Getting Awake: A Field Guide To Recovering From Addiction

  1. Thickets

I lived in the loneliest of houses. A small wartime bungalow whose occupants taught me how to live in a haze of sadness and anxiety. No one could keep the strings of our time together from fraying, or the overwhelming disappointments from cauldroning over into an endless sea of drama. I don’t think it was anyone’s fault. Everyone in the small brick structure was a child of an alcoholic. Everyone irritated each other, hit on wounds new and old in a sea of patterns that made it impossible to maintain a bright worldview. There was no opportunity to heal in the midst of this upended environment and so the rawness prevailed. The rawness in itself became an addiction, a pattern of living that carried over.

In the years to come, if I weren’t in this state, I would find a way to make sure it manifested. I learned at a very young age to feel such incredible isolation and anger. Hopelessness would have me hiding in our dog’s house in the yard or smashing my pencil against my little desk until it shattered. I was afraid of everything, an unsolvable fear that compounded. With a broken heart that commanded me to need in a fashion so large, there was truly nothing that could mend any bit of what was lost in me. A palimpsest of traumas. A maze of them.

I was/am an isolator. The bends in my experience as a young person caused me to become the most internal of beings. This did not bode well for me out in the world. As a young girl, I remember finding hiding places in the school yard during recess where I would stick my nose in a book and hope that nobody would find me. Back then, the more I hid, the more every narcissistic bully found me. I attracted the very thing that kept my worldview intact. These patterns of turtling still feel like home. They do. I look for the trap door.

My fears compounded and became this unstoppable shroud that coloured everything. It was as if I had been given a muddied pair of glasses that read all things around me through a combination of fear and hopelessness. In turn, the world gave me back what I saw. All the while, I demonstrated promise. Skipping grades, being encouraged to use my talents to get somewhere in my life. Occasionally, I would imagine that if I were some other person, one that had not been given a muddy pair of glasses, I might be able to concentrate on my gifts. Instead, I was preoccupied with somehow surviving. This has been one of the great sadnesses of my life – that my accomplishments feel so often like a stranger’s. They are in a long tunnel and I have always found it difficult to own them. So many things that do not match have happened in my life. Up until recently, the power of the negative narrative has kept me from really celebrating myself. Surreal.

I left home very young, and found myself around even more darkness. I remember wandering over to the tiny Chinatown in my hometown and buying a pair of ‘hippie beads’ for my closet, in a room covered in graffiti. I was in grade twelve. I had a record player and a copy of Led Zeppelin IV and Tea For the Tillerman that I played and played. I slept with a drug dealer. I pretended to be a hippie, or my mind made this persona up so that I could cope with my surroundings. I remember in early recovery weeping for this young girl who mothered herself the best she knew how at the time. A real snot cry. She was so very sweet and fragile. I wept because I could look back and see everything coming. An impending unicorn death.

Eventually I learned about defiance. I raised my sword and fought for all things like a warrior. I fought to stay alive. Each new experience of defying the shit gathering around me thicketed over until it became armour. I was a warrior with a broken little girl trapped inside. Nowadays I see these as the bad starts I was given.

My first drink was smoking opium in a biker’s shitty house in west downtown with my boyfriend. I am pretty sure it was his uncle. There was an American flag over the door of the room that held the drugs. Uncle kept disappearing past the flag to get more. More. As I was already in the habit of shrouding the truth with something kinder, drugs and alcohol were a great help to me at first. They helped me adjust the muddied goggles that had been strapped on in earlier years. There is nothing like the rose-colouredness of a bit of acid. The pink hues are unbelievable. Or the warm, kind cinnamon hues of a scotch-soaked night. I honestly believe that drugs and alcohol saved my life. I don’t think I would have been able to process the situation I was in if it weren’t for a bit of kind numbing.

Later on I upped the ante and joined the punk/new wave culture that was growing up around me. These were lucky times for me. It was suddenly cool to be an outsider and so I became cool. I also became beautiful. I modelled for a popular hair salon and became part of a group of models that did still life modelling in the street wearing new wave clothes. I started going to clubs in Detroit and found an aura of glamour to add on top of the wounded warrior I had already nurtured. This feeling of the spotlight, of the male gaze, of finally belonging somewhere, was fodder. It fuelled me on and gave me a sense of false confidence. By then most everything was false. I had learned how to be a seasoned scenester. There was so much relief in the falseness, that I took the bait. These were some fun years in my twenties, but they were laced with problems.

