Voices on Addiction: A Conversation with Eva Hagberg Fisher
Eva Hagberg Fisher’s debut memoir, How to be Loved: A Memoir of Lifesaving Friendship, is a recovery story on many levels—from addiction, from brain surgery, from a second mysterious and catastrophic illness. But most of all, it’s about recovery from loneliness and isolation via Fisher’s initially halting, ultimately profound friendship with Allison, a terminally ill woman twice her age. And it’s about Fisher’s life-altering realization, after thirty years of resisting deep connection with other people, that even she could love and be loved. How to be Loved is searing, compassionate, and unexpectedly funny in its exploration of how suffering can beat us down to the point that we are forced to accept grace, whether we like it or not.
Eva’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Tin House, Wallpaper*, Wired, and Dwell, among other places. She holds degrees in architecture from UC Berkeley and Princeton as well as a PhD in Visual and Narrative Culture from UC Berkeley. She currently lives in New York City.
Eva and I spoke by phone in December 2018, and found so much to talk about that the transcript ran to thirty-seven pages. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
The Rumpus: I had a bad cold and bonus stomach flu while I was re-reading your book, and it made me think about how much hinges on my assumption that I’m going to be healthy. Because just those standard ailments pushed me into melodramatic self-pity. “What’s happened? I’ve lost control. I’ve lost my life.” So I was hyperaware of what a staggering shift it must have been for you to first go through brain surgery and a protracted cancer scare, and then be hit with a catastrophic mystery illness. Did being seriously ill ever evolve into a new normal for you?
Eva Hagberg Fisher: No. I was constantly shocked and stunned by my physical state. And upset, and annoyed, and frustrated. But shocked and stunned above all. Because it just seemed so improbable and implausible. A couple of weeks after brain surgery, I was talking to my doctor on the phone, saying, “I’m just not getting better.” He was like, “This is weird. This shouldn’t be happening. You should be fine. It’s probably something else.” And I was just standing there on the street, thinking “I need to stop this. I need to stop feeling like this now. I’m done.”
The people in my life were mostly remarkably supportive. But there were a few who were just like, “Why are you still feeling dizzy? Just try harder.” And so, the amount of mental torture that I put myself through for the entire time that I was sick was like an additional layer of suffering. Part of why I wanted to write this book was to articulate that and give a little bit of permission to other people to continue to be stunned and horrified and to not have it be a new normal. My experience has been that the longer I am alive in this body, the less capacity I have for suffering. And yet, I continue to suffer. And I find that deeply frustrating, and I’m certainly not like, “Well, okay, I guess this is how it’s going to be.” Every day I feel good, I think “Thank God, it’s behind me.” And then every day I feel bad, I think, “Well, I flew too close to the sun. It’s my own fault.”
Rumpus: In addition to catastrophic illness, your book is about loss, addiction, and the stark terror of learning to be emotionally vulnerable. So naturally, I found it very funny. And I actually think a lot of people will, because you have the propensity to find yourself—present yourself—as slightly ridiculous in a way that’s highly lovable. For instance, there’s the moment early on when you’re the new person in a group, feeling awkward and nervous, and you fall into your then-habitual behavior in social situations, “looking first for a boy I could get into some trouble with and then a girl I could maybe also get into some trouble with.” You know yourself, and you’ve learned to say, “Okay. Well this is me being me. And I’m not going to necessarily let myself get away with it, but I don’t have to judge myself harshly for the impulse, either.” The humor is inclusive and warm, including toward yourself.
Hagberg Fisher: All of that self-compassion and laughing at myself comes from Allison. I think it’s clear in the book that there’s pre-Allison, and post-Allison. And pre-Allison, I took myself a little more seriously. I’m so glad you found the humor warm and inclusive, because I was able to crack my own relationship with my experiences as I was writing. In early drafts, I was still really angry. My standpoint was that I didn’t want my story to bring comfort to anybody. Because I was really upset that I had been positioned by some people as the community sufferer, who was going to mediate lessons for others. I’d seen people do that with Allison, and it upset me.
