Walt Whitman volunteered as a nurse in the Civil War. Most people don’t know that. Yet you can see his passion for nurturing in his work. There are moments in Leaves of Grass when he practically pulls up a chair and tends to the reader as if comforting a patient.
“O despairer, here is my neck,” Whitman writes. “By God! You shall not go down. Hang your whole weight upon me. I dilate you with tremendous breath...I buoy you up.”
As a writer, words have always buoyed me up. So when I entered rehab 10 years ago, I grabbed at them like a drowning man. Certain lines were talismans I kept in my pocket and referred to constantly. Not just literature, but from movies and songs. As much as I sometimes regretted see my problem laid out so starkly, for example, I couldn’t regret it too much, not when remembering “better I should know,” a simple lyric from Sara McLachlan’s essential recovery anthem, “Fallen.”
As the years passed, I began pulling useful thoughts about recovery out of whatever I was reading. Samuel Johnson is famous for compiling his epic dictionary of the English language. But an alcoholic wading through James Boswell’s Life of Johnson can’t help but find within it a primer in keeping on the path of recovery, such as when Johnson tries to explain to his disbelieving friends how he can possibly not drink. What do you do, Boswell asks him, when a “good worthy man takes you to taste his wine, which he has had twenty years in his cellar?” Johnson scoffs in reply:
No good and worthy man will insist upon another man’s drinking wine . . . it is something to please one’s company; and people are always pleased with those who partake pleasure with them. But after a man has brought himself to relinquish the great personal pleasure which arises from drinking wine, any other consideration is a trifle.“Any other consideration is a trifle.” Exactly. Sobriety first.
So much of recovery is focused on the early stages—giving up the substance that has enslaved you, changing your way of life—that some overlook the need to fill the rest of your life with something substantial. You can’t live a life based on what you don’t do. Literature helps embellish and strengthen recovery, making it seem, not something dreary, not the folding chairs and cinder block in the church basement, but something thrilling, even heroic. “The gates of hell are open night and day,” Virgil writes in The Aeneid. “Smooth the descent, and easy is the way. But to retrace your steps, to climb back to the upper air—There the struggle, there the labor lies.”
Don’t we all know it? There are many elements that make up a successful sober life, whether attending 12-step programs, going to group or individual therapy, forging a relationship with God, focusing on exercise, nutrition, work, hobbies, family.
To that list I think it’s important to add literature. Not only excellent recovery memoirs like Mary Karr’s Lit or David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy, but novels such as David Foster Wallace’s massive Infinite Jest, which might be the best treatment of Alcoholics Anonymous ever written. I took the quotations culled from a lifetime of reading, thoughts and words that helped me along the way, and, together with co-author Sara Bader, put them together into Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery, which the University of Chicago Press is publishing in September. The quotes are not only grouped thematically, dealing with early recovery, for instance, or family, or relapse, but mortised together so they form a narrative, a kind of mosaic one leading to the next. My favorite pairing is in the chapter on time — an essential element in recovery, mastering the hours, days and years of your life.
The first is from John Cheever’s diary:
When the beginnings of self-destruction enter the heart it seems no bigger than a grain of sand. It is a headache, a slight case of indigestion, an infected finger...To try and restore some purpose and beauty to it you drink too much at cocktails you talk too much you make a pass at somebody’s wife and you end with doing something foolish and obscene and wish in the morning that you were dead. But when you try to trace back the way you came into this abyss all you find is a grain of sand.Followed by Emily Dickinson observing, in a letter:
It is the speck that makes the cloud that wrecks the vessel, children, yet no one fears a speck.Part of staying sober is learning to recognize and fear that speck, being on guard for that first grain of trouble that could, unnoticed, bring about a storm. Part is creating a full rich life that rewards you. Great writing has always done that for me, and might for you as well.
Neil Steinberg, a columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times, is an author of Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery, published by the University of Chicago Press.