Alcoholism and Andy Marsjanik's Mission to Help
After thirty-five years, Andy Marsjanik stopped drinking following a short stay in rehab. He never took another drink. Unfortunately, we have to begin this story by sharing he committed suicide a couple of years later. Before that sad day, he began journaling, and those notes turned into a planned book hoping to help fellow alcoholics, gamblers, and those who are depressed see in the rawest terms what life is like for one who has the disease of alcoholism. Andy did not get to finish this book. His sister, Amy Marsjanik Law, and Jeff Deck, a well-known New Hampshire author, took up the unfinished manuscript, notes, chapter titles and have given us a 3D version of who Andy was and why his story needs telling, to be remembered, and to be passed along. The book's title is We Got This Kids: A Real-Time Glimpse of Alcoholism, Depression, and Loss During a Search for More Sunrises. Amy, Jeff, and I met via Zoom.
BEV: Amy, how did you arrive at the title?
AMY: As it says in the book, it was a turbulent time during us giving notification of what happened and getting to upstate New York so quickly making arrangements for services, having, and planning the services, notifying our family, and then we did indeed have a wake. The funeral was the next day. The night of the wake was just the hardest day of my life. My husband, my son, my daughter's husband, and my brother Mike got together at Andy's house and debriefed the day. We were all in shock. We noticed on his refrigerator a sign that said, "You got this, kid." We knew immediately it was his self-talk, his reminder to himself; you're okay, you got this, keep going, keep persevering. It was such a moment of reflection. I took it down, changed it to We, added an S, and thought we could get through this day. Given that it was such a profound moment for us as the people who loved him, we felt we got this kids. It's what we need to keep in mind going forward.
BEV: It's like a message from him to you.
AMY: That's absolutely what it felt like.
BEV: Jeff, what did you think, as the editor, when you first saw Andy's outline and chapter titles?
JEFF: My first thought was this guy is funny and honest and expressive, and what a shame that this is all we got. He had a lot of his thoughts very eloquently written out, and he had a mission for the memoir overall in terms of structure. He had a bunch of chapter titles for chapters that didn't exist yet. He also had clear goals for what the book would accomplish to reach other people with similar struggles. It hit me pretty quickly; this is something important. I could help in fleshing the story out by adding the gaps in the story he didn't get to finish by talking with his friends and family. If I could help with all that, I would be involved in a very important project that could help people.
BEV: Amy, where does Andy's determination to help come from, and why wouldn't he turn it on himself?
AMY: He was in the process. That's what's so heartbreaking about it. He was in the process of that determination to turn it on himself. The book says and shows he was an alcoholic for three decades. His mission understood that about himself, which he thought would be his biggest platform to help others. He had big plans. He wanted to show his truest raw feelings about the trouble that caused him in his life and how he recognized in hindsight that he wished somebody could help him in the same way he wanted to help others. He told me numerous times while he was in the process of writing his work, that was his goal, his mission. He wanted to showcase what three decades' worth of alcoholism was like so that others could understand. Family members could understand. Therefore, they could get the appropriate help, have the appropriate people around them, and know the support options. He says this in the book. He was excited about the book, A Million Little Pieces. I remember he called me one morning; this was still before he had stopped drinking. He was truly excited about that book. Andy's book is so real and so raw. Nothing is exaggerated. Everything is exactly the way it was for Andy.
BEV: He hated that book.
AMY: He bought the book and immediately started reading it and thought this isn't real. That inspired him to try to help others in a real raw way. (Note: Author James Frey admitted in 2006 that he invented and exaggerated much of the memoir.)
BEV: Why did you choose that picture for the cover?
AMY: That was my choice. One of my best friends took the picture when we were up north visiting Andy. I thought it was important to depict one of the things that Andy loved so much. He had a passion for golf. We had the sunrise behind it, and we wanted to show there are beautiful sunrises every day to be had. We need to look for them.
BEV: Jeff, would you speak about how you and Amy worked together. How did you meet?
JEFF: Amy was connected to me by a mutual friend in the Seacoast who is a writer. He thought we would make a good pair for finishing up Andy's work. The process started with several meetings in-person until the pandemic. Our communication from that point on was over the phone and occasionally through emails and streaming video communication.
