‘It’s never too late to recover:’ Nine Akron artists on addiction, recovery and perseverance

interviews by Amber Cullen and Noor Hindi
photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti

Recovering from substance abuse is a lifelong journey.

Some people follow the path of 12-step recovery programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, which was founded in Akron. Every June, thousands of people gather in Akron to celebrate AA’s founders and the impact AA’s teachings have had on their lives. Others in recovery turn to medication-assisted treatment or a variety of community support groups. Most say they could not persevere without the support of their families, friends, mentors and sponsors.

This spring, the Devil Strip spoke with nine artists in recovery about their journeys. Some requested that we refer to them only by their first names, or their first names and last initials, to protect their anonymity. We have honored those requests.

What is your artist’s journey?

Jeff Klemm.

“I’m a musician. I write songs for multiple different bands. I lived on the road, touring, doing 100-plus shows a year for many years with my band Maid Myriad and various other bands. And now I’m rooted back in Akron and writing a lot of songs, making records, and playing out when I can. The journey continues. I was in the studio last night until 3 am. That’s part of the journey.” — Jeff

“With architecture, there is no end to what the expression of that creativity can mean. I design the places where people can practice their art. My practice has been dance studios, rehearsals, theater halls, public spaces… I make factories for expression. I want to be anonymous as an artist, because I want people to take claim over the spaces that I make.” — Mary O.

“Growing up, I always had really bad depression, so [art] was really an outlet to channel it instead of having it inside me. I’m really into writing poetry as well as painting and drawing. I’ve always written poetry, since I was a child. And then I gave it up and I got really heavy in my addiction and there was nothing creative going on there at all. And then I got sober and I tried painting, and I found it to be a good outlet. It relieves a lot of stress so I just kept doing it. And then recently, within the last six months, I’ve started getting back into writing.” — Kristin

“When I was 24, I went back to school, and that’s when I fell in love with painting. I did that for about eight years and then I actually got my MFA in sculpture. Besides having children, I would say art has been my saving grace. I’m so in the moment [when I create]. When I step away, I’m always like, ‘Wow. That was heavy.’ But I don’t feel it [in the moment]. It’s empowering.” — Jen

“I used to write a lot when I first got sober in 2000. But a friend of mine in recovery, they’d been an artist for a long time, [and] I painted with them one night. And then maybe six months later at a sober club they had art night and I painted again. Months later, I’m walking through Target and there’s a little starter kit. Six little baby tubes, two brushes, and a color wheel for $5, and I bought a drawing pad for $6 and I painted one thing on the paper. I didn’t judge it, though. For me it’s about the expression. It’s about opening yourself. For me it’s freedom.” —Brandon

What is your recovery journey?

Marc Lee Shannon.

“I guess it starts with, how did it happen? I didn’t become an alcoholic because of problems in my childhood or who I was. I became an alcoholic because I drank all the time. My problem wasn’t the booze. My problem was me. What was in my head. What was in my heart. And then finally in November of 2014, after a long journey through detox, through a lot of attempts, through counseling, I figured it out. I’m lucky because the three things that really make it worthwhile for me now in recovery is, one, total abstinence. The only thing that works is total abstinence. The second thing that works is finding your tribe…When I was a guitar player when I was young, I wanted to hang out with the badasses, right? I found those cats that could play really well, and I wanted to hang out with them. In recovery, it’s the same thing. You have to find the badasses and hang out with them. The people who really take sobriety well, that really know, that got the Ph.D. in that shit, man, you know? And the third thing is, once you get it, give it to other people. Give it back. That’s what makes it meaningful is to be able to say, ‘Hey, I get it. I’ve been there. I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you what happened to me.’ And that’s what makes a difference.” — Marc

“In the beginning it was a hideous shame to be an alcoholic. It was a long struggle for me to get sober. I thought my only problem was that I couldn’t drink safely. I didn’t think I had any other problems that came with addiction — but come to find out I did. I did anything I could to avoid looking internally. And I didn’t know any of that until I surrendered. My emotional bottom happened when I was sober. It’s really only in the last eight or nine years that I have really reaped the benefits of true sobriety — powerlessness, and surrender, and willing to listen and do the work that comes after you stop using.” —Mary O.

