How Anne Lamott Got Sober

A story of meditation, black coffee, and Safeway cakes.
  • Transcript


Question: How did you get sober?

Anne Lamott: How did I get sober?  Well, I had—when my dad died when I was 25, my younger brother had been 20, my brother Steve, and he worked in landscape architect, he was a laborer, and one of his best friends had a father who was sober, named Jack.  When our dad died, Steven moved in with this guy Jack and there were all these sober people around his house all the time talking about how much they loved being sober and prayer and meditation and helping others, and they always had these horrible cakes from Safeway that I happen to really prefer to good bakery, because I mostly just like the icing, and they always had this swill, this terrible coffee.  And I was always drinking too much of this swill late at night, whereas if I drink coffee at night, I would sleep again several days later.  But, I got to be friends with this character named Jack and he’d been a total lush like I am, and he said, you know, “We’re not drinking, one day at a time, and everything that we’d ever dreamt has happened for us.”  And I said, “Well, I’m very religious, very spiritual without your little Safeway cakes and swill." But like most drunks that had gotten sober, I got to the point where I was deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.  You know?  So, I was getting to a point where I was living in a way that involved waking up sick and with a lot of shame and just kind of animal confusion.  And one day I called Jack and said, “What do I do?”  And he said, “Why don’t I come over and we’ll talk.”  So, that’s how I got sober and that’s how I stayed sober as people said, “Why don’t I come over and we’ll talk, and drink our bad coffee like communion together.Our bad coffee and our Safeway cakes.

Question: What is the spiritual path you’ve taken since sobering up?

Anne Lamott: Well, I became a Christian before I got sober. So I was a drunk, bulimic Christian. I wondered into the biracial church across the highway from where I lived when I was still drinking very heavily and using.  And the only reason I went in to this church, which happened to be Presbyterian, was because it was across the street from a flea market and I was there a lot of Sunday mornings when I was so hung over.  And when I’m hung over, I’m drawn to greasy food and lots of it.  And then I would hear this gospel singing or the songs of the Civil Rights Movement.  When I grew up, my parents were old lefties, I grew up on the Weavers and Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, and they would be singing a lot of the Civil Rights anthems, and so I’d wander in because I’d run out of good ideas, and no one at my church hassled me.  There were about 40 people and still are only about 40 people.  But they didn’t try to get me to sign on the dotted line, or tell them who shot the Holy Ghost, they just let me sit there and—they just let me sit there.  And the air was nutritious.  Because there were people who had put their money where their mouths were and they’d done the work of social justice and they were true believers.

And I lived in the Bay Area, and still do, in the years of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti at this founding City Lights.  My father loved the Beats and worked on a magazine that was very avant-garde in the Bay Area with Evan Connell and a couple of people that were just literary giants.  It was called Contact magazine, so I’d always—and Allen Watts was around on his progressive Bay Area radio stations like KPFA. And so I grew up with the consciousness that Christianity was for people who were really stupid, but that there was something magical in the religions of the East and that Buddhism was okay, and Hindu was okay because—Hinduism was okay because Ginsberg was so wildly passionately, sensuously East in his understanding of things, and so joyously so.  And so I’ve always understood that meditation had to be part of—or was part of the natural path and so I’ve always sort of dabbled in it.  And the main expression of my spirituality has been this little church that I go to, and my sobriety.  The path of recovery and—I’m a terrible Christian and meditating is very hard for me, and I do it.  I do it badly, like I do a lot of things.  I believe in doing things badly.  I believe in listening to the—what calls you from your heart and your spirit and if you do it badly, like learning to dance, you do it badly or you’re going to kick yourself when you grow old and you meant to do it.

Recorded April 6, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen