showed me that I had a choice, that I was not a victim anymore.

Gradually, over the course of a year, drawing for five minutes grew to ten minutes, which led to attending drop-in classes at art schools, which lead to asking for help from artist friends, which eventually led to a small portfolio of work. I learned that I did not have to take any uncomfortable actions alone, and that if I asked for help, there were many people who were there to guide and direct me.

As an addict, I want immediate results. I want to change my life in a moment. Drinking allowed me to feel like everything had changed when, in reality, nothing was changing. It was uncomfortable to trust that taking small, manageable actions would accumulate. It was uncomfortable to ask for help, and to make art that I did not like. In sobriety, I get to feel all of my feelings around creativity. I have discovered that there is an infinite amount of inspiration, which is deeper and more poignant than my addiction.

Today it is more painful to hide my art than it is to pursue it. Between my third and fifth year of sobriety, I began selling my work and showing in galleries. Life has unfolded in a way I would never have predicted five years ago. I am eternally grateful to AA for my sobriety and the ability to show up for a life that I could have never imagined.

Jane Doe is a professional artist who wishes to remain anonymous

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