If you’d told me ten years ago that my life would be changed through the practice of reading fiction, I would have asked if you were off your meds. The idea would have sounded absolutely insane to me. Reading imaginary stories about imaginary people doing imaginary stuff was the farthest thing from my mind. I was struggling daily just to stay alive, and I mean that. My first two month of recovery, I lost two friends I’d gotten high with days before checking into treatment, one by overdose and another by suicide. Who has time for fiction when you’re staring down a reality like that?
What I’ve since learned is that reading fiction is an activity that promotes the kind of changes in our thinking necessary to recover from addiction. It seems like the farthest thing from the real suffering and struggle we face as we fight this battle, but it’s not. It’s one of the closest. In order to see how, we first have to give some thought to where addiction is rooted, where it begins. Addiction is an incredibly complicated disease, and I’m not under the impression that I can boil it down into a three-page piece of writing, but I can say with confidence that my personal experience with addiction began with the way I imagined the world and my place in it. My addiction began with my thinking and my ways of seeing the world.
We all bring to our lives a way of seeing, a perspective, a lens through which we makes sense of the world. Our personal ways of seeing are shaped by a number of factors including our cultures, our communities, our families, our personal lived experiences, and the experiences of our ancestors. Everything we go through in our daily lives comes through this filter, and the way we experience whatever comes through—as positive, negative, exciting, erotic, terrifying, heartbreaking, beautiful, or whatever else—depends on the personal lens. This is why two people can experience the very same thing in two very different ways.
Take, for example, the election of Donald Trump and the issue of his proposed border wall. If you’re someone like me, who understands America and our history in a specific way, who believes in the value and necessity of immigrants, who holds certain ideas about where we should put our resources, and so forth, the election of Donald Trump and the proposition of a border wall are a downright tragedy. Another person, who has had different experiences, who comes from a different culture, community, or family, experienced the election and the idea of a wall in a very different way. Here, we could get into a very complicated argument about morality and ethics and objective truth, and we should absolutely talk about these things, but for the sake of this short piece, we will leave those questions for another time. What I’m really trying to get at is this: things happen as we move through the world, and the ways in which we experience and find meaning in those things depends on the perception we bring to it.
When I first entered recovery, I had no idea that I was bringing a particular way of seeing to the world. I’d never given any thought to my personal lens, and the way in which it impacted the way I was living. I’d never really had the opportunity. In the place I was coming from, my ways of seeing were rarely challenged. In the community I came from, it was normal to fear difference, to hate people, to fend for yourself, to assume the universe would crush you, not to trust people, to expect little of yourself and others, and so on. I believed these things, even though I wasn’t fully aware of the fact that I did, and I assumed everyone (or at least most people) saw the world this way. This is the place where my addiction starts. The problem with seeing the world and myself this way is that it is painful and lonely and desperate. It should come as no surprise that a person who lives with this frame of mind might be drawn to substances that soothe that pain.
The most profound gift I’ve been given in recovery is the understanding that my perception of the world is open to revision. I don’t get to choose much of what happens around me, but the way I perceive it has a massive impact in the way I get to react. In recovery, I was given permission to get rid of old ideas that had me stuck. Almost immediately, I encountered people who had lived the way I was living, but who were seeing things from a different angle. I write about these people in my essay The Power of Storytelling. The change in my ways of thinking and seeing began with these relationships, but shortly after entering recovery, I also had my first real interaction with literature, and this was the place where I began to see and understand how all of this talk about perception and seeing really works.
Shortly after entering recovery, I earned my GED and enrolled at the local community college. I didn’t have a plan, it just seemed like the next right thing to do since I had no skills, no credentials, and no idea what I wanted to do with myself since I wasn’t spending ever waking moment obsessing about getting high. I also heard you could borrow money, which sounded great at the time, though not so great at this present moment. So, I signed up for a literature class because it filled a requirement, and seemed doable alongside the other classes I was taking. In this class, I was offered a novel idea. I was told fiction is not simply about finding entertainment in watching imaginary people do imaginary things. Instead, reading fiction was an activity in observing consciousness at work, and seeing all of the myriad ways in which our perceptions, which are often flawed, motivate the actions that create the conditions of our lives.
