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'Out Of The Wreck I Rise' Supports Addiction Recovery With Literary Hero Companions


Holidays can be hell. The rounds of parties with toasts of warm white wine or spiked red wine punch, people saying oh, come on now, just a sip and even simple friendly inquiries like so, how you been, can be especially rough on those fighting to recover from addiction to drinking or drugs. Neil Steinberg, a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the memoir "Drunkard: A Hard-Drinking Life" and Sara Bader, the creator of the Quotenik website, have put together what they call a literary companion to recovery. It's an anthology called "Out Of The Wreck I Rise" which shares words from great writers, including the likes of Hemingway, Cheever, Patti Smith, Raymond Carver, Jack London and more. Many of the writers have had their own recovery struggles. Some of them lost but have wisdom to share. Neil Steinberg joins us from WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks very much for being with us, Neil.

NEIL STEINBERG: Thanks for having us, Scott.

SIMON: And Sara Bader's at our bureau in New York. Thank you.

SARA BADER: Great to be here.

SIMON: Let me ask you, Neil, what's the thinking behind this anthology?

STEINBERG: Recovery is difficult. And it's hard enough just chemically giving up the substance you crave, but it's also hard intellectually and emotionally. You're giving up something you love, and you have to replace it with something. And I wanted to try to replace it with a story, with a narrative that recovery is the path of the hero. And Sara and I try to use that by using quotes from poems and songs and stories and letters from these writers throughout time who faced the same challenge and wrote about it. And the purpose of the book - we call it a companion so that it goes with you and helps you on this very difficult journey.

SIMON: Where do you find all this stuff, Sara Bader?

BADER: We mine memoirs and letter collections and diaries and notebooks and speeches and Twitter feeds - from pop culture going back hundreds of years. So we really tried to find material that people have not read before, which was important to us.

SIMON: Yeah. Neil, your very first words in this book are, it's the hardest thing you'll ever do. How does anyone who hasn't been through that understand that?

STEINBERG: That's one of the purposes of the book. I think there's a lot of confusion about addiction, even among addicts and alcoholics. They think it's just this stupid decision that you keep making 'cause you're stupid. And so one thing I hope the book does is explain to people what this is - that it's this pervasive obsession and mental illness - just the grip it has on people. And you see these excerpts, you know, John Phillips talking about how he can't go out of the house because he has to shoot up every 15 minutes. It's this blinding compulsion. You know, these are the greatest writers of all time explaining something which is, at its heart, almost a mystery, a baffling mystery.

SIMON: Sara Bader, Neil has written so eloquently about his struggles. What stayed with you - couple of quotes?

BADER: In the early recovery chapter, John Cheever and Emily Dickinson are paired next to each other. The John Cheever quote starts (reading) I feel that perhaps the sorrow of these days will be revealed to me as having had their usefulness. The nature of this sorrow is bewildering. I seek some familiarity that eludes me. I want to go home and I have no home.

And that's from a journal entry from 1980. It's followed by a quote by Emily Dickinson (reading) I wish one could be sure the suffering had a loving side. The thought to look down some day, and see the crooked steps we came, from a safer place, must be a precious thing.

SIMON: Neil, when you caution that someone can begin recovery by telling themselves I'm doing it for my family. And many times, for good reasons their family are the last people who believe them.

STEINBERG: Family - we have a whole family chapter and it starts with an just excruciating quote from Jill Faulkner Summers, from William Faulkner's daughter. (Reading) I remember once it was just before my birthday, and I knew that Pappy was getting ready to start at one of these bouts. I went to him, the only time I ever did, and said, please don't start drinking. And he was already well on his way. And he turned to me and said, you know, no one remembers Shakespeare's child. I never asked him again.

And that shows, you know, you love this stuff more than your kids. And as an alcoholic, I can say that. You know, I remember parking my kid in the library and running next door to the supermarket to buy a half pint of vodka. I mean, you - it just takes over. And yet your family is also an - it's one of the things that draws you back in the sense that they - they're closest to you. They see what's happened to you. And they want to try to save you. And a lot of times people who, you know, for whom giving up these things is unimaginable will sort of indulge their family. And that will - that's the thread that starts to unravel the lie that they're living.

SIMON: Sara Bader, how do you hope this book will be read?

BADER: I think it'll be read as a standalone book that someone can sort of walk through the journey. But I also think it'll be read as something you can dip in and out of and hopefully carry with you when you need reinforcement and that people come back to the quotes and find strength in them.

SIMON: Neil, if you don't mind me asking, how are you doing these holidays?

STEINBERG: There's a line from Samuel Johnson, the great diarist, in there where he basically says the wine on the table is no more for me than it is for the dog under the table. I mean, we just had Thanksgiving with 22 people in the house and, you know, the wine flowing and, you know, you just decide that you're not going to do this. There's a lot - one of my favorite lines in the book is from Virgil - yield not to evil. And matter of fact, I memorized it in Latin (speaking Latin). Yield not to evils but go forth all the more boldly to face them. And that's my sobriety plan. I don't give into this as much as I would like to. And these quotes help me. And I think they'll help other people. I hope they'll help other people.

SIMON: Neil Steinberg and Sara Bader - their new anthology from University of Chicago Press, "Out Of The Wreck I Rise." Thanks so much for being with us.

STEINBERG: Thank you.

BADER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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