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An Interview With Eva Hagberg Fisher photo

Eva Hagberg Fisher's forthcoming book (out Feb. 5th) How To Be Loved figuratively fell in my lap. I was at coffee with a friend saying I needed a new book to read, but I needed that book to be about recovery because I just needed to be heard and understood, and lo and behold—my inbox pinged. Did anyone want a review copy of How To Be Loved? I read two sentences into the description and replied in all caps: YES. I am so glad I did. Fisher's memoir is more than a book can contain (though often what a book acts as): a friend, a companion, a shoulder to lean on. I felt understood while reading. I couldn't relate to the serious medical issues that unfolded within the book, but I could relate to the root of Eva's story: finding those who love us in our greatest time of need is priceless. 

Fisher writes eloquently about her time of need, her recovery from drinking, as well as what it was like to live in her mind as everything fell apart.

Haley Sherif: How are you today? Right now?

Eva Hagberg Fisher: Today I’m completely thrilled - I’ve been feeling really unwell for almost two weeks (had surgery almost two weeks ago) and was getting really demoralized/bored/obsessed with Twitter fights because I had to stay in bed and was in a lot of pain. Through some magic combination of a hundred things that I’ve done to care for myself, I woke up yesterday and today feeling so much better—I can feel my brain coming back into itself after being knocked around a bit during general anesthesia.

I’m excited about my book coming out and I also have nerves, anxiety, feelings of loss for things that I fantasized about that haven’t happened (yet?)—it’s a wild spiritual ride and I’m doing everything I can to keep myself grounded. I also just moved back to New York after being on the west coast for nine years so I’m feeling extremely amped about that.

HS: As someone in recovery, I found everything you had to say in your book relevant and true to my own experience. Did you immediately feel comfortable about sharing parts of your story out loud or did you have some mental resistance to it?

EHF: I’m so so so glad that you related. That was really my hope with this book. I was talking to a friend right after the book was accepted, and she asked me what my intention was. I was like “sell millions of copies write whatever I want forever!!!” and she was like “okay, but what’s your like … deeper less self-centered intention?” and it was truly to have someone read the book and see herself or himself or themselves reflected and be like “oh, maybe all the thoughts I’m ashamed of are okay and human and I’m not as weird/alone/different as I thought I was.”

Your question about comfort is interesting to me. I have a lot of experience talking one-on-one and in small to large groups about myself in a way that is sort of right up against my experience—and that’s a result of some of the desperation I’ve felt to get better in various ways. So to half answer your question—I had had a few years of practice talking about myself out loud, so it wasn’t like I came to the page never having been honest.

To answer the other half of the question, writing the book was very different from speaking one-on-one, whether working with a recovery guide or a therapist or just talking to a trusted friend. I had zero mental resistance while I was writing. None at all. I was able to very easily compartmentalize the book I was writing from the life that I lived—and while I was writing about a lot of very difficult things, my life experience at the time was pretty steady and comfortable. I was living with my husband, I was pursuing my Ph.D., I had a lot of physical and emotional and mental safety around me, and from that place, I was able to just write things down that I think if I were in a different position I wouldn’t have been as able to write. While I was writing, my main concerns were really formal, structural, etc. I wasn’t thinking like “oh no, someone’s going to judge me for the way that I got out of that relationship!!!”—I was thinking, “how do I get the reader to have the opportunity to feel an intense emotional moment with me?” or “what scene can I use to provide evidence for my earlier observation that people often called me a sociopath?”—it felt very technical. I was in writing workshops at UC Berkeley at the time; I never workshopped any book material, but I was taking really intensive classes in fiction and nonfiction writing and so I was in near-near-constant conversation with really amazing writers and teachers like Tom Farber and Vikram Chandra about scenes, pacing, dialogue, etc.

However, now that the book is on its way out I’m having this almost whiplash of like wait I wrote THAT? I was honest about THAT??? But I’m reminding myself that the book is wiser than I am—it told me what it needed and I can trust that.

HS: How would you describe your friendship with Alison in five words or less? Do you define that relationship in terms of friendship? I feel like that term doesn’t do it justiceyou almost felt completely entwined at the end of her life.

EHF: A love of my life.

