Writing your way clean

Jamie Brickhouse, Tracey Helton Mitchell and Kevin Sessums  on the recovery panel at the Woodstock Writers Festival. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Jamie Brickhouse, Tracey Helton Mitchell and Kevin Sessums
on the recovery panel at the Woodstock Writers Festival. (photo by Dion Ogust)

With a heroin epidemic increasingly devouring the young, Woodstock Writers Festival director Martha Frankel looked for help in a Recovery Panel during this year’s 7th annual gathering.

Frankel, herself, opened up the April 8 evening with a few words about addiction and hope.

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“Years ago I read Richard Price’s Clockers. He was talking about what happened in Weehawken, New Jersey when crack and cocaine came in and sort of decimated the neighborhood. One cop looked at another and he said, ‘Yeah, addiction, it’s a self-cleaning oven,’ and my heart broke because I knew what side of that equation I stood on and I stood there for a long time. And then one day I fell into the other side.”

But Frankel, a recovered addict herself, offered another side. “I think there is so much hope in our community and we don’t hear it,” she said. “All we hear about is overdoses and addiction and death and I want to say that for me there is so much hope and I want to share it.”

Frankel introduced the three panelists.

Kevin Sessums, crowned the Celebrity Journalist, always looked at life as a narrative. Kevin wrote for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and eventually ended up working for Vanity Fair where he interviewed Madonna, Hugh Jackman, Jessica Lange, Courtney Love, John Travolta and Sharon Stone. “I Left It On the Mountain: A Memoir” (St. Martin’s Press), is the story of Sessums’ descent into crystal meth addiction and wild careless sex. Growing up in Forest, Mississippi, a little town of about 3,000 people. “I was born a writer,” he wrote. “I don’t know if you are born a writer as you’re born gay or writing was something I honed early in life to survive.”

Driving a Ryder Truck at the same time he was going to Julliard, Sessums confesses, “I was both Ellie May and Jethro all rolled into one.” With Sessums’ sense of humor and charming personality, his celebrity interviews developed into friendships.

Walking the Camino De Santiago (the Way of St. James), a 500 mile walk that mirrors one of the great Christian pilgrimages through Spain, was the first step Sessums took to save his life. In “I Left It On the Mountain” he talks about the journey in Spain. “…the walk was proving to myself that I could function without drugs for a month.” But even after completing the 500 hundred mile walk Sessums used meth again the week he returned to the states. “The walk wasn’t about getting sober in the moment of the walk…as I look at the narrative arc of my life, it was the beginning of my sobriety…When you walk the Camino, you think okay, I’m going to walk over 500 miles, I’m going to do this in a month, I’m going to get to the end, I have accomplished something, and what you don’t realize, and no one tells you, is when you get to the end you realize you’ve just started the Camino.”

Sessums knew he was hitting the wall when he started injecting crystal meth and going on several binges a month lasting three or four days each. “Part of my addiction was being addicted to the redemption of being good to yourself, eating well and building yourself back up, so then you could kick the stool out from under yourself. You are not only addicted to the use of drugs, you also become addicted to the redemption of yourself. It’s a way of life.”

At one time Sessums’ friends and family were planning an intervention. “When you’re an addict it’s not about friends abandoning you it’s about you abandoning friends. It’s like you become shut off from everyone, you live in the darkness, you live the life of an addict. You don’t want to be around people.”

Sessums finally became sober four years ago in New York City and likes the long term sobriety of Alcoholics Anonymous. “I got sober in the rooms in New York City. There is a special sort of New Yorker who sits in those meetings and talks and I get a lot out of every meeting that I go to. I sit in those rooms and I say, these are my people.” The rooms saved me.” Kevin is currently working on a play based on his first book, Mississippi Sissy for the New York Theater Workshop.

Tracey Helton Mitchell’s addiction was to heroin. “I experimented with acid and smoking pot and stuff like that when I was a teenager but I didn’t get into harder drugs until I was 19 or 20.” On mainlining heroin for the first time — “I had shot pills a few times. Heroin was a little different than it is now because it was very hard to get so you had to drive to some urban center either New York, Philadelphia or Chicago to get it. My friends would drive to New York to get it so it was something that you couldn’t do very often. It was kind of like cheesecake, something that you can’t have all the time but it’s nice to have once in a while.” Helton Mitchell’s The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin (Seal Press), released last month is a poignant tale of surviving heroin addiction. “Like many Americans, my road to addiction started with a trip to a medical professional. At 17, I got my first taste of opioids after my wisdom teeth were extracted. I had a lot of friends whose parents had leftover drugs in the medicine cabinet. They would just grab them and the parents wouldn’t even notice they were gone. Then I went to heroin a year later. Those white pills, they seemed like magic. I remember all the troubles of the world slowly melting away into a pool of euphoria.”

That’s the way it always feels the first time. Addicts often chase that feeling of how it feels “the first time” for years, until death, jail or recovery. In Helton Mitchell’s case it would be eight years of hell chasing that initial feeling. “I saw some people that were loaded yesterday [in Woodstock]. I was kind of surprised down on the main drag.”

