False (Re)starts: Sobriety, Stillness, and Leslie Jamison’s Stunning New Memoir

In the space of three days, I devoured Leslie Jamison’s new memoir, The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath. I’ve been a voracious fan of her voice ever since I read The Empathy Exams, and was even more excited since the release was personally timely: I recently gave up drinking myself.

One good way to redirect compulsion: beach & book

As I covered in my post on the subject, I’m not exactly in recovery; my booze-quitting process was strange and stepwise and evolved out of other behavioral changes. In her memoir, Jamison covers the exquisite pain of her addiction, the white-knuckled fortitude it took to finally give it up after multiple failed times trying. The book speaks to the impossibility of her sobriety without the community support she found in Alcoholics Anonymous. I went to one AA meeting — accidentally, while at AWP, where the conference schedule advertised it only as a “sober” event rather than a 12-step meeting — and despite the group’s fervent friendliness, I felt totally out of place. I claimed my 68 days without feeling as though I’d earned their applause at all. I wasn’t struggling.

But that’s not to say I haven’t struggled, that I don’t feel my addictive streak running through me like radioactive ore. I’ve ridden the roller coaster Jamison recounts in these pages, know that feels-good-falling-down rush of abandon, of turning yourself over to some fuck it decision and feeling like it’s right, or even righteous.

At the start of the book, Jamison discusses her eating disorder, a struggle with anorexia that left her bone-thin and weak enough to risk randomly passing out in public. She describes disposing of a still-full jar of peanut butter not in her dorm room’s trash can, but downstairs in the basement dumpster; she knows if she puts it in the trash, she could — and would — simply pluck it back out and eat it anyway.

“Down in the basement, before I tossed it, I scooped out some peanut butter with my fingers and ate it in gobs.” Then she tossed the jar, started to go back upstairs… and returned to the dumpster to dip her fingers into the jar again.

That was the truth of me: not the skinny girl who never ate but that girl with dirty fingers, leaning into the trash. …I wanted to spend every single moment of my life eating everything.”

In my copy of the book, this last sentence is triple-underlined and starred — and not just because I’ve definitely eaten trashed dessert items. (I later learned to pour salt in afterward to spoil the self-destructive option.)

I wouldn’t say I had a dependence on alcohol until grad school, but it was definitely a regular part of my life from fourteen onward. I grew up in a household where daily drinking was a foregone conclusion, almost a point of pride; it felt natural to follow in those footsteps.

And, of course, I enjoyed it. A lot. Jamison admits to drinking while on dangerously contraindicated medications, making her heart thrum wildly in her chest; though I’ve never done that, I’ve put off courses of antibiotics — extending maladies — to accommodate my drinking schedule. Although I’ve never found myself anticipating my next drink after a night big enough to give me a hangover, once I started drinking, I wouldn’t want to stop. And I’ve certainly experienced dozens of blackouts. One ex-boyfriend, who actively encouraged my drinking, liked to make a game out of it: Want to know what you did last night? I didn’t, as the circumstances were always embarrassing and sometimes downright dangerous: cavorting with strangers, desperately seeking attention, getting sick enough that I likely should have gone to a hospital. On one occasion, I made such a mess of a hotel room that we fled the scene, calling inn after inn looking for one that would check us in at 9 a.m. on a Sunday. I’d gotten sick in my sleep and ruined the sheets, woke up covered in my own mess and crying.

And it wasn’t just about volume.

This ex and I had a certain code phrase: all the sauces. It was less an inside joke than an accusation, gleaned from my propensity to ask for one of each option when we went to places like Chick-fil-a or Moe’s. At Tijuana Flats, I’d make multiple trips to the hot sauce bar, pouring myself a tiny thimble cup of every single one. There were more than thirty.

When I later broached the subject of opening our closed relationship — a change he did not want to make — my ex saw it as just another instance of all the sauces, less a lack of commitment than a compulsion to taste everything, an endless desire for more and better and next.

