I just finished Susan Juby’s memoir, Nice Recovery, about her years as a teenage alcoholic. Her story is raw, painful, totally believable and often funny. Teenage angst, taken to the nth degree. While reading, I found myself bleeding, inside and out. If I’m honest, some of it is hitting pretty close to home.
Let me s’plain…
I come from a long line of alcoholics. Some were happy Irish drunks who entertained anyone who would listen with a song or a limerick, others were morose cry-in-the-beer types, and yet others were drinkers for a cause – that cause being their own self-destruction. Some were talented multi-taskers, balancing mental illness with the alcoholism.
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t really like to talk about these folks. The fact that they exist on my family tree is exhausting, embarrassing, infuriating, and disturbing. Having said that, I believe that hiding them in a closet with the other skeletons would be even more damaging. When I do talk about my majorly messed up relatives, I tend to be glib and sarcastic. You know: humour to hide the pain kind of stuff. In the yarns I spin (1/2 Irish, may I remind) I can make these people and their exploits h-i-l-a-r-i-o-u-s.
In therapy, I am often urged to stop with the humour, already. I can’t. Please don’t make me, I plead. Nobody likes morose, morbid old ladies who weep at the very mention of dear Uncle Seamus. It’s my survival mode, my defense mechanism. I’d much rather laugh than cry,wouldn’t you?
When reading Juby’s memoir (or The Glass Castle by Jeannette Wall), I have a hard time keeping the books in my hands. Such books tend to fly across the room or become buried under Women’s Health magazine or fifteen pounds of Stieg Larsson books that lie beside my bed. Sometimes I’d rather read about menopause symptoms.
I wonder how authors who write about awful, painful, scarring events in their past do it without bleeding to death. How do they ever find the strength to stare down their demons – especially when those demons could be parents or siblings – or worse, themselves? Isn’t pursuing a writing career hard enough without exorcism and self-immolation?
I wonder these things because, lurking in both my mind and on my hard drive are some demons of my own. They’ve been getting restless. I’ve been exercising (and perhaps, exorcising) them a bit lately – writing more about those relatives on my family tree who were so boozy or crazy that they had to be lashed to the trunk of the tree…I start and then…I run away. I hide in another project or I stop writing for a time altogether.
Family members take note: I am working on something painful and difficult if I a) think I can garden b) paint a room or two, c) take up running.
It seems to me that writing about painful stuff is not just like walking on broken glass but more like rolling in it. And, swallowing it. And, then pooping it out. It hurts from start to finish.
One of my (published) short stories was based on a relative; I cried while writing it (sometimes sobbing so hard I had to walk away from the computer for fear of inflicting water damage). Recently I wrote about the mental illness in my family in a nonfiction essay (I cried then too because of the subject matter and because no one wants to publish the damned thing).
Although the pain is sometimes acute, I tiptoe forward. Why? Oh, how many times I’ve asked myself that…not because I have a perverse love of airing my family’s dirty laundry but because I think these are stories worth telling. Something deep within me believes that shedding light on the pain and the isolation we endured might actually help other people – at the very least it will illustrate that we’re all fucked up and none of us is alone.