Joshua Lyon became an authority on drug abuse when he wrote the 2009 memoir, Pill Head. And then he relapsed.
In 2009, my memoir Pill Head was released. It was actually a memoir/investigative report about the rise of prescription painkiller abuse in America, and I traced the explosion of the epidemic over the past decade while mixing in the personal stories of several addicts—including me. But writing the book was a brutal experience, and looking back, what happened to me was inevitable: I relapsed hard while working on it.
When I first started out, I had what I considered a noble goal in mind: to write a drug memoir that wasn’t preachy and didn’t follow the typical formula where the author spends half of the book chronicling how messed up their life is and the other half going to rehab and learning important lessons. Somewhere in there is a relapse or two and then the author stays clean for good. Almost every addiction memoir I’d read, from Dry to A Million Little Pieces (pre-scandal), seemed to follow this map. It frustrated me because when I was in the thick of my addiction, I wanted to read a book where I felt like the author was experiencing what I was going through at the same time that I was—that we were in it together.
Too often, drug memoirs are told through so much hindsight that the dark parts feel somewhat removed; the author has already gone through hell and clocked endless hours of 12-step meetings, so there is an undercurrent of self-awareness and understanding. Because of the number of addiction memoirs that follow this format, I have to assume that this is usually what a reader is looking for in these kinds of books. But when I was a Dilaudid-popping reader, I was still too scared to go to NA meetings. The whole reason I took pills in the first place was to cut myself off from the world, so what I was looking for in a book, and what I couldn’t find, was an invisible friend I could turn to from the safety of my own home, someone whose fears I could relate to while I was still high. It was important to me to try and write in a way that could pierce through the same drug bubble I had been living in without being pedantic, and I wanted to end my book with a sort of “let’s take this very first scary-ass step together” moment. It didn’t feel right to have a happy ending, because I didn’t want to put myself on any sort of pedestal. Not to mention that, as many experts have noted, getting clean often involves several relapses over a period of years.
The whole reason I took pills in the first place was to cut myself off from the world, so what I was looking for in a book, and what I could turn to from the safety of my own home.
The problem was that in my effort to be 100% realistic while writing, I needed to detail how great painkillers felt. I mean, there’s a reason I’d gotten into them: they felt awesome in the beginning. But by diving into that memory pit and meticulously detailing the good feelings, coupled with all of the painful sludge from my past that I was spewing onto the pages, I relapsed. I turned in the first draft of my book and promptly checked myself into rehab, all the while trying to keep it a secret from my publisher because I was terrified the book would get taken away from me. My agent ended up telling my editor, and when I got out, I was asked to write up my rehab experience and tack it onto the end of my manuscript. I think I still managed to end the book with the sort of “first step” moment I’d originally wanted to convey, but it was far too real of a first step for me, and the truth is that by the time Pill Head was released, I was in no position to be out in the world talking about getting clean from pills.
Pill Head finishes its narrative a couple of weeks into my rehab stay, but here’s what happened after the book ended: I got kicked out of rehab early because my insurance ran out. I was actually pulled from a group therapy session and told I had to pack up and leave. I ended up bringing a 22-year-old boy back to New York with me from the hospital, and we promptly relapsed together on Oxy for two weeks. We lived off of his mother’s credit cards before I discovered he was bi-polar and had stopped taking the meds that he actually needed. I kicked him out because he was always wandering into oncoming traffic. I managed to get sober again on my own by attending tons of 12-step meetings.
About six months later, my publisher had me host a literary table at the annual Poets & Writers Gala. It was a major moment for me, I’d never felt so, I don’t know, legitimate. After all the fucked up stuff I’d gone through, someone thought I was important enough to entertain a bunch of publishing folks at a big awards ceremony! I took it very seriously, and prepped different conversation topics so I could keep my table entertained. Five hours before the event, while catching up on the day’s gossip on Gawker for more talking points, I read that a man from my darkest past, a period of my life that I had buried completely and sworn never to look at again, had been stabbed to death over 50 times by a 16-year-old Satanist from Queens. I paced for about half an hour before calling an addict I had interviewed for Pill Head who I knew could sell me some hydromorphone.
I arrived at the Gala that night safely back inside a pill bubble to stave off a complete breakdown. By the time Pill Head was released 12 weeks later, I was heavily medicated on Suboxone, a drug that’s similar to methadone in that it kept me off of painkillers but got me sufficiently high on its own. The week before the book’s release, Michael Jackson died of a medication overdose, and I popped my media cherry by appearing live on Good Morning America. I made the radio rounds on NPR and did lots of newspaper interviews, but all I really did for the next four months was follow a memorized script. If I got thrown a question that wasn’t part of my prepared answers, I’d stumble and lose any sort of expertise I was trying to convey, reverting instead to a stoned Valley Girl form of speech—“I don’t know, pills are, like, totally weird. It’s complicated.”
I coasted on Suboxone for a year and a half, during which I got work writing about home décor. I spent my paychecks buying most of the products I wrote about in an attempt to create a domestic cocoon I could hide in—my apartment quickly filled with Hudson Bay blankets, curio cabinets, antique metal fishing nets and figural mechanical banks from the 1920s. But I knew I was stumbling through life on material and chemical crutches, and after several failed attempts to get off of Suboxone on my own (one of which landed me in the ER), I finally ended up going back to rehab to get off of the very drug that was keeping me from doing other drugs. Something clicked for me that time though, and I brought home a really strong set of coping mechanisms. I did relapse again, but spent the entire night vomiting—something that had never happened to me on painkillers before. My body and mind seems to be finally done with them for good, because now just the thought of painkillers makes me nauseous. It’s a total 180 from where I was during the time I was supposed to be professionally and publicly clean.
A few months ago, just before the start of the Conrad Murray trial, I was asked to provide on-camera commentary about painkiller addiction, but I declined. I almost didn’t even take this assignment for The Fix because I constantly feel like I’m ready to just shut the door on that part of my life for good. Pill Head is an unfinished story in my eyes, and I know now that I was far too young to write a memoir. But every time I’m ready to turn my back on the book, I’ll get an email or letter from someone who got something good out of it. And then I remember that this isn’t just about me. As universal as most of the components of addiction are, there are certain aspects of pill addiction in particular that are specific to it alone. It turns out I was able to get through to some addicts after all, and being able to provide any sort of comfort to people while they’re feeling their most alone and vulnerable has to make the whole thing worth it, right? This is what I tell myself every day to try and excuse the fact that I’ve basically invited all my prospective employers to comb through personal experiences that any sane person would have kept secret. It’s easy to hide behind the page and pretend there won’t be consequences, and in that context, writing is eerily similar to pill use. But at least writing doesn’t make me puke. Yet.