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An Interview with Amy Long photo

My favorite blurb about Amy Long's essay collection, Codependence, is Joshua Mohr saying: "Long leads her readers into emotional investigations and she has the courage to never flinch." To do what Long has done in her book is to remind the reader of the gravitational pull of great writing. Long only writes from the heart encouraging us to look deeper and longer at what it means to not have access to something as basic as medications that would provide a better and less painful way of life. When I think about teachers, Long springs to mind. Her first book is a tour-de-force that opens, probes, and questions what it means to, as the writer Jeannette Winterson says, "risk what you value." Long's truth is ours, she is just brave enough to say it out loud.

Codependence was nominated for Foreword Reviews 2019 Indies Award and Long's writing has been featured in-print and online in publications including DIAGRAM and Longreads.

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Haley Sherif: One of my favorite parts about your Instagram is that it's organized by color! It's so visually pleasing. What made you decide to do that? Also, are you technically a Bookstagram account?

Amy Long: I am not a #bookstagrammer, but I do take pictures of every book I buy and put them on my Instagram. I started trying to give my grid a color scheme (or what my clothing-designer friend Lindsey calls a “color story,” which I like a lot) around the time I knew I was about to see my book’s final cover; I wanted the cover to look nice in the grid, so I started trying to emphasize pinks, reds, and oranges; greens and blues; and neutral tones. And then I got obsessed with it, and now I’m like “I can’t post that yet. I need more red first” or “Oh, there’s blue in here! I needed blue!” My friend Brian, who is in the book, poked fun at me about it in front of a friend who said, “What? People really care about that?” as if to say “How lame!” But I do it because it’s fun. It’s not constricting; enforcing the color story reminds me of the generative constraints in formal poetry or experimental essays.


HS: When I write about love, I simultaneously find myself writing about my wants vs. my needs. I want this happy family, but I need a healthy relationship with myself first. Was there a pattern you noticed when you wrote Codependence in the men you chose and why you chose them? Is there power in feeling needed?

AL: That’s a good question. Writing about love can get cheesy fast. I tried to use scenes as much as I could when writing about relationships so that the reader sees what I saw and feels what I felt and can judge the relationships from inside of them—or as close to the inside as a reader can get. I’m proud of my sex scenes especially; they’re not porn-like or cringey, but they aren’t prudish or cold, either, and that’s hard to do, I think.

Ten months ago, I would have said “Oh, definitely there’s power in being needed,” but now I’m not so sure. I think that’s in part what I was trying to get at in my answer to the earlier question about love and want. Like, being needed might make you feel powerful when the relationship is still pretty new, and being needed feels more like being wanted. But when your partner depends on you for so much, whether it’s financial or emotional or some other kind of dependence, you start to feel as though they’re draining all your energy from you. At some point—and this is especially true, I’ve found, of men who’ve dealt with substance use disorders—you’re not a person in a relationship anymore. You’re a nurse and a parent and a dog and a fan and a punching bag and a rock; you’re everything to this person who cannot and would not be everything for you if you needed him to take on that role. I know now that I feel freer when I’m not in a relationship. I don’t like feeling responsible for someone or having to check my texts every ten minutes. It’s not a fear of commitment or of being tied down. It’s more a fear of losing myself in some guy’s needs. I will always mean more to me than some guy.

I know I have a dating pattern or maybe a type I’m trying to shake off. Now, I look for boring; I don’t want to be in a relationship with someone who has a new crisis every morning. I need steady and nice, someone who can find joy in in mundanity. I’ve also been calling myself a lesbian separatist since my last relationship ended (badly), so now I want to try the lesbian part—or do I need to try it? I’m not sure if that’s a want or a need. It feels like less of a need now because I don’t want to be in a relationship with anyone. But that will change in three or six or fifteen months, and do I really want to try it out when I’m lonely? I know I make my worst decisions when I’m lonely. But I also make bad decisions when I feel trapped. So, I guess I need freedom to figure out what I want.


HS: Where is the line between a substance abuse disorder and other types of drug use?

AL: That is a good but complex question. Some friends who work in drug policy reform have told me they’re still trying to figure out a good way to describe the kind of drug use I did with David—like, “recreational” isn’t always right, but neither is “abuse.” You can do drugs and be safe and smart about it and not let it take over your life. Like, when David and I broke up, I just quit doing opioids. They weren’t really around anymore, and I didn’t think about or miss them. Most people age out of hard drug use around 25 or so anyway, and I assume I would have, too, if I hadn’t started taking opioids for pain relief when I was 25. Drug use isn’t binary, either. Lots of people—and I include myself in this—can use drugs responsibly and relatively safely in the same way that some people can drink moderately or socially, and some people can’t. If we think of drug use as a spectrum with total abstinence on one side and physiological and psychological dependence on the other, most drug users fall somewhere in the middle.

But that doesn’t really answer the question. Only the person using the drugs can make that assessment. But, in general, the definition of addiction (or of a substance use disorder, as we say now) goes something like “continued use despite negative consequences.” So, like, David has a substance use disorder (SUD) both because he had become physiologically dependent on opioids and because he kept using them even after he’d been to jail multiple times, developed health problems, ruined relationships—like, that’s addiction.

At the same time, if you take an opioid or opiate regularly for a few weeks or a couple of months, you will become physiologically dependent; that’s just how this drug class works. But dependence isn’t addiction. I’m dependent, but I’m not addicted. If I were addicted, I would take my month’s supply in a week or two and scramble to replace the pills or go into withdrawal. Like, I’m in pain now—more pain than I’d like to be in while I’m answering these questions—but I’ll wait until my next dose to take the painkiller I want because I know that, if I took an extra pill every time I needed one, I’d run out in two weeks. Part of that has to do with my currently subpar pain management (I was on a higher and more flexible dose when I wrote the book; now I’d have to double my dose to get the kind of relief I got then), but it’s also that I’m scared to run out early and that I’m lucky I have the discipline or willpower or genes or whatever that keep me from reaching for the pill bottle every time I’m crying in pain.

