Passages by Fiona Helmsley

Posted in journal updates with tags , , on November 15, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

I read some of Fiona Helmsley’s work on The Rumpus and it blew me away. I was so impressed I immediately commented on it. I think I said something like, “You’re an amazing writer!” Perhaps I even asked for her hand in marriage. I can’t remember anymore. Not more than a few days later, I came into the office and found the entire Junk editorial staff gathered round the water cooler, chattering excitedly.

Passages had arrived by carrier pigeon. Everyone was agog. I snatched a copy of the story and then raced up the winding stairs to my office to read it, huffing all the while. Now it’s your turn.

Junk is proud to present Passages by Fiona Helmsley.


Pathological grooming, the latest in OCD, to be added to DSM

Posted in commentary with tags , , , , , on October 7, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

NPR is running a story about how psychology is changing the way it looks at compulsive nail biters by listing it as a disorder—pathological grooming—in the next DSM.

If you read Junk faithfully, you may have already considered this type of obsession, because Jeffery Brown was kind enough to bless our humble little journal with his own tribute to compulsive grooming in Yaaaay, Bite Your Nails.

Check out Jeffery Brown’s latest work, Darth Vader and Son, an adorable picture book for Star Wars fans of all ages. 

Junk Talk Interview with Cheryl Strayed

Posted in authors with tags , , , on September 16, 2012 by Tim Elhajj


Cheryl Strayed is the author of #1 New York Times bestseller WILD, the New York Times bestseller TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, and the novel TORCH. Strayed has written the Dear Sugar column on The Rumpus since March 2010. Raised in Minnesota, Strayed now lives in Portland, Oregon.

Holly Huckeba for Junk Talk: Why choose non-fiction? You’ve written both fiction and non-fiction to much acclaim. Tell us what inspires you to write non-fiction.

Cheryl Strayed: I think I’ll always write both. What I love about writing fiction is how you take experience and cast it off into the limitless possibilities of imagination. What I love about writing nonfiction is the visceral power of the author standing immediately behind the work saying this really happened to me. Some stories demand that intensity. I think the story I told in “Heroin/e” is one. It’s the first personal essay I ever wrote, by the way.

Junk Talk: Many writers, when mining for ideas, return over and again to ‘origin’ stories: stories of our family, coming of age, or rebirth. Tell us more about your own idea-mining, and how it works in your fiction and non-fiction.

Cheryl Strayed: Anyone who has read my work knows I’ve been fairly obsessed with telling the story of my mother’s death and my grief over that again and again. I didn’t know that would be the case. It just is. I had to remake my life after my mother died. I had to re-imagine a world without her in it. Doing so was incredibly complex and difficult, so I suppose it’s not a surprise I write about that experience often. Though it’s been a powerful story for me so far, I do think I’ll move on to other things. In my next book my intention is to avoid dead moms entirely. We’ll see if I can stick to that.

Junk Talk: Your essay, Heroin/e, is two stories threaded together–the story of your start and stop of heroin, and the story of your mother’s death. You intertwine these stories without even a glimmer of the disease model of recovery. Instead, you choose a literary model–the hero’s journey–to talk about your recovery. This is, in some respects, a very old school way of looking at addiction; in other ways, it is refreshing, novel and perhaps more inclusive than a purely medical model. Tell us more of your thinking about your addiction and recovery, and your choice of story structure.

Cheryl Strayed: I wrote it that way because I lived it that way. I was heading down the path of heroin addiction, but I didn’t go all the way there. I never became an addict. I was on the cusp of that when I pulled myself away, or rather allowed myself to be pulled away by my ex-husband. It was very hard for me to stop using heroin, but it was a psychological struggle more than a biological one. I could see how heroin had the potential to engulf me entirely, but I ran away from it before it did. So writing about my experiences with heroin within the context of the hero’s journey seemed the truest way to write about it. In its most classic and distilled form, the hero goes into the darkness and comes back a changed person. Heroin did that to me. My mother’s death did that to me. It seems natural to intertwine these two harrowing tales.

Junk Talk: Some writers talk about writing as therapy. Others talk about the primacy of writing as art. What is your take on the debate about writing as art vs. writing as healing?