In 1999 Helton Mitchell was featured in the HBO Documentary Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street. The film depicted the lives of five young heroin addicts and how narcotics were destroying their lives. “I didn’t even realize that opioids were seriously addictive. The first time I went through withdrawal I had stayed up for four days and had a binge on morphine pills and all of a sudden I had the worst case of the flu that I ever had. I was all cramped up in the bed, sweaty, and then I had begged my friend to suffocate me and he said, ‘Bitch, you’re just kicking.’ What is kicking? I didn’t even know what it was,” she said. You’re going to be fine, her friend told her, just give it a couple more days…

Helton Mitchell quit cold turkey, a bunch of times “It just never lasted.” Helton Mitchell was always drawn back to that feeling of euphoria until she finally quit using dope in February of 1998 because of fear of dying. “Knowing that you are going to die alone in some hotel room…I had no idea at the time my parents would never know what happened to me. I would just be a Jane Doe with a toe tag or somebody would murder me.”

Getting arrested in 1998 was a blessing in disguise for Helton Mitchell. In violation of probation her plan was to ask the courts to put her into rehab instead of a prison. “The flip side of that is if there would have been treatment options available to me I would have taken them. A lot of people now get on Suboxone or residential treatment. At the time there was none of that. You either kicked at home or you went to a Methadone Clinic.”

She looks back. “Recovery is a lot of different things to a lot of different people.” She explains that you don’t necessarily get sober by what works for somebody else. “Find what works for you. Don’t necessarily do what we do. Your recovery has to be something that you take with you.”

Since her arrest Helton Mitchell has been clean for 18 years. She went from being a junkie who was “living in alleyways, eating out of dumpsters and shooting up in the soles of my feet, living like a feral animal,” to being a loving wife and mother of three children living happily in San Francisco. Helton Mitchell continues to travel and lecture about her recovery and keeps a recovery blog where she answers questions regularly. She also runs a Naloxone Program out of her house that has saved one 171 lives to date. She earned her Bachelors of Business Administration and Masters of Public Administration, by entering school through the ex-offender’s program. She is also a Certified Addiction Specialist and Supervisor as well as the Treasurer of her local PTA.

Dangerous When Wet: A Memoir of Booze, Sex and my Mother, (St. Martin’s Press), is Jamie Brickhouse’s chronicle on his recovery. “I didn’t write a self-help book; I wrote a self-hurt book that ends hopefully. I certainly knew that this was the kind of book that could help people but that is not why I wrote it,” Brickhouse confesses. “I have found that it is a hugely rewarding and gratifying experience when people have told me that it helped them.”

Brickhouse’s book focuses on his destructive relationship with his mother, “Mama Jean, a cross between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.” The relationship between Jamie and his mother is what propelled his journey. “Mama Jean, my mother, played a big role in my life and this is why the book is about the story about my alcoholism and my relationship with her which is an addictive relationship. They say that you can’t get sober for someone else, you have to do it for yourself ultimately and I believe that.”

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Mama Jean was responsible for Jamie’s sobriety as well as his reason for drinking. “My mother was always this huge force in my life, she was this over the top Texas woman with big hair, always camera ready, and she scared the shit out of me, but she loved me extraordinarily like a cashmere blanket in August.”

Brickhouse’s book opens with his attempting suicide, a distant cry for help. Learning that Mama Jean is on the way to visit him he panics. “If she didn’t know about it, I could have swept it under the rug and kept going, but I knew that if she knew about it I would have to face her and having to face her was facing me, and facing it.” Mama Jean wound up sending Brickhouse to rehab and paid for it as well. “I never told her that I relapsed after rehab” says Brickhouse. “It wouldn’t have mattered anyway since Mama Jean loses her mind,” as Brickhouse puts it, “with Lewy Body Dementia.” He talks about going down to visit his mother in Texas for the first time after his sobriety. “I was struggling. I had about seven months sober but I was having a hard time. I don’t think that she even knew me on that visit. At one point she looked at me and said, ‘Oh with your pretty red hair, you almost remind me of…and then she trailed off,” Brickhouse remembers. “Then as I was leaving she grabbed my arm and she started shaking her finger at me the way that she used to do when she was really angry ‘You’ve been drinking.’ Who would blame me for drinking now that my mother has lost her mind,” he rationalizes. Brickhouse though was determined to stay sober. “If you can’t stay sober for yourself, do it for her.” Brickhouse did in fact stay sober and “I ultimately did it for myself…That was the last big push that I needed to get me over the hump.”

Brickhouse, clean and sober travels around the country now lecturing and promoting his book.

Frankel’s stunning panel of three former addicts who got over “the hump’ and are all clean and sober today offered redemption stories. All with different addictions, alcohol, crystal meth and heroin, they all have in common one thing — they all proudly carry hope with them and lived to tell their tails.

There is one comment

  1. Bob Heuthe

    I think expression through any means (writing, painting, music, photography, sculpture, creating anything) is an integral process in recovery from addiction/emotional disorders. Through the creative process a sense of being is realized, opening a dialogue between self and others. I applaud all programs that encourage such, especially at grass roots local levels.

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