The Redemption of the Hot Mess: Amy Dresner's "My Fair Junkie"
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The Redemption of the Hot Mess: Amy Dresner's "My Fair Junkie"
Really, another sobriety memoir? Do we really need another sobriety memoir? Well, yes, we need this one.
Amy Dresner’s new memoir, My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean opens with her pulling a knife on her then husband while high on Oxycontin on Christmas Day. She’s quickly arrested, booked, and bailed out by her mother. “This is what a Jew gets for celebrating Christmas,” she observes. Though the initial crisis isn’t quite as bloody and depraved as aficionados of the disaster porn known as "recovery memoir" would hope (because hey, who among us addicts hasn’t half-seriously threatened someone’s life during a bender, weapon in hand?), it effectively catapults us into Dresner’s herky-jerky spiral to the bottom.
That’s right: arrest for felony assault with a deadly weapon on the day celebrating the birth of the "Prince of Peace" is not Dresner’s nadir. Far from it. As she stacks up relapse after relapse and is kicked out of one sober living situation after another, she recalls scenes from a life of substance abuse so dark one wishes she’d picked up that bread knife and gotten arrested sooner.
This gritty, angry tale will resonate with addicts and alcoholics who haven’t been served by smooth, commercial recovery narratives that gloss over the wily nature of addiction and the erratic, maddening process of getting sober, the trying and failing and trying and failing and trying again. Most sobriety stories revolve around a moment of crystalline epiphany like a Buddhist Monk suddenly achieving satori: the craven addict finally sees the errors of their ways, is freed of their burden, and moves forward in God’s grace, never to sin again. This lightning bolt of illumination makes for compelling reading… and it is often the work of agents, of editors, of cinematographers. My Fair Junkie was written by an honest-to-God, down-and-out addict, one who understands that there is rarely a divine explanation inflicted during a blissful moment of truth. Sometimes we just finally get our shit together and stay sober and it works and we never really understand why.
This book is not for everyone; perhaps it should be labeled "for advanced users only"? It lives and dies around Dresner’s voice: loud, abrasive, obnoxious, bratty, self-lacerating. Some readers may struggle with her privilege, her constant profanity, her obsession with crotches (everyone else’s and her own). The sex acts detailed in the book read like the menu bar on a porn site: Solo/ Straight/ Oral/ Threeway/ Anal/ Reluctant Lesbian. I found Dresner’s voice by turns wildly entertaining, endearing, and terribly sad. It recalled to me how I felt ten years ago when I was broke, drunk and working construction and I picked up a tabloid detailing Britney Spears shaving her head and melting down: gotta hand it to you, lady, for this to elicit sympathy from me when your life is better in so many ways than my own… well, it’s a testament to just how fucked up you are.
What’s most important about My Fair Junkie and what sets it apart from other recovery memoirs is that it speaks truth to my generation’s good time girl, the Hot Mess. If you haven’t been this woman, you know her: the Parliaments, the vocal fry, the dangerously high high heels, an aversion to underwear, the ever-present cocktail, the lack of sleep, the limitless credit card, the everything-to-everyone-at-all-times-warpaint-lipstick-loudest-in-the-room-never-say-die attitude, and always just an inch away from tears or violence. Dresner understands that it’s about pain, that it’s about yearning, that it’s about trying to avoid the knowledge that even if you were able to please everyone, you would still never please yourself. Dresner’s book follows the Hot Mess to the end of line and elegantly articulates the difficult truth that, yes, you only live once… but if you make YOLO your rallying cry, you will die a thousand times before your death.
I caught up with Dresner the other day to interrogate her about the book and her life now.
Mishka: What the hell is wrong with you?
Amy: Hahahaha. So, so much.
I’m being funny, but I'm serious. Do you understand now where it comes from?
Yes and no. I understand myself better after writing the memoir but I don't know that I'll ever know what makes me tick. I see through a lot of my own bullshit now but even after 20 years in and out of the program and 20 years of therapy, I don't think I'll ever understand what made me so self-destructive for so long. And I don't have to. I'm better now and that's all that matters.
Capital B Better? Or just better?
Ha. Ask me in a year. I've had time before and eaten shit so who knows. Me, more than anybody, scares me. But I've never had any type of "success" if you even wanna call it that.
And it's terrifying.
It’s so compelling and heartbreaking reading the book. You're like the woman in the shower scene in Psycho. And when the curtain is pulled back, the maniac wielding the knife is also you.
Yes, I've been my own worst enemy, but isn't that every addict?
I've never tried harm reduction or other "sober" programs so I wouldn't know if they'd work for me. I did try everything else: therapy, shamans, exorcisms, biofeedback, 900 types of medication, acupuncture, Rolfing. None of it worked.
The program definitely works for me. The fellowship and the people are NOT the program. The more I learn about science, the more I realize the program is based on stuff that is proven: gratitude, acting yourself into right action, service. If you watch documentaries about happiness, gratitude, service, and being connected to other people are key to being “happy."
