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Nurturing Creativity in Recovery

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Catherine is a recovering alcoholic with 10-years of fierce sobriety and a life she is grateful to call her own-creative chaos and all.


Stacks of notebooks, bar napkins and scraps of paper bear witness to years of colorful drug and alcohol inspired musings. Sifting through this cardboard box stuffed with morbid reflections and twisted perceptions makes me cringe.

You can’t make this shit up.

Wine stained pages of poetry sing the desperate songs of my ghosts-dramatic, depressing, and so cryptic I can't imagine what I'm saying.

Journals with sporadic time-gaps read like a morbidly fractured memoir-disturbingly fascinating- if they were anyone else's but mine. But because they are mine, I can read between the lines and know how truly sad they were.

Interpreting the world through the eyes of my demons manifested the morbid reflections which fueled my creative process. I was the Empress of Twisted Realities, ones that emerged like kingdoms of riddles and dark mystery from the depths of hidden places. Any lucid thoughts or dreams lay dead in the water; cold and bloated casualties of my obsessions.

I often wondered why my life hurt so much. Why pain chose me. Yet, when it arrived, I welcomed it with open arms.

We were inseparable.

I embraced pain and gave it life. I made it breathe, walk, talk, dance and die only to resurrect it time and time again.

Pain was comfortably reliable and desperately passionate. I could always count on pain to be exactly what I expected-painful.

Red Words, Red Words


Creating from Pain

I once believed pain to be my only life offering. I drained every aching drop of it into my pen at hand- often a red one because it symbolized the sacrifice, fury, and passion in my life.

Red was the color of my emotions, saying everything I couldn't. It was a message within a message.

Creating from an abyss of misery so profound it could only be written in red ink is a testament to the self-sabotaging nature of my thought process-one which justified an endless procession of lies.

I fell in love with these lies because the truth was too ugly to look at.

Lies could be made beautiful.

Painfully beautiful distortions embellished my world.

Lies, lies, lies.

Early on I lamented how sobriety would kill my creativity. I waited for life to become boring, unexceptional, and predictable-lacking the uniquely painful elements that colored my world more interesting.

Sober Emotions

I was wrong.

I would have plenty of pain in sobriety.

Sobriety is painful, too.

Unlike the ghostly morbid echoes that once effortlessly weaved crimson poetry, this pain was deeply rooted in places not yet accessible to me. It was fragile and vulnerable.


My attempts to force its creative existence failed miserably.

I couldn’t touch it.

This surfacing pain was a separate entity-something I observed approaching from a distance . Attempts to hide were in vain, it always found me. Secretly, I yearned to know about this pain that belonged to me. I wanted to embrace it, make space for it in my life and protect its truth.

I wanted to look deep into its soul and say, you are beautiful and real. You are not a lie.

I am not a lie.

One day, we will merge into something beautiful together.

Yet, I was still imprisoned within my own mind and body-cloaked in newly sober skin too thin to offer much protection. So, I allowed this new pain the freedom to be without any expectations and without trying to mold it into something it wasn’t.


Sobriety is an Emotional Circus.

During my early days of sobriety, I could barely string words into a sentence that anyone would want to hear, much less look at.

New emotions drifted in and out whenever they pleased-throwing things around, making a giant mess and leaving before I could find out who they were and what they wanted, much less commit them to paper.

For over 30 years, drugs and alcohol helped me evade the full range of human emotions, tricking me into believing that everything was varying levels of painful. Love was painful, mother- hood was scary, joy was suspicious, celebrations were laced with anxiety and I walked around with rocks in my chest all the time. I had no idea how to feel anything else.

The Faces of Creativity

Upon ending my relationship with alcohol, I severed my connection to the pain that sustained my creativity.

Throughout its endless evolutionary phases, creativity was my lifeline.

My childhood imagination took me to tops of jungle trees and worlds beneath the earth where only the bravest of warriors could enter.

I’ve saved the world and re-invented myself a thousand times over.

In childhood, everything was magical and possible.

Until it wasn’t anymore.

Somewhere along the way the stories I told myself sounded like lies.

Somewhere along the way I discovered a friend that would hide me from those lies for the next 25 years.

Creativity didn’t leave me when I got sober but I had to be willing to recognize its many faces, accepting where I was and feeling everything without trying to make it into something it wasn’t.

I’ve been told that when an alcoholic stops drinking, their emotional maturity is at the level of the age when they started drinking-which would have made me 13- years old. Emotional maturity is thought to increase rapidly in the following years but imagine your 38-year old self relying on your 13 -year old self to help get your life in order.

I am thankful that during my earliest years of sobriety I worked in mental health crisis. The majority of my time was invested in people who were having a pretty rough time at life in ways I could relate on some level.

I appreciated and honored every neuroticism, obsession, paranoid thought, manic expression and depressed musing. I was inspired by the vulnerable truths surrounding me every day and found myself nurturing their creativity any opportunity I could. Through yoga, dance, art and journaling, a little more light entered our worlds. I saw how small acts of creativity not only fostered a sense of well-being but also inspired bigger creative endeavors for everyone-including myself. The key to reconnecting creatively for me, was to nurture it in others.

Soon, I felt more creatively free. I wasn’t judging myself (too harshly) or trying to be good enough, meaningful, profound, or hell, even make any sense.

My muses were constantly changing because I was constantly changing. Writing was only one of my creative outlets. I began making jewelry and dancing again. I taught free dance classes just to share the spirit of dance with anyone who needed it like I did.

I nurtured the creative flow in my life however I could because I felt like I would die if I didn’t.

I often wondered how it was possible to create anything interesting at all in the absence of alcohol fueled inspiration (insanity and chaos)-which is entertaining in itself because sobriety doesn’t exactly make me feel completely sane or calm at all times.

On the other hand, it’s sad to think that I wasn’t capable of creating anything of value unless it hurt.

Dancing Free


Prioritizing Creativity

Living a creatively balanced life sounds paradoxical, but because I need both creativity and order in my life I learn how to prioritize and give it space while honoring its transformations.

There is a certain amount of creative spontaneity I don’t try to control because I believe it’s inherent to my spirit. But it doesn’t need to make my life chaotic and unmanageable, which is why I set aside time to nurture its growth-like anything else worth keeping in my life.

© 2019 Cat Radke