I was about to say that you’re right—friendship doesn’t seem to encompass it, but then I thought, what if friendship could encompass it? What if we widened our understanding of friendship and realized that the other roles that she sometimes played (I write in the book about trying to figure out if she’s my mom? a romantic partner? a midwife for my feelings?) could fall under friendship. Part of me is like, of course, she was more than a friend. But then I think, what if she was “just” a friend and we should rethink the role that friends can have in our lives. I think that was the real thing that I learned when I was so sick and so afraid of dying - that friends can be family. My stepfather (who I consider a father) was just in town pointing out that, when he took care of me after brain surgery, he could see that my friends were “family.” In a way, Allison felt like a friend. She also felt like a parent, a guide, a conversation partner. But I think what you’re picking up on is part of what I get to in the end of the first chapter where I’m like, “wait, who is this person and what is she going to be to me?” At first, she was a new category. But when I really reflect on your question, I think that my experience with her expanded my understanding of the “friend” category.

HS: What was it like meeting your husband that one night? Did you know that was it?

EHF: It’s so strange to me how memory works and how we narrate our own lives. I remember distinctly not being remotely interested in this guy that my friend had told me I should meet for a one-night-stand/summer fling. I was kind of crushing on this, like, VERY inappropriately too young person at the time, so I was very much not in the market for anything serious or life-changing. But I recall very distinctly looking up and seeing my now-husband’s face and thinking, “that’s the face I’ve been waiting for.” Or maybe I thought, “I wish that was the person I was supposed to meet.” I’ve told the story so many times I don’t know what I actually thought.

I’d purposefully told my friend not to show me any pictures of the person he was setting me up with. And so I wasn’t even looking for a specific type—I just looked up and saw my future husband, with his silky volleyball shorts and kneepads around his ankles and like bright white sneakers and I just felt this moment of settling. And then through complicated social maneuvers (and the help of two friends who figured out pretty quickly what was going on), we ended up all going to my house to watch TV, my friends left, he and I talked, and then he was like “I have to be at work at 8:00 a.m. so I can leave right now or I can stay over.” Which in retrospect—is a total ploy - of cores he could have left later. But he was sort of giving name to what was happening here. And I asked what he wanted to do, and he asked what I wanted, and I said he should stay, and I remember at that moment feeling a combination of really excited and also profoundly calm. And he took a shower bc of the volleyball situation, and I remember sitting in my living room while he took a shower and just thinking, “the best person that I know is taking a shower in my house right now.”

I felt this immediate combination of incredibly comfortable and extraordinarily attracted to him, which had never happened before. I’d only ever been able to be extraordinarily attracted and deeply uncomfortable OR vice versa. I was pretty sure something major was happening. I also fall really hard and really fast every time I get into someone—I am not a relaxing person to casually date—so it occurred to me that I might just be having a standard Eva experience—but here we are, five and a half years later, super into each other! We’re still like “uh we are MARRIED, wait WHAT”—we’ve changed so much in the last five and a half years and have been through some really hard times but fundamentally we’re still interested in one each other. We feel to each other like the most intimate partners and also the most mysterious strangers.

HS: Why is your story important to share with the world? Why is important to continue sharing stories like yours?

EHF: I don’t know that it’s the specifics of my story that are important, so much as the perspective that I got that I really wanted to just have out there as part of the cultural conversation around illness, bravery, solitude, ambition, love, fear, friendship, honesty. When I was sick, I had a lot of people telling me that everything was going to get better, and I was going to be okay, and then I had people being like “this is fucked up, this is terrible, I’m so sorry, I’m so scared, I’m so sorry for you,” and I was like, that’s what I need. I needed to have people be really honest and emotional with me about how awful they thought this was, instead of telling me a story about someone who ended up totally fine!

So I wanted to make a series of arguments almost - just continuing to show different ways of dealing with whatever it is that I was dealing with at the time. I wanted to be really really open about the relationship between performance and shame and illness—there’s a scene where I’m talking to Allison about how I’ve just sent out this email to all my friends that’s basically like “HI I’M GETTING BRAIN SURGERY I’M SCARED” and growing up the worst thing you could say about someone in my family was that they were “attention-seeking” so I asked her if I was attention-seeking, hoping she would say something like “of course not!” and instead she was like, “of course you are… because you need attention right now!” So the book is less about “listen to this wild series of events that occurred” and more about articulating and exploring and expressing all these ways of having compassion for myself and my needs that I learned from Allison, and also from other people—from Leila when I was in my late teens and early twenties, and from Lauren after Allison died (that’s not a spoiler—you find out on the first page!)  

