Interview by Catherine Turnbull
Five years sober and holding her nerve
Amy Liptrot’s edgy memoir The Outrun, was greeted with critical acclaim and the second edition was already being printed the week it was published. Her chronicle of alcoholism and recovery, told through the metaphors of nature writing and tales of wild nights in London and Orkney has attracted admiration from city literati and island dwellers alike. Former Orkney Today editor and colleague of Amy, Catherine Turnbull, speaks to the author about her brave new world.
Orkney is paradoxically a place of far-reaching skies where the people gaze to distant horizons across huge spaces and take the long view or are limited by the confines of the stormy seas. Incomers may suffer the ‘Orkney Disease’ a melancholy brought on by cabin fever in the constant winter winds, described in the wartime song Bloody Orkney, interspersed with joy at its beauty. Many inhabitants feel the push and pull of the isles, a constant tide that sends youngsters south and brings them home.
Amy grew up on a farm on the West Mainland of Orkney. The Outrun is a field on the margins of the farm between the wild and the cultivated, the land and the sea. Whilst her father battled his bipolar disorder and her mother turned to evangelicalism, Amy joined other teens at wild parties in the cattle auction mart. She couldn’t wait to get away and after university embraced the hedonism of East London. The problem was, when all around her were slowing down and growing up Amy didn’t want to stop.
“As other people got older and started drinking less, with each months and year I was drinking more,” says Amy, 34. “I even left a party so I could drink faster at home on my own. It took me a long time to accept I was an alcoholic and that the only way to deal with it was to not drink at all. “
Bad things happened. She lost the boyfriend she loved, jobs, her flat and was attacked by a stranger when she got into his car. She began to think of suicide.
Her GP referred her to rehab and three months on a treatment programme for alcohol addiction. Her journals of her struggle in her notebooks laid the foundation for her book, although she has always kept a diary.
The “anonymous” in AA is grounded in its Twelve Traditions. The 11th says: “We need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and film.” Amy has broken her own anonymity and kept secret the identity of her fellow classmates in rehab. “I am strict about not talking about the other people. I decided this is my own story.”
Jobless, broke and newly sober she washed up at home “like a clean pebble” because she had nowhere else to go. She expected to stay for a few months to help her dad on the farm while applying for jobs in London. She rebuilt ancient dykes (drystone walls) while building her own defences and strengthening the pathways in her brain. “I’m repairing these dykes at the same time as I am putting myself back together,” she writes. “ But Orkney held on to her. She applied for a summer job with the RSPB tracking the elusive corncrake.
“Becoming the “corncrake wife’ as I was known in Orkney was a turning point, adding a new interest, to back up my rehab. I was analysing my psyche through nature in my notebooks and using my journalism training to research and question. I developed a technique of exploring my inner and outer self. It wasn’t an epiphany as such, but helped me achieve insights in to my drinking. I began to realise how much the landscape leaves a shadow on your psyche.”
When the summer ended she rented an RSPB cottage on the stunning small isle of Papa Westray, known as Papay, and holed up for two winters, writing, building a fire, tracking her walks and the night sky on an app on her mobile and learning to use the metaphors of nature without being cheesy.
Her decision to delve into the dark places of our souls which most of us don’t explore, and certainly not publicly, is one of the reasons this book is so breathtaking. Its honesty shines like the moon across the Orkney seas. It’s ruthless in dissecting her own hell and psyche and revealing the family history, such as her father’s bipolar illness. “Initially I was writing for myself. I showed the first chapter to my dad and he was generous and open-minded. Friends told me I should write more. It became a memoir about the new exciting things I was learning and painful truths about my breakdown. Sometimes you have to be brutal when writing,” she says.
Among her natural highs is sea swimming. She swims with inquisitive seals and the Polar Bears, a group of women who swim in Orkney’s seas all year round. They ceremoniously launched The Outrun on publication day, casting it afloat and free and posting its baptism on Facebook.
“Swimming in cold water has a similar effect to the buzz of alcohol,” Amy says. “Going for a dip also relieves stress and low level anxiety. Cold salt water was used to treat mental illness in the past but as a shock treatment. I used it more positively and celebrated the news of The Outrun’s publication with a swim in Scapa Bay instead of drinking a glass of champagne.”
As Hooked is published Amy is marking five years sober. “I still go to AA meetings sometimes and I find some elements useful. I’m not being blasé and saying I am cured, but I am taking some credit for my recovery with AA’s help. I learned what to do in the early days of sobriety so the cravings passed. But I decided I had to rely on other interests in life. I met people in recovery who spend their whole life talking about drinking. It seems ironic to keep on discussing the obsession we are trying to be free of. I want more than that. What is important is what comes after. New interests have been the key to my recovery. For me it’s been the nature and history of the islands, sharing the folklore and myths. I am seeking my highs elsewhere now.
“When people ask me what the book is about, I tell them different stories. Sometimes I think it’s about the feeling of cold water on hot skin or about birds and becoming sober. Sometimes I say it’s about returning to Orkney after rehab in London. Or it’s about swapping the addiction of alcohol for Coca Cola, smoking, wild swimming and an obsession about the juxtaposition of the internet and nature.
“I am swapping one compulsion with others. I have to watch out for my internet use and my craving for instant gratification.
“Orcadians take the long view and now I do too. It’s about looking outwards after years of looking in. I don’t want to write about drinking anymore. I have a life to live that is not just defined by not drinking. Being older and sober I can plan more and make choices.
“A change in my sober life is more of an ability to think long term. Writing a book is a sustained process of holding your nerve,” she says.
Amy’s hopes for the book are it will appeal to people in recovery and those who want to discover the Scottish islands. This personal philosophy of how to live is for all of us who want to take control of the paths we take for the long journey.