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Sober Berlin: On alcohol as creative poison and finding new heroes

Anon drawing at desk, illustration by Peter Wood

by Anonymous
Illustrations by Peter Wood

I have been a seeker all my life.

I was always looking for something or someone to give me a creative edge. I took quite a few mushrooms and LSD as a younger man on a quest. I went hiking in the Andes chewing coca leaves for six days. At one point I even went to northern Mexico in search of peyote (I found it). While I would not take any of these amazing things away if I could, I do know now that none of them ever brought me anywhere near where I am today—sober and living in the moment.

Everyone, including myself, has been told the outrageous lie that drugs and alcohol are critical to create. I thought all poets had to drink like Bukowski, all novelists had to drink like Hemingway, and all musicians had to drink like Gram Parsons. None of this is true, and that is the great thing about having outdated heroes: you can always fire them and pick new ones.

My own creativity was nurtured and encouraged from a very early age. I missed classes in elementary school to paint backdrops for school plays and took summer school for my art in high school for college credit. This hard work and dedication landed me a scholarship to art school in Savannah, Georgia.

Although I was lucky that I always knew what I wanted to be in my life, my drinking problem just snuck-up on my ass; My wife and I having wine at night—and beers for me as well—was just the norm. I thought it was just being a grown up. Before I even recognised it the drinking began to take over, I would open beers earlier and earlier at my studio. I had a rule that I did not work while drinking, so I would simply call it a day in my studio at 14:00 and get started. After a year of this, it was at noon, and by the following year it was in the morning to stop the shakes.

“I thought all poets had to drink like Bukowski, all novelists had to drink like Hemingway, and all musicians had to drink like Gram Parsons.”

 

There is no place for creativity in a life like this; My work became uninspired and lazy, as it should when alcohol is the only thing feeding it. It was like pouring gasoline on your favourite plant in order to water it. My exhibitions stopped coming, my gallery closed down, and I took on a “poor me” attitude. I became bitter, so I drank to forget about it…over and over and over again.

I was in this state of mind when I moved to Berlin from Hamburg in July 2016. Since 2012, I had been in and out of clinics for drinking, locked in the same cycle of detoxing, sobering up, getting excited about my new life change, and then finally drinking again. It was a real curse—I was so stumped as to why I could not quit this alcohol thing. A grown man! I had quit smoking weed and doing cocaine without outside help, but I just could not lick this thing on my own.

I had tried to get sober when I lived in Hamburg, but I was, fundamentally, not ready to quit. I was not ready to be honest. In Hamburg I could still see a drink on down the road, thinking I could quit for a year and then start over fresh. This is called rock bottom in the program, and I have had so many in the past few years before I quit, that I am not going to bother mentioning them, what we call war stories in the rooms. In my opinion those rarely do people any good, especially people that are new to the program.

My greatest example of sobriety at that time was my younger brother, who got sober in 2014 with AA. He encouraged me to try out the program because he kept on about needing action in my program (although I did not know what that meant). He never gave up on me and I am on this earth to write this knowing if it was not for his sage wisdom and patience, I would be a dead man. I would also not be sitting here if it was not for my wife’s unending patience with me, but I did know that, saint that she is, her patience is finite when it comes to my bullshit.

I will say this, though: a true spiritual awakening occurred, after so many tries back before the move, when I finally came to Berlin. It was when I went to my very first AA meeting here at the Waldorf school—world famous, but I did not know that then, a holy meeting. There were 70 people there! The meetings in Hamburg consisted of around four on a good day. That first day I took one look around, grabbed a tea, and took my seat. The room was filled not with homeless people, but with other creative folks who were just like me. Nobody outside of recovery can understand, after being so sick and so alone for so long, the tremendous feeling of belonging and fitting in. I decided that if these fine people can pull this sobriety thing off, then perhaps I could too. After months of loneliness and suicidal thoughts, I felt my people calling me.

“I would also not be sitting here if it was not for my wife’s unending patience with me, but I did know that, saint that she is, her patience is finite when it comes to my bullshit.”

