When Recovery Gets Creative

By Judy McGuire 11/21/11
Tony Fitzpatrick isn’t just a successful artist, writer, actor, entrepreneur and dad—he’s also 28 years sober.
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Fitzpatrick releasing his former demons Headshot via; studio photo via

When 53-year-old Tony Fitzpatrick’s latest play, Stations Lost, finished its three-week run in Brooklyn (after opening at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago) this October, he also had an art show happening at Williamsburg’s Pierogi Gallery at the same time. This pretty much sums up Fitzpatrick’s life: when he’s not running his printmaking shop or managing his publishing house, he may be hanging art at his gallery. The current project at hand? His December 2nd opening at Firecat Projects in Chicago and staging the third in his triptych of plays, Nickel History: The Nation of Heat at Steppenwolf (which will open in July, 2012). Not bad for a former tattoo artist and boxer who, after nine years of addiction, ended up homeless and nearly dead. 

Do you still have the daily struggle with sobriety? 

I make myself a deal when my feet touch the floor in the morning that I’m not going to drink or use today. I don’t borrow trouble from tomorrow and I tore the rear-view mirror out of my life along time ago. I’m not demonized by it—the compulsion’s gone away. Now my problem is that I can’t pass an ice cream store or walk by a raspberry Fig Newton.

When you’re done with dope, dope’s done with you. The alcohol put me through the most physical pain. The detoxing from the years of alcohol abuse was arduous.

What were your drug(s) of choice? 

Alcohol, heroin, cocaine: the breakfast of champions. Luckily for me, I had a toxic fear of needles, so I mostly just snorted the dope. I liked mixing it with cocaine. But the thing that was most ready to kill me was alcohol. 

Why do you feel alcohol was so much more insidious than the illegal drugs? 

When you’re done with dope, dope’s done with you. The alcohol put me through the most physical pain. The detoxing from the years of alcohol abuse was arduous.

What prompted you into sobriety? Was there an intervention?

I don’t believe in interventions because you have to surrender. You have to admit you’re whooped. They tried an intervention on Steve Earle and he wound up living in a crack house for two years. People always say congratulations [on sobriety], but what brought me into sobriety was sheer shaking cowardice. It was fear of dying. I was homeless. There’s a program in Glendale Heights, just west of Chicago…A young woman I know had gone through it and she dropped me off there one day. I had a five-day detox and then they evaluated whether they’d accept me. Thankfully there was a wonderful counselor there who felt I was worth saving. I was constantly trying to bargain with sobriety. I would say, “I’ll do the five days here and then I’ll get out and have five days clean.” But by my third or fourth day of going through the DTs, I knew I was in the right place.

What was the scariest thing about finally getting clean?

The most terrifying day was the one before I got out: the 27th day. For the first time, I was clear enough to see what was coming five miles down the road. What also became apparent was that I finally had a choice. I don’t think I ever used my own free will while I was getting high. My schedule was around copping and getting together enough money for drinks. 

Did you ever relapse once you got out? 

No.

That’s pretty impressive, considering relapse rates—how did you do that? 

You know how they have you do 90 in 90? I did 365 in 365. Right out the back door of the first studio I rented, seven times a day, there were AA meetings. My studio and the room shared vents, so even when I wasn’t actively sitting in a meeting, I was hearing them. I’d sit there, drawing, and I’d hear a new meeting.

I know from reading your Facebook feed that you’re an atheist—how did you handle the Higher Power aspect of AA? 

For the first two years, I’d say my Higher Power was “not me.” Today, it’s you. Or the 30 or 40 people gathered in the AA meeting today. A lot of smart people who don’t happen to be people of faith [have a real] stumbling block [to sobriety]. These are the guys who don’t get sober. 

You mentioned Steve Earle—you’ve done almost all of his album covers. How did you two meet? 

We met at the Lone Star Café in New York City in 1981 or so. Both of us were in none-too-great shape. I sobered up and met him again a few years later at the Park West in Chicago. He wanted to know where the good Mexican food was. I climbed on the bus and brought him up there and we started talking. I showed him some of my work and we became close. Kind of like one of those moments when the dog whistle blows and nobody else hears it, but you two. In 93/94, Steve got sober, after much pain. 

What do you do when you meet someone struggling with alcohol or drugs? 

I tell them, “If you ever get tired of this, this is my number…when you get sick of living in pain, let me know.” You leave a door open. I was lucky. I had a really good sponsor. I had a guy who was very tolerant, and knew when to step in and when to step back. The only sobriety you can ever maintain stewardship of is your own. You can hold a hand out but you can’t do it for them. You can only let them know that help is there. I always tell people pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.

Judy McGuire is a Brooklyn, NY-based freelance writer and a columnist at the Seattle Weekly who also wrote about Adderall and moderate drinking studies, among many other topics, for The FixYou can find her at dategirl.net.

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