Sam and Anne Lamott on radical self-care, the genetics of addiction and recovery as inner grace

    Bestselling novelist and essayist Anne Lamott had more than her share of experience with substance use disorders: Growing up with family members with addiction, she also had distinct memories of drinking as a child. Decades later, she watched as her son Sam began struggling with methamphetamines. Today, both mother and son have been in recovery for many years.

    Join Elizabeth as she speaks to Anne and Sam about addiction in the family, the influence of believing in a higher power, the importance of searching for inner grace rather than external accolades and how it felt for Anne to witness her son’s struggle with addiction as a person in recovery herself.

    Listen now

    This episode will be available Tuesday, November 2, 2021. If you’re unable to listen, check out the full transcript of their conversation below.

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    Episode transcript

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Anne Lamott, welcome to Heart of the Matter. Sam, welcome to Heart of the Matter. It’s really, really wonderful to have you both. Annie, I want to start with you. And you’ve asked me to call you Annie. I will say that upfront in case people think I’m being inappropriately familiar. You have described yourself as being somebody who’s extremely sensitive, And I think given everything going on in the world, it’s a tough time to be extremely sensitive. I loved how you described your state of being as “a mixed grill of happy anticipation and dread.” Talk about what it’s like to be alive in the world right now and to hang on to your sanity right now?

    Anne Lamott

    Well, it’s always been that way for me, actually. I think I just came this way. I’ve told my readers that in the ’50s, there was a book going around called The Overly Sensitive Child, which my parents had, which meant that I was paying attention. My heart was open. I was aware of what was happening in India. We took the National Geographic, I saw the covers. And my son came that way, too, that we came out a lot of armor on, and it’s awful to be a child and a teenager without armor. And then it turns out to be a very, very beautiful way to be a grownup, to be so permeable and to be brave enough, probably, through recovery in the 12 steps to be vulnerable because that’s where the richness has arrived for me. And when I was in India when my grandson was one year old, I thought, “God, if I had a clipboard and some of post-it I could I post it so I could really get this joint organized.

    So, that’s my disease. I had it at four and five. I have it at 67. And the solution is to powerlessness, is to go, “Oh wait. Sam and I were just joking about the terrible truth that my help is not helpful. My help never got a single person clean and sober. And my help hurts people.” And so, I don’t even try to help and save and fix myself anymore. I go into the truth that I am powerless over people, places, and things, but that I can do radical self-care and I can try to remember to breathe every so often.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    What does radical self-care look like? Because you’ve talked about that a lot in your books and in your interviews and in your Ted Talk. I mean, what does that look like exactly right now?

    Anne Lamott

    It always looks the same. I have a mentor since I got sober 35 years ago. I call her Horrible Bonnie because she always loves me no matter what condition I’m in, whatever ugly, bitter, judgemental, hysterical condition I’m in. She said to me in 1986, “Watch the self-talk,” and so I need to watch the self-talk and I need to stop criticizing myself. This guy, this priest helped Bill Wilson get off the ground in 1935. He himself was not an alcoholic, but he said to Bill, “Sometimes I think that heaven is just a new pair of glasses.” And if I put on the gentle glasses with myself, everything flows from that. If I watch the self-talk and I put on my glasses and I see that I am slightly befuddled, I’m pretty damaged… I’m not going to get over all that much here this side of eternity.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    It’s interesting that you talk about that inner voice and how harsh we can be on ourselves. That was one of the real powerful moments for me of going to recovery meetings, sitting in a room with other people in recovery, because I could extend so much compassion and empathy to them and say, “Oh…” That I could not extend ever to myself. That inner voice to myself was so harsh and so unforgiving. And it’s by extending those warm feelings of compassion, empathy toward others, that you begin to slowly learn how to maybe be softer and more gentle with yourself.

    Anne Lamott

    And I’m sure the sober women who helped you in the beginning said exactly the same thing, that the sober woman who helped me said, which was, “We’re going to love you till you can love yourself.” When Sam got sober, which was 10 years ago… When you run this, I’m sure… His degree of self-loathing was what unites every single recovering addict and alcoholic on earth, and a mother is not going to be the person to come in and help the child see, help the son or daughter or whoever the person is see their innate preciousness, that they’re human beings and that they’re loved and chosen, that they’re not human doings. None of us come into recovery on the wings of victory. We come in just in catastrophic self-loathing [inaudible], and we’ve done stuff that is just, it’s kind of a, in my case, I’m sure you were fine, it was just appalling.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    No, it was appalling for me too.

