Question: When did your childhood feel abnormal?
Augusten Burroughs: I have always felt that way. I can remember being very small, in the single digits so 7, 8, and wanting to be 30 and thinking when I’m 30- someday I’ll be 30 and it’ll be over. My childhood with my mother and my father was terrifying. My mother-- I adored her but she was- and she was loving and tender but she was fragile and she was suicidal.
She was a poet. I think of her as like a beautiful vase that has fallen, been knocked off the table, and is in midair and you know that at any moment the vase is going to fall on the floor and shatter into a thousand glittery, sparkling pieces and you’ll cut your feet all over them. My father was two things. He was a southern gentleman, a philosophy professor, absolutely polite, opened the door for everybody, a perfect gentleman like I said, but he was also a sociopath and he was a sociopath who was an alcoholic.
And when you combine alcohol, which is a drug that disinhibits you, with a sociopathic personality you get somebody who’s homicidal. And my early childhood was terrifying constantly. It was just dread, dread. There was this deep feeling of impending doom throughout. When I was 12 and 13 my parents divorced and I- my mother began seeing her psychiatrist more and more and more and more, and when I was 12 and 13 that’s when I began to really spend a lot of time with my mother’s psychiatrist and his large family and his extended family of sort of psychiatric patients. It was like an extended family. There were a lot of patients. And my mother could no longer raise me. She essentially left me and focused completely on her writing and would use her psychotic episodes that she would have every year.
She sort of embraced her mental illness and used her psychotic episodes to further her art so she- my mother was essentially from the age of 12 gone, unavailable for me. She couldn’t raise me so she gave me away to her psychiatrist and he became my legal guardian, and I lived in this very foreign world where up was down and left was right and it was just chaotic and confusing and it was also an incredible relief after what I had gone through, but for me it was this sort of a psychological triage engaged because it was so unlike anything I’d ever experienced; it was so much stimulation.
I had come from a place of really no stimulation or negative stimulation, fear, to just overwhelming oddness and constant people and sort of one crisis after another, and the doctor believed when you were 13 you were a free person and no adult could tell you what to do. So there was no school anymore.
One of the doctor’s long-term psychiatric patients, his adopted son, was a sexual predator and he was the only adult who gave me attention and we became lovers in a relationship that was approved of by my mother. So I was sexualized at a very early age and, given all this stress, the psychological triage was what are you going to do? Are you going to cut your throat or are you going to focus on what’s absurd about this situation, what’s ridiculous? Sometimes things are so, so terrible that they’re funny; you can find the humor in something appalling. And it wasn’t a conscious decision that I made; it is just what happened. I think I’d always had a sense of humor even as a child but certainly as a 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-year-old that sense of humor that I had morphed; it developed into a real defense mechanism. So I became sort of hardened.
The lens through which I looked at and experienced life, this lens filtered what was upsetting or disturbing or ugly to me and made it funny or absurd, but I didn’t have that defense mechanism; I didn’t have that sort of life raft if you will, humor as life raft-- I didn’t have that when I was a child and that’s why A Wolf at the Table is- will probably shock- many readers who have read all my books will find it shocking because it’s a much more intense read because it is without in fact that sort of safety net. You know the saying “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down” and that’s true with humor.
The bald facts of my adolescence that I wrote about in Running with Scissors, being given away by my mother who was crazy to her even crazier psychiatrist and being sexually abused and not in school. It’s a sad story. It’s a terrible story but the book is not sad; it’s not terrible. People find it very funny and horrible but funny and the humor is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine, which is the really awful sort of abuse, go down. A Wolf at the Table doesn’t have that so it’s a much, much more intense read.
Question: What drives a thirteen year old to drink?
Augusten Burroughs: I think a lot of 13-year-olds try drugs and alcohol more than we would like to think. For me though what was different is that when I first drank it felt like the missing piece had been restored. I felt like oh, well, that explains everything; my psychobiology was incorrect. I was an alcoholic by the time I was 17- 16-1/2, 17, and I got a job in advertising when I was 19 and started working when I was 20.
It was right at the end- right near my birthday so I started work right when I was 20. And I- drinking and advertising went really well together and advertising for me was something that I could just do instinctively. Anybody, any brand could have- could present with a strategic issue or challenge and I would just instinctively know what they should do, which was great for my career because it made me very successful in advertising with no effort, and it was terrible because that gave me all the time in the world to drink. So I might be given four or five days when I was in my 20s.
