This blog is part of our Mental Health Month blog series, where we highlight and explore eight different mental health struggles. Here’s Amy’s experience with and perspective on addiction.
Note: This piece is an excerpt from “(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation about Mental Health,” an anthology edited by Kelly Jensen.
Sometimes I’m okay. Sometimes I am very far from okay. Sometimes I write novels about the not-being-okay, and sometimes those novels win awards. Sometimes those novels are big flops. Sometimes I feel like my whole existence is a big flop. Sometimes I forget the difference between what actually happened and what I made up for the novels. Sometimes I wish I made it all up for the novels. Sometimes I wish I could just close the book and put it on a shelf and be a normal person for once.
The thing is, there are no “normal” people. Let’s get that out of the way. Another thing is that we are all suffering. Some of us just have more creative ways to do this suffering business. Some of us won the jackpot in terms of interesting brains, interesting families, interesting luck, interesting chaos. Some of us need more creative tools to make sense of it all.
I used to think chaos was always interesting, by definition—my chaos, your chaos, chaos in general. Some part of me still believes I’m in my early twenties and wild and beautiful and indestructible (despite all the destruction). I keep trying to pretend I’m young by getting more tattoos and age-inappropriate haircuts, but the truth is I’m pretty boring. I have a ton of gray hairs and I’m a mom and I’m tired all the time and I’m in my pajamas most nights by 7:00 p.m., and I spend a lot of my free time trying to be a better person. I’m also ten years sober.
But you know what’s even more boring than my current day-to-day life? Death. Or even before death, there’s the boring and repetitive chaos of addiction, repeating the same boring mistakes over and over again, telling the same boring lies. Relationships failing in the same boring ways, no matter how many times I changed schools or changed cities or changed drugs or took a break or did a cleanse or saw a therapist or fired a therapist or got a new boyfriend or got a new girlfriend. One after another, again and again, everything failed, while I got puffier and my body started doing scary things like having elevated liver enzymes, whatever the hell those are. I’m telling you, chaos is boring. And dangerous.
I have been to rehab twice, once when I was sixteen and once when I was twenty-nine. I may have ODed a couple times, but it’s kind of hard to define ODing when you don’t actually die.
No matter what’s in my system, I have always been very high functioning, meaning I could make everything look good on the outside. Except for those possible ODs of course. Or maybe when I dropped out of college because I was so strung out. Or maybe all those many years I’d get drunk or high in secret, in the morning, at lunch, before class, before work, and thought no one could tell. Or how I’d hide bottles in the bottom of the recycling bin so my husband wouldn’t know how much I drank. Or how I was so embarrassed on recycling day because the strangers who came by to collect bottles to return for five cents each would know my secret. They must have loved me.
Could anyone tell? Was I fooling anyone?
I am a well-educated, middle-class, pretty girl who usually passes as white, so I was fooling a lot of people. I got away with things people who are not middle-class white girls often do not get away with. I was too self-absorbed to realize any of this then, but I know now that my privilege protected me from consequences. This shames me now. But it also may have saved my life.
I fooled myself for a long time, despite the obvious signs. But that’s the thing about being (mostly) high functioning—we’re experts at fooling ourselves. I used my super organizational skills, perfectionism, and exceptional willpower to be the best alcoholic and drug addict I could be. I was a double agent. I would have been great in the FBI if I hadn’t been so loaded. On the outside, I looked (mostly) fine. I went to work. I sounded smart. I even jogged and went to yoga sometimes. So what if I passed out every night? So what if I often could not remember what I did for the couple hours before I passed out?
Even when I went to rehab, I was high functioning. Both times, it surprised everyone. They did not know the extent of my talent for smiling when I was a tornado inside. At sixteen, despite my slightly problematic attendance record and that one time I passed out in math class during a group test, I was a straight-A student in honors classes. I’d get caught occasionally with drugs or breaking curfew, but I was a good liar and my parents desperately wanted to believe that it was “just this time,” that I was “only experimenting,” that I’d “never do it again.”
I had a great group of friends in high school, many of whom were in my wedding and with whom I am still close today. They were the kids who experimented with me when they were young and grew out of it as adults. I was the one who did not grow out of it. They got high with friends and drank at parties. I was the one who was not doing it to party. I was not doing it to have fun. I got high, alone and without telling them, because it was the only way I knew how to function. It was the only way I knew how to feel safe in my body and deal with the thoughts and feelings plaguing my mind. By “deal,” I mean “running away from.”
