The Hippo


Oct 16, 2019








John Sweeney at an East Colony Fine Art exhibition, with his work. Courtesy photo.

Attend Inspired Recovery

When: Friday, Sept. 19, at 6 p.m. (performances at 7 p.m.)
Where: New Hampshire Institute of Art, French Building, Ballroom, 148 Concord St., Manchester
Admission: Free
What: Visual art, live music and poetry by people in recovery
Contact John Sweeney:


Get inspired
Recovered artist John Sweeney shares story

By Kelly Sennott

That art could be something more than a hobby — a passion, a lifestyle even — didn’t really occur to John Sweeney until a friend’s visit to his Derry condo eight years ago.
Sweeney remembers the day; an autumn painting of orange- and red-leafed trees hung on his living room wall. They contrasted nicely with the dark grey sky he painted behind them, and his friend took notice.
“Wow, John, did you do that? That’s really good!” his friend said. “Would you sell it?”
Sweeney, surprised, said he would.
“What do  you want for it?”
Sweeney had never sold a piece of artwork before. At this point in his life, he was about 50 years old and had only just begun to paint seriously because he discovered it helped with his recovery therapy. He was even more surprised when the pair agreed on a $100 price tag.
“He pulled out his checkbook, wrote it for $100 and took it off the wall,” Sweeney said during an interview at the Coffee Factory in Derry last week. His oil paintings, mostly of birds, hung on the wall behind him while he talked. “It was really amazing. Soon after, I began taking lessons with Elaine Farmer. My friend ended up buying eight of them, and now has the second-largest collection of John Sweeney originals in the world.”
This instance was one of the turning points in Sweeney’s life. It was so incredible for Sweeney, in particular, because seven years prior he was a struggling alcoholic fighting for his life. 
Sweeney is one of the many artists represented at Inspired Recovery Sept. 19, a celebration and display of art, music and poetry by recovering addicts at the New Hampshire Institute of Art in Manchester. 
It will be just his second year at the event. He’s known it’s existed for years; an East Colony Fine Art member, he’s active in the local arts community, and as a certified recovery coach, even more so in the addiction recovery community. 
“But I still had a tremendous amount of shame and guilt about my addiction,” he said. 
Last year, he finally gathered courage to share his story after talking with Madeline Demeule, who used to work for Hope for New Hampshire. 
“She told me that I have no reason to not let people know,” Sweeney said. “The only way I can help people is to let them know what I’ve been through. She inspired me to come forward and be more outgoing about my recovery.”
Demeule has since passed, but her message still reigns. Sweeney talked about his first drink at age 13. Even then, he said, he had an “alcoholic way of thinking,” drinking alone and stealing booze or money to buy booze.
Sweeney struggled for years, more than half his life, but would never admit he had a problem. He went to college, but it took six years before he was finally able to earn an associate’s degree. Afterward, he jumped from job to job in engineering and IT. Until 1999, the longest he remained sober was a few months.
The year 1999 was another turning point. Recently divorced, Sweeney was in the lowest place of his life.
“Did you ever see Leaving Las Vegas?” Sweeney asked. “Nicolas Cage goes to Vegas to drink himself to death. That’s essentially what I was doing. And I got really scared.”
He was so scared that he finally took the advice many marriage counselors had given him before the divorce: he enrolled in a 12-step program.
“To this day, I don’t know how or why it stuck. I can’t explain it,” Sweeney said. “They told me what to do, and I listened and did it. I am forever grateful.”
After recovery, life treated him well. He traveled the world and met, then married, his current wife in 2004. But he was still jumping from job to job, and in 2006, at age 50, he was in need of one again. He’d been working in the IT industry on and off and was stressed and struggling in his search. 
“I knew I couldn’t look for one 24/7. I was really making myself crazy. So I started drawing and painting with watercolors to help me relax.”
He found it worked, and soon moved to acrylics, pastels, graphite and eventually oil, his preferred medium. The meticulous attention painting required helped him live in the moment, and thus, forget that urge, a little at first and then altogether.
“I can’t speak for other people in recovery, but I know that, for me, living in the moment has always been a challenge. I still suffer from anxiety and depression — anxiety is fear of the future, and depression is living in the past — but not nearly to the extent that I did. I find painting so rewarding and tranquil,” Sweeney said. 
His paintings, which hung on the wall of the Coffee Factory that day, looked bright, cheerful even, composed of colorful animals, mostly birds. He said his success comes from painting and giving back by helping recovering addicts. 
He wishes there were more recovery resources; New Hampshire, he said, is ranked second-to-last in the nation per capita for treatment availability. He’s seeing slight progress — Inspired Recovery received a grant from the New Hampshire Foundation, and he plans to participate in a recovery rally with Hope for New Hampshire Recovery (he’s on the board of directors) Oct. 18 in front of the Statehouse. Things like this keep him going.
“I think addiction is an extremely self-centered disease. When I was an addict, I was extremely selfish and self-centered. When I was in recovery, I knew that I needed to learn how to live differently. One of the most important parts in that was giving back and helping others,” Sweeney said. “Part of my message to people: don’t sell yourself short. You never know where your life can take you. … If you’re in recovery, anything is possible. It truly is.”

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