I think it’s important to keep telling the uncomfortable truth about ourselves so that we don’t have to feel so alone. For instance, I read Melissa Broder’s incredible novel The Pisces this summer and I’d been struggling with some kind of flirtation/fantasy issues and trying to figure out my relationship to monogamy and fantasy (my spouse and I are monogamous and always have been) - and reading The Pisces, which is about a Los Angeles writer/literary scholar who has an affair with a merman, I felt my experiences and thoughts and fears articulated in language for the first and most precise time. So I think it’s less about sharing particular stories and more about finding ways, whatever that way is, to keep being relentlessly human and flawed and publicly imperfect so that we can start to change the way we as a culture deal with humanity and struggle. I spent a lot of time on illness message boards when I was really sick, and so many times someone would say something like, “I’m still in pain after my XYZ experience,” and someone else would say, “well I’ve never had a problem getting back to work after a laparoscopy so there’s something wrong with you.” And I want to undo this capitalist obsession with getting back to work and productivity and also the fear that I perceive in those comments—the “I’m fine, you must have something else going on.”

Basically, the point of my book is like, the hard thing will come for you. It will find you. It found me. Here’s how I survived. It wasn’t by doing what the culture told me—it was by completely falling apart and being sure I was losing everything and still experiencing truly unconditional love.

HS: Have you felt any pushback from sharing your story either from the recovery world and/or friends who think you should keep things more private?

EHF: No. I was kind of panicking about the book a little bit once it was finished, and my editor suggested I send it to a friend and just ask the friend to be really nice to me. So I sent a galley to my friend Adam Nemett, whom I went to college with and who actually I had a massive falling out with because when I was drinking I behaved pretty terribly—and we had slowly rebuilt a friendship over the last decade or so. But I sent him my memoir and I remember asking him really explicitly to be really kind about it. And he sent me his novel, which came out November 2018 and is called WE CAN SAVE US ALL, and is phenomenal, buy it!! And he was just so so compassionate and understanding and optimistic and so he was a bit of a moral compass when I started being worried. I called him a month or so ago and asked if he thought the book was cruel to anyone and he was like “No, I think you’re really hard on yourself, but it’s really clearly not a burn book.” There was an intimacy in having him of all people read it—this is someone who knew me when I was (I thought secretly but maybe not so secretly after all) terrified of intimacy, and drinking to cover that up, and someone who saw me through what were some of my truly darkest moments, before I got sober. So I thought, okay, if Adam, who was present for a lot of the really difficult chapters in my life, thinks that this book is powerful, then I can hold on to that. (I guess I still need outside validation!!)

I don’t know if my friends wish I kept things more to myself. I think my friends who are really my friend know that I’m just not wired to do that. I fantasize sometimes about being really stoic—I talk to my therapist about my fantasy world in which I’m very private and no one knows me and I just vaguely allude to “difficult challenges” but in reality, I’m the person raising my hand and talking about my hemorrhaging pituitary in great detail. And I asked another friend why I wrote this memoir that’s so deeply relentlessly honest about things that I’ve always thought I should keep locked in a shame closet, and she really pragmatically said, “because that’s your job.” So I just think of this as my job. I didn’t necessarily choose it, but now I have it, and so I’ll just keep doing the best I can with saying the thing out loud and hoping it helps someone.

That said - I’m interested in the idea of “privacy” My life actually does remain private. The book is not a record of my life - and so my experience of my life is still a very protected, sheltered, personal experience. My day-to-day existence with my husband, our habits and repeated conversations, the way I spend time with my friends, the thoughts I have, etc. And so this book didn’t feel like an abandonment of privacy—although it does talk about deeply personal experiences. I still have my life, and it’s just mine.

HS: As a writer, what do you hold to be your truth?

EHF: So the concept of “truth” was something that I explored a little bit when I was reading for my qualifying exams for my Ph.D. program—I’m just picturing the massive whiteboard that I had up on the wall that helped me remember concepts and I had “truth” in purple and it linked to narrative and text and the author but I have no actual conception of “truth” as a theoretical idea—or actually practical concept. I think that I have a sense of what it means to be honest—and the book required a level of honesty with myself. For example, when I first wrote the last third—in which I’m driving around the desert wondering if I’m allergic to everything or having some kind of psycho-spiritual breakdown, my first few drafts I didn’t want to be honest with myself about how confused I’d been—and the text wasn’t working. I had to be willing to be truthful to my experience at the time, which is that I was extraordinarily confused and I often believed people who were telling me I was having an anxiety reaction to marriage”(spoiler: it was not an anxiety reaction).

I think truth changes all the time and what I’m interested in exploring w/ truth as opposed to a sense of honesty is something that a reader can resonate with. I want the emotional hits that I work towards in the book to feel true and almost inevitable. So maybe I’m grasping at some universal shared resonant truth - something like “oh yes, that’s what this particular experience feels like,”—but I don’t know how truth relates to accuracy. The book is factually accurate—I changed names and identifying details in some cases, but I didn’t compress dialogue or events or anything like that. If there’s a scene in there, it’s written truly to the best of my memory. So does that mean it’s truthful or accurate? Or honest? Perspective changes my relationship to events—but I also wanted to get at some deeper shared felt sense that what I was writing was true. And at the same time I don’t believe in there being universal truths because everything we experience is mediated through our culture. Or maybe it isn’t? I’m not an anthropologist. This is a great question!!

