“ALL THE WAYS I CHANGED MY SHAPE": AMY LONG'S CODEPENDENCE (CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY POETRY CENTER, 2019)
The title of author Amy Long’s debut book, Codependence, is both brilliant and not exactly what the book is about, not really, and I wonder if it isn’t a tad misleading (intentionally), especially as it becomes more and more clear that the author feels as if she only has herself to rely on. Ultimately, the goal of these engaging and well-written creative essays seems to be an attempt by the author to understand the person she has become by examining both her past relationships with drugs and people, relationships that even she does not completely understand, either in their unfolding or their foundations. The first sentence of the book illustrates this concern: “I tell my mother that I’ve started taking opioids again.” Though she has titled this, her opening essay, “Relapse,” Long isn’t questioning whether or not she should or should not return to opioids. She has already made her decision. But she spends the rest of the paragraph consumed by what this admittance will mean for her mother and their relationship. By choosing to begin her collection this way, Long makes it clear that her concern isn’t the decision she’s made about her pain management, but rather the way her mom (and others in her life) will react to it.
Even so, Long has resolved not to apologize for the things she does to battle the pain she feels. Instead, Long will challenge you to consider again and again how something can be wrong if it helps you. Why and how are we taught to believe that opioids are bad for us? That any kind of dependency is wrong? An important theme of Codependence involves a questioning of the morals and values with which we are instructed to mold our lives. For instance, although she and her sisters went to church and youth group regularly, Long spends pages narrating for us the exact moment she decided:
[i]f God intended that I submit to and accept as superior – if he’d granted additional power to – the sex with the greatest capacity to wound me, God had never loved me in the pure and unconditional way the mom […] had taught me He did. (57)
And, ultimately, “[i]f God would have me submit to a man, I could not submit to God.” Descriptions like this illustrate the fortitude of Long’s mind, even though, elsewhere, when she’s contemplating her decision to start using drugs, she claims:
I have no way to explain myself. I don’t remember a switch lighting up in my brain or any secret curiosity; not once did I think any differently about drugs than I had before I took them: they were bad for your body and bad for your soul, and they could get you into trouble. (54)
The cover art and design of the book add to these moments of reflection, giving an impression of nostalgia and reminiscence. The font is simple and the flower “taped” over it is sweet, making one think of scrapbooking, the desire to preserve special moments. However, the pink color of the interior flaps is a truer representation of the contents of the book: fleshy, raw, the color of an underbelly. The color is also “feminine,” a color often linked to little girls and innocence, a state of grace which none of us has ever actually inhabited.
What might be the most striking and essential reason to read Long’s book is for her candor, her attempts at complete transparency. As a skilled writer, when Long openly admits on page 62 that “memory is faulty” and that she “built a new story, slowly, with David by my side,” she knows she’s admitting to being an unreliable narrator, especially in confessing that David, the older boyfriend who introduces teen-aged Long to taking opioids recreationally, is something of a co-author. Even though, by implementing rhetorical layers such as these, Long signals to us that we might not want to trust her entirely, in a wonderfully paradoxical way, this is what ultimately makes her worthy of our trust (and potentially what moves us to trust her even more). Especially when she illustrates time and again just how honest she’s trying to be:
“I don’t imagine killing myself at all. I don’t even really think about how I’ll die (I already know: I smoke, and I’ve been killing my liver since I could open a child-proof Tylenol bottle). I picture the next 30, 40, 50 years and wonder how I’ll bear them … I think about why I want to live. When I tell my mom I’m taking opioids again, I’m telling her how I will.” (22)
In the same vein, so often throughout the text Long wavers between surety and uncertainty. Conflicting words and phrases like “I didn’t know” and “I was aware” and “Maybe” come up so interchangeably, often one after the other at the beginning of sentences throughout the book, that the reader can’t help but wonder who exactly she’s talking to, who she’s trying to convince, and to what purpose? There are moments in which this collection of essays feels instead like a diary, or a confession, which can be both endearing and frustrating but always compelling. The experience is like reading silently along as a troubled mind struggles to understand and validate itself, not only in the moment of its writing but through a retelling of the past and a temporality that is anything but linear. In a true mapping of how human minds work, not much in this book is in linear order and in each essay Long uses a different format with which to address us, sometimes even using the second person point-of-view, thereby implicating the reader as much as herself (if any implication is to be made at all, good or bad). In this way, the content and the form speak to each other and how Long speaks to her readers. Rather than trying (or wanting) to write a memoir about recovery, Long instead urges us to consider the complications of human experience and how often there is no resolution, no right answer, no closure.
Long reveals, too, how time offers no help, no clarity, because the decisions made, and the logic used to make them, repeat themselves. But isn’t this the nature of minds, troubled or not? And honestly whose mind isn’t troubled in these times of high anxiety and a pharmaceutical industry eagerly offering us a plethora of pills for whatever ails us? (For a price, of course.) And, if nothing else, Long assures us that she knows what she’s talking about in this particular arena, weaving definitions, histories, symptoms, and her own personal narrative within the creative forms of her essays (including a glossary of terms and a map of the pharmacies in New York). No need for the reader to question her about the specifics of the prescriptions. It’s obvious the author is reciting to us from years of research and experience. The question for readers, however, is how to feel about Long’s obviously intimate and prolonged familiarity with these drugs. And Long doesn’t have an answer for us. It’s clear through these essays that Long herself isn’t quite sure how to feel about her dependence. At moments she is magnanimous about it and at others she confesses to how this dependence has also alienated her, separating her from friends, family, and, ultimately, the world, even though she wants nothing more than to be accepted the way she is:
“I want [the mom] to be proud of me for being honest with her, and I want her to be proud of me the way I’m proud of myself: I made the decision I needed to make even though I knew it would disappoint everyone I loved, even though I knew exactly how hard enacting that decision and meeting those needs would be.” (21)
In the opening essay of the collection, Long writes: “When we talk about opioids, we talk about a heartbreak more cutting than any a lover could inflict.” (18). The implications of this statement resound throughout the book. Long painstakingly mulls over her relationships with her father, mother, sisters, ex-lovers, colleagues, and friends. We see her struggling to understand and to be understood. A theme that all of us can (and, I think, will) relate to. The things that can be fraught about Long’s writing are the very same things that make it so necessary, relevant, and impossible to put down. We all have our own addictions, our own dependencies. They are probably the things that keep us up at night. But, for what reason? Who do we think is our judge? Through a (re)telling of her own struggles, Long may ultimately be making a claim for the importance of self-reflection, self-love, and asking ourselves tough questions, even if we don’t entirely like the answers and the decisions they force us to make.
Cleveland State University Poetry Center
Recommended contemporaries to accompany Codependence:
Garments Against Women, Anne Boyer (Ahsahta Press, 2015)
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press, 2004)
Bluets, Maggie Nelson (Wave Books, 2009)