Complicating Our Narratives About Addiction and Illness: The Millions Interviews Amy Long

I first met Amy Long through a writers’ networking group where she often answered questions with extreme thoughtfulness and generosity. We became friends, and Long was kind enough to give me an advance copy of her memoir, Codependence. Long’s book is a fearless look at opioid addiction. It sheds light on chronic pain, the opioid epidemic, romantic codependence mixed up with substance abuse—all through a stunning combination of experimental techniques and traditional essays. Long and I sat down to chat recently, and the conversation was just as frank and thoughtful as her new essay collection.

The Millions: First, I’d like to talk about the form of the book. Some of it is experimental, taking the visual formatting of a doctor’s prescription, or a reference book entry about a drug; some is straightforward. What made you decide to employ the experimental format? In what ways do you feel your writing differs in the two formats?

Amy Long: The book mostly started as a medicine cabinet I made as a final project in Matthew Vollmer’s creative nonfiction workshop at Virginia Tech. The library’s graphic designers helped me make all this cool stuff—I rolled up stories in pill bottles and bags of fake coke and actual Suboxone packets and had flash essays printed on the backs of motel keys and a giant check or tucked them into a fake hospital bracelet; it was really cool—and I wanted to figure out how to get those stories onto a 2D page without losing all the formal stuff that made me love them so much. So, some of the essays are experimental because they started out as something even weirder, and some are experimental in some part due to necessity. Like, a map of pharmacies—my friend Silas Breaux, a printmaker and visual artist, made me this insanely cool map to use in it; you can see it on my Instagram and in the book—felt like the best way to write about the trouble I always had filling my prescriptions and how discourse about opioid abuse affects my ability to take them for chronic pain. The glossary essay felt necessary in that I’d hear people in workshop say, like, “Well, she is on opioids. Maybe she’s hallucinating,” and I realized I couldn’t expect everyone to have the same prodigious drug history I do! I also wanted to catalog all the non-opioid medications I’d tried (most of which are also represented in the medicine cabinet), and they fit nicely into that form. I never wanted the formal experimentation to feel gimmicky, and while I like the generative nature of those kinds of constraints, it was also nice to sort of spread out in the more traditional essays.

The first essay in the book centers on me telling my mom that I’m back on opioids. I wrote it as a braided essay, which I didn’t know then is an established form—I thought I was stealing the numbered-paragraph format from Maggie Nelson’s Bluets—and I started it immediately after I got off the phone with my mom. It came really fast, so I decided I’d kind of alternate between these two modes—experimental and braided, more traditional essays—but the decisions I made about how I’d write each essay were either intuitive or came from the medicine cabinet. The braided essays give me a lot more room and freedom, and I think I’m more associative and meditative there. I often touch on something or sum it up in an experimental essay and add more depth to it in a braided essay.

TM: Early on, you refer to yourself as an unreliable narrator. This seems true to a degree, but the book also has an unflinching honesty that a more traditionally reliable narrator could not bring to it. What are the benefits of styling yourself this way in non-fiction? Drawbacks?

AL: I mean, I don’t want people to think that what I’m writing about is untrue. Everything in the book happened the way I depict it to the best of my recollection. But I’m unreliable to the degree that I think all narrators in nonfiction are unreliable; I remember things wrong, I see my perspective first, there are things I don’t know. I guess I’m just a little more meta about it? I was aware as I wrote that I was creating a character with my narrator self, that everything kind of becomes fiction once it’s written down, and thinking of it that way maybe allowed me to be more honest (I also just don’t really have that filter; like, I never think “I don’t want people to know about this!”). But I also wanted readers to be able to make up their own minds about what I’m doing or what’s happening to me, and nodding to that unreliability inherent in personal narratives gives them an interpretive space that I haven’t often seen in recovery or illness narratives.

TM: You speak early on about using drugs extensively in a recreational sense, then later for your chronic disability. At one point, you say that the disability’s manifestations may be “the best thing that ever happened to you,” despite their clearly destructive power over your life, because it will enable your recreational use. Was it important to you to mention one or the other first, and how do you think that affects the reader’s view of your use? Was it an intentional choice to have potential readers view you as a “certain kind” of drug user?

