Your Recovery Handbook: From Anais Nin to Keith Richards

By David Konow 01/25/17
“Given the difficulty of long-term sobriety why not enlist the finest thinkers and writers of all time as your helpers and guides?”
Out of the Wreck, I Rise
“It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”

You learn a lot of helpful and clever sayings in recovery that can come in handy when you’re working the program. Everyone knows the basic ones, like "one day at a time" and "easy does it"—while others who have been through the mill with drugs and alcohol have invented great quotes of their own, like Robin Williams (“Cocaine is God’s way of telling you make too much money”), composer Paul Williams (“You know you’re an alcoholic when you misplace a decade”), and rock star Paul Kantner (“Cocaine’s an IQ test—take it and you flunk”).

There’s countless more where these came from, and now Neil Steinberg, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and a recovering alcoholic, has written Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery, which weaves together a number of quotes and truisms about addiction into a compelling narrative that also serves as a good road map for people in recovery.

Wreck opens with a hard truth about getting sober: “It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.” As Steinberg explains, “It’s helpful for people to see that this is a tough thing. Most people have to do it again and again and again to get it right, and even when you’ve gotten it right, there’s no guarantee you’re going to keep getting it right. That’s why you’re in recovery, you never say you’ve recovered.”

Steinberg says that Wreck “isn’t so much a collection of quotes as it is strategy and emotions. It’s not an anthology. One quote leads to another, and it leads you on a journey. Here you have some of the best writers of all time talking about this phenomenon, and I thought, why not gather them all together to help explain?” Or, as Steinberg writes in the introduction, “Given the difficulty of long-term sobriety—the siren call always tries to lure you back—why not enlist the finest thinkers and writers of all time as your helpers and guides?”

Wreck is Steinberg’s eighth book and, as he tells The Fix, “When I see there’s the possibility of a book there, I write it, and if I don’t do it, it’s like I’m burning a book: I could have done this book, but I didn’t.” At the same time, Wreck may never have seen the light of day without the help of editor Sara Bader.

“Had I not bumped into someone who wanted to do it, it never would have gotten written,” Steinberg continues. “I would have just kept these for my own use. I knew that this would be a lot of work, and I didn’t want to do it alone, but I didn’t say that so I could lure her into helping me. I always thought you could do a book explaining alcoholism and recovery using quotes, and we embarked on this together.”

Steinberg had previously written about his own alcoholism in the memoir Drunkard, which he says he wrote “out of necessity. I wrote it while I was in recovery, so it has a lot of the confusion, fear and sorrow that comes with the process. As a writer, there was a comfort in writing something: I wasn’t a miserable drunk, suspended from my job, going to rehab in some hospital with a bunch of addicts, but I was a writer working on a book.”

In writing about recovery, Steinberg found that applying the principles of journalism was helpful as well, especially when he needed to be candid about his past. “As a journalist, I find the truth to be very important,” he says. “The opening line in Drunkard is poet Robert Lowell, ‘Yet why not say what happened?,’ and I find that very liberating. When you write something that you think is not correct, you see it on the page. Writing helps clarify your thought processes, and it helps you identify BS. Writing is valuable if you can do it, and everyone can do it—it’s just a matter of practice and willpower.”

Steinberg has also used literary metaphor in his recovery, referring to his addiction as “the beast in the basement.” He explains, “It’s a metaphor that helps me understand it. That’s how I can put it into terms where I can understand what’s happening. When a voice in my head says, ‘Hey, you can bring a beer with you on your trip,’ that’s the beast bearing its weight against the door.”

In putting Wreck together, Steinberg quotes from varied sources including ancient philosophers, novelists and rock stars. “I quote Plato in the book, that’s 2,500 years ago, so this problem is as old as humanity itself. There’s a line from Virgil, ‘Yield not to evils, but attack all the more boldly.’ And to me, that’s the basic goal line stance.”

Steinberg not only compiled writings that were familiar to him, but he also dove into books that he hadn’t read previously, like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Stephen King’s The Shining. “That was one of the joys of writing this—I read a lot of books I hadn’t read before. Infinite Jest is a great, 1,000-page masterpiece that’s really about AA and intent. The Shining is a tremendous portrait of an alcoholic.”

Some quotes that Steinberg found helpful were very simple, like a line in the Sarah McLachlan song, "Fallen," which deals with addiction: “Better I should know.” As Steinberg writes, “Four common words, none poetic or profound, but strung together they form a blunt, unambiguous statement, a shield to deflect the regret and sorrow of losing your substance-abusing life. Yes, the truth is ugly. Yes, you messed up. The present course is arduous. Success, uncertain. Still, better you know.”

And indeed, with a lot of sayings and truisms in recovery, the shorter and more succinct the message, the better. “We wanted this book to be useful to people, so we made a point not to make it too complicated or too long, because if people stop reading it, it’s not going to help them.”

Steinberg loves another succinct line from British writer Samuel Johnson: “I will be conquered; I will not capitulate.”

“That’s very helpful,” Steinberg says. “This is something that waxes and wanes. You get more strong and less strong. When it’s not strong, you don’t worry about it. When it’s strong you have to not capitulate to it, and that’s where the quotes are helpful to me.”

Gathering all the quotes together for the book was one thing, but Steinberg also had the arduous task of getting permissions to reprint them, which took a year. “No one turned us down, including Stephen King, and the estates of all these writers. We got permission to quote from The Little Prince and The Wizard of Oz, places I was afraid would refuse us. We had to approach 90 rights-holders, and I was very flattered that no one refused us.”

Like recovery itself, putting together this book was a tough process, but for Steinberg it was worth it. It may sound like a cliché, but it’s indeed true that if it helps even one person, it’s worth it.

“It was so difficult to do this book,” Steinberg says. “I doubt Sara and I will see a dime of royalties, but I know we’re going to hit people. We’ve already heard from people who’ve said this book helped them, and that’s a great feeling. It helped me to do it.”

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.