Zibby Owens: I’m thrilled to be here today with Dan Peres who’s the author of As Needed for Pain: A Memoir of Addiction. As the former editor-in-chief of Details magazine for fifteen years, Dan won two ASME Awards. Prior to Details, Dan spent nine years at W magazine, including as the European editor for three years. He currently lives in New York with his three sons.

Welcome, Dan. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Dan Peres: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I loved your book. I couldn’t wait to read it when I saw it, as I told you, As Needed for Pain: A Memoir of Addiction. Thank you for sharing it with me and talking about it today. I’m so excited.

Dan: Thanks. I’m excited too. It’s amazing that it’s here and that it’s done. It’s been a really interesting process.

Zibby: Tell listeners what it’s about.

Dan: As Needed for Pain is about my struggle with a massive addiction to opiates, prescription painkillers. The major part of my addiction, which lasted for about seven years, overlapped with my time as being the editor-in-chief of Details magazine, which closed in 2015 but was published by Condé Nast. I had this really great and exciting job in media that had me visible to the world and interacting with lots of people, but I had a huge secret. I was a drug addict.

Zibby: One of the things that I found so interesting is your ability to hide in plain sight with this addiction. If you’re an alcoholic — not to compare different addictions, but I feel like there’s some things where it would be much harder to disguise. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know.

Dan: I don’t think you’re wrong. First of all, yes, I was a “high-functioning addict,” but I was also a hot mess and a train wreck. In the beginning, I was able to mask it with some measure of ease. As the addiction progressed, as my need to swallow more and more pills grew, I would imagine that my ability to hide from everyone what I was doing — I think some cracks started to show. There’s no question about it. So much of being an addict is being a conman, in my case. I was running this con and lying to everyone, myself also, most definitely. It was a juggling act.

Zibby: The scene on the roof with Mike Tyson, by the way, was one of my favorite moments in that you were trying so hard, but physically you couldn’t help it anymore.

Dan: I couldn’t do it.

Zibby: Your body just couldn’t hide it.

Dan: That Mike Tyson chapter is actually one of my, if not my favorite chapter in the book. It’s this hot September day. I’m up there meeting him on the roof of this building because he’s going to do something with the magazine. I had just swallowed a handful of pills, I think maybe Vicodin at the time. They started to hit me. I was wearing a heavier suit than I should have been wearing. It was oppressively hot. We’re on the roof of a building staring up at these pigeons that he kept on the roof of the building. It just came over me like a wave. I literally was scared I was going to fall off of that roof.

Zibby: Is this one of the scenes when you look back — at the time, was this like a warning to you? Or was it just part of the process?

Dan: You got it. There were no real profound moments. There were few, but you’d be surprised how few there were where I said to myself, hey, there’s something wrong with you. I knew deep down that I was a drug addict. I knew that I couldn’t stop taking the pills. Of course I knew that it could kill me, but none of that stopped me. None of that permeated my everyday thinking. For me, my everyday thinking was dominated really just by one thing, which was pills, taking them, counting them, getting more of them, and not running out because running out was awful. It was like being tied to train tracks. The day of my Tyson episode was just another day. That’s how bad it had gotten.

Zibby: Wow. In the book, you wrote about your fear of withdrawal, what you’re saying, the running out. I’ll just read that quote. You said, “I’m not sure which is worse, going through withdrawal or the fear of going through withdrawal. The anxiety is crippling. It’s like a scene from a horror movie. You are hiding under the bed. The boogeyman enters the room and slowly stalks around. You hold your breath. You see his feet as he goes past. You hope and pray that he doesn’t find you. And just when you think he might be gone, he takes you out by your ankles and slaughters you.” That is intense.

Dan: It is. I just felt that for a second as you read that. Listen, the anxiety of anything is not great. I took my kids to get flu shots a couple months ago. One of my three sons was getting himself so worked up over the idea of the flu shot. I see it unfolding in different ways around me, the way that anxiety can change everything. In the case of withdrawal and the onset of those acute physical effects or symptoms, those alone are incredibly powerful. Your whole body starts to ache. You are nauseous and crampy. You can’t sleep. You’re hot. Then all of a sudden, you’re freezing. It’s absolute misery. The anticipation of that was just as bad for me because I had gone through it so many times that when I knew that it was coming, I would just panic. I would do everything that I could to get more pills. I would call and try to go see new doctors. I would go to an emergency room and pretend to have excruciating back pain. You would do anything. I would get down on my hands and knees and search the carpet for pills that may have dropped over the past however long. I would search the suit pockets of my clothing and inside drawers because the fear of it coming was like the fear of some nightmare creature from your childhood. In this case, I write about the boogeyman.

Zibby: I was struck also by how many pills you needed to fuel this addiction. That’s an insane amount of pills. You were taking like dozens and dozens and dozens every day.

