Writers on Mental Health gives a window into real experiences to paint a picture of mental health without taboo, stigma or caricature.
Topics include therapy, medication, depression, anxiety & more. Each installment takes the form of an essay or interview.
Episode XIII: An interview with Aaron Thier
In this installment, Aaron Thier talks about his struggle with alcohol, an epiphany (or lack thereof), and more.
Today I'm talking with Aaron Thier, the author of two novels with one just out, The World Is a Narrow Bridge (July 3, Bloomsbury). Let’s start at the beginning of your experience with addiction, whenever it is you want to call the beginning.
When I was...13 or so? I drank a beer and immediately knew it would cause me trouble down the line. There was this terrible self-consciousness all the way through. At no point did I believe I didn't have a problem. And I was right: As soon as I got to college, I started drinking a lot and didn't really stop again for nine years.
During that time, did it worsen, vacillate? How did it contribute to the life you were living?
It worsened, I guess. In the sense that its effect on my mood and my spirit got more and more severe. In the beginning, I was in college, everyone was drinking, no big deal. Later on, and especially when I started to take pills, I did have a sense of slowing down. Staying in one place while other people moved on. But part of that was that I was writing, and I only cared about writing. Sitting in an apartment somewhere, just reading and typing a few lines—that was fine, according to my sense of things. Looking back on it, I guess I devoted all the energy I had to writing, but because of drinking and drugs, I had nothing to spare. And of course the deadening of my spirit was not great for my writing.
In what other ways did it affect your writing? Was what you were writing at this time used in some way in your debut, or was it completely distinct?
I had a tendency toward solipsistic first-person narrative. I wasn't able to see past my own difficulties. I was trying to write funny books, or books that represented personal catastrophe with comic detachment, but I couldn't get it right because I was not finding my own personal catastrophe particularly funny. I produced paragraphs that were good, but never a whole thing. And then, when I got sober, I wanted to get as far away from that stuff as possible, so I wrote The Ghost Apple, which has no central voice at all, not even a third-person narrator. Just a large chorus of different voices. It was as different from what I'd been doing as I could imagine. By design.
What prompted you to become sober? How soon after did you start writing The Ghost Apple?
There were a few bad things that last year—I broke my hand punching a wall, and while I was punching the wall I was thinking, "If I break my hand I can get some painkillers." That was bad. Then I overdosed on barbiturates, which was also bad, but that was more of an accident. Bad things had happened before, though. I'm not sure they particularly mattered to me. In the end it was that mysterious experience that lots of addicts have: I woke up one very hot April day in Gainesville, Florida, right after the end of the graduate school semester, and something was different. No great revelation, no moment of clarity. Instead, a sense of defeat and resignation. There was some sweetness in it, and a lot of anxiety, and I knew that everything had changed. I went home to Massachusetts and spent the next few weeks watching the World Cup and splitting firewood. Mindless things. I was perfectly fine living a totally different life and never writing again. And then I went back to Florida, met my wife, and started writing The Ghost Apple. About three months had passed.
Wow. And you've been sober since?
Yes. I had a kind of mentor who I talked to in Massachusetts, so I could get wisdom and perspective without having to do the AA thing. I didn't want to do the AA thing! But it was very important that I met my wife. I immediately knew that she'd be my wife, so I was accountable to her in a way I'd never been accountable to anyone. If I hadn't met her, I don't know what might have happened.
It seems apparent that you came to your writing epiphany only through your sobriety epiphany, but I'm curious if you think you would have ever had a writing epiphany if you had never needed a sobriety epiphany in the first place?
I'm curious about that too. I don't know. Maybe. Or it would have been a different writing epiphany? Getting sober was like returning to childhood; I felt the way I'd felt when I was much younger, and I didn't recognize the person I'd been between the ages of about 17 and 25. I felt like I was resuming my life, resuming some process of maturity, and in that sense the sobriety epiphany felt like an understanding that I'd been putting off all that time. But those years of addiction really fuck you up, so maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm on a totally different path now. Maybe I'd never have figured out what I wanted to write. Or maybe I'd have figured out something better!
I want to jump back for a second to when you said you drank a beer and "immediately knew it would cause me trouble down the line". That feels germane now, like the problem was always in you, latent much in the same way writers talk about writing always being in them. First of all, is that how you feel about writing? And if so, can you feel any connection between the two?
I do feel that way about writing, yes. I'm not sure about the similarity between the two. I had that youthful idea about the writer's lifestyle, I guess: Writers drink and cause trouble; therefore I should drink and cause trouble. But pretty quickly I was drinking just to drink. I don't know. I guess I had that first beer and I felt marked somehow. I felt like an outsider. "This can never be part of my life, the way it's a part of other peoples' lives." And that's the way I felt about writing too. I felt like I had this thing in me that set me apart. This desire, this ability, whatever. I felt like the old worry about what we're all going to do when we grew up just didn't apply to me. I think this is maybe not a great thing. It's a character flaw! I imagined that I was exceptional. But it's a character flaw that did help me become a writer.
Yes, and many writers talk about writing as if it were a flaw too. Does the talk about writers and drinking annoy you now?
Yes! But it's kind of hard to dismiss the connection. When I was drinking, I probably would have had a lot to say about it. Now I'm not sure. Maybe writing, or making art of any kind—investing all your emotional capital in this one thing, I mean—increases the risk of despair? But I never drank because I was in despair. It was the drinking that made me miserable. Do writers like to be miserable?
I think so? Though maybe misery isn't the same word, maybe there's something closer that fits both the cause of writing and the cause of drinking. To finish: If you could have told one thing to yourself at 20, what would it be?
There's a scene in my new book in which the male protagonist encounters his former self! He can't really decide what he wants to tell him, and his younger self is most definitely not listening. He mostly tries to say: Stop acting like that. Not that he knows what he means. But he's a cartoon version of me, I guess. In the real world, or the real hypothetical world, I'd like to carry back a message of comfort and love. Not advice or anything. Just: It's going to be okay. I was missing that. I took an apocalyptic approach to daily life.
Thanks so much for your time and words, Aaron.