“I’ve always dealt with mental health issues, since I was a kid, and medications never worked. I went into college for public health and I got introduced to drugs there. I was maybe 20 and with some friends. And it was like, one week I started smoking weed and drinking, and then two weeks later I’m snorting fentanyl and heroin. I did that for three years while I was in school. It was the only thing that really helped with my mental health. It was the only thing that made me feel better because every medication made me sick or had terrible side effects. So, I was using when I was in school and my life got really bad. My relationships were torn apart. I started to fail out of school. I was starting to lose my job. My mental health got worse. And then one day I was driving and I overdosed at the wheel and I crashed my car. And it really gave me a wake up call. I needed help. The court system said I needed to get help. I didn’t want it, but I did it anyway. I got into a medically assisted treatment program and I was on suboxone for about a year. I got into AA initially because the court system said I had to. And then my life started to get a lot better. I learned the tools and got a really strong foundation in recovery. I got some actual coping skills to deal with my mental health and life in general.” — Kristin

“I’m an alcoholic, and that took over before I could do anything artistically. So then I had years of addiction. I had guns to my head, I was homeless — you know, traumatic things. I was too busy for an artist journey at that point. There were moments in active addiction where I wrote a couple things down, and that became one of my first songs in sobriety. I had a real quick moment where I looked in the mirror and I was just so sad because I didn’t see myself.” — Chrissy S.

“It was a lot of chaos [growing up], a lot of chaos. I don’t think I was quick to deal with emotions. Being in that environment as a person, you turn to the very thing you [don’t] like in your father. I didn’t really like what it did to him because I didn’t know who was coming home. Whether it was happy drunk, needy drunk, pissed-off drunk, nobody-loves-me drunk. For the most part there was a lot of uncertainty. I hated myself so much over those many years of doing what I was doing and carrying on. I thought about killing myself for a long, long time. And I basically ended up on a bridge my last drunk [night]. I was pretty drunk. And it was a little hazy. But that moment was clear. It was like, ‘Take that leap.’ And a lot of people talk about having a moment of clarity when they tell their story, as far as recovery from addiction. That moment of clarity where I threw my keys in the car and I locked the door. I walked home with that loneliness and despair and that anger and alcoholic rage. The very next day my dad called me and he said, ‘Hey, do you want to go to a meeting?” And I went to a recovery meeting that evening. He opened the door.” — Brandon

“I was really young when I got into a lot of trouble. And it was really dark. And I owe it all to one person — just one person. Sharon, my best friend since we were teenagers. And I remember walking out of my apartment, and she lived below me, and it was her and her roommate, and I said, ‘I’m done. I’m done doing drugs. I’m done doing all of this.’ And her roommate was like, ‘The hell you are. Whatever. I give you 24 hours.’ And Sharon looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘You got this, Jen.’ And I latched onto that.” — Jen

“There was a kid who had been walking on West Market [Street] by Pat Catan’s and Sally Beauty. The kid was walking on the rail above the lower level and he fell off and died. He had been drunk. The thing that made that noteworthy was that he had been involved in an accident three years before that involving alcohol. That story really bothered me, and so I started to drink a lot. It’s not like I had been not drinking before then, but my consumption went up while I was writing that article. As part of that article I met with Interval Brotherhood [now IBH]. I met with people who were in recovery there. So here I am, not blind drunk but definitely not sober, ironically meeting with people in recovery. After that, I backed off, but it was definitely a habit. At the time, in 1989, I thought I could stop, but there was no need, because it wasn’t a problem. So I kept drinking and was driving one day and took inventory of my drinking and realized I didn’t have my jack on the rocks with a twist of lemon — I’d have three of those. You’ll hear a lot of people in recovery say, ‘I had a moment of clarity.’ One day my counselor told me, ‘Have you ever thought about AA?’ and I might not have heard her before, but I heard her that day and went for the first meeting.” — Sarah

“When I first got sober, I started going to meetings just because I didn’t know what the heck else to do. I didn’t know anybody that was sober. I had surrounded myself with people like me, and I didn’t know anybody other than my drinking buddies. I went to meetings at first. But now I don’t go to meetings because I wouldn’t say I don’t need them, but I just bury myself in my art and my work and my personal life. So I feel like the goal is not drink, and I am meeting that goal every day. I have no will to drink. I don’t want that to be part of my life. Every day I wake up and I don’t want my son to know Jeff Klemm the alcoholic. I want him to know Dad that is ready to play every second of every day. That is my main motivation every single day.” — Jeff

What is the intersection between the process of recovery and the process of creation? Has recovery helped you with the creative process?

