Recovery Through Poetry

By Robert B.  

My Background

I was born in eastern Tennessee in a fundamentally religious family as the oldest of three. My dad was often angry and sometimes violent. He was an occasional binge-drinker (a few times per year).

I stopped drinking once about 20 years ago when I had had enough work and family consequences. I did individual and group therapy for about a year and took anxiety and antidepressant medications for about six years. I didn’t consider myself alcoholic. I might have entertained an alcohol use disorder diagnosis if I were placed at the mild end of the spectrum, but this did not occur to me.

I thought my depression and anxiety were situational and, other than a year of therapy followed by medications, I only abstained and focused on harm reduction. I always assumed that I would drink alcohol again when I was okay.

Seven years later, I was in a good spot, remarried, relationships repaired, and peaking in my career. When we met, my wife thought that I didn’t drink alcohol because of medications and that sounded like a good story to me, especially since it was partly true She did not know the extent of my bottom. For that matter, no one did. Individuals knew pieces, but never the whole story.

One night, I had a glass of wine over dinner at a restaurant with my wife’s blessing and even enjoyment. I didn’t drink alcohol again for 2-3 weeks and then again only one glass of wine. Within a couple of months, I was having a couple of glasses of wine or bottles of beer daily. Within six months, I was a blackout drunk for the first time. Within a year, my wife suggested I stop drinking alcohol. I stopped and started monthly, never abstaining for more than a week or two. I began to blackout frequently and family and work consequences mounted.

At my bottom, I couldn’t stop drinking and I planned to kill myself by hanging. I went to my first AA meeting at Fitchburg Serenity Club in Wisconsin on April 21, 2007 and much to my surprise, I’m usually at six to seven meetings per week.

My home group, then and now, is a traditional AA meeting. At first, I felt like an outsider as an agnostic, but I also found a few like-minded nonbelievers. My sponsor is a former priest and helped me create my own non-religious, but spiritual path. My higher power, or sense of a higher power is embodied in the AA Fellowship, nature, and in a sense of love and loving. About two and a half years ago, I noticed that many came to AA desperate for help but left still desperate, because traditional AA and the traditional 12 steps weren’t roomy enough for them. A few of us decided to start a We Agnostics and Freethinkers AA meeting. We drew heavily from AA Agnostica and especially from the Denver Freethinkers group’s web resources. Denver Freethinkers is a home away from home when I’m visiting my son’s family in Denver. We now draw heavily from AA Beyond Belief as a resource for newcomers.

Now we have two secular meetings at Fitchburg, and two others in Madison and Monona, WI. I’m encouraged that new meetings like ours are starting and growing, helping smooth the way for others. I’m grateful for that handful of like-minded individuals  I first met in AA. Were it not for their voices that sang a different song, I don’t think that I could have persisted in AA, and I don’t think that I could have stayed sober without AA.

I continue to go to traditional AA meetings both for me and also so I can be that other voice singing a different melody about how I got sober and stay sober. I’m equally grateful for those in meetings I attend who, even with different beliefs than mine, join me in trying to make room in AA for everybody.

Poetry and Recovery

My writing seeks to share my awareness as unfiltered as possible, and to leave insight and clarity to the reader.

I began writing poetry when I was newly sober. I think that it grew from three primary motivations:

  • to be with raw and painful feelings that until getting sober, I was able to numb or avoid by drinking alcohol
  • to create a bridge between science and spirituality
  • to explore how I am in the universe.

Concerning the first motivation, I drank only occasionally, never daily, until I was 40. Bouts of acute anxiety became more frequent and more intense to the point of paralyzing me. Alcohol reduced my anxiety and helped me cope and function for a time. Like so many others, I found myself needing to drink alcohol more and more just to relax, even a little. So, I first stopped drinking about 11 years ago because even though I had begun taking anxiety and antidepressant medications, I was still constantly on the edge of panic. Drinking alcohol was no longer an option I was willing to choose.

Writing about these feelings in the form of verse was a way for me to be with them. I originally tried to write about feelings in journals, but it often made my anxiety worse. Writing in verse, for some reason, did not have the same effect. At my sponsor’s suggestion, I began posting my poetry on Facebook as a way to let go.

Regarding the second motivation, when I hit bottom and was newly sober, I no longer felt confident in who I was. My identity was shaken. From early childhood, I’ve been curious and scientifically oriented even before I had any idea of what science was. Science for me was B monster movies with mad scientists on the early show after school, or Science Fiction Theatre on Saturdays. I excelled in science and became a limnologist (maybe the only one on the planet who cannot swim).

I loved being a scientist. Still do. But I was shaken and sober, and I wondered who I was going to become. I’m also agnostic and have been since I was about eight. Yet I grew up Southern Baptist in eastern Tennessee, going to church three times a week. Though I continued to go to church to appease family, I knew that I did not “believe.” I wanted to believe in something then and now. There was a part of me who understood that my lack of belief didn’t afford me the strength I needed.

