How did you end up writing this memoir of addiction, and how difficult was it to write about your experiences?
I started writing as soon as I got out of the hospital detox in 2004. Somehow, I had managed to hide my addiction from my family and friends, so everyone had a million questions. What had happened? How it could have happened? Why I hadn’t asked for help if I was struggling so badly and in so much pain?
Newly sober, I was up at 5am, well before I had to get ready for work, and just started writing everything down. It was supposed to be a way to convey the story to those close to me, but I ended up loving the morning writing ritual, so I kept going.
Eventually, I started taking writing workshops and then evening classes at NYU. Over time I decided to make it a book in the hopes that I could help the next person struggling with addiction or trying to understand a loved one who is addicted.
I also feel strongly that the stigma surrounding addiction and mental health issues needs to be broken. That can only happen if people talk about it and write about it.
I found the writing process hugely cathartic. It helped me process what had happened. Of course, there are a lot of things in my past that I’m not proud of, but I had to write about some of them for the book to tell the story in a meaningful way.
Those scenes were particularly painful because in order to write them, I really had to put myself back into the brain and body of the person that I was in active addiction. It was like reliving some of the worst parts of my life.
What impact did the detox program and its follow up have on your life, and why do you think you were able to stick with it while others you know have relapsed?
The detox and the follow up have completely changed my life – really gave me a chance to save my life. I didn’t think I’d live to see 40 and I happily and gratefully turned 50 this year.
There are two main reasons I think I have been fortunate enough not to relapse so far. First, I believe the doctors in the detox nailed my diagnosis. They told me I had Major Depressive Disorder, which likely had led me to drink and use drugs to self-medicate.
They put me on antidepressants immediately. I think once my brain chemistry problem was addressed, I had a much stronger chance to do the things I needed to do to stay sober.
I did try once to taper off and get off the antidepressants, just to see if I really needed them. The answer was, “yes.” I spiraled back into depression and then decided I would stay on the medication for good.
Second, I had a ton of support when I got out of detox. I hadn’t lost my family and friends. They wanted to do all they could to support me. I hadn’t lost my job. I hadn’t been arrested or worse. I was as well positioned as I could be to succeed.
It’s part of why I feel so strongly about speaking up to help the next person. I got lucky and want to help others who come out of detox or rehab with a rougher road.
How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
It popped into my brain one day as I was walking to work in New York City. That half-hour walk entails passing about 20 bars on the west side and there was something about me walking past them every day that resonated. I knew I wanted something that didn’t sound depressing or humorless, so I stuck with it.
What reactions have you heard from readers?
I feel really blessed that the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Nothing makes me happier or more proud than hearing that it helped someone who is struggling with addiction or has a loved one struggling whom they’re trying to understand.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new book. This one will be fiction, but again exposing what goes on behind closed doors among professionals in New York City. They seem to have these “perfect” lives, but actually are hiding some super dark secrets.
Anything else we should know?
I feel strongly about drawing attention to the importance of this issue in the legal community. The American Bar Association and Hazelden Betty Ford released a joint study earlier this year that found that one in four lawyers suffers from a substance abuse disorder. (I wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post on it here.
That’s more than twice the general population and more than other professions. So, being able to help raise awareness of this issue in my field and talk about my personal experience with colleagues and other lawyers is a gift.
I want to do all I can in the legal community and beyond to help break the stigma that surrounds addiction and mental health issues.
Interview with Deborah Kalb. Lisa F. Smith is participating in The Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, which runs from Nov. 3-13, 2016.