Of course, I was living in New York City working in advertising. I might have four or five days to think of the next ad campaign for American Express or Burger King or UPS, whatever the client was, and that was four days where I would not of course be supervised and asked questions about “Where is the work?”
I would be just left on my own and it was known that in four days I’d come in and show the work. Well, of course I would then just have wonderful drinking time and then do the work right before the meeting. At the very last minute I would think of what they should do and do it and I got away with it for a very long time, and alcohol- the more you-- In your 20s, at least for me, and if you just do alcohol, no drugs, high energy-- You can kind of burn it off so I could go out to the Odeon until 4 o’clock in the morning and I could be at work first thing in the morning and be fine on just a few hours of sleep, still a little bit drunk but okay.
And when you’re young people-- When you’re in your 20s people- and you reek of alcohol people kind of-- Young people go out and drink and it’s just not- it’s not necessarily a big deal. It became a big deal by the time I was 30 and I had to make a choice between career or alcohol so I went through rehab and rehab was like medical school combined with high school, combined with hospital, but it was transformative in that I really saw oh, I really am an alcoholic. At first I looked at the other alcoholics and drug addicts around me at the facility and thought what a bunch of losers; they all really need to be here; I obviously am in the wrong place.
Once I got to know their histories and the amount of substance that each one abused I realized I was one of if not the heaviest drinker in the whole place and that I in fact was exactly where I needed to be. So I got sober and stayed sober for about a year and a half and then the one person who meant everything to me died and even though I had known this person was dying, he had a terminal illness, nothing could prepare me for the actual death so I began drinking again because drinking was my default; it was my comfort. And I drank more and with greater intensity than I ever had before. I went freelance in advertising, which meant that I could now work from home and the more you drink or do drugs or make yourself throw up or starve yourself, any addiction, the more you do it the bigger it becomes and the smaller your world becomes.
Friends and job get in the way of what is your primary focus, which is your addiction, so that I ended up living in a very tiny apartment that was filled with debris, filth, empty bottles. I was drinking a liter of scotch every night and then going out for drinks and I was doing crack and cocaine and I was a bed wetter for many years, and I owned one set of sheets and never changed them and I would wet the bed, wake up with wet sheets and let them air dry and get back in to bed. It was a deplorable, appalling life, but that didn’t matter.
That was an extraneous detail because it was all about the alcohol. I developed an arrhythmia in my heart and I can remember being in bed and my heart would actually stop beating for a second and then it would start up again and I would have a flush of blood to my face and that’s when I kind of realized okay, so this is how I’m going to die. I’m going to have a heart attack. Huh. And I thought well, you know what, I’m okay with that. I’m okay dying, made it through most of my 30s. I had had a huge life. I have had a very interesting life. It’s been horrible and it’s had some wonderful moments but it’s been big. In my 30 something years I’ve lived more than most people in their 60s. So I mismanaged things.
I don’t have any relationships. I have no actual friends. I have no people in my life. I have alcohol and even though it’s killing me it’s a comfort so I guess I’ll just drink myself to death, but what bothered me--it was like a pebble in my shoe--was that I never even tried to write. I had been writing since I was a little kid, since before I could write. I would speak in to a tape recorder and tell it about my day and then when I was 12 I started writing in journals and I just had always written.
And it bothered me that I never even tried to write and it was probably about two weeks after that realization that I sat down hung over one morning at my computer and I wrote two sentences that made me laugh just out of the blue, and I hadn’t laughed for a long time. This was the darkest, bitterest, most- angriest place I’d ever been in my life. I had lost everything. But I laughed so I kept writing and writing and writing and writing and by the end of the day I’d probably written 40 pages and didn’t know where they came from and didn’t know where it was going and was thinking what is this?
So I did it again the next day--it was all I could think about--and the next day, and by the fourth day I wasn’t drinking because there was no time to drink because all I was doing is writing and then I would take a nap for an hour and get up and write, and by the seventh day I’d finished a book. Now I didn’t know if it was a good book or a bad book and I didn’t know where this book came from. It was about a home shopping network but it was a book. It had page numbers and chapters and it was a book, and I knew that if I could write a book in seven days I could write one in a month or in six months or a year and I could keep doing that until I finally wrote one that was good enough to be published. And that’s when absolutely everything in my life changed, on that seventh day, sitting in my underwear with my swollen liver, having written this thing. That is when absolutely everything changed for me.
Recorded on: April 30, 2008.