    Anne Lamott

    It was seriously appalling. I don’t mean to judge Sam, but it was seriously appalling. And yet what you learn in the rooms is that everybody did pretty much the same thing. We lied, we cheated, we hurt other people, we betrayed every single value that holds up, and that actually has been restored by being clean and sober one day at a time.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I loved something, in fact, I picked this months and months and months ago, for a meeting that I was in, we get to pick readings that are anything that moves us, and I picked something that you had written about first going to your very first recovery meeting. You wrote, “So I showed up. There were all these other women who had what I had, who’d thought what I’d thought, who’d done what I’d done, who had betrayed their families and deepest values, who sat with me that day and said, ‘Guess what? Me too. I have that too. Let me get you a glass of water.’ Those are the words of salvation. Guess what? Me too.” It’s really powerful.

    Anne Lamott

    I know. And you see people when you first come in who just have such a beautiful, elegant appearance. They’re lovely, they’re doing well. For me, it was always that they had money. I didn’t have a cent. They had husbands or houses, and I didn’t have either of those. And it turns out that you hear at one of your first meetings, “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides,” because it turned out if you sat with one of these perfect people, they had exactly the same anxiety and fear and character defects that you have.

    I remember when I first got sober, in my first couple months, there’d been this woman in Belvedere, which is where the really wealthy people live in our county. She had everything perfect. She had been sober 15 years. She had almost a mansion, everything, handsome husband. She was probably close to 50. Everything elegant, lovely [being]. She raised her hand one day as a newcomer, she had 15 years, and I said, “Horrible Bonnie, why do you think she drank?” And Bonnie looked at me and she said, “Because she’s an alcoholic.” I said, “We do, we drink, we use, we screw everybody over, we have secrets.” And I was shocked to my core, but I got it. I got it. And I always heard that the disease that we all share wants me dead, but it’ll settle for getting me drunk again.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    I love what you wrote, or you said in an interview about that, about getting sober and why you were able to do that. You said, “I will go to my grave not knowing why I am one of the addicts and alcoholics who got fished out of that and pulled back to my feet and dusted off one day at a time all these years. Alcoholism is a disease of isolation. It’s a disease of this extremely stark reverberating loneliness whose solution to that is to isolate. It’s a disease that once you dead, as all self-destruction does, but will settle for getting you drunk. The way you don’t get drunk is that you pray.” Tell me about the power of prayer for you because I love that one point in a recent interview you said you’ve got the, what is it, the theological understanding of a third grader. Do you still think that?

    Anne Lamott

    Yeah. I know. I don’t even pretend to understand much of anything. I was raised by atheists. And my grandparents were missionaries so they were heavy Christians, and father just hated anything to do with that realm, so you kept everything to yourself. But I had this funny shameful belief… And my friends were always believers. I always found families where there was faith. I believe that if in the dark unable to sleep at five and six and seven years old, if I said, “Hello,” something heard me. And that’s pretty much the basis of my religious understanding.

    And I don’t have a heavy theology. I don’t teach my Sunday school kids much of anything but that they are loved and that it’s a come as you are party. And that if they want to tell me anything, it’s safe with me and that I will hear it without judgment, and that I can promise him I’ve done it or thought it too. Sam was raised in the church. He’s probably more interesting on the subject because he… Why don’t you talk… Is that okay for-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah. Yes.

    Anne Lamott

    Can you talk a little bit about how your prayer life has evolved from mandatory Sunday school to 10 years clean and sober?

    Sam Lamott

    Yeah. Well, it’s hard to pick where to start because I, like my mom, came out really nervous and concerned, and there’s no father in the picture. And so, I was constantly worried about things that maybe a young person shouldn’t be worried about. I was worried about dying and what happened when consciousness was over. Sometimes you can just sit in the dark and imagine, try to imagine, what it’s going to no longer be conscious, and you get that pit in your stomach. And it’s really terrifying. I imagine what would happen if somebody broke into the house, and I would tell my mom, “Where’s the gun? Where’s the bat?” She said, “I have a tennis racket.” Useless. [inaudible]

    Elizabeth Vargas

    How old were you? How old were you, Sam, when you were worrying [crosstalk]?