Dan: I was. First of all, it’s a miracle that I’m alive, and I know that. I got sober in 2007. Still, every day I’m grateful for the fact that I’m alive today because it truly is just a blessing. It’s a gift. Yes, I was taking massive amounts of pills. As I write in the book, initially I was taking what is called extra-strength Vicodin or Vicodin ES, which is essentially the active ingredient, which is hydrocodone, which is the opiate. It’s married with, basically, extra-strength Tylenol. I was essentially taking sixty extra-strength Tylenol a day. I mean, it’s just remarkable. That alone, forgetting even the opiates that are attached to that, should have killed me. The disease works in different ways for different people. I’ve known people over the years who had what I’ll call a low-grade addiction, maybe needed seven or eight pills a day. In my case, I was taking fifteen at a time four times a day, every four hours.

Zibby: It’s mind blowing.

Dan: I know. It’s crazy. It’s crazy. I can look back on it now with a smile on my face. I can look back on it now and kind of be like, oh, my god, that was nuts, but I don’t minimize what I went through and what other people are going through. Not only is it an insane amount of anything to put into your system, but it’s also a very difficult amount to keep around. So I had to get crafty. In some instances, I got very lucky. I would find ways to get these pills.

Zibby: One thing when I read any books about addiction or I hear any stories, I always want to know, how did this happen? How did this guy — was it something in his childhood? Was he always destined to be addicted to something? Was it just happenstance? What factors play into it? Could you have seen it coming? That’s why I thought it was so great because you wrote a lot about your childhood and feeling a little bit on the outside of things and a little awkward, not that that makes somebody likely to be a opioid addict later in life, but just how even you doing magic alone in a bathroom during a bar mitzvah and getting caught by people hooking up and all those scenes. Then it was just a random cartwheel you did.

Dan: Listen, no cartwheel a grown man does is random. It’s a bizarre thing. You make some really great points. A couple things. One, it’s really impossible for me to know whether or not I was destined to become an addict, whether or not there’s some sort of genetic — I believe that this is a disease. There’s no question about it. I want to be really clear about that. I just don’t know what did it. I wrote a lot about my childhood so that I could contextualize what I think were the things that helped lead to this, including never really feeling like one of the guys and always feeling a little bit like an outsider. As I write in the book, I feel like everyone had been given a manual on how to do it, boys and girls, and men and women. “This is how you do it. This is your blueprint for life.” I didn’t get one. I never really had a sense of belonging. I escaped through magic. It was a real huge escape for me. I loved to do magic tricks and to watch magic shows and to learn magic tricks. While my brother, who was incredibly, incredibly popular, was out and about doing things, and the captain of the Lacrosse team, and doing all of these things, I was alone in my childhood basement pretending to be David Copperfield and doing magic tricks, also teaching myself to juggle. But who knows? In my case though, to circle back to your question, yeah, I hurt myself, which is super common, not the way I hurt myself, which was doing a cartwheel to try to impress a woman whom I didn’t even know.

Zibby: In the marble lobby of an office building.

Dan: In the marble lobby of an office building in Lower Manhattan. I came crashing down — surely, I made a great impression — and ultimately needed to have back surgery. Now, this is incredibly common. These drugs are prescribed. I think this has changed a little bit. This was in the late nineties. The pharmaceutical companies, not that we need to spend a lot of time on this, but they had spent hundreds of millions of dollars marketing these drugs to the medical community and falsely minimized the risk of addiction. Doctors were prescribing these drugs very freely, so it’s not uncommon to hear about people that had some kind of injury and ultimately become addicted to drugs like this.

Zibby: My brother actually is a producer. He did a movie called Ben is Back with Julia Roberts. Lucas Hedges plays a character in the role who literally had one small surgery and then it becomes — it’s exactly what you’re saying.

Dan: That’s all it takes.

Zibby: That’s all it takes. There’s a scene where she confronts the family of the doctor and was like, “This is your fault. You ruined our whole lives.” It’s really powerful. It’s just one misstep in life. It’s one little thing, and then your life goes off on a whole different tangent.

Dan: It’s one cartwheel gone wrong.

Zibby: Right? I know. It’s just crazy.

Dan: Now here we are. I will say this. I have very few regrets. I’m incredibly grateful. I really believe that this was my path. That may seem a little hokey or new age-y, but I’m here today. I’m talking to you. I’ve had the opportunity to write this book. I’m a dad. I’m here because of all of this. There’s nothing I would go back and change, including the cartwheel, I think.

Zibby: You also talked a lot in the book about your relationship with food, which I feel like is more rare from — not to be gender stereotyping.

Dan: It’s a little more rare.

