My first poetry book was about light in dark seasons, and was in part the result of wrestling with a fascination with darkness that I’ve carried most of my life. Ironically, but not unexpectedly, my life has never been soaked in darkness. There have been dark seasons, but most of them I have experienced from the outside, or they have turned out to be not so dark as expected. I have had my bouts with depression here and there, but nothing like those of people I know and love.
Much of my interest in darkness is probably due to some alchemy of growing up in a homeschooled evangelical Christian subculture and my undying curiosity; I’m not enough of a psychoanalyst to come up with anything deeper than that. I grew up thinking a Christian’s life was all about victory and light and “pressing on the upward way / new heights I’m gaining everyday,” so yay! For the first several years of my young life this made sense and felt right and was borne out in my own personal experiences.
But then more real life started to seep in to that experience. I began to hear other people’s stories and truly listen to them. I began to allow myself to feel their hurt. I began to come to terms with my own pain, with the lies I had told myself about what it meant to follow Christ. Perhaps because I came from a culture that looked away from darkness or sought to relegate it to unbelievers and Christians-in-name-only, I leaned pretty hard in the other direction for a number of years. I read and watched increasingly dark and disturbing stories. I grew to prefer them. The honesty I saw in them was intoxicating, but it wasn’t just the honesty that appealed to me. It was the drama of depravity, disease, and despair.
This is something Leslie Jamison’s book on addiction narratives, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, wrestles with. She explores her own alcoholism and the addictions of poets and writers throughout history in terms of the stories they were telling and trying to tell. At one point she contrasts two profiles of alcoholic writers: a Life profile on John Berryman entitled “Whisky and Ink” and Charles Jackson’s partially-autobiographical The Lost Weekend:
For his part, Berryman loved the Life profile. It showed him a side of himself he wanted to believe in—a prophet surveying his kingdom of empty shot glasses—and fed the delusions that were feeding his drinking. The why-less drinking that Charles Jackson had proposed in The Lost Weekend would have been harder to absorb. That type of buffoonish drinking—with its vaguely comic desperation—didn’t strike the same appealing pose as the poet with his quivering psychic antennae pointed toward death.—Leslie Jamison, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath
The illusion of the tormented artist is partially one of control: I could overcome my addiction, but I don’t because it gives me a private window into the secret realities of the soul. Jamison knows the deception of that illusion, enough to reveal addiction as it is: “a seepage toward death.”
I still sense the allure of darkness in my own writing. In my pursuit of honestly engaging the dead and dying world around me, I often feel the pull to step over the thin line demarking empathy and truth-telling into the realm of dramatizing and affirming darkness as desirable, inevitable, and alluring. I often step over that line. I can even locate my identity in stepping over that line.
In contrast, a life without darkness tends to sound boring. Jamison reckons with this as well:
If addiction stories run on the fuel of darkness—the hypnotic spiral of an ongoing, deepening crisis—then recovery is often seen as the narrative slack, the dull terrain of wellness, a tedious addendum to the riveting blaze. I wasn’t immune; I’d always been enthralled by stories of wreckage. But I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart. I needed to believe they could.—Leslie Jamison, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath
In many of these stories, addiction is not so much a disease as it is a symptom of hidden hurts—of loneliness, of the unquenched desire to be wanted and loved, of the ambition to be significant and known. The sins of the flesh are those actions that bubble up to the surface of broken people, and the hurt will not be healed by the bottle, by porn, by political fervor, by social media likes, by being upheld as a tortured genius poet, or by “making it” as an author. These things will only ever reveal our brokenness unless we turn to the Healer of that brokenness.
Recovery happens slowly, in unseen places, without fanfare or originality. We make it inspirational, quotable, and shareable to our peril.Chris Wheeler
It’s no surprise that the first step of the Twelve Steps used in recovery is both communal and confessional: “We admitted we were powerless over [insert focus of addiction here]…” Confession of need in a loving community initiates the process of healing. The more I daily confront the darkness within and outside of me with the light of Christ in the community of his saints, the more I understand it as a channel directing my desires beyond itself to an overwhelming light. I look at my darkness not to love it more, but to recognize that I need help to escape it. In confession, I relinquish my darkness into the hands of my Savior who already knows its contours. I share the burden of it with the people around me, and they share their burdens with me. This is the purpose of the Lenten season: to face our need and look to Christ to fill it.
In the upside-down kingdom of God, when we turn to him and look him in the face, when we see the severe and gentle mercy of our Savior, our darkness begins to reveal Jesus instead of our own brokenness. We see the failure as it is, and we remember that no depth of failure was too deep for him to reach us. We know the pride in us and we see him humbling himself unto death, even death on the cross, that we might be his. We know our crippling addiction to approval and our desperate desire to be loved, and we know that through spilling his own blood on the cross he has approved and accepted us as his beloved bride.
In this light, the work of recovery is not about skyrocketing to victory out of pits of despair. Healing is not about inspirational moments, mountain summits, or applaudable epiphanies.
In recovery, I found a community that resisted what I’d always been told about stories—that they had to be unique—suggesting instead that a story was most useful when it wasn’t unique at all, when it understood itself as something that had been lived before and would be lived again. Our stories were valuable because of this redundancy, not despite it. Originality wasn’t the ideal, and beauty wasn’t the point.—Leslie Jamison, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath
Like our creative work and our spiritual lives, recovery happens slowly. It happens in a close, honest community. It happens in unseen places, without fanfare or originality. It is not always beautiful or noteworthy. It doesn’t fit into the algorithms. Its similarity to other stories is unnerving and comforting at once. We make it inspirational, quotable, and shareable to our peril.
In the light of Christ, every story bent toward night is a signpost to a happy ending. Every illness is pointing to the cure. Every dark night of the soul is pointing to the rising of the sun. In Lent, we may recognize our need, but we encounter our healing in Easter.
As we retell this story during Holy Week, may we look beyond the darkness to the approaching dawn.