Love’s tenacious hold through addiction’s ride
Words and images by Peter Bruun
The sentence in this drawing – an excerpt from a letter Toni Griswold wrote to her disease of addiction – perfectly describes the snare of substance use disorder; what feels good initially (even like a kind of love affair) turns toxic soon enough, with the substance one is in thrall of becoming as possessive as an abusive lover. I made three drawings to Toni’s letter, and in this second one from the series I am thinking of addiction as a multi-armed and multi-headed beast (the form in red), engulfing the figure in blue (symbolic of Toni) in its suffocating grasp. The third and final drawing in the series is entirely free of the red form, the blue open and free, symbolic of where Toni landed: embracing a sober journey as a committed member of Alcoholics Anonymous. (This is not the only example of my making a drawing to a “love letter” where it is a love gone wrong… I choose to do so for I do believe love is not all sugar and roses: love is complicated, ambiguous, and ambivalent.)
When my daughter Elisif died from an overdose in 2014, we received hundreds of messages of love and support from friends, family, and even strangers. Each one of these missives I think of as a kind of love letter. For this project, I have made a number of drawings from these letters. This one is based on an email from Sallah Jenkins (Mama Sallah), who has in her life experienced her own pains and hardships from loved ones affected by substance use. Mama Sallah also knows something of what it means to heal: “I am being directed by the Holy Spirit who is working through me to try to bring comfort to you and your wife.” In my drawing, I have tried to symbolize the electric, light-filled power of this Holy-Spirit-healing with the sharp forms in yellow, interceding in the shape of blue (for me, in this drawing, a symbol of utter grief), as a kind of countering force: a jolt of life in the midst of a death-like despair – such was the impact of Mama Sallah’s letter on me.
One of the most heart-warming experiences over the many months of this project has been the opportunity to share before groups of people who have so much hurt in their histories—those affected by substance use and addiction—the healing power of love for me, and to have in the letters they write in response reflect that same experience for themselves. The letter from Frankie, a member of the Sisters Together and Reaching (STAR) community, is typical. In my drawing, I have tried in the quivering figure in the middle to imply something of the bruising hardship of a life lived, and in the reverberating lines outward (toward a redness, like a heart) pick up on the words of the letter itself: the bass drum, the beat of a rhythm. The rhythm of love. (I realized at a certain point in the project: my drawings are not only about love letters; they are love letters.)
Little challenges relationships more within a family than substance use disorder, and rarely in such circumstances is what you see aligned with what is true, for addiction interrupts our ability to access and act upon the love we feel. This drawing is based on a letter from Cheryl Maxwell. “The letter is a response to the conflicted relationship I have with my sons, especially the eldest. All my children were effected by my drug use,” she notes. In the drawing, I have tried to represent what you might say is real, and also what is true. What is real is the alienation and sense of abandonment felt between mother and child in Cheryl’s relationships with her children – this I show through the distinctly separated figures, one in a huddled pose, turned clearly away from the other. What is true is the living feelings of love, sent out in blue waves from one figure to the other.