And this is what it means to be an addict, right? Always itching, always looking for something to make us whole, to fill the weird empty space that lives inside us — even while knowing the filler is false and fleeting. Although I don’t talk about it a lot, my behaviors are still shaped by these same lines of compulsion.

When I did quit drinking, it was partially in service to “clean” eating and a focus on weight management that could still be called compulsive and unhealthy. My massive weight loss and fitness-oriented lifestyle may look good from the outside, but my relationship with food and body image has been fraught since childhood.

Losing weight didn’t change that. If anything, the pressures increased. Although I’ve been moving toward a focus on whole, fresh foods and trying to stop thinking in terms of restriction, I still track everything I eat, can still recite nutrition facts off the top of my head for almost any food item. It’s like the reverse of that scene in the Matrix; instead of a slice of cake or a head of broccoli, I see sets of numbers. I joke sometimes that on a scale from one to full-blown exercise bulimia, I’m probably about a three — and that’s being generous. It all takes up a huge chunk of my energy, an undue amount of psychic real estate.

After reading Jamison’s book, I’m beginning to see parallels between these different self-destructive tendencies. It seems all of it derives from compulsion, from being saddled with a soul that is always, as she puts it, “an open mouth.” Jamison watches a boyfriend nurse a single beer for an hour, totally baffled; for those of us built this way, sipping is not an option.

This way of being, which is perhaps what we call an “addictive personality,” isn’t choosy. It wraps its tentacles around whatever options are available: alcohol or harder drugs, reckless shopping sprees, trashed jars of peanut butter or tallied trips to the gym. Hell, writing itself can be a compulsive action. Right now, I’m watching a gorgeous day pass through my windows. No one’s paying me to sit here and think through these problems instead of packing up and hitting the beach.

Before I went to AWP, I was chatting with an old college friend of mine, musing that it was going to be an interesting experiment to attend sober. Everyone knows the biggest creative writers’ conference in America is basically one long bender.

He responded by telling me not to beat myself up if I broke my dry streak, which was then about two months long and counting. “I’m not good at moderation,” I told him, “So I really just prefer omission. If I have one or two, I’m usually going to keep going.”

I never told him directly how much his simple text message response infuriated me:

“Learn to self-discipline :p”

I snapped back something about having lost eighty pounds, about spending an hour and a half in the gym daily — which he dismissed as masochistic. But I was livid. I literally can’t remember the last time I had a donut or slice of pizza; I work out even when injured or on vacation. It feels like my whole life is about self-discipline.

But in a way, he’s right. Whether it’s abstinence or abundance, it’s the same underlying compulsiveness at work, the personality-trait cloth that can be so easily woven into addiction. And sometimes, abstinence is just an effort to get out of your own way, knowing you’ll eventually blow it later.

Ditching booze was, conveniently, a way to ditch extra calories — but I was also trying to escape recurring bouts of drunken binge eating, days when I’d wake up to a spent wine bottle and six Quest bar wrappers in the trash, or multiple empty bags of microwave popcorn. My liquor-lubricated inhibitions allowed one compulsion to overcome another.

The primary problem of Jamison’s book is the relationship between addiction and creativity — whether intoxication fuels invention, as is the common myth, or if real artistry and passion can be found in its tedious, sober absence. Everyone knows the stereotypes about artists and writers; everyone’s quoted Hemingway: write drunk, edit sober. Even as someone who’s attended before and done a stint in a creative writing grad program, navigating AWP while sober was an eye-opener. Multiple journals enticed visitors to their booths by dishing out free shots of bourbon during the daytime book fair; events advertised themselves with the promise of great readings accompanied by “deep drinking” even in the official conference literature. (The cartoon above was also in the conference schedule’s pages.)

While working toward her MFA at Iowa, Jamison contends with drinking in the footsteps of her literary predecessors, boozing in the same bars as Denis Johnson and John Berryman. Can artists still be creative, successful, the right kind of crazy, wholly fulfilled — hell, just any fun — without alcohol?

