Meet Adriana Marchione, director of “The Creative High”

This Q&A, facilitated by Jeremiah Gardner of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, was originally published for Hazelden Betty Ford’s monthly Recovery Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive our advocacy emails, subscribe today.

Adriana Marchione (photo by Kara Cooper)

Adriana Marchione is a filmmaker, teacher, speaker, movement educator and arts therapist who lives in San Francisco. She is also a woman in sustained recovery from addiction and the director of an excellent new film, The Creative High, which profiles nine artists who have faced addiction. We watched an early screening and were captivated by the diverse stories of artists who found healing in their creative pursuits. It’s a real-world look at the complexity, nuance and humanity of addiction, and the transformational power of recovery, through the eyes, experiences and art of creative people. Now that The Creative High is available to book for screenings, we were excited to touch base with Adriana about the film, her own recovery journey and more.

Q: What does recovery look like for you, and how has it empowered different aspects of your life?

Recovery has been a waking-up process for me which is ever-evolving. It was a rebirth, which over time gave me the ability to face life with open eyes and a compassionate heart. When I stopped drinking in my early 20s, more than 29 years ago, I was lost and depressed. I didn’t have the tools to manage my sensitive nature and the chaos of my emotions. Since I was a young child, I have had an active imagination and an inquisitive nature, which in part brought me to a creative career. I was a photographer and mixed media artist before I got sober, and my identity was shaped around the concept of the ‘suffering artist.’ Learning to live without alcohol (my substance of choice) one day at a time enabled me to find internal balance, peace of mind and self-esteem, but also empowered me to channel my emotions, musings and stories into artistic work. In recovery, I have been able to shape a healthy creative style and identity that has been a big part of my healing. This has guided me to discover my career as an expressive arts therapist and somatic movement educator with a focus on supporting people with addiction/recovery, trauma and grief.

Q: What does it mean for you to share your recovery with others?

The foundation of my life is recovery, and I have found a true sense of belonging in recovery communities. People were there to welcome me and guide me when I was at the beginning of the journey, and I am inspired to do the same for others. It still gives me so much joy to see people finding their own recovery from substance use and mental health challenges and witness the ways they experience a renewed commitment to life. I feel especially called to connect to artists and people who have a creative spirit to help them find their voice. I didn’t have artistic role models in my early recovery so it has been important for me to offer a framework for people to learn how to successfully create in recovery.

Q: What inspired you to make your new film, The Creative High, and what’s the message and/or inspiration you want viewers to take from it?

I was working with a career coach who was assisting me at a turning point in my life. He strongly urged me to make a second film. My first film, When the Fall Comes, was a short documentary about my own personal experience with loss and how I used art and dance to move through grief. It had been a rewarding experience to make a film and witness the social impact it could have. This motivated me to develop another film project. Since I had already had dedicated much of my career to using art to support addiction/recovery, it became an obvious choice to make this the topic of a new film. I was motivated to talk to artists and ask them about their creative process and hear their stories of addiction and recovery. Six years later, we have released The Creative High, a documentary film which follows nine visual artists, performers and musicians from diverse backgrounds who are transformed by creativity in their search for identity and freedom. I hope that people who watch the documentary can grasp how creativity can be an effective and potent intervention to help people heal and recover from addiction and trauma. And, to understand that creative people (and we are all inherently creative in different ways) often need specific types of resources to reimagine their creative life once they stop drinking and/or using. The ultimate goal for the film is to engage people to reflect on their own relationship to creativity and offer resources and insight for individuals, families, recovery communities and those in the behavioral health field around the globe.

Q: What myths do we need to bust about art and addiction?

There has been a longstanding belief that substances provide the necessary altered state to inspire writers, poets, musicians, visual artists and other creative types. There is some truth to this concept, as in some cases alcohol and drugs can loosen inhibitions, enhance imagination and help one find a flow of ideas. But when you are facing an addiction that can undermine your ability to function in life and set you on a destructive path, using substances is certainly counterproductive. Finding ‘the muse’ in this fashion has felled too many brilliant creatives. The good news is that we have many, many examples now of artists in recovery who are thriving in their work. People are more public about their recovery, reducing the stigma of the disease of addiction, and we see their success over time. The Creative High documentary brings us some excellent illustrations of this fact, and demonstrates how we can find an alternative ‘high’ through our art-making. One of the artist subjects, Wes Geer of Rock to Recovery, states that “the talent lies within you, it wasn’t the drug giving it to you.” This helps us tap into something essential about who we are so we can share our artistic gifts with others.