    Sam Lamott

    Yeah. From the start. [inaudible] concerned-

    Anne Lamott

    Really up until he started taking drugs, which I think helped.

    Sam Lamott

    Thank you.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Well, that’s why people turn to substances, is to ease that discomfort. Right? Is that what happened to you?

    Sam Lamott

    One of the reasons, sure. But the point is I felt a lot. My friend, Jamie Tworkowski wrote a book called If You Feel Too Much. That was me. I felt too much. You put me in a group of people, instead of being a social kid, I’m worried about what other people think of me. And so, when I truly took in the idea of a Christian or Judeo-Christian afterlife, some kind of heaven thing, it was very comforting at the time. It was my first drug, in some ways, not that…

    But it was my first real easing of that pressure was to think about, “Oh, well, this isn’t the end of the road.” I stayed very spiritual or religious, you could call it, I loved the Christian model, up until I first got sober, actually. It was about my first week of sobriety that I went, “Oh shit, I don’t actually believe any of that.” But when your meth dealer is pointing guns at you because he thinks it’s funny to watch you get a reaction, or when something crazy has just happened, it’s very nice to go, “Oh well, I’m protected. God ordains I lived.” So, it’s fine that I’m in this super dangerous situation because I’m a Christian.

    And so, for anyone listening, when I first got clean and sober, the first thing, if you’re in a lot of recovery groups, is that there’s a big emphasis on something other than yourself, on some kind of higher power. And I didn’t have that for four years. My first four years of recovery were a hardcore atheist, I would love to tell you why Jesus was made up and why your religion was stupid. I was like a mean atheist. And then, I now am really spiritual. But that was purely for selfish reasons, which I’ll get to in a second.

    And I got sober for selfish reasons. The road was narrowing and there was not really many other options. If I kept going, I was probably going to have some legal consequence of doing serious bodily harm to somebody while I was high on meth. I would’ve lost custody of my son. I was going to go into a custody battle. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten any help from my mom who was no longer wanting to speak to me. The last time I had spoken to her she had held a pencil to my throat, which any sane person would do if I was in your life at the time.

    And I remember when I first went to my first recovery group, all I could think about was what I was going to get out of it and that this would be good for court and that I could get people to come testify on my behalf, and if I just worked a really good program, I could pass piss tests and have a reformed story. I don’t know when I crossed the bridge from just doing it because it was going to help me to just doing it because it was actually saving my life, but I had a year I turned around and I was in for what, I would say, the right reasons. But it started wrong, and that’s how my spiritual journey started, is I was four years sober, I looked at the happiest people I knew, they all had some kind of higher power, they all had something. I just wanted what they had.

    And so, I made a big show of it, I texted a group of men who I love who are very spiritual, and I said, “Today’s the day I have a higher power.” And I was in a locker room in a rock climbing gym bathroom, and I got on one knee and I said, “God, take the wheel, whoever you are. I’m trying to control everything. I’m trying to prevent the chaos. Bring on the chaos.” My girlfriend of four years broke up with me that night in a very chaotic way. It was devastating. For me, it was the start of the end of the world, part one, as I called it. And it was also my buy-in. That was the Annie, was like, I had asked for some sort of intervention and this thing had coincidentally happened, and now I’m invested. And so, I don’t put too much labels on it or try to think if it’s a personal God that’s consciously thinking about me or if it’s just what happens when you put seven billion consciousnesses in one place. My mother begged for us to have some sort of label for it, so we now call it the cosmic muffin.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    The cosmic muffin?

    Sam Lamott

    Yes. Which I thought was original and we could copyright, but it is not.

    Anne Lamott

    Remember the Desiderata, Elizabeth?

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah.

    Anne Lamott

    That we all had a post drove on our wall. “Go placidly amid the noise.” Well, the National Lampoon did one called the Deteriorata, and in it, the line is… And people should look it up. It’s hysterically funny. But it says, “Surrender unto God as you understand God, whether it’s the Hairy Thunderer or the cosmic muffin.” So, we use cosmic muffin as a shorthand for some something that really no one can put successfully into words.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    A power greater than yourself.

    Anne Lamott

    A power greater than yourself.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Annie, Sam just mentioned the day that you held a pencil to his throat. You have said that that was the worst day of your life. You had been in recovery since before Sam was born and then watched him struggle all those years with addiction to drugs and alcohol and had finally reached the end of your rope. Tell me about that day and what that was like for you.

