A Portrait of the Artist as an Addict
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she doesn’t traffic in apologies or excuses.
By Elizabeth Brico
Catholic exorcism, shamanic ritual, IV amino acids, rebirthing, saline injections, cryotherapy: Amy Dresner has tried them all (and then some) in the hopes of curing her co-occurring addiction and depression. They represent not only the sheer desperation of someone living with mental illness and an addictive personality but also Dresner’s affluence — each of these designer treatments comes with a hefty price tag.
Critics of Dresner’s breakout book, My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean, argue that her wealthy Los Angeles upbringing means she’s out of touch with the average drug user. “Andrea,” a Goodreads reviewer, writes, “It’s difficult for me to feel sorry for someone that has multiple stays in a Malibu rehab. Where I am from, in our socioeconomic class, we go to jail for many, many years at a time when we get caught having drug addictions or behavioral issues.” A valid response, but one that doesn’t negate Dresner’s experiences — or the fact that a privileged upbringing isn’t a safeguard against mental illness and addiction.
Tall and lanky with honey-blond hair — the very picture of LA cool until you hear her deep, smoke-filled-pool-hall voice — Dresner is someone who can change the energy in a room. Maybe it’s from her years doing stand-up comedy, a profession that requires an attitude equal parts blasé and I-got-this. Or maybe it’s the result of growing up a self-professed Beverly Hills “Jewish American Princess,” the only child of a fashion designer mother and a screenwriter father. Or it could derive from the grandiosity associated with borderline personality disorder (a diagnosis Dresner has managed with various treatments but isn’t sure she agrees with). Or it’s simply who she is. But what is certain? Amy Dresner commands people’s attention.
“I will gut you like a fish, you fat fuck.” This is Dresner on the opening page of My Fair Junkie. It’s Christmas 2011, and she’s brandishing a knife at her husband. She’s also high on OxyContin, which she chases with Valium after her husband calls the cops. “If the police are coming for me,” Dresner remembers thinking, “I need to be relaxed. … I crush the pills with the handle of my electric toothbrush and cut thick lines with my credit card.” As the patrol cars screech into her driveway, she rails her lines of sedative.
She doesn’t present as particularly likable — instead, she comes across as a foulmouthed, anxious, depressed addict stumbling toward recovery. Which suits her just fine.
For readers unfamiliar with Dresner’s work as a Psychology Today blogger or writer/editor for the Fix, they’re about to learn that she has been diagnosed with varying mood disorders and, beginning in her mid-20s, she injected enough methamphetamine to give herself epilepsy. She doesn’t present as particularly likable — instead, she comes across as a foulmouthed, anxious, depressed addict stumbling toward recovery. Which suits her just fine.
“I’m not interested in these intellectual arguments about whether addiction is a disease,” Dresner tells OZY. “I’m not interested in being an advocate. I’m not trying to start a movement. I’m just a junkie who wrote a book.”
And she’s by no means the first — bookstore shelves are groaning with confessional tales of torment and addiction. But where Dresner distinguishes herself is in her full-throttle honesty, even when that means incriminating herself. By committing an act of felony domestic violence, she tanked her marriage and was thrown in jail until her mother posted part of her $50,000 bail. She took enough drugs to trigger epilepsy, and then took some more. She suffers from a mental illness — or a couple — but refuses therapy and is very self-selective about psychiatric medications she’s willing to take (antidepressants make the cut, but lithium “made no difference” and antipsychotics turned her into “a zombie”). She loves sex but admits that she used it in much the same way she used drugs. “When you’re going to meet someone to fuck them for the first time, you’re shaking with anticipation. It’s like meeting the dealer,” she tells OZY. As debates about mental illness and addiction become increasingly politicized, whether that’s gun control or the opioid crisis, Dresner laying bare her struggles without assigning blame or latching on to any agenda seems downright radical.
“A lot of times when people write about addiction, they do it pretentiously or they’re feeling sorry for themselves,” says Peter Steinberg, Dresner’s agent at Foundry Media. “But she was … honest and blunt. It felt very fresh.”
But Dresner’s brand of bluntness is not always welcome. Tammy Jo Dearen, a friend who met Dresner on the stand-up circuit, says that they took a “hiatus” after one of Dresner’s suicide attempts, which triggered yet another drug and alcohol relapse. Before the break, Dearen describes their relationship as “a little bit like a rodeo. … I would have her host a [comedy] show, and she would show up late, show up crying; everything was about Amy.”
That level of self-absorption, according to Dearen, slowly changed after Dresner was given community service as part of the plea deal that dropped her felony domestic violence charge to a misdemeanor. It was while sweeping up discarded syringes and other trash from the streets of downtown Los Angeles that she looked at the advantages she’d been given, and began to think about helping others — in part by sharing her story, stripped of excuses or meaningless mea culpas.
Or, as Dearen puts it: “She went from this crazy entitled asshat to this beautiful loving woman [trying] to be of service in the best way she can.” And that best way is to show a different side of recovery: no crystalline revelations, just a murky mess of progress and setbacks, self-loathing and self-affirmation, bitchiness and bravery. It’s not for everyone, but for those willing to listen, this recovering drug addict and “all-around fuckup” has plenty to say.
- Elizabeth Brico, OZY Author Contact Elizabeth Brico