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"Addiction Is Not Just One Monolithic Category": An Interview with Author Leslie Jamison

“What is the vast range of relationships people can have with substances, and how do those relationships look different?” asks Leslie Jamison, author of addiction memoir ‘The Recovering.’

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Lead image courtesy of Leslie Jamison

From Jack London to Billie Holiday, there’s a historical connection between great creatives and addictions. In The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath (out now through Little Brown and Company) author Leslie Jamison investigates how her alcoholism impacted her writing while unpacking the romanticism often associated with great authors who also struggled with mental health and substance abuse issues. Jamison does her research on humans and intoxicants, even diving into the myths spun by the likes of Harry Anslinger about cannabis. The Recovering, however, primarily explores the relationship between creativity and addiction as told through 12-step church basement meetings.

As a fellow writer who also quit drinking but uses cannabis and alternative recovery methods (AA isn’t often 420-friendly), I was curious to sit down with Jamison and compare our pasts, as well as discuss how she felt about the vast range of experiences humans have with mind-altering chemicals. The result was a thoughtful discussion on the glamorization of the artist-as-addict, the many paths to recovery, and, as detailed in The Recovering, the importance of sharing stories of artists after they’ve overcome addiction, to remind us that inspiration doesn’t die once we expunge our self-destructive habits. 

Leslie Jamison, photographed by Beowulf Sheehan, courtesy of the author

MERRY JANE: You know by now that this interview is publishing on MERRY JANE, Snoop Dogg’s cannabis and culture publication. Were you surprised that we asked to interview you?

Leslie Jamison: I was thrilled. There can be assumptions that if you’re sober, you have an antagonistic or prudish relationship to substances, or a desire to get rid of substances. The afterword of the book makes it pretty explicit; I am pro-legalization. My relationship to how I think our culture should relate to substances was deeply informed by my alcoholism but is not one of prohibition. What I’m interested in is, What is the vast range of relationships people can have with substances, and how do those relationships look different?

Totally. I quit drinking five years ago, but I use cannabis. For about two years, I was by the AA book sober-sober, but then I was having these sexual assault flashbacks, and someone suggested trying cannabis. Compared to the amount of benzos I was on at the time, it did seem safer, and it worked. Substances do affect people differently. I have friends who drink without issue, but one hit of weed will give them a panic attack. What’s your take on what works for you when we’re all so different? 

I believe that there are a thousand different paths. Some people can never use a substance well, some people can’t at a certain period in their lives and then can later on. Some people can smoke cigarettes and do coke in non-addictive ways, but it just never was like that for me. People would ask me once I stopped drinking, “Do you think you’ll ever get to a point where you can have a glass of wine?” And I was like, well, for me, I have no desire to have a glass of wine. That was never how drinking worked for me. I think that has helped me in a more visceral way to understand that other people might have a very different relationship to drinking than I do. I think it’s important for there to be a not only a compassionate and non-judgmental way of approaching addiction but also to understand that it’s not just one monolithic category that looks the same for everyone. 

Are you over 18?

How do you feel about people recovering through ways other than traditional 12-Step programs? 

My book is so much about 12-step recovery because I’m really interested in what happens in those spaces. I’m interested in how important narrative is for that kind of recovery. The fact that I’m writing about 12-step recovery is not because I think it should be the only recovery model we have; it’s more like if I wrote a ton about basketball, it wouldn’t be me saying that I think basketball should be the only sport. It’s where my interests lie. [12-step] does have this dominance in our American paradigm of what recovery is, and I think there are lots of other ways people can find recovery, like through therapy, through different sorts of spiritual practices, through medications. I believe in all of those because I believe it’s not my place to say what’s the right path for someone else. 

AA wasn’t for me, but one thing I learned from my experience with it — that I continue to need and find through other avenues — is community. I believe community is crucial to recovery. What are your thoughts on the importance of this aspect of the program? 

Community is this really crucial thing, and 12-step recovery has become this massive available community. When I talked to clinicians for the book, most of them were pretty supportive of 12-step recovery, but not in an exclusive way. Rather, what they said was that it wasn’t the only delivery system for things that really matter, like community, or reinforcement, or support. It’s just a delivery mechanism; there are other ways of finding this, too. 

Are you over 18?

I really struggled with that in the beginning, because I was trying to get sober in the same place where I had learned to drink, which was Iowa City, a place where creativity and drinking are so linked it’s impossible to separate them. I felt like so many things from book parties to readings… the world just felt saturated in booze. All of that felt really hard in the beginning [of sobriety]. It did feel important for me to have a community where people didn’t drink, and I could talk about what not drinking felt like with people who experienced it. Over the years, I’ve certainly found it’s a lot easier for me to be in spaces where other people are drinking than it used to be, just because I no longer have the same level of obsession with it. And I feel like I’ve logged enough hours being in the world without it. 

