In Recovery, A Gift Can Also Be A Weakness

By Christopher Dale 02/19/18

In sobriety I’ve found my strongest talent – and my weakest vulnerability.

Christopher Dale

The thing that I do best I'm doing right now. Writing. 

That isn’t to say I'm a great writer, but rather that – all modesty aside – I’m an above-average writer and pedestrian, at best, at pretty much everything else. 

More than anything, my gift is sheer happenstance; writing is, I believe, 90% innate talent and 10% cultivation of that talent. And for me, cultivation wasn't a luxury - it was existential.  

I've shared before in this space that my God-given talent for the written word saved my life - or, at least, my livelihood. Amid the sloppy, unpresentable descent into alcoholism, my gift for succinct, catchy marketing copy kept me employed far longer than circumstances warranted. I was passable on paper when I could not be in person - an emailed eloquence that kept a sinking ship afloat. 

A year after finally losing that position – alcoholism is progressive, so no true alcoholic can hide it indefinitely – soon enough that same skill helped me land and hold an equally respectable position despite fleeting, false-start sobriety that wouldn't fully take root for another year.

In sobriety, writing has done far more than pay the mortgage. My brain functions far more effectively in front of a screen than it does in front of other people, making essays a crucial outlet for growth. And as my musings began being published in a growing number of well-known outlets, including this one, writing became a self-esteem-building uber-hobby. 

Writer’s Block

Perhaps the most gratifying gift of sobriety has been learning, little by little, what makes me tick; discovering who I am. And more than anything, I am a writer. Whether I’m ghost-authoring a thought leadership piece for a pharmaceutical trade at work, or bylining a syndicated political op-ed from home, the act of authoring is so ingrained in my psyche as to be inseparable. 

As corny as it sounds, in sobriety I’ve found my calling. What I haven’t yet found is how to harness my passion for prose without constantly wearing my heart on my sleeve. Oxymoronically, writing has both opened doors to sober progress while serving as its greatest impediment. It’s blocking me from growth. 

My greatest asset, then, has also become the surest, fastest route to exposing what, I had thought, was a reasonably tamped-down ego. Through six-plus years of AA stepwork and fellowship, I’ve made sizable strides in transitioning from a spiteful child to something more resembling a mature adult. But lately, my fingertips have become my Achilles' heel. 

Want to piss me off posthaste? Tell me my writing sucks. 

How I got here was straightforward enough: When someone has a special talent – a skill he deems his most precious resource – he guards it with all of his being. For me, writing has become an emotional blind spot, a point of oversensitivity susceptible not only to direct harm but, via its place atop my self-proclaimed benefits column, also prone to trickle-down trauma that negatively impacts my entire identity. 

Simply put: if my writing sucks, then anything I do less competently - literally everything else - must suck even more. It's the transitive property of worthlessness. 

Inherently Insulting

Contrary to most life-affirming passions, freelance writing offers far more failures than feel-good moments. For every article I place in a prominent outlet, a dozen others land either in the hinterlands of the Internet or, worse yet, nowhere at all. 

Most of the time, pitches aren't even answered - a cyber-shoutout met with silence after hours spent researching, crafting and polishing a thousand-word piece. Other times it's a terse rejection letter from an assistant editor who probably graduated college six months ago. My personal favorite is "Please take me off your list;" there's nothing quite like being reduced to telemarketer status. 

The end result is this: The same person who used to obsess and pout over a liquor store not opening on time is now obsessing and pouting over a busy editor not responding to an unsolicited, evergreen pitch within my self-appointed window of timeliness. In both cases, it’s all about me. Same shit, different essay. 

And though much of what I just put to paper was unearthed during a recent 4th Step inventory and 5th Step sponsor feedback – my second such deep-dive moral housecleaning – I’ve realized that, me being me, the real solution starts at my keyboard. This post is my attempt to begin writing myself out of what I’ve written myself into. 

So Chris – yes, you… uh, me – if you’re reading this (and I know you are), some tips and reassurances: 

1. Manage your expectations. You’re a crisp, competent writer, and every so often a really solid idea pops into your head. But you’re also a husband, father, executive and sponsor – all things you’ve actively chosen – who, like anyone, has to fit his hobby in where he can. And even if you had limitless time, well… Hunter Thompson you are not. 

2. Stop getting angry and derailed by editor critiques that, while usually well-intending, are typically the irrelevant ramblings of a rushed professional. Keep writing what you know without relying on the validation of others, even if that validation affects both prestige and pocket. 

3. Have some perspective for God’s sake. Seven years ago you were unemployed, unemployable, suicidal and nearly divorced. You can handle a rejection letter or 200. 

4. Keep referring to numbers one through three. Because you’re not going to stop writing until you stop breathing, so you best learn to temper your passion with patience. 

Christopher Dale frequently writes on sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, the Daily Beast, and the New York Daily News, among other places. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.

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Chris & Nicholas Dec 2017.JPG

Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.