A Writer takes ownership of an insult.
ONE of the most cutting insults ever levelled at me turned out to be the greatest compliment I ever received, and one which really put fuel in my tank as a writer.
I’ve read plenty of self-help books in my time. The one I responded to the most was The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. In its pages, and through its practical sessions, I managed to find direction enough to keep going through tough times as an artist.
I also developed a swag of practical tools for dealing with the obstacles in every Artist’s way, not only those within myself, but those that come from other people.
So it was probably not so coincidental, when embarking on my first round of The Artist’s Way, a program based squarely in the 12-step recovery principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, that I manifested a very close friendship with a recovering addict.
By the time I knew she was an alcoholic, Claudia was about to move into my house. I thought about her announcement, remembered my upbringing about not turning away people in need, and helped her move into my spare room, where she lived for almost two years.
I was thankful that I didn’t have to live with someone who would forever be dragging me to the pub at the top of our street. My coming out was made easier by having a house mate with her own baggage, and we had a history because our parents had been good friends when we were at school. It was a case of win-win for two families.
Warning bells rang when I came home a year later with the strong sense that everything in the house had been moved, just a little, like someone had been picking through the antiques I’d inherited from my grandmother.
Claudia had disappeared, her new boyfriend (who was avoiding drug court) at the wheel. On their way to score drugs, they’d stolen her mother’s safe, before the seedy side of the Western Suburbs opened its arms to them.
She had ‘swapped the witch for the bitch’, as they say in Narcotics Anonymous, and added heroin to her other addictions.
I fielded desperate phone calls from her family, managed to find Claudia on the phone, and challenged her to come home from the dire moral and legal reality she’d manifested.
When she did, I opened my door to her, even though she had a key and was ashamed to use it. After she stepped over my threshold, she stayed clean for the rest of the time she was under my roof.
Having grown up in a divorced family, I don’t know why I was blind to the possibility of ‘friend divorce’ around every corner of my friendship with Claudia.
So it came as a shock that she was incapable of helping me as I had helped her.
Claudia was the first person I could reach on the phone when my partner died suddenly. She came to my side, but my needs became larger than hers at that time, and she had no way to cope with that reality. Weeks after Jono died, Claudia was out of my life too.
Nothing if not naive, I went back when she found ways to offer me support, but she called me one day when I was standing on a train platform, on my way to a party.
She muttered something about having sent me an email she wanted to me to read. It sounded serious, so I offered what any true friend would do: I said I’d delete it without reading it, if she wanted me to.
“No, I want you to read it,” she said.
The next morning, I did. In it, she wrote that our friendship was over.
I knew the feeling of having to express something in writing as opposed to just saying it. I’d been that way ever since I announced that I couldn’t wake my baby brother in his cot. The ramifications of those spoken words were dire for my family.
So I didn’t go into, ‘you could have just told me’ territory, which is just a case of shooting both the messenger and the message writer.
I did what comes naturally to me, I wrote a reply. In it, I rose above Claudia’s definition of the status quo. At that time, I was having plenty of new world orders foisted on me in my grief.
Claudia rang. Her voice was distant, what I’d come to call ‘drug frozen’. She managed to force out some clipped platitudes, which I eloquently rebuffed. She was, after all, only fifty per cent of this friendship, and her truth applied to only her half.
“You’re very good with words,” she said, low and cold.
“As are you,” I said in reply.
We both spoke the truth.
In that moment I came to terms with being a friend to an addict, and how we become like islands onto which they wash up, where they receive our succour, and our help to climb the mountain, all the way down to the far shore, where they dive in and swim away.
But they leave us wiser, emboldened by their definition of us, even as they try to demolish us. We’re able to spot others of their kind on their way to our shore, able to help them onto their legs, point them to the mountain and say, simply: “Start climbing”.
Since then we’ve both become very, very good with words, Claudia and I.
But while I took an overdose of the truth and became addicted to speaking and writing it, Step Nine tells me she’s still recovering.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.