A lot of writers (and alcoholics) would say no. Indeed, I remember meeting teetotalers and thinking them joyless, alien beings whose parched lives I’d never want to live. I knew the truth, the cosmic secrets that lived in those temporary, wine-soaked hours of abandon. Then I left a party early to drink whiskey alone at a bar and ended up dropping my brand-new cell phone in a mud puddle or leaving it in a taxi. Or puking in the passenger seat of my own car on the way home from a club, where my ex had fed me half a fifth of tequila in hopes of convincing me to take home a stranger.

But in close examination of the lived experience of addiction, Jamison asks us to remember how tedious it can be in actuality. Feeding an addiction is necessarily an exercise in doing the same damn thing again and again.

Jamison doesn’t say as much, but thinks it at an advisor who responds to the project with ambivalence. He tells her he’s more interested in the generative aspects of obsession than Jamison’s “unsexy case for the relationship between sobriety and creativity.”

What she wanted to say in response to this professor: “Addiction is just the same fucking thing over and over. Thinking of addiction in terms of generative variation is the luxury of someone who hasn’t spent years telling the same lies to liquor-store clerks.” The romantic notion of obsession as a catalyst for novelty, she points out, forgets about the drudgery of its maintenance.

After several months of hard-won sobriety — her second serious dry stint — Jamison considers one more relapse, a well-thought-out failure in a dingy Hartford hotel room. “It wasn’t suicide I wanted,” she writes, “but another bottom, an explosion whose rubble I could emerge from, ash-dusted and glittering with shards of glass. The fantasy of crisis — or explosion — was an alternative to the hard, ordinary work of living through uncertainty.”

And maybe that’s what this compulsiveness really is: a coping mechanism for uncertainty, a way to offer ourselves something predictable and controllable. Falling off the wagon guarantees a(nother) chance to get back on again.

So much of Jamison’s memoir is a love letter to alcohol. It feels “like a candle lit inside you,” it “crackle[s]” with “magic” and light. Drinking, she says, “was the honeyed twilight sun falling over every late afternoon, softening everything to amber.” But the joy of intoxication isn’t only in this softening, but also in its guarantee of solidifying things again, resolving the next morning like a slowly-loading image. Part of the thrill of destruction is its necessary consequence: the opportunity to rebuild, again and again.

I remember how much I loved straightening things out the next day, when I found my trash can full of the scraped-empty “evidence;” the satisfaction of taking those clinking garbage bags to the dumpster or tracking every last calorie I’d consumed. The adrenaline-shot danger of those numbers, which sometimes reached as high as five- or seven-thousand, was wrapped in its own balm. The day was new, the sun was shining, and I was making a fresh start — or its appearance.

But, of course, these restarts are false. The damage has already been done. And when you’re drinking a bottle of wine (or more) on a nightly basis, your liver doesn’t care about your sunlit good intentions.

So maybe growing out of addiction — growing up in general — is learning to feel, but ignore, this compulsion. It’s learning to sit with discomfort, with the messy, restart-free truth of living day-to-day, hour by hour. It’s choosing the smooth, straightforward contentment of serotonin versus the up-and-down thrill of dopamine. If life is going to be tedious anyway, it might as well be a tedium that feels good on a non-temporary basis.

Joy can become a softer, gentler thing: palming firm apples at a market, sweating in a hot room while the rain rushes down outside, putting words in an order that feels like it’s always been there. For Jamison — and for many others — it’s the moment of recognition, the locking of eyes with some other person who knows what it is to live life feeling like an always-empty vessel.

The way out of these compulsive cycles is different for everyone, and it’s not always a clear-cut path. For most of us, it’s a constant work in progress — which is perhaps why 12-step programs urge addicts to take things one day, or even one moment, at a time.

But in those moments where we succeed and allow ourselves to quiet, sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can find it: that wholeness we’ve been seeking. We’ve been carrying it around inside us this whole time, fully-formed and waiting, no reconstruction necessary.