BEV: You followed his chapters.
JEFF: Yes, I felt it was important to preserve his original intent and content as much as possible. Having a whole layout just as part of his vision helped us stay in line with what he wanted the book to be. We wanted to extend his mission, carry it on and do it as much as possible in a way that honored what he was going for. We knew we would have to add more context around what Andy was writing. He had his title for the book when he envisioned calling it I Don't Operate Model Trains. That referenced what happens when somebody's major pastime becomes drinking. The metaphor might be taking the original half-built structure of his work, like a building, and then filling parts and places that were missing and building around the original structure rather than knocking the original half-finished building down. We have our title and our context with an introduction and prologue by Amy paired with Andy's prologue that contextualizes Andy's story and tells the parts he wasn't able to get a chance to tell. We started from the beginning, just mentioning the terrible aftereffects of this very temporary decision he made, unlike some other stories of addiction in popular culture. We didn't want to glamorize or present this in any way where it could be shown as an endorsement of death by suicide or the kind of things he hated in A Million Little Pieces. We wanted to show this as this is the full context of Andy and the people who loved him. Not just his life but the effects that radiate out from that. The structure had to help people understand that it would not be a surprise ending. We had to put that right up front.
BEV: Amy, you use the word turbulent when referring to your family. Would you tell me why?
AMY: I gave that a lot of thought before choosing that word. When I look back at our childhood, that word was the best that came to mind. We didn't have a lot of profound issues like abuse or any physical or certainly not any sexual issues in our childhood. But we had a lot of loss and a lot of moving and pivoting in our childhood based on losing our father at a very early age. My parents were already divorced. My mother was married four times and then in a fifth long-term relationship before passing in 2006. We moved and changed schools several times. We were exposed to my mother's husbands and some of her boyfriends. It does create turbulence. It's a lack of consistency. It's frequently pivoting. When I chose that word, I was trying to think of a word showing that turbulence causes a lot of upheaval in a childhood. We had our source of trauma, and it was profound.
BEV: Do you think there is a direct line between his drinking or obsessive behavior?
AMY: I believe it did. His drinking started very early as a coping mechanism because of that turbulence. After that, Andy took on the lead role in our family.
BEV: You have another brother, Mike.
AMY: Correct. Andy was the oldest, then me and then Mike. He stepped into somewhat of a father figure to me and my younger brother at an early age. That type of turbulence and watching my mother in and out of boyfriends and husbands, I think Andy took it upon himself to stabilize our small family as much as possible.
JEFF: We have to be careful with the why's behind addiction and keep in mind it is a disease. There's a lot to do with brain chemistry and sometimes genetic predisposition. Somebody might have their first drink at a young age, but I feel it could be troublesome to say addition stems from this thing in their life. It almost becomes, oh, that makes sense now. You can view it in a punitive context. When people are in the grip of something, it becomes a chemical state in their brain. It's hard to say this is the consequence of X. I feel there are still many things that science doesn't understand or have nailed down about the chemistry of addiction.
AMY: I agree with what Jeff said. That is an important point to make. Andy is the only person who could answer that, but it's multi-factorial. I don't think anybody can point out the exact reason because it is so multi-factorial. The important thing is not to look at the source but recognize the ways of helping to recognize it and try to help treat it.
BEV: Jeff, I loved that you were "The Editor." You were unnamed in the book. Why did you choose to do it that way?
JEFF: I felt like I didn't want to intrude on a family story. It was inevitable I would be involved in the storytelling just because of the role I was taking in dealing with what Andy had left behind. To try and make sense of certain fragments, put everything in the right place, and bring in the voices of family and friends, I wanted to play the role of facilitator rather than an author. I didn't need to be a character in the book. To some extent, I still end up as one of the interpreters of what Andy is saying in the footnotes. To step into the family situation for someone I never personally knew and only got to know through his words, I felt like I needed to draw a line and separate myself into the role I was playing.
BEV: Amy, would you describe Andy for us. Who was he?