To a much deeper degree than other forms of art, literature allows us to observe the internal workings of the human mind and the systems of thought that shape our experience of the world. This is not the only thing literature does, nor is literature the only art form that achieves this, but it is one of the things literature does best. The good news is you don’t need a college education to begin benefiting from a reading practice. One of my favorite stories, “Cathedral”, written by the patron saint of drunk writers, Raymond Carver, had a tremendous impact on me my first week of community college, when I had no education. I’m going to use this story as an example because it was the story that changed the way I thought about fiction, and because it is well known. Chances are if you’ve read any short stories, you’ve read this one. If not, that’s quite alright… here’s a link to it if you are interested.
The main character of Cathedral, known in the story as Bub, is one of my favorite kinds of characters. He’s entirely unaware of his personal way of seeing. He is selfish, jealous, and prejudiced, which has made his daily life joyless and lonely, and perhaps drawn him to an inclination to smoke a whole bunch of pot and overdrink. In the early part of the story, Bub’s outlook becomes pretty clear as he interacts with his wife and muses resentfully about her prior marriage, her suicide attempt, and her ongoing friendship with an old friend, who happens to be blind. Bub is especially bothered by the friend’s blindness, which ironically, speaks to Bub’s own blindness, his utter lack of self-awareness with regard to his feelings, and his ways of being in the world. Right of the bat, it’s clear that Bub’s complete lack of self-awareness is causing trouble in his life.
Things get interesting when Bub’s wife invites her old friend to come stay with them for a couple of days. Bub isn’t happy about a stranger coming to his house, let alone a blind stranger. The uncomfortable feeling he experiences is the one we feel when we’re confronted with a situation that challenges our views. Maybe you’ve felt it before. This blind man is literally coming into Bub’s house, but in a metaphorical way, he is stepping into Bub’s psychological space. Again, as I witness Bub confront this stranger and interact in cringe-worthy ways, I am witnessing my own response to those things that challenge my ways of seeing the world. The perceptual changes we talk about when we talk about recovery (!) are uncomfortable, and in this story I get to watch that process unfold as it has in my own life. It gives language and life to an experience I’ve gone through, but never articulated.
So, how does the story end? Well, it ends in the way you’d expect a story about a stranger who comes to town would end. I will not spoil it beyond saying that the interaction between Bub and the blind man suddenly and powerfully shifts Bub’s view of the world. Bub’s perception is tuned up. In one of the story’s final lines, just as he experiences his epiphany, Bub says, “I was inside my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.” Again, the house has metaphorical significance. It reflects the mental structures through which Bub has been seeing the world. Bub’s epiphany at the end of the story is rooted in his realization that his way of seeing is flawed, but more importantly, that getting outside of his own “house”, or in other words, escaping his negative perspectives, is possible.
I love this particular story because it animates so much of my experience in recovery, but also demonstrates the broad growth I have experienced through the practice of reading fiction. In entering Bub’s perspective, or the perspective of any other fictional character, and witnessing the world through his or her particular lens, I’m shown the ways in which our perspectives shape our experience and impact our lives. At the same time, by engaging with a perspective that is not my own, I am reminded that I too have a particular viewpoint, which is one of countless ways to see the world. But most importantly, in watching characters perspective challenged by the world, and seeing them change or refuse to change, I’m reminded that my own ways of seeing are not absolute, not set in stone, and always open to revision.
Not every story I read changes my view of the world, but every moment I spend looking at the world from another angle breaks me open to the idea that there are countless ways of seeing. This is the place where fiction is so closely related to recovery. I came to addiction because the single lens I used to look at the world was limited and caused me lots of pain. Recovery has been a process of broadening the lens, and fiction has been the stranger that visits my house, challenges my perspectives, and helps me see in other ways.
Through the practice of reading imaginary stories about imaginary people doing imaginary things, I have the opportunity to see the world from unlimited angles. I am given the chance to try on different perspectives for size, and see what kind of truth they bear. I read widely because I want to see the world in as many ways as possible. I need to understand how others see the world. So, I read Black writers, Latino writers, Native writers, Asian writers, White writers, Russian writers, Queer writers, working class writers, highly educated writers, writers from the Deep South, New England, Appalachia, the Midwest, Canada…(not an exhaustive list)…I read all kinds of writers because I need to know that my way of seeing is not the only one, and I need to see the world in various ways.
If addiction starts with our perception, and recovery becomes possible when we begin to make adjustments in this area, fiction is one of our finest guides. It continues to break me out of those limited ways of understanding the world. It has led me to a way of seeing that makes living a different way possible. It has saved me. I know, it sounds crazy, but I highly recommend giving it a try.