The Making of Recovery Songs
by Ralph Dartford
‘Hello. My name’s Ralph and I’m a thieving, lying, betraying, conniving, filthy little drug addict’.
The above is the first line from the show that I have written and now perform. The show is called,‘Recovery Songs’. I present it at theatres, arts centres, festivals, and most thrillingly of all, at rehabs. This opening salvo of a confession tends to put the audience on the back foot, makes them a little bit uneasy.
That’s the point of course, because there’s nothing easy about addiction. There’s nothing easy about recovery, either.
A bit about me. My name is indeed Ralph and I am a drug addict. At the time of writing this I am forty-eight hours away from being one year clean from the devastation of using crack and cocaine for over two decades. I hope I get to the significant anniversary, one day at a time and all that. I’m also a writer and a poet. I make a meagre living from it, teaching and performing. I’ve even been published a few times. Writing is the only job that I’ve ever been any good at and despite growing up with severe dyslexia, I learned how to love it, just enough. I’ve tried other ways of living also and they have caused all sorts of chaos and unhappiness to the people who were around me at the time and of course myself. I thought that I loved those destructive things. I didn’t of course. They were obsessive symptoms of something else, something deadly that was beginning to overwhelmingly manifest and infect me. Loneliness and restlessness.
As I deepened my journey into recovery and got some time away from the madness of taking drugs (almost a year, always almost a year), I began looking at the things that led me into addiction in the first place. I started writing about my experiences with the idea of performing the poems and stories to others. It seemed the best thing to do, to confess to people what had happened to me, to make everything that was contained within the words that I had authored completely about me and no one else,
“Hey! Look at my victimhood, it’s so much better than yours”.
In my still diseased head, this all sounded like an excellent and brilliant thing. It would get me the attention that I craved, it would make me loved. How arrogant I was to think like this, how cocky I was to even attempt something that I was clearly a novice at. I marched around telling all and sundry what I was going to do, this was going to be great. I even got some funding from the Arts Council to take the show on tour (What show? None of it was written, only scraps of ideas).
I wasn’t ready to do any of this of course if the truth were told. I knew hardly anything about recovery. I was holding on to clean time by my knuckles and I wasn’t very well at all. My drug addiction was only sleeping, doing press ups in the corner of the room and waiting for me to pick a fight with him and in the time-honoured tick tock clock of addiction, I relapsed terribly. I wept uncontrollably throughout that experience. I’d fallen through the trapdoor and hit yet another rock bottom. Something happened this time though, I knew in the deepest regions of my heart that I did not have the strength to survive and one more use of drugs would kill me. I was done and dusted with it all and I would go to any lengths to stay clean and for this difference to anything that I had known before to continue. It was game over.
I leapt right back into recovery, paid more attention to the folk who were more experienced than me in getting well. I read voraciously about addiction and recovery, prayed for help to relieve me of my obsessions and to have a new outlook on my life. This time, things got better quickly. I was doing the thing that had I self-willed myself not to do since I had learned to breathe, recover.
There was one thing that was gnawing at me though. What was I going to do regarding the show about recovery?
I knew that I had more to say about it than before. The new landscape that I was living in had changed the truth of myself and my motivations. I was not about to stop writing and performing, because that made me happy, gave me a creative purpose and helped me. I could change how I approached the subject matter though, but I needed some help to realise the new vision I had of what ‘Recovery Songs’ could be.
That help came in the shape of a friend called Samuel James Humphrey. Samuel is a theatre director and artist in his own right, he also knows about recovery. I nervously asked him if he would be interested in working with me. We went into the rehearsal studio and we have been inseparable ever since.
We wanted to make a show that was honest, unsympathetic, sad, funny and redemptive. One thing that we definitely did not want to do was to ask for sympathy from the audience or for me to play the victim. It had to be noted that I made the choice to take drugs in the first place and every subsequent time after that until I could simply not stop. We wanted to examine where addiction came from, was it nature or nurture? We also wanted to talk about the consequences of addiction, the crimes that are committed and the politics.
Samuel has managed to transform the material into a physical, breathing piece of theatre. It’s been so exciting to have the opportunity to create and collaborate.
The resulting show has been well received with good reviews. Audiences are moved and want to talk about the subject matter in the foyers and café’s afterwards. People who are in recovery understand the stories I tell. Those who are not, might look at addiction in a different way that is helpful, by not stigmatising people who are going through the most heart breaking and damaging of times.
None of us who fall into addiction ever do so willingly. We are taken because eventually addiction controls us and does not let go.
For me personally. I’m proud to have written it and to perform the show. I hope it helps others as it does myself. I’ll be doing for years. It’s my Recovery Song.
The next performance of Recovery Songs is at the Bradford Literature Festival on July the 8th. Tickets can be booked here:
Video clips from the show Recovery Songs:
Ralph’s work has appeared in the Guardian, Pulp Faction, Stirring (US), WordLife and London Territories amongst many other publications. His first volume of poetry, Cigarettes, Beer and Love received wide acclaim, and his second, Dirty Needle Rain will see the light of day in 2019.
You can follow Ralph on Twitter.