What’s so funny about overdoses, stints in psych wards and first-hand knowledge of county jail? To humorist and recovering addict Amy Dresner, quite a lot. A former stand-up comedian and current writer, Dresner talked to me about turning her worst moments into her funniest, and how humor can help recovery.
Virginia Gilbert: How long have you been in recovery?
Amy Dresner: I’ve been in and out of recovery for the last 20 years. I’ve had multiple periods of sobriety, from seven years to a few months and everything in between. I currently have a little over two years sober. My main recovery is from alcohol and drug addiction. although I have also struggled with sex and love addiction.
VG: What was the lowest point in your recovery?
AD: There have been a few. Shooting coke in my neck and having grand mal seizures was pretty dark. Getting arrested for domestic assault while high on Oxycontin was not a terrific moment. Staying up for 17 days on meth and thinking I had the mathematical equation for God was interesting. Slitting my wrists while drunk certainly wasn’t a highlight. Take your pick!
VG: When did you start doing recovery stand-up?
AD: I started doing stand-up about six or seven years ago, I guess. My addiction was always part of my material. About two years in, I was asked to join two other comics who were also in recovery and go on a national tour with them called “Laughs Without Liquor / “We Are Not Saints.” I also did some conventions, round-ups and clubhouses. I’ve been retired from stand-up for the last two-and-a-half years.
AD: I used to say that when I had seizures shooting cocaine that I realized, “Oh, this is a high-impact sport; I need to wear protective gear.” So I started shooting coke in a bike helmet. I wish that wasn’t actually true. I also tried to explain why IV drug use was better in this way: “I mean, if you had to go to Uruguay, would you take a rickshaw or a rocket? Let’s get to where we’re going!”
VG: How has comedy helped you in your recovery? How do you think it helps other addicts?
AD: It’s allowed me to process and let go of a lot of shame. It has helped me to share personal things in a way that is not whiny and self-pitying, but entertaining. Although I think addiction and recovery are very serious subjects, I think being able to laugh in meetings or at your screw-ups is tremendously powerful and bonding. I didn’t get sober to be somber.
VG: There’s a theory that most comedy comes from pain. Is this true for you?
AD: Absolutely. I think it’s a way to reframe pain. It’s a coping mechanism — granted one that makes people laugh, but it’s still a way to manage negative emotions or events. It’s not a surprise that most comics and comedy writers are depressives with addictive tendencies. The best comedy in the world is where you take your pain and make it funny. And yes, it’s definitely true for me. I think humor can actually be a character defect in that it shields you from intimacy and makes you think that you’ve fully dealt with feelings because you’ve gotten a laugh.
VG: What’s your best piece of advice for people new to recovery?
AD: Don’t give up, even if you continually relapse. You can still get it. You’ll eventually hit the jackpot, or get so desperate you’re willing to change and let go on a level you weren’t before. And hang in there; it gets better. Early sobriety, especially that first year, is the hardest. And hey, if AA is not for you, that’s cool. There are many other ways to get sober. Take what works for you and ditch the rest.
VG: You find humor in incredibly painful events. Is there any aspect of addiction that’s off-limits for you?
AD: Not really. I’ve already tackled sex addiction and community labor, as well getting 13th-stepped and my time in the psych ward. I’m not a big one for ‘sacred’ or ‘taboo.’ As Philip Roth says, “Nothing bad can happen to a writer. Everything is material.” And ironically, the more honest and personal you are, the more universal it is. And the truth is always what’s funny.
Amy Dresner is a freelance writer for Addiction.com, Refinery29, The Frisky and others.
Photo courtesy of Amy Dresner