    Anne Lamott

    Well, it’s funny because my husband and I were taking a walk this morning and I was telling him bout the day that I decided to send Sam off to the highest peak in the Alleghenies, which is exactly 3,000 miles away, where I had 36 hours to get it to happen. And then he was there for three months and then he was at this-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Wait, this is like a wilderness rehab type thing?

    Anne Lamott

    Yeah. Wilderness and then very Native American, and then an academic month where he… He was nine days from graduation when I sent him away, which is how terrified it was that he was going to die behind his addiction. And so, they had a month of academics, so he caught up. He was nine days away. He didn’t have that much to do before he could get a diploma, which he did. Then he went up to this second tier recovery place. It was an organic tofu farm in Spokane which was-

    Sam Lamott

    There was a halfway house in Philadelphia.

    Anne Lamott

    And there’s a halfway house, but he got kicked out of it. He was there for several hours. But then we [crosstalk].

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Several hours.

    Anne Lamott

    Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Sam, is that a record?

    Anne Lamott

    Yeah. Yeah. There was one rule. Don’t be in a relationship with any of the other clients. Anyway, then he ends up at this tofu farm. It was fabulous as far as I was concerned. And my husband asked today, “How long after he got back did he stay sober?” And I said, “I think a day, but I’m not positive.” And within several weeks he was dealing, and it was just all over. So, what happened was, so I think he was 18 and a half when you came back. Yeah. 18 and a half, fell in love-

    Sam Lamott

    I don’t think I was.

    Anne Lamott

    Were you 18?

    Sam Lamott

    No, because we needed… Remember, signing the lease, I wasn’t 18 yet.

    Anne Lamott

    Oh, that’s right.

    Sam Lamott

    My first lease. Yeah.

    Anne Lamott

    Yeah. It’s all kind of a blur. So, he got involved with someone he had met at the reunion for this really amazing recovery place that bought him one day clean and sober after he got back home. And then they got pregnant when Sam was 19. He was drinking. He was using. He was just on beyond zebra. And of course, my help is helpless, that no one in the history of life has gotten somebody else sober. Our love doesn’t get people sober. Our help hurts people. Someone in one of my groups said, “Help is the sunny side of control,” and believe me, I had tried everything. And anyone listening to this who’s had a sick kid knows. I had spent $100,000 on recovery groups.it was everything. In Recovery for Codependency, they talk about the four M’s: martyring yourself, managing, manipulating, and mothering your child and the whole world. And then somebody just recently added monitoring so that you’re watching them a little more carefully [inaudible] makes sense. And nothing, nothing, nothing.

    But so, they had a baby and the baby mama and the little baby were at my house after Sam really bottomed out. They were all living in the city at the time. And they came to live with me. And Sam was showing up just crazier than a bed bug, stoned and crazy, and the baby was almost two, I think. Yeah. Because he’s 12 now and you’re 10 years sober year.

    Sam Lamott

    Year and a half.

    Anne Lamott

    Yeah. Yeah. And so, he came to the porch and he just… Some of you know what it’s like to see the person you love most on earth that your outside heart in insanity and degradation and rage, and he was on my porch. And I said, “You can’t come in,” and that was the first boundary like that I’d ever set. How can you not take your child in? And I said, “You can’t come in.” That was my bottom and that was my moment of clarity. And he said, “Yeah, well I’m coming in.” I said, “No, you’re really not.” And I had been writing and so I had a pencil. Sam was too nice to mention it was a sharpened pencil. And I said, “Let’s take this out to the street.” And we went to the street like in Gun Smoke, except for I had a pencil. He was dirty and smelly and enraged, and he was and is the person I love most and will be this side of the grave. And I held a pencil to his throat and I said at the top of my lungs in this beautiful little neighborhood where we all know each other, I said, “You are sicker than any heroin addict on earth, and you cannot come home. You cannot be in this house again until you’re clean and sober.”

    Something got his attention, I think. It might have been the tip of the pencil at his throat. And we looked at each other for a long time and he turned and walked away. And I just wanted to kill myself. [inaudible] going to die. Because you know your kid’s going to die. And then I said, “Sam, do you want to ride to the city?” He lived in the Tenderloin, which for those who don’t know, is not the fanciest neighborhood in the city.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah. That’s putting it extremely mildly and kindly, but go on.

