One of the biggest fears people who are struggling with alcohol or other drugs tend to have is that they will be doomed to a deadening, conformist life in recovery. Especially for artists, writers or musicians, anxiety looms about losing their creative edge.
Leslie Jamison knows all about it.
Now 34, the author of the bestselling The Empathy Exams is over seven years sober. As another journalist who has also written obsessively about both addiction and empathy, I was eager to interview her after reading her new book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath.
Jamison and I spoke as her three-month-old daughter slept on her chest, comparing notes on the tricky narratives that tend to define addiction and recovery in America. In the face of the overdose crisis, questions about the nature of addiction that could otherwise seem academic can actually be matters of life and death.
VICE: Where do you think the roots of your addiction lie?
Leslie Jamison: I tend to think about my life in general [by] considering multiple narratives and multiple explanations for how things come to be without necessarily settling on one to the exclusion of the other.
I really try to enact that process structurally in the book too.... "Well, you can tell the story of where I initially came from like this or like this or like this, and probably all of those explanations hold some truth, but none of them hold the whole truth."
I certainly think there’s a genetic component to where my addiction comes from—look at my family tree and it’s full of diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illness.
Your aunt is Kay Redfield Jamison, author of An Unquiet Mind, which deals with her bipolar disorder—and she’s a widely respected authority on the condition.
Yeah. There’s quite a bit of that on that side of the family. I think certainly one place [my addiction] comes from is a physiological place in terms of how I experienced, like, where the desire came from and where that feeling of dependence came from.
So much of it for me came back to a sense of kind of gut-level insecurity, and I mean that constant self-evaluation, self-interrogation—like, every single thing, every single thought that would come into my mind. I would ask myself over and over again, "Is this worth saying? Is this something other people are going to like?"
[Or] "How are you going to earn your presence in this relationship? How are you going to earn your presence in the world?" The right to exist being something that you have to earn rather than just something that you had was a really bone-level anxiety for me.
You had to be smart enough and good enough and all this to be able to even just be okay…
I feel like there’s this deep connection between my relationship to success and my relationship to substances. I feel like they come from a really similar place in me.
By getting this next thing or just the constant anxiety about not being good enough—all of those anxieties were also why it felt so fucking good to use a drug, because it quieted all that chatter for periods of time.
Yeah. You had anorexia also, and I liked how you said that they’re coming from the same place. Many people don’t recognize that obsessive and compulsive behaviors like anorexia and OCD are often quite similar to addiction.
I always felt like the impulse to restrict was less like an expression of who I was and more like this rabid compensatory measure to try to cover up who I actually was.
Deep inside, [I] wanted to consume constantly everything, always, so the denial was just the way of fighting it rather than giving in to it. And in a way, I think [that’s] part of why 12-step recovery has been really important for me. [It] was so useful for me [by] giving me alternatives to the logic of indulgence, the logic of denial.
[An interesting thing] about how people have been responding to the book so far, is [that] everybody who’s thought seriously about addiction has a set of feelings about 12-step recovery.
I wanted to somehow write a book that was both, among other things, an ode to what 12-step recovery had been in my life, but also wasn’t just an un-interrogated account, nor meant to be a catch-all prescription for everybody else.
You write about this fear that you would not be able to write well in recovery, or that writing about recovery would just be dull. Where do you think that came from?
Part of it was that I had not only idolized certain drunk genius writers but, also, I had really always associated creativity with darkness and pain. Also, there was something about the kind of chaos and narrative substance of an addicted life that would lend itself to creativity. The more deeply I became enmeshed in my own dependent relationship to alcohol, the more disabused I became of that particular illusion.
I think that that sense that recovery was going to be boring personally comes from the canon of addiction memoirs in which, not exclusively, but often, the recovery part of the story is this perfunctory afterthought, after the real meat of what people bought the book for, which is the train-wreck.
[I wanted] to see if recovery could be as interesting a part of the story. Some of the issue comes down to some basic things about narrative, which is that [it] depends on trouble and problems.
There’s also a way that recovery stories seem to be forced into a basic sin and redemption tale.
It’s something that I have wrestled with. I actually find 12-step fellowship to be a space where there’s room for very different narratives to be true at once.
[If you have] a room full of people who are each around to just speak the truth of what happened to them, you end up seeing that addiction did play out in pretty radically different ways, and I think that that means there’s room again to not be expected or expect yourself to identify with everything, or force stories to be exactly the same thing.
What I try to push against is this homogenizing 12 step idea of “yets.” You know, "You haven’t killed your grandmother yet," or all people with addiction are selfish, evil creatures who would do anything horrible at any time, when they take drugs—and if you haven’t done something awful “yet,” you will if you relapse. It’s just not true. How do you avoid that?
I think for certain people, there’s something quite useful about a kind of hard line, like I haven’t killed my grandmother yet. You know what I mean?
Part of what ends up feeling permissive about fellowship is that you can find the people who talk about what addiction was in their life in a way that feels useful and relevant and resonant and not actually have to have the way that every single person talks about it feel like the model that you want to pick up.
There is something nice about, "We’re all human, we’re all sinners, we all haven’t killed our grandmother yet"— it’s extremely inclusive. But at the same time, it’s also saying, well, we’re all sociopaths, which is not nice at all.
I believe in myself as deeply contingent. I actually don’t fully know what I’m even capable of, and it’s not that I think I could kill my grandmother, but it’s kind of like I wish everybody went around the world with a little bit [more of the feeling that these kinds of things are possible for many people in the wrong circumstances].
That is radical empathy.
[And] if there’s some way of allowing for contingency and a certain kind of empathetic attention to take [this idea] in that direction rather than that moralizing, turning all addicts into these sort of like character-flawed, deviant people.
For me, I much more want to think about everybody is capable of anything, and in that way, it’s connected to something else that I’ve thought about 12-step recovery, which is it’s less that I think like: Oh, addicts are the only people who have a dangerous relationship to anger [or] selfishness. [Instead], I think that probably every single person could benefit from [the program].
Yeah, it’s just when it is presented as “these are specific bad characteristics of people with addiction” and “this is the treatment for addiction” that I have a problem with it. Another thing I find really dangerous is this narrative of “hitting bottom” because it’s used to justify all kinds of horrible treatment.
Yeah, the idea that a punishment becomes part of somebody’s bottom [and] that’s going to inspire them to get sober—that was one of the things that made so much sense to me about your book [Unbroken Brain] and made me want to foist [it] on everyone in America. It’s one of the hallmark characteristics of addiction, [that] immunity to negative consequences. [So] how would it ever, ever, ever be effective to just keep [punishing people]?
And again, that gets to empathizing with the experience of people with addiction
I do feel like one of the great struggles of my life has been the struggle with and against self-obsession, and again, I say that less in a self-lacerating way—it’s probably one of everybody’s huge struggles. In that sense, this obsession with empathy is trying to reckon with that, like what is the alternative to self-obsession?
What is the way out, or what are the ways by which we can like engage with other people’s lives? And certainly recovery is one structured way of engaging with other people’s lives. [12 step] is only one way to do that, but I think one of the things that is beautiful about it is this very primal proposition that you might show up in a room and listen to other people for an hour, and you can do that in any number of frameworks, and it would probably be really useful.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about Jamison's book, out this week, here.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Maia Szalavitz on Twitter.