John Rosengren is the Minneapolis-based author of nine books, most recently “A Clean Heart,” a novel centered on the staff and patients of an adolescent drug treatment center inspired, in part, by Minnesota’s pioneering St. Mary’s. At a time of increased concern about drug and alcohol abuse — a June CDC study found 13% of respondents had started or increased substance use to cope with the pandemic — Rosengren shares his personal experience with addiction, recovery and 39 years of sobriety.
Q: Like the protagonist of “A Clean Heart,” you got sober in high school and helped others get through treatment. Is this a case of art imitating life?
A: I worked in an adolescent chemical dependency treatment center just outside Boise, Idaho, back in the late ’80s, and the place was crazy — not just the patients, but the staff. It was highly dysfunctional. And I thought, ‘This would be a great setting for a novel.’ But my mother wants you to know that it is fiction: She’s not an alcoholic.
Q: When did you start abusing drugs and alcohol?
A: I grew up in suburban Plymouth in a Catholic family, with good parents, but was filled with insecurity and doubt and the angst of adolescence. And I found that smoking pot and drinking to excess helped me feel better. By the time I was 17, I was smoking pot many times a day and getting drunk when I could.
Q: What led to your getting treatment?
A: I finally got busted at a party where I wound up passing out and waking up in a detox center where they kept me for four days. That was my awakening. I went through outpatient treatment the fall of my senior year of high school and that’s where I made the connection between my use and my consequences.
Q: What aspects of addiction did you want to explore in fiction?
A: One is the relationship with the main character, Carter, and his mother, and how to free himself from her emotional neediness. She’s the drowning person clinging to him and he ultimately realizes he can’t save her, so he has to save himself.
Q: Another interesting relationship is Carter’s mentorship of Oscar.
A: When I worked at Armstrong High School as a drug counselor and at other treatment centers, I was always attracted to those hardcase kids that others had given up on. I’ve seen kids I worked with get shot at drug deals gone bad and killed. And I’ve seen them get sober and have fruitful lives. It’s not necessarily because of anything I’ve done, but it’s them allowing the grace of a higher power to work in their lives. And also having found the grace to surrender.
Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about alcoholism and drug addiction?
A: It helps that people understand that it’s a disease. No one sets out to become an addict or an alcoholic.
I knew when I smoked pot with my friends, they liked getting high, but I loved getting high. There was something different about me and my relationship with pot. I have a genetic predisposition, I believe. My grandfather was a skid row alcoholic and depression runs in my genes. I think it was like an affliction waiting to happen, like a little pilot light that’s burning and add alcohol or drugs and “whoosh” it flares up.
Q: Why is it so difficult to quit?
A: It’s not an act of will. It’s an act of surrender. The saying goes in AA, “If you think willpower is enough, try that next time you have diarrhea.”
Q: What are things that loved ones say or do that impede recovery?
A: Way back when I was going through treatment, if I started talking about going through treatment or being in recovery, my mom would shut the windows so the neighbors wouldn’t hear, trying to protect an image or trying to project an image that everything’s OK.
The first step is simply admitting there’s a problem and getting honest. For most alcoholics and addicts and those who enabled them there’s a ton of denial.
Q: How can loved ones be supportive?
A: Being there with another person and not trying to fix it, not trying to cure them, not trying to control them, but simply being present. And there’s a real power when that takes place between two alcoholics and two addicts, because no one understands the way another alcoholic or addict does.