“Empty, Broken, Forgotten and Lost”—Jim Terry's Journey to Recovery From Alcoholism

Mar 30, 2017

In this week’s “Sense of Community” series we’ve concentrated on the problem of opioid addiction in our region.  Of course, alcohol abuse is an equally pervasive problem, and you’re going to meet a recovering alcoholic here in Springfield who just celebrated his 24th year of sobriety.

Originally from St. Louis, Jim Terry will turn 61 years of age at the end of March.  His father was born in Bentonville, Arkansas but grew up in Springfield—he was on the staff of the Springfield News-Leader in the 1930s, writing movie reviews among other duties.  While Jim and his six brothers and sisters lived in St. Louis they came down here to the Ozarks frequently for vacations. “And I really kind of loved Springfield, I loved the lakes,” says Terry. “So I moved down here—it’s probably going on thirty years now.”

One of some 20,000 photographs of the Ozarks by Jim Terry--he calls it "Abandoned Dreams."
Credit Jim Terry/www.fineartamerica.com

Terry says his father was an alcoholic, and believes there were other alcoholics in the family preceding his father.  He “drank a lot” as a teenager, as indeed many teenagers do—“but at some point they put it down... and I didn’t.  And there was a lot of emotional pain that I had, that I used the alcohol to cover and deal with.  You know, a lot of addicts and alcoholics have a problem with self-esteem, and I was certainly one too.  Some will say that they drank to ‘change the way they feel.’ But a lot of people also say they drank so they COULD feel.” Terry considers himself to be in the latter category.

He was well aware that he had a drinking problem.  “I drank in the morning; I drank all the time.  I drank to stop my hands from shaking.  But at some point I knew the alcohol was killing me. So when it got to a point when I really, really wanted to quit but couldn’t quit, then I knew there was a problem.  That’s where the danger is, right there.”

The fact is, alcoholism almost killed Jim .  He says he lived on the streets for a time, lost an alarming amount of weight, and wound up being hospitalized.

“My whole family—we’ve got seven kids in our family, and we’re all ‘Irish drinkers.’  But even they were worried about me!  I eventually ended up in the hospital—I weighed about 127, 129 pounds maybe.  My pancreas had shut down.  And they put a tube down my throat, IVs in me.  You know, to keep me alive. That was in 1993... and I haven’t drank since.”

Terry entered a twelve-step program and the Sigma House recovery facility in Branson—now called the Larry Simmering Recovery Center. “I actually ended up working there,” says Jim Terry. “(And) it was kind of wonderful to be able to go back to the treatment center after being sober for a number of years, and sort of give back and help others and say, ‘Hey, I was there just like you. And there is hope, and you CAN do it.”

Terry spent a number of years working in country-music radio as an on-air DJ in Branson, Springfield, and Fort Smith, Arkansas, but decided he couldn’t make a living doing it.  “Right now I’m just painting houses,” he says, “but keeping my photography and my writing hopes alive.”

The reason I wanted to talk to Terry for this report is that he has been a songwriter, has written a novel, and has taken some 20 thousand digital photographs.   When he left the radio business the first time around the year 2000, he worked as a truck driver.  While driving all over the Ozarks he says he “memorized all these places that I wanted to come back to—if I had the money for (photographic) equipment. Well, when digital (cameras) came along I said, ‘Wow—I can just take a digital camera down there and take all these photos.’” And it’s an artistic pursuit Terry has been avidly pursuing for a number of years.

There’s a specific type of scene that attracts his photographic eye. “What I fell in love with was all these old, abandoned places in the hills of the Ozarks.  The idea behind the photos was that at one time, at this spot, people could have been laughing, having fun, smiling. And now it seems to be empty, broken, forgotten and lot—which are some of the feelings I used to have all the time,” he says, chuckling. “So my addiction, in that sense, or my emotional needs or troubles, what have you, sort of channel themselves in the art in that sense.  I ask myself, ‘Why am I so drawn to these kinds of places?’ But I am real drawn to them.”  When I offer the opinion that the answer why is actually pretty obvious, Terry readily agrees. “Yeah, I don’t really feel a need to take a picture of a waterfall with a rainbow attached to it!” he says, laughing. “Just doesn’t draw me.”

Terry wrote a novel a few years ago, initially publishing it as an e-book, but then withdrew it for re-writes.  He’s now shopping it around to publishers and literary agents. 

Based on his own experience, and after talking to others in his same situation, Terry is convinced there is a connection between the addictive personality and artistic creativity. “I do think more addicts and alcoholics have a creative temperament, because I believe addicts and alcoholics are people who feel very, very deeply.”  But when it comes to recovering from drug or alcohol abuse, artistic creativity is not an end in itself, says Terry. “Using the creative output to ‘overcome’ the addictions really is not addressing the addiction—it’s more like a distraction.”  He feels artistic expression can be vitally important once one is actually in the recovery phase, but warns that initially “it’s more about learning how to stay sober, stay clean.  It’s sort of like, give it some time to learn to be YOU, and then you can really venture more into the artistic side.  But you really have to get some ‘clean time’ under your belt.”

Where is Terry in his journey of recovery?  “I don’t crave the booze.  This is who I am now, and it’s comfortable being me, and I enjoy being me.  I’m comfortable in my own skin.”

Ultimately Jim Terry offers this advice to anyone dealing with substance abuse: “Find help.  You’re not alone. So advice is to learn to be you, but also seek help, because you really can’t do it alone.”

You can find a selection of Jim Terry’s photographs at www.fineartamerica.com.