 

I discovered that the program here in Berlin is world class. We have meetings all over the city, in many different languages. Berlin is really blessed with attracting so many travellers, and even better, sober ones. It is known, with no exaggeration on my part, as a great community for recovery, and I am just another walking example of what a little self-determination and a 12 step program can do—the biggest thing, as I said earlier, is knowing that you are not alone in this struggle.

I am a superstitious man by nature, and I do not know of one thing that worked more than any other to keep me sober, they were so intertwined. Yet the recipe that got me sober is the same one I still use to this day. I go to about five meetings a week, I give my sponsor a weekly “round-up” email about my week and talk to him in person weekly. I spend my mornings at the gym, exercise is a huge part of my sanity, and I think it so healthy to fill that time, using up all this excess energy in a positive way instead of a negative one. I go to the meditation meetings every week and do it on my own as well. Last but not least, is service, which enables you, even with a few days of sobriety, to help out and feel needed. As a newcomer to AA, I was not allowed to make coffee yet, but I was still asked if I would like to hang up AA signs at meetings and act as a greeter. This was tough as I was a shy man, but it ultimately helped to get me outta my shitty shell, and out into the world. It gave me confidence.

Portrait of anonymous, by Peter WoodIt was at this point, newly sober, that my artwork came back to help save me. I could not really paint those first few weeks of sobriety, but I was encouraged to keep at it, by musicians and other painters, that if I was patient, it would come. During this time, I received an email from an old friend from college, Heather, who asked me if I would be interested in illustrating a children’s’ book she was working on. I considered this some sort of divine gift, getting this sort of encouragement from her. Heather sent the story a bit later, and I loved it, I really did (and do!).

I must be honest, that in my first few weeks of sobriety, I really had no idea how a person like myself could create without stimulants. Luckily, I came across an incredible article by Tom Waits, who has been sober for 30 years, on this very subject. He stressed that you have to be patient, adding that he has met more interesting folks in AA meetings than he ever met in bars (true!). Tom gave me hope, and down the road, when my art had returned to me full-force, I had myself a little revelation. I realised that all of the drawings and paintings and sketches I did as a kid were done completely sober, so I didn’t actually need any stimulants to get the juices flowing.

I set about immediately starting sketch out ideas for Heather’s book, my hands acting more like a sacred vessel than my own hands. This was the first time I had a vision since before my downfall, but this one was special, and I just knew it. I took my sketch book with the story in my bag everywhere I went. I would go to a meeting and then go out to a cafe and drink a ton of green tea and work, work work. The great thing about art is that after a few weeks of working on the story, I was starting to hang them up on our walls…and if I had a bad day—and I had a few in early recovery—I could just take a look at all the work this program was allowing me to do. I would realise how much of a gift this was, being able to once again let my light shine where once it was so dark and cold. This book changed everything, and once I finished it I started working on actual paintings again, feeding the fire. We will be publishing this book in spring 2019.

“I realised that all of the drawings and paintings and sketches I did as a kid were done completely sober, so I didn’t actually need any of stimulants to get the juices flowing.”

 

This amazing routine has allowed me to get so much painting done that I am also having my first art exhibition in Berlin in May 2019. I owe this city so much and I want to make her proud. Working on the book gave me so many more ideas to take into my studio in regards to my painting. I sit at my easel with so much more serenity and compassion now that I am sober—the missing ingredients in the past, even before the drinking started full force.

I’ve since learned that alcohol is creativity repellent, and I do believe that our creator, or god or higher power gives us enough precious metals everyday, and whether we turn that into a butter knife or a samurai sword is entirely up to us.

I can tell you now, that coming to Berlin was the best move I have ever made. It is the first time that I have known real peace in my entire life. Having had a spiritual experience as a result of mindfulness and working the steps (ACTION!) I am a changed man, and I honour this city that put the broken artist back together again.

Berlin, I love you.

Illustrations drawn from photographs taken at ‘Anon’s’ apartment. Ink, felt tip pen and fineliner on A3 paper.

Children’s book drawings by the author: