How writer David Sedaris defeated alcohol and drugs: ‘Everything I do is extreme.’  †  Entertainment/Life

How writer David Sedaris defeated alcohol and drugs: ‘Everything I do is extreme.’ † Entertainment/Life

David Sedaris may seem like a surprising inspiration for overcoming addiction. Wellness advice is not something he’s known for.

A New York Times bestselling author who has been described as witty, irreverent, obsessive, charming, fussy and wickedly deadpan, Sedaris turns otherwise ordinary experiences into brilliantly funny essays that make us laugh, think and often see things through a different lens.

Sedaris tours the world, reading his essays for sold-out audiences. He’s a regular contributor to The New Yorker, BBC Radio and CBS Sunday Morning. His 13th and latest book, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” was released recently.

But his journey has been anything but straightforward.

Sedaris has overcome alcoholism and an addiction to methamphetamine. As his writing career was taking off in the 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon for him to be drunk, stoned and passed out wherever he happened to be.

With the exception of quitting smoking, overcoming his addictions is not something that he’s written about in great detail. A brief mention here and there, so on the outside, it could seem as if it was relatively effortless. But it was anything but easy.

‘Like … a crazy person’

Sedaris has kept a diary since the late ’70s, when he was in his early 20s. During those early years when he was addicted to meth, the entries would go on for pages, “like listening to a crazy person,” he’s said.

His diary included numerous mentions of attempting – or at least, wanting – to stop using meth, but revealed very little about how it actually happened.

“The thing that really saved me was the (relatively short) time in which I was addicted,” he said in a recent phone interview. “The woman who sold it to me moved to Florida and there was no one to take her place. Today, there’d be an entire network of people more than happy to fill her spot.”

“When she left town, I just white-knuckled it. It was awful. I remember being on the floor of my apartment and not being able to get up for days, in agony and writhing around. And after I came through it, I thought, I’m never doing that again.

“When she moved back to town and gave me a call, I said, ‘No, I can’t do that anymore. I’m never going through what I went through.’”

‘Sick of myself’

He continued to smoke marijuana, however, and struggled with alcoholism. “I got high every single night if I had pot. I just got so sick of myself, but I couldn’t stop,” he recalls.

“I had been super anti-drug when I was in high school. Then I went to college, and it was like an after-school special. “Oh, come on, you can get high just this once!” and I’m like ‘Oh my god! This is fantastic.’”

Sedaris was beset by compulsiveness for the first two decades of his life. In his essay, “A Plague of Tics,” he shares stories of obsessive counting and touching, licking light switches and mailboxes, rocking back and forth, crying out in tiny voices, eliciting flashes of pain by shaking his head violently to feel his brain slam against his skull.

“Once I started smoking, a lot of the physical tics faded,” he said. “It’s funny, nowadays people take their kids to the doctor or psychiatrist for everything. They’ll be like, ‘Verbs make him anxious.’ My parents never took me, but when I wrote about it, I was contacted by a child psychiatrist who said it sounded like a juvenile form of Tourette’s that people can grow out of.”

His mother noticed his tics, of course, but was never really shamed or bothered by them. When his teachers expressed alarm, she would layer in humor while deflecting their concerns.

Family history

A natural storyteller herself, Sedaris’ mother helped to shape his style of recounting the day’s events, giving advice on details to omit and how to keep an audience’s attention.

But as Sedaris grew up, his mother’s drinking began to escalate. He describes her shift from sunny and charismatic to dark and raw, “like you’d taken the lady she was earlier and peeled her.”

The family, though, avoided addressing her drinking, no matter how bad it got.

“I wished more than anything that she could have quit drinking. But I was already in my 20s and I would think, well, you know, I’ve been drunk a lot and I’m sure I’ve embarrassed her.”

In his book “Calypso,” Sedaris writes, “I’m forever thinking of all our missed opportunities – six kids and a husband, and not one of us spoke up. Sobriety would not have stopped the cancer that was quietly growing inside of her, but it would have allowed her to hold her head up – to recall what it felt like to live without shame – if only for a few years.”