Rumpus: Are you talking about the popular concept that people become somehow wiser because of suffering, that they have important things to teach others?
Hagberg Fisher: Right. That I’m just a stand in for difficult things and I’m going to blow your mind with my wisdom. It upset me to be cast in that role. But also, on the flip side, I one hundred percent want to be that person who blows your mind and says the cool things! So, I haven’t reconciled myself with that yet. But as I got further away from the trauma, and I kept writing, I realized I actually wanted the book to feel like I’m sitting with you and I’m just telling you all the ways in which I tried to feel better. And some of them worked, and some of them didn’t. And some of them are pretty ridiculous stories.
My editor, Helen Atsma, is just incredible. She helped me shaped a lot of the stuff you’re pointing out. She also pushed me to make a lot of different entry points for different readers. So if you’ve never been sick a day in your life, this book is still for you. Are you a human who’s ever had a friend that you love, or even that you don’t love? Great. Part of the challenge, and opportunity, as a writer was thinking about how to invite the reader in at every possible turn.
Rumpus: My way in was the idea of learning to accept help and love. Because that’s really hard for me; even when it’s freely offered, I tend to question whether I deserve it. I think the book’s point of view is that love is not only for those who have deemed themselves worthy, that you can let it in even when it’s wildly uncomfortable. Along those lines, I was taken by how, early in your recovery from addiction, you looked at recovery as a self-improvement project. A way to have better habits, or be less weird, or at least stop fucking random people. And I’m wondering how your definition has changed in the eleven-plus years since.
Hagberg Fisher: For me, recovery is just like the best game in town. Being sober is the party I always looked for. And one thing is that by now I’ve experienced enough hard things and stayed sober that I have a self-institutional memory. I can think, This is terrible, this situation is terrible, and then remember times five or eleven years ago when things were also terrible and turned out okay. I have that record of things being okay, which, very importantly, doesn’t mean they’ll be okay this time. I don’t go for that “everything’s going to be okay” philosophy. But I think, maybe this moment is tolerable.
Also, I woke up the other day really anxious about the book coming out. I can really buy into my own fear, and then I judge myself for it. I think, So few people get to do this at all. You should be grateful. And my highest self is grateful, but my lowest self is a ball of anxiety. So I went and hung out with some other people in recovery and a lot of them talked about fear. And I realized, Oh, I’m just feeling fear. It’s really no different from anyone else’s fear. Early on in recovery, my working belief was that I needed to be ripped apart and reconstituted. And in a way, I was. I mean, that’s what happens. But now, eleven and a half years in, I’m more likely to say to myself, “Hey buddy. You’re doing a great job. Are you afraid? Of course you’re afraid. This is scary.”
Rumpus: You’re from a family of academics, going back generations. I chuckled at the part of the book where you say, “the steps were laid out even if the ultimate goal felt (moderately) open. I could be a professor of English or perhaps a professor of history.” What was it like to come from such a cerebral background and be sort of forced into embodiment via life-altering physical symptoms? Was it a struggle when you couldn’t problem-solve the way you were used to?
Hagberg Fisher: With the brain injury and brain surgery, and then an injury after the surgery, I was pretty out of it, so I didn’t know that much of what was going on. Then there was a period of recovery and then I was hit with this other massive, disruptive medical event with no diagnosis, and at times I really didn’t know what was going on. At one point my mom basically said, “You’re having a psychotic break.” My first response to that was, like, “Fuck you.” But then later I thought, “Yeah, maybe I am.”
Rumpus: There’s the moment in Sedona where you start to wonder if the undiagnosed illness is trauma-based, like you hadn’t processed the early brain surgery. I can totally see how you’d start to doubt yourself.
