February 23, 2015

Kevin Sessums

Walking the path to acceptance and surrender
Quirky and raw, Kevin Sessums’ new memoir, I Left It on the Mountain, has all my favorite survival themes, plus cameos from Hugh Jackman and Courtney Love.
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I love reviewing memoirs for BookPage. I read them all: memoirs about surviving dysfunctional families, surviving addiction, surviving in the wilderness—as well as the odd celebrity tell-all (surviving fame?). So I was especially excited for Kevin Sessums' I Left It On the Mountain, the follow-up to his best-selling 2007 memoir Mississippi Sissy. Quirky and raw, Sessums’ new memoir has all my favorite survival themes, plus cameos from Hugh Jackman and Courtney Love. I adored I Left It On The Mountain and, after reviewing the book, I posed a few follow-up questions to Sessums, which he thoughtfully answered for BookPage.

Walking as a healing practice structures much of your book: from Jessica Lange’s thoughts on walking, to your own journeys up Mt. Kilimanjaro and along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Why is walking emotionally and spiritually healing, do you think? Do you continue to walk now?
I have come to believe in the power of walking meditation. I'm not sure why it works for me. I just know there comes a moment on any long walk when the landscape through which you're walking combines with some sort of interior one and you feel connected with the world and not of it at the same time. All truths are finally incongruous, aren't they? So it is in that moment when I feel more tethered to the earthly world in which we all live and at the same time freed of it. I often tell people that during that walk on the Camino that I have never felt such stillness while at the same time experiencing such forward motion. Life, let's face it, is so often a trudge. We might as well learn how to trust the trudge, I guess. 

"I have found in my recovery that all the impulses that led me to addiction are still there. The difference is that I no longer act on them."

I love the bits of spiritual revelation you get from celebrities like Hugh Jackman, Jessica Lange, Madonna and Courtney Love. Your interviews with them seem to go much deeper than ordinary celebrity journalism. Why do you think this is?
Maybe because I don't sit in judgment of the celebrities. Some people accuse me of writing puff pieces. I tend to think of them as impertinent ones though. I think the people you mention all like a bit of impertinence. Maybe that impertinence on my part opened them up. If I drove a car, this would be my bumper sticker: NEVER JUDGMENTAL, ALWAYS DISCERNING. So discernment plays a part in it as well. 

You talk about the comfort of the “nest” when an interview with a celebrity turns into a real conversation. How do you feel about being interviewed yourself?
I'm much more comfortable posing the questions than forming the answers. I sometimes try to be too pithy in my responses. Was mentioning pithiness too pithy?

One of the most moving images in the book is you as a child safe in bed on a snowy night with your father, mother and two dogs Coco and Chico. How have your dogs now—Archie and Teddy—changed your life?
Archie and Teddy have more than changed my life. They saved it. I love them unconditionally and they have proven to me that I can love another living creature in such a way. I often say I've become the cliché—an old gay man with two small dogs. But there is comfort in clichés. And just on a practical level, since they've entered my life and curl up next to me at night to sleep, I've never had to take another sleeping pill. Dogs have it figured out: All they want is for someone to love them, feed them and deal with their shit. Indeed, if someone from another planet happened here and saw the relationship between dogs and those who care for them they would think that dogs run the planet. Because they do. 

I was struck by your relationship with Brandon, the child you mentored through The Family Center. What has that relationship taught you? How is Brandon doing?
It has taught me some rough lessons about how hard it is too get kids out of generational poverty. But it has also taught me on a personal level the importance of intimacy that has nothing to do with sexuality. Brandon went through a rough patch—that's his story to tell—but we are still in each other's lives 13 years after I first met him when he was seven years old. I love the young man. He's got a beautiful, smart girlfriend and is trying really hard to make his way in the world. I wasn't really there for him during the darkest days of my addiction and I am so grateful that our relationship has remained intact now during my recovery and I can be there again for him when he needs me. He's no longer a child so it's a bit different. I can be a bit tougher in my advice now.

How does a Methodist make sense of the miracles you experienced on the Camino de Santiago? I’m especially thinking of your visitation by the “Jim Morrison” ghost.
The only way to make sense of them is to give up being a Methodist. That was one of the most surprising aspects of my experience on the Camino. I embarked on that most Catholic of spiritual paths as a Protestant and ended it not as an atheist but as a theist. I no longer call myself a Christian. That is a big step for me—as much a cultural one as a spiritual one. But I tend to live my life in that mysterious space between the "a" and the "t." And in that space there is enough room for a Jim Morrison ghost to appear. It is not about explanations, I've discovered, but acceptance and surrender. That is not only the way I have stayed sober, but the way I . . . well . . . trudge forth in my spiritual journey as well. 

The path to healing and forgiveness does not run smoothly for you. It seems like big visionary moments such as you experience on Kilimanjaro and the Camino de Santiago are followed up by descents into scarier and deeper webs of addiction. How do you understand the “one step forward, three steps back” pace of recovery?
I think I've tried to explain in the book—by quite pointedly giving the devil his due—that we are all combinations of light and dark and, instead of denying all those impulses, we must own them. We must find a way to harmonize them without doing harm. I have found in my recovery that all the impulses that led me to addiction are still there. The difference is that I no longer act on them. But they are still a part of me. Another journalist was asking me a few months ago to try to explain the impulse that makes one an addict. Was it the survivor guilt of being a gay man of a certain age who did not die of AIDS? Was it some sort of other midlife crisis or a manifestation of some sort of deep-seated shame? I tried to explain that I leave the explanations up to others. I simply came to a moment of grace when I didn't need explanations but acceptance and surrender. I am an addict. I don't really need to know why. The need to know why was lifted along with the need to use. 

You take the poet Keats’ letters and poems with you on the Camino and eventually make your own pilgrimage to his resting place in Rome. Why is Keats so resonant for you?
I've always found him a romantic figure, not just a Romantic one. His early death. His own soul searching. And the love his shared with his close friend Joseph Severn I find enticing and alluring.

The visions and hallucinations you experience in the latter phases of addiction are explicitly mystic, and introduce you to Hindu deities like Ganesha, the elephant-headed God, and his mother Parvati. You also experience more frightening, Luciferian visions. This is a question one could write books about, but how do you understand the relationship between mysticism and drug use? Can they be disentangled?
I know this part of the book will trouble some people. Other will perhaps be moved by it. It might be controversial. So be it. Honestly, I thought my editor would insist I cut these sections or tone them down but he allowed me to keep them all in. I hope I have written these sections with the clarity they deserve even without understanding all that happened to me and what I describe myself. I don't know if what I experienced is real, but it certainly is true.
I'll leave it to each reader to discern his or her own truth regarding it. Sorry to repeat myself but I hope they will not be judgmental about these passages but discerning. Some would describe what I went through as part of a drug psychosis. Others would say they were hallucinations. I tend to see them as manifestations. This memoir itself is, in its way, the final manifestation of it all.

Catherine Hollis is a teacher and writer in Oakland, California.

Photo by Matt Edge.


Get the Book

I Left It on the Mountain

I Left It on the Mountain

By Kevin Sessums
St. Martin's
ISBN 9780312598389

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