Interview with Jason Smith, author of "The Bitter Taste of Dying"
By Wil Forbis
The drug memoir is a peculiar genre. In other forms of autobiography one presumes that the author will polish their image and gloss over (or just leave out) the embarrassing bits. In a drug memoir the author is expected to describe in detail the depths of his or her degradation and provide a full list of sins. As readers, we take on the role of righteous puritan passing judgment over the confessor. But there's another element to it; I always feel a twinge of jealousy reading a drug memoir. I can't escape the sense that the author has, while being exposed to the underbelly of both society and his or her own soul, become wiser about reality and gained some kind of inner truth.
Inner truth pervades Jason Smith's memoir "The Bitter Taste of Dying." In it he recounts a decade-plus long battle with prescription narcotics, one that took him around the world and to hell and back.
Recently I chatted with Jason by email and collected the results. We didn't just talk drugs but touched on autobiographical honesty, the emotional fragility of today's youth and the effect of Amazon.com on the publishing business.
1. One element that makes your drug memoir stand apart from others is the kinds of drugs you were using: essentially legal pharmaceuticals. We've gone from hearing about junkies shooting up in cheap motels to tales of applied fentanyl patches or Oxycontin overdoses. Are legal drugs stealing the thunder from illegal ones?
Iím not so sure prescription drugs are stealing the thunder of street drugs as much as theyíre making clear that when it comes to thunder, a fucking cloud is a cloud, regardless of its origins.
At the end of the day, the body basically metabolizes whatever you put into your body and your brain reacts accordingly. Your brain doesnít care of itís Fentanyl or OxyContin or heroin. Youíre going to get what is essentially the same high. And, I believe, if you have that genetic predisposition to addiction, something triggers inside you that manufactures a desire to keep chasing that feeling. To a non-addict, that must sound crazy, and I get that. But I donít know how else to explain it. I know that inside of me, something triggered on day 1. Out of nowhere. I think that, combined with the fact Iíd just lost what I thought was my purpose in life to a car accident and was lost and confused and angry, and I think you have the perfect storm.
What makes the Rx drug game unique is, in the ďold daysĒ if you were to get strung out on heroin, then chances are you traveled a long, dark road to get there. Nobody just tried heroin at a party for kicks. Usually, heroin was the result of a long progression through the rest of the drug world. And thatís backed up by the JAMA study in 2012 that compared modern heroin addicts to heroin addicts of the 1960s. Completely different demographic. What Rx drugs have done is shorten that road. Pharmaceuticals have created a sort of cosmic wormhole that takes you from trying a few pills to smoking heroin in a relatively short amount of time. Itís turned a whole lot of people onto drugs that might have otherwise never tried them. Try heroin at a party? Nah. Try a Norco? Sure. Itís safe. Itís a pill, from a doctor. You get hooked on Norco, move up to Percocet, then onto Oxy, which gets too expensive, so you switch to heroin because itís much more affordable. That progression right there didnít use to exist, but itís the common one for heroin addicts today. So is it stealing the thunder? I donít think so. Itís feeding the thunder. Like I said, theyíre all clouds at the end of the day.
2. You're writing in a particular genre---I'll call it the "over the top drug memoir." This genre was damaged by the revelation that James Frey's book "A Million Little Pieces" was inauthentic. Did you feel his shadow hanging over your book? Do you wonder, "Will people believe this?" And if so how do you prove your authenticity?
ďOver the topĒ has a sort of pejorative connotation to it, but I guess if I look at my life, over the top is pretty fitting. The memoir itself, not so much, since the memoir is a reflection of certain real-life events that I experienced. But I suppose we also have to come up with a baseline for where the ďtopĒ is. I mean, compared to some guy who went from a classroom to a cubicle and spent his 20s doing data entry, if thatís the ďtopĒ weíre working from, then yeah, my life was way over the top. I was off getting high and overdosing all over the world. But compared to some of the shit youíll hear at any 12-step meeting, things that drug addicts go through in the course of their addiction, then my story isnít really over the top at all. Itís just one of many. In fact, my story is pretty tame compared to some of the others out there. So I guess it depends on your perspective, which will depend on what you consider ďnormalĒ or what youíve experienced in your own life.