No cutting back

This same avoidance, and the reluctance to use the word addiction, was mirrored in his own drinking. Even in his diary, he avoided mention of the “talking-tos” by well-intentioned family and friends, including his longtime partner, Hugh Hamrick.

“Hugh said a few things now and then, but it was more of, ‘you need to cut back.’ But if you’re an alcoholic, there’s no ‘cutting back’. You’re either drinking or you’re not. If you could just have one drink every other night, you wouldn’t be an alcoholic.”

In March 1999, the switch finally flipped. Sedaris had his last drink.

“I was visiting a friend, staying at their house. Her husband just got out of rehab. And I filled the house with liquor that I needed during my three-day stay. I didn’t think about the fact that he just finished rehab. And he got into it…

“I remember thinking to myself, well, it’s not my fault. He got into it. And that’s true. But if I was so weak that I couldn’t go a couple of nights without drinking, I couldn’t go without bringing it into his house, I thought, that’s an alcoholic right there. Somebody who can’t even do someone the courtesy of not bringing alcohol into their house at their weakest moment. And that was the last time I drank.

“When I quit drinking, I thought, if you quit drinking, you’ve got to quit pot as well. Otherwise, you’re still just stoned every night and waking up with a thick head. So, I quit everything.”

Celebrating milestones

It was a concentrated effort, he says, and a very difficult one.

He celebrated the milestones: 48 hours since his last drink. Six months, then two years. There was also an element of change that occurred in his relationships.

“Hugh was always kind of taking care of me. I mean, he still does but I don’t need to be taken care of in that way anymore. I don’t have to be put to bed. I can still embarrass him but I’m not going to embarrass him that way.”

He writes freely about quitting smoking, detailed in his essay, “The Smoking Section.” He planned an extended stay in Tokyo for the sole purpose of changing every single circumstance around him, removing the existing triggers to help stop smoking.

“Three months before my 50th birthday, I thought, you know what? I’m turning 50. I’m going to quit smoking. So, I did. I went to another country, I had a whole other apartment, there was a whole language to learn, everything was different, everything. I wasn’t allowed to smoke in the apartment. One of the reasons I chose Tokyo was that you can’t smoke on the street in Tokyo. You have to go to a special smoking station and they’re not that easy to find.

“I’d never tried to quit smoking before, and this worked for me.”

Positive obsessions?

Replacement behaviors are a key element in overcoming any type of addiction. For Sedaris, this meant shifting his obsessions from the negative to the positive.

“Everything I do is extreme, everything. So… I got a Fitbit.

“I reach 10,000 steps and the Fitbit tingles, because I met my goal. But that lasted maybe a day. I was like, 10,000 steps? I can do better than that. And it just completely ruled my life. I started walking 15 miles a day. Unless I’m in England, then it’s 20 miles. My record is 41 miles in a day.

“Then it was picking up trash on the side of the road in England. I’m doing it like six, seven, eight hours a day. I’m doing it like it’s my job. I mean it has to be every bit of trash. If there’s one plastic bag caught in a tree limb, I can’t leave it there. If there’s a Coke can in blackberry bushes and getting it out means that I get scratches on my face and my arms and everything, I have to do it because it’s there. I can’t walk past it. There have been times that I thought, you know what? I’m not going to do it. I’m not bringing my litter picker and my bag. I’m not doing it. I’m going to walk into the village just like a regular person. Then my arms are full by the time I get there because all my pockets are full. I can’t do a half-assed job of it.”

If they can do it…

With all of the FitBit self-competition and litter patrol, not to mention a busy writing and touring schedule, does he pause, look back, give himself the credit or acknowledgment for having overcome such strong addictions?

His response is a simple, “Yeah, I do.”

“The thing I always tell myself with everything,” he adds, “is that people have gone through much more stressful things. I’m not the only one who’s ever been through this. Lots of people have been through this. Lots of people have quit drinking. Lots of people have quit smoking. The world’s full of people who have quit these things. There’s nothing special about me. If they can do it, I can do it.”

And as for his friend’s husband, the one who relapsed after rehab? “He hasn’t had a drink in years.”

Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD is a registered dietitian in New Orleans and host of the podcast FUELED | Wellness + Nutrition.

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