Cheryl Strayed: I used to be quite defiantly in the writing as art camp, and I still essentially land there. I don’t write to heal. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing as catharsis, but there is a difference between being a serious writer and writing because one seeks an emotional release. When that line gets blurred the art of writing is diminished and I think writers—by which I mean people who’ve developed their craft in intentional ways over a long period of time—tend to feel a bit defensive. Like they have to distance themselves from the writing as catharsis camp in order to be seen as legitimate. They didn’t have an experience and then accidentally and brilliantly spill it out on the page, no matter how it might seem. They worked long and hard to create that effect. Having said that, there’s no question that writing is often cathartic for me. I don’t write seeking to be healed, but writing has healed me.

Junk Talk: You make several references to the hero’s journey in Heroin/e. The quest seemed to involve a spiritual journey through death. But you portray neither yourself nor your mother as particularly heroic or successful in your respective quests. Tell us more about how the idea of the hero’s journey plays a part in how you think about the events of this time.

Cheryl Strayed: When my mom got cancer I had this distinct image of what a “heroic” cancer patient looks like. She keeps a positive attitude. She battles and at least temporarily wins. She loses her hair to chemotherapy, but doesn’t let that get her down. She wears brightly colored scarves instead. But my mom didn’t do that. She didn’t have the chance. She just got sick, then she got sicker, and then she died. She lived only seven weeks after her diagnosis. She had always been my hero, but how could she keep being that if she went so fast? I struggled with that question—of whether my mom did cancer “right,” whether she fought hard enough.

The answer is, yes she did. She wanted to live. We don’t always get to choose whether we live or not. We simply like to think we do. Seeing my mom die that way was a tremendously painful thing, but it was informative too. It changed the way I understood almost everything about the world. As far as my own journey, by writing what I did about myself in “Heroin/e” and elsewhere, I’m saying I believe in the strength of the jagged path. We don’t always do the right thing on our way to rightness.

Read Cheryl’s lovely essay Heroin/e, available in this month’s issue of Junk.

Previous Junk Contributor Ryan Hilary Available on the Web

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on August 26, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

Ryan Hilary, a previous Junk contributor, is experimenting with a blog that we think is very interesting. Some have even described it as a “tongue and cheek nod to Russian existentialist writers like Dostoyevsky.”

We encourage you to go over and check it out. See how that Russian existentialist vibe is relevant (if it is) for writers in the media age.

And keep watching this space. Next month we’ve got a story and an interview from none other than the amazing Cheryl Strayed.

We’re so excited.

Some Kind of Animal by James Brown

Posted in editor's corner with tags , , , on August 1, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

Doping scandals come, and doping scandals go, but you can count on James Brown to deliver the goods in Some Kind of Animal, his incredible true story about using performance enhancing drugs, now appearing in our summer edition of Junk.

Also, dear readers, we have a great surprise for you in the early fall, but I don’t want to reveal it just yet. I do want to hint. Another great writer, someone really sweet, this time from our own Pacific Northwest backyard. Generous as she is talented, she’s given us permission to run a fabulous story, and we’re proud to present it for the very first time online in its entirety.

Keep watching.

THE ZAPS, an exclusive Junk Talk guest post by William Dickerson

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on May 29, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

The following is a guest post by William Dickerson, author of No Alternative, a character-driven look at teenage lives in the grunge era. Will discusses his withdrawal experience from an SSRI, prescribed for anxiety, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. 

by William Dickerson

I was in New York City at the time of the 9/11 attacks. While many watched the tragedy unfold live on television, I watched it live from the window of a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan, some sixty blocks away from the unfolding disaster. I would never dismiss the effect that 9/11 had on anyone, no matter how one ended up watching it, because we all did watch it one way or another. But the events of 9/11 had some very specific effects on me, and it’s those effects that I want to tell you about.

Several months after the event, which seemed so completely unreal and unfathomable as I watched it live, its effects began to manifest itself within me in a very physical and emotional way. I began to experience severe panic attacks when I entered the elevator of the building where I worked. I was working as a paralegal during the day at the time, while moonlighting at night editing my first short film. As the elevator door closed on me, I began to experience an instantaneous feeling of vertigo – the 90 degree corners of the floating box I was standing inside began to bend and encroach on me. My sense of equilibrium, my ballast, disappeared entirely and my knees began to buckle. All I could do was casually put both hands on a wall and lean. Sometimes I would have to face the wall, in order to shield my face from the co-workers around me, so they wouldn’t think anything was wrong—as if standing facing the wall in an elevator isn’t itself somehow wrong. The balance was a big problem, but that didn’t compete with the racing heartbeat and inability to breathe. Until the door opened and I was able to step out of it, it was an absolute chore to simply take a breath.

