The “Isness” of Addiction – Two Poems by G and Marie Howe – Part One of a Series on Addiction and Recovery

Not just a dog! A frightening metaphor for addiction.

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Something dark and growling lives inside you.
You started growing it before you were old enough
to know what you were doing.
So it gripped down
and claimed space
like a dog no one thought to love.
It pissed on the walls and made itself at home
and when you thought to give it things
it snapped them up and swallowed them
and those things may as well never have existed.

When people look it knows to hide.
You help it. You shoo it away.
Let it slink behind your ribs where it can’t be seen.
It’s not that you want it there
but its been so long, what would you do without it?
Maybe you’d be the person people think you are
before they get to close
and the thing starts to pace across your ribs
and bark sometimes
when you try to speak.
But when they give you things it takes them anyway
and nips their fingers for good measure
so maybe they won’t come back.

G., Unpublished, with permission

I have the privilege, through working at Recovery centers and Recovery out-patient clinics, of being midwife to the birth of fragile, restive, resilient, stand-out poems written by men and women in recovery. Given safe space and the support of other supportive published poetic voices these poems appear on the page in under fifteen minutes. Some go back to the darkest days of addiction, some celebrate the new light coming through in recovery. Others span any topic you might imagine. But what they all share is what Canadian poet Susan Musgrave says: a poem knows more than I do and is wiser than I am. And that is where the healing can happen. The writer’s own voice as counselor and confidant. The power of naming.

Yes, G’s poem above was written in under fifteen minutes but has so many of the craft elements of a poem that perhaps took much longer to write and went through a number of revisions. The surprise and vitality in this poem built around its central metaphor of an addiction as a dog captivated me when I first heard the poem and captivates me still. Its chilling honesty. The power of an addiction. The life and death struggle to break free.

In my years of hearing thousands of poems written by clients in recovery this poem stands out by the way it captures the isness of an addiction. Its commanding power. These lines chill me:

It’s not that you want it there
but its been so long, what would you do without it?
Maybe you’d be the person people think you are
before they get to close
and the thing starts to pace across your ribs
and bark sometimes
when you try to speak.

That heart-breaking reality: how an addiction dominates. And the utter fear of what you would you do without it? Who would you be without it? This reality every man and woman in recovery faces. Even though they know on so many levels how their addiction is killing them it’s what they know. It’s the familiar. And yet it keeps them from the relationships that could save them. That could help them re-build a life of healing and recovery. These sense of ineluctable isolation captured at the end of G’s poem is echoed in this poem by the celebrated American poet Marie Howe who has been in recovery for many years:

Magdalene – The Addict

I liked Hell.

I like to go there alone.

relieved to lie in the wreckage, ruined, physically undone.

The worst had happened. What else could hurt me then?

I thought it was the words, thought nothing worst could come.

Then nothing did and no one.

Marie Howe from The American Poetry Review, Sept/Oct, 2016

It is a measure of the power and poise of G’s poem that I would compare it to Howe’s. Very different poems but in the belly of them both the raw ugliness of what an addiction does to its victims. The profound isolation it engenders.

In my first recovery poetry therapy session eleven years ago a young man wrote this: having an addiction is loving something that will never love you back. The truth of this sits in both G’s and Howe’s poems.

If I was to give G’s poem another title I would give it the title Addiction. The poem barks out the isness of it, I do not know where G is now. I hope she is safe and in recovery. I hope her poem helped her name the power of her addiction and in that naming reduced its power over her. I salute her, her courage, her honesty.

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