    Anne Lamott

    For some reason, see, I would call it grace, I would call it spiritual WD-40. For some reason, having just held a pencil to his throat and because, like he said, when he was talking about prayer, he’d run out of any more good ideas, and also he didn’t have any money for the bus. He said, “Okay,” and we got in my car. And we didn’t say a word. It’s an hour from my house to his. And we listened to some spiritual tape. I don’t remember who it was. It was either Jack Cornfield or Carolyn Myss. We didn’t say a word. He stared out the window, I drove. When we got out, we got the miracle, though, which was that I pulled up in front of his apartment, in air quotes, where he lived, let’s say, and I got out and we hugged, wordlessly. And that was that.

    And then I got in the car and I felt it, “It’s in God’s good hands now.” Grace is having run out of more good ideas. And a couple weeks later he called and he had 10 days clean and sober because the only people could help him who were a bunch of men who were clean and sober in the San Francisco community had fished him out of the slew and put him on his feet and dusted him off and fed him and picked him up for meetings all day. And he had 10 days. And I said, “Come on back.”

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Wow. Sam, what is it like listening to your mom describe all this?

    Sam Lamott

    I mean, we talk about it all the time, so it’s nothing new.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    So, the sting isn’t there?

    Sam Lamott

    The sting isn’t there. No. I mean, it’s a part of my life. It’s a part of my story. In recovery, there’s different ways to look at your addiction. I know people that refer to it almost like a demon, like it possesses me and it’s there and it’s stalking me, and that’s just not the way I see it. My addiction nearly destroyed me, and it also is such a beautiful part of me that was just misguided. I was a shy and scared kid. I was Anne Lamott’s son. I wasn’t Sam. I was Anne Lamont’s son everywhere I go. My story was written for me. There was a narrative I was supposed to fill. And when I first found drugs, it was heaven. I mean, if you want to understand why modern teens love to get blasted into oblivion, it’s initiation in a culture that no longer has initiation. When I first discovered them, it was like, “Listen up, shy kid. Stand tall. Be confident. You’re full of this dopamine and serotonin. You’re finally writing your own story.”

    And so, it was insane. My addiction story is insane if you look at it through a sober lens, but if you understand the hurt and scared kid who was trying to find his own way with no direction other than this plan that I looked at that wasn’t for me… so I could see who I was in my mom’s eyes or who I was at events or who I was to the adult [inaudible]. But that’s not me. You think you know me. I’ll show you. You think you know me [inaudible] I’m going to take you won’t.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Is it true what your mom said, though, that that expensive rehab she sent you to scraped every… $100,000. That while it didn’t keep you clean and sober, that some little penny dropped somewhere inside… I ask because a lot of people, a lot of families we know from the partnership will send their loved one to rehab and the loved will come back and relapse and they’ll think it was completely a wasted experience. Wasted money, wasted time, wasted effort. In fact, was there something that, as your mom just said, that was valuable that was planted and that only a couple years later took root and began to grow?

    Sam Lamott

    Maybe. Well, it’s certainly true to her in her experience. She also lost money out of it. That might be one reason to want it to be a success. But did it have an impact on me? Certainly not my using because I came back and used again. There was some real benefit that anyone would benefit to. I spent 30 days in West Virginia without speaking to anyone else. Now, I was at a silent retreat for the last three days where I wasn’t speaking to anyone else. There’s a lot you can learn when you remove your spheres of influence, remove your friends, your media, and you just get quiet with yourself. So, there was that, there was some wonderfully strong mountain men modeling a different way to be a man in the world than here in Marin where they’re all rich detached dads who come home at 7:00. I didn’t have a dad, but that’s what I understood about what men were in society, were these guys who came home at 7:00 and paid for things.

    So, I don’t know. It’s a huge part of my story. It’s a huge part of my evolution. It is not a huge part of what I would say is my recovery, other than it was just part of the hero’s journey where I ended up getting sober.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Obviously mother and son, both with battles of addiction. Annie, you have two brothers who battled addiction. There’s a lot of science to back up there is a genetic component to addiction. Do you believe that that genetic component exists in your family, Annie?

    Anne Lamott

    Well, I do. My father was an alcoholic, my mother was just a black belt codependent and had a massive eating disorder, was always very, very heavy. And I believe my grandfather’s fervent Christianity was an addiction. His story was he’d never had a single drop of alcohol in his life, but I believe he’d had a drop of alcohol and that he had probably the alcoholism and he never drank again. And he used Jesus to get clean, to spiritualize his hysteria and his terror of what he was like if he had a drink.

