Episode 9: Seth David Branitz Transcending Despair in Recovery

Finding meaning amidst trauma - a journey of recovery and resilience.

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Good morning, World, and welcome to the Choices Books and Gifts and our new  podcast, “You Always Have Choices.”

I'm very proud to present our latest guest, Seth.  Good morning, and how are you, my friend?

Well, Jay, thank you for having me. 

I'm going to read a little bit about Seth, his bio, so we know who we're talking with today.  Seth David Branitz is the author of ‘The Trouble with Kim.  On Transcending Despair and Approaching Joy.’    A collection of personal essays discussing his upbringing in a family controlled by substance abuse and mental illness, his own struggles with addiction and recovery, his brother's suicide, and living a meaningful life despite the trauma and clinical depression.

He is an artist, performing songwriter, chef, and writer, and he is living in Hudson Valley. Is that all correct?

Yeah. You did good research there.

All right. Very, very good. I'm glad we did.

So, I'm sort of going to jump right into it. And if you don't mind, I'm going to start with some questions for you. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey with addiction and recovery?

Yeah, well, as I think back, you know, I was probably addicted to chocolate and ice cream and warmth and all this kind of stuff. Anything to escape, anything to feel to good, to excess as a child, enough to make myself sick, enough to give myself headaches and brain freeze. My dad used to tell the story of the first time I had ice cream. I was under a year old, and he sat me on the stool at Baskin-Robbins, eating ice cream. And he said that my eyes went back, and I made a roar, like, lurch, like GRRR, and I just tipped over and fell off my stool.  I would eventually fall off many stools subsequently, years later, in another environment.

And as soon as I started using drugs, I felt, or I should say the first time and maybe the second or third time, I felt so good. I felt so seen. I felt so confident, which is something I don't recall feeling. I felt creative and interesting, and I needed more of that. And so, I tried again and again. But of course, the effect had diminishing results over time. And I never stopped trying. I was persistent. But even when it was clear that it wasn't working and was hurting, even when it was clear to me and when it became clear to others, I kept on doing it. And even when I said, “I must stop, never again. This is the last one.”  All that.  And then I started to think, all right, how will I stop? How will I stop? Years more went on before I finally it was suggested to me by a girlfriend who was a social worker student that I go to 12 steps.

And I said, well, that's for like old drunk people. And, you know, I spent a lot of time in the city and down on the Bowery. And I said, I know who goes to those? And she said, no, it's for anybody. And she was right. And I was able to put a little bit of time together. And I just kept on going.   I went into recovery with a similar fever and obsession as I had for getting high and finding and doing more.  And I came into Choices Books many times to purchase AA coins for myself and my friends. AA books and AA literature. It’s an amazing resource for all recovery things. 

And I would plan things out. I would write everything out. I would obsess over lines because I knew very early that my mind was always going. I'm always saying something to myself. And none of it is good. So, I might as well fill it with good stuff.  I'm not going to miss any of the bad (I’d say in my head.)  So, I would fill my life and my car with little signs. Even one on the mirror - I love you. In the mirror in my apartment - I couldn't even look myself in the eye. I would look at it, and I would say it out loud. 

Yeah, I feel like those things really put me on a path to becoming a different person or re-becoming the child that I kind of threw aside when I just became selfish and obsessed.

Great. Great. Thank you. You know, I have a lot - I can relate to you. I remember especially the thing you said about confidence. I would walk into a bar as Pee-Wee Herman and come out as Superman. I mean, that's a saying that we use sometimes in 12 step. And it's very, very true. But even from the early beginnings of when you were drinking and obsessed with everything, that was certainly me.  I have a lot a lot of understanding there. I also bought a lot of AA coins for friends over the years.  What do you hope the readers will get as it relates to the book? What do you hope they discover?

Well, I hope they would get (and what I have been blessed with knowing from a lot of readers who have gotten in touch with me), is that basically, just to know that they're not alone.  To know that other people suffer, obsess, fail, and start over and that they can as well.  I hope that people will understand, as I hold it, that the things that went on before in their lives are valuable.  It was always very sad to me that I would get another year older or that a thing would happen, and then it would just move on.   I would look at old black-and-white pictures of people in my family that my parents couldn't even name anymore from the 1800s and the early 1900s. And I'm like every single one of them had richness. Every single one of them laughed, and we're afraid, and we're excited, and we're delighted, and we’re scared. Every single one of us experiences that stuff, and it matters.  

And so, at times, I facilitated writing groups where people write memoirs - and it's really nice to see that these people, some of whom are very shy or felt very washed up, would take something from their past. And it is absolute gold because it happened. It happened to them. They felt. And we all do (feel.)   And so, that's another thing - I feel like writing this book was an amends, is in part an amends, to my past. You know, not only the screw-ups but also just to make something beautiful out of something that was apparently meaningless or boring because I didn't talk about a lot of this stuff after it happened. We don't usually talk about most of what happens in our day unless it's really big, and there were flashing lights, or it was life-changing.  But it's all it. It all matters if we say so.