As for James Frey, I was pretty fucked up when all that went down, so it didnít really pay much attention. I had more important things to deal with at the time, like trying not to be dope sick in the morning. Oprahís book club fell well under my scope of concern. Since then, Iíve heard his name thrown around here and there on message boards, but to be honest, his book didnít weigh on my mind. I never read it, and I missed the whole uproar and scandal, so I didnít really give much of a shit about the guy or his book. I was more influenced by writing and authors I admired, then deterred by some guy Iíve never really heard of, ya know?
I will say that I found myself leaving things out of my story in certain parts, just because it wouldíve been too much to believe. So yes, thatís always in the back of your mind. Already-absurd situations that, in real life, were even more absurd than I wrote about, just because, yeah - it just would have been too much. I was robbed by some Albanians in the chapter ďHow to say Iím fucked in FrenchĒ that I left out, which was actually really scary because they took me down into the basement of this apartment and I was too high to defend myself. There was a whole new fiasco between me working for the school in China and actually making it onto the plane to come home in ďThe Lawyers made me change this chapter titleĒ where I actually overdosed in the Shanghai airport and they took me to some airport hospital. I woke up, jumped up, and walked to my gate. They tried to stop me, but could only do so much. The plane was held up for something like 2 hours because they didnít want to take everyoneís luggage off the plane to find mine, so when I boarded the plane, I was obviously high, getting death stares from people I couldnít have given less of a shit about in that moment. So yeah, there were things I left out, for that reason.
3. When I think of my past drug use (occasional coke, acid and the like) I'm struck by how drugs seem to really change who I was; on drugs I was capable of doing things I would have never done sober. (As you point out, drugs are great for meeting girls.) This leads one to the unsettling possibility that our fundamental essence is simply interacting chemicals, patterns of firing neurons etc. and that there is no soul or "true self." We are merely malleable chemical cocktails. Have you had similar thoughts or the opposite or what?
Well, on a purely mechanical level, weíre just that. Weíre controlled by a brain that science really understands very little about. And, like you said, our brains are this mix of chemicals and electricity, dopamine, serotonin, all that good stuff. But Iíd argue that there is something deeper in there somewhere, something that regulates and controls all of these things. I think there are fundamental truths that canít really be explained by a random mixture of chemicals, at least no explanation that I can think of. I think there are times when as human beings, we hurt or feel things that go well beyond some cerebral chemical exchange. Think about the death of a parent or a child, which is directly connected to the love of that parent or child. I donít think that feeling is something that can be quantified by a specific chemical. I could be totally wrong, but I just donít see it. I think thereís something deeper there, something beyond our understanding at this point in human evolution. Now, if you introduce chemicals into an already chemically-sufficient brain - which is what drugs do - then I think the whole thing gets thrown off.
I also think it depends on the drug. I mean, the term ďdrugsĒ is a pretty big umbrella, despite the fact that something like LSD is far different than a drug like heroin, in terms of how it affects the individual. Hallucinogens were never my thing, but theyíve always fascinated me in terms of our understanding of the brain. There are cases of hallucinogens being used to deal with trauma or with PTSD in soldiers, where itís been very successful. Same with MDMA. So I think if we just classify it all as Schedule I narcotics, not to be studied or researched because the government says they hold no medicinal value, is foolish. I think thereís a lot to learn from these ďdrugsĒ because they can teach us a lot about the brain.
4. As anyone who reads the book knows, something catastrophic happened to you as a 6-year-old boy. And one of the heaviest moments in the book is when your sponsor challenges you to take some responsibility for it, not for the act itself but for your perception of it. This idea, that whatever horrible thing happens to us, we are responsible for our perception of it is both empowering and daunting (and probably essential to healing.) But how do you change your perception?
