We caught up with YA author Amy Reed to talk about how her own recovery from addiction has evolved, and what advice she has to give teens ready to get sober.
Amy Reed is the author of the young adult (YA) novels Beautiful, Clean, Crazy, Over You, Damaged, Invincible, Unforgivable, and The Nowhere Girls. She writes about young people struggling with addiction and mental health, and speaks openly about her own addiction recovery. She is also the editor of Our Stories, Our Voices, an upcoming anthology of young adult authors writing about their experiences growing up female in America. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina. You can find her online at AmyReedFiction.com.
Kali: Thanks so much for agreeing to an interview, Amy. I appreciate you taking the time. We both spent time in the Bay Area recovery scene, where we also met Robin and Lisa, the co-founders of Workit Health. That was a bit ago! How long have you been in recovery now, and how has your recovery changed, over the years?
Amy: At the end of June, I’ll have nine years clean and sober. I got sober in AA in Oakland (where I met you, Robin, and Lisa), and it was exactly the community and program I needed at the time. The Bay Area is a special place to get sober, and I really miss it. The culture of AA is different there than it is where I live now in North Carolina. Our Oakland community was full of really smart, diverse, and progressive people who were open to any and all interpretations of Higher Power, who didn’t mind if you needed to change the male pronouns in the Big Book, where being agnostic or nontheistic was generally accepted and honored. Because of this unique openness, I was able to fully embrace 12-steps without any intellectual hangups, which is a problem for a lot of people I know who can’t get past the God stuff. I needed the structure and discipline of the 12-steps, and I was relieved to have a program and incredible sponsor and friends to tell me what to do, because I was so tired of trying (and failing) to figure out how to do everything on my own. My own mind could not be trusted, and I needed trustworthy people to do a little thinking for me while my brain cleared. Being somewhat of a loner my whole life, and someone who used and drank alone, the community of AA was the most important and healing part of my recovery, and I was lucky to fall in with an incredible group of friends that made me feel like I fit somewhere for the first time in my life.
But like a lot of people, my meeting attendance really dropped when I gave birth to my daughter at four years sober. It is hard to get to meetings when you’re sleep-deprived and caring for an infant, though the meetings I did manage to make were more than welcoming when I showed up with my daughter. But then we moved to Asheville, North Carolina a year later and I had a really hard time finding a sober community for a couple of years. I was very isolated and I felt myself slipping away from recovery. I was still very much attached to my old community, and I wanted AA in Asheville and the people in it to be exactly the same. Even though Asheville is an incredibly progressive oasis, it is still in the middle of the Bible Belt, and the AA I found here reflected that. It lacked the openness I got accustomed to.
At five years sober, I had also hit a wall in my spiritual growth. It seemed like I kept hearing the same things over and over in meetings, and it started feeling false. I began to feel the doubt and cognitive dissonance that keeps so many people out of AA, which is something that had never bothered me before. Most importantly for me, I failed to find a community of friends. To be fair, I probably wasn’t trying as hard as I could have. But I looked around the rooms and didn’t feel like I wanted what too many people had. I didn’t see a lot of long-term growth. I saw people who stopped drinking and using, maybe did the steps a couple times, and thought they had all the answers and could tell people what to do. I didn’t feel electrified like I did in early sobriety. What was right for me in early recovery stopped feeling like what was right for me in long-term recovery. I had evolved but my program didn’t.
Then I saw a flyer in a coffee shop for Refuge Recovery, which is a Buddhist-based program and fellowship for recovery that is only about three years old now, but growing really fast in the U.S. and all over the world. I started going to Refuge meetings and felt a glimmer of what I did when I first started AA—that there was truth here, that if I followed this path I would find a way closer to myself, that I would find relief for my many layers of suffering. I find Refuge to be an excellent path for me in long term sobriety because it is more holistic in its approach in treating the “spiritual malady.” We talk very little about drinking and drugging in meetings, but more about the underlying causes of human suffering of which addiction is a symptom—craving, aversion, attachment, greed, hatred, delusion—and all the insidious ways they manifest in our lives, not just in our obsessive use of substances. The program is also inclusive of all kinds of addictive behaviors and process addictions, and I learn so much from people whose cravings and need to control their feelings show up in different ways, such as eating disorders and codependency. It is a program based on compassion for self and others, that does not use fear and shame as motivational tools. This is very healing for me as someone who has spent most of my life in a place of fear and shame.
