CREATIVITY IN RECOVERY PART 2 – ONE80CENTER’s Executive Director Stephen Dansiger, PsyD, MFT discusses balancing sobriety and creative fulfillment
CREATIVITY IN RECOVERY Pt. 2 – Stephen Dansiger, PsyD, MFT
In our previous blogpost with ONE80CENTER Executive Director Dr. Steve Dansiger, (READ HERE), he discussed his development as a musician, his experience hitting bottom as an addict, and the creative hiatus that followed in the first years of his sobriety.
180: When you got sober, did you experience a lapse in creative flow? Were you scared to play music and write?
SD: For me, it was less about 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 as a musician if I kept going, and that didn’t feel safe. 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.
180: Did you have any notion that the creative impulse was still there?
SD: 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. And then it broke naturally. The way it manifested was like, “I don’t want to play drums anymore…I want to write songs.” I needed to drop everything and release my preconceived notions about what it meant to be a creative person and then it naturally started to form. And later, when my friend asked me to play drums with her along the way, I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds like fun, let’s try that.’
So I started writing songs and released a single that garnered attention called The Ballad of John Parker. I put together an album and another band, got another record deal and developed momentum for a second time. But in the end, I didn’t get the label support to keep it moving forward and things fell apart. Then my friend who had started the band I played drums for, she got a book deal and broke her band up and it was like the universe was saying, ‘Go ahead and try to be a songwriter, try to be a drummer…but sorry, you can’t have either one.’
180: Which leads to the nervous breakdown..
SD: Right. I couldn’t shoulder the disappointment of things not going the way I’d wanted. At the same time my musical career was going down the tubes, I’d also been teaching and working with high school kids in diversity training, which involved a lot of conflict resolution, anger management, prejudice reduction work–this was in the aftermath of the Crown Heights race riots. And even though I felt that the work had value, I was experiencing burnout from that as well. All of it led to a deep depression, which led to three different psychiatric hospital stays, each one worse than the last. My official diagnosis was depression with psychotic features. My friend Josh came and visited me at one point and told me years later, “After that visit, I thought you were one of the lost ones…I didn’t think you were coming back.”
At the time, I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d had a positive future-based thought. It was dark.
It was like the Universe was saying: ‘Go ahead…
…try to be a songwriter, try to be a drummer…
…but sorry, you can’t have either one.’
180: How did you get out from under it?
SD: I had been to a spiritual retreat at a Zen monastery early in my sobriety, so I’d had some exposure to Buddhism, and had been practicing what I’d learned by the time the depression hit. And when it got bad, it (the depression) was so beyond oppressive that any idea of something that could help lift it was out the window.
However, while I was at St. Vincent’s (psychiatric hospital), the one thing that I had said to Josh was, “I think I might get better if I go live at the monastery.” And since it was the only glimmer of hope I’d expressed, the doctors and my friends and family made it happen.
180: We talk about hitting physical, mental, and spiritual bottoms in treatment, recovery and sobriety a lot. When did things start to change?
SD: Twenty one days into my stay at the monastery, something specific happened that imploded / exploded the depression. I’d been working with a Zen monk who happened to be a Jungian psychologist, as well as a Zen master and doing a tremendous amount of mindful work: gardening, mopping the floor…basically whatever was in front of me. I was sitting on a cushion–still thinking very dark thoughts–but the idea came to me that maybe when I was done at the monastery, I’d teach kids how to do this meditation thing. And it was the first thought I’d had in months that indicated I’d have a life in the future. And then this wave of thoughts came out of that: ‘Maybe I’ll go back to the city, maybe I’ll have my apartment and my friends back, maybe there’s a woman…maybe I’ll have a life again.’ And later, during a walking meditation, I grabbed one of my friends and dragged him into the bathroom–which was where you went to talk and break the silence–and I said, “I’m OK!!” Because I got it. And he said he knew I was.
In the third and final blog, Dr. Steve talks about reshaping a creative identity, so stay tuned…
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.