Some people would also say that addiction and medicinal use differ in that I take opioids so I can participate in society, and someone with a SUD uses drugs to escape society. But people take drugs for all kinds of reasons—to self-medicate, for example, or to have fun or stay well or in response to abuse or trauma—and it’s not my place to judge or speak for other drug users. And I do call myself a drug user. I use drugs to treat my pain. A lot of pain patients disagree with that characterization; they say that we take medication, not drugs, but I feel like that stigmatizes other drug users—like, people with prescriptions from pain specialists get the more respectable medication, and those dirty junkies over there get drugs, you know? And it does none of us any good. Our common enemy is prohibition, and we’d be better off working together to end that.


HS: In her poem the "The Rules,"  Leila Chatti writes, "This poem has no shards...no ex-boyfriends or manifest lovers." You write in your book, "Sometimes I think if I care less about whether David liked me and more about keeping myself intact, I'd have ended up too safe, too careful, too clean, too good." If we can avoid the pain of an ended relationship why do we refuse to stop perpetuating heartbreak? Why not be "too careful?"


Oh, I love Leila’s poems, and I love that line about ex-boyfriends and lovers who won’t manifest. I just finished her book Deluge and was just in awe of the way she uses language.

I guess, when I say I don’t want to be “too careful,” it’s more that I don’t want to close myself off to my own nerve endings; I want to still feel what I feel when I interact with the world and the other people in it. You and I sat on the phone together the other day watching Miss Americana, Lana Wilson’s documentary about Taylor Swift. I’ve seen it several times, but you hadn’t seen it, and you loved the bit at the end when she says “I want to still have a sharp pen, thin skin, and an open heart.” And I love that quote, too. It reminds me that I don’t want to be so hard I can’t get hurt; I need to feel my feelings as a writer and a human.

When Taylor (my close personal friend Taylor Swift; we’re on a first-name basis) put out her post-Kanyegate album, reputation, in 2017, she wrote poems to accompany its release because she didn’t want to do interviews. In one, she writes “May your heart remain breakable but never by the same hand twice.” That and the “thin skin” quote obviously run parallel to each other—like, she wants to feel her feelings, but she doesn’t want to keep going back to the things that hurt her in the past. She wants to learn from those experiences, but she doesn’t want to repeat them. And I feel that a lot lately. Like, I don’t want to keep going in circles, but I don’t want to be so guarded that I’m not able to have my heart broken. If I put on that much armor, I just wouldn’t care about anything.


HS: I was lucky enough to see this book before it was a book. One of my favorite things about you is how you talk about writing. Talk to me about the exoskeleton of Codependence. When did you decide it was ready for the world?

AL: Codependence actually has a physical exoskeleton, and I love talking about it. In his CNF workshop, Matthew Vollmer had us pick “obsessions” and write in different forms about them and then produce a 3D object that incorporated writing in some way. My obsession was drugs, and I narrated my drug history in a medicine cabinet. I rolled up flash essays in empty pill bottles with insanely detailed labels, bags of fake coke, on fake checks and motel keys and in hospital bracelets—all kinds of cool stuff. Some of the essays in Codependence come almost straight from that project (and I have an essay in Issue 19.4 of DIAGRAM that used to look like a heroin bundle but is now a five-page collage that underwent no real edits). Like, the prescription-informatic essays that make up “Product Warning” are expanded versions of the pill bottle labels and the stories inside them. I revised the motel-key essays, and they made it into the book. The medicine cabinet is the only outline from which I’ve ever worked successfully. If I felt stuck, I’d walk up to it and pick up a bottle or a Suboxone packet or whatever and decide what I needed to write next and what shape it would take. It was really fun. The medicine cabinet lives in Matthew’s office now. He shows it to the new MFAs so they know what greatness the program expects of them (no, I’m kidding; I wanted him to have it because his class and his advice and just him as a person mean the world to me, and it didn’t fit in my car!). I sent Brian Blanchfield, who judged the contest that got my book published, one of the motel keys because his blurb says the book “gives you the room key and invites you to explore the parameters of purgatory."


HS: My overall takeaway from your book is, you are not broken just because the world thinks you are. Also, your pain is not mythical just because no one can see it. What would you add to that?

AL: That drugs, drug use, dependence, and addiction are all more complicated than we like to admit. That not all stories have the kinds of endings we’ve come to expect in memoir and that the hopeful, “I went through hell and now I’m fine and here is what I learned” structure doesn’t serve all stories. That pain isn’t always visible or curable. That sometimes there is no answer, and maybe we have to be okay with that.


HS: What books are teetertottering on your nightstand?

AL: So many. Several 33 1/3s (Jawbreaker’s Dear You, Bjork’s Homogenic, Pet Sounds and Court and Spark), Melissa Matthewson’s Tracing the Desire Line, Emily Arnason Casey’s essay collection Made Holy, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee (I read about it in Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings, and it sounded so cool I bought it), and Jeannie Vanasco’s Things We Didn’t Talk About When I was a Girl. I’m also super stoked about a book order that should come to me soon with Nina Renata Aron’s Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls in it. And I just finished Leila Chatti’s poetry collection Deluge, which is fucking gorgeous and so smart.


image: Haley Sherif