Amy Long is the author of Codependence: Essays (Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2019) and a founding member of the Points editorial board. She has worked for drug policy reform and free speech advocacy groups in California, D.C., and New York; as a bookseller at Bookpeople in Austin, TX; and as an English instructor at Virginia Tech and Northwest Florida State College. Her essays have appeared in Best American Experimental Writing 2015, Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2018. Codependence is her first book.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask what you write about, how do you answer?
“Myself. I find myself inherently interest–sorry, I’m maybe having a Topamax flashback. You’re sure that penguin’s really here?” And then I’d probably ask the bartender for a cup of water, down a Klonopin, and run like mad out of there.
Points is primarily a blog for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
The juxtaposition of medicinal and recreational opioid use would probably most interest drug historians, as would the descriptions of “doctor shopping” in 2003 versus 2012 and 2015. All the events in Codependence take place prior to implementation of the 2016 CDC guideline, and it’s harder now to find doctors who are willing to write opioids in doses high enough to actually control serious pain. My ex-boyfriend David, a major figure in the book, was a master doctor shopper back when it was still easy to get opioids from a doctor for any relatively believable pain complaint, and I doubt even he could get them now. I don’t give him credit for much, but watching him trick doctors into writing him pain pills taught me how to act in pain management offices and is likely a major reason I’m still able to treat my intractable headaches with opioids in today’s restrictive climate. It’s not that I’m lying; I wish I were! But he taught me how to present myself and that presentation matters.
I also hope literary historians like reading a drug memoir that doesn’t end in recovery or tie up in a neat bow. Feminist historians interested in relationships similar to the one I was in as an older teenager and college student might find something interesting about the emotionally abusive, codependent dynamic David and I share.
Scholars interested in gender disparities in medicine will hopefully appreciate reading about my experience as a pain patient with a “women’s problem.” I experiment with non-opioid headache medications, too, and depict my use of illicit drugs such as marijuana and LSD, which should interest historians who study medicine and pharmacology. I was also an early Suboxone adopter (at one point in the book, I get off opioids entirely and stay off for a year, but I go back to them after I get dependent on Advil–Advil!), and I write a good bit about how quitting alcohol (it’s a migraine trigger) affects my social life, so there’s something for everyone!
Mostly, though, I’m writing about opioids and other drugs, pain, addiction, dependence, recovery, and mental health in ways that I’ve never seen represented in literature, so the essays work as a sort of case studies in what it’s been like to rely on opioids during the past 15-plus years.
What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?
I started Codependence in my MFA program. I always knew that I wanted to put these two kinds of drug-related experiences in conversation with each other, but I thought I’d write it as a novel until I took a creative nonfiction workshop with Matthew Vollmer in my second semester. That class totally changed the way I think about writing and even just being a person. I narrated my drug history in a medicine cabinet as my final project (if you’re ever at Virginia Tech, ask Matthew if you can see it; he’s its executor!) and used that as an outline for my thesis, which turned into this book. But drugs have been a big part of my life since I was 18, so I was always going to address it in some way. To me, Codependence is the book I had to write in order to ever write anything else. But my writing will probably always involve drugs in some way. I mean, I take three drugs right when I wake up; they’re hard to ignore!
How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?
Nearly every decision I made had something to do with drugs. I needed a way to wrap a coming-of-age story into one about a druggy relationship and a medical memoir without using chronology to connect the dots. There’s no way I could have left drugs out of the book. But I spent a lot of time thinking about how I’d use them. Codependence is an essay collection, but it’s also a non-linear memoir or memoir in essays; the essays touch on different parts of or events from my life, but they create a distinct arc when you read all of them together, so I had to decide when it was right to introduce certain elements. For example, the first essay centers on me telling my mom that I’m back on opioids, and the second kind of sums up my relationship with David, but neither refers to the events depicted in the other, and readers have to figure out as they go how those two strands connect. I didn’t want to spell it out, and there’s a degree to which I don’t know what it means that I used to take drugs for fun, and now I take them to treat chronic pain either, so building a sort of puzzle-like, incantatory narrative structure made up of essays that might not always seem related puts the reader in a position similar to mine, which is the other thing I most wanted to do: trap the audience in my body, my head, my pain so that the book mirrors both chronic pain and addiction and hopefully builds in some empathy (I know, I’m really great at selling this: “Let me trap you in my pain!”).
About half the essays use received forms (I’ve seen them called hermit-crab essays, but I call them “formally inventive”) such as a map or a series of glossary entries. One of my favorites is a set of six prescription-informatic-like essays that tell the story of my and David’s relationship. After I wrote it, a friend said, “You’ve found your form! You could write the whole book like that,” but I thought writing about drugs in a drug-label format would be too on the nose. I included the glossary in part because I wanted to catalog all the migraine and headache medications I’ve tried, but I also thought readers might need actual definitions of some things, especially since I can’t assume that all my readers have had the prodigious drug experiences I’ve had! So, decisions about how to write about drugs played an important role in shaping the narrative, its structure, and the meanings it can make.
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
Mostly, I like that I blur the boundaries around medicinal and recreational drug use or abuse, and I’m interested in stories that don’t really resolve at the book’s end. In my next project, I’d like drugs to take something of a back seat to other themes, but I know what I want to write next, and I can’t do it without writing about drugs again! And I like writing about drugs. Maybe what most interests me is looking at how to live in a drug-dependent body without letting drugs structure every interaction, every thought, every relationship, even though there is a way in which they have to for me.
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope [oh, we hope!] Codependence gets made into a major motion picture. What song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
Raymond Raposa, whose band is Castanets, and I are going on tour together this fall (we launch the book at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn on Sept. 14!), but I started thinking of that song as my “credits song” for a long time, way before I knew Ray and I were doing the tour (I have been thinking about this answer for literal years!). It just really captures the feelings and themes of the last essay and of the book as a whole. It’s evocative and paints this kind of bleak but beautiful picture in a way that’s similar to what the book does.