Seth, can you tell us something that you really find important in the book? Can you share a paragraph or something with us? 

Well, the most important thing that I could say is that it's full of what certain people would call horrors. I went through some really horrible experiences myself. I was depressed and lost, and suicidal. My brother took his own life. My people and other people in my life took their own lives or died terrible deaths. Alone. Overdosing.  Aids. Murder. And I've had, and I understand that some of it can be really hard to look at because that's what life is. But that I'm okay. This is the end. We know how the book ends. You know, there are a few people in my life who I love or who love me who said, like, they can't bear to read it. They can't, they're afraid to read it. But it's painful. It's not all darkness. So, there's a lot of humor and ridiculous things that have happened in the book. And then there are very sad things. And I don't make them sadder; I’m just saying, what happened? And so, yeah, I just if I'm here to talk about it, I've gotten through it.

If you're here to talk about it, it's a very good ending. Yeah. Can. Can you tell me a little bit? I know you're an artist and a musician. How does that relate to recovery? 

When I was using and even in recovery, when I was depressed, which was a good amount of time during my recovery, I would be thinking, “I should be doing something else. I should be making stuff. I should be. I shouldn't be at this job that's meaningless to me.” And a lot of shoulds, of course, you know, are they're all dangerous - comparing ourselves is dangerous and thinking like that. But they were cues from the brain of and the heart of a creative person who wasn't making art.

And I feel that one of the greatest sources of pain in the world for humans is artists who don't make art. And so, I really feel like for people who are recovering or people who are suffering - if you're a creative person, make stuff.  Absolutely. That is very, very, very important. And that doesn't mean becoming a rock star.

That doesn't mean getting published; that doesn't mean, you know, sharing it on any grand scale, starting small and just making stuff, pulling out the pad, pulling out the guitar, pulling out the typewriter. What's the typewriter? And start and start there and how it affected me once I was drawn into it.  It started out as a band, an early recovery, a recovery band. We used to play at sober clubs, so we would create sober clubs by approaching places and saying, “Can you do a dry night?” And that was just so helpful.  It gave me so much life, I was so grateful for it. And it just sort of all happened from there. It's just very life-affirming as an artist to make art.

That's fantastic. You know, it's interesting because I know for me, in order to keep it, you've got to give it away.  Which is why I try to help out with people as much as I can. I also like to give people AA medallions and inspire them on their recovery path.  And a lot of what you did with the music and everything, you were helping others in recovery as well, which to me is, is, is why we're all doing this and we're here. So that's fantastic. Fantastic. What kind of things do you do today to keep what you already have?

Well, there are things that I do, and those would include, you know, spiritual pursuits, meditation, being in touch with recovering people, being in touch with positive people, saying no to really heavy people who I've had to spend less time with people who know. How do we say it nicely? I don't know. I used to call them emotional vampires, but I've encountered people like that, and I had to say, you know what? I just cannot; I cannot do it because you’re doing what my mind is trying to do to me, you know, and I don't need that. So, choosing my company, well, choosing my food, my mental food, well. And that means not spending time in the rabbit holes of social media and not getting into political discussions.  So, these are things that I don't do. I exercise, I try eat healthy every day, but not all healthy. I am acutely aware of my mind. And as soon as I start going into regrets, shame, and fear, I'll notice it.

And I bust it and thank it for sharing, and I'll insert something else, something positive. And the most positive thing that I insert is like a loving kindness prayer for somebody else, anybody else. And I like it when I think of somebody I haven't already thought of. So right now, I might say, well, Catherine, filled with loving kindness and wish you well, happy, and free from suffering.

What more loving thing can I hope for anybody, any creature, from myself?  And I feel like that very often as I'm going to sleep at night and my mind is weak and it's drifting. If I do that, that is the most loving thing I can possibly think of doing besides getting up and actually doing something, or meeting someone, or hugging someone.

And I have been on that. That's a thing that I do more than more than most. So, the most important things are not necessarily the things that I do; they are the way that I think or choose my thoughts.

Yeah, yeah. I have, you know, once again, it's amazing how much Identification I have with you because some of the things that I do are the same as yours.

I wake up, I meditate, I pray, I try to do something good for somebody, even if it's a complete stranger in my life. I try to eat right,; I’m in the gym. It's a recipe for success. It's fantastic. By the way, where can people buy your book and see your art? Are you still playing anywhere that we can come and see you?

I am. Well, I play; I've been playing a little bit more now. I had a few years off, but I'm playing a little bit more, mostly in the Hudson Valley or in Manhattan. Those, you know, I'm on Facebook, Seth David Branitz, and Instagram; I post those things there.  My art is Sethmadethis.com, and that's where I post the things I'm proud to share.