Iíd never want to tell anyone else how they should deal with their own trauma, because that would make me one of those assholes that think what worked for me must work for everyone else. It totally depends on the individual and the level of trauma. I can say for me, what happened, was an event that sort of froze me, emotionally, and kept me from ever moving past it, in the sense that whenever I thought about what happened, I thought about it from the perspective of a six year old. So there I was, 33 years old, still viewing what happened through the eyes of a six year old. Now, thatís totally understandable. It makes sense. But it wasnít healthy because I was unable to move past it from that perspective. I was unable to grow and move forward and let it go because I was constantly chained to this traumatic event. Things donít make sense when youíre that age, and thereís no way of coping with it unless you can begin to make sense of it. Shit, sometimes just coming to the conclusion that it was senseless allows you to make sense of it. But I had to see it from a totally different perspective, the perspective of me at 33, not 6. I donít want to say that was an easy thing to do, but I will say that once it clicked, it clicked and I felt like this weight had been lifted off of me.
Ultimately, the only thing I have control over is my perception today, and how I choose to see the world. Thatís one of the few things I do have control over. So why not try to make sense out of as much as possible, ya know?
5. Just this morning I was reading an Atlantic article entitled "The Coddling of the American Mind" which argued that (among other things) the Millennial generation was raised via a form overprotective helicopter parenting that sought to protect them from life's harsh realities but left them thin skinned and unable to cope with even minor challenges (the term "microaggresions" gets thrown around.) Is there truth to this and, if so, do you think it could lead to a generation attempting to salve their self-inflated emotional wounds with drugs?
Yeah, straight up, weíre raising a generation of pussies. Thereís really no nice way to say it. Or Iím sure thereís a more correct term to use, approved by some overpaid university administrator. ďTraits of vaginal inclinationĒ maybe. Fuck, I donít know, man. Iím sure using the word ďpussyĒ will spark some microagression in somebody. Seriously. Politically, Iím far left. I mean, I wish Obama was the socialist Fox News tries to paint him as. Yet, this push toward politically correct language is approaching dogma status, and itís disturbing. I donít get it. I saw the senior editor of the Atlantic doing an interview about the article you referenced, and they were talking about how so many comedians refuse to do college shows now because they get picked apart by the PC police and the students just canít handle someone having the nerve to do what all good comedians do - push them to the point of being slightly uncomfortable and hating themselves for laughing at what theyíre laughing at.
I have no problem going all Ďget off my lawní with this. I think this is the result of raising a generation of kids who we refused to ever let fail. We decided that every fucking thing they did would be rewarded, deserved or not. We never had the nerve to let them fail but then learn from it. We never had the nerve to tell them no, and then teach them a lesson with it. Instead, we just stopped keeping score so nobody would get their feelings hurt. But now that theyíre getting older, itís becoming more difficult to hide the types of inadequacies and inefficiencies that were once easily masked by participation trophies. So what do we do? We start eliminating and re-defining words. We donít have the nerve to tell them they failed at something, so we eliminate the word ďfailureĒ from our vocabulary and ban it from a university campus. Weíre reshaping what is societally acceptable to fit a group of young adults that weíre scared to death of offending, for whatever reason.
But itís not their fault. At their core, they're an intelligent and capable group of kids. This isnít on them. This is our fault. People in their 30s, 40s, 50s, who raised them.
I got my family a black lab puppy a year ago, and today, that dog is a fucking pain in the ass. He doesnít listen. He doesnít sit. He sits there barking at you while youíre trying to watch tv. I mean, itís a nightmare. And I love to blame the dog. But honestly, whoís fault is it? Itís mine. I never trained him. I raised him and allowed these bad behaviors to persist. His behavior is mostly of my own doing. Our kids are no different. They are what we raised them to be. Say what you want about that generation, but whatís that say about us and our generation? That weíre a generation of lazy ass parents who were quick to hit the divorce button and eject from a marriage instead of trying and work it out, go to counseling, learn to communicate, and see if what we had was salvageable? Instead we just ran away because that was the easy thing to do, leaving these kids caught in the middle. More than half came from broken families, and we broke them. Thatís fucked up to do to a kid, and we did it to an entire generation. Sure, we felt a little bad about it. Thatís why we tried to buy their love with false affirmations and technological gadgets. Those kids grow into adults, completely self-absorbed because they spent their teens taking selfies on the iPads we bought them and determining self-worth with Instagram likes, and we expect them to play by rules that were never enforced on them before?
