We create our future through our actions.

S.N. Goenka

You can look after yourself in this world while looking after your creativity at the same time.

Elizabeth Gilbert


Creative people re-conceptualize problems more often than a non-creative. This means they look at a variety of solutions from a number of different angles, and this extensive observation of a project requires time.

Gregory Ciotti

Recently I have started thinking about the experience of recovery from addiction as an extended design project. From inception, to initial tentative execution, to long term skill acquisition and creation, as an addict in recovery we are always in one sense creating. Creating the type of life we want away from using and re-crafting or redrafting our “old life” in order to better understand ourselves and the world around us.


Unused creativity is not benign.

Brene Brown

Recovery does not always work in a linear fashion. Starting a new way of living can be like designing a building or structure: Conception, labour and nurturing takes place – but not always in that order. And much like starting a painting or composition, the task ahead of us can seem daunting, or too frightening to begin. We can experience trepidation and wonder where we can find the strength to undertake the work ahead.


The idea that I could be sane, sober, and creative terrified me, implying, as it did, the possibility of personal accountability.

Julia Cameron

When I first got sober I did not consider myself to be an artist or capable of assuming this title. I knew I was creative but I had completely lost direction and confidence. As I moved away from the old life I had built and tried embracing recovery, a clarity with regards to what I wanted to do and create began flowing with greater ease.

This provided the essential missing component that I needed in order to recover: Something I wanted more than staying sick and stuck, repeating the same destructive patterns. Nothing felt like a sufficient replacement until I started to draw again. Here was something I could live and be happy for.

Going forward, allowing recovery to intertwine with that very desire to make art has made living well and truthfully a form of creative endeavor. And over time, I am grateful that I’ve found a style and structure for my work and recovery that suits me well.

Problematically, the damaging behaviors and beliefs we use can become wrapped up in our identity. As a result, it can feel like relinquishing them could be to abandon ourselves and our ability to be creative.

Moreover, we can think life could be boring or too difficult in recovery. So looking at our circumstances becomes increasingly painful and we seek further means of avoidance and distraction. All of this leaves little room to do anything other than try to get by.


Where you focus your attention is what you create.

Elena Brower

It is the artist’s task to pay attention: We look and observe in order to communicate ideas in novel ways. Depending on substances or behaviors addiction often produces an un-focusing of attention and blurs our vision. When we start to extract ourselves from all of this, however impossible it may seem, we can start to pay attention to where things went wrong. With time and support focus can realign.

Contentious as it may be, some find substances provide a gateway to their creativity. For others, myself included, I became reliant on substances, controlling behaviors and exterior validation for a sense of ease and safety. I needed these in order to feel ‘okay’, forming endless barriers between my desire to create and my ability to do so.

Elena Brower, author of ‘Art of Attention‘, found that by abstaining from drug use and entering recovery, she drew closer to her creativity. She found in recovery the very thing which she had been trying to access through substance induced states, and abstinence allowed for a much deeper creative energy to come forth.

Zoe Williams of The Guardian writes “…anything is creative so long as it makes you appreciate the value of your own joy… On these grounds, naturally I am tempted to make the case for drinking myself to death as a creative exercise, but that would be self-destructive. Creativity resides in making the choices that make you happy, and anyone who tells you otherwise – your inner critic, your outer critics – is bullshitting.”
I can personally attest through my own experience and observing others that sobriety is by no means the death of inspiration. As we clean up and start to heal our mind and body, we are better able to survey our lives with insight and curious detachment. We can address our history and extract from it what we like, whilst letting go of past hurt. A design based upon a new narrative structure is possible. Furthermore, we can invite a healthy relationship with work and inspiration to enter.
So designing a life in recovery is not only about looking forward, but turning our glance back in order to question old assumptions and allow reconciliation. In so doing, various and disparate parts of ourselves -our memories and ideas- can harmonize in intentional or otherwise unexpected ways.

Recovery then, like any creative pursuit, asks us to pay attention and take note of what already exists, as it appears, in order to forge new, exciting and/or necessary connections. Ones that may previously have been overlooked or ignored. Some things must be cut and others enhanced.

Creative people learn to harness widely varying skills, behaviors, and ways of thinking as the situation demands and to bring them together in new and unusual ways to come up with novel ideas and products.

Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire


By releasing detrimental beliefs and behaviors space is cleared to build. Programs such as the 12 Steps along with other forms of addiction treatment offer us tools with which to do so. They provide the foundation, and a blueprint for structure.

Learning and practicing therapeutic tools, becoming more comfortable working and wielding them, our previous arsenal might begin to look insufficient, even obsolete. With new ground work in place, the courage to begin a process of our own, individuated creation emerges.


You need to know what you believe in. You need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Debbie Millman

Having created space to design and re-structure the basis from which we live, we must determine what it is we want and need from our lives and recovery.
What needs to change and how can harmony be best achieved? What can we build that will stand the test of time?

A sculptor might begin with a block of raw material, but prior to beginning the process of carving they must at least have an idea of what they wish to form. Going ahead their idea may change, unexpected inspiration or obstacles arise –We can change our minds.

Recovery is a similar evolution.

Gaining confidence in my creative capacities again, I felt encouraged to map out a vision for a life I wanted. In turn, making art strengthened my desire to live and do so with purpose.

The artist wants to make order out of chaos.

Ursula Nordstrom


Acknowledging myself as the creator of my circumstances, it eventually hit home that I therefore had the influence and capacity to design new ones. If I had assisted in designing an uninhabitable life through my choices, thoughts and actions, I could therefore do the same to the opposite effect.

The question then became what kind of structure was going to work. This came with a fair amount of trial and error, fear and anxiety. Testing out advice and experience gleaned from others, and ultimately forming my own sense of what felt right helped me in this process.

Originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas. It is obvious therefore that the more a man knows the greater scope he has for arriving at striking combinations.

Rosamund Harding

It is said that there is no such thing as an original work of art; we cannot avoid influence. Inspiration is a necessary part of creation. Similarly, we draw on the examples of those around us in order to build and enhance our life in recovery. But no two programs will be exactly alike. It is the incremental differences that make that `thing` our own. It might even seem tempting to copy someone else’s method and hope to get the same results, but this rarely works. At some point, we must know ourselves well enough to see what we need, and where this differs from others.

We live in a culture that tends to place originality above substance and truth. So when I use this term I am not suggesting being original in order to stand out, but rather figuring out what is of personal necessity and allowing the space for a unique picture to emerge.


Many of the most profound creative and spiritual experiences we encounter take place internally, when we allow ourselves the time to disconnect from others and turn inward.

Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire

A friend recently reminded me that the process of recovery is similar to cooking or baking: When first attempting to make a dish or cake, you must follow the recipe instructions precisely in order to achieve something edible. After a few times testing and getting different results you start gaining an intuitive sense of which ingredients go well together and how much of each is needed. From this point it is possible to try experimenting in order to better meet our tastes and preferences.

And still, having perfected our recipe it is inevitable that our palate will change. Before discarding the dish from our repertoire, we might first try to adjust it, but we know alterations are necessary if we are to feel fulfilled. In the same way, the details of our program can be flexible enough to allow for human adaption and growth.


To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Growing research suggests that artists and creative people think, act and respond in unique ways, displaying a particular sensitivity and attentiveness towards their environment. Better understanding our disposition –how we tend to think and respond– can assist us in recovery. Seemingly, the things that most often threaten to undermine our creativity –fear, lack of inspiration or encouragement etc.– usually have a similar effect on the state of our recovery, too.

I am aware that using this type of language might unintentionally support the notion that there is a clear divide between “creative” and “non-creative” people, which is not something I endorse or find helpful. In fact, I tend to think that most people are in some way creative regardless of how–or even if–they choose to explore and express this, or work in a creative field.

What I have observed is this: The opportunity to design a new way of living in recovery –one in which we try to inflict less pain on ourselves– can help us reveal and access further creative callings. With firmer structures in place, we feel encouraged to embrace and own our skills. In so doing, we have the chance to create what we want to see in this world, as well as that which we hope to be and become.

Drawings by Natasha McDowell:
Photographs shot by Nina Claasen:

Useful links & references

  • Elena Brower:
  • Maria Popova: Maria Popova makes a briliant ongoing project of investigating the DNA or creativity. She asks what it means to create in the broadest sense, and the nature of people that make this their life`s work via the brainpickings website.
  • Jonathan FieIds:
  • Elizabeth Gilbert: Big Magic and Ted talk
  • Creative mornings lecture series:
  • Julia Cameron: The Artist’s Way