Maybe you’ve come to realize that your addiction has gotten the better of you and you decide to enter into recovery via a 12-step program or in some other way. What then? On top of the common challenges that any person experiences in early recovery—the cravings, the longings, the triggers, the old habits, the peer pressure to use, and so on—additional challenges face the creative person. The primary one is the following: that creating itself can prove a threat to recovery.
Why might creating prove a threat to recovery? The main stance of early recovery is to not get your system “wild” or “worked up” or your mind “driven.” You are trying to calmly pay attention to the tasks of recovery by living “one day at a time” and by taking care of “first things first.” Creating, by contrast, is an invitation to be wild and driven!
The very act of creating is a voyage into the unknown (which provokes anxiety), a command to send your brain racing (so that it can productively obsess), and an opening to your deeper thoughts and feelings (with all the dangers associated with those depths). Recovery requires calmness and creating requires wildness: and the wildness of creating can endanger recovery.
Therefore the following five tactics for creating in early recovery are important to implement.
- Let recovery comes first
As much as you may want to get back to creating, you have the job of getting your priorities right: your recovery comes before your creating. If it is a choice between attending an AA meeting or painting for another hour, the meeting is the wise choice. If it is a choice between starting the day with a mindfulness meditation that supports your recovery or starting right in on your sculpting, the mindfulness meditation comes first. This isn’t what your “creative nature” wants: it wants to create. But in early recovery your mantra should be, “recovery comes first.”
- Choose projects wisely
Early recovery is not the time to overwhelm yourself or to add high anxiety to your life. If, for example, you have the choice between executing one painting that is less taxing and another that is more taxing, your creative nature may want to tackle the more ambitious project. But if you keep your recovery needs in clear focus you’ll opt for the less taxing project. Opting for the less ambitious project can feel disappointing but if you remind yourself that you have the opportunity to create a powerful body of work over time, but only if you maintain your recovery, that may help put in perspective why you are choosing a less exciting or ambitious project right now.
- Monitor your energy, your mind, and your mood as you create
As you’re creating, you have the job of not getting too wound up, not thinking thoughts that jeopardize your recovery (like “This painting is so bad I’m going to need a good stiff drink when I’m done painting!”), and not propelling yourself into a dangerous mood, whether a manic mood or a despairing mood. While you create you will want to keep one eye on the tasks of recovery: if you are getting too bleak or too manic or too self-critical as you create, you must announce to yourself, “Careful! I’m threatening my recovery here!” Then you immediately do whatever you know to do when your recovery is threatened, whether that’s calling your sponsor, attending a 12-step meeting, listening to a recovery tape, etc.
- Leave creative stints mindfully
Creating starts us racing. We get wound up, wired, excited, and agitated as we “bite into” our current project. That’s why so many creative folks crave alcohol, drugs, or sex after creating: they’re wired and need to “come down and calm down.” In this very real sense, creating is a trigger and puts you in harm’s way. You will want to prepare a smart ritual or ceremony that you employ when you leave your creating that reminds you in a powerful way that your job is to return to the rest of the day calmly. You want to announce to yourself that you are leaving all of that energy, excitement, and agitation behind you and that you are moving back into recovery mode.
- Monitor your choices
In early recovery you are being careful to watch for threats to your recovery. You therefore make the time to ask yourself questions like “Is my current creative project the appropriate one, given my recovery needs?” or “Is there anything about the way I’m living my creative life that’s a threat to my recovery?” If your answer to the first question is yes, you make a change and work on a safer, wiser project. If your answer to the second question is yes, you face that challenge squarely and do whatever’s necessary: give up an old drinking buddy, avoid an old haunt, whatever is required. An important task of early recovery is taking the time to inquire of yourself about whether anything you are doing is endangering your recovery.
A creative person must create. Creating is a life purpose choice and a meaning opportunity. But everything falls apart if recovery fails. Use these five tactics to ensure that your desire to create doesn’t threaten your intention to maintain your recovery.