Be patient. And then be even more patient. It takes time to get good/better at something. It takes time to write/sell a book. It takes time to build a platform. It takes time to get a message out there.
As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Addiction Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Dresner.
Amy Dresner is a published author, freelance writer and keynote speaker. Her memoir “My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean” was published by Hachette in 2017 to rave reviews by critics and readers alike and is now in development for a TV series. After being on close to 100 podcasts speaking about addiction including The Skinny Confidential, Shair, Dopey, Dr. Drew and Rich Roll, she finally began her own recovery podcast called Rehab Confidential with social worker/interventionist Joe Schrank earlier this year.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Amy! Can you tell us a bit of your backstory?
I’m a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. I spent 17 years cycling in and out of rehabs and psych wards, having periods of sobriety but always relapsing. On Christmas of 2011, I was arrested for felony domestic violence while high on Oxycontin and Four Loko and went to jail. I lost everything, attempted suicide and landed in yet another rehab and sober living. While completing the 240 hours of community labor that was part of my sentence, I began chronicling my life and “misadventures” for TheFix.com and other magazines. This eventually led to my landing a book deal. Speaking gigs, a TV option and more freelance writing followed.
Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work with opioid and drug addiction?
I felt it was important to tell my story since I came from an upper middle class background and was well educated. People think that women like me don’t become IV drug addicts or get arrested for violent felonies. My goal was to break the stigma associated with drug addiction, make those struggling feel less alone, less ashamed and hopeful. I also wanted to help educate the family and friends of addicted people so they might understand our plight better and have more compassion.
Can you explain what brought us to this place? Where did this epidemic come from?
First off, I believe it was a combination of things like the breakdown of social bonds and the isolation of modern life which increased feelings of loneliness and depression. Then you add untreated trauma, inherited biological predilections and the access to powerful addictive pharmaceutical drugs that were doled out way too easily for profit. But a big part of this epidemic is decades of ineffective drug policy steeped in a long history of racism along with the belief in the erroneous paradigm that drug use is a crime and can be solved by the legal system.
Can you describe how your work is making an impact battling this epidemic?
My book was the only nonacademic textbook on the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Work syllabus for addiction studies this year. I’m speaking to a bunch of medical students at Midwestern University in Phoenix, AZ next week. My podcast with Joe Schrank is one of the few recovery-oriented podcasts that is funny but also educational with breaking news re: drug policy and featuring sober guests that span the gamut from scientists, therapists and harm reduction advocates to porn stars, journalists, politicians and celebrities. We also discuss a famous “alcoholic of the week” who was a mind blowing artist or inventor to show that alcoholism is nothing to be ashamed of.
Without sharing real names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your initiative?
Since my book was first released in 2017, I’ve received hundreds of messages from readers telling me how much my book helped them understand their own behavior, laugh at things they felt ashamed about and/or feel inspired to try to get sober again. One girl specifically stands out. She was able to find closure with and compassion for her alcoholic father (now deceased) after reading my book. I wept when I read her message. I feel incredibly grateful that I was able to make my pain into something useful to other people.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
I remember a narcotics and probation officer from the East Coast who read my book and wrote to me to thank me. He said he had learned more about addiction from my memoir than he had from 28 years on the job. That really blew my mind and made me feel extraordinarily proud.
Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this problem? Can you give some examples?
Vote. There are 23 million people who identify as in recovery. Go to leadership in the community and demand change. Talk to clergy, educators and congressional representatives. There are ways to improve recovery outcomes but it won’t be done by the police. The government has had decades of trying that with a very poor result. We all need to come together to create deep systemic change and treat addiction as the medical/psychiatric condition that it is.
If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
One would be the decriminalization of drug use and the funneling of people into comprehensive social supports and services instead of the judicial system. The second would be a taxation parity act: alcohol taxes raised at the same rate as cannabis. Third would be an “Intoxicating Substance User Tax”: .10/100 per unit of beer, wine, and cannabis, .25/100 for distilled spirits. All money would be earmarked for treatment and recovery services. This would generate billions for any and all who wanted to receive help. It would also essentially eliminate the greed-laden rehab industry except for a few high-end boutique operations catering to that 1% of clients who want comfort.
I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?
There’s a quote by Hillel, a first century Jewish scholar, that basically says “If not you, then who? If not now, when?”. I’m lucky enough to be alive and sober. I have an opportunity and duty to help break the stigma of addiction. People are dying in droves. People like me. People that society wants to judge as “weak” when there’s so much science proving it’s biochemical and psychiatric and that these people are sick. It’s not okay and I can’t sit by and watch it happen.
Do you have hope that one day this leading cause of death can be defeated?