“It didn’t dawn on me about how much clearer my thinking was when I wasn’t drunk or high. After a while I realized it was a pleasure not to wake up with a headache. I was no longer worried about whether or not anybody was going to find out how much I drank or how much pot I used, and then it was sort of like I began to really begin to be able to live my life instead of going from one drug to the next.” — Sarah

“The journey definitely has taken me some time to sort out exactly who I am. My whole life was set up to be at a bar. I worked at bars as a sound guy, as a door guy, as a booking agent. Where are my offices? At the bar. Where do we go after a 12-hour drive? The bar where we’re playing. I play around locally. Where do I play? The bar. So my whole life was intentionally set up to be near booze at all times. [And] I just had to stop everything. I took some time off work. I took some time to just not go to my trigger spots, which unfortunately were the bars where all my friends were at, where they were playing. So, I really had to get comfortable not drinking. I remember the first few weeks of being sober and how scared I was. And how I had no idea how to do life. I had no idea how to press the reset button.” — Jeff

“It just keeps getting better. Because I can be present in myself. I’ve learned to trust. It’s like, ‘you can’t be a great guitar player unless you play that guitar.’ ‘You can’t be in a band unless you wear this kind of jacket.’ ‘You can’t be in a band unless you do this kind of drug.’ That’s all just bullshit, man. Bullshit. It’s all about getting out of the way and letting it come through and trusting yourself.” — Marc

“I think as I’ve healed more, that was when the painting blossomed. It started to come out. Art is one of the few things I really feel confident about. I’m a grassroots person, though. I’m not necessarily up in the front. I’m more in the streets with the people around me. I think that’s where we need to do it. With each other, one on one.” — Brandon

What do you wish greater Akron knew about recovery?

“I think addiction and recovery should be talked about more. Like, listen, goddammit, we do recover, and we live goddamn good lives. It just needs to be talked about. People die from cancer. People die from diabetes. Why do we stigmatize addiction so much? How am I going to know about all the good out here if we’re too stigmatized to get help?” — Chrissy S.

“It’s never too late to recover. I want them to know that in my program there are the 12 promises of recovery, and that those promises really do come true. People can be so isolated in it. There’s still a great deal of shame in addiction, and help is really available. What can keep you in chains is your shame. There really is a freedom from this bondage that you think you can never get out of. Reach out. Don’t live a life that’s not the life that you wish it were. You can live a life that’s happy and free.” —Mary O.

Kristin Dowling.

“Recovery is so multifaceted. There’s so much that goes into it. A lot of the times people look at addiction as just drugs, but there’s a huge component of mental health. It’s also about trauma, about our perceptions, about who we are as a person and how we grow. I think sometimes people talk about addictions like, ‘oh, just put down the drugs,’ but it’s a huge healing process because drugs are the solution for something we aren’t able to handle alone.” — Kristin

“Probably a lot more people need recovery than they think they do. And even people who aren’t problem drinkers. I realized that a lot of the things they were talking about in my 12 step program applied to anybody. We drunks say we were very fortunate to be drunks so we got connected to this program. I think more people need to practice these principles.” — Sarah

“You don’t have to go to the bar to have friends. You don’t have to be wasted to be liked. I wish I knew that when I was like 20.” — Jeff

“People think it’s a choice, which is as ridiculous as saying it’s your choice to be gay or straight. And I want to shake people and say, ‘Dude. It can happen to, like… your mom.’ And yes, pharmaceutical companies have a great hand in that. But it just happens and it happens because we don’t talk to each other. We are living in a world where everybody just shows surface. Nobody actually shares. Nobody wants to take the time. I think people have very little understanding that addiction is not a choice. It’s not something you want. And it’s definitely not something you can just wash away from your life. I think we have a long way to go with how we view addicts. And we should figure it out quick, because people are dying left and right. Figure it out quick, and figure out how to give a shit about each other.” — Jen

What do you wish the artist community knew about recovery?

