Leslie Jamison—author of The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, The Empathy Exams, and others—has been sober since 2010. In The Recovering, Jamison tells the story of her own recovery and those of other famous creatives who got sober.
Like some of the artists mentioned in the book, Jamison produced work while in active addiction. “It wasn’t costing me my job or my reputation in a black-and-white way,” she said. “But my interior felt really small and obsessed with this one thing. That felt shameful and corrosive. The last nights of my drinking were very ordinary; I took a huge amount of whiskey into a room to pass out drunk. But it was the smallness of that which sent me into recovery.”
In The Recovering, Jamison examines and shatters the myth—which she herself once believed—that addiction fuels creativity. There are plenty of examples of musicians, artists, and writers who have struggled with addiction, but they created work in spite of their addiction, not because of it.
According to Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David Linden, “Genetic variants [in some people with addiction] make for a low-functioning dopamine system, specifically D2 receptors. If you carry those variants, you are more likely to be more risk-taking, novelty-seeking, and compulsive. None of which are explicitly creative, but they are things that get to creativity.” People who are prone to creativity may also be prone to addiction, but their work tends to suffer as their substance use spirals.
When she was in graduate school at the Iowa Writers Workshop, a program from which many famous writers have graduated, Jamison went to bars where writers like Raymond Carver drank. It was as though the bars were museums; she romanticized the idea of the tortured, drunk writer.
When she had some time sober, she realized many of her favorite authors wrote some of their best work sober. This is true for Jamison herself; her book The Empathy Exams, a New York Times Bestseller, was published four years after she got sober. She was just 30 years old.
In The Recovering, Jamison also talks about how hearing other people’s stories in AA expanded her worldview. As someone with a literary eye, she was initially skeptical of AA aphorisms and the whole idea of recovery stories.
While everyone has a different experience—and many stories of active addiction at first glance seem unique in their outlandishness—a lot of recovery stories share similar arcs. Substance use starts out feeling okay and seems to solve all problems; consequences start building; the person tries to cut back without success; they accumulate some dangerous or wild stories; the person gets sober and slowly learns to face life without substances.
Jamison later realized that this is what makes AA—and sharing recovery stories in general—so helpful. “You don’t have to have lived anything exceptional in order for your story to be useful,” she said. “It’s actually the opposite that has to be true. We all have to accept that our stories are unexceptional in some way. It’s the unexceptionality that makes them worth sharing.”
Jamison applies what she’s learned through AA every day. She says that continually showing up, whether you feel like it or not—living by the AA aphorism of “doing the next right thing”—has been a “lifesaver.”
“It has been incredibly helpful to have a model [in AA] for what it means to trust in a process even through moments of frustration or difficulty,” she said.
Besides writing about recovery, Jamison runs an independent study each semester where her Columbia University MFA students lead a writing workshop for people enrolled in Marian House, an organization that provides addiction treatment and transitional housing. She advocates for comprehensive approaches to recovery, and—like us at TruHealing Centers—believes in treatment over punishment.
“I would love to be a voice encouraging people and legislators to see people with substance dependence as people in need of treatment, rather than punishment,” she said. “I’ve found 12-step recovery transformative in my own life, but [I’m] very committed to talking about treatment in pluralistic terms, insisting on harm reduction and medication-assisted treatment as part of any responsible picture.”
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is hope. TruHealing Centers offers high-quality treatment for addiction and mental health disorders in facilities across the country. We offer expressive therapy to help you use creativity to process your experiences and heal. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.