September 23, 2009
Industry Pros Point Way to Post-Addiction Creativity
Some recovering addicts call it their “moment of clarity.” Others call it their “bottom.”
For Leonard Buschel, it happened on a chilly summer evening in 1994 on his way to visit friends in Big Sur. He and his fiancée had just split up, and his nerves were frayed by alcohol, Ecstasy and painkillers. From a roadside pay phone off Route 1, he called his brother in New York, distraught.
“He said, ‘What is it this time?’” Buschel recalled recently. “I said, ‘I can’t stop shaking.’”
Buschel, then 44, called the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage and told them he needed help. When they offered to book him for a 28-day stay, he started to cry. “My life, as I knew it, was ending,” he said.
Fast-forward to last fall, when the former publisher-turned-substance abuse counselor decided to dedicate his hard-won sobriety to helping other writers recover from their addictions. Buschel founded Writers in Treatment (WIT), a nonprofit that connects writers who have drug, alcohol or process addictions (eating disorders, gambling and sex addictions) with rehabilitation programs that help them battle what modern psychology largely considers a disease.
For Buschel, the mission is personal. Call it his redemption — or, as Yom Kippur approaches, his teshuvah.
“There are so many writers who are suffering, who don’t know there’s a way out,” said Buschel, now 58. “I want to be able to give them that kind of help.”
As part of that goal, WIT on Oct. 13 is calling attention to the issue of addiction in the creative industries with a panel discussion on recovery and creativity. The Skirball Cultural Center event, called “Chasing the Muse ... when you’re stone-cold sober,” will feature actress and singer/songwriter Katey Sagal (“Sons of Anarchy,” “Married ...With Children,” “Futurama”), screenwriter and producer Kurt Sutter (“Sons of Anarchy,” “The Shield”) and independent filmmaker Tim Disney (“American Violet”). Co-sponsored by the Minnesota-based Hazelden rehabilitation center, the panel will be moderated by author and former broadcast journalist William Cope Moyers, son of veteran journalist Bill Moyers and Hazelden’s vice president of community relations. Cope Moyers in 2006 penned the memoir “Broken” (Viking), an account of how cocaine wrecked his career and family, and his efforts to transcend addiction.
Being a writer with a drug or alcohol problem is especially risky compared with many other professions, said Buschel, who for years published health and nutrition books and wrote on the side. Writers work in relative isolation, and the solitary nature of the job allows addictions to develop unnoticed by co-workers or peers.
“A musician, for example, has to appear on stage, where people will notice if you’re drunk or high,” he said. “With writers, it’s not a collaborative type of work. You can file from bed, or you can file from the bar — no one sees it. And in the meantime, you’re getting deeper and deeper into your addiction.”
WIT caters to writers of all stripes — from novelists and screenwriters to journalists — as long as they make at least a quarter of their income from writing. The organization places clients in residential or outpatient treatment programs according to their needs, regardless of health insurance. For those without insurance, WIT offers no-interest loans to help cover the cost of care. These loans are given directly to the treatment facility, to be repaid by the writer when he or she finishes the program and can return to work. On top of that, WIT maintains partnerships with top-tier rehabilitation facilities, including Betty Ford, that give referred writers discount rates.
Psychologists and certified counselors on WIT’s advisory board also supplement treatment programs by offering free therapy sessions to recovering writers.
But seeking help is not easy for some. Many writers choose not to treat their dependencies because they believe drugs and alcohol stoke their creativity, Buschel said. With images of alcoholic writers like Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski romanticized in literature and on screen, the lifestyle still holds a lurid allure.
Once addiction sets in, said Howard Gluss, a clinical psychologist and member of WIT’s advisory board, the line becomes blurry between natural talent and the bottle or joint.
“There’s a fear that if [writers] heal their addiction, they’ll lose their creativity,” said Gluss, a radio show host, author and film consultant. “They think, ‘If I lose that angst, I won’t be who I am anymore.’”
But after detox, most find that their chemical dependencies actually stunted their abilities. In recovery, Gluss said, “they start creating from a place that’s much more powerful, a more positive place that offers them many more creative options.”
Rediscovering the “muse,” however, can be a long and tortuous process. WIT recognizes that, and keeps clients in the loop with relapse-prevention seminars and referrals to post-treatment programs that bolster their sobriety and provide support.
It’s the kind of non-judgmental aid that could have helped Buschel during his 26 years of addiction and saved him from an episode that nearly cost him his life.
It was around 6 a.m. and Buschel, then 37, had been up all night drinking and doing cocaine. He suffered a massive asthma attack brought on by dehydration and slumped against his roommate’s door, unable to breathe. When he woke up in the hospital, he learned he’d been unconscious for two days. The doctor had told his mother that she might have to fly him home in a body bag.
But even this wasn’t enough to make him realize he needed to quit — it would be another seven years before his “moment of clarity” struck.
“Unfortunately, addiction is a disease that people like having for a while,” Buschel said. “People can have catastrophic events happen, but the idea of quitting does not occur to them. My story is unique, and yet there are thousands of people living through the same thing.”
Buschel has come a long way since then. As a teenager in Philadelphia, he would hide bags of marijuana in his tallit case so family friends in his Jewish neighborhood wouldn’t know what he’d been up to. Now, that’s where he keeps his literature from the Betty Ford Center, a reminder of the faith it took to turn his life around.
Five years ago, Buschel got his certification as a substance abuse counselor. He has worked at Beit T’Shuvah, a residential treatment center and Jewish congregation in West Los Angeles; The Canyon in Malibu; and Cri-Help in North Hollywood, helping others whose shoes he’d been in.
Through WIT, he wants other writers to experience the liberation he felt getting sober — a feeling he describes as “waking up from a horrible nightmare, and the birds are singing.”
“Chasing the Muse” will take place Oct. 13, 7:30 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. The program will be followed by a dessert reception. Tickets are $25. To register, call (888) 257-7800, ext. 4204, or visit hazelden.org/creativity. To learn more about Writers in Treatment, visit www.writersintreatment.org.