Refuge Recovery is the perfect program for me at this point in my recovery, when cravings for drugs and alcohol have thankfully been lifted but I still have so much work to do on the various ways my addictive brain attaches to other habits and behaviors. But I am so grateful for AA and 12-steps; it was my first spiritual home and my heart will always be there. There is so much wisdom in the steps that I still go back to. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I could have gotten sober in Refuge. It has the tendency of being very self-led, which I appreciate now but would not have worked for me in early sobriety. I needed structure and I needed to be told what to do back then.
I truly believe there are multiple paths to recovery, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and I love that the recovery community and industry are becoming more open to alternatives to 12-steps. In my experience, the core requirements of recovery are first, obviously a commitment to abstinence; second, a sober community; and third, an earnest commitment to walk a path of integrity and self-reflection, which many would call a spiritual way of life. Any way a person gets there that works is the right path for them.
Kali: In a guest post for a guest post for Nova Ren Suma’s “The Book of Your Heart” series, you explain that Clean, your second novel, is based on your own experience in rehab when you were sixteen. What are the unique challenges you faced going to treatment so young?
I think for a lot of young people for whom drinking and getting high has been the center of their lives, their social frame of reference is limited. They think everyone is using and drinking, so they fear they’ll be alone if they stop. If you haven’t been hanging out with sober kids, it’s hard to believe they even exist. It’s a basic human need to belong, and as a teen this is amplified. It can be a terrifying prospect to have to let go of the only friends you’ve ever known if they’re not going to be supportive of your recovery. I was really lucky to have incredibly supportive friends who had no problem being sober around me. They were my party buddies, but they were not addicts; they could take it or leave it in a way I never could. I also changed schools when I got out of rehab, took most of my classes at community college, and graduated early, so I was very removed from the high school experience and took a certain pride in being different than everyone else.
The main problem for me, and a reason I didn’t stay sober the first time, was that I had no real tools to replace drugs to deal with my feelings, and I never found a young people’s community in AA or sincerely worked a program. I went to meetings for a while and stayed sober for a year and a half, but I was doing it mostly on my own. I didn’t make any real friends in recovery and never got close to a sponsor or got past the second or third step. The tools were out there, but I wasn’t using them. My old friends, many of whom I’m still friends with today, were happy to be sober around me, but they weren’t in recovery. As supportive as they were, they could never truly understand what I was going through.
Luckily, young people’s AA is really strong and there are tons of teens getting sober, but those communities are mostly centered in big cities. But I have a friend who got sober at sixteen in a small town where the youngest person was twenty years older than her, but it worked because she was determined. She didn’t use her situation as an excuse to give up. She threw herself into service and worked a strong program and she’s still sober now, nearly twenty years later.
I am definitely not someone who believes you have to reach a devastating bottom to get sober, but I did need to do some more research to convince myself I really was an addict and alcoholic. I had to experience the powerlessness of trying repeatedly to control my use and failing. At sixteen, I hadn’t yet had the consequences that proved my life was unmanageable. Luckily, I lived through the research and was able to come back to recovery at age twenty-nine.
Kali: I think one of the biggest challenges for people who struggle with addiction young is the concern about it just being a phase. I’ve had many friends struggle with this, and at times waffled on it myself (until I remember the really, really bad times). Even in the recovery community, people will scoff: “But you’re so young!” How do you cope with being a younger person in recovery?
Well I’m definitely not so young any more! I didn’t get sober for good until I was twenty-nine, which is not so young either. But it felt like a crossroads for me, like I had to make a decision to grow up or let my life fall apart. I used the excuse of “it’s a phase” to justify my relapse at eighteen, and to live in denial about my problem for another decade. What proved to me that it wasn’t a phase was the repeated proof of my powerless over substances and how they led to my life being completely unmanageable, how craving and obsession consumed me and just got worse over the years, how I couldn’t stop once I started, how whenever I tried to cut down or quit I’d fail miserably, how I felt like a monster lived inside me and made all my decisions, no matter how hard I tried. It was years of this that convinced me it wasn’t a phase.
Young people don’t have these years of proof, so yes, it can be a lot harder to convince themselves it’s not just something they’ll grow out of. But I also think young people have the potential to be really honest with themselves. Even if you haven’t had decades of experience with addiction, you can still be aware of your inner condition, can still feel the truth of the prison of addiction. You can trust the experience of people who have done more research that it’ll only get worse. You can make a choice to break free of that prison young, and to hopefully get more years awake and sober than most of us get.
