Carla Sameth is the author of the memoir-in-essays One Day on the Gold Line (Black Rose Writing 2019). She teaches creative writing at the Los Angeles Writing Project at California State University Los Angeles, with Southern New Hampshire University, and to incarcerated teens through WriteGirl. She has attended and received financial support from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Post-Graduate Writers’ Conference (2017-2019) and the Whidby Writers Workshop MFA Program, was selected for a PEN in the Community Teaching Artist Residency (2016), co-founded the Pasadena Writing Project, and has worked extensively to bring educational and career opportunities to underrepresented communities. Sameth earned an MFA in Creative Writing (Latin America) from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work can be found at Brevity, Mutha Magazine, the Nervous Breakdown and Narratively among other publications.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
I’d say that I write about contemporary parenthood and “I see you are a blended family like ours.”
I’d want to know if they found any of it difficult since I thought it was easy at first then not so much. Our family eventually unblended. I’d tell them that I hope their family stays intact.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
I think that writing as a family member of those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction (both my wife and son are in recovery) provides a unique perspective. I write a lot about the process I went through understanding addiction as a disease, and looking at my own shit (including addictive behavior) and how I interacted with my son who struggled with alcohol and drug addiction in his teens.
Finding humor has been vital to my relationship with my son and my own survival. It’s not always possible to find funny in the midst of tragic. But I often did see the humor and irony in dealing with addiction, and that is part of my story. My memoir includes a mock chapter of “What to Expect When Your Expecting: The Teenage Years, When Molly is Not a Schoolgirl.” I once did a stand up set at a comedy club on dealing with addiction which included making fun of my own crazy, desperate behavior, as a mom. On the way to my son’s first rehab, he came up with a whole rehab playlist including “Cocaine, Mary Jane and Dispensary Girl.” When he was put on 5150 holds because of being a danger to himself due to drug overdose, he used to joke about rating the adolescent psych hospitals on Yelp.
I write about wanting to create safe sanctuary for our family. I thought my son having a lesbian mom, being African American and Jewish, being part of a blended family or even with a single mom would just make life richer for him but the reality was much harder. My memoir is about how I navigated life’s challenges including race, identity, police violence, and my teenage son’s struggle with addiction.
What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?
My son began to use drugs and alcohol in his teens and became sober at 18. I went through several years in and out of ERs and Adolescent Psych Wards with him, hearing from medical professionals that he might die as a result of his using. Or become incarcerated. Or homeless. None of these were alternatives I could wrap my head around but they were in front of my face. Also my son is biracial, African American and Jewish and so is particularly vulnerable to police violence. I wrote about my experience but my son also encouraged me to write my book (which included some of his story, from my perspective). We felt that other families going through similar struggles would benefit from reading about our experience and feel less alone, even if the story doesn’t end tied up neatly in a bow.
How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?
I read other addiction memoirs, by addicts, alcoholics and by their family members. I didn’t necessarily see my story, including the multi-racial, blended and single parent, queer mom parts. As the parent of a black son, my experience also included not wanting to take the recommended step at some point of calling the police since my son already stood a substantially higher risk of incarceration being African American.
Writing about drug addiction lent a certain urgency and reality to my story. I worried about things like lead when my son was young and we moved into an old house, but I didn’t think about the possibility that he might grow up and become addicted to drugs or alcohol. I don’t know if that was naïve or what. I might have suspected my son could be an addict since I almost had to take him to a 12-step program, “Nursing Anonymous” when he was young. There seemed to be no end in sight to his desire to nurse. I didn’t want to have a four-year-old boy saying, “wanna nurse, wanna nurse” or coming home as a teenager asking, “Hey mom, can I borrow the car and what about a quick suck of the tit.”
Seriously, I had multiple miscarriages before he was born and plenty else to write about but something about the drugs and alcohol added a new dimension to my writing and reading. I don’t think that I would reach the same audience I’m hoping to reach or be able to tell the same story without this experience. Also the transformative aspects of recovery for my son and I contributed to the narrative. I’m currently writing fiction where addiction to drugs and alcohol also figures into the family dynamic. I also write about addiction in my poetry (I write multi-genre).
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
I don’t think I’m completely done with writing about drugs and drug use. As a mother, you never get over the fear of your child’s relapse. I also think that I could use a little self-examination about my tendency to turn to alcohol or a pill to deal with anxiety and “take the edge off.” I have written about fantasizing about trying heroin because I’ve been told that it is like Demerol, which I have had during medical procedures. For someone so prone to anxiety, the relief Demerol offered was amazing, the sense that “everything will be ok.” If I didn’t think it might kill me and/or impact my son’s recovery and really complicate my life, I would want to try heroin. I’ve been asked to write more about thoughts on treatment, specifically 12-Step programs. I had a lot of issues with the whole emphasis on Christianity and God (though it is said to not be religious but spiritual). Also, as a mom, you don’t want to see your son hit bottom. I do go to Al-Anon (I’m outing myself). I agree with one author – it might have been William Cope Moyers (son of Bill Moyers) who wrote Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption and talked about the down side of anonymity. Because when I started talking about drugs and alcohol, more people came out and spoke about their own struggles. Resources and support might not be easily found if we remain silent. Parents of addicts often also feel a sense of shame—as in what might we have done to have caused this?
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that One Day on the Gold Line gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
I actually did a whole play list since music figures big in my life with my son. It’s on Spotify and it’s hard to decide which song would be the best fit, there are so many. May I name several?
A medley including:
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” – Nina Simone
“La Vida es un Carnaval” – Celia Cruz
“You Want it Darker” – Leonard Cohen
“Ohh Child” – The Five Stairsteps
“All I Really Need” – Raffi
“We Got to Get Out of This Place” – The Animals
“This Little Light of Mine” – Soweto Gospel Choir
“Here Comes the Sun” – Beatles
“Piel Canela” – Eydie Gorme y los Panchos
“Can’t Feel My Face” – The Weeknd
“Dear Mama” – Tupac
Dispensary Girl – Wax
To Zion – Ms. Lauryn Hill and Carlos Santana
P.S. My first choice might have been “Hero” by Family of the Year but that’s been used in Boyhood. I also had “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon at the top of the list but given the recent movie (and book by this title by David Sheff) I left it off.