Jess Keefe, THIRTY-THOUSAND STEPS: A Memoir of Sprinting Toward Life After Loss

Jess Keefe, THIRTY-THOUSAND STEPS: A Memoir of Sprinting Toward Life After Loss

Zibby interviews author Jess Keefe about Thirty-Thousand Steps: A Memoir of Sprinting Toward Life After Loss, a powerful and transformative memoir about grieving the loss of a brother and numbing the pain by training for a marathon. Jess describes her relationship with her younger brother, his drug addiction, and the horror of finding him while he died of an overdose. She also talks about her maddening search for answers (why him?), her decision to start running marathons, and the challenge of putting the entire experience on paper.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jess. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Thirty-Thousand Steps, your absolutely beautiful, amazing, poignant, deep, awesome memoir.

Jess Keefe: Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, your description — can I talk about what happens in the beginning? I feel like it’s pretty open.

Jess: Please, yeah. No spoilers there.

Zibby: No spoiler. I’m so sorry for the loss of your brother. The way that you described how you found him when he overdosed, even navigating getting his body out of the — all of the details, I literally felt like I was sitting next to you with a good friend being like, “Oh, my gosh, this is what happened,” and my being like, “Oh, my gosh,” but then having to just say that to a book. Now I can say it to you. Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe it. Wow.

Jess: Thank you so much. That means a lot to me. It’s a very intense way to kick the story off, but I really felt like it was important to put the readers in my little backpack and bring them along with me just to experience the raw shock and, honestly, horror of what occurred because I think that that sets the tone for the rest of the story and helps put you in my state of mind and what I was feeling and thinking after this occurred and what inspired me to go on the mental, physical, emotional journey I went on after that.

Zibby: Maybe we should just share with the listeners, the general circumstances surrounding his death and how old you both were and where you were living at the time and why you were roommates and all that.

Jess: The book tells the story of myself and my little brother Matt. The story begins in the year 2015. I was twenty-nine. He was twenty-six. We lived together in an apartment in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. We had both broken up with our boyfriends. We were in this silly, messy era of our lives, both of us together. We had a lot of fun. We were just getting through it. The thing that Matt was dealing with that I wasn’t was he had a drug addiction. This had been ongoing for several years. It had gone in peaks and valleys. I think a lot of people who’ve experienced this, either in their families or themselves, know about the ongoing nature of addiction. He really did seem like he was doing a lot better for a while, but it’s a tricky thing. It really only takes one time of a day not going your way for it to be a big problem. It was the fall of 2015. I had been on a date. I was just living my life. I came home. Unfortunately, my brother — we lived in a duplex. He was downstairs. He was overdosing. It was happening live.

A lot of people go through this. It’s terrible. Trigger warning to people. I encourage people to take their time reading it. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me who have lived with this sort of thing before. I want to make sure everyone takes their time. You can skip this part if it’s too much. I really did feel like it was important to root readers in my reality at that time because it’s a situation you never want anybody to ever have to be in. It’s hard to communicate the intensity of it without really putting you there. That’s where the book begins. Unfortunately, my brother — we were just a hair too late. I didn’t know about things about like naloxone, Narcan. These are overdose-reversal drugs that are getting more and more available now. If people are listening who have someone in their life that is using opioids in any regard, you should have it around. I didn’t know. I had no idea. There was so much I didn’t know. That’s what kicks off the rest of the book, which is me looking around at everything that occurred and being like, why him, not me? We were right next to each other. We grew up, we had a lovely — we had resources. We had everything we needed, loving parents and all that. This still happened to him, and it didn’t happen to me. That was that question that really haunted me for a while. It’s something that you can’t really ever fully answer, but I think that there’s a lot of value in exploring the ifs and whys and things like that.

Zibby: Wow. When you trace it all back, the moment where your paths diverged, do you have a pinpoint where you hold it down?

Jess: It’s tough. There’s so many interesting people, intellectuals and professors and thinkers, that talk about this. One of my favorites is Dr. Gabor Maté. He’s sort of a trauma anthropologist. He talks a lot about how our inner worlds are really are own. It sounds so obvious to say that. He often will talk about how two children can be sitting in the same room having the same life, and it feels so different to one than it does to the other. It’s not necessarily bad, scary, or harmful ways. Your brain wants to learn, is what I learned in writing this book. If you learn at a vulnerable time that substances provide relief from something, that is the critical turning point. We all have our crappy coping mechanisms. When I talked about the running in the book — it’s about running too. Getting into running or getting into a healthy activity is usually praised. Wow, good for you. I’m proud of it. I love running. My initial relationship with running with pretty toxic. I was living in a weird place. I was so unhealthy. I think we’ve all got the tendency to latch onto, maybe, a not super helpful coping mechanism when we’re in pain. I think that that is just, unfortunately, sometimes how it plays out with people like my brother. They just are in a bad place. This comes along. They try it. Their brain learns, that helped.

