In Jeff Nichols’ memoir Trainwreck: My Life as an Idoit, the stand-up comedian divulges his problems growing up with ADD and dyslexia—before he gets into the dirty bits about bong smoking and prostitutes. His story—both troubling and funny—was optioned and recently made into a movie. Sounds like he’s made the most of his dysfunction—but then it turns out the film might not be released. But he was still happy to talk about The Odd Couple, his transsexual eye doctor (and tennis pro) Renée Richards and why he’s glad he didn’t end up working at a hedge fund.
Back when you were growing up with dyslexia and ADD, these conditions weren’t readily diagnosed or treated like they are now. How were you diagnosed?
I grew up on the Upper East Side. My dyslexia wasn’t detected until I was in the 1st grade at the Trinity School (this was around 1973). I was put in the worst reading group, and when I started slowing that group down, they told my parents I should be evaluated. The school psychologist thought that I might have this thing called dyslexia but not to worry because Albert Einstein had dyslexia. My mom, excited about the prospect that I might be a genius, had my IQ tested. But I wound up testing slightly below average. I was ultimately diagnosed with dyslexia by my eye doctor, the transsexual Renée Richards. I don’t think I was diagnosed with ADD until I was an adult.
Nowadays, people argue that Ritalin and other drugs used to treat these conditions are overprescribed and sometimes abused. What are your thoughts on this?
Parents are tormented about whether to put their kids on Ritalin. There’s a play out now with Cynthia Nixon called Distracted that illustrates how difficult this decision is. It’s a phenomenal drug, but it has huge side effects, including transformation of personality. I always think of it this way: Oscar Madison, one of the characters in The Odd Couple, was a huge slob, which is sometimes a symptom of ADD. If Oscar Madison were on Ritalin, he wouldn’t be a slob anymore. Ritalin makes you clean, focused and very aware of the order of things. The problem is that Oscar Madison wouldn’t have been Oscar Madison anymore; he would probably just want to get his hands on more Ritalin.
It seems that you sometimes used drugs and alcohol to help you compensate for your learning disabilities—to fit in socially or make you more confident.
Life is generally a pain in the ass. It’s all paperwork. I have a chapter on all of the mundane. The basic stuff that comes at people: the bills, the paperwork, the applications. People with learning disabilities struggle with that stuff. Other people probably do, too, but when you have a learning disability, it makes it that much harder. Drinking and drugs give you solace from that kind of stuff. I have been dry for 20 years now. Your problems just get bigger when you use drugs and alcohol as an escape.
So was writing the book therapeutic for you?
I thought it was a good story to make a memoir out of. Believe me, it was not initially embraced by the literary community. I chased around Frank McCourt for a blurb for five years. Finally he said, “Enough, I’ll give you an f’ing blurb, but in the name of god stop dropping off manuscripts AT MY HOUSE!” He read it and told me I should pursue fishing.A friend of mine is the one who said that I should call it “My Life as An Idoit,” and then that got added to the title. But by the time the movie was made, I had kinda given up. But then, [my agent] made a bidding war for it between HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster. The book sold in a day and a half. So it’s not really a happy ending, but you know…
So you feel successful, right? You feel vindicated from the way you were treated as a child growing up with learning disabilities?
I do. But you know what’s great about this, is that the guys I went to school with were all a bunch of rich kids that ended up working at hedge funds. I was really popular and funny, but I was never going to end up as, you know, the head of Texaco. If you had told me that when I graduated college I was going to be walking dogs, I would have shot myself. But you’re dealt a hand of cards. It’s become a good thing. Actually, with everything going on in the economy now, I’m kinda proud to say I’m a dog walker.
Trainwreck: My Life as an Idoit
By Jeff Nichols (Touchstone)
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