AMY: Andy was my big brother. He was somebody I loved being around. He always took on this helpful persona to me and my younger brother as we were growing up. I remember during that turbulence this sense of comfort when I would think of Andy. He seemed rock solid and stable and so kind and funny even during our childhood. As we got older, Andy was voted funniest in his class when he graduated from high school. He used humor as a way to make people feel better about themselves. As we got older, that sense of humor drew people to him coupled with kindness. He had a group of about seven friends in high school he was very close with and remained close with up until he passed. I remember having conversations with some of them during Andy's recovery and how they felt about him. Every single one of them said he was so accommodating to others. He genuinely cared about how you felt and how you perceived yourself. Andy was always right there to step in and help out. He was also well-liked by his community as he was well known for his kindness and accommodations to everybody. The humor part can't be understated. He was rooting for you; he was on your side whether you were a client, a friend, or a sibling.
BEV: I laughed out loud a couple of times. My favorite chapter is about his work as an appraiser describing room measuring and annoying clients.
AMY: He used to call them helpers. He was so kind. They had a way of helping him, and he respected that. He would simply call them helpers. That also depicts who he was.
BEV: Jeff, would you give me the purpose of the book and then Amy. Why the book?
JEFF: For me, the purpose of the book is to share the story of an ordinary person going through ordinary struggles that so many people will be able to relate to and hopefully help other people.
AMY: This is an ordinary person going through ordinary struggles with ordinary capabilities of dealing with them. I want to showcase Andy's mission to be carried forward, which is the book's primary purpose of helping others and helping them relate. Unfortunately, I need to take it a step further. Andy didn't get to carry that through his initial work of writing down how he feels, so raw and real as a means to helping others. My purpose then is to pick up where Andy left off. Andy dying by suicide was a mistake. He didn't want to do that. His mind was under siege. It's important to know it was a brief second in time. As we show in the book, could we have prevented that? Alcoholism and mental illness are a disease. Maybe sharing our family's story with others, if it helps one person, then I feel like Andy's work will be followed through. It's very difficult to share that, but it's so important because it shouldn't have happened. Andy should be here talking to you about his book, not me.
BEV: Jeff, please explain the footnotes reference numbers used throughout the book.
JEFF: The main reason for it being footnotes, and stepping into the role of the editor, was so Amy and I, as well as others, could comment on his content without disrupting it. We could have a conversation with the stories he was telling without jumping right into the paragraph with him. It was another means to preserve that half-finished building as much as we could while at the same time filling out as much of the things we could that may not be immediately clear. One of our main goals was to clarify that this not be a difficult or arcane book for people to pick up. They can understand everything Andy was talking about. Andy probably thought some of these references weren't as obscure as they were. Everybody knows Alfie Zappacosta or talk about how many miles the moon is from the earth. He was a very well-read guy. One of the purposes of the references is to contextualize some of the things he was saying to add simple explainers and include comments from Amy reacting to his content as if you, as the reader, are sitting by her side reading through his book.
AMY: When Jeff and I first started this, and he identified some of those reference points, I thought it was brilliant when Jeff proposed the idea. I loved the idea of making sure those footnotes were captured. I haven't seen that type of book before where the footnotes help tell the story in such a way this did. But, importantly, it helped shape who he was and how he thought and felt.
BEV: Andy was the working Andy, the sports Andy, the funny Andy, the brother Andy, the drinking and depressed Andy. There are so many things going on in his life.
AMY: Andy loved sports. A big part of our childhood was watching sports. Andy started playing golf when he was a teenager and just took to it. One of his best friend's father owned a driving range and miniature golf course near where we lived, and it was my first summer job, too. Andy worked at the range and was able to hone his skills. He recognized he was good and wanted to perfect his game and play as often as possible. A lot of his weekends were spent playing golf. He also was a big Buffalo Bills fan. What's so sad about that is he was a fan and rooted for them for decades. He was loyal to the teams he rooted for, even though they didn't perform at the level he was hoping for. He spent a lot of his time watching sports on TV, playing sports, and mostly golfing every chance he got.
BEV: Amy, would you describe Andy's A, B, C options as he saw them.