And people buy originals or buy prints. They're like cheaper prints. My book is at a few bookshops up here in New Pauls, Kingston, New York, Woodstock, or online at places such as Barnes and Noble or Amazon.com. And they get them there.

That's wonderful. If I was starting out and I was going through all this trauma, my life was a mess.

What would you say to me if I came to you and said, Seth, I'm a mess; my life is crazy. Do you have any thoughts? How can I better myself? 

That's really an interesting question. If one of the sources of your messiness was the substances, then I would say, let's go to a meeting, or let's get online and hit a meeting and see how that grabs you.

If it were apparent that it wasn't really that, I might just recommend a few books and or a few YouTube channels and say, let's obsess on these things.  Let’s obsess on positivity. Let's obsess about love. Let's go to the animal shelter, hang out with some animals, and give and get some love. These are almost guaranteed medicine.

I'm experiencing it right now with my son, who is, one of my sons, is very depressed and he's very trapped and he's messing with substances. And I'm in a constant battle with depression. It's very hard to talk to a person who's depressed. They just go round and round and round, and you say something, and you begin to get through it, and they say, ‘Yeah, but.  Yeah, but.”  It's so hard. But what I say repeatedly, or I'll just send him a link to something beautiful just so we could spend a little time with that beautiful thing, that beautiful message, that beautiful thought.  I'll say, let's go to the mountains and be out in nature. I'll remind him to see his doctor and take his medicine as prescribed, not self-prescribed. And so that's a little bit of what I might say.

That's perfect. I mean, as you said, depression. First of all, I'm sorry that you are going through that. And second of all, I've been there, so I know what you mean because you are just consumed with yourself. That's all it is. You're consumed with yourself, and you can't hear anybody that’s speaking to you.  You can't hear them. You can't understand them until sometimes you get on the right medication, and it makes you be able to listen and hear and follow directions. But I agree with you 100%, and I loved your perspective on it.  Because sometimes it's not always 12 steps, it's other things in life.

I got clean in the late eighties; I can remember the voices of specific old-timers saying, “Don't take medicines - it's a cop-out.”  I remember one of them, a teacher of mine, and I really respected her, loved her, and believed her. She said there's an effect that comes over you. And you can tell that the person, by looking in their eyes, wasn’t really there. And she wasn't entirely wrong because the drugs they used then to treat some of the things that people are going through now used to be different. And there would be this effect, with some guys, with Prozac and things like that. And there are and were people who were abusing them. I need something. I can't bear this pain. The pain that you can just sometimes go through and get to the other side of.  It's very hard to know, and you have to decide for yourself whether you're one of those people who say, “Yeah, I need more.”

And it took me 32 years or so and being 32 years clean and suicidal to finally say, “It's not, it's not working.”  I don't have to live at this bar down here. In fact, I might not survive it.  And I spoke to a doctor and tearfully, literally tearfully agreed to try this medicine.  And I think it saved my life.

Yeah. Yeah. I remember that when I first decided to change my life, I was extremely depressed because I was so used to putting drugs and alcohol in my system. And I was fighting my therapist when he wanted to give me some medication. Absolutely fighting. I was dead against it. And I have a brother in recovery. He has as many years as you. And he says, listen, you put drugs in your system all these years to abuse yourself. Why don't you put some drugs in yourself to help yourself? And that just made all the difference to me. And then I agreed, and it helped.  It took the load off.

It straightened me out., And I'm the guy today standing before you. And it just makes a world of difference. I'm also grateful that I do just it's as taboo as when you first got sober, as it is today. I think that people are more open to getting the help they need so they can listen in meetings, they can hear, they can hear the message because if you are that depressed, you can't hear anything.

Right. But it is a slippery slope, isn't it? You know, because there are people who were raised with that belief. There are people who were raised with that belief and for whom it's not so weird. You know, they've been on meds their whole lives. So, I just had to understand, as you did for that. For me, it was appropriate and continues to help.

I agree 100%. So, we're going to wrap it up soon. Do you have any wonderful parting words of wisdom you want to share with us?

I will not accept that pressure.  I say take care of yourself, love yourself, go to meetings, be nice to other people and pet animals, and things will get better.

I love that wisdom. I love what you said to us because that’s perfect. Keep it simple, and just wake up and do the right thing.

I am going to give a little closing statement here. So, as we wrap up this episode of Choices, remember that life is a series of decisions that shape our journey. I hope our time together was inspiring and motivating.

Stay empowered, stay well. And remember, “You Always Have Choices.”  Peace and blessings to you all. And I hope to see you next week. Thank you, Seth. I really enjoyed you as a guest.

Thank you, Jay, for what you do. Thanks for the store. It's all really great, and I really appreciate talking to you today.

Me, too.