You discuss the concept of the high-functioning alcoholic in your book. Can you elaborate a bit on your feelings about this archetype?

There are people who don’t have much experience with addiction, who don’t believe in the concept of the high-functioning addict, and either life will convince them that that concept is a valid one, or life won’t. Addiction manifests in so many different ways and can look so different externally. One of the things that I’m always struck by is that in the spaces of recovery there’s very little sense of wanting to discount or invalidate something as “not a real problem.” People who have struggled the most I think are the most generous and inclusive about their definition of what counts as real suffering. There are probably many people who could live a life using a substance, or they could stop, and it’s not necessarily that there’s only one answer. It just comes down to, “What do you want your life to look like?” and what does the substance make it feel like?” That question was one of the motivating questions behind the whole book. 

Are you over 18?

The Recovering is the second book that you’ve published since getting sober, but I imagine it wasn’t just this seamless transition to being able to write without booze, even though it may appear that way on the outside.  

It definitely was not seamless. It’s never easy right away once you stop using a substance. I think for some people it actually is, there can be this immediate relief. For me, it wasn’t like that. When I took it out, it felt like this gaping hole, and I had no idea like what relief looked like without drinking. Writing in that very difficult early space of early sobriety was raw and difficult and frustrating. It wasn’t like, Poof! Here I am, a wizard of words with my new sobriety. It was more of an unfolding process. But over time, my writing felt exciting in the ways that it never did when I was drinking. 

I’ve read what reviewers say, but what you think your thesis of this book is?

I don’t think anything I write I could narrow down as [having] one thesis, but one piece is that stories of recovery and getting better can be just as compelling and rich and dynamic as stories about dysfunction, and I want to have the book reflect that. The second is thinking about what can happen when you look at different stories alongside each other, and not pretending that all those stories are the same, but finding their intersections. 

You mention that we’re not all so original as we may think. 

Are you over 18?

Both literature and recovery have taught me that lesson. I think recovery taught it to me most powerfully, that whatever I had lived or felt some version of it had been lived or felt before many times, but that that was OK. It didn’t invalidate the experience, it didn’t mean it wasn’t worth talking about. Literature is always teaching us that lesson, as well, that originality is sort of an illusion. As James Baldwin says, there are no new pains. 

You also discuss how regarding recovery, men and women’s stories are often treated differently. 

Addictions just get narrated very differently. Part of the book is about the very different stories we tell about what addiction is, like thinking about the addict as someone to be pitied, versus someone who deserves punishment, and then how those stories map onto black people, white people, old people, men and women. 

You write in your book the power of sharing your story. I’m curious about the parallels or differences you felt writing about it or sharing it in a meeting. 

I think on a core level, I do believe that sharing stories, whether it’s an invented story or an autobiographical story in recovery context, can share the same function in allowing people to feel less alone, or consoled in certain spaces. It’s also a way to get outside of yourself. I think there’s a simultaneity that can be operative both in recovery and reading a work of literature where you’re finding yourself in someone else’s story and getting out of yourself at the same time.

Are you over 18?

It’s been important for me to remember why and how making literature and sharing in recovery meetings are separate, too. There’s fundamentally something kind of life saving and useful about recovery where the point isn’t to be beautiful, it’s about just saying what it was. Bringing in some of those literary standards can be a little bit toxic. 

One thing we haven’t talked about is this glamorization of artists and substances, which often happens even in their deaths. 

I think that there has been some really toxic mythologies that associate drinking or addiction and creativity either in ways that kind of disguise how painful addiction is and present this romantic portrayal of the dark tortured genius whose creativity is fueled by booze or substances. I encountered a thousand versions of that story looking at writers and artists and singers. I wanted to push back against those a little bit. Not only is the reality of addiction really brutal, and yes there are these correlations between addiction and creativity, but also states of wellness and getting better and all the things related to recovery can mean generative states. But I just felt like I haven’t heard about those states as often. 

So, was that a conscious effort on your part to include the other side of the story, post-recovery?

Totally. There are a lot of recovery memoirs out there, but in most of them that I’ve read, recovery is this small afterthought at the end. I wanted to structurally present a challenge for recovery to happen about halfway through the story. When there’s just a little part about getting better, it really propagates this idea that things get less interesting or less alive or less dynamic. 

Are you over 18?

For more on Leslie Jamison, visit her website here and order a copy of “The Recovering”

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