Zibby: It’s a little more rare. So beautifully, the way you talked about tracking all the things that you would eat and how terribly you were treating your body in terms of the types of food, the amounts of food, how you then felt about your body, your clothes feeling tight, and your abuse of yet another substance along the way.

Dan: In many ways, that’s exactly what it was. I think as a child I struggled with — maybe not as a child, but as a teenager I struggled with my body. I was not overweight, but I was surrounded this group of guys, friends, and I mentioned my brother, who were athletes. They were in terrific shape. I remember quite vividly one weekend, a group of friends, and I was included in this group, decided, let’s see if we can make a little bit of money washing cars. There were maybe four or five of us. Everyone but me had their shirt off. I just never felt comfortable taking my shirt off. Ultimately, years later when I developed this addiction, I started to eat in very unusual and unhealthy ways. First of all, I was convinced that if I ate before I took the pills it would minimize their effect. I wanted a maximum impact with respect to the high that I was getting. It was almost like intermittent fasting in some ways. I was like, you know what? If I’m going to take these pills in an hour and a half, then I should probably not eat now because I don’t want to have a full stomach.

By the time I would take the pills, the high would kind of roll over me, I would be starving. I would eat lots of bagels with tons of carbo loading. I was eating bagel on bagel on bagel on bagel. I was eating ice cream by the pint. I was eating tons of candy and Twizzlers and things like that, Pop-Tarts, which I don’t think I wrote about in the book. I was eating lots of Pop-Tarts. It was unbelievably unhealthy. As I write in the book, that alone should’ve killed me, forgetting even the drugs. I started to get heavy and self-conscious about that and not feeling comfortable about that. Being in a job that had me, I don’t want to overstate this, but a somewhat public-facing job certainly within the media world, it was tough. I was feeding lots of things into my body. All of them were unhealthy. I was also smoking a ton of cigarettes at the time. It was bad.

Zibby: Wow. Tell me about the book part of this whole journey. When did you decide that you wanted to share this whole experience? How did this book come to be? What was the process like? Was it really emotional? Take me through the whole thing.

Dan: Once I started to have a little bit of sobriety time, I was able to — if anyone’s ever been to a meeting of a twelve-step program or any kind of group meeting where people are coming together to help each other deal with a common issue, it doesn’t have to be a twelve-step program, you find that the stories that you hear as you go around the room are tragic and heartbreaking but also sometimes really funny and relatable. I started to realize that I had stories to tell. My initial thinking about the book was rooted in that Mike Tyson chapter because to me it embodied everything that had happened to me. I started talking about it a little bit with friends that had written books. I hadn’t openly disclosed my status as an addict in recovery. I was still working at Condé Nast. To people that I knew well and trusted, I was talking to them about it. I had one friend who became my agent who is a man named Bill Clegg who has also written about his struggle with addiction.

Zibby: He wrote an amazing book. That was a great book.

Dan: Yeah, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, it was a really wonderful book. Bill was a friend. I started talking to him about it. He’s like, “Put pen to paper.” This is what people say. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about writing a book.” Really, the only thing that you can say to someone when they say to you is, “Write. You have to start writing. That’s awesome. Write.” Essentially, that’s what Bill had said to me. I didn’t, but I’d been thinking about it. Then I was away on a trip. I was actually in Tel Aviv. I saw something that trigged a very powerful childhood memory. I was like, you know what? I need to start writing. I just started for myself initially and sent a couple of what turned out to be chapters to Bill. He said, “Hey listen, I think there’s something here. Keep going.” The writing process itself is excruciating, as I know you know. It was cathartic and challenging and fun and awful all wrapped into one. I remember many years ago seeing a 60 Minutes interview with Paul Simon. I think it was the late, great Ed Bradley doing the interview. He was talking to Paul Simon about his process when writing a new song. If memory serves, and I hope I’m not getting this wrong, Paul Simon talked about bouncing a ball — maybe it was a rubber ball; maybe it was a tennis ball; I don’t know that it matters — just off the wall, bouncing it, catching it, bouncing it, catching it, bouncing it, catching it. This was part of his process. I remember that striking me as being so weird. I now completely understand that.

For me, the writing process was a lot of making the kids’ beds and doing the laundry and cooking for my kids. My house was spotless because I was constantly just moving around cleaning. So much of the writing process for me had nothing to do with writing. It was just turning it over in my head figuring out, what’s the best way to tell this story? and to really make sure that I was being honest. By that I don’t mean not lying, but am I telling this in the truest sense possible? and trying to understand, what was motivating me here? What was I really thinking? What did this mean? There’s a part in the book where I go to an addiction specialist, Dr. Ron. I was weepy. I was tired. I was done. I was basically at his mercy. I was essentially begging him to help me. He was incredibly kind and did all that he could to help me. When I look at it now and when I looked at it as I was writing, I wonder, was I just trying to con him because I was out of drugs and he was going to give me something to help mitigate the withdrawal symptoms until I could get more drugs? If I’m being really honest, I think maybe that’s what it was. I know that I wanted to stop. I know that I needed to stop, for sure. I knew that I was slowly dying, that I was slowly killing myself, but addiction is really powerful. I wanted to keep going also. I had to search for these truths through this process. Writing is hard. I’ve had a lot of friends who have published books over the years. I consulted many of them during this process. Pretty much all of them said the same thing, which was, “Sit down and write.” That’s easier said than done.

