At one point in My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean, Amy Dresner makes a list of all the things she’s lost: “my home, my marriage, my sobriety, my sanity.” An attentive reader could probably add a few more things to her list, including a pair of underwear that ends up covered in spearmint gum.
Dresner, a former stand-up comic turned memoirist, writes about going for broke, going to rehab, and going to the Beverly Hills Hotel—once, that is, when her ex-husband took her there “as if to say ‘Look at the life I can give you.’”
It’s fitting that they never went back. Dresner puts her marriage out of its misery on the first page. She recounts getting high, pulling a knife, and picking up a domestic violence charge. She then spends the next pages drinking and numbing and shooting up and forgetting.
I can’t bear to feel my feelings. I can’t bear to feel how lost I am or how my husband loathes me or how much I loathe myself. I don’t want to feel the regret for the things I’ve said and all the things I didn’t. I want out.
Dresner narrates the “slow decay that accompanies addiction,” while also narrating how hard it is to build a life. She contemplates how habits can turn into habitats—holding places for our anxieties, self-hatred and muzzled longings. I found myself writing “yes!” in the margins and sighing with the relief of recognition.
While some might roll their eyes at another self-absorbed, self-pitying, confessional account, I think what makes My Fair Junkie so powerful is that Dresner captures how a woman might end up “choosing” a life or creating a world for herself that is hard to live in. She isn’t afraid to confront the ways she, too, holds herself back. She makes clear that complaining or wanting out aren’t specialized activities reserved only for the most fractured or fucked up among us.
It’s hard to build a life, no matter who you are, Dresner suggests. And she certainly makes a convincing case by tracking her fall from growing up in Beverly Hills to cleaning LA streets in a “chain gang.”
Getting clean involves the ordinary, spiritual work of showing up and staying present. For Dresner, it also involves the unpredictable, entertaining work of cracking jokes and letting it all hang out, as well as ripping through rehab, sober living, and court-mandated community service.
Recovering with a foot on the gas, Dresner occasionally pushes it a bit too far. At times, she turns people into punchlines. She pokes fun at fat, stupid, and square women. She punches down, as if to underscore she isn’t Brene Brown or Glennon Doyle and isn’t here to encourage us to accept ourselves in all our fullness and complexity. She isn’t here to cultivate a community of love warriors embracing our vulnerability. For me, these sections were hard to stomach.
I flinched at some of Dresner’s cool girl lines, half-cringing that she was liberating herself on the backs of others and half-wondering if she’d joke about my tall lanky frame if she were to lay eyes on me. I questioned if she could have done more to situate her experience politically or to offer a critical reading of addiction and recovery in contemporary life.
That said, overall, I found her work entertaining. She’s a comic, not a cultural critic. She’s sarcasm, fur coats, and black eyeliner. Her cultural project—if there is one—centers on staying sober and holding herself—not the rest of us—up. She theorizes the relief that comes with being confined or contained or otherwise held down. And while she points to one-night stands, set routines, and institutional structures as ways of being held, she also articulates the difficult and demanding work of holding herself up—finding her own forms, her own jokes, and her own spearmint-gum trajectory. She beautifully narrates how hard it is to build a life without abandoning oneself, and that’s a worthwhile project, if you ask me.