The thing that stands out to me now is the fact that, for the first few months following the event, I felt fine. But clearly the impact of seeing, and living through, such a horrendous catastrophe began to work its way into the shadows of my subconscious, ultimately manifesting itself physically through these panic attacks. It was debilitating, affecting both my personal and professional life.

I had to get help.

I explained my condition to my doctor, who recommended that I go on anti-anxiety medication. No need to see anybody else, no psychiatrist or mental healthcare physician. He could prescribe the meds himself and I could go on them immediately. There was an answer, and the answer was a pill. I was prescribed a standard dose of the drug Effexor, and I was told I would feel concrete results in a couple of weeks. Getting accustomed to the drug wasn’t that bad; I barely noticed it. There were some headaches here and there, but nothing that seemed out of the ordinary. Before I knew it, the panic attacks had ceased. I could ride the elevator just as I had before. There was no vertigo, no trouble breathing, no feeling that I was going to have a heart attack.

Now, as I departed the elevator and turned into the hallway where I worked, I could sense the walls around me – and the walls were as stable as ever, like they were built from titanium. The structure of the building now seemed almost impervious, as if it was better protected from an accident than the walls of a fortress or the deck of an aircraft carrier. What was odd, however, were the people who passed me in the halls. Somehow, they seemed like a part of these walls, as if they were nothing more than impenetrable, gesticulating statues. I felt completely disconnected from them; not like they were strangers, but almost like they were not actually human. I tried to get over this idea by reminding myself that these were only my co-workers. How much more disconnected could I possibly be from them? And did it really matter? In hindsight, this seems like a callous thought, but I was trying to protect myself from the horror of going back to the panic attacks. If the price of not suffering from those panic attacks was that my co-workers seemed like statues, I was willing to pay that price. It wasn’t until I also started to feel disconnected and numb around my friends, my family, and my sexual organs, that I began to consider the potentially dehumanizing effects of this drug.

My stint on Effexor lasted six months. In those six months, my panic attacks were rendered a thing of the past and I was grateful for that. All things considered, medicating myself seemed like the appropriate measure. Looking back on it, I suppose I would do it again. It got me over my hurdle. Presumably since I had never experienced anything like these attacks before, it’s possible that they might have gone away eventually, with or without the use of pharmaceuticals. The numbness became worse, or perhaps it just became more and more noticeable. The first three months were marked by relief after having overcome the panic attacks. The subsequent three months were marked by the realization that to overcome these attacks, I had sacrificed access to some of my emotions. While I wasn’t down as often, and I had certainly stopped panicking, I wasn’t high in the natural sense either. The pill had become an emotional limiter, like a blanket of numbness pulled up to the chin of my senses. I was protected, yes, but protected from what? Life? Life has its ups and downs. You either want to feel them or not. But you can’t pick and choose; you either feel both or you feel neither.

I decided to take myself off Effexor. I didn’t tell my doctor, which maybe wasn’t the best idea. I simply began weaning myself off the pills. I was in control of my life, wasn’t I? I went from a full dosage to a half dosage and within a day, I started to feel the withdrawal. I’ve never been one to dabble much in the realm of recreational drugs. My expertise primarily extends to alcohol and marijuana. I rarely drink, at least heavily, and I can’t remember the last time I smoked weed. Part of the reason I don’t drink much is the horrific hangover I am forced to endure as a result of drinking heavily. The term “hangover” is a term we instantly associate with uncomfortable things like: headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and moderate to severe dehydration. I can say without a moment’s hesitation that, despite my negative feelings about hangovers, withdrawal from my prescription anti-anxiety medication was exponentially worse than what I would consider a bad hangover. It not only included the uncomfortable things associated with hangovers, but also things called “the zaps,” also known as “brain zaps,” “brain shocks,” “brain shivers,” “head shocks,” or “cranial zings.” If these terms conjure up images of electro-shock therapy in some medieval mental hospital, your visualization wouldn’t be that far from what I actually experienced. For two and a half days, about every 15 minutes, I would endure one of these zaps to my brain. Needless to say, I couldn’t sleep. Every time I’d nod off, WHAM! a shock to the cranium. It was like my brain was strapped into an electric chair, which some deranged executioner inside my head activated at random intervals, whenever he felt it was appropriate to punish me. But I couldn’t get to him because he was protected by the thick bone of my skull. No matter how hard I scratched and pulled at my scalp, there was no getting in there to stop this bastard or to pull the plug from his torture device.

