How to Write About Your Dark Times Without Driving People Away

Three times in my life, I’ve hung clothes on a line to dry under the Texas sun.

First, standing next to my grandmother, my small hands turned backward on my hips in a mirror of her own.

Next, in a little house I rented where the dryer put rust stains on anything it heated.

And finally, in a small duplex where I lived so poor and distraught and sick that I nearly died.

We’re supposed to look back at our lives and see how far we’ve come and feel a sense of accomplishment and gratitude. That’s what our ancestors would want for us, right? That’s the expectation we all have.

There was a time in my life when I looked back and wished above all else that I could just rewind.

Because what I saw wasn’t a triumphant climb or even a steady progression, but a steep, heart-breaking decline.

It was winter of 2000, and I lived in a place with no phone, no heat, and no running water. If I hung clothes out to dry in the winter chill it was because I’d scrubbed them in a sink full of the neighbor’s hose water.

Now, let me pause here and tell you that, yes, there is a part of me that cringes when I think of someone reading this story. Just now, I had the thought: Am I sure I want to write this?

If you’re considering sharing personal stories—the ones that take the lid off the rough patches in your life—let me tell you, it’s no picnic. It feels gut-wrenching at worst and wobbly at best. 

I’ve shared quite a bit of my deep, dark stuff before, and I have some practice. So right now, as I write this for you, I feel a bit wobbly but I’m gonna keep going. You with me? 

That winter of 2000, I was a full-on, hard-core alcoholic and drug addict.

Let’s set aside the argument of whether or not that reality was my choice or not, and just say that if I had possessed the psychological fortitude or sanity to help myself out of that situation, I would have. Anyone in their right mind would have.

But that’s the thing: I wasn’t in my right mind. I was subjugated to substances.

They ruled my existence.

To keep the substances coming, I gave up just about everything else.

I slept in three layers of clothes, my coat, hat, gloves, two pairs of socks, and boots.

I used the restroom outside in below-freezing midnight moments, so no one would look out their window and see me.

I ate slices of bread and butter, packages of mini-donuts, and a lot of peanut butter on saltine crackers. When I ate.

Most days, I didn’t.

I didn’t bathe or wash my hair. I didn’t brush my teeth. And I didn’t have a job.

Any money I was given, I spent on drugs. Any kindness I was shown, I absorbed like a sponge and kept locked away in my heart to prove to myself in my lowest moments that I was loved.

I had no friends—sane ones anyway. I had driven them away with the lying that cloaks addiction and the shame of every addict.

So on days when I actually had washed a few items of clothing—days when I was feeling functional and worthy of clean clothes—I hung them on the clothesline that stretched between two trees just steps out my back door.

I positioned the old-fashioned wooden clothes pins just so, having learned from earlier and happier days that if you put them too far down on a t-shirt or a pair of pants, you’d end up with crooked indentions that screamed, “Too poor for the laundromat!”

And I sang while I did it.

I mean, I belted out songs at the top of my lungs. Not good singing, but loud, all-in singing.

My favorites were anything from Patsy Cline or The Sound of Music.

Can you imagine? A drug-addled 20-something who weighed 78 pounds and had the greasiest hair since the Fonz, singing “Walkin’ After Midnight” while hanging stained t-shirts on a clothesline.

These are some of my only happy memories of that time in my life. These times probably lasted about five or ten minutes each. And there couldn’t have been more than a few. But they’ve stretched out like a cat after a satisfying nap in my memory so that they take up more space.

All that winter and into the next spring, I suffered in a way that most people in their 20s—and some in their 80s—can’t even conceive. The physical, mental, and emotional anguish were nearly constant. I used and drank for three days, passed out, crawled out of bed, and met seizures, tremors, and imaginary voices calling my name until I could get drunk and high and do it all over again.

Yet, I sang while hanging clothes on the line.

What was your clothesline moment?

Have you stood at a time in your life and looked back longingly because you felt like everything had gone downhill? But even in the darkest days, was there one thing or one person who was a moment of respite?

I got sober in the summer of 2001, and I haven’t had to use or drink since. I experienced divine intervention, without question, but its stamina is aided by a lot of hard work, internal change, and external habits that have helped me rise.

Now, when I look back, I can see the uphill climb. I can see how far I’ve come—not just in my bank account or my doctor’s chart or in the wedding band on my hand. But in my soul. 

I can look at myself in the mirror without hating what looks back at me. I can love others without leaving scars. I can face the abuse and trauma that pushed me off the edge in the first place and not carry shame that belongs to another. I’ve handed it back, so my arms are free to create, hug, and wave at strangers.

As you put together the stories that you’ll tell to your people, remember that we’ve all had moments of darkness. Some dimmer than others, sure, but all just as memorable and soul-changing.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when they start writing about their dark times is miring their story in a total lack of light. But that’s not the reality.

Even in our lowest, darkest moments, we see a light of some kind.

I wanted to die every single day during that winter of 2000, and I nearly did more than once. But I also sang.

I may never use another clothesline—I love having a working dryer (and a toilet!)—but I still sing loudly and place my hands backward on my hips like my grandmother did.

That’s the beauty of the light we see in the darkness – it remains, long after the darkness has passed.

The good stuff that lingers after the bad stuff has steamed off under the Texas sun is worth the work.

When you write about the darkness, help your people see the light that was there all along.

Here’s to the light you bring to the world.

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