Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Spencer Litman’s nonfiction piece, Like Falling Asleep
John: One of the things that is most striking about this piece is the courage and honesty of it—qualities that I think are essential to real art. How difficult was this piece to write? Why did you think you needed to tell this story?
Spencer: I don’t think it was so much that the subject matter was inherently difficult for me to write. I have done a tremendous amount of emotional work (of which this essay is a part) to forgive myself for the fallout of my addiction, and I am no longer beholden to shame in the same way I was for so long after I had recovered. Shame is, after all, the reason these essays can be difficult to write, why honesty is an essential part of this whole process—sometimes we are afraid of the shame we might feel when we let readers see us in the very way we avoid looking at ourselves. The difficult part was finding the proper frame. Several early drafts were just about the addiction, and it wasn’t interesting until I brought in the birth of my daughter to balance it out. I wanted to explain that I am the product of everything good and bad. The birth of my daughter was, in the end, a perfect story with which to help frame everything, to show the constant dialectic necessary in acknowledging that I shot heroin with toilet water and that I am a good father. Above all, I wanted to tell this story to prove to myself that these two parts of myself can exist in concert with one another. It can be too easy to convince myself that I deserve nothing good in this world while forgetting to take into account the multifaceted human condition.
The juxtaposition of the birth of your daughter with heroin use is stunning—the communion of birth and death, or at least a dress rehearsal for death. They are both such momentous things. Are they each, in their own way, holy?
I didn’t grow up in a religious household. I didn’t think much about god at all until I was twenty-five, and I still consider myself close to atheist on the agnosticism—atheism continuum. But part of what’s drilled into your head going through rehab and 12-step meetings is a nearly frantic search for a “higher power.” The traditional (American) view of a benevolent creator will likely never sit well with me, which meant I struggled for a long time at the beginning of my recovery to find a means to define spirituality. It wasn’t until I began to think of the experience of my addiction as a necessary part of myself that I found some sense of spirituality in it. Addiction is a death and rebirth much in the way parenthood is death and rebirth. They both ask you to give up a part of yourself. They both require you to redefine the roles you play. Both experiences fundamentally require loss as a means to gain. A belief in god is, ultimately, an act of acquiescence and faith—acquiescing to something you can’t fully understand and faith that it won’t kill you.
Is this why we engage in dangerous and delicate activities? To fool ourselves for a few more seconds that we will never die?
At the risk of becoming too philosophical, I think the society in which we live is a numbing, complicated mess. And humans are historically bad at defining their role in this system we can’t fully understand. This is why religion and philosophy exist. They help us to make sense. They promise answers to existential questions. I think in the absence of either or both of those things, people, sometimes, engage in behaviors that break the monotony, that remind us there are larger truths out there beyond our understanding. A baby is a stark reminder of mortality. They come out of their mothers’ wombs so tiny and with (hopefully) an entire life yet to be lived. It was hard, when I saw my daughter, not to consider that I am lucky to have walked through the other end of addiction mostly intact. Not everyone is so lucky. I think, in the search for meaning, we can find destructive things that feel meaningful because it brings us closer to our mortality. I don’t think it’s to fool ourselves into thinking we will never die but to remind ourselves that we will. Life loses meaning if we believe it is infinite.
Stealing from Pema Chödrön: If death is inevitable but the time of death is unknown, what is the most important thing?
This is such a huge question and I’m not sure I’m equipped to answer, but I’ll try! Connection is the most important thing—connection to other people, to their flaws, their triumphs, their hardships, their love. Beneath any truly meaningful experience I think there’s empathy. And we’d all be a little better off if we practiced it more deliberately. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe I’m not smart enough to really understand what’s important in this life, but this feels right.