AMY: Option A was taking his life. However, throughout every part of the book, option A was not an option for him. He quickly came to a determination that A was not an option. Option B was just saying this is who I am. This is the life I've led, and I don't know if I have it in me to try very hard to give up alcoholism. He describes maybe moving to a different area, maintaining a low profile, not working, and just living out the life he had lived for so long, not knowing how long his body and mind could take that punishing drinking every day.
JEFF: This is another form of suicide. A slower form than in option A, but another version of it.
AMY: It's clear in the book that he also ruled that out. He defined option C as, for the first time in his life, being able to not only try to stop drinking but get a handle on the why and how to stop. He goes into great detail about option C in terms of defining what that looks like and predicting what could happen, and addressing the here and now, day by day, concluding that this is absolutely what he is choosing and how he is going to do it. He started to write the book and journal his thoughts. When I read it, it is in real-time that he is sorting through his feelings, and he's defining that for himself.
BEV: Alcoholism, depression, and a gambling problem. How do you deal with this?
JEFF: It is a disease. While we can't pin down the causes or look at our life and coping mechanisms, we may be able to see where it started in hindsight. It's hard to understand the disease process. In the way of dealing with that in my mind for many years, it wasn't to understand his disease in terms of what we couldn't do about it, which is go back in time. It was trying to understand his disease by what we can do about it, to seek treatment. Do genetics play a role?
Regarding brain chemistry, does one addiction or affliction lead to the other? Are they intertwined? He would not go to rehab until 2017. During the short time he was there, he learned a lot about that. Unfortunately, it was such a short stint, and he was beginning to learn about the affliction of those diseases.
BEV: A week after Andy went into rehab, the unionized workers were going on strike, and Andy would have to go across country to another facility or be discharged. They must have known they might have to close that facility, yet they're still signing up patients. It seems like they should have said something.
AMY: I can't answer that. I spent a lot of time just giving the benefit of the doubt and hoping for the best. I know often, negotiations are had until the very last second. I know they didn't want that either. Even during his week there, he never did have another drop to drink after that point on.
JEFF: I feel with dealing with all these different issues, one thing in common in terms of solutions or treatment is community. There's a reason these issues end up with similar structures for people to get together and talk and remove the stigma and deal with the issues head-on. There's Alcoholics Anonymous. There's Gambler's Anonymous. Narcotics Anonymous. When dealing with mental wellness issues, you shouldn't try to tackle them all by yourself, even talking to one other person or therapist will help. We can view all of these as separate issues that pile on top of each other. There is a commonality in the first step toward confronting and dealing with these, and that is by connecting with other people, or professionals and connecting with people who are going through similar things. If you keep yourself in isolation, it will be so much harder to try and deal with and overcome by yourself.
AMY: Andy's time in rehab was the first time he had any exposure to others going through the same thing. He had spent much of his life working alone, living alone. While he didn't ever get that commonality, like Jeff said, recognizing there are other options available than just your take on what recovery looks like. He opened his mind during that time in rehab. It opened his mind to recognize the strategies deployed during that time in rehab and resonated with Andy.
BEV: Do you want to talk about Megan? He was engaged to her, and she broke it off.
AMY: The book says everything that needs to be shared, and out of respect to her, I'll leave it to what she shares in the book. She was very honest and open, and we respected her decision. We welcomed and were excited about her being part of our family. We were so sad when that didn't come to fruition. It was yet another loss. I'm grateful she was willing to share her thoughts on Andy and the entire process. We have a huge amount of respect for her sharing.
JEFF: Hearing from her and her voice enriches our understanding of that important facet of Andy's life. It was very generous of her to participate in the book.
BEV: The book shows what happens to the people you leave behind and how you affect them adversely. This seems to be a part of this mission. He had one suicide attempt, two DUIs, one stint in rehab. He had a rough life, and you had to help pick up the pieces as family members.
AMY: It affected our entire beings and still does today. I can't go a day without crying and missing him so much. He had so much to give and offer and share. He should be here telling his story, not Jeff and me.