AL: Yes. Definitely. I want readers to question what kind of drug user I am. I did want the pain strand—the medicinal opioid use—to come first since I think that’s kind of the heart of the book, and putting it at the beginning might incline people to follow that thread. Something happens when you put these two kinds of drug use in conversation with each other, but I’m not even totally clear on what that is or what it means that I used to take drugs for fun and now take those same drugs as medicine. I was never dependent on opioids when I used them recreationally, but I am now; so, I’m kind of more of a “junkie” in the later parts of the narrative even though I’m not using drugs to get high. It’s a fertile juxtaposition that I like a lot. I think that also plays a lot into the unreliable narrator thing: like, can the reader trust me when I say I’m in pain since I admit that I still like drugs? But, mostly, I think it blurs the lines we put up between “addict” and “patient,” and I like that the two strands come together to complicate our narratives about addiction and illness.

TM: You use the phrase “an obsessive steward of your own history” to describe your role as a writer, and I think this is so illuminating of what a writer—of fiction or non-fiction—does. In the same sentence, you worry that the use of drugs will alter this stewardship. This seems like a deep fear, but do you feel the existence of the book itself makes it unfounded? Or not? Is this a fear you live with regularly?

AL: There, I’m writing about a particular drug, Topamax, which has a lot of cognitive side effects; migraineurs call it “Dopamax” for a reason! It makes most people kind of slow and foggy. I don’t worry about opioids altering the way I perceive my life since, now, I don’t get anything but pain relief from them. Like, I just took a pain pill, but I’m not high. I worry more about the opposite. In 2016, the CDC changed its opioid-prescribing guidelines in a way that has really hurt pain patients, and I’m afraid I’ll never get the level of pain relief I need in order to write another book. So, it is a fear I live with daily but not in the way most people would expect.

TM: The book doubles back on character often, portraying characters such as Beth and Chelsea in one light, then taking the time to portray them the way a “more empathetic” person might. Though, the effect is that your narrator (you) really does see both slants to the character, but is lacking in the insight that she is the more empathetic narrator she wishes to be, as well as the less empathetic one. This provides an image of multiple narrators on the page, the “unreliability” we are told to expect early on. However, this unreliability seems to be more reliable than many narrations that, for example, skewer everyone but the narrator. Did this come early on in the writing, or through the process of drafting and revision?

AL: I like your reading of that. I wish my sisters agreed with it. I don’t like memoirs that make the narrator a kind of hero or exclusively a victim. I wanted to depict myself in as harsh a light as I do everyone else, maybe even a harsher one. I aimed for that in the draft stage, but I did add to it and use my editors as a check during revision and editing.

TM: There’s a section when you discuss how your first boyfriend, David, used to tell you no one would ever love you like he did, which is both a threat and a promise that you later acknowledge is true in some way. While this becomes obvious to you later as a sign of manipulation, do you think it’s also truth in the capacity that no one ever loves anyone the way one person did? I feel like manipulators often bend truths to the ends of control. Is this what this feels like to you, even now? Is there something of truth and need in dependence to people or drugs that make the want and happiness the incidental thing?

AL: That’s a good question. Of course all loves are different—especially first loves. It’s hard to replicate that experience. You’re so stupid; you don’t know anything about the world or what love is, and you don’t go into it with baggage or real-world expectations. And there’s a certain level of drama built into the kind of relationship that David and I had. All the needing and the problems make it feel special and important and sort of Romeo-and-Juliet like. It makes you think you want this thing that maybe isn’t the best thing for you because all that adversity brings you closer together and makes you want to fight to keep it. I don’t still think that no one will ever love me the way David did, and now I really hope he’s right. That relationship put a lot of pressure on me at a young age—and I was a young 18—and has affected every relationship I’ve had since. Now, I think love should be stable and kind of boring and that that’s much more romantic. I still get drawn into those kinds of melodramatic dynamics, though, so I’m trying to appreciate the boring parts more.

TM: What’s next for you?

AL: I think in books, and the next book will center on the themes I touched on in my last answer: relationships, loneliness, how love shapes us and how we shape it. The medicine cabinet is the only outline from which I’ve ever been able to work, and I’m still trying to determine the next book’s structure and scope; I think I need to make a diorama or something so I can figure out what I’m doing.

Alex DiFrancesco’s novel All City (Seven Stories Press) and their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms) were released this year. They can be found @DiFantastico on Twitter.

In Praise of the “Starter Book”

Recently, in a networking group I’m part of, a woman posted in a panic. She was about to publish her first book with a small press, and she was lost. She didn’t know which way to turn, what to do next. She couldn’t stop wishing she was on the best-of lists, had the support of a Big 5 publisher behind her. She didn’t know how to market herself. In short, she was crying, “Help!”

