Artist’s Corner – John Lavitt
April 10, 2018
The Artist’s Corner is a new weekly feature of the Addiction/Recovery eBulletin. We send our participants forty questions and ask them to choose twenty they would like to answer. It includes a short profile and a link to their website. We hope you enjoy it.
Growing up in New York City as a stutterer, John Lavitt embraced writing as a way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John Lavitt’s published work includes several articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. As a journalist, he has worked as the Treatment Professional News Editor and an Investigative Journalist for The Fix where he has written over 550 articles about the latest issues in the world of addiction and recovery. John has two book deals with Hazelden Publishing, and the first book, Without Shame: The Addict’s Mom And Her Family, is due to be published on Mother’s Day 2019.
Q. If you are in recovery, what was your DOC and when did you discontinue its use?
A. My drugs of choice were a combination of smoking heroin and smoking cocaine. The first call in the morning was to the heroin dealer and the last call at night was to the cocaine dealer. I stopped using heroin and cocaine in 2004. My sobriety date is February 9, 2008. After my first three years, while I was working in a treatment center, I relapsed on alcohol and marijuana in Las Vegas because, as we all know, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Not quite. I continued to occasionally drink or smoke pot off and on for the next year until experiencing a psychic change and embracing the program again. By working a 12-Step program, I found a methodology of living that works for me and had worked for countless others.
Q. Do you believe artists are made or born?
A. I believe it is a combination of both. Some people are born with a specific talent that comes from God, their genetic pool, or whatever else you wish to call it. However, having talent does not make them an artist. In the vast majority of cases, such talent needs to be honed and refined through hard work. Artists are made through persistence, dedication, and a motivation that transcends casual failure. I love the metaphor provided by baseball: The best hitter of all time had a batting average of just over .400, which means he failed every six out of ten times. In other words, failure is a part of the game. Through determined efforts plus a willingness to innovate and work consistently, artists are made.
Q. What is your preferred form of artistic expression?
A. I am a writer, but my preferred form of artistic expression within the context of my writing is poetry. Although I artistically express myself in my journalistic writing and now in my book writing, it is not the same as my poetry. With the poems, there is something magical as the first line falls from the sky and the rest of the words flow forth like a sudden burst of magic. At the same time, poetry is more about rewriting. Do you have the ability and internal discipline to return to that magical state later in the day or the week or the month or even years later to hone and refine?
Q. Which film have you watched the most?
A. That’s a hard question to answer because I have over a dozen films that I’ve seen ten or more times. I think I will pick one of the more obscure ones. I love Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits because of how it combines that Monty Python-humor with time travel. A visionary film with so many small gems that are easily missed, it also tells such a beautiful story of a boy growing up. I wanted to be that boy when I was twelve or thirteen. Finally, it’s hard to tell what is real and what is imaginary in the story line. How much of the film is dreamt and how much actually happened and did that distinction even matter in the end? What ultimately matters is imagination and how such adventures are revealed.
Q. Do you prefer living by the ocean, lake, river, mountaintop, or penthouse?
A. I must admit that the link to the penthouses that Leonard sent took my breath away. I could imagine being happy in those luxurious abodes with such startling views of the world’s greatest cities. At the same time, I lived in 1989-90 and 1997-98 for six month stretches on the Greek island of Patmos. Thus, I have a special affinity for the ocean. Those were the most inspiring times of my life. I loved living on a small island, particularly during the off-season when the tourists vanished, and I was drawn to becoming part of an expatriate community.
Q. How do you measure success?
A. If I measure it externally, I am in trouble because I am falling into the trap of “Compare and Despair.” Misery is measuring success against other people’s yardsticks. On my wrist, I wear a rubber band with a quotation from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.” I measure success internally. Am I showing up and doing my meaningful work and being the person that I was put here on this earth to do and to be?
Q. Who was your biggest influence throughout your life?
A. The biggest influence throughout my life has been my mentor Robert Lax, who I met on the Greek island of Patmos in the summer of 1987. Backpacking through Greece after reading Nikos Kazantzakis to find my Zorba instinct of Eros unleashed, I ended up going to an island of refuge and revelation instead. In legend, Patmos is the island where Orestes found refuge from the Furies after avenging his father’s death by killing his mother. In history, Patmos is the island where the apostle John had his revelation that became the Book of Revelation in the Christian bible. A well-known American poet known for being close friends with Thomas Merton, Robert was my mentor and a loving friend until his death in 2000. I miss him every day. He believed in me, despite my addictive struggles, and he never lost faith in my ability to find my path. I hope somehow he knows my gratitude.
Q. If you were giving a dinner party for your 3 favorite authors, living or dead, who would they be? (You can choose 4 if you think one might be too drunk or stoned to attend.)
A. I am taking for granted that a communication device would allow us to connect and transcend language barriers. If this were possible, the four authors would include Leo Tolstoy, Albert Camus, Jesus of Nazareth, and Franz Kafka. I think Kafka might be too shy to participate. If it were not true, the four authors would include Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, Cormac McCarthy, and John Berryman. I think Berryman might get too drunk to participate, given his alcoholic nature.
Q. What is your favorite: TV/cable/digital series?
A. That’s a tough one to answer because there are and have been so many great shows. I’ll focus on shows still on the air. Right now, I am waiting with bated breath for the final season of Game of Thrones. I also love Ozark, Peaky Blinders, Black Mirror, Narcos, and Fargo. As you can see, drug dramas and dystopian musings tend to be my favorite forms of entertainment.
