CREATIVITY IN RECOVERY PART I – ONE80CENTER’s Executive Director discusses balancing sobriety and creative fulfillment
Creativity and recovery are not always easy bedfellows. For some alcoholics and addicts, the two concepts more than simply incongruous, they’re mutually exclusive. I’ve known many a sober artist who has also echoed this sentiment and most will agree that getting sober and finding a path back to creativity is rarely easy or quick.
As an artist in recovery, I’ve avoided toxic environments, fought with my ego, struggled to redefine the idea of a creative identity, and searched in vain for inspiration that wouldn’t come. Throughout it all, I stayed sober, kept coming back and ended up with a richer, deeper understanding of what creativity (not to mention sobriety) meant.
ONE80CENTER’s executive director Stephen Dansiger (or Dr. Steve as we know him) was once a drummer. Okay, he’s STILL a drummer. Okay, once upon a time, before he was a therapist and a doctor, he had a successful career as a punk rock musician and songwriter. Then he got sober and it all stopped.
And that’s when things got interesting.
What followed was a long hiatus from music and creativity, a nervous breakdown IN sobriety, and an extended residency at a Zen Buddhist monastery that deepened his spiritual practice and faith and led him back to a creative identity in recovery.
I sat down with him recently to discuss it:
So what’s your creative story?
I was a kid from Long Island who wanted to play the drums. I started taking jazz lessons at age 8, discovered rock and roll and got into a punk band at 15. Shortly after that, we got thrown off the stage in a hail of garbage at a battle of the bands…and I realized what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Before I knew it, I was playing CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. Music led to song-writing, song writing led to NYU film school and a library of unproduced screenplays, which has led to a memoir of one portion of my life. There were other things in there, but music was the main thread, with writing as the sidebar to that.
When you got sober, did you experience a lapse in creative flow? Were you scared to play music and write?
For me, it was less about the fear of the artistic process and more that I was afraid I wouldn’t stay sober if I didn’t give it up for a while. I was in a position where maybe I would have ended up touring if I kept going. I was getting offers to play at the same time I was trying to get sober on my own…putting two weeks together at a time, curled up in a ball on my apartment floor. I just couldn’t do it.
Stay sober or play gigs?
Well, either one, but mainly play gigs. I couldn’t do it. I just didn’t have the life energy in me. I was just (lowers voice), “Not Drinking”. That was the main focus.
The first time I went to a (twelve step) meeting—I mean literally within minutes after my first one—I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to make this my job right now.’ I wasn’t employed in an I’ve-got-to-be-somewhere kind of way, so I just marched around New York City going to meetings.
What happened when you started playing again?
I played a gig with a friend about forty days in (my recovery) and was like, ‘This doesn’t feel right.’ It was no fun. That was a big part of it…as I woke up sober I realized, ‘I don’t even like doing this anymore’ so it seemed really natural for me to put it aside at the time.
Did you have any notion that the creative impulse was still there?
I needed to heal for a couple of years in order to even know what the hell that was. I’d gotten to the point where music (and creative expression) was meaningless. It was free drugs and alcohol and women…but the creativity part was gone. I couldn’t even listen to music.
In our next blog with Dr. Steve, we discuss what happened after that…so stay tuned.