Why I Share the Way I Do
I’ve been called self-indulgent, crazy, angry and outrageous for writing and talking about my addiction and mental illness. But there's a method to the madness.
The 11th tradition states that AA members should be anonymous at the level of press, radio, films and TV. To me, this means that you don’t say you’re in AA in public forums. It does not mean that I don’t tell people the truth about me, my history of addiction or my greatest triumph—that I have managed to get sober, whether I did it once for 15 years or again and again and again.
The truth is this: if I could and did keep it general, I would be a shitty comic and an even shittier writer. Identification is in the details. And so is bravery. How else are you supposed to hear your story? Who can identify with generalities? Generality, in my opinion, is camouflage for the ashamed. So I choose to tell my story with all its gory, embarrassing details. It's not to sound cool or to shock. But if I can own what I went through, tell people my darkest secrets, how can I still feel ashamed about them? And, perhaps more importantly, how can anybody else? And isn‘t that service? Isn’t that the fifth of the Ninth Step Promises: “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others”? If my darkness can’t become somebody else’s light, what is the point?
My goal is almost always to be as honest as I can; my truth just happens to be ugly and dark. I have depression, bipolar and borderline personality disorder. I also have epilepsy. I’ve been arrested. I’ve been in the psych ward. I’ve relapsed countless times. People need to know you can get and stay sober through all of these things. I need to know that you can.
Mental illness and alcoholism must come out of the closet and wave their freak flag proudly. I’m just belting out the anthem.
Do I break the tradition of anonymity? Absolutely. I talk openly about my addiction in print, on radio and on the stage. My first stand up material was about getting sober, about my militant black lesbian sponsor, and about my experience in AA. The audience was filled with program friends and they loved it. I quickly fell in with other sober comics and began performing at AA and NA conventions where they wanted and expected program humor. When I began to do the nightclub circuit again, I kept most of the same material and, to my delight, it worked there as well. People might argue that my relapses make AA look bad. I think they just reflect the monstrous power of addiction. And in my experience, more people relapse than don’t. Relapsers need to know that you can come back because it is much harder to come back again and again than it is to stay.
When I talk and write about my struggles with alcoholism and depression, I am not looking for pity or even compassion. I am doing it to put a public and hopefully insightful face on “those” illnesses. Here’s how I look at it: in the '70s and '80s, being gay meant having a social and sexual stigma. Homosexuality was still in the DSM as a mental disorder and AIDS ran rampant, creating epidemic fear. Now gay people are prominent and respected entertainers, musicians, and politicians and “crazy” is the new “gay.” We are the new prejudiced and loathed population. Thank God, many public figures—people like Carrie Fisher, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Margot Kidder, the list goes on—are “coming out” with their diagnosis to help reduce the stigma of “crazy” and even more are open about their addiction and sobriety.
Whether it was by childhood trauma, genetic lottery or some combination of the two, I’ve been dealt the “crazy” hand and I feel it’s my job to milk its many gifts: to educate, inspire, and create if I so desire. When I talk about something dark and taboo and people say, “Thank you, I really identified,” I don’t need to pay attention to those that didn’t get it. And when I’m called self-indulgent, I have to ask myself: isn’t it actually more self-indulgent to share boastfully about having a life “beyond my wildest dreams,” those saccharine speeches we’ve all heard from people who talk about their overflowing bounty of monk-like serenity?
The impact of my honesty isn’t something I only feel in the outside world, either. The AA literature recommends that you share “in a general way” but the truth is, I don’t know how to do that. From my very start in the rooms six years ago, I was keenly aware that my shares were too detailed, too honest, and too shocking. I’ve heard other people say things like, “I’m going through a lot of challenges lately” and keep it vague. I admire their restraint—I really do—but I’m also left feeling empty by the lack of detail and occasionally wonder what they are hiding. As my life became bigger in sobriety (I was married briefly—to somebody in the recovery industry), I tried to become more protective of my other half, acutely aware that his reputation rested at least partially on my public persona. It would be nice if what was said in the rooms stayed in the rooms but we all know this is not true. When I attempted suicide at three-and-a-half years of sobriety, I took the bold if stupid attempt to share honestly about it in meetings. Word spread like wildfire and quickly morphed into “don’t go to this guy’s rehab: his wife tried to kill herself.” My ex-husband always said, “Do what you need to do for your recovery and don’t worry about what people will say—soon enough they will be talking about somebody else.” And they were.
I don’t talk or write about my multiple diagnoses, relapses or psychotropic medications to look cool. They don’t exactly make employers or friends line up. And I would have given anything to have avoided them all, to have never experienced some of the things that I have. I talk and write about these things because they happened to me and how else will their stigma be diluted if we don’t talk about them openly? And I do it because part of my healing process is to own what’s happened—not to wear it proudly but not to cower in shame, either.
Mental illness and alcoholism must come out of the closet and wave their freak flag proudly. I’m just belting out the anthem. And I happen to know that there are plenty of people waiting to march in the streets.
Amy Dresner is sober comedian who liberally pulls material from her depressive illness and drug addiction. She performs all over Los Angeles and is also on a national recovery tour called "We Are Not Saints." She also wrote about sex and dating in sobriety and keeping your sobriety in the psych ward, among many other topics, for The Fix.