Augusten Burroughs' Story of Sobriety

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Augusten Burroughs' Story of Sobriety

By Brian Whitney 03/28/17

The author of Dry and Running with Scissors talks to The Fix about his latest memoir, Lust and Wonder, all about life after sobriety.

Image: 
Author Augusten Borroughs
Writing “carried me much further away from myself than drinking had ever managed to do." Photo via

Augusten Burroughs is not much for keeping secrets, especially when they are about himself. While many authors over the years have found much success writing memoirs about battling addiction and surviving awful childhoods, Burroughs has long managed to do so in a way that is equal parts horrifying and hilarious at the same time.

A case in point is his debut Running With Scissors, which is possibly the funniest tale about childhood misery ever written. The book spent eight weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and was adapted into a movie. He then wrote Dry, a memoir about his battle with alcohol, his time spent in rehab, and finding sobriety.

His latest book, Lust & Wonder, is about his life after rehab, and of his attempts to live a normal life clean and sober, although it still touches on times when he was in the grip of booze. Early on in Lust & Wonder, Burroughs writes of when he was in his early 20’s and on a covert mission to drink himself to death. He would spend days on end lying around his apartment, only leaving when he needed more alcohol. Then he started to write. As he says in Lust & Wonder, writing “carried me much further away from myself than drinking had ever managed to do.” Lust & Wonder is out in paperback next week.

You have one of the more rabid fan bases of any current writer I can think of. How does it feel to be someone that so many people, from all walks of life, find themselves identifying with?

I am a recluse out in the country with four dogs, reading books about particle physics and medieval recipes, so it’s easy to forget anybody knows I exist, let alone anybody identifies with me. Then every year or so I go on a book tour and I’m blown away by the people I meet. That part of my life is invigorating and inspiring. I mean, I love a significantly isolated existence and spend a great deal of time writing, which is a deeply solitary activity. To then step out of this world and into one where there are these incredibly shiny, luminous people who seem excited to see me and have read so many of the thoughts I’ve had bouncing in my head, it’s surreal and wonderful.

Your most recent book Lust & Wonder just came out in paperback. I read it was originally suggested to you by a friend as a memoir on how to be sober. Do you feel that is what it turned out to be?

Lust & Wonder is a kind of sobriety memoir. I first envisioned it as a sequel to Dry, my memoir about my process of getting sober. After I stopped drinking, I thought “All my bad decisions are behind me now” and this turned out to be completely untrue. In so many ways, my life became more chaotic after I got sober. But it also became spectacular and I fell really hard into love with somebody fully right for me. So Lust & Wonder is like, what happened after Dry.

You touch on how writing became a substitute for alcohol, and how in a sense you have traded one addiction for another. Could you expand on that process?

You know, I really have to write or else I have no idea what I think or feel. It’s like I was born without the self-reflection gene, except that I can compensate for that by writing. Also, the process of writing is something of an escape, either into the past if it’s a memoir or into a parallel universe if it’s fiction. But either way, I’m living outside of “reality,” which is one thing I used to love about being drunk. Another similarity is that writing fiddles with my sense of time just like drinking used to. But where drinking shrank time, writing has expanded it. But I’m not a balanced person by nature. So I approach my writing very similarly to how I approached my drinking which is, all hands on deck! When I’m writing a book, that’s pretty much all I’m doing. I’m locked up alone in my attic office writing and then I break for food and naps. As I get closer to finishing the book, I can end up writing nineteen or twenty hours a day. So that’s pretty alcoholic. The thing is, I’m not then calling people to apologize for my behavior, I’m not steeping in regret the next morning. I remember everything. So it’s like alcoholism but also deeply its opposite.

When I was boozing all the time, every time I walked past a bar I wanted to go in, while at other times in my life I would walk past a bar and wonder what the hell people were even doing in there. In your opinion, how much is drinking, or anything, just habit? 

I absolutely believe this, that so much of alcoholism is habit. At least it was for me. In a way, that’s kind of all it is. It’s really not so mysterious or romantic. It’s just a lousy habit you have to break.

What was it like for you just out of rehab, how did you figure out how to do things sober for the first time? I know for me it was ridiculously hard to even be in any sort of a social situation without being hammered.

It was completely horrible and confusing, which is exactly why I wrote Dry. I wrote Dry as my journal, because I didn’t know what to do with myself or even with my hands. If I had a weird interaction with a store clerk, I would then rush home and write about it for the next two hours. Writing was the only way I could exist. I was so uncomfortable around people and just out in the sunlight. I felt like such a broken thing. Writing really helped me. And believe me, I wasn’t writing thinking, “This will be such a great memoir!” I was writing for me and me alone, just to understand myself, what I was feeling, just to have something to do with my hands. If I’d had a pile of lumber and some nails, I might not even be an author today. I might have ended up a furniture builder. Social situations are still awkward for me. For my entire life I have been uncomfortable at parties because I always felt like I was being stared at, focused on. And I still feel this way and often, it’s now completely true. But in an ironic turn of events, I’m not nearly as nervous as I used to be when nobody was watching me. I’m kind of freakish and I always will be and I just wore out my ability to care about what other people might think. I wore a bald spot in the giving-a-shit section of my brain.

Can you tell me a bit about your relapse and the process that led to it?

No big mystery there. Pighead, who was the primary relationship in my life, died. And I was like, fuck this, I’m drinking. My world was all about him so when he died I felt entirely self-less and rootless and lost at sea. It was awful. I lost my desire to live so I didn’t care if alcohol killed me. I didn’t lie to myself and say, “Oh, I’ll just have a drink or two.” I knew it would be awful and it was.

I read once in an interview that you said you never wrote a word when you were drunk, can you tell me about your writing process now? 

No, it would have been gibberish if I’d tried. These days, I write every day. I don’t always write all day or even for very long each day but I write something each day. If I’m really focused on a particular book, I write intensely for longer stretches. But a huge part of writing is reading so I read a lot. I don’t read a book a day but probably a book every two days.

While you obviously are much more creative sober, do you ever find it more difficult to write about times in your life when you are content and happy?

My life is less eventful now than it was when I was an unhappy mess. So the focus of my writing has changed.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a book about hidden things. 

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