By N. Lawrence Mann

sober man journaling by water

Recently, I was engaged in a sobriety conversation with a random stranger while waiting for an elevator at the doctor’s office. I can’t remember how the conversation started, but she asked a profound question just as the elevator began to move upwards. I only had three floors worth of time to give her a thoughtful response. She asked how writing has helped in maintaining my sobriety. Without forethought, and being pressed for time, I simply replied that it has allowed me to shelve it and take it all back. She responded with a blank stare and a slow nod. Without time to elaborate, I’m afraid I left her with more questions than answers. The conversation marinated in my mind over the next couple of days. When I said that writing had allowed me to shelve it and take it all back, what did I mean? To what extent has writing helped me to stay sober? After much introspective pestering, I think I have an answer.

Part of the price of sobriety is being reminded of uncomfortable and scattered memories from a time when addiction held complete sway over your life. That price appears to only inflate while the places to store unwelcome reminders dwindles. Whether it’s hurtful things you said to your sister, lost years from your niece and nephew’s childhood or a missed court appearance that red-flagged your background check, it never ends. That scar on your calf is a constant reminder of your lack of judgement when whipping open that Tibetan butterfly sword nights ago. These thoughts come with the territory. They are a distillery of shame, anxiety and depression that will bother you in one way or another the rest of your life. They’re a package deal. You’ve already paid the price so you might as well use them.

When I explained to the woman that I shelve it and take it all back, I meant that I shelve the memories. I don’t mean to stash the past away and leave it there. That would be akin to stuffing it away in a tight space and letting it fester, gathering mold. I mean to shelve it for display purposes—out in the open where the intrusive memories can be studied and explored from different angles. It is a way to repurpose memories for the sake of healing. Use them for your writing. I’ve often found that doing so can turn an afternoon of hopelessness into an evening of encouragement.

Placing real objects on tangible shelves, using them to represent bad memories, is a helpful tool. Use a childhood stuffed animal or a Monopoly piece, the lid to a mayonnaise jar—it  doesn’t matter. The stuffed animal could represent harsh words said to your sibling. Pick it up from the shelf, turn it over a couple of times and reexamine the conversation. Create a character built around those words. Have the character learn from the hurt that those words caused. Let the Monopoly piece represent your estrangement from your niece and nephew. Write a story around the consequence of lost time. Use it to set up a tragedy, a  happy ending, or both. It’s a perfect opportunity to put fiction to its most effective use. Through fiction, we learn to understand perspective by spending time in the shoes of  others and empathizing with characters who hold different beliefs than we do. We help our own evolution by learning from a story’s arc. We change ourselves through reading and creating fiction.

If that mayonnaise lid represents the time you spent all your money on dangerous  substances and were so hungry that you waited in back of Papa John’s Pizza for one of the employees to throw out the leftovers, so be it. Take that mayonnaise lid and spin it a different way. Poke holes in it. Poke fun of it through a quirky character. Laugh at it. Control it. Control is the key here. In each of these cases, you are corralling the painful  past and putting it to good use for a better future. You are confronting your memories and making them worth the cost you paid for them by using them in your writing.

If the memories are too painful to stare at for long periods of time, use the shelved trinkets as a temporary physical checklist. Once the memory has been confronted, reorganized and written about, throw the trinket in the trash. Wave a cathartic goodbye and let the garbage man come and get it. Bye-bye. It’s the recycling center’s problem now. A clearer shelf equals a clearer conscience.

You have now shelved the memories and reclaimed control of those portions of your life, no matter how unmanageable they appeared to be. This is what I meant to say to the lady in the elevator when I told her how writing has helped me maintain my sobriety by allowing me to “shelve it and take it all back.” I should have elaborated—but there is only so much you can explain in an elevator between floors one and three.

Writing has made it easy to stay away from dark-memory-makers. I have enough intrusive memories to last me a lifetime and to make more of them would be disrespectful to the healing I have already done. It would be disrespectful to the creative process itself. Without writing, used as a tool to confront poor life decisions in a healthy way, I’m not sure I would have the security to talk about them out loud. It’s a tandem effort—writing and healing, healing and writing. It’s symbiotic in nature. One drives the other until an equilibrium is eventually achieved.

If you or anyone you know is in recovery and considering writing as a way to combat an intrusive past, I would highly encourage you to give this tool a try. If nothing else, it’s therapeutic. And the best part? You’ve already paid for it. Shelve your life. Use it to create a story. It doesn’t matter the length of it, just as long as it feels right to you. If it feels right, chances are it is right. Use writing to heal and use healing to write. Together, they create a self-cleaning system that produces cathartic results. If you are not happy with the results, you can always reclaim those as a rewrite.

N. Lawrence Mann is the author of the Blue Warp book series and a lifelong reading fanatic. His works are largely described as suspenseful, but frequently incorporate components of  fantasy, science fiction, and humor. As a recovered addict, Mann provides a unique perspective in his books that blends the psychological and physiological effects of addiction. Mann spent many years working as a songwriter, creating soundtracks for independent films. His first novel, “Full Breach,” was an International Book Award Finalist.