I absolutely have hope and I think it will come from science. I also think we have to be open to the idea that addiction is a spectrum and that abstinence is not necessarily wanted or attainable by everybody. We must use every weapon we have: harm reduction, medication, therapy, support groups, genetic testing. There’s no room for fundamentalism or splitting within the recovery community. We must work together. I’m disappointed in the treatment industry. I don’t feel like the care is individualized enough. I don’t think the treatment is evidence-based. I feel that it’s driven by money and insurance. There are tests for genetic mutations in the MTHFR gene that creates the enzyme which breaks down folate into l-methylfolate, the building block of dopamine. Nobody is testing clients for that. Most of the treatment professionals don’t even know about it. We must address the genetic problem of low dopamine tone which I believe is at the core of addiction for a good 80% of people. Addiction is a medical and mental health issue. The idea that it involves choice or morality must be thrown out. The current stigma keeps people from seeking help. And, of course, the laws around drug abuse being criminal must change. Although sometimes people do get sober in jail, prison isn’t treatment.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I think leadership is the ability to carve a new path in the world and in the minds of people based on a novel and sometimes provocative idea, motivating them to take action or feel differently. An example would be Martin Luther King and his activism in the civil rights movement, which was revolutionarily nonviolent.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1) Don’t read reviews. You can’t please everyone. The good ones will go to your head and the bad ones will make you want to stop what you’re doing.
Example: I learned this very early on with freelance writing. One bad review or comment and I felt devastated and afraid to write my truth. Write what you feel, not what will please or displease your readers. Your people will find you. Write what everybody is thinking and afraid to say.
2) Don’t engage with people who hostilely disagree with you online. Chances are you’re not going to change their opinion and it will just make you angry.
Example: I’ve had people “troll” me or viciously disagree with something I’ve tweeted or posted. Defending myself was a waste of energy and really about ego. Now I try to just ignore. No response is a response and preserves my dignity. I have nothing to prove. And I know there are many times when I can be wrong.
3) Be patient. And then be even more patient. It takes time to get good/better at something. It takes time to write/sell a book. It takes time to build a platform. It takes time to get a message out there.
Example: It’s taken time to get the right team together for a series. It’s taking time to build an audience for the podcast. It’s easy for me to feel discouraged but time takes time and there are no real shortcuts.
4) Don’t be afraid to ask…for an opportunity, a sponsorship, a speaking gig. All they can do is say is no. And then you go ask somebody else. There’s a Latin proverb that says “Fortune favors the bold.”
Example: There was a particular sponsor I wanted for the podcast that I thought was an impossibility. I loved their product and their cause. Thinking that they would never be interested, my cohost and I reached out anyway and they said yes.
5) Keep to your truth but know that there will be consequences, both good and bad for being different.
Example: I am quite different from other “recovery advocates”. My book is very different from other addiction memoirs. My podcast is completely different from most other recovery podcasts. Some people love my message and humor, find my rawness “refreshing”. Others are offended and want something more PC, less radical, more diplomatic. When something is different, it isn’t usually mainstream right away or ever. But sometimes, just sometimes, you end up creating a new “way”. Be yourself. Always. In a world where everything is manufactured and manipulated, authenticity is key…if only because you can sleep at night.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I guess it would be the understanding that we are all capable of anything, under the right or wrong circumstances. This idea that somehow we are superior or inferior to others is incorrect. Everything that I thought could or would never happen to somebody like me, happened to me. And what it taught me was enormous compassion and humility. You could be a drug addict. You could be that homeless schizophrenic. You could be in prison for murder. You never know how somebody’s biology or childhood trauma led them to the place where you see them now. And you don’t know that they can’t rise up out of that and recover. I think this type of thinking would create so much unity, stop all the moral posturing in its tracks and shatter stigma.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My father told me years ago, “Discipline creates stability. Stability doesn’t create discipline”. It took me a long time to understand what he meant and even more to implement it. To me it means that a routined disciplined life will create that feeling of internal stability I’d always been searching for. When I was waiting to feel “stable” before I did things, I waited forever. It was only when I took action that my feelings began to change. Sure action follows emotion but emotion also follows action. It’s called bidirectionality. I may never feel like meditating or working out or writing but I must do these things to feel stable and productive. And the more I do them, the more I want to do them. I try not to listen to my feelings all the time. I acknowledge them but I do what I need to do anyway. Of course, I’m not always successful but I try.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’d love to sit down with Daniel Z. Lieberman, author of “The Molecule of More”. I’m fascinated with his work on dopamine and its role in mental illness, creativity and addiction which have been the three dominating factors in my life.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m on Twitter at @amydresner.
I’m on Facebook at @amydresnerofficial.
And I’m on Instagram at AmyDresner.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!