Friday, August 15, 2014

Guest Post: Writing Saved My Life

Today's guest post was written by Jeff Martin. He blogs at The Oak Wheel, where he posts fiction, reviews, and other neat stuff. He's also always interested in guest authors, if you'd like to set your pen to paper. In fact, my writing/creativity column "Things That I Like" started as just such an arrangement. 

It’s a lofty title, one that I doubt my prose will live up to. Nevertheless, it is a truth, a simple pillar that constitutes the backbone of my existence.

I have always been a storyteller. Ever since I called the fire department when my grandmother was napping as a kindergartner to tell them that someone had broken into the house, I have been weaving tales in one way or another. Sometimes I have been admonished for telling them, as I was by the slightly amused but mostly annoyed firefighter that found me hiding behind my grandfather’s rocking chair. For the most part, though, I receive indifference; occasionally, I am given encouragement.

It has recently dawned upon me that praise or a lack thereof has nothing to do with why I tell stories. I tell stories because, if I do not tell them, I become consumed by them. This fact did not become clear to me until months after I suffered a seizure in April of this year.

From what I remember, it was a beautiful day. My wife, son and I had just got back from a trip to the coastal enclave of Fort Bragg in northern California where we visited my mother for the weekend. It was as relaxing as a vacation can be for a (then) practicing alcoholic. The bed and breakfast we stayed in was quaint although the bed was a bit small for the three of us; the restaurants we visited served top-shelf whiskey and knew what I meant when I ordered a shot ‘neat’. We got back to our home in Sonoma County and decided to have lunch at a small Mexican restaurant in our hometown. Life was good.

It is probably more accurate to say that my perception of my life was good. My life was actually not good at all. After months on the wagon, I had fallen off in typical fashion and started drinking as soon as I could get away with it in the morning. It was a compulsion that I, at that juncture, just simply did not understand. My relationship with my wife had stagnated as the years of living with a barely functioning alcoholic had begun to wear her soul thin. My son, who is afflicted with a congenital heart defect, was, unbeknownst to him, about to have his third open heart surgery. Stress poured out my pores in viscous effusions.

Stress is a word we often use but seldom understand. I certainly didn’t understand it until, after waking up frantically in the back of an ambulance on my way to an emergency room, I was told by a doctor that I had suffered a stress induced seizure.

I was absolutely baffled. How could this happen? I thought everything was going smoothly even though my life and its surroundings were in shambles. My wife came to the emergency room and found me bawling like our toddler, covering the cheap thin hospital gown with a steady deluge of tears. I was a mess, confused and out of touch with reality.

The months that followed were rocky and I will spare you the gory details. Suffice to say, I attempted to get sober and, without the constant numbing agent that is alcohol anesthetizing my brain, I began to think that I was going bat shit crazy. Fully insane, straight jacket status. A One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Silver Linings Playbook type of crazy. My presumed insanity only led to an alcoholic relapse of epic proportions. Things got so bad that I sought help from a group of Stanford psychiatrists while my son was recovering from his open heart surgery and they diagnosed me with full-blown bipolar disorder, a diagnosis that has since been ruled inaccurate (it’s apparently very hard to diagnose an alcoholic in the throes of their disease with a mental disorder).

When I had a name for my crazy, I got scared, the kind of scared you get when you’re alone in the woods at night with no one for miles around and your flashlight battery dies. I started looking up the mood stabilizers that the doctors were recommending that I start taking online, things like lithium and valproic acid. The side effects scared me even more than the disorder I had been diagnosed with. As my son was discharged from the hospital, the three of us returned to our home, leaving one set of worries behind at the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, California, and dragging a new set of them with us.

After meeting with new doctors in my home county, I committed to actually once and for all getting sober. My physician agreed to monitor me in case I started having bad physical withdrawal symptoms, a necessity after the seizure I endured. The first day was hellish; I paced about the house aimlessly, picking up a book for a few moments only to cast it aside in frustration when I couldn’t concentrate. After the fourth or fifth time of throwing down a book, I had an epiphany: I used to write.

Not only did I used to write, but I used to love it. In my youth, I would scribble juvenile stories down into the ubiquitous black and white Mead notebook about cowboys and spurned lovers. As I grew and technology advanced, I would tap my fingers gaily across the keyboard to spin harrowing tales of knights and dragons. These memories came back to me in a rush, a rush very similar to the feeling of that first drink coolly caressing the lips and then warming the belly whilst calming the head.

That was it. I scrambled for my computer and haven’t looked back since.

If I had known what kind of transformation was about to take place, I would have traded the bottle for the pen years ago. At least, I like to tell myself that. In all likelihood, I quit drinking at the exact moment that I was ready to. What I do know for certain is that writing saved my life. You can’t get cirrhosis from too much writing; you don’t wake up in the middle of the night shaking and running to the refrigerator hoping to god that the ghost of Nicholas Cage left you a bottle of orange juice and vodka a la Leaving Las Vegas; writing doesn’t take your relationships and spit them out into tiny degraded pieces. No, writing was and is, for me, the ultimate release. Writing every day and carving stories into the screen with a keyboard has been the reason that I not only no longer drink but also the reason that I do not crave a drink at any moment.

Anyone that has dealt with addiction knows exactly what I’m talking about when I say ‘crave’. There is an insatiable need that takes over the brain, an irrational compulsion to consume whatever it is you’re addicted to regardless of the risks. The trick, in my current experience, is to trade the addiction with something healthy. For me, it has been writing.

I have pondered in the dark reaches of the night why writing has so easily replaced drinking for me. The only conclusion that I have come to is that, as I mentioned previously, I was being consumed by stories. I’ve always had a vibrant inner dialogue but as I left my adolescence for the drunken dens of young adulthood, I got used to having zero inner dialogue. The voices that I once had harnessed and channeled into beautiful tales were drowned in whiskey and beer. Whenever I would put down the bottle, those stories (voices) came rushing back to me, scaring me so much that I ran back to liquor without a second glance. Now I see my mind for what it is: a vessel teeming with stories, a few of them told but most of them waiting in the wings.
Previously, I felt my life was an endless darkness that I groped through without care or concern; today, I still feel the darkness but I have been given an enduring light that I can shine whenever fear overtakes me.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

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