Hi. My name is Seth Haines. I am a writer. I am an alcoholic.
There could be no truer way to begin a piece on the intersection of writing and addiction unless I were to confess that, on par, I have an addictive stripe that runs as true and as hot as the Mississippi River. Alcohol? Yes. Words? Yes. Any old thing? Perhaps.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a taste for language. My mother was a literature teacher at the local junior high, and she taught me the power words wield in poetry and prose. I took her message to heart, playing with words from an early age. I stretched language like taffy, spun words together like cotton candy. I sold my first short story at the age of 11 to Jenna Kohler on the playground for 25 cents. It was a piece about the resurrection of frogs in the final days of the world’s spin-cycle. It remains, to this day, some of my best work.
My taste for alcohol developed at a later age. I imbibed for the first time after my 21st birthday — a modest two bottles of banquet beer — and in the years following, eased my way into a penchant for liquor. The more I drank, the more I discovered that either God or my family tree, depending upon your view of the world, had gifted me with a strong German tolerance. It was a fortuitous discovery, if not an epiphanic one, and in it, I became a most accomplished drinker.
I cannot point to the moment when I began to combine drinking and writing. When did I put whiskey and words into a shaker with cracked ice and cocktail them together? I do not recall. But in the years leading up to my sobriety, I wrote articles, poetry and what I’d like to call the Great American Novel (which remains unpublished on my computer desktop), all under the influence. Alcohol became jet fuel for the creative fire. It was the medium for the muse.
In September of 2013, I slopped into my last drunk under the arms of a Spanish oak in Austin, Texas. The story would take too many words to tell, but to truncate the matter, I woke into the epiphany that the bottle had bested me. My spirit-guide in this epiphany, otherwise known as my de facto sponsor, was a fellow writer, Heather King. She suffered my trembling questions. What if giving up the bottle means giving up the writing? What if I cannot write another creative sentence? She listened, let me say my piece, cocked her head to the side and said, “stop it; in sobriety you’ll find a depth to your creativity, a clarity to your prose and poetry that you’ve never had.”
She pushed further, challenging me to write through the newness of my sobriety as creatively as I could. “Listen,” she said, “and write what you hear. Give it a try for 90 days.”
Despite my love of language and writing, I’ve never been much for journaling, but I set my mind to her challenge (a challenge that would later be echoed by my therapist). I took to the computer in the evening of my sixth day of sobriety. This is how I recorded it.
It was not my intent to be here, writing this. Tonight, I’m writing sober 535 miles from my great epiphany in Austin. I am under the influence of only full faculties. Tonight, I’m free-writing. I’ve needed to free-write for some time, which is to say I’ve needed to write from a place of freedom.
This is my first pass, a flyby attempt at recording the things that come in the newness of sobriety. In this scratching of words, I’m hoping to find creativity outside of the bottle. For so long, I’ve written from the gin or whiskey or wine. I’ve written poetry, prose, and have even penned the Great American Novel — unpublished, as most Great American Novels are, of course — all under the influence. I’m afraid sobriety will mute the muse. A friend tells me this is mockery of God, that the liquor is not the muse. Another writer, a good friend who’s had her own battle with the bottle, tells me her best stuff came when sobriety found her.
Maybe they’re right.
This I know: the poet in me hears the melody in the juniper berries of the gin, the harmony in the tonic, and the overtones in the lime. This I also know: the poet in me would rather gussy up the poison, would rather call it anything other than what it is.
Tonight I’m writing sober for the first time. I will sleep tonight and hope to wake tomorrow with less fear and more resolve.
Excerpted from Coming Clean (Zondervan, October 2015)
For 90 days, I practiced the art of journaling, the art of listening to the lessons of new sobriety. I found that the discipline of journaling gave me occupation, something to occupy my thoughts outside of liquor. As I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, I found clarity in my creative process and found my thirst for whiskey and gin waning. More than anything, though, I found the presence of God — my higher power — sitting with me in the process of coming clean. I rediscovered the spirit behind the art of writing. What a gift.
I don’t suppose everyone a writer, musician, or artist. We all have different methods and modes of self-expression. But even if you aren’t a writer, the process of journaling through sobriety can be a powerful tool. It uncovers buried lies, shame, and pain. It allows space to hear the truth about who we are, our inability, our need for the intervention of a higher power. And what do we — the outed straggling addicts — need more than intervention by a higher power?
The words Heather spoke were a true gift, a sacrament I might call them. They were a proof of sorts, a proof I hope to live into more deeply. And this is the truth: sobriety does not mute the muse; it only makes her sing more sweetly.