Michael W. Clune’s memoir, White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin, chronicles his double life as graduate student / heroin addict in Baltimore in the late 1990s. The book was released this year by Hazelden and received rave reviews from The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Publisher’s Weekly. We spoke with Michael, now a professor of English at Case Western University, about his unique story.
Phoenix House: You refer to addiction as a “memory disease.” Why?
Michael Clune: In memoirs and in the media, addiction is often represented dramatically and two-dimensionally. Throughout my recovery, the pictures of addiction that emerged really didn’t jive with what my own experience was. So I asked myself, what’s missing from these narratives? I began White Out by writing about the first time I tried heroin, and that led me to realize: what no one had adequately characterized was the way that an addict’s image of the drug never gets old. The image retains its intensity, freshness, and novelty, so that every time you see the drug is like seeing it for the first time. That’s how I began to characterize addiction as a memory disease.
PH: You don’t exemplify the myth/stereotype of the heroin addict as coming from poverty and oppression. How did you end up on the road to addiction?
MC: Junkies aren’t all doomed from the get-go; we know that addiction is a real curse for impoverished areas, but what creates addiction is availability of drugs. They’re in the projects, they’re in the doctors’ offices, and they were there on my friend’s roof that first night. Addiction affects people from all walks of life, people are drawn to drugs for all sorts of reasons. My own addiction wasn’t driven by trauma but rather by good things: a happy childhood, the allure of something new and exciting, a desire for transcendence. That’s the reason I drew parallels in the book between my first experience with heroin and my childhood search for “Candyland.” When I found heroin, I thought I’d found Candyland—a far-off magical place. I was wrong.
PH: What was your reaction to the New Yorker review where the writer clearly saw your book as a love song to drugs?
MC: That was weird. I wanted to tell that writer, “Love the book, not the drug!” On one hand, I was happy because it was such a positive review. On the other hand, it worried me because I had tried to present an image of addiction that was fascinating but terrible. I thought I made it clear that the drug feeling gets pretty crappy pretty quick; it’s only the drug image that remains fresh, and being haunted by that image is awful. It’s a physical, mental, and spiritual slavery. You get sucked in thinking, “Wow, something new and fresh!” But there are so many better, healthier ways to access that newness.
PH: Such as?
MC: Art and literature—the way writers, artists, and musicians all strive to create work that is new and fresh. And also through meditation, which I know you at Phoenix House have written about. It’s a tool that a lot of us use in recovery. It brings you into a zone where something happens to your sense of time—you reach a newness that, for me, was a huge part of the structure of addiction. It’s a sense of escape.
PH: Tell us about your treatment experience. You write an honest account of what seems to have been a difficult but beneficial time for you.
MC: Treatment is complicated, and it’s different for everyone. There’s a part of it that I was reticent about, which was the manic group energy that gets created when you put this random assortment of people together and take them off drugs. But the bottom line was that treatment put me in a place where I a) couldn’t use drugs and b) was given the information I needed about how to stay clean. Treatment gave me the space to get started on my recovery. As I describe in the book, my “light-bulb” moment actually happened when I was totally alone; I went for a walk by myself near the treatment center and experienced a sense of awakening that, for me, was the beginning of something sustainable.
PH: How did opening up about your addiction in such a public way affect you?
MC: I did wait ten years of recovery before writing it, so I was already comfortable about being open. I think it’s important for folks in sustained recovery to speak out, because for far too many people, the only addicts they know are in rehab or jail. People have responded very positively to White Out’s writing and ideas. The only negative feedback I’ve heard has been from people who have very rigid expectations of what recovery literature should look like. They’ll say, “It’s written weird” or “It’s too funny; my addiction wasn’t funny.” But in reality there’s no one story of addiction and recovery. It’s all about getting the wide variety of stories out there.
PH: You raise a great point that the humor in your writing is unusual; how did you manage to make a book on heroin addiction so funny?
MC: It’s just a new way of telling an old story. Dark humor really fascinates me; it’s a coping mechanism I use to deal with stuff. I love its reversibility, because when you get to the darkest moments sometimes you just need to laugh. So much of addiction is ridiculous and absurd. When laughter can arise from that suffering there’s a kind of healing positivity despite everything.
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