Q. What is your favorite: Museum?
A. Growing up, I lived six blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. I loved that museum as a teenager. As a senior at Dalton, after I got accepted early admission to Brown, I would call myself in sick, smoke pot in Central Park, then go to the museum and write poetry about the paintings all day long. It was pretty awful poetry, but the romantic inclination behind such a desire cannot be denied.
Q. What is your favorite: Broadway musical/play?
A. Angels in America by Tony Kushner opened my eyes when I was a young man. It was a profound theatrical experience because it mixed fantasy and history, political and social commentary with such a graceful balance of humor and insight. At the same time, when I was eleven years old in 1977, my parents got my friend and I front row center tickets to see Frank Langella as Dracula on Broadway. When he rose out of the coffin in the fog a few feet from our seats, it was so exciting as a kid; thrilling beyond words.
Q. What is your favorite: Psychology or school of thought as related to psychology?
A. In my recovery, Jungian typology has been incredibly useful as a tool for learning how to go against the grain of my disease of perception. It allows you to understand the mechanics of taking contrary action. One of my favorite looks at psychology is Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession. This vastly underrated, almost forgotten book grew out of a New Yorker article. It provides such insight into transference and counter-transference. My wife is in private practice as a Marriage and Family Therapist, and I have a lot of empathy for her navigation of this on a daily basis in her work.
Q. What is your favorite: City?
A. I love Paris. I lived there for close to two months at the end of 1997 to the beginning of 1998. A French film director gave me his extra apartment on the outskirts of the 8th arrondissement. It was during a huge national strike, so there was no public transportation for weeks. As a result, I walked Paris, day in and night out. It’s a transportive city to walk like Walter Benjamin’s flaneur, engaging the history of each corner. I also was lucky enough to give a poetry reading at Shakespeare and Company, the oldest English-language bookstore in the city.
Q. Have you ever been arrested, and if so, what for?
A. I have been arrested, but not for a very long time. When I was eighteen years old and a senior in high school, I was busted outside of Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park for smoking pot. Caught in an NYPD sting operation, I was given a ticket that my parents never found out about until now. Sorry, Mom and Dad! It was dismissed in court because the arresting officer never showed up. But I was quaking in my pants, both at the time and during that long day in court in downtown New York.
Q. What is your favorite album of all time?
The album that affected me the most as a kid was Pink Floyd: The Wall. It sparked my teenage rebellion and became tied up in an unfair way to the artists connected with my descent into drug abuse. It was unfair because I feel like the band’s accomplishment was partially hijacked by my addictive tendencies. My best friend and I would hunt down revivals of the incredible Alan Parker film that brings the album to life. We saw that movie on every drug we could find, including mescaline, pot, and opium, which we called ‘soapy opie’ because it tasted like soap when you smoked it. Although I listen to a lot more Tom Waits and Nick Cage, plus a seemingly endless array of cover songs today, I still have a splash of Floyd in my playlists from all their great albums — “Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?”
Q. Who is your favorite novelist?
A. I still have a soft spot for J. D. Salinger, although I know he does not truly compare to the best of Tolstoy, Dickens, or even Hemingway and Twain. I see his indulgences so much clearer today than I did when I was young like the egotism of the spirituality and the almost childish anger towards authority figures. At Brown, my senior thesis was about the Glass family, his ultimate creation. It was called — Smelling the High Heaven of Ego: The Interplay Between Alienation and Faith in Salinger’s Glass Stories. I tried to explain how Salinger used Eastern mysticism to reveal and condemn the consumer exploitation of 20th-century post-industrial capitalism. I was quite the entitled radical back in those days.
Q. What books are you reading now?
A. Manuscript Found in Accra by Paulo Coelho, Chasing the Scream: The First And Last Days Of The War On Drugs by Johann Hari, and the view from the cheap seats by Neil Gaiman. Also, Emma In The Night by my good friend Wendy Walker, and Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari for the third time, both in book form and on tape.
Q. Do you think addiction is an illness, a disease, a choice, or a wicked twist of fate?
A. Addiction is a disease with environmental factors. Some people are more genetically prone to addiction and definitely to alcoholism. More so than addiction, alcoholism so obviously runs in certain family lines. It’s like having cancer in the family line: You are more prone to developing the disease so you need to take certain precautions. There is no addiction or alcoholism, however, in my family tree. Rather, my addiction was a situational coping mechanism I adopted to deal with childhood trauma. For a long time, the drugs worked and allowed me to navigate the pain. Until they didn’t. Considering how bad it became, I am so grateful to walk the path of recovery today, and this gratitude is the very heart of my spirituality.
Q. What’s the greatest risk you’ve ever taken?
A. I continued to believe in myself as a writer and a poet even when other people had seemed to have given up hope. I never lost the faith, and the result has been an incredible career with my first two books coming out in 2019.
Q. What is the proudest moment in your life?
A. Getting married to my wife on September 26, 2015. She is the love of my life, and I felt so much happiness at that moment as my friends and family came together to support us. I knew then and without question that the 9th Step promises had come true in my life. Hard work combined with the loving grace of my Higher Power has opened wonderful doors.