Kali: You’ve been open and honest about your own experience with mental health issues, and urged teens in a blog post when Crazy was published to speak up and get help for their own struggles. How related to your mental health struggle was your addiction? How do you take care of your mental health today?
I don’t see a separation between my mental health and addiction troubles. Like so many of us, my drug and alcohol use was in large part an attempt to self-medicate what felt like an intolerable inner condition of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Of course my addiction exacerbated my mental health issues, and it became a vicious cycle where it seemed like the only solution to my suffering was the thing that also made it worse. My addiction was always an attempt to control my feelings, which always felt out of control.
Things look a lot different now. For the first time since I was fourteen, I am both clean and sober and not on any prescribed medication. I made the decision two years ago to wean off of my anti-depressant medication, a process that was closely supervised by my doctor and therapist. I did it very slowly over a period of several months, and I’ll admit it was really hard. It is not something I’d recommend for everyone. I am absolutely not one of those people who think it is inherently better for people to not be medicated, or that there is anything shameful about needing medication in order to function skillfully in the world. Like recovery, different paths are better for different people. But personally, I reached a point in my life where I wanted to try life without medication. I recognize my incredible privilege in even being able to attempt this. I have a life where I have space for an amount of self-care that is not available to a lot of people. Our culture is not built for non-neurotypical people to get their needs met easily. For many people, medication is required to function in this world, and using that tool is the kindest and wisest decision they can make for themselves.
Without medication, my mental health is dependant on a carefully managed regimen of meditation, exercise (running and yoga), 7-8 hours of sleep every night, regular Refuge Recovery meetings, staying connected to my family and recovery community, and staying honest with myself. I’m really aware of my triggers and what it feels like when I start to feel disregulated. I’m also becoming more aware of my addiction to work and busyness, and how when I am in a state of stress I revert to my least useful habits, so I’m really trying to keep my life simple and not too busy. Again, this is an incredible privilege because I work from home and no longer live in the daily grind of a big city. If my situation were different, I would probably not be able to make this choice.
Kali: Your latest book, The Nowhere Girls, is about a group of misfit girls who set out to avenge a rape and overthrow misogynist culture at their school. How exciting has it been, as a YA author, to see the Parkland students turn tragedy into activism at a young age?
Amy: To say those Parkland kids are inspiring is a gross understatement. Their passion and eloquence and hope are superhuman. In a time of such fear and anxiety, they have given me so much to believe in. I think that’s part of why I write for teens, because I am in such awe of this spark inside them, because I love the intensity of their feelings. Young people have a sense of justice that is still pure, a flame that has not yet been snuffed out by apathy. For me, writing for young people is my humble attempt to honor this flame.
I see parallels to recovery here too. Addicts and alcoholics have seen more than our fair share of tragedy, and yet we persist, we still hope and believe in the power of transformation. We see it in meetings every day—the human capacity for change, the ability of even the most broken of us to turn our lives around and become someone new and whole, and to be of service to help others. We turn our selfishness and self-absorption into empathy and compassion for our fellows in the rooms, and we have a genuine desire to see each other to succeed and find happiness. I think my years in recovery, in addition to becoming a mother, have made me even more of an activist than I was before I got sober. Apathy is not an option for people in recovery, and hope is a requirement. I have seen countless people transformed amidst seemingly impossible conditions, so I have to believe institutions can transform too. And I know, like all the most meaningful transformations in my own life, all change requires hard work and persistence.
Kali: What advice do you have for teens struggling with addiction or mental health issues today?
Amy: First, I want them to know they’re not alone. They are not unique. Everything they are experiencing is part of the human condition, and people before them have found solutions. Recovery is possible if they want it. All they have to do is ask for help, and there are so many people out there who want to help them.
Kali: What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in recovery?
For me, the most important thing for my recovery is community and communication. It is the only way out of my isolation. It’s that isolation, that feeling of separateness from other people and what some people call God or Higher Power, that feeds my addiction, that makes me want to fill that gaping hole with temporary solutions that only make it worse in the long run. Is it Gabor Mate who said something like “Connection is the cure for addiction?” I truly believe that.
Recently, I have also found it really healing to change the language around “character defects,” to try to have some compassion for my behavior that is no longer useful. A lot of the unskillful behavior I deal with these days was at one time a very necessary survival technique, and I need to honor that. For me, shame is never a path to healing. Making wise choices based on compassion and insight is.
Kali: Thanks for sharing all this insight with us, Amy. Your recovery is an inspiration.