    So, I believe it goes back many, many generations. Both my brothers have 35 years. My older brother has longer. My son has 10. I think there’s probably a very, very good chance the baby mama has addiction. I think there’s a strong chance that Sam’s child will have a predisposition to addiction. But Sam’s child has been raised by people with really profound spiritual lives, and he’s just very… He’s beautiful. But Sam and I both have had mental illness and we had a form of it that was really a terrifying level of anxiety and isolation. And I don’t see that in Sam’s child. Do you?

    Sam Lamott

    I don’t think it was a moral failing of your parenting-

    Anne Lamott

    Oh, I don’t either.

    Sam Lamott

    … that I became an addict. So, I think that, yes, he seems to be a beautiful soul and he also is going to have his own path, which might be [inaudible] addiction.

    Anne Lamott

    And he’s sensitive. Sam and I were both burn victims both of us as young people, and me definitely until recovery. And even so on some bad days, he doesn’t seem like he’s that… It seems like he’s rolls with the punches in a way that I never did and Sam never did.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    How old were you, Annie, when you began drinking?

    Anne Lamott

    Well, see, my parents were both born outside of the country and believed that they were… My mother’s from England and my father was… Well, he was born and raised in Japan. And so, because they were elitist and narcissists, that you could give children sips of beer and wine, that was very ’50s and early ’60s. And I remember drinking, guzzling champagne once at a wedding a little, but I remember, with the intention of getting high, chugging a 16 ounce Coor’s with my best friend, Lisa Campmeyer, at 12 years old. And I got high. I mean, I don’t think we’d eaten… And we each chugged a 16 ounce. And I was instantly restored. I was pretty, which I had never been. I had this crazy frizzy hair. I weighed about 20 pounds until eighth grade. I was pretty, and I was who I had been born to be. I was restored. I was well. And all I could think of, “This is what I want to do now.”

    And then it was, let’s see, at 12 years olds, it’s summer of… Well, it’s ’66, so it’s right before the summer of love. My older brother, there’s starting to be weed and were smoking it, and we’re stealing beer from our parents. There’s tons and tons and tons of alcohol around my family’s house. I was about 12, and by about 13, I always had girlfriends where we had the intention of drinking together. But the difference was that I’m an alcoholic, and when they would… We drank what we called [spooly oolies], which was cheap red wine that we got the winos to buy for us by giving them a couple bucks, mixed with Mountain Dew or something delicious and drink [inaudible]. I know. Right? And we called them Spooly Oolies [inaudible].

    And my girlfriends would have half of one and a little pot, and they’d be high and they’d be like dancing and combining each other’s hair. Well, I didn’t have combable hair. And so, they would stop, that’s a difference, is that they would stop. They’d drink one, and then they’d go downstairs because they’d be stoned on weed and they’d go down to eat and I would finish their drinks. Because I have a disease called more of anything I start. I also have lifelong eating disorders. And that was the difference. And I would get the, whirlies and have to lie down on the bed, and the room would spin. I’d be 13. And when the whirlies stopped, I’d like to have a little, maybe a cool, refreshing beer.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Wow. You got sober after starting drinking at the age of 24, you got sober in 1986. So, you were in your 30s?

    Anne Lamott

    I was 32. Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    32. Can you identify what it was that day that led you to go to that meeting that day to pick up that phone and call that friend and say, “I need some help,” that moment of grace, as you’ve called it?

    Anne Lamott

    I think that’s just a movement of grace in our lives. I think it really does have to do with having run out of any more good ideas, any more plans. I always thought, “God, if I could just stick to six or seven drinks a night, I’d be fine.” And maybe the non-habit forming marijuana that I’d smoked on a daily basis since I was 13… I had a Nike box of pills when I got sober. I love uppers. I love downers. I love anything that will change the way I’m feeling. I had a number of warm, personal relationships with pharmacists. I love speed. When I got clean and sober, I weighed 20 pounds more than I do now, and I’m not heavy. I’m 135-

    Sam Lamott

    Less.

    Anne Lamott

    Yeah. Less. Yeah. I weighed nothing. And I love that. I couldn’t sleep, I loved downers. I love Halcion. I love everything. But I’d run out [crosstalk].