Problems popped out the seams of this “It Girl” life. I couldn’t handle love. I suffered periodic depressions that were kindled by heavy binge drinking. All of my relationships failed. I stopped eating. I was unable to take care of myself. The decline goes on, until eventually a decade later, all that was left was the decline. A pendulum swing that went slow. Slow enough that it was barely perceptible until it was entirely evident. I became one of those jaded bitches smoking a cigarette, telling you how it is in my gravelly booze-soaked voice. A real know it all around the topic of cool. I sure knew how to be cool and it was my badge of honour.

  1. A Part in the Curtain

Like everyone with a history of addiction, I could go on forever about the decline. The one thing I will say is that in the years near the end of my active addiction, I was less “It Girl” and more of a needy and desperate being. I had tremendous fears and needed constant attention. I think as I look back, the worst thing about a bottom is the loss of dignity. The places I went make my stomach sick. All the while I still made everything look cool. The hat of the eccentric artist was a handy shrouding device. It justified so many erratic behaviours and strange activities. In many ways I was egged on to be even weirder in the milieus that I ran in. I was encouraged to stay skinny, unstable, disruptive. I could go on for hours about the fetishization of women in addiction. We are encouraged to stay off our power. It is so unfair.

The justifications went a bit like this: I lived on East Hastings in my last years drinking and was using because there were cheap art studios. I spent my last night drinking at Frank’s Family Restaurant in Parkdale, on a lark. It was cool to slum it. You get the idea. That night, after chilling in a bar decorated with patio furniture, and heading over to some dude’s house to listen to him play guitar above the donut shop around the corner, I had a severe alcoholic seizure. Somehow I had made it home to my studio, and honestly, the next thing I know my live-in boyfriend at the time was hovering over me in our bathroom. I was surrounded by broken glass. He was terrified. I, of course, wasn’t too surprised to find myself there. For weeks I had been throwing up the lining of my stomach and not telling anyone. I was fall-down drunk after one drink because my liver wasn’t working anymore. As I look back at all of the secrets I kept, it gives me no doubt that my secrets were on the way to killing me.

After the seizure, I spent the day in bed alone and as I lay there, the light in the room changed. This is always a hard part of my story to explain. I call it my part in the curtain. The chink in the armour. Simply, I saw the truth. I saw the sadness of my life compounded and for the first time I didn’t run. I stayed with it and it scared the living hell out of me. I also knew that I had the choice of two doors. One: keep going in the direction of Parkdale bars that soon would have me as a regular. And I would likely die before I turned thirty. Two: stop and begin to not know at all what might happen. Was I willing to head into the unknown? All I knew at the time was that I refused to let the inevitability of the story win. See, I was meant to play out the wreckage, and something in me flat out refused. To be honest, I still do. Refuse. I meet many from my past who still unconsciously want me to surrender to that old narrative. It’s almost uncanny.

That was the day I shakily went to my first meeting. I was twenty-eight.

Being the goof that I am, I went to a 5:30 pm meeting in the TD Towers. In a giant fur hat, I wheeled my old vintage bike straight into the heart of the walking business suits. I thought I might die in the elevator up to the fortieth floor. I was so physically ill back then. As predicted, there were a lot of businessmen at the meeting, but you know what? They were kind. They knew.

That day was almost exactly fifteen years ago.


  1. The Straighter Edge

Right now as I write this, I am about to sign a book contract with one of my all time favourite presses. It’s sitting here right beside me. This is the second time in the last fifteen years that I have had the privilege of signing such a document. I am eating a supper of roasted red peppers, Brussels sprouts and quinoa, in a little 1920s house in my old hometown. One that is my own. Some friends and I went earlier and took down a wacky art show I staged in an old apartment and brought everything back to my studio. A place I go every day and paint for a living. When I head up to the city, I live on a giant old wooden boat that my husband and I are restoring. I keep two dogs alive and full of piss and vinegar. I am not sure which of these things I am most proud of. Maybe my dinner. There was a time when the very thought that I could do that for myself was not even remotely realistic.