Many of my poems explore what it is to be a scientist who seeks spirit and practices spirituality, primarily Buddhism’s 8-fold path. I used a structure in early poems that I called “outer ecology or nature” completed by “inner ecology or my inner nature.”

My third motivation to write poetry is that I struggle with sadness and anger about the pain and suffering I see in the world – with what people do to other people and to the earth. I’m an idealist, even a romantic idealist, and I don’t wish to be any other way. This creates pain and is a source of suffering for me. Like many of us, I’m sensitive and take on the pain and suffering of others. Poetry has been a way for me to see pain, to explore it and to be with it rather than in it.

I write in the morning, just after I meditate at or near dawn. I give myself 15 minutes to write and post. I think that posting my poems on Facebook has helped me remain honest about what I write — to simply write and to write simply, rather than to write to impress. My poems often end up in a very different place than I anticipated. They start with a few words or sometimes a first verse and then take on a life of their own. A very recent poem is a good example:

Spare Verse DLIV

Heart songs

Sung without words

Too often sad

I was doing a loving-kindness meditation about someone in my life and the phrase “heart songs” kept coming up in my awareness. It felt incomplete and unfinished, but at the same time it was what I had. I posted it and even though it felt kind of like a “toss away” rather than one I felt good about, several people “liked” it.

What follows is a sampling of my poetry. I intentionally number these rather than title them because I want to leave that open to the reader. I have written a poem a day since I got sober in 2007. I began writing the poems as spare verse in December of 2016. I call them spare verses on a playful whim that they are spare in several ways:

  • They are short in length
  • They capture a microcosm of my day (a moment)
  • They are spare in the sense that I share them, give them away

The first poem is an overview of how I see writing and sharing poetry.

Spare Verse CLXXXIX

These little verses I write

Crepuscular musings

Reflections I see

In mirror and dream

Mere drafts of thoughts

I oft think about this and that

Moments of pleasure

Moments of pain

And all that I am between

Search for truth in fiction

Meaning in mundane

These poems focus on hitting bottom and looking back—a way of letting go of shame.

Spare Verse CDXXVII

Once my spirit soared

Buoyed by possibility unbound

Life a gift in my hands

And I drank

I drank beyond my need

Beyond my desire

Feeding unquenchable thirst for more

My soul cried but I could not hear

Hungry ghosts of promise unfulfilled

Demanded more and more

And I gave them all I could

Just so they would sleep

Sleep if only for a little while

These ghosts they gnawed my very soul

Till there was no more and still they cried

Spare Verse CXXIX

I remember the times when darkness came

Descended upon me – around me as far as I could see

Usually it just came and it went like night and day

But in a few once-upon-a-times of my nights and days

It stayed – sucked me in and swallowed me whole

The land of lost hope became my habitat

And despair became my niche

Yes I remember those times and am acquainted with dark

As I sip my tea watching the sun rise yet again

Spare Verse LXXXXII

Life consumed me once upon a time

Drank me down and demanded more

Spare Verse CCXXXII

The shadows call me

Invite me to hide

But the shadows

Neither the refuge

Nor the respite

I need

Spare Verse CCCIII

I’ve known the desperate dance

Desperate to die

Desperate to live

Desperate for anything in between

These poems were written in early sobriety.

Spare Verse IV

Mourning Doves

Outside my window

Joined in conversation

The day was too short

Just when it felt too long

Spare Verse XXIII

I watched a friend fall

Slipping sliding into the abyss

Watching I remember

Remover my own chaotic descent

Into blackness

I reached for him as others

Had reached for me

He cried in desperation

Just out of reach

I watched him fall

I hope he heard me calling

Calling from the edge

Where love and light live

About the Author

Robert B is sober alcoholic in Madison, WI participating in AA and AlAnon at Fitchburg Serenity Club. He has been sober since April 21, 2007. He also began writing and sharing poetry on Facebook during his first year sober as part of his recovery from alcohol dependency, acute anxiety and chronic depression. He has found that creativity expressed primarily through writing poetry and playing various stringed instruments helped him heal and thrive.


The artwork used in the body of the article was created by Cope C. from the Many Paths group in Urbana, Illinois. 

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Galen T.
3 years ago

Robert- Excellent article. I like your integration of the scientific and humanistic and the way your poetry grows out of your recovery. I can relate to several elements of your story, including feeling at sea after you stopped drinking. My alcoholism overlapped with a professional life that took me years of education and focus to attain and that was closely wrapped up into my personal identity. After I stopped drinking I eventually needed to abandon my vocation and set off in a new direction. There were several intervening years of confusion and bouts of despair. The pain in the world… Read more »

3 years ago

Drunk I got not a little but a lot I had 2 poems in the AA Sober Monthly. Peter Christie


Thanks John