Drawing on wood or a sketchpad while listening to people’s stories during the 10 recovery meetings he attends a week is soothing and meditative for artist Zoo Cain of Westbrook – and it’s also contagious.
“Sometimes other people start doing it,” says Cain, who is well known in Greater Portland for his abstract, geometric “mixed-up media” art as well as his bright-colored psychedelic truck. “Now there are often six other people drawing in meetings. They’ve watched me and thought, ‘Oh, I remember how much fun that was! Maybe I’ll try my hand at it.’ Creating helps me stay sober. I’m using both sides of my brain, and it’s given me a lot of endorphins, and I can get a lot done.”
A variety of Maine artists say expressing themselves creatively not only aids in recovery, it also builds on itself, spurring them to be even more creative and happy.
Cain, 67, says his work is “way more expansive – a Grand Canyon experience rather than a dark alley!” and he’s far more prolific since getting free of drugs and alcohol more than two decades ago.
“My work has always been a celebration of life, but I had hundreds and hundreds of pieces that weren’t done,” says Cain, who displays his art in a variety of clinics and galleries. “Being sober, you actually finish things. You follow through and show up for your life.”
Theater Director Lindsey Higgins of South Portland, who runs the innovative 60 Grit Theatre Company in Portland, agrees that her productivity has soared since getting sober. She’s also found her creative voice and learned to be a team player – imperative to success in her business – via sobriety.
Higgins, 36, didn’t know what to expect when she walked into her first 12-step meeting while working in England in 2015: “I just knew I was anxious and unhappy and needed to do something. But I was greeted by people I could identify with, and I knew I was in the right place.”
Hearing other recovery stories was therapeutic in unexpected ways. Among those, it sparked her imagination. “Storytelling is helping me to find a new way of life. I sat in meetings for six months saying nothing, listening to story after story, and that’s at the heart of what I strive to create today.”
Higgins says her art has changed for the better during her recovery, largely because the focus for her aptly named theater is now sharp. Productions delve deeply and intensely into mental health and addiction topics.
“When I was not in recovery, there was a lot of ego in my creating of art. I found it difficult to work in a team, and I was combative with myself. It was always an internal struggle,” says Higgins. “I’ve learned to let a lot of that go. I learned the importance of humility. You can’t work in a team unless you’re humble. Theater is a collaborative endeavor, after all, and trying to be the main star of the show when I was the director just didn’t work. I’ve made better art because of learning these things.”
There’s also something beautifully inspiring about working creatively on a daily basis, she says.
“It’s just showing up for yourself every day and getting to know yourself better through creating. I didn’t always show up for myself before sobriety. I’ve found that doing even a small bit of art every day has made a difference. Small consistent work has led to big changes.”
Musician and artist Olive Twombly-Hussey, who has been sober since last fall, wholeheartedly agrees.
“My creative output has increased significantly in sobriety,” she says. “The first three months, I cried and played music and went to meetings. And I started practicing every day as a ritual, playing guitar and singing. It turns out that when you do it every day, you get really good at it! I’ve turned all the discomfort to something that’s beautiful and valuable.”
She and Higgins both say they wish everyone could find a creative outlet because having one is beneficial in such a multitude of ways. “Find what really lights your heart on fire, and do that!” Higgins says.
Music is definitely what lights that fire for Twombly-Hussey, 24, and she also does some painting. With a self-described “very loud grunge, post-punk style,” she sings in bands and solo about “the hard things in life that we don’t know how to deal with – from not knowing what’s wrong to losing your best friend.
“Art is really helpful for me,” she says. “Playing acoustic guitar is how I connected with people and pushed away the hopelessness” for years, as she struggled with drinking and lived a nomadic lifestyle. “Music was my way of persevering and having hope. It was always instrumental in me feeling connected, that I belong, that I wasn’t a freak. My dark, sad music allows me to express myself in a way that people are receptive to. It can be really powerful stuff.”
Twombly-Hussey enjoys harnessing that power in broader ways, too. Before moving to Brunswick this summer, she helped get a music venue up and running in Portland’s West End. Since April, she’s been organizing shows in a revamped garage at Dreamship Community – an “intentional, intergenerational, sober, safe” home “that supports people’s happiness and dreams” – and plans to do the same at The Basement in Brunswick, which also has a close-knit and supportive recovery community.”
She notes that being creative also can be a way to connect with your spirituality, which can be extremely important during recovery.
“I’ve always felt that music and art and creating art is a way for a higher power to communicate through us,” Twombly-Hussey contends. “I feel like my creative expression filters it through my reality, but it’s something so beautiful and moving and connecting, I couldn’t do it alone. It just feels bigger than me.
"Creativity allows us to be close to our authentic being and articulate what's inside us, and to lose yourself in something beautiful"
“Creativity gives me a purpose – music is something I can share with people. That I can have, and give away. It makes me feel connected and it now allows me to hold my own in the music community. And it’s a healthy way for me to process through whatever I’m going through – sing about it instead of drinking.”
Being creative during sobriety has benefits that can creep up on you in huge and delightful ways, and finding a purpose is one of those, agrees Higgins.
“In the last year, I’ve found peace of mind. I’ve found a way to clearly and confidently tell the stories I want to tell,” she says. “I’m finally confident that I know what I’m meant to be telling. And when you’re confident and build purpose, it starts to weave into other areas of your life. It fills my life in a way I haven’t experienced before. Being a woman with a purpose has made all the difference. Finding my voice has been really important.”
Next up, Higgins wants to try to involve the recovery community in her theater productions. “I’d love to share this understanding about the importance art can have in recovery – even if you’re only doing it for yourself.”
Willa Wirth, who owns a silver jewelry business and shop in Portland, couldn’t agree more about the value of creativity in making life better. She’s been in recovery since 2012.
“There’s a truth in putting your energy into something consistently. There’s a power in it,” says Wirth, who says she feels energized by producing her art and being in nature. She finds writing, photography and yoga to also be “massively powerful” in feeling good and maintaining sobriety.
“My creativity anchors my heart and soul in nature. Creativity allows us to be close to our authentic beings and articulate what’s inside us, and to lose yourself in something beautiful. When I’m doing my art, I am in love! I love silver, hammering things out, polishing it, soldering it. My spirit is captured, and my heart is full. I’m creating from my inspiration and my imagination. It’s 100 percent shelter from anything difficult or negative.”