Last night, I chilled in my office at home and worked on a submission for a new poetry journal. Suddenly I was really feeling lonely. My husband had headed up the day before to the city with another friend, after a really full social weekend. There are still moments in solitude where I feel like hitting the panic button. Even after all of these years. The difference it that I don’t go running for a drink to make it stop. I light some candles and say a quick hello to my old self. Sooner or later the weird anxiety passes, and I find myself on the floor horsing around with the dogs, or talking to Larry and Moe, the two Buddhas on my desk for a bit (aka meditation), or some other thing. The difference is that this feeling used to be my reality most of my waking hours. In a sea of people, even. Now, it pops up here and there.

One time, many years ago, I was on Manitoulin Island and came across a painter’s open studio with a white triangle on his door. That white triangle is a portal that transports. Soon we were talking about his recovery from cocaine. He had many years of clean time, this I remember. But most importantly, he told me that his recovery from addiction was a long one. He says that sometimes he still felt the ether of cocaine coming out of his bones during a sweat lodge. I feel that is the truth. Addiction gets in deep and cancerous and takes a really long time to air out.

In the middling years of my sobriety, the anger came. That one took a long while. Perhaps even, airing out this anger was one of the fiercest parts of all this. Bone leeching.

Warrior times. I was not the easiest to be around as this process unfolded. It’s kind of hard to explain to those around you that the layers of terra firma that you have always known to be real were loosening and raining into your current reality. That your bones were leaking out nasty ass shit. Pretty much, most just thought me a total bitch in those years. Ah, well.

These days, I have been watching old friends die of the disease of addiction. I am watching some ruin their lives. Some of these friends date back to my old days, and some I met along the way in recovery and have relapsed. I watch them pile on the layers of grief again like some strange shell. These days I am aware of the fact that many have a hard time around me, because without saying anything, I am a mirror. Some think me a bit uppity. Like my shit doesn’t stink. Man, sometimes that is a very lonely place to be. I look for mentors and guides and hope wherever I am. Often, there is more suffering and addiction than there is light. No one really prepared me for these challenges. They are the challenges of long-term sobriety.

In the middle of it all, I found the secret to my own power. It’s a pendulum swing in the other direction. I believe that the palimpsest of experience goes both ways. I choose things that are better for me. I started to do that a long time ago in fits and starts, and barring some tremendous setbacks in the other direction over the years, I see an overall steady upswing. Perhaps I am starting to have as much of a layer of good experience settling into my bones as I had terrible ones in times before. It’s a really hard sell to promise this to another addict at the beginning of their recovery trip.

Don’t worry; in a decade and a half, the fog will clear out of your bones. And your bones will take in the light.


Last week I went to see Ragnar Kjartansson’s installation at MOCAD in Detroit. A beautiful, sensuous woman playing two chords on a rare Fender Telecast on a round platform spinning slowly in a room surrounded in long gold streamers. Its mystery made me feel alive. Not long after, I was in a giant former movie set location on East Grand listening to poets read in a burnt out cavern of a room. The carbon walls and the tender light coming from the giant steel doors open to the outside made me want to weep for joy. This morning I woke up to Bitty the rescue dog’s face a couple of inches away from mine, staring her blinky eyes right at me. It made me laugh. There are now thousands of these impressions that line the walls of my spirit home. They are balmy and joyous and in my mind have been worth living for. They tide me over in the leaner times.

I had to eat a chocolate bar and smoke three cigarettes just to write this. It scares the hell out of me to give this all to you readers. I do it though, because I hope that it helps someone else out there. I would love to give you instant rainbows. An easier way. The best I have is that both doors are really, super hard. It’s just that one contains grace. And good quinoa suppers. If you have to pick a door right now, pick getting clean. Do it however you have to. But do it now. You will find your right people and a legion of broken unicorns at the ready to get you through.

Painting by Melanie Janisse Barlow

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