Reading her post, I went back three years in time. When I published my first book, it was with a small press where I felt that one or two people really understood what I was going for, but the rest were baffled by my weird, not-quite-genre genre-fiction. The editor who had chosen the book for publication got switched off it as my editor at the last minute. In one of the few acts of support I got from my in-house publicist, she promoted my book, an acid western largely concerned with the genocide of Native American people, as a “beach read.” Every bit of press the book got was a hard-won victory that I could trace back to my own work. Sometimes I felt like this publisher was actively working against me, giving me a terrible book cover and refusing to relent when I objected to it, handing the blurbers I found without their assitance the pub date instead of the date the book was being printed as their deadline, leaving my book blurbless. I cried the day I realized I’d “won” a scam book award contest that the press had entered me into, that I’d found out was a scam simply by Googling the name of the contest.

At the time, I felt like a failure. I looked at the best-of lists and felt like crying. But three years later, having learned how to market a book with little support, how to look at the issue of getting your book into the world as one with creative solutions, having spun that work into a graduate assistantship and freelance work in marketing, having set up my own reading series, having built connections to other writers and publishers, I look fondly back on my first book as my “starter book.”

Maybe you’ve heard of a “starter home,” or a “starter marriage,” the short-lived or what-I-can-do-at-the-moment solutions to building a future. The starter home is often a small, older place that a family is expected to grow out of eventually, but which is where they start learning to care for a home and begin building their family. A starter marriage is a first, short-lived, endeavor that serves as a learning experience for a later marriage that is hoped to last much longer. The “starter book” is really no different.

Even when I was just starting out with trying to publish my first book, I knew that it wasn’t going to make me a million dollars. I looked at it as a beginning to something I was invested in for life. And now, after the sting of selling 200 copies in three years has passed a bit, looking back fondly on my little “starter book,” I’m able to say that even though I didn’t write something that changed lives, even though I didn’t hit a home run on the first pitch, I learned lessons that were invaluable to building a career as a writer.

I learned how to market your book when it doesn’t seem anyone else cares. I learned to make spreadsheets and contact lists and do outreach. I learned to take every opportunity, no matter how small it may seem at the time. I learned to take interest and care in the careers of other writers who were at early levels, and to cheer them on and support them the way I wished to be supported—and which I now am beginning to be. I learned that the answer when someone offers you a way to promote your book is always “yes,” except when that “yes” would truly not serve you or your project. Even when “yes” has to be creative. Even when “yes” means you’ll be eating peanut butter and jelly for two weeks because of the train ticket you had to buy. Even when “yes” means doing a Skype session because you can’t be there. Even when “yes” means “do I have a couch in the area I can sleep on?” Even when “yes” means renting a car with terrible steering and fearing for your life the whole way to the opportunity.

I learned that I had to get my writing out there in every way possible. I called PR agents I pretended I had the money to hire, just to pick their brains. I implemented everything I learned from them, even when it wasn’t comfortable for me. When I published my “starter book,” I was a total fiction snob, someone who felt they didn’t have time for writing that wouldn’t further that goal. But what good is your fiction if no one can find it? While promoting my starter book, I learned to take every writing opportunity I could. I wrote personal essays and blog posts and articles, I learned how to do storytelling events when the idea of being on stage had previously frozen me with fear. I learned that when people made a connection to me, often though my personal essays and stories, they were much more likely to want to make a connection to my fiction.

I learned to have confidence in myself, even when it seemed like the whole world was indifferent. I had always believed my voice should be out there, but now it was, so what was I going to do about it? Lament that it wasn’t with a Big 5 publisher, or a dream press that backed me up every step of the way? No. I was going to push to get it recognized in every way that I could. Even when I stepped into a small, independent bookshop in Queens and had their owner look me up and down and tell me that I’d have to have my publicist contact her if I wished to work with them on book events (crushing! humiliating!), I didn’t lose faith in what I was doing.

None of this is to say that my first book was a mistake, or I didn’t love it, or put all my heart into it. I did love it, it meant the world to me. But it didn’t go very far. And that’s okay, too. The way that it crushes you when that marriage that lasts a year ends, I was hurt by this for a while. But as time went on, I was able to look back more and more fondly on the experience I’d had, and all I learned. I was able to treasure every time a random transgender person found my novel and sent me fan-mail telling me that they’d forgotten that trans people could write anything outside the realm of words about gender identity. I was able to look at my first, largely-failed baby as a “starter book.” Not a mistake. Not something I wish I’d never done. But something that built the groundwork for what I was going to go on to do.

I have two more books coming out next spring, from an indie press and a mid-sized one. I feel excited and supported, but mostly I feel confident. I’ve been here before. I’m not going in brand new to the experience. I’ve learned so much from having my work out in the world, even in the form of a “starter book,” that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Image Credit: Flickr/Kelly Taylor.