No. Thatís on us. Thatís on these chicken-shit university administrators who are banning words from college campuses. I was speaking to a university professor at a book signing recently, and she was telling me how theyíre afraid of asking certain questions or saying certain things in class because they fear for their jobs. Theyíre afraid to bring up controversial or polarizing topics. What the fuck? The best college professors I ever had were the ones who forced me to look at things from a perspective with which I wasnít comfortable. Professors that completely shook up my world view. Who didnít try and impose their beliefs upon me, but rather took what I thought I knew, turn it upside down, and make me sift through the pieces in a constructive and academic way to put it back together. But now? Thatís not happening, because everyoneís afraid of pissing these brats off. They donít want to get publicly shamed on Twitter with a taken-out-of-context quote.
Weíre doing a tremendous disservice to them, because weíre not teaching them to think critically or problem solve when we mold the solution into whatever their answer is.
Shit, what was the question?
Oh, drugs. I donít know, man. Maybe this generation needs more drugs. Lighten them the fuck up, allow them to laugh at themselves, and take that selfie-stick out of their ass.
6. What gets your vote as the best drug memoir? (Excluding your own.)
Permanent Midnight by Jerry Stahl had a profound affect on me when I first read it. I havenít read a ton of other drug memoirs, to be honest. Scar Tissue by Anthony Keidis was good, as well as the Heroin Chronicles by Nikki Six. To be a drug addict with that much money, surrounded by so many enablers, must have been just crazy. It makes me appreciative that I never had those types of means at my disposal in active addiction.
7. From the perspective of a writer published through a small press, what is the presence of Amazon on the writing scene? Are they grinding author paychecks into dirt or are they offering a way to subvert the traditional publishing gatekeepers?
I think itís both. I think theyíve taken over grinding author paychecks into dirt from the traditional publishing houses. New boss same as old boss, perhaps. Itís hard. Basically, anybody can publish anything, any time, which means the market is flooded with stuff that would have never made it past an editor before. So the market is saturated, making it more difficult for the general public to find good stuff. Thatís the bad news. The good news is, good writing really stands out when itís surrounded by all this stuff. Relative to most of the writing flooding the market, if youíre a good writer, youíll look that much better.
But I canít knock the current system too much because Iím, at least partially, a product of it. I began writing on Medium for free, and the stuff I wrote there ended up getting me the deal with my publisher. That never could have happened a decade ago. Even five years ago. In the old days, I wouldíve spent all my time not doing much, if any, actual writing, but instead putting together these massive book proposals and pitch queries to literary agents and publishers. It almost feels like begging. Now, you can bypass them if you want, and give it a shot. Iím a nobody whoís only been writing for a year with a mediocre memoir, and after the book came out, I got an agent. But that was my plan, to use this book as a stepping stone in my career, to open doors that I didnít want to spend all my time trying to pry open prior to my first book because I would rather spend my time actually writing the fucking book. But I had to be willing to put myself out there and do a lot of writing for free, hoping what I produced would be good enough to get to the next level. I didnít write this memoir with the hope or expectation that it was going to become a NYT bestseller or be flying off the shelves in Barnes & Noble. That wouldíve been unrealistic. I tried to use this book to leverage the next step. I think thatís one of the things a lot of new authors struggle with. Whatís a successful first book? 100 copies sold? 1000 copies? 10,000? I didnít want to get caught up in that, so I tried to really use this book as a stepping stone to the next one. And I think Amazon makes that process much easier.
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