In AA meetings, we are urged to “look for the similarities not the differences”. Watching People, Places, Things, I didn’t need to look hard, the parallels between my own life and the story onstage were obvious. Like the main character, I admitted myself to a addiction treatment centre when my life, once bright and promising, in the city had become lonely and painful due, in the main, to alcohol. I spent three months attending the day programme in east London and, experiencing the play, I was taken back to five years ago. The circle of chairs for group therapy, the justifications in a therapist’s office, the night terrors - all were accurate and familiar.
But more than the situations, I knew the feelings. I know how it feels to have contradictory thoughts fighting in your head - the cognitive dissonance that characterizes addiction. Louis Theroux’s recent documentary Drinking To Oblivion (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07952b1) also showed this clearly - alcoholic liver patients taking baffling choices to keep drinking despite knowing it is killing them. I know how it feels to be on the phone to your mum telling her, and meaning it, that you are stopping while at the same time drunk and getting drunker. I know how it felt to be railing against the conventions and platitudes of rehab and AA’s 12 step programme yet finding yourself in meetings of your own accord. I know how it felt to return to my parents in my 30s, newly sober and trying to face up.
The theatricality of rehab is perfect for stage. I’ve written all my life and when I entered the treatment centre, the journalist in me could see immediately that it was great material: a group of people, all shaky. So I fizzed with recognition at the line about Emma, an actress, “looking at us like we’re material”. A danger for writers, or indeed actors in this situation is that we’re capable of detachment. But we’re also capable of using this for art. I have now written, using the blog as one starting point, a book about my experiences (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25351826-the-outrun).
But really neither the play, nor my book, are simply about drugs or drink or addiction. It’s about families and modern life and delusions and the contradictions of recovery. I noticed contradictions in my own response: I agreed with the Emma’s criticisms of the treatment, grinning when she described a “magical group delusion”, yet I also wanted her to get well. Despite her being much more chaotic and unhappy than I am now, part of me wanted to be her - admiring her cerebral defiance. An addict retains their rebelliousness. Part of me also envied her box of drugs. But despite her rational intellect she ended up in this situation.
In the interval I was tense, wanting to know what happens to her. The stats aren’t good. Of the 12 people who started the treatment programme with me, only two of us stayed sober and completed the 90 days. This mirrors the wider stats for addiction treatment. My rehab was zero tolerance and most were thrown out for ‘relapsing’ (using or drinking again). I doubt they’re all still alive.
But we both me and ‘Emma’ had what is called in AA “the gift of desperation”, and were willing to put our misgivings aside because we were desperate for change. Also like her, I’d had some semblance of a career before alcohol took over. Unlike her, my family were supportive. I’ve now been sober for more than five years and things have happened to me that I never could have hoped or imagined.
We are also advised in meetings to share our “experience, strength and hope”. My book, The Outrun (and indeed my life) could almost be a sequel to this play. It could be some answer to the question she asks near the end: “What am I going to do now?” Sobriety is not one moment after which everything gets better but an ongoing process with ups and downs. When I left treatment, that was just the start of my recovery (and my book) and for quite some time I was lost, uncomfortable and frustrated. But what I found was unexpected. For me, returning to the place where I grew up meant reconnecting with and learning about the natural world. Birdwatching and sea swimming have, to my surprise, become important to me, giving me fresh thrills and joy and filling some of the absences created when the parties stopped.
Some hope for her might lie in the idea of finding highs in acting, in the consolations and redemption of art, as I have in cold rock pools and night skies. Former addicts need to forge their own, new paths. I’ve found personal symbols and strategies (including, again to my surprise, some parts of the 12-step programme) to create meaning in a confusing world. I’m coming to think more and more that we need our own delusions.
Amy Liptrot is a journalist and author from the Orkney islands at the north of Scotland. Her first book, The Outrun, is published by Canongate. http://www.canongate.tv/the-outrun-hardback.html