It felt like someone snuck inside my brain, poked around, tangled up the wiring, made a mess, and suddenly it was my responsibility to clean it up. Maybe it was all those drugs I did. Maybe it was all that less-than-ideal parenting and trauma. Maybe it was the history of mental illness on my dad’s side. Maybe it was thetans or demonic possession or karmic punishment for past-life transgressions.
My mind is still a mess today.
Drug addiction. Alcoholism. Major depressive disorder. Anxiety disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Panic attacks. You name it. My new therapist thinks I may have bipolar II. Add to that the hormonal birth control I started at age fourteen, and the new reports that it may lead to depression, and the fact that my teenage suicidal ideation always peaked for a day or two every month like clockwork. Basically, I have been a mess of brain chemicals, hormone chemicals, and drug chemicals for most of my life. I have been on Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Effexor, and Wellbutrin. I think there’s another one I’m forgetting.
The first time I went to rehab, I was sixteen. I had spent the evening riding around my neighborhood in the back of my friend’s truck getting high and trying not to get thrown around as he turned corners. By the time I got to rehab later that night, I was banged up and bruised from the truck ride, more tired and stupid than anything. I had my guitar and a suitcase half filled with books, and I was ready for a nap. I thought I was going on vacation.
That’s what I wanted: a vacation. A vacation from myself. That was essentially what I was looking for every time I got drunk or high, but those escapes had stopped working. Now I wanted a vacation from that failed vacation, and I wanted to play guitar and read novels during my getaway.
I remember doing my intake interview in a sleepy haze. Yes, I hid drugs. Yes, I used alone. Yes, I lied about how much I used. Yes, drugs had caused problems in my relationships and in school. Yes, I had used drugs to counteract the effect of other drugs. Yes, my life had become unmanageable.
They refused my guitar entry. The books I could keep, though I would not get many chances to read them. The thing about rehab is you are busy all the time. You sit in circles a lot. You talk and listen to other people talk. You ride in white vans to meetings in church basements full of old men who look at you suspiciously. You make therapeutic art projects. You watch movies about people getting sober. You do not get a lot of time to lie around and be the person you’re used to being. Rehab is busy, but it is boring. Almost as boring as being a drug addict. It is not a vacation and certainly not a vacation from yourself.
I cannot smell Irish Spring soap now without getting a full-body memory of showering at rehab. I still have the polaroid picture they took at Christmas: I’m sitting on Santa’s lap (yes, Santa came to rehab), wearing my Big Lebowski sweater backward, my shoulder-length hair in the sad knots of attempted Asian/white girl dreadlocks. That evening, we got Christmas stockings full of sugar-free candy, then watched two episodes of a short-lived sitcom called The John Larroquette Show, starring John Larroquette as a recovering alcoholic. I still remember the theme song.
I gave the counselors what they wanted. I played my role and answered in character. I was the model rehab patient, just as I had been the model student. I wanted straight A’s in recovery. I wanted to be the drug addict they could fix. I wanted to be fixable. I wanted them to shake me like a snow globe. I wanted to close my eyes and feel the tiny breeze of their wands doing magic around me, then I would emerge, my broken pieces fixed, and we’d never have to speak of it again.
But of course it is more complicated than that. There is that whole thing about addiction being a disease that never quite goes away. There is that whole thing about my entire existence being a series of cravings and attachments and aversions and seeking pleasure and trying to avoid pain. There is my depression to consider. My anxiety. My nervous attachment style. My inability to communicate. My trauma. The countless shadows that trail me wherever I go, picking up debris, making a mess.
The thing about being a mess is you think you have two options: you have to clean yourself up or you keep hoping someone else will do it for you. (Spoiler alert: someone else can never do it for you, as much as you—or they—might want them to.)
The thing about getting clean is that once you get out of rehab, no one’s getting paid to take care of you anymore. That is when the real work starts. At sixteen, I was not ready to do the real work, so my sobriety did not last long. But a seed was planted. Somewhere inside, behind the shadows, I knew there was a solution if I wanted it. I knew there was a path and there were tools to end my suffering if I became willing to tell the truth and do the real work. But as they say in the rooms of recovery communities, I had more research to do.
That leads me, I suppose, to this writing business. Living in my addiction was research for my recovery, which is in some ways similar to how a writer’s life is research for their writing. I did a lot of one kind of living, and my first several novels reflect that. I’ve written a lot about addiction, about mental illness and trauma, about lost souls desperate for connection, about being your own worst enemy. I’ve relied a lot on my experiences as a teen and young adult for the subjects of my novels. My first two novels in particular, Beautiful and Clean, are very autobiographical.
