I spoke with author Melissa Febos over zoom about recovering from addiction, channeling addictive tendencies in healthier ways, and viewing substance use disorders as a way to self-soothe.
First I wanted to say, I feel such a kinship in your writing. Besides being queer and sober, I have a history of all-consuming romantic relationships and eating disorders, and I’m a long-time runner.
Yeah, that is a lot!
Yeah, and as I was thinking about that I wondered: do you have an intended audience? Is it people like me who have those experiences, is it for yourself, or is it a combination?
Yeah, it’s always made it easier for me to write when I picture the person who I think most needs my story. As far as I can tell, that’s people who share at least the core feelings of it. It usually is a younger version of myself, or someone who hits all those marks.
You were writing before you got sober, but did getting sober change the process for you?
Oh my god, like nothing else. I think one of the foremost errors in prediction that addicts and alcoholic artists make before they get sober is that it will be a hindrance to their work. There is this archetype of long-time addicted or alcoholic writers that I carried around in my pocket like a little deck of affirmations, like “But William Burroughs!” I never considered what those artists might have made if they hadn’t been completely degraded and ravished by drugs and alcohol.
I got sober when I was 23 or 24, and I knew that I was going to die [if I didn’t], so I was prepared to face whatever losses might happen from getting sober. For about the first year, I couldn’t really do much except try not to relapse.
I remember telling my first sponsor, “I was supposed to have written my first book by the time I was blah blah blah blah; I’m so behind on my dream.” She was like, “Just give it a little time.” Then when I started writing again, suddenly it made perfect sense; drugs and alcohol were an attempt to estrange myself from my own consciousness, so how would that have helped?
So first of all, I don’t think I would have survived much longer. But definitely, the stronger my sobriety is, the better my work is. That’s always been true, for going on 18 years now.
I very much relate to that—first the myth, then the reality of it once you get sober. That kind of relates to another of my questions. I had written down a quote you said in an interview; I’m not going to read it verbatim, but it was that if you could take the energy you put into heroin addiction or your ex into things that fulfill you, there’s power in that. I wanted to hear you talk a little more about that, because I thought it was powerful.
Yeah, now that it’s been many years since I’ve really struggled with wanting to use any substances, the primary work is relocating my energy from sort of bottomless pits of obsession, and other people, and doing things to extreme degrees—even exercise. Trying to reroute it into things that are actually meaningful and fulfilling and of service. That happens in granular ways and in totally macro ways.
From the time I was a kid, an awful amount of energy was going to body shame or obsessing about food, then obsessing about lovers, obsessing about money. These ephemeral things that just don’t realize the fantasies we have about them. For me a lot of it has been directing that energy towards fellowship, my art, my teaching.
You probably know this, but as an addict, I can make anything life-threatening. I mean, some of this is a predicament of being an addict; some of it has nothing to do with addiction or alcoholism, but with ways our minds are conditioned to direct our thinking towards things that don’t serve us. And it’s all part of the same work.
You’ve written about how you lived a very secretive life before. Now you seem to value emotional honesty. I was wondering if you consider that part of—or influenced by—your recovery.
I do, I do. When I heard, “You’re only as sick as your secrets,” I just wanted to barf. I was like, “Please let that not be true.” That is an old tool for me, secrecy—it just felt like the safer way to be. But this many years into sobriety, my mental health, my emotional sobriety, my availability to the people in my life—it all correlates to the transparency in my relationships. And I mean my closest people, not everyone; I don’t have to be publishing memoirs to stay sober. But I do have to be honest with people who really know me.
For a little while after I got sober, I thought it was enough if I was just honest with my higher power. As it turns out that’s not enough; I have to be honest with other people in order to preserve my sobriety. Things get squirrelly really quickly when I start keeping secrets. My last relapse, it became clear me that I had to be honest with another person about anything I have the urge to keep secret.
Do you see the kinds of relationships you talk about in Abandon Me as being tied to addiction? I feel like you said you do.
Yeah, I do. It’s mysterious, because I know lots of people who have been in relationships like those feverish ones—who have experienced the phenomenon of craving in relationship to another person—and it’s not always people who identify as addicts and alcoholics. I think there are some relationships that trigger us in a way that is not isolated to people with addiction.
But it’s been interesting in hindsight to look at the ways that my behavior—particularly in that relationship—really mapped onto my experience of compulsion with other things. It was actually more intense; that bottom was more painful than my bottom with drugs and alcohol, because there were no intermissions. There were times that I would describe as the highs of it, but the whole second year of that relationship was just unmitigated suffering.
It very clearly fit the paradigm that we understand as addiction: doing the same thing and expecting different results, feeling powerless, making promises to myself and breaking them, and endangering myself and other people so that I could maintain my source. So yeah, it activated my addiction for sure.
That kind of reminds me of another thing I’d written down; I really agree with how you view addiction—and things that are considered destructive—as ways to self-soothe. I was wondering if you could talk more about the way that you and maybe a lot of us use those things as self-soothing mechanisms.
Sure, I mean I felt ashamed for a really long time because I grew up middle-class; I have really loving parents; neither of my parents are alcoholics. I didn’t undergo any of what I have typically defined as major traumas. And yet I exhibited so much behavior that is pathologized and generally viewed by people in our society as, at best, self-destructive—at worst totally pathological and depraved.
I had been a sex worker, I had been a really intense heroin addict, and I did things to the extent that they hurt me and other people. I felt like I didn’t have a good enough explanation for that, like I hadn’t suffered enough to have created that much wreckage.
Over the years, particularly after I got sober and in therapy and worked the steps many times—and also through writing and troubling the question of why I did the things I did—it became clear over and over again that I wasn’t self-destructing. I wasn’t trying to sabotage myself or anyone else, I was just trying to get by, and those were the tools that felt available and effective.
It’s something they say a lot in recovery: our defenses are things that keep us alive until they don’t anymore. That perspective of self-compassion—of having respect for the wisdom of survival, however it manifests—has helped so much. Feeling shame has not been productive for me. Giving myself permission to have done the best I could has really expedited my own recovery—and helped me be of service to other people in a more generous way.