Zibby: I’m sure you’re right about that. Having gotten this out there, I know you said you have no regrets about anything. Do you feel like it’s out there to help other people? Was your motivation like, I want to get my story out there to heal myself? Or is it, I want to help other people who might be struggling? Or I want to help people who love people who are struggling? Or all of it?

Dan: I think it’s a little bit of all of it. The idea of helping people in the way that I was helped by reading other people’s accounts of their own attempts to get sober and ultimate recoveries was incredibly important to me. If I can show that there’s hope, if I can show that all is not lost, that there’s a way through this, then that’s great. That’s number-one priority. I also wanted to just tell the story. I think I had entertaining stories to tell. I tried to make the book lighter. This is a very heavy subject. I think that there are parts of the book that can feel heavy, but I also tried to bring lightness and humor and a levity to it because that’s who I am. My editor at HarperCollins said to me, “God, you know, your mom comes off as a stereotypical Jewish mom. Should you maybe contextualize her a little bit?” I’m like, “Hey, guess what? My mom is a stereotypical Jewish mom.” Showing little elements of what my life was like and trying to bring some humor and levity to such a profoundly serious subject was important to me. I also enjoy storytelling and wanted to just try my hand at it.

Zibby: What’s coming next? Do you have another book that’s brewing in you? Are you doing, still, editing full time on a daily basis?

Dan: Not right now, no. I’m doing some consulting. I’ll likely end up back in a regular editing position. I absolutely want to write again. I miss it. I’ve started making some notes and some ideas. We’ll see. There’s a couple of things that I’m playing with. I’d like to stay in the nonfiction/memoir genre or area, but I’m most definitely interested in writing again. I obviously am a man. I’ve never had children. I’ve never birthed children. I have three children, but I certainly didn’t carry them. I’ve heard over the years, women that have gone through pregnancies say, “The hell of childbirth, I’m never doing that again.” Then a year later or however long later, the same women are like, “Of course I want to have more kids.” For me, the writing of the book was really intense and brutal at times and awful at times. I was pulling what little hair I have left out of my head. Now on the other side of that, I can say to you, yeah, my god, I absolutely want to do that again. It was incredible and amazing. I’m really excited about this.

Zibby: As a reader, I didn’t want it to end. What next? What happened next? I will be eagerly waiting for part two, if that ever comes.

Dan: I think it might come. I will say though, because you’re right, the book ends when I have ninety-two days of sobriety and my oldest son is born. I will say, and I think it’s important to say that this is a — sobriety and recovery are hard. It is a day at a time, as the trite and cliched saying goes. I have been sober since then. It has been a lot of work. I have had an extraordinary support network blossom around me. People that I never thought I would connect with, I have really beautiful friendships with. Addiction is awful, opiate addiction specifically, but all forms of addiction. It is the great equalizer. If I can get to me, New York media executive, if it can wipe out towns in the Rust Belt and everyone between, it is brutal and merciless. It knows no bounds. It’s important for me to say that I am doing it a day at a time for the last twelve-plus years. There is hope. There is a light at the end of the tunnel for people that want to stop and reclaim their lives.

Zibby: I just want to throw out this great company I know of called WEconnect which really helps with the recovery process and helping people maintain their sobriety. It’s a really fantastic app. If anyone wants more help, look into WEconnect.

Dan: That’s wonderful. I think where we have to go now is focusing more on recovery, more on education. It’s one thing to try to stop the boom of these drugs, to slow that down. That’s starting to happen, I think. There have been some fairly high-profile settlements coming from Johnson & Johnson, Purdue, and others. The real focus needs to be on education and recovery and providing treatment options and recovery options for people. I had the good fortune of being in New York City. I also had the good fortune of being able to afford whatever I needed. That’s not the case for most of this country. I don’t know WEconnect, but based on the description — or any other place, things that can help people connect to other people in recovery is incredibly, incredibly, important. It’s one thing to stop doing something, in my case, taking pills. It’s another thing to stay stopped. Connections with other people that are going through the same thing will really help you stay stopped.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Dan, thank you so much for sharing your story, for this amazing book, and for coming on the show.

Dan: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Of course. My pleasure.