Recovery Included the Surprisingly Therapeutic Task of Simplifying My Life Story

I’ve been a professional writer since I was 17 years old, which means people have been paying me to put words down on paper that others presumably want to read for 26 years now. Oddly enough, it’s a couple of non-paying assignments that I think have helped me the most in recent years.

Despite a few need-to-survive, part-time jobs here and there, writing is all I’ve ever really done in my professional life, yet I know if I never got a cent again, writing would continue to be the cheapest and one of the most crucial parts of my recovery.

When I entered my first rehab for alcoholism in April 2014, one of the first assignments given to me was to write my autobiography to share with the group. Every newbie got this assignment. While telling our overall story, we were asked to focus in on the things that brought us to rehab. I ended up writing 56 pages. When Bob, my caseworker, heard about this, he said that I should not read mine, and just tell the story from memory.

I thought I was doing everyone a favor because most of my fellow residents wrote three or four pages. I wanted to show everybody writing was my strength and delight them with an epic tale of triumph and tragedy. Then, I couldn’t even read it.

Fast-forward a year or so and I’ve entered my second rehab for the porn addiction. Once again, they asked me as a newcomer to share my story. Remembering that I went overboard at the first place, I wrote 30 pages this time. I did get to read it in my daily small group session, but the feedback was still that it was too long. There were many important parts of the story, but they were buried within sections that were just long anecdotes, the group agreed.

After I got out of jail, one of my probation conditions was to participate in group therapy with men who also had sexual offenses. Unsurprisingly, I was told to write my life story. This time, I wrote about eight pages and nobody complained about the length. After three attempts over three years, I was finally able to highlight the important parts of the story. The point of the assignment clicked.

* * *

All three times, I was required to write my story by hand. Maybe that should have been a clue it didn’t need to be a novel. Writing by hand is a bit of an old trick, believed to force the writer to think about their words more carefully. I can type around 75 words per minute, but I know I can’t write that fast.

My story isn’t about funny or interesting events that happened at my jobs. It isn’t about trying to prove I’m a good father or husband. Nobody needs a rundown of places I’ve travelled or sidebars full of opinion. Most of my failures and triumphs have just been run-of-the-mill and had no serious long-term effects on my life.

No, my story is about a kid who was raised by decent parents who made the one mistake of picking the wrong babysitter. The time spent at that babysitter created maladaptive coping skills, which were only enhanced when I developed early addictions to pornography and alcohol. Despite putting together a fairly normal life, those addictions and poor coping skills remained. I was (finally) correctly diagnosed with mental health issues, including bipolar disorder, in my early 20s, but despite therapy and medication, I continued as a functional addict. That stopped in my mid-30s when negative conditions in my life caused a complete breakdown. Part of the breakdown involved an illegal act, but that was my opportunity to seek help. I’ve done well in recovery, never having relapsed, and now have coping skills and tools that were lacking for years. I’m relatively content now as I warn others of the harm of pornography addiction and make up for lost time with my family.

That’s it. That’s my life. Despite the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written, that’s what it comes down to and I think it’s important I can sum it up in 160 words. It allows me to focus on what’s really important. Yes, details count, but in this case brevity is therapeutic.

I know many of the people reading this have their own blogs, or do a lot of writing as part of their professional endeavors, but if you’ve never done it, I would urge all of you to write your life story in five or six pages and then write a single paragraph summarizing it. If you write long, edit it down when finished. Given those somewhat limiting parameters, it’s surprising what you can learn about yourself.

8 thoughts on “Recovery Included the Surprisingly Therapeutic Task of Simplifying My Life Story

    1. The challenge for me, even in writing my book (which I had to cut from 200K to 88K) was figuring out what’s REALLY important to my story. It actually has helped me tame my ego and recognize that my funny, impressive, crazy, etc. stories are not the core of who I am.

  1. As a writing exercise there is a lot of value in this – as you already pointed out 🙂 However, our life is made up of the day to day – even if that is repetitive and banal – and within those a million insignificant events are interactions, conversation and countless other things that shape and form us in unknown – but profound – ways. It’s not just the big things. So, I would way that your 56 pages was probably too short 😉 At least, speaking as a counselor.

    1. I agree with you that the details are important for just about everything else, but being forced to focus on what was truly impactful in my trip to rock bottom vs. what was just a good story was important.
      When I wrote my book, I had to edit out almost 60% of it. The stuff I had to cut wasn’t unimportant, but it just wasn’t needed for the “tight” telling of my story. Did it all contribute in some tiny way? I think so. It’s why I wrote it down. But I think cutting and editing gave me much needed perspective and allowed me to prioritize and almost rank my experiences.

      I think the ability to say “This is not that important to me” was one of the crucial elements of my recovery. My story is long and fascinating. I’ve lived a life fuller than almost anyone I’ve ever met — but it’s just full of crazy stuff happening to me. At the core, I needed to recognize I was like everyone else. Yes, my stories make me special, but no more special than anyone else.

  2. I’ve counseled several people who’ve been asked to share their testimony and my advice is always to keep it down to 7 or 8 double-spaced pages of text. People always get caught up in “this happened in 1985, and then this happened in 1987, etc.” It’s easier to keep folks’ attention if one sticks to the “this is what occurred, this is what I did about it and this is where I am today” meat of their story. Their full, hardback biography can come later.

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