JEFF: I should mention, too, there was an immense strength on Amy's part just a few months after Andy was gone, to find the strength to know she would be dealing intimately with his story and wanting to carry it forward through her immense grief. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Amy for taking one of the worst times of her life and making something out of it to help other people. This was Andy's mission, but Amy took it on as her own.
BEV: Andy committed suicide. You use the words "instruments of death." Why don't you write about it?
JEFF: I think we say we intentionally left out the exact details. We don't want to focus on it. This is a book about Andy's life, not about his death or his moment of death. Is it more relevant to talk about every detail of that late night? We have an opportunity to focus on what is important, what he was struggling with while he was alive, what other people could relate to and learn from and recognize in themselves. The book's mission is focused on helping people and wanting every part of it to be focused on that.
AMY: I agree with Jeff. It's not relevant. The book shows this was a mind under siege. Could I have prevented this mind under siege if I had been there? I want the focus to be on ways that both sufferers and families can recognize to prevent that mind under siege from happening. Andy should still be here. Andy should be promoting this book, not Jeff and me. I live that every single day. It was a besieged mind that should not have happened. How to cope and prevent that besieged mind from happening in the first place is where we want the focal point to be.
BEV: You don't think he meant to do it. He bought a 12-pack of water the day before.
AMY: The night before, he told me he didn't feel well. I was in Florida, and I said to drink a lot of water that would help him feel better. He was drinking a lot of coffee and Diet Pepsi, and I told him to go out and get some water and he did. Within an hour, he texted me back and showed me this big 12-pack of bottled water he bought to hydrate and feel better. When he texted me the picture of the water, I wrote back to him saying thank you for following my advice. I know he absolutely did not want to do that. I think it's important to state what he was so worried about and caused his besieged mind didn't even come to fruition. That's why it's so important in the book to recognize depression lies, and alcoholism lies. A besieged mind lies. Three days later, we got a letter in the mail, proving everything was fine. His worry and panic were a lie in the worst form.
JEFF: Most of us would want to define who we are by who we are most of the time. Not during the few lowest moments. Those moments add up to only a tiny portion of our identity and are often not how we regard ourselves as people in terms of worldview, ethics, outlook. It's important to note anyone can end up in a situation where they are at risk of being at a lowest of a low moment where they are in danger of making a decision not based on their truest self. Whatever we can do with the book in terms of prevention and having people seek help, we hope anyone who reads this book and recognizes anything in themselves, and Andy, they will never have to experience one of those lowest of the low moments when they are out of sync with who they are and what they really want.
AMY: The two words that are the very last sentence in the book which helps show and define our mission are "hang on." Hang on. We got this. That is my most compelling reason for wanting to share Andy's desire to help people and now my and Jeff's desire to help people. Let's rally around and get the support you need. If Andy had just hung on for three more days, he could have regrouped. We could have done this together. I was going to be there two days later. I was headed there with my younger brother. It would not have happened.
BEV: Any final thoughts?
AMY: The whole mission of the book is to help others. I think there are tentacles attached to some of this that are helpful in many ways in people's and families’ lives to try to identify with and recognize and be able to intervene and help and deploy resources. Another part is sharing Andy. I hate the fact that this happened. I believe in my heart Andy wishes he were still here to keep the mission alive that he started to touch others, to help others understand what depression and alcoholism feel like on a visceral level by sharing an ordinary person with ordinary capabilities, yet though I feel he was extraordinary. Sharing who Andy was and how he felt his humor with the world is paramount to me. If he can't do it himself, I want to do it for him.
And I'd like to recognize Jeff, who was referred to me as someone talented and brilliant in his field, and he was a really nice guy. I felt Jeff was in this to understand Andy, develop and be able to help tell Andy's story in the way it was intended to be. That means a whole lot to me.
JEFF: When we refer to Andy as an ordinary person it’s both accurate and not. He was an extraordinary person. It's important to use ordinary as a descriptor for him as he was not a celebrity or movie star. It's important to finally have the story of someone who most people can relate to. If people can recognize something of themselves in Andy, we hope this book can connect in an accessible way.
AMY: It's hard to be this raw and this real because everything comes from the heart. It's difficult to talk about. Thank you for reading the book and getting to know Andy.