Healing from shame is a marathon task

Costa Carastavrakis named his book after himself because he 'no longer needs a place to hide'

Costa Carastavrakis named his book after himself because he 'no longer needs a place to hide'

The subtitle of Costa Carastavrakis’s memoir, I Am Costa: From Meth to Marathons, really only covers half the story. Yes, it’s a compelling tale of his journey from addiction, symbolised by the crystal meth that was only one of the drugs he consumed in quantity, to recovery and health, of which his ability to run marathons is a powerful signifier. But, before we get to the meth, the book is a moving story of a man of Greek ancestry growing up in South Africa and how, despite the presence of a loving and supportive family, he could end up at the point where he was consumed by years of drug-fuelled mania.

The holistic story of one person’s life is brought to closure by the letter he writes to his 12-year-old self.
That’s where he rounds off the theme of difference, othering and shame that is at the core of his tale. As he writes, “I am Costa, and I named this book after myself because I no longer need a place to hide.”

How did he accomplish that process, the writing of this book, that mirrors his journey through life — and from shame to healing?

“I joined a writers’ group run by Sarah Bullen and Kate Emmerson,” he says. This was once he’d come through the fire and joined a 12-step programme, one of the tenets of which is to make a “searching inventory” of one’s life. It feels like the book is part of that process, even its culmination.

Bullen and Emmerson, he says, told him: “‘It’s all about structure. Let’s get your structure right.’ It’s about rules. I like rules. I’ve discovered that if I follow rules my life gets better. I never used to follow rules, and it nearly killed me. So I thought, ‘Let’s do this. I’ll follow the rules.’

“The rules were: you have permission to write badly, you’re not allowed to read what you wrote yesterday, and you’re not allowed to change your structure.

“What also taught me about writing,” he says, “was stand-up. I did a five-day stand-up comedy course in New York with Stephen Rosenfield, who has written for many great stand-ups. It helps you craft a piece — set-up, punchline. Create the scene, create the tension, and release it.”

With those guidelines in hand, he says, writing the book was a relatively swift process, though the editing and final organisation, with the help of publishers Bookstorm, took a little longer. “No book is written in the first draft. Of course, ultimately I had to rewrite the book,” he says.

His impulse, evident after he’d been through the process of recovery and healing, was a strong urge to help others — to give them the benefit of his experience. He delivers talks that he hopes will be of use to others going through similar problems, and is open to personal contact with anyone interested. He says he hopes people who get and read I Am Costa won’t hang on to the book but will pass it on to someone they feel might need it.

Carastavrakis gets emotional when he talks about the recent suicide of a schoolboy at a prestigious school, a young man who felt the shaming effects of a repressive, derisory social message, despite his relative privilege. He asks: “How much harm are we doing to trans people by judging them? How much harm are we doing to people when we slut-shame them, or fat-shame them?

“For me,” he says, “this book is all about shame — and what to do with it. It’s about when shame perpetuates, what can happen.”

I Am Costa is a reckoning with that shame. As Carastavrakis says, “My story is in layers. The outer layer is about health, about getting up off the couch and turning yourself into something. The next layer is about addiction and recovery, light and dark, spiritual development. The inner layer of the book is about othering, a man or a boy denying who he was, and what it led to — a man who was confused about what he felt, and what that led to.”

For information on Carastavrakis’s talks, go to thisiscosta.com

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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