Hagberg Fisher: I still go back to Sedona with Lauren, the friend I went with in the book. We were there a year ago. And I just started crying every day. At one point Lauren just looked at me and say “Hey buddy. Are you encountering your grief?” And I was like, “Yeah. You know what? This whole thing was really fucking scary.” Until that point I hadn’t really let myself integrate what had happened and also, that I was okay now. As much as I write and think and talk about myself, in many ways I’m utterly surprised by myself and my emotional way of being in the world. I don’t actually have that much access to my experience as it happens. I need other people around me to be like, “Hey. It seems like you’re a little sad,” or whatever. Because my self-conception is that I am capable of literally everything, and impervious to anxiety or depression.
Rumpus: This is anecdotal on my part, but it seems like we’re seeing more narratives of women’s dismissed or misdiagnosed illnesses. I’m thinking of books like Porochista Khakpour’s Sick, or Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay. Do you view How to be Loved as part of that tradition?
Hagberg Fisher: I actually wanted to be very careful in how I wrote it to have it not be a primarily illness-focused memoir. I wanted to use illness as the vehicle for the observations and arguments that I wanted to make about our culture. Ironically, I don’t have any arguments to make about female pain. There are writers already doing that so extraordinarily well. I mean, Maya Dusenbery’s book Doing Harm is the only evidence I will ever need for understanding the cultural and historical way in which women’s bodies have been treated. She does incredible research and just lays out the case with history and passion. Something I learned from her is that medicine and medical treatments have all been tested on men because women’s bodies are seen as too complicated. People will try and test something on a woman and then say “Well, this is too hard. There are too many variables. Let’s just study it on men and then still prescribe it to women.” I don’t have much to add to those kinds of observations. But I think women have suffered a lot and women continue to suffer a lot, and maybe we’re talking about it more, or believing ourselves.
Rumpus: Maybe a better description for the role illness plays in your book is that it’s the context, or setting, for a story of deep friendship. And what felt really new to me is that it’s about someone learning how to have friendships, to let people be her friend. It seems like our cultural narrative about friendship between women is that it’s effortless. We meet in line at the grocery store and five minutes later we’re singing into a hairbrush together. It’s an essentialist view that just doesn’t reflect my own lived experience. The you in this book is social, far from an outcast, and yet still sees herself as separate from others—a bit of an automaton who doesn’t need the human connections others do. And yet over the course of the book you end up in these deep, authentic friendships that kind of save your life. For me it was a new view on being a woman that we don’t see reflected in literature a lot, and I love that partially because I saw myself in it.
Hagberg Fisher: That is the best thing anybody could ever have said. Thank you. I mean, that’s the thing; I describe my loneliness and I was also fairly popular. I knew lots of people and yet I felt constitutionally unlovable. I’ve read memoirs of friendship like Truth and Beauty, about Ann Patchett’s friendship with Lucy Grealy, or Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Caroline Knapp’s friend Gail Caldwell. And they’re great, but there’s this effortless, immediate quality to the friendships. I remember thinking “But how did you become friends?” So it was important that I not write Allison as this sage, wise person who loved me from the moment we met. That’s why the first line of the book is “When Allison and I met, it was not love at first sight. Or second, or third, or even ninth.” I wanted to stretch out what I think is represented in literature as a one-step process: I met this person and we immediately were joined at the hip. Whereas in my case it was “I met this person and she didn’t like me that much and I thought she was weird, plus I knew she was dying so why would I be friends with her?” and so on.
Rumpus: I wonder if illness was almost like the hospitable medium for the friendship to take root, if only because it knocked you on your ass to the point that you couldn’t ward friendship off anymore.
Hagberg Fisher: Exactly. The point of my book is not, “Can you believe these strange things that happen?” It’s, “I’m so resistant that it took these extreme experiences for me to learn this human thing.” And, also, that readers can kind of skip the brain surgery and the autoimmune disease and just do the other parts.
Rumpus: Right! You don’t need life-threatening illnesses to learn to have friends. You can just have them, you know?
Hagberg Fisher: You can just have them.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.