8 Questions for Alex Lemon
August 23, 2010 | Claire A
I just finished reading the book, Happy: a Memoir and I loved it. Alex Lemon writes about the period in his life when he went to college and lived a carefree existence. When he suffered his first brain hemorrhage, he turned to drugs and alcohol to help him cope with what he was going through. This is the story of how he overcame his illness and substance abuse to become the person that he is today.
I got the opportunity to interview the author.
What was it like going through such a difficult experience at such a young age?
It’s almost too easy to say that it radically changed my life, but it’s true. I, by no means, had an uneventful childhood, but at 19, I became very different than the people around me. I was hyper-sensitive to the world around me. I was thinking about my mortality, about love and pain and sickness. And I was feeling all of it to such a high degree, it was almost incapacitating. Like a bowl being filled and overfilled and spilling, messily, all over. It made me face the sadness inside me, the parts of me that I’d ignored by being Happy all the time. It was a wild and confusing and beautifully painful and traumatic time.
Did writing this memoir help you come to terms with your illness?
Sort of. I wouldn’t say it made everything better and then POOF! it’s all gone away because each day I still live in a body that was forever changed, physically and psychologically. But it has made me more comfortable in this body. I’m more accepting of my limitations, of my occasional sadness, of my euphoric joys. It’s also made me more open, I think.
Was it challenging to expose your life story to the world?
Yes, it was incredibly hard. The book deals with things—both actions and emotions—that are/were/can be uncomfortable. But it was very important to me to write in a brutally honest way. For it to feel honest. For the book to really mean to me I wasn’t going to try to make anyone look better than they were (like so many memoirs do). I didn’t want to sugarcoat anything and that meant dealing with hard, ugly stuff. I didn’t want to hold the readers’ hand to make sure all of the connections were made. I wanted it to be a very felt book, a book of the sensual moment and not about the decade or so after. Sometimes, it was challenge to go forward writing the book that I wanted to write; knowing that some readers weren’t going to get that about the book: that it was going to be unadorned and in one’s face, that I wasn’t too worried about how I portrayed about myself, this Happy character, that writing in a honest way about life and the people in it, is an act of love.
Do people still call you Happy?
Some people do. And it’s a bizarre feeling. In the book, there’s a moment where I realize that lots of people didn’t know my real name and because they only saw me as this character they didn’t really know me. Even some of my friends only saw this person and suddenly, it made me feel like I didn’t really exist. That, because I couldn’t talk about what I was really feeling (like many young men), I was more or less an apparition wandering around.
So, some people from college do. They were friends who I knew from “around,” but who didn’t really know me. In their eyes it’s kind of a celebratory thing, a joyous acknowledgement. It bothered me for a bit, because, for a long while I could only see that period of my life in a sad, depressing way.
It took me a while to see that. To see that through all of the big hard events that happened during that time and recognize and acknowledge the amazing time it was, the great people I was surrounded by.
How is your health today?
It’s OK. I have a list of symptoms: double-vision, nystagmus, parasthesia, neuralgia, and a number of other similar problems that mean I don’t see to well and that sometimes I can’t feel parts of my body. If I’m tired, I often stagger to my right. I wear an eye patch when I’m home because of the double vision. If my eyes are giving me trouble and it’s a day I teach at TCU, I wear a black contact that does the same thing as the patch. I read on a big computer screen. My eyes tire easily and I have a hard time watching sports or anything where one needs to pay attention to lots of movement. But my days are lovely and I feel lucky to work out the way I do, to read and write and teach. It’s pretty wonderful.
Your mother was one of my favourite people in the book. I thought she was really funny and even from your perspective, I could sense her love and devotion to you. How is your relationship with her today?
I’m glad you picked up on that love. That is the real point of the book—and her character is the real hero of the book. In a lot of ways, the book is the story about the unending amount of love that mother has for her boy. When I think about it, our relationship is kind of staggering. The amount of love there is in it, the amount of care and concern. But we’re great, my closest best friend, and we talk almost every day.
Based upon your experience, what advice would you give to others who are going through a similar hardship in life?
Allow yourself to feel the love of people around you. Let them help you; they do it not because you are weak, but because they care. It’s hard for everyone, not just people going through hardships—but find a way to love yourself.
I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but what are you working on next?
I’m putting the spit and shine on my fourth book of poems, working on a book of essays, and another memoir that has to do with the idea of fatherhood.