“You don’t sign up for this shit, man. I didn’t sign up to be an alcoholic and an addict. There wasn’t any book that I said, ‘yeah, you know what? That sounds like a freaking great plan. Let’s do that. Let’s screw up our life. Let’s not be able to play. Let’s miss a gig. Let’s do all this shit. Let’s disappoint our family and friends and our band members. Let’s do that. Let’s sign up for that shit. It doesn’t work that way. Addiction is a slow descent into hell. And you don’t sign up for it.” — Marc

“In recovery there’s a ton of artists. I work in IBH and we’ve really tried to implement art and creative writing. And those people amaze me. [They create] beautiful pieces of artwork. And they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I haven’t drawn in 10 years.’ It’s so beautiful. It’s so amazing… Addiction for me was my inability to cope with life. If I had those coping skills and I had those tools and I had those supports, maybe instead of using poor coping skills like drugs and self-harm, I could have been more likely to reach out and get help. If those programs were available. If mental health wasn’t stigmatized.” — Kristin

“You don’t have to be drunk or high in order to be creative. That was one of the big things I thought, and boy, that wasn’t true.” — Sarah

Brandon McCutcheon.

“That there’s a great unity to it. I wish the world could have some of the unity that I feel when I’m in recovery circles with people… I think it’s so much about just believing. Believing in yourself and believing that what you share is a part of you. And in recovery, too, believing that you can change no matter what you’re struggling with in life.” — Brandon

“Love the people, not the behaviors. Especially a lot of hard drug users who are trying to sober up, there’s a lot of turmoil in that head. There’s a lot of emotions going on. It’s a very confusing time.” — Greg

“If I would’ve known years ago how much better my life would be, I probably would have gotten sober sooner. No matter what, active addiction will always come first. It’s very haunting, very controlling. You’re not going to be to your best potential if you don’t get help. I’ve always felt this way. You’ll flourish. You’ll grow. This is my experience in recovery. I water you. You water me. And we grow together. There’s hope, man.” — Chrissy S.

What resources helped you that can help others?

“As cheesy as it is, the Rock and Recovery channel on 91.3. I know it’s silly but I think it’s awesome. I think it’s totally awesome and they’re hitting a group of people that are sitting home alone at night that would normally be drinking.” — Jen

Tune Into Rock and Recovery at www.rockandrecovery.com.

“Calling Akron Intergroup to get to a meeting. They are there 24 hours a day.” — Mary O.

Reach the Akron Area Intergroup Council of Alcoholics Anonymous at www.akronaa.org or (330) 253-8181.

“Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream. It changed the way I thought about addiction and recovery.” — Marc

“The biggest one was the Three Principles. It’s getting down to the fundamental building blocks of human psychology. It skips all the B.S. and goes right to the core cause. It doesn’t look at symptoms. It doesn’t matter what the addiction is. The cause is always the same. And it’s caused by the feeling we don’t like to have, so we do something to cover it up.” — Greg

“Glenbeigh Hospital has saved my life. I wouldn’t be where I’m at musically if not for them. Treatment centers, AA, other women have saved my life.” — Chrissy S.

“I’m definitely not a Christian, but there is an amazing church in Akron and they are who saved me. They really helped me. It’s called Community of Christ on Grant Street. They’re a recovery church. So everybody in there is recovering from something. Not necessarily drugs or alcohol, but something.” — Jen

Learn more about the congregation at www.communityofchristchurch.com.

Other resources the artists mentioned included:

Founder’s Day, which commemorates the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron, is June 7-9. Full details online at www.foundersday.org.

Founder’s Day Weekend 80-Minute Electric Bike Tours with Electric Pete’s E-Bikes are open to the public. Call Electric Pete’s at (330) 204-5227 for pricing and reservations.

Amber Cullen is the Lead Facilitator of VIBE Collective, a network of Northeast Ohio artists at the intersection of art, culture, and education, who seek to create spaces for community transformation and healing.

Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s Senior Reporter. Reach her at noor@thedevilstrip.com.