But I almost did not become a writer. Ironically, it was writing essays much like this one—messy nonfiction about my own messy life—that almost ended my dream of becoming a writer.
I took a creative nonfiction workshop in college, not too long before I dropped out. The teacher did not like my writing. He liked poems and essays, with big words, about mountains. He did not like confessional writing. I wrote about the mess in my head. I confessed all over the place. I desperately wanted someone to listen.
Paper had always listened. When I was young and full of shame and loneliness, I could write down my pain and the paper took it. The paper listened when I was thirteen and so terrified I could barely speak, when I was already getting high by myself to avoid the mess in my head, the mess in my heart, the pain of having no one I felt safe telling, the pain of having no control over what people did with my body. But I had control over the substances I put in my body; I thought that gave me control over my feelings. I learned quickly that control was false. But no matter what happened, I always had control over what I put on the paper.
This is why I almost quit writing forever: an anonymous student in my creative nonfiction class wrote a letter and put it in my campus mailbox. The letter told me my essays were a cry for help and had no place in a writing workshop. When I told my teacher about the letter and how much it hurt me, he didn’t care. And maybe the student was right. Maybe I did need help, maybe I was unmedicated and had just started the exciting new experience of chronic panic attacks, maybe I got high every day and was on the hunt for something stronger, maybe I was sleeping with a guy I couldn’t stand but felt desperate to keep, maybe I was so desperate for someone to listen that I vomited my secrets all over those unsuspecting creative writing students and expected them to workshop me, to validate my suffering by saying it was art.
My suffering was not art. It was just suffering. It was untreated mental illness and drug addiction and PTSD and a little girl trapped in the body of a young woman who was screaming for strangers to see her because the people who mattered to her never could.
I quit writing for many years after that. But as I began a slow climb to wellness in my late twenties (a climb that will never be over, by the way), writing came back to me. Or I came back to writing. Or I came back to myself. Or meds and therapy and another stint at rehab finally worked, and I finally claimed a confidence in my voice that no weird anonymous letter from a creative writing student telling me my writing was the rantings of a crazy person could crush.
Maybe all the confessing I’ve done behind the safety of fiction really has helped all those readers who have emailed me saying my books helped them feel less alone, helped them ask for help, helped them clean up their messes, helped them save their own lives.
Maybe that is the point of all writing—to communicate, to connect, to forge compassion and understanding between writer and reader. Not to impress some elitist writing professor. And sometimes that communication comes out as a confession. And maybe that’s okay. Because maybe confessing is better than keeping it all in. Maybe telling secrets is better than letting those secrets fester and poison us and make us sick. Even when they’re cries for help. Maybe especially when they’re cries for help.
Maybe it’s true that I could have been more selective about who I told my secrets to. Maybe a writing workshop full of immature strangers and a macho teacher who hated “women’s writing” was not the right venue for my confessions. That’s the thing about being someone who only ever knew how to keep secrets, who never learned how to communicate—we may not always know how to start; we may not be the best judges of when and where it is safe to be vulnerable. But you know what? There is a fine line between foolish and brave, and sometimes our actions can be both. I was trying to be brave. I was trying to let people in. I was trying.
I am who I am today because of my messes. Because I’ve survived them. Because I’ve written about them. Because I’ve learned from them, because I keep searching for new tools to clean them up, because I keep trying to heal. And maybe healing makes me boring. Maybe running and meditation and motherhood and sobriety and eating vegetables and working hard at this writing thing makes me boring. But I’ll take it. If I need unboring, I’ll create it on paper. I’ll navigate messes with my characters. I will help them find the tools for cleaning up their messes. I will open up my heart and put it in my books for you, and maybe when you open up my books, you will read something that feels true. You’ll know you’re not alone, and you’ll know it’s okay to not feel okay all the time—and maybe you’ll find something in these pages that helps you clean up your messes, too.
Amy Reed is the award-winning author of several novels for young adults, including THE BOY AND GIRL WHO BROKE THE WORLD, THE NOWHERE GIRLS, BEAUTIFUL, CLEAN, and TELL ME MY NAME (forthcoming, March 2021). She also edited the anthology OUR STORIES, OUR VOICES: 21 YA AUTHORS GET REAL ABOUT INJUSTICE, EMPOWERMENT, AND GROWING UP FEMALE IN AMERICA. Amy is a feminist, mother, and Virgo who enjoys running, making lists, and wandering around the mountains of western North Carolina where she lives. You can find her online at amyreedfiction.com. She’s also part of a Buddhist-based recovery program called Recovery Dharma.