Are these principles part of your day to day life now?
You come off as a real asshole in the book. I think that's a decision you made as a writer. Why?
Because I was an asshole, and this is a truthful memoir. I was entitled and sick and strung out. I had a major attitude which was mostly armor for my fear. I think if you're trying to look good in a memoir, you're not being honest enough.
I'm less interested in looking good than being truthful. I said all of those ugly things. I had to show what I was like in order to show how I changed. Hopefully I'm less of an asshole at the end of the book.
Addiction is not pretty. It's not a Jesus and Mary Chain video.
I mean who's a saint when they're mentally ill and strung out?
Drugs brought out the absolute worst in me. Certain drugs more than others. They really made me monstrous. I think that's important to show.
At times in the book, it feels like Alice in Wonderland with you lost in this very L.A. world of new-age recovery. How do you feel about this industry that's sprung up around addiction?
I think there are a lot of problems with it. I think it's a model based on failure. I think there's a lot of abuse, both sexual and financial, that goes on in those places. Any time money and medicine meet, it’s a nightmare. I don't think rehab should be some Club Med resort you never wanna leave because it's so much nicer than your shithole apartment. But saying that, I am grateful I got scholarshipped to my fifth rehab. I needed to be caged up to get sober and sane at that point. And I absolutely needed that 2.5 years in sober living. That's where I really cemented the changes.
In some ways, the book is a testament to how sick you were because you seem able to turn any experience into a way to get high. And in another way, it seems like a cautionary tale about our modern world where we suffer from excess more than deprivation.
I still use things as drugs, ways to check out. I don't think that ever goes away. You just find better ways to channel that urge. I was happiest when I was poorest (not that I'm endorsing poverty). But for me, I would do anything to get away from my feelings. I am extremely overly emotional. That's just my wiring: ultra sensitive. There are plenty of people who have money who never turn into addicts. I don't think it's that simple.
In particular, your iPhone seemed like a portal into the Garden of Earthly Delights. It was fascinating and distressing to read.
Oh God, you mean Tinder? I won't touch that thing now. Yeah, that was a nightmare. It was way too easy. Or any of those dating sites. I've been celibate since my breakup.
Let’s talk about the breakup! The book ends with you and Bradley riding off into the sunset together. But that didn't really work out.
No. We broke up this April/May.
Does that invalidate the hopeful ending to the book?
No, I don't think so. I'm still sober. I knew he was always a flight risk. He told me the first night that he was terrified of relationships and commitment. That relationship is the best I’ve ever had. And I was a good partner, a great partner: loving and supportive and nurturing and I didn't know I could be that. Now I know.
How are you enjoying celibacy?
Enjoying? Umm, I'm so busy with the book stuff, the promotional stuff which makes me feel like such a garmento Jew (“buy my book, buy my book”) that I don't really have time to date or fuck or whatever. I'm pretty shut down from that break up honestly, still healing. But yeah, I'm lonely and still sad about it. I thought he was the one.
Men’s sexual misdeeds during youth/ addiction are often written off as “sowing their wild oats.” For a woman, it’s more like “oh, you skank.” Did you have misgivings about going as deep in detail as you did about the details of your sex life?
Oh God, yeah. I know the double standard. And they cut a LOT of the sex stuff so I come off as less promiscuous than I actually was. But it was a period I went through and I know I'm not the only one. I know I'm not the only person who has done stuff they didn't want to because they were afraid to say no or seem like a prude.
Let’s talk about the writing process. On a scale of 1 to 10, how much did it suck writing this book?
Well, I only had six months to do it. I had been chronicling a lot of my depression and addiction over the years so I had stuff to pull from. For me, the hardest part was reliving the sex addiction parts. Why did I do that? Why did I let men treat me that way? And also the whole structure of the book was difficult. I'm a sprinter, not a marathoner and this was definitely a marathon. I've never written a book before so I can't give it a number on the pain scale. But addiction is so repetitive and cyclical and I relapsed so much that it was difficult to create that "narrative arc" that publishers/editors want.
Was it taxing on you emotionally?
VERY. It’s the hardest thing I've ever done
And wherever I was in the writing affected me emotionally. It was quite a rollercoaster. I was working three days a week and still writing for The Fix during the entire writing of the book. I didn't go off to some cabin somewhere for a year and bang it out. I was still in my life.
In your book, a character says “Write your book. It will help you gain clarity around the things that are preventing you from trusting.” Did it work? Do you feel better?
Yes and no. You just try to be honest. Jerry Stahl said "This is what I think: If you had the nerve to live what you lived, you should have the nerve to write it." So I wrote it. I hope that it helps people understand addiction from the inside and that all those things that you think can only happen to "other people" can actually happen to you.
Mishka Shubaly is a bestselling author and a barely-selling songwriter. Find his work at http://amazon.com/author/mishka