One of Lail's subjects, along with her story, written in her own hand.
One of Lail's subjects, along with her story, written in her own hand. Image courtesy Douglas Lail

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<p>An Asheville-based artist helps himself stay sober by making portraits of other recovering addicts and alcoholics.

By Rose Hoban

When artist Doug Lail was still drinking, he would go to bars and only after knocking back a few was able to find the courage to ask others, “What’s your story?”

“That was the only way I could relate and open up,” he said.

Even while Lail was trying to connect with others, he wasn’t telling his own story: That he was an alcoholic.

When Lail finally started attending Alcoholics Anonymous in May, 2013, he struggled with the stigma and the shame of his alcoholism, of the 20 years he’d spent  drinking, of the times his drinking was out of control.

He lost his job, his house. He got a DUI. His relationship ended.

He was suicidal. He got a second DUI. A friend reached out and convinced him to get into treatment and as a part of his conviction he was required to go to AA meetings.

Around the same time, he was laid off his job in the furniture industry and he started doing art full time. He was making large, abstract expressionist paintings. But the art he was making wasn’t much of a release.

“The abstract work, you sort of do it and the painting emerges out of itself,” he said. “But what I was putting in, people were not getting.”

There was something missing.

“I really could not connect with the work,” he said.

Then Lail saw a film, The Anonymous People, that’s been making the rounds for several years. The documentary talks about how the anonymity required by programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, while useful for helping people start getting sober, also propagates the shame and stigma that’s part of addiction.

One of Lail’s subjects, along with her story, written in her own hand. Image courtesy Douglas Lail

The film also promotes the concept that people who are in recovery from addiction need to advocate for themselves by being public about their struggles and successes.

For about a decade, recovery philosophy has been gaining momentum in treatment for addiction and mental illness. It’s a concept that getting “better” is not just about stopping drinking or taking medications to stop the symptoms of mental illness, it’s about finding the tools to build a life that’s productive, fulfilling and meaningful.

“As soon as I saw The Anonymous People, I knew that that’s what I needed to do,” Lail said. “It was just like … that’s it!

Out of the shadows

Lail started with himself. In early 2014, he painted a self portrait, white charcoal on black, of his face emerging from the darkness of the canvas.

“I chose this medium to align with the overall concept of emerging out of the darkness of addiction into the light of recovery,” he said.

Lail at work in his Asheville studio space. Photo courtesy Douglas Lail

Then he got the idea to do more portraits. He approached some of the folks he knew from AA meetings, the folks he got sober with.

“I said I had to get 10 people to come forward and share their story, and I thought I would see where that goes,” Lail said. “So 10 people came forward, and what ended up happening was that for those 10 people it started to snowball.”

The white on black portraits emit a “light of hope, the light I see in these people,” he said.

Now Lail has done 28 portraits.

He added the idea of having each person tell their story, written in their own hand. Some of the stories are carefully printed short sketches expressing the subject’s gratitude. Some of the testimonials are scrawled, handwriting filling almost every inch of the page, recounting painful stories of downward spirals and the slow, painful climb back from the bottom.

“The recovery story is also a way to give them their personal voice and to show their personality and talk about their experience and where their strength lies,” Lail explained.

Hello, my name is …

Looking at the drawings, each about life-sized and hung at eye level, is almost like looking into a mirror. Some of the subjects look directly at you, making eye-contact; others look off into a distance over your shoulder, into a future they’ll engage with undulled by drugs or alcohol.

Lail mounted a pop-up exhibit of the portraits for an Asheville show during September’s National Recovery Month. Photo courtesy Douglas Lail

“My mission with this is to counteract the stereotypes and break through the social stigma by building awareness that recovery is possible,” Lail said. “This work has become an integral part of my own recovery.”

The title of the project, “Hello, my name is… ,” comes from the way people introduce themselves during AA meetings. For Lail, it’s also an expression of recovery, of coming out of the shadow of addiction, of revealing oneself.

Anonymous, it’s not.

“Part of my addiction was that I used alcohol to come out and relate to people,” he said. “But now, today, through this work, I’m having to share my story and make that connection to people.”

Since getting sober, Lail has repaired his relationship with his old partner; they plan to marry soon. He’s also been able to make a living making art full time for the first time.

It hasn’t all been easy. Since getting sober, Lail has also had to declare bankruptcy. He’s done the painful work of making peace with friends and family he hurt while he was drinking.

But recovery has allowed him to “reset” his life.

“None of this would have been possible had I been drinking,” Lail said. “I’m really grateful that I came in and I’m really grateful for recovery.”

“Making the portraits has been a way out of the shadows,” he said. “It was a way to come forward and be authentic and be my true self and not be ashamed of it.

“It was a way for me to say, ‘I am in recovery and it’s OK.’”

Lail and several of his portraits at the North Carolina Recovery Conference, happening this week in Clemmons. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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