Writing My Way to Sobriety

by Melissa Petro

They say a recovering alcoholic’s primary purpose is to stay sober and help another alcoholic. I’m in a unique position to do this every day since I teach memoir writing to adults at a continuing education writing school in New York City where the student body is diverse. They are office workers, lawyers, stay-at-home moms. They are writing about lost loved ones, travelogues and secret lives. Their stories are hilarious, poignant and sometimes shocking. Unsurprisingly, many are alcoholics—with or without recovery.

It takes one to know one. Sober now for just over five years, I became a writer five years before that in a memoir writing class at the very same school. My interest in writing began as a burning desire to share. I grew up in a suburb without sidewalks on the east side of Cleveland, as isolated by geography as I was by a feeling of “terminal uniqueness” I’ve come to understand is not unique at all.

Earlier in life, writing was simply a way to get out of my head. Growing up in a family full of secrets, my journals were the one place I felt safe to tell the truth. My father was a gambler and possibly a sex addict. He was physically abusive to my brother, who turned into an addict himself. Though never a target of my father’s abuse, I absorbed the chaos at home.

As an adolescent, I sought escape first through fantasy, writing and books and then eventually by smoking pot, drinking and sex. Even when I grew older and went away to college, I couldn’t seem to escape the financial insecurity, fear and loneliness of my childhood—until I discovered recovery. Even after I settled in New York and began a promising though ill-fated career (the first of a couple), there she was: the damaged little girl, perpetually hungry and irrationally ashamed.

Identifying as an alcoholic may not have been the “happy ending” I’d once hoped for but it was the resolution I had, for years, been struggling to write.

My earliest writings cataloged my every disturbing experience—from painful childhood memories to the damage I’d begun causing myself. On the page, I could admit things I wouldn’t dare say out loud. I could admit how, for example, I became someone else when I drank—someone I was not entirely proud of being, someone I was afraid of in fact, someone over whom I had little control.

Writing was cathartic, soothing. It relieved me of a bit of the pain. Still, it was only a hobby—not something I took too seriously until, one Christmas, my boyfriend at the time presented me with a gift certificate to a writer’s workshop (the school where I now teach). While that relationship would eventually succumb to my alcoholism, my interest in writing only grew. Following this initial exposure to the workshop model, I went on to enroll in an MFA program where burning desire, coupled with craft, turned writing into my full-time career.

Becoming a writer changed my life, and not just professionally. That first memoir-writing workshop was the beginning of the end of my isolation. It also precipitated my alcoholic bottom.

At The New School, where I earned my MFA, I found a supportive audience. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel judged. I'd always been a misfit but now I was surrounded by colleagues who were equally eccentric and laissez faire. Here was a community that thought like me, wrote like me and—to my delight—drank like I’d always wanted to drink. In grad school, there was booze everywhere if you were looking for it: before, after and sometimes even during class!

Whereas my drinking took off like never before, so did a competing impulse: an impulse to accurately present the real pathos of my human struggle—to present stories that had not just actually happened but which spoke the core of their emotional truth.

In the writer’s workshop, I was being taught to tell the truth. I was being taught to integrate my experience with meaning and to develop a “reflective voice”—the hallmark of personal essay, memoir in particular. To achieve some emotional distance between myself and my material, I was being encouraged to think of the character in my story as the “protagonist” and myself as the “narrator,” older and wiser than the person in the story, even if whatever I was writing had happened just the other day. In this way, I began to reposition myself in relation to my problems as opposed to being defined by them entirely.

Still, emotional distance was difficult. Instruction on craft was not, in and of itself, enough to cut through my denial. In becoming a member of a community of writers, I was being encouraged to believe that I had a story to tell and my story was important. But in order to be a good writer, I was being instructed, I would have to connect to my feelings—feelings that every other aspect of my life had taught me to deny.

Becoming a member of a program of recovery—AA to be specific—picked up where my MFA program let off. In the rooms of AA, not unlike in writing workshops, we find a place where we can tell and retell the stories of our lives before a group of witnesses. But in AA, your audience is made up of veterans of similar journeys. They listen knowingly nodding, mirroring an appropriate response. In treatment, my alcoholic antics were acknowledged and authenticated in a way they hadn’t been by a more general audience.

In the writer’s workshop, my tragedy had occasionally been celebrated—the more wreckage, the more fantastic the material! What’s more, the protagonist of my story was oftentimes criticized as an being “unsympathetic character”—hard to hear when that protagonist is you. So long as I kept drinking, I could not achieve the emotional distance between myself and my story, the distance that is necessary to truly develop a reflective voice.

But in AA, I began to get that distance, one day at a time. In AA, our personal adventures are reframed as the experiences of an alcoholic. My stories were no longer what made me unique—they were, in fact, the opposite. In recovery, I was offered one word that explained it all: alcoholic. Simplistic maybe, but it was an explanation I had been looking for. Identifying as an alcoholic may not have been the “happy ending” I’d once hoped for but it was the resolution I had, for years, been struggling to write.

Getting sober meant embracing and living what narrative therapists call “preferred stories”—re-imagining my life in the image of people who had come from where I’d come from and now had what I wanted. The past became the past. The future held promise of a new freedom and a new happiness. AA made my life better. It made my writing better as well.

Today my writing has an honesty and depth that I was not capable of prior to recovery. It’s given me a kind of self-awareness I encourage in my students, alcoholic or not.

“Memoir writing isn’t therapy,” I tell them. “But it may be therapeutic.”

Like any other form of therapy, writing can be difficult. When a student that I knew from personal conversations was trying to get sober came in early the day we were going to be discussing her manuscript, I asked if she was nervous. She laughed and said yes but that she’d doubled up on her Klonopin to take away the edge. I was her writing instructor, not her sponsor. Still I couldn’t help myself. “It gets easier,” I told her. “Keep coming back.”


This article originally appeared in The Fix