As anyone who’s struggled with addiction knows, the process of hitting rock bottom, admitting there’s a problem, and ultimately journeying through recovery looks different for everyone. On Sam Lansky, Deputy Culture Editor at Time magazine and author of the just published memoir The Gilded Razor, being sober for seven plus years looks pretty damn good.
“I feel incredibly, incredibly fortunate,” Sam says. “I think that it’s 100% that I’m sober, and that I’ve been sober for over seven years. I got sober when I was 19. I went to college sober. I celebrated my 21st birthday sober. My whole professional life, I’ve been sober, and I think it’s impossible to overstate what the effect of being sober has had on what I’ve been lucky enough to accomplish creatively and professionally.”
It’s not that his success hasn’t come from a lot of hard work and talent, of course. Simply being witty, charming, and intelligent isn’t enough to secure an editorial position at one of the world’s most prestigious magazines, let alone a recent cover story interview with superstar Adele. But Sam doesn’t pull any punches when he talks about how well things have turned out for him so far.
“I’m really lucky that way,” he admits. “Not every person who gets sober, or even gets sober really young, gets to have as charmed a life as I feel like I have a lot of the time, of course.”
I met Sam seven years ago at a 12 step meeting in Seattle. He was a friend of a friend, visiting Seattle from Portland. To be honest, at the time he seemed wholly unremarkable. I was new in recovery at that point myself, though, and was so laser focused on my own drama that Sam could’ve been the Queen of England and I probably wouldn’t have noticed.
I never would’ve guessed then, upon meeting him, that someone so young had fallen so very, very far. His journey, as he describes it, was a harrowing one. From an early age rape to sordid drug and alcohol fueled affairs with men old enough to be his father, from night after night of using cocktails of Ritalin and Provigil to finish his prep school homework to a near fatal overdose of Xanax while wandering around Central Park, he quickly and inexorably fell down the well of addiction.
Even several stints in rehab, including an eye-opening wilderness experience in the wilds of Utah, failed to stem the tide of alcohol and drugs. Frankly, he was lucky just to survive.
“My days were legitimately numbered,” he agrees. “I did not have that much time left, the way that I was going, and it’s a miracle that I made it out alive.”
He didn’t just make it out, though. He genuinely turned his life around enough to become the writer that he’d imagined himself to be all the way back in school, with a writing style that’s smart, sharp, and brutal. Comparisons to Augusten Burroughs and Bret Easton Ellis are genuinely apt.
It’s most important for me to communicate is that it is actually possible to be completely sober and have a super dope life. And not somebody else’s definition of a really dope life, but your definition of a really dope life.”
Anyone who’s had any success with overcoming addiction can tell you that the truth will set you free, and Sam uses the truth like a knife, deftly carving vignette after horrific vignette into a story that’s impossible to turn away from.
While he signed his book deal in late 2013, and spent the better part of the next year putting the book together, some of the material he includes comes from writings as old as school journals.
“In some ways I feel like I’ve been writing it for ten years,” he confesses, “since it was all still happening.”
Revisiting a lot of those experiences wasn’t an easy process for Sam, though.
“There were a lot of things about it that were really, really challenging,” he explains. “I’ve had people say to me, just in conversation, ‘Wow, that must’ve been so therapeutic’ and ‘Oh my god, that must’ve been so cathartic,’ and, like: No. Absolutely false. Not therapeutic. Not cathartic. Not healing. Did not reclaim my narrative in some meaningful, spiritual, inspiring way. There was a lot of painful, unpleasant, tearing open the sutures of wounds that I thought had healed long ago and digging back around in there to see what I found.”
“It was definitely not a good time,” he adds, chuckling.
Still, he acknowledges that, while the process wasn’t an easy one, he’s still privileged for having had the chance to make it happen.
“It wasn’t as hard as living it,” he tells me. “I’ve definitely been through worse. I’m definitely not gonna be self-pitying about it. Having somebody give you an advance and say ‘Go write a book’ is a super awesome thing, not something to complain about. I felt really, really fortunate to have the opportunity to do it at all.”
Sam’s story may be his own, but it speaks to the disturbing idea that someone so young could become so deeply entrenched in a struggle with drugs and alcohol. My own story is very different, I point out. It took me twenty years to do what only took him two or three. What would he say, I wonder, to those who doubt that a person his age could really have suffered that much?
“I don’t think that it has anything to do with age,” he counters. “I think you can have experiences like the ones I had at whatever age you are and I think that’s ultimately kind of immaterial.”
He has a soft spot, though, for younger folks who fall into the trap he fell into, he says; those using drugs and alcohol to cope with situations that they otherwise couldn’t handle.
“Their brains haven’t fully developed yet,” he says of younger users, “their decision making isn’t that strong, and they end up left to their own devices as I was, and making these mistakes that can have lifelong consequences. It’s heavy to think about, and it’s heavy to come face to face with and think about the way I was.”
What would his message be then, to those very people who are struggling with the same demons he wrote about?
“In talking to people about this book,” he tells me, “in talking to people about my experiences, whether I’m at a 12 step meeting, when I’m out with friends, or in an interview with someone, I feel like the message that it’s most important for me to communicate is that it is actually possible to be completely sober and have a super dope life. And not somebody else’s definition of a really dope life, but your definition of a really dope life.”
It’s a complicated, complex, and confusing world we live in, after all, where children are frequently forced at younger and younger ages to deal with issues that would make a lot of adults scratch their heads. The emotional tools we need to deal with the world are supposed to be taught to us. But what if they aren’t? It was my own struggle to reconcile my sexuality with a fervently religious upbringing, without the emotional tools or maturity to do so, that helped drive me into my own addiction.
That’s why experiences like Sam’s are important ones to impart on the youth of today, in the hope that they could possibly avoid repeating them.
“I think it’s really, really important,” agrees Sam, “to understand that if it feels hard, if it feels confusing to be young and gay, with the pressures of body image, partying, and everything else that comes down on you as a young gay person, you’re not crazy. It is hard. It’s really hard. It’s really confusing. But you can forge your own path, and have a really, really awesome life.”
It’s hard not to look at Sam’s life after getting sober and not see the awesome. In the last year alone, he’s interviewed not only Adele, but also Tom Hardy, Johnny Depp, Nicki Minaj, and even Madonna. One look at his Instagram page, and it’s hard to imagine his handsome face, with his cockeyed grin, being anywhere but at all those fabulous parties standing next to all of those fabulous stars.
Again, though, it goes back to what Sam was willing to work for. Getting sober was just the stepping off point for him. It was that all important first step though, because it surely saved him from an early grave.
“Nobody else promised me a life that looked the way my life looks now,” he admits, “but it’s what I wanted, and I was able to get it. I think that, struggling with addiction, or if you’re just getting sober, I truly, truly believe that the sky’s the limit.”
Sam will be stopping in Portland and Seattle next week to do live readings from his book. You can see him in Portland at Powell’s Books on Sunday, January 17 at 7:30pm, and in Seattle at Elliott Bay Bookstore on Monday, January 18 at 7pm. Copies of his book will be available for sale at both events.
The Gilded Razor is available at your favorite book seller starting today.