Q: How do you use art and creativity in your therapy practice and teaching work?

I do this in a multitude of ways. When I work with clients individually and in group settings I invite them to listen to their inner world (sensations, emotions and thoughts/stories), and through this inquiry we find what wants to be expressed. There are times when we need to work on old wounds, pain and challenges that are present, and at other times it is vital to open up to the positive aspects of their life experiences and how they can expand into new ways of being. Through creative writing, movement/dance, visual art as well as performance work, I have guided people to use art as a container to hold their difficult emotions, document important stories and memories, imagine and vision their dreams and desires, and find projects and practices that lift them up. I am also a somatic movement therapist and educator with a holistic approach that goes beyond mental processing and cognitive work. This means I address the wisdom and knowing that comes through the body and offer mindfulness tools which move people out of the ‘monkey mind’ that can increase addictive behavior, into a more embodied creative approach.

Q: What challenges and rewards have you experienced in your personal recovery journey as a result of your work — both your therapy practice, teaching and your filmmaking?

The rewards have been incredible. I feel so fortunate to have been able to grab onto recovery at a young age and sustain my abstinence from alcohol and drugs for several decades. I continue to feel ‘awake’ and alive, and my life and work have so much meaning due to the fact that recovery and service are at the base of both. Recovery has enabled me to do work that I love, and I have found that the greatest gift is to help others.

In regard to my artistic life, my focus has been on the mediums of dance, performance and documentary film over the last 15 years. In recovery, I have found true gratification and excitement when engaged in these creative endeavors. One of the most rewarding aspects has been the collaboration and community that have developed out of the projects with which I’ve been involved. Creating a performance or working on a film team toward a shared goal is an incredible experience. Being able to connect and work with a group of creatives in recovery — both the recovering artist subjects of The Creative High and the film team (most of whom are in recovery themselves) — has brought me a strong sense of belonging and gratitude. Dianne Griffin, producer on the documentary, continues to work with me as a creative partner to bring a cinematic approach to our own story of creativity in recovery.

The challenges have tempered me, and I’ve learned to be diligent about my self-care and to use the tools I have gathered over the years that provide the foundation for my mental, physical and spiritual health. I have the tendency to push myself too hard: my inner critic can get very active at times, and my ‘artist’ self has a competitive streak. Therefore, I have to gain perspective and pace myself so that I can have stamina for my projects over time. This was especially true in directing and collaborating on The Creative High, which took six years to create. This stretched me to trust the process at times when it would have been easy to give up. I am grateful for the strength and dedication of the film team, notably associate producer and recovery advocate Shelley Richanbach, editor Kirk Goldberg, and award-winning filmmaker and producer Dianne Griffin whose expertise and commitment was instrumental in crafting and completing the film project.

L to R: “The Creative High” Director Adriana Marchione and Producer Dianne Griffin

Q: What would you like more people to understand about recovery?

I truly believe that addiction is the root cause of many social problems, from mental health challenges to global conflict to environmental crises. When we are seeking false refuges (money, power, fame), versus true refuges (connection, love, fulfillment), we get trapped in a bottomless pit of longing and dissatisfaction. My colleague, Ken Otter, an environmentalist who is well-versed in addiction treatment, describes the destructive way that humans treat the earth as very similar to the way that we treat ourselves and others when we are active in addiction. There is a self-centeredness, a denial and a nihilism that come with the terrain of addictive behaviors. When we are able to turn this around to embrace the fragility of our own lives, and develop self-awareness like we do in recovery, we have the capacity to have empathy for others as well as our planet. If we are awake in our lives, then we can empower others to find purpose, and we can act to make healthy choices in service of a better world. This quote by Brenda Ueland, an author from the 1920s, also illustrates how art plays a role in social change: “Why should we all use our creative power and write, paint, or play music, or whatever it tells us to do? Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money. Because the best way to know truth or beauty is to try to express it.”

www.TheCreativeHigh.com (photo by Gooch Photography)
L to R: “The Creative High” Director Adriana Marchione; Artist Subjects Ralph Spight, Kathy Page, Peter Griggs and Jason Bernhardt; and Producer Dianne Griffin at the film’s world premiere in February at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival (photo by Gooch Photography)

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As a force of healing & hope for those affected by addiction, we feature insights and views from leading voices on prevention, treatment & recovery.