Of the four quotations on the opening page of Robyn Flemming’s forthcoming book Skinful: A Memoir of Addiction, the one by Joseph Campbell moved me most: ‘Your life is the fruit of your own doing.’ Had I asked myself at 15 where I’d be 40 years later, it certainly wouldn’t be in a small village in southwestern Hungary weathering a pandemic. But then again, at 15, I hadn’t experienced the vagaries of life.
My plan – to be a teacher, marry a teacher, have two kids (a boy, Tadhg, and a girl, Maude), drive a blue Volkswagen Beetle, and live in a dormer bungalow in Wicklow – was an out-of-the-box plan, designed by tradition and norms. That nothing came of it is no great disappointment. Instead, it’s given me a healthy curiosity about other people’s lives and their teenage vision of themselves approaching middle-age. I’m drawn to people who have gone in search of themselves only to find that, as John Schaar said:
The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and their destination.
Not yet at the opening chapter of Skinful, I was already lost to reverie.
Our paths crossed when Flemming lived in Budapest. She was part of the ebb and flow of people in and out of expat life. Anchored in Budapest between trips to other places, other countries, hers was a life I envied a little. Yes, I’ve travelled to and lived in other countries, but my stays for the most part were of short duration and not nearly as far-reaching. It helps that she’s Australian with relatively easy access to the antipodean world that has so far eluded me. I’ve made two attempts, failing both times. Third time lucky perhaps?
While in Budapest, Flemming belonged to the body of expats who get involved in their communities. We had that in common. Regular readers might remember me writing about the Dog’s Breakfast Group that she set up. In previous lives, both of us were production editors in the publishing world. Our birthdays are two days apart. We both enjoyed a cigarette and a drink. We both were old hands at fashioning new lives after moves based on nothing more than a gut feeling. But while my few months off “the drinking carousel” under tutelage in Alaska pulled me back from the abyss, Flemming fell in.
Skinful: A Memoir of Addiction is a moving account of one woman’s realisation that alcohol had taken control of her life. She asks questions that I’ve asked myself:
Was I a fit and focused woman who’d just had a teensy bit too much to drink, or was I simply a drunk?
Did normal people hide themselves away each night, wanting to be alone in order to wallow in loneliness?
Doesn’t anyone else on my floor drink? Just how conspicuous is my consumption going to be?
Her recognition that she had a tendency to change her location instead of herself makes for a fascinating account of her time in Hong Kong, her visits to Kathmandu, New York, Sri Lanka, Bali, Borneo… As I read, I found myself wondering about the Liams, the Toms, the Brisbane guys that had passed through my life, too. Her road trip in New Zealand with a guy she’d met through a runners’ chat group and got to know online brought back excruciating memories of a road trip I’d taken on America’s East Coast with a guy from the UK I’d corresponded with for months. I felt her pain.
It was then that I recognised Flemming’s ability not just to tell a story but to reflect the story of the reader in her writing. Undoubtedly she writes of her life, her angst, her struggle with addiction, and it is her story. But within the questions, the reflections, the accounts of her struggle is a mirror that the reader can’t help but see.
Threaded through the story are references to major events such as the Hillsborough disaster, 9/11, the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Asia. Being of an age, although living completely different lives in different places, these create a parallel of sorts, a track down which both our lives run either side. This level of relating to an author and their story is special. I don’t know Flemming well. We’ve met in person a couple of times at most and messaged occasionally on social media. And yet, reading her book, I find myself interjecting with comments and observations as if chatting with her in person.
Taking up running in an attempt “to use a positive addiction to keep a negative one in check” led her to ask the question whether “all [her] addictions [were] just different manifestations of the same thing – an attempt to fill the empty space inside of [her]”. And yet running seems to have opened up a world of camaraderie and friendship. Her membership in the Dead Runners Society, a worldwide online running club, means she knows people everywhere she goes and can call upon other members to run with her in new places. Hers is an enviable support network.
I closed the book, ended my journey, having made note of additions I’d need to make to my bucket list, such as walking the Kokoda Track in New Guinea and attending the Anzac Day remembrance services at Gallipoli, in Turkey.
From 2009, Flemming has been a digital nomad. Selling up, detaching herself from a physical home, she travels and works and works while travelling. She has been living an alcohol-free life since August 2011. Skinful took six years to write and is a heartfelt, honest account of her struggle with addiction. If you came in contact with her during her time in Budapest however tangentially, think of the book as a series of conversations over coffee. If you like reading of lives lived in foreign places, or if you think you may be having one more drink a time too often, Skinful is worth a read. Honest, poignant, and real, it is the fruit of Flemming’s own doing.
To be published by Booktopia Publishing in January 2022. Check her out at https://www.facebook.com/robynflemmingauthor and www.robynflemmingauthor.com