My panic attacks had subsided, but now I was left panicking over whether I had permanently fried the motherboard in my brain. If that was the case, it seemed to me that no soldering iron or spare circuit in the known universe could fix what I had so nonchalantly screwed up.

How come I hadn’t heard any warnings of such a withdrawal? If I had, I just might have heeded them! I can recall horror stories from my youth of people falling asleep in bathtubs of acid and waking up legally insane for the remainder of their lives. I had heard this happened to one of Mick Jagger’s girlfriends. It wasn’t even my generation and the story was in earshot. It doesn’t matter if it was true or not, what matters is I heard it somewhere and it scared the crap out of me. Where is the REEFER MADNESS equivalent for Big Pharma? Where are the propaganda films? The commercials? This is your brain on…SSRIs (cue the egg in the frying pan)? Instead, it’s the opposite: slick commercials littered among our primetime television programs reassuring you that there’s an answer in a pill, and it’s only one doctor’s appointment away. Or mouse click, if you want to order meds yourself from websites outside the medical jurisdiction of the United States; the internet is, after all, international. The warnings today are mild; the horror stories are virtually nonexistent. Pharmaceutical companies no doubt have much better PR people on the payroll than your average LSD blotter chemist did in the 70’s. In the early 1990’s, SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) hit the anti-depressant market in a big way and the market did not exclude children. Not until over 10 years later did the medical community realize that prescribing such hardcore meds to children whose bodies and minds are still developing was probably not a good idea. Childhood SSRI prescriptions were banned in Britain in 2003, and in 2004, the FDA issued a black box warning against prescribing SSRIs and SNRIs to children. The reason for the concern was increased suicide risk, which was confirmed by a 2007 study that found that SSRIs increase the urge to commit suicide in individuals under the age of 24. There have even been cases of SSRI use in children leading to permanent, untreatable tics and spasms of the voluntary muscles. There have been links to Tardive Dyskinesia, a movement disorder that afflicts the voluntary muscles, including the eyelids, tongue, larynx, diaphragm, neck, arms, legs, and torso, for which there is no known treatment. In the early 2000’s, when I was under medication, the downside to these drugs were still ignored. It was not common knowledge that you could get the zaps.

After I withdrew completely from Effexor, the zaps stopped and I wanted to fall to the ground and hug the entirety of the planet Earth. I had thought that they would never stop. Everything around me was noticeably clearer. I felt connected again; to my family, to my friends, to myself, and even to my co-workers. Just as happily, I found I could ride an elevator again without experiencing panic. The pills had done their job, but not without a cost.

In 1987, the first SSRI, Fluoxetine (street name Prozac), hit the shelves. It hasn’t been that long since these types of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications first went on the market. Our knowledge of the long-term effects of usage is limited at best. In fifty years from now, will we know if cell phones have been proven to cause brain tumors? Will music still be left on CD’s? Will our digital photos remain on our hard drives? Will our brains be okay after years of lacing them with anti-anxiety meds? You can count me among the legion of test subjects who are planning to be around to find out the answer to that last question.

William Dickerson graduated from The College of The Holy Cross with a degree in English and received his Masters of Fine Arts in Directing from The American Film Institute. He is a writer/director whose work has been recognized by film festivals across the country. His feature film, DETOUR, has just been acquired by Level One Entertainment. His first novel, NO ALTERNATIVE, a character-driven look at teenage lives in the grunge era, has been published this April. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Rachel, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Duet. For more info, visit:

The Point of Failure by Alan Schulte

Posted in journal updates with tags , , , on April 17, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

Alan Schulte’s story is the story of Everyman, addict or not.

Failure is a condition of life, the point of which sometimes happens in unexpected places. While addicts might be encouraged, more than most, to direct a spotlight into the darkest parts of their soul, it is every writer’s burden to tell their story in such a way that the spotlight shines in the reader’s soul as well, illuminating our deepest fears, and reminding us that the light won’t kill us after all.

Join the Junk editorial staff in celebrating Alan Schulte‘s story, The Point of Failure.

