The Poet's Guide to No Step Recovery

By Alyssa Pinsker 12/08/15

Janice “Girlbomb” Erlbaum—poet, teacher, and addict—talks writing, addiction, and healing without the 12 steps.

Q & A: Janice Erlbaum
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Janice Erlbaum started contributing to the iconic indie feminist magazine BUST in 1993, when they were still a stapled-together zine. The editors saw her performing in her poetry ensemble, Pussy Poets, and asked her to contribute. She went on to perform at Lollapalooza, host Woodstock 1994, and be featured on the cover of the Nuyorican Poetry Slam book and, of course, write three books: two best-selling memoirs, Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir (Villard, March 2006) and Have You Found Her: A Memoir (Villard, Feb. 2008), and her first novel, I, Liar (Thought Catalog Books, 2015).

When I came across I, Liar, I found the same punchy poetic tempo in her other work. There was strong, rhythmic writing with a mix of high vocabulary and street style slang, and a frank discussion of mental illness and recovery, including the 12 steps, doled with a strong mix of sarcasm and humor. One of my favorite passages recalls Erlbaum’s time doing stand-up comedy. The narrator is spoken of in the third person, and we are in group therapy in a mental hospital in this scene: "'Do you know who my father is?' She should resist the urge to say sympathetically, 'You don’t know yours either?' They mean something different."

I read strong themes of ACoA, SLAA, MA and AA, so I asked Janice about this. She said she is a weed addict but quit Marijuana Anonymous and most other substances. She turned her life around from a homeless, addicted (“sex, drugs, and drama,” in her own words) teenager to a “wealthy*” writer and teacher, and a successful, productive, employed, married and responsible artist and homeowner.

You are a master of the interior dialogue. I would guess slam poetry informed your work, but there is still the process of stage to page to make hypnotic writing. Please inform.

I wrote consistently throughout high school—the only thing I did consistently in high school besides drugs—and started to submit work and get published while I was in college. So it was my early mentors who had the greatest effect on me. I started hanging out at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe right after college, and that definitely provided further education. Then I went on to get an MA in Writing at NYU in 1995. But most of my professors there were not interested in teaching, and most of what I learned was how to ignore criticism.

How do you translate your performance into your writing?

I don't really perform anymore, so performing doesn't really have much bearing on my writing these days. But I do think of myself as a "method writer," much like a method actor, who tries to enter the emotional state of the character they play. Whether I'm writing about myself or someone else, I do my best to put myself in that person's frame of mind so I can get to the most truth and authenticity.

Poetry was everything to me in that short span of time, but the form started to feel very limiting, and I was performing so much I barely wrote new material. So I stopped trying to become a poetry celebrity, and I turned my attention and efforts to writing pieces for publication. 

Memoirists often discuss how liberating it is to write fiction, and your other books are memoirs with the readability of fiction. I noticed themes of Adult Children of Alcoholism, love addiction, and as you mentioned to me in another conversation, borderline personality disorder in I, Liar. Though this is fiction, do you identify with any of these themes?

I, Liar is semi-autobiographical fiction. I didn't mean it to be autobiographical at all, it just kind of came out that way. I am not the character in the story. I don't do the things she does, and I haven't experienced what she has. But emotionally, this character has a lot in common with me. I am not a child of alcoholics, but I share many of the same codependent traits and patterns as ACoAs.

Do you identify as ACoD-dysfunction? 

Ah! Maybe I don't know as much about ACoA as I thought I did. No, I wouldn't go to meetings, but not because I'm in a great place. Some days, I'm in a very great place, but overall I'm still struggling with whopping depression and anxiety. I wouldn't do meetings because my boundaries can be so fluid, and I found that it was best for me to stay away from deep interpersonal sharing with groups of strangers. I would consider myself an ex-love addict, but I think a big part of being an EX-love addict is finally finding the kind of love that I had been seeking for years.

The narrator flirts with the 12 steps. What was your experience with the 12 steps? If you felt it wasn’t helpful, why? What exactly helped? Do you still have twice-weekly therapy? If so, what type?

I've been a marijuana addict for decades, and about ten years ago, I attended some MA meetings in an attempt to quit. I was amazed by the diversity of marijuana addicts—many of the attendees looked nothing like stereotypical potheads—and I was touched by the support they offered each other. But I didn't really want to quit smoking pot. And I think one of the main factors in overcoming addiction is the desire to overcome it. I just didn't have it. The only habits I quit in my life were cocaine (as described in the last quarter of Girlbomb) and thumb-sucking (age 25, through hypnotherapy). I never enjoyed drinking a lot. My tolerance is very low—alcohol made me puke too many times and wine puts me to sleep. So it never became a problem for me. I drink very rarely. I stopped doing ecstasy on my own, because of the serotonin plunge the next day. I stopped taking LSD on my own, because it's just too many consecutive hours of being completely impaired. And I never got into opiates. I never attended a 12 Step group for emotional issues, but I did start old-fashioned talk therapy at the age of 25, and I've continued that course of treatment since then.

I think many readers, including myself, are inspired by your real-life turnaround from homeless victim to “wealthy writer.” I think that’s a rarity, would you agree? What do you think made that happen?

I took myself from homeless to stable, emotionally, but it was an inheritance in 2007 that took me from stable to wealthy. I wouldn't be wealthy if it weren't for the inheritance. I know many published authors, but I don't know anyone who's gotten rich from publishing a book. It was absolutely helpful that I was on better terms with my parents than I had been, and the assistance they gave me helped pay for twice-a-week treatment.

I'm surprised that they'd fund you in any way, including therapy. Sounds like huge turnaround. How and when did this happen?

The turnaround was probably in my early 20s, when they started to feel really guilty for having let me live in a shelter. My mom died in 2012. She was suffering from schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, and memory loss. She was bankrupt and hoarding cats. It was a painful and strained relationship, to say the least. My dad and I have spent years in therapists' offices, alone and together, trying to repair our relationship. He has changed dramatically from the man I knew as a child, and I'm glad to say we're good friends now. 

You mentioned that this book is for and/or about young women with borderline personality disorder. I have noticed that addiction diagnoses and 12 Step therapy are very similar to BPD diagnoses and therapy. Do you find the label helpful? What about the counterpoint that BPD is the new bipolar label for artistic young women, i.e. an unhelpful label? What did you think of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir or any other BPD lit?

I was never diagnosed with BPD, but when I started reading about the disorder, I recognized the terrible feelings and symptoms I'd suffered as a younger person. 

My therapist didn't know me back then, but she's willing to take my word for it, and I had so many of the symptoms, it seems clear to me. I haven't read Kaysen, but I really liked Stacy Pershall's memoir about living with BPD, called Loud in the House of Myself. Many nods of recognition as I read it.

I haven't heard a lot of young artistic women being described as Borderlines. I think the label can be helpful. I kind of wish I'd known about it when I was younger, because I thought I was the only person who felt and acted the way I did, and I didn't understand the underpinnings of it. But it can also be unhelpful, like when people get labelled by outsiders who then treat them as just their label.

(*- a self described term from her essay in Thought Catalog)

Alyssa Pinsker is a writer, working on a book called Girl Gone Global.

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