The brain doesn’t learn, oh, then I woke up the next morning and felt awful. I’m feeling alienated from the people around me. The brain doesn’t remember that part. It only remembers the first part, which is, this helps you. It made you feel relief. You should do it again. You should repeat the behavior. That’s kind of how I think about what happened. You could go over it, and I have. You could go over it over and over and look for those moments. You’ll never know. That’s the maddening thing. I definitely went through a period where you kind of become this paranoid, suspicious person. You’re looking around at everything around you, every person around them. Was this it? Was that it? There is no answer. It’s crushing, but it’s also freeing in that way. It’s not anybody’s fault. It wasn’t his fault. I was always looking for some reason in order to be like, this was my fault. It felt easier, almost, if it was able to be like, it was my fault. It was something that happened to us when we were little. That really was not the case. It’s just one of those things.

Zibby: You also did such a nice job of really showing how the wishful thinking of the “beating drugs” community is just like, okay, try harder. Get your head around this. Give it a shot. People in the Catholic church and all the places to turn didn’t have — it’s a physical issue that needs a physical treatment. It’s a disease, really.

Jess: Absolutely. There’s a lot of that with a lot of medical misses in America specifically, but also just in general. There is a temptation to moralize and be like, if you just take this supplement or exercise more or whatever, you’ll heal your chemical problem going on in your body. Addiction is one of the most extreme examples of that. There’s a long history of addiction care being totally divorced from normal health care. Even the issues we have with the health-care system — we all know, but it wasn’t even possible until pretty recently to call up your health insurer and be like, I would like to go to an outpatient program. Can you help me find one that’s in-network? That’s pretty new. It is pretty amazing talking to people now who are in recovery and who are receiving treatment and hearing about their experiences. Just in the eight years since this happened to me, it does sound like a lot has changed. That’s very exciting. It makes me very happy. The degree to which this is unfolding all around us, I think we’re kind of getting to a point where a lot of people are looking around and going, I don’t know if what we’re doing is working.

Zibby: Now talk about the post-overdose moment and the rest of the journey. Tell listeners all about that.

Jess: The rest of the journey of the book follows, as I mentioned, my running journey. I was always an athletic child in a vague way, never a star, but I was always on the team and there. I was definitely present. I was groping around dealing with pretty intense grief, living alone. I moved. I moved from Boston back to New York. I was just going through it and trying to figure out what’s next for me. I had been in a serious relationship. That was over. I had been living with my brother. He had passed away in a very traumatic way. I was really groping around looking for something to help. One day, I just was scrolling on Instagram and saw a promotion for the Brooklyn Half Marathon. I thought, okay, maybe a goal. People had told me, pick something. Just anything. Try to do that. I was like, all right, this is going to be the thing I pick. I picked that. I’d always run in that weird, sad way that you just go out and flail around for three miles and get home exhausted and very red. I guess I did something. This was much different.

Zibby: Have you been spying on me? That’s exactly what running is like for me.

Jess: One hundred percent. You’re looking around like, am I supposed to be doing something different? Is this supposed to feel different? It feels terrible.

Zibby: The red face — I’m going on Zoom. I’m like, how am I going to get this face ?

Jess: I know. Some people run out and get a workout in in the middle of the day. I’m like, I look like I’m going to go into cardiac arrest no matter what. People are like, “Are you okay?” if I have to have a meeting or something after that. This was the most structured — I downloaded training plans. 13.1 miles was a lot to me then.

Zibby: It is a lot. It is a lot, full stop.

Jess: It’s a lot, right? Oh, my gosh, I ran my first full marathon in the spring. I was like, never need to do that again. Not never. I was just like, wow. It’s so intense. This was my first ever. Since then, I’ve actually run ten. I ran my tenth in November. I’ve done ten half marathons since this very first one. The book, I tried to structure it around my process of doing the running training. The thing about running and the thing that’s useful for me about running is that you can kind of let your brain roll around while you go. It would simultaneously feel like this really relaxing state of nothingness. Also, I would really think. I would think about what happened. I would think about my brother. I would think about our life together. That’s the sort of experience I wanted to emulate in the second part of the book, which is me going on these training runs and considering things that happened to my brother, things that happened to me, different elements of what I’ve learned. I got really obsessively reading about addiction, feeling really compelled to understand this thing. I tried to bring in some of the things that I learned that I felt were the most relevant and valuable to the story, so stuff about the D.A.R.E. program. I’ve heard from a lot of people that is very interesting to them as well. Treatment, how substance use disorders are treated, if ever, criminalizations, all kinds of stuff, this was all very interesting to me at the time and continues to be. It’s sort of that onion thing of once you start peeling it, it can really just go and go. There’s a lot to this issue. There’s a lot to this problem. The book then builds towards this race and then follows me of going through the race and then living in the reality of having achieved the goal, and now my brother’s still gone, and “now what?” kind of things. That’s the rest of the story as well.