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And you gave it all up that one day, everything?

    Anne Lamott

    It was the 4th of July weekend of 1986. I was sick every morning and I would have a beer as soon as I could just to get all the flies going in one direction. I was young. Take a run, go for a run, take a hot shower, have a cold beer, a lot of coffee. I was a very heavy cigarette smoker. Usually in my own history, I don’t know about yours, but I’d have a blackout sometimes, maybe every couple of months, a real blackout where it would seem like whatever had been written on the chalkboard that night at whatever bar, somebody had come by with a wet eraser and there was really not a trace of information left in my memory bank. And I had three of those in a row the fourth, the fifth, and the sixth.

    The fourth, I’d been out on the water at San Francisco Bay on a row boat with my publisher, and I was so exhausted, I was so sick of the mornings. I’d wake up every morning sick and ashamed. I don’t have depression, I don’t have clinical depression. I just have this anxiety disorder. But I was exhausted. I had this existential exhaustion and I’d been thinking about climbing off the side of the boat. And I remember thinking that I was wasted, and in a pretty good mood, and I came to in bed and my publisher had to put me to bed. I lived on a houseboat the side of this studio that had a sleeping loft. I do not know to this day, probably 15 steps, they’d gotten me up there, and limp, I’m sure dead weight. And that was embarrassing, but you live with it if you just want to keep drinking. I hated having to call around in the mornings to see how badly the night before had gone and whether people were still speaking to me or if they were concerned or whatever the condition of our relationship was after having been with them, if I could remember who I’d been with.

    I had three blackouts in a row, and that really got my attention. And I called this friend, Jack, Jack Urdman. He’s written a book about his experiences called Whiskey’s Children that is so beautiful. It will blow your mind. But anyway, I called him and I said, “I think I might be done.” He said, “Okay, good. Do you think you can not pick up a drink till noon?” And I said, “Yes, of course I can,” because I didn’t think I was a real alcoholic. Because when I was growing up, a real alcoholic was Greyhound bus depots and trench coats. Right? And I did-

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Or that’s the story we all tell ourselves, but go on.

    Anne Lamott

    I mean I’m older than you, but in the ’50s, that’s what an alcoholic… and then wino. Right? I mean, of course with an alcoholic family, we were very sophisticated, very avant garde and left wing, but we had other people… You don’t have people over that think you drink too much. Right? You have couples over that drink like you drink. You’re not stupid. I don’t remember somebody being a sober alcoholic. Yeah. I knew by then, by 32, that a lot of the people, a lot of the musicians I loved most had gotten clean and sober, and that made a big difference to me. That’s why I’ve been glad to be public that a couple of the… Raymond Carver got sober. As down and dirty as you can get.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah. But talk about that, about the importance of knowing other people who got sober and having a path to follow. Because I think there are so many people who keep their recovery secret. We know that right now, only 10% of people who need help get it, and part of the reason is the shame and stigma around it. And if there are other people who have blazed that trail that they know about, they may be less dis-inclined, less ashamed to pick up the phone and say, “Okay, I need to. I need to do that.”

    Anne Lamott

    I grew up with a writer for a father. All of his friends were well-known writers, and everyone was an alcoholic except for Evan Cannell. But the four or five of them were all alcoholic. And every writer I loved was alcoholic and they were suicides and alcoholic. Two of my dad’s friends committed suicide, two out of five. Everyone I grew up wanting to emulate as a writer was an alcoholic, and I had a terror, when I got sober, that I wouldn’t be able to write again if I wasn’t drinking and using. And in fact it took like nine months before I sat down at the typewriter again. And I wrote the best novel of my life which is called All New People, and took nine months. I mean, it was not happening. It was like I had to give up on keeping Sam alive and I had to give up on being able to write again, but if I wanted to stay sober, and I really wanted to stay sober.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Wow. By the way, on staying sober, the two of you have both managed… It’s unbelievable, Annie. You’re actually one of the, I think, the unicorns in the rooms of recovery who got sober the first time you really tried. I mean, that’s amazing. Sam, it took you a few shots before you were able to make it stick. What keeps each of you sober one day at a time today?

    Sam Lamott

    Well, some days I don’t feel like being sober, and those are days that I don’t choose to not be sober. It’s complicated. I can only give my personal answer because I know so many people who frame it in their minds in different ways. I know people who love to count days. I don’t like to count days. I like to count years. If I count days, I will lose my mind.

