What manuscript? Those were my first thoughts when I read the subject line on the email. It was nearly midnight on a Sunday night this past July when I opened my email to find a publication acceptance for my first chapbook, “Firefly,” from Finishing Line Press. I was taken by surprise on so many levels—the first, not remembering submitting it at all. A quick search of “Submittable” yielded the answer: I had submitted this manuscript in April to the “New Women’s Voices” chapbook competition at Finishing Line Press. I had neither won the contest nor placed, but my poetry collection had been accepted for publication nonetheless. My mind flashed back on the moment when I hit “send” on this submission. A strange confluence of events had led me to compile this collection.
The impetus for “Firefly” was a substitution for a different project. The year before, I had written a larger collection about the nearly concurrent deaths of my father and my nephew. These were poems I felt driven to write. I felt I owed them this debt, to create something in their memory. My intention was to see this collection in print, dedicated to them, but it just wasn’t gelling. I received advice from a poetry mentor to put aside this work for some time, to allow more distance from these tragic events, so I would be able to come back to the work with a clearer head.
I also learned more about the world of poetry publication. After publishing individual poems, a poet typically publishes a chapbook or two before a larger collection. I wasn’t sure what my vision was for these poems about my father and my nephew, besides illuminating how different losses affect a family, though I had followed an inspiration to deepen the grouping with parallel poems grounded in nature. I understood the wisdom of devoting myself in the interim to a new project. I moved towards arranging a smaller, unrelated group of poems into a chapbook, mined from the hundreds of poems I had written over the previous six years.
“Write what you know,” they say, and I had written plenty about what I know most intimately—alcoholism and drug addiction. I found poems I had written about drinking consequences when I was young, like a near-fatal car crash, but I also had some poems from my more recent struggles to live sober. I wrote several new poems to fill in the gaps. I liked the idea of painting this story in poetry, in more metaphorical terms—to me, this made the events, or at least the feelings they evoke, more universal. I want reading this collection to be like standing in front of an impressionistic painting in an art museum. Up close, you see individual brush strokes; step back, you see how the splotches of color come together to create a whole.
Just six days before I opened the acceptance email, this same collection was evaluated in a poetry manuscript class I was attending. The anxiety I felt around having other flesh and blood humans read about my descent into alcoholism and addiction, even told in the “slant” way of poems, startled me. I felt naked, exposed to their potential negative judgements. There were only four other people in this class, and I knew most of them well. This was not a room full of strangers. So, why was I feeling this way? It was one thing to write the individuals poems, many of which these fellow poets had heard; it was another to string them together into a whole that painted a vivid (I thought) portrait of my underbelly. Sending this same chapbook electronically to disembodied individuals at a press, people whom I have never met in person and probably never would, felt like much less of a threat.
Every criticism I heard in that class, constructive or otherwise, magnified in my mind. I considered abandoning the chapbook, as I could not pinpoint from where this negative energy sprung. I could not have foreseen how much worse I would feel after receiving the acceptance.
I did not sleep after I opened that email. A part of me felt excited and relieved about the news—maybe my writing wasn’t as bad as I had told myself the whole week after my manuscript class. But, as the sleepless night crawled towards morning, I was steeped in fear. My skin itched and I shifted positions as my brain raced: maybe this collection is inferior work. People will read it and know that I am an imposter. Worse, I obsessed over the subject matter: What was I thinking? How could I expose myself like this? Everyone will know about me.
It didn’t take me long to realize what was going on. Shame has this way of reappearing when I least expect it. Clean and sober over 14 years and I thought I had the shame-thing licked—it seems it had only been neutralized in the rooms of recovery. Being in the company of others who had also slid beneath layers of bad experiences due to alcoholism and addiction had magically lifted the paralysis of shame. I entered rooms full of men and women in recovery who were smiling and laughing. These were people who were joyful after having had some pretty awful stuff happen when they were using. If they could do it, so could I. That’s how recovery works, at least for me—bathed in the acceptance of others who would never judge me, who understood how I thought and felt, I could heal after years of believing myself incapable of living a different way.
Over 20 years ago, before I got sober, my husband sent me to a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction medicine. Something he said stayed with me all these years: The hallmarks of alcoholism and addiction are shame and isolation. All these years later, I understand that shame and isolation are as much a part of me as my drinking once was. Living sober has helped me rise above these states of being towards which I naturally gravitate. Writing about my alcoholism/addiction helps me to NOT isolate with the effects of the disease. My hope is that, by sharing my story, I will reach at least one person who struggles with the same shame, one person who is tightly bound in their own cocoon.