Zibby: It’s not just the goal of the half marathon. It’s the goal of writing the book too.

Jess: Oh, my gosh, yes.

Zibby: That’s a huge goal too, all these hurdles you’re literally jumping over.

Jess: I know. You know this. Writing memoir is a very particular kind of thing. It was something I resisted for a while. I had been writing about myself and my brother for various online magazines and websites and stuff. I would have people be like, wow, it really sounds like you have enough for a book. Have you thought about doing a book? I would be like, that sounds hard. Guess what? It is. You just become obsessed. You have to kind of get obsessed with delivering and finishing and doing the thing you said you were going to do. It’s your own life, which is sort of uncanny as well. You’re flipping through the photographs on the floor being like, this or this? This or this? It’s true. It’s all true, of course, but I’m just one person. These are just my memories. This isn’t a reported history of what happened to myself and my brother. I joke because I feel like if he were still with us, he’d probably read some of this and be like, girl, what?

When he was alive, he would read my writing all the time. He was always very encouraging. There was a part of me, too, that struggled with that aspect of it as well. I know people say that, but I really do believe that he would want me to do something like this. When you have that energy behind you, it makes it a lot easier to push, push, push. It was a lot of a push. Once I figured out that the story really did involve me and really did involve my life and my feelings and my growth as well, I think that really unlocked the whole thing for me. It was supposed to be a memoir. It was supposed to be told this way. It wasn’t supposed to be essays. It wasn’t supposed to be narrative nonfiction. I feel like the strength that I have as a writer in this book and elsewhere is I try to bring people along with me. I think that there’s so much interesting information out there about drug addiction and about the opioid epidemic. The thing I thought I could contribute that would be unique would be this very specific, very human story of just me as an individual and him as an individual and what happened to us.

Zibby: Yes, and just the impact on the family. It’s one thing to say the opioid epidemic is affecting families left and right. It’s another to be like, here is my brother. Here is my life. Here is my mom and dad. People need to experience things through other people’s eyes, not hear about it in statistics, to really feel moved to do anything about it.

Jess: Absolutely. That’s the thing. This is just one experience. There’s so many different ways that this affects people. There’s so many different types of families having different types of experiences. I feel like being as specific as you can sometimes helps people think about things in a more general way. Instead of writing platitudes about the number of deaths, which is horrible — I think at a certain point, people are almost desensitized to hearing about it. It kind of has a numbing effect because it’s so horrible. It continues to get worse. It feels like nothing we’re doing is working. It was important to me, as well, to tell the story, but also to lean into the fact that just because what we’re doing isn’t working doesn’t mean there aren’t things that would work. There’s so much interesting science and there’s so much interesting research on the things that do make an impact and do make it easier for people to recover and live normal, healthy lives. It doesn’t have to be a death sentence. I think that is definitely something I felt when I was younger when he was first dealing with this. I’m embarrassed by it now. It’s hard to admit. When he was really struggling through it, I was like, this is how he’s going to die. Then he did. You don’t want to be in a place where you feel like you have to put people into a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of thing. There are so many effective treatments. There are so many people that are living the best lives now. There are so many interesting people in recovery who have such cool things to say about their experiences. It really doesn’t have to be this way. It really doesn’t.

Zibby: Totally. Tell me about the writing, which was hard, and all of that. What was the whole path to publication like for you?

Jess: It was stressful. I’m really looking forward to writing another book that’s science fiction. This is the most personal thing I’ve ever done. You got to learn a lot about, what’s feedback that is useful to you? What is feedback that is indicative of people who are not on the same page as you? What is feedback that you can take and work with? What are the people that really want to help you champion the story? What are the people that want to change something fundamental about the way you want to tell the story? Being able to connect with an agent who I feel like really vibed with me on a human level and really understood — voice is very important in memoir. It’s not something that’s negotiable, really. Sometimes it’s hard to understand if someone is giving you direction that is not true to your voice. It’s kind of hard to figure out sometimes. When you find someone who really is on board with your voice and really just wants to make it even more what it is, that was very useful to me. We took it out. You go through the whole process. It was stressful and intense. I describe it as sort of like a video game. You jump to this level. This editor likes it. Then you jump to this next level. They brought it to their boss. They like it. Then you jump to this next level.