HS: How does your architectural background inform your writing (if it does at all)?

EHF: Before writing this book I was a frequent contributor to architecture and design magazines, starting the year I graduated college in 2003. I was also pursuing a Ph.D. in a field related to architectural history—a Ph.D. that I got a few weeks ago! Very excited to be a Doctor. My relationship with architecture has always been really intimate and personal - I understand buildings and how they work in a way that is both intuitive and also the result of years and years of constant attention. I felt very lonely and confused as a child and my favorite book was Mary Gilliatt’s The Decorating Book—I used to read it every night and fantasize about my future “irregularly-shaped kitchen” or “small yet bright living room”—so architecture was a mode of escape.

And then my experience writing on deadline for fifteen years really helped when I had a book to write. When you’re writing for a magazine, you can’t miss deadlines—so when my editor gave me a book deadline, I jus met it. I was able to be, sort of, pragmatic about this process—I was just like “well I gotta give my editor a hundred pages so I’ll just write something now!” instead of fearing the blank page. I didn’t have a fear of the blank page. And also reporting and writing dialogue in magazines helped me with the dialogue—which is something that I think is really hard for a lot of writers -and had been really hard for me, too. The hours and hours and hours that I spent listening to and transcribing interviews was really useful when I was writing in an effort to recreate the cadence of someone’s voice—like Allison’s.

HS: Women, especially, tend to get a lot of flack when it comes to writing about and talking about pain. Do you feel more confident after this journey that you can tell the truth about how you feel and be believed when it comes to the medical field?

EHF: Zero percent. I just had a surgery like I mentioned - and I advocated so hard for myself before the surgery - with everyone whom I encountered. And while objectively my surgery had a good outcome, my experience was awful. I remember waking up from anesthesia and fighting with the doctor about pain medicine - even though I’d told his team that I would probably require more pain medicine than most of their patients. I was asked to walk into the operating room with no anti-anxiety drugs (all my previous experiences I was given Versed in the pre-op room so I was totally looped by the time I saw all the knives)—and this was after telling everyone that I had pretty intense surgery-related PTSD. I felt a lot of shame and horror that I hadn’t advocated for myself better, but my therapist helped me realized that I’d done everything I possibly could, and that the fault wasn’t mine - so then I just had to feel the hopelessness of knowing that even though I’d done everything right, I still hadn’t received the care I’d asked so clearly for. And this was at a top hospital in NYC with someone who’s considered a top surgeon!

I think that the bias is still so strong—you see it everywhere. I read Maya Dusenbery’s incredible book DOING HARM and I was just floored by how factually she recounts the ways in which women are just completely overlooked—studies aren’t done on women because their bodies are too “complicated” for instance. It’s terrible. And watching my other friend Jen Brea, who made a phenomenal movie called UNREST, and how long it took her to be taken seriously has been such a wrenching experience. We got sick around the same time and it’s taken us both a very long time to find people who will take us seriously.

I did have a great tool in my pocket for a while which was that after a doctor had diagnosed me with anxiety, an MRI scan showed I actually had a ruptured pituitary cyst. So I was able to be like “do you want to be the next doctor who misses a ruptured pituitary cyst?” But I don't like having to be that aggressive. It would be great if a doctor were just like “wow, sounds like you have pain, let’s help you, that doesn’t sound right!”

I have little symptoms here and there and I’ve mostly given up on feeling better with them or using mainstream medicine to deal with them because I just can’t face another round of doctors telling me I have anxiety. If you’re a doctor, please watch UNREST, and read DOING HARM!!!

HS: Any writing advice to someone who is also healing?

EHF: If you’re convinced that you’ll never write again because you’re too sick, that’s okay. I had an almost two-year writers’ block experience. I couldn’t even remember what it had been like to write. People told me to trust the process, so I can pass that along. Trust that the words will come back to you—trust that what you have to say is going to be valuable to at least one other person—and that matters. And if you don’t have writers’ block and you’re writing your way through this, keep writing. The story might take a while to emerge but nothing that you write is wasted - it’s all material.

HS: Any last words?

EHF: Whoever you are, reading this—know that you’re not alone. You might be the most popular person at the party and still feel alone, or you might be in your house and bed-bound and feel totally isolated, and there’s someone who can 100% relate to either of those experiences. It has been my experience that everything someone has been through, someone else can relate to. Find the people who can sit with you in whatever pain you’re in, and be with them.

image: Haley Sherif