    What happened for me is the first time I walked into the meeting, that would be like my real first home group, we would call it, the meeting that I went to every single night at 10:00 PM come hell or high water, it was the first time I had ever seen people my age, it was punk rock, it was tattoos and motorcycles, it artists and writers and DJs, and it was the first time I saw people my age having art shows. They weren’t just painting in a basement. They were having art shows. They weren’t just learning how to DJ, they were playing in sets, and they were doing the stuff. And as a kid who just loved to be high and blasted and talk about all the cool stuff I’m going to make and daydream with other addicts, that was attractive. And when I’m talking to people who are new, that’s…

    When I first got sober, I had no happy chemicals left. I mean, none. And maybe that’s unique to meth. I know heroin addicts seem to bounce back pretty quickly because they can have a sex drive again and eat and have regular poops, and things are just working great. When you’re redlining for years, or at least a year, and you’re always at 12 out of 10 and just super human levels, I crashed. The world was gray to me. It was not a happy first year. There was not a ton of celebration. There was brief moments of it, but it was almost like black and white. It was like things just weren’t right. And I had a neurobiologist and psychiatrist who just said, “It’s probably going to take a year and a half before you even feel normal,” and would I willing to do that. And that’s what I did.

    But the stuff that I built, I got in great shape and I took decently good care of myself, and I produced, I produced art that I had been wanting to make. I was not just a sayer, I was a doer. And that kind of resume is part of my foundation.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Annie, I love what you once wrote. You said, “If self-esteem arrives by mail, phone, or fax, it’s not self-esteem, it’s a hit, and it will wear off.” And it reminds me of something I heard somebody say at a meeting when they said, “If you can point to it, it’s not going to make you happy.” Talk about that, just to finish up, about that search for inner grace and what truly matters and what’s gotten you through and how that’s gotten you through.

    Anne Lamott

    Well, Sam and Reese have a site called Hello Humans, these podcasts, with a lot of really famous people doing interviews with Sam on how to be a human. And my favorite is with Paul William, the great composer and songwriter, who told Sam… They did a podcast and they were both in tears, where Paul told Sam about winning the Oscar when Paul was still drinking, using. He’s 30 plus years clean and sober, too. But he won the Oscar for the Barbara Streisand movie. And he stood at the podium in front of hundreds of millions of people, receiving the greatest accolade that an entertainer can be given, and he said it bought him 24 hours of self-esteem and a feeling filled up on the inside. That’s what keeps me clean and sober, is that I always thought that what I needed, what would fill the Swiss cheese holes inside of me was just out there, and that if I could get the right review at the New York Times, if I could do the right interview with Cherry Gross, if I could meet the right man, if I could get all this stuff… And all of it buys you 24 hours.

    But what has given me me back was one day at a time being in the precious community of sober alcoholics and being on the spiritual path with a little light to see by, and this incredibly brilliant, loving, hilarious, tender-hearted companionship. And so, when I work with newcomers, I tell them, “You will have tragedy because that’s what happens to humans, and you’re a human, but you’ll never have to go through it alone because we will walk with you. And you never have to pick up another drink. One day at a time.”‘

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Annie Lamott, Sam Lamott, thank you so much. You filled my heart today with this podcast. I really, really enjoyed speaking with you both. Sam, your podcast is How to Human. Encourage people to take a listen.

    Anne Lamott

    [inaudible]. Oh, sorry. Oh, sorry. Yeah.

    Elizabeth Vargas

    Yeah.

    Anne Lamott

    After we’re done, he’ll turn on me and say, “I don’t know why you cannot remember the name of my podcast.”

    Elizabeth Vargas

    She doesn’t have to because I did.

    Anne Lamott

    [inaudible]

    Elizabeth Vargas

    And Annie, you’re a treasure. I’ve read so many of your books and have gotten such comfort from them, and I know so many others who have gotten such comfort from your words. So, thank you so much. It’s really been an incredible honor to have you on Heart of the Matter.

    Thank you so much for listening today to Heart of the Matter. You can find this podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify and on our website at drugfree.org/ podcast. And as a reminder, if you need help with a loved one who is struggling with substance use, you can text 55753, or visit drugfree.org. We’ll talk to you soon.

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    Published

    October 2021