I was really pleased with Prometheus, the publishing house that we ended up with. My editor there, Jake, is just a lovely person and I feel like really understood what I was trying to do pretty much right away and gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted to do. He was helping me tweak the nuts and bolts here and there. He was asking important questions. He wasn’t trying to change my story or change the message that I was trying to deliver. That was very great. That was really great. Once we sold it, we were on a fast track. I was busy with it, as I’m sure you know as well. You get the little rush of, ooh, it’s going to be a real thing. How great. You get about thirty seconds to enjoy that. Then it’s like, your first draft is due in three weeks. You’re just sweating and crying and writing alone. You have your people that are there for you, but ultimately, this is your show. It’s your book. You’re responsible. It’s very solitary. I don’t know why I would be surprised by that. After so long of living in it by myself, it’s just a joy now to have it out in the world and having people read it and being able to have conversations like these. It’s so satisfying. If I could go back six months or nine months ago, whatever, and remind that version of me that there’d be this at the end, it would really help.

Zibby: There is light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.

Jess: Totally, yes. Absolutely.

Zibby: Wait, so are you seriously going to write science fiction? What are you thinking for your career?

Jess: It’s funny. I mean, it’s not funny. I would not have written a book like this if it weren’t for the thing that happened. I always wrote essays and stuff about myself and stuff, but I never thought I would write a memoir. I really enjoy comedy. I really enjoy humor. There’s some humor in the book. I hope that comes across. I feel very excited about what’s next because I feel like I poured everything I had into this in the way that it is. Now it’s like, cool, you could write a comedic thriller. You could write something that’s totally fictional and pulls from real life but is not my life sticking everything out there. That’s what makes me excited about what’s next. I’ll always continue to write about drugs and policy and issues like that because it really matters a lot to me. Book-wise, I’m trying to just live a different, totally fantasy life. That would be great.

Zibby: That is awesome. Did you quit your day job, so to speak? Do you have another gig?

Jess: When I was writing the book, too, which was very helpful but also increased the stress level, I did have a full-time job at an addiction advocacy nonprofit. It was very helpful to have the people around me informing my work and helping me understand this issue and being able to work directly on this issue while I was doing this. I was so immersed. Now I’m freelance full time, which is great. I’m still taking on nonprofit and business clients to do professional communications and stuff. I’m able to mix in more of editorial writing and working on book stuff and things like that. It’s satisfying to be at a stage in my life and career where I can feel a little more self-directed. It’s still kind of hustling and grinding, but very excited to be a published author and looking forward to this next section of my career having that achievement under my belt.

Zibby: Congratulations. You are so great at reaching all of these wonderful goals that you set. It’s inspiring. Before we go, I have to see a tattoo. Can I?

Jess: This one?

Zibby: Is that the one that didn’t heal properly?

Jess: Yeah.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. It looks great to me. What do I know?

Jess: Do you remember that TV show — I’m probably dating myself — Pete & Pete on Nickelodeon?

Zibby: No. I’m older than you.

Jess: The little brother, Pete, one of the jokes was that he had a tattoo on his forearm — it was a mermaid. It was named Petunia. He would do this weird movement that would make it dance. I feel like I’m doing that right now, but not on purpose. This is it here. I still have it. As I describe in the book, my brother had a lot of tattoos. I have tattoos. We liked to get tattooed. That was something that we had in common. He had this beautiful, giant thing on his arm, this big, sprawling piece. I got a piece of that as well on my ribs. I’ll keep my clothes on since this is a podcast. It’s nice to be able to do things that I know he would just get a kick out of and enjoy. I’ve had this touched up since then. My artist fixed it for me, so it’s great. Going through that really helped me understand — as a recovering Irish Catholic, there’s a lot of tendency to self-blame for your bad feelings. Even going through grief, it’s like, well, it’s not really that bad. You’re okay, right? It was helpful almost in a weird way to be able to look at this open wound on my body, a tattoo I had gotten the day my brother died, and be like, this isn’t healing. My body, on a molecular level, is going through something right now. I think that showing that physical element of grief was really important to me because I didn’t feel like I really understood or was ready for that. You’ll never be ready, but that physical piece of it was really intense.

Zibby: Wow. Jess, thank you for sharing, baring your soul, sharing everything.

Jess: My pleasure. I probably need to do less of that, but I can’t resist.

Zibby: No, you don’t. I love the way you write. You can’t help but feel so much affection towards you after reading your story. I’m so rooting for you.

Jess: I love that. I love that so much. That’s great.

Zibby: Congratulations. I’m excited to see what you set your sights on next.

Jess: Thank you so much for having me. I love the podcast. It’s such a great way to share awesome, interesting books with such a big audience. I really appreciate what you do. Thank you.

Zibby: Of course. I hope to stay in touch.

Jess: Absolutely. Thank you. Thanks, Zibby. Bye.

Zibby: Have a great day. Bye, Jess.

Jess Keefe, THIRTY-THOUSAND STEPS: A Memoir of Sprinting Toward Life After Loss

THIRTY-THOUSAND STEPS: A Memoir of Sprinting Toward Life After Loss by Jess Keefe

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