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Hell and Back: Writing Addiction and Recovery

I am anxious to not use the term confessional poetry when talking about my upcoming course, because it seems to me a loaded term which some poets delight in and others shy away from. I don’t want this course to be an exercise in naval-gazing or self-indulgence – there already seems to be enough of that in contemporary poetry.

But the theme for the course is one which will probably compel people to either write about themselves, or those close to them, who have suffered from addiction (whatever the ‘drug of choice’) and have either recovered, are recovering, or not.

Why did I choose this theme? Well, here’s a ‘confession’ from me. I haven’t used alcohol, in any form, for twenty-five years. Alcoholism ran in the family, and as I reached my mid-thirties I knew I, too, had lost control over my drinking. Things were bad, and were destined to get worse unless I sought help. I did, and I now see myself as a recovering alcoholic: people like me don’t say ‘recovered’ because that might lead us to believe we can now drink successfully. We can’t.

The slow descent into alcoholism was awful. I lost a lot along the way down, and I’m lucky to be alive. Those close to me suffered to. But I’m one the lucky ones. I got well – and my life has continued to improve since the day I admitted defeat, surrendered to the fact I was an addict, and that I needed help: I could not do it on my own – I had tried many times.

Many people I know have had duel (or even more!) addictions, but many, with the right help, are in recovery. I’ve also attended a lot of funerals for friends who have not managed to continue on their journey of recovery.

Alcoholism is an obvious addictive illness, like other substances, but there are many other types: people can get addicted to other people, or to food, or gambling, or nicotine, or practically anything which takes us away, however temporarily, from life on life’s terms. The problem is, when we return, our lives will have got progressively and considerably worse – and we hate ourselves.

It is sometimes thought that ‘creative’ people might be more vulnerable to addiction than others. This, in my experience, is not the case. Addiction is a spiritual, mental and physical disease that can hit anyone. We just hear a lot more about ‘celebs’ who have had addiction problems, but for every one of those there are far more people who will never make the headlines. What causes some of us to become addicts, while others don’t, is a huge scientific and biological question. Both nature and nurture can be involved, but perhaps the discomfort of being in one’s own skin is a factor. But it’s more complicated than that, as are many other things about the human condition.

So, I know we will share, in this course, poetry about the ‘hell’ of addiction: the confusion, despair, craving, loneliness and fear. The sheer physical and emotional upheaval of it; the feeling of ‘no way out’. But there is – for some – a way out: it’s called recovery, or freedom – and I want this course to give equal emphasis to this phenomenon. Recovery isn’t easy, I know this from personal experience, but if we go to any lengths to grasp it, to put as much effort into getting well as we did to getting ill, it can be wonderful – gradually. It doesn’t mean life from then on is easy – far from it (and why should it be?) but, boy, it’s a damn sight better than the alternative!

I began this blog by mentioning the word confessional, and I want to end it by saying that, as a writer, I much prefer writing look at that rather than look at me poetry. Maybe my ‘day job’ as a scriptwriter and comedy writer for other performers has something to do with this. But I do also write poetry that features me, and some of it might be regarded as confessional because it is such a broad term.

But a poem is surely about more than talking about oneself: what matters are the words, imagery, music, transcendence, making even the bleakest or most personal pieces generate a kind of delight in the reader. Poetry is about communication in one of its finest forms. And who knows, if the poems excite, comfort, inspire, engage with a wider readership, they will indeed transcend their original intentions and effect change.

I’m really looking forward to this course, to reading poetry that is more than the sum of its theme, and to meeting you, my fellow writers, in words and in fellowship.

How can we write compellingly about addiction? Join Keith Hutson on Hell & Back: Writing Addiction and Recovery. Call 0207 582 1679 or book online.

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