Junk Talk Interview with Alan Kaufman

Posted in authors with tags , , , on February 22, 2012 by Editors


Alan Kaufman is the author of Drunken Angel from Viva Editions. The author of the novel Matches and a critically acclaimed memoir, Jew Boy, he is also the award-winning editor of several anthologies, most notably The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. He lives in San Francisco.

Tim Elhajj for Junk Talk: I’m a recovering addict myself and thought you really captured what it feels like to navigate the rooms of a 12-step fellowship as a new person. Twelve-step programs, and even the culture of self-help and pop psychology, are parodied in the media, but you write with such reverence of the 12 steps, sponsorship and even your higher power. Did you feel any reluctance as a writer to cast yourself as such an unabashed 12-Step believer?

Alan Kaufman: Not really. The twelve steps saved my life. Also, significantly, they lead me through existential doors that I had sought for all my life but could not somehow access.  Before coming into Recovery, I could READ Camus and even remotely sense my kinship with his perspective and yet have absolutely no idea just how to extract personal meaning from his work for my own life. I could, intellectually-speaking, identify with, say, Melville and yet not be able to grasp the essential spiritual struggle implicit in every line he wrote. But when you have death perched on your shoulders–an awareness of which is absolutely essential to successful engagement with the Steps, Recovery, et al.–then, suddenly, the moment of clarity is at hand. Suddenly you feel identification with others. You can grasp the spiritual struggles at  the heart of so much of what others have faced and wrestled with, the questions about our essential meaning, our actions, our core beliefs–all of which we must confront when getting sober.

Junk Talk: You’re not afraid to weigh in on political or social issues in your work. In one particularly memorable and poignant passage, you meet up with a mentally ill, homeless woman. You’re essentially homeless yourself or very close to it. You allow the passage to become a meditation on homelessness, a stinging indictment of American values. Do you feel called upon to use your gifts to speak to issues that you feel passionate about?

Alan Kaufman: Absolutely! My spiritual life and sobriety and my writing are inseparable from my sense of existential responsibility to whatever lies at hand. And if what lies at hand is glaringly unjust, how can I soberly look away?In fact I would say even further that I dare not look away if I  hope to remain sober. I cannot falsely refuse to bear witness or fail to respond to an urgent human crisis lying near death at my very doorstep or at the very least to express it through my writing.  Because think of the constant lies I will need to tell myself in order to deny what I have seen. I will need to numb myself to a considerable degree in order to avoid the pain of such refused witness. And that is precisely the sort of somatization which modern society–the State and Corporation and most political isms– has fostered among contemporary populations; a kind of feel-good trance state self-absorption that requires, on the part of the individual, constant numbing consumption and denial to sustain. I cannot afford that. Nor do I choose it. Also, my sobriety is contingent upon an ability to empathize with and respond actively to life, meaning other human beings. How can I experience your suffering and turn away indifferently? But if I embrace it at some level, even only as a writer, and convey it, then somehow I have served a purpose. It has not been lost. It will somehow matter. It will not be completely swallowed up. I may not be able to directly counter all such suffering. But I can at least use my gifts as writer and witness to be sure that some of what I have seen is not forgotten.

Continue reading

A Reason to Smile by Alan Kaufman

Posted in journal updates with tags , , , , , on February 15, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

The esteemed Alan Kaufman closes out our winter issue with A Reason to Smile. This story is an excerpt from Kaufman’s new book, Drunken Angel.

A Reason to Smile is wonderfully pointed criticism of American values, especially care for the poor, mentally ill and homeless. It’s exactly the sort of political, self-aware writing we love.

We visited San Francisco and heard Alan read from Drunken Angel and were suitably impressed. We’re so proud to present his work on Junk.

Later this month we’ll sit down with Alan to discuss writing and recovery.

Goodnight Sweet Pea by Laurie Woodum

Posted in books with tags , , on February 9, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

Junk contributor (junkie? junketeer?) Laurie Woodum has recently published her first memoir, Goodnight Sweet Pea.

From Laurie on Goodnight Sweet Pea:

Determined that her mother will die in her own home, a daughter faces floundering as an inexperienced caregiver, job loss, a strained marriage, and restricted freedom. And she discovers the unexpected beauty and humor along a path paved by dementia and lined with the deeper rhythms of life. Goodnight Sweet Pea: Falling in Love with My Mother–A book about loving and letting go.

Congratulations Laurie!

February is going to be a great month for us. We have another author interview from esteemed author Alan Kaufman, as well as an excerpt from his latest work, Drunken Angel.

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