Writing my way out of the gutter
Author, film-maker and creator of The Writing Irish of New York on his fall and rise
Colin Broderick: more important than any of the external success, I have finally come home to myself
On June 6th, 2006, a few friends showed up to help me drag some of my tattered belongings out of my fifth floor walk-up in Hell’s Kitchen in the hopes that getting me out of the city to a farmhouse upstate might just save my life. I was 38 years old. I was single, penniless, jobless. I hadn’t eaten solid food in over two weeks. To stay drunk I’d been begging dollar bills and cigarettes off tourists two blocks away in Times Square. I was no longer afraid I’d be recognised. I was a skeleton. I caught my reflection in a store window that same week on an early-morning excursion to a dive bar up Ninth Ave and it had horrified me. My lank hair was matted to my head. My grubby jeans hung from my waist like they were empty. My arms were like twigs. My face was that of a stranger. I was a bum, an addict, a street hustler. To my horror, I didn’t even recognise myself.
At the farmhouse I took a notebook and pen to the bedroom with me and I began to scribble as I fell apart. I stayed in bed for the first three days, sweating, shaking and hallucinating. My friend Tony sat vigil outside my bedroom door, carried me chicken broth and water… nursed me over the first hump on the bumpy road back to life.
It’s a painful transition re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the body burns, the heart rattles, the soul screams, caught somewhere between heaven and hell. But when I emerged from that room I had somehow managed to wrestle from the madness the first pages of a book.
Over the next year I stayed alone in that farmhouse trying to get my sanity back. I built a deck, and a wooden raft for the pond. I cleared brush, and spent a little while every afternoon doing push-ups. Every morning, I wrote.
In the fall of that year I decided to have one can of beer, just to see if I could. A week later I came out of a blackout on a quiet country road at night, there were flashing police lights in my rear view mirror and a shower of sparks from the exhaust-pipe I was trailing behind me. I was rewarded, for my stupidity, with two months in the county jail.
By the time I came back to the city in 2007 I was clutching the first 100 pages of a manuscript. I had decided to try and formulate the first 20 years of my life in New York since I’d left Co Tyrone in 1988. It was a two-decade rollercoaster of construction jobs, car wrecks, beatings, stabbings, failed marraiges, jail cells, madness, drugs and alcoholism. I had spent most of my life flailing around like a wild animal trapped inside the body of a man. I called my memoir Orangutan.
In the spring of 2007 I was at an AA meeting in downtown Manhattan. A fellow drunk, a man I had never met before, was sharing his story of madness and survival. It was a story much like my own. He ended his story by saying he’d recently written a book, found an agent and landed himself a book deal. When the meeting ended I tailed him for a block before tapping him on the shoulder. “If you introduce me to your agent,” I said, with as much conviction as I could muster, “you will forever remember this as the night you discovered Colin Broderick. ” He eyed me with some curiosity for a moment, and then he laughed. We have been fast friends ever since.
In 2009 Random House published my memoir, Orangutan. In 2014 they also published my follow-up memoir, That’s That, my account of growing up in Tyrone in the heart of the Troubles. In 2016 I wrote, directed and starred in my first feature movie, Emerald City, the biographical story of a crew of Irish contruction workers in the Bronx (now available on Amazon and iTunes). In 2017 I shot my second feature movie in Co Tyrone. A Bend in The River, the story of a writer who returns home from New York to Tyrone after an absence of almost 30 years to finally face the ghosts of his past. Three months ago I released my third book, The Writing Irish of New York, part anthology, part sweeping history of the last 200 years of Irish writing in America.
But more important than any of the external success, I have finally come home to myself. I have not had a drink or a drug of any kind in 12 years. With the help of therapy, meetings and writing, I have come to terms with my own childhood traumas and reached a place of acceptance in my life. It was hard, painful work, but I stayed with it because the alternative was death, incarceration or madness. I met a good woman and we have been together for six years. I had a daughter and then a son. I have a circle of friends who care about me. I am a fully functioning member of my tribe. I am proud to say I carry my fair share of our combined burden.
Five years ago I was invited to join an email-chain gratitude list with a couple of other men in recovery. Each day I take a few moments to list all the things that I am grateful for in my life that particular day. It might be a tasty meal I just ate, it might be a moment when the sun caught the side of my face when I was driving, it might be a hug from my wife or one of my chidren, it might be as simple as the feeling of pulling on a pair of clean, dry socks in the morning. It turns out that there are a million little miracles happening every single day all around me. I have finally opened my eyes to see them.
The Writing Irish of New York is published by Lavender Ink