I think illness was the great wind that just blew through my life and cleared away a lot of the resistance that I had to being vulnerable, by making my need to ask for help a literally life and death decision.
A medical mystery intertwined with a tale of friendship and sobriety, Eva Hagberg Fisher’s How To Be Loved: A Memoir of Lifesaving Friendship provides a lesson that many of us need to learn: true love does not exist only in the realm of family or romance. Sometimes the most meaningful and life-changing love is found in friendships: the ones who stay even when it gets messy, even when you don’t want them to.
For Fisher, overcoming addiction and embracing long-term recovery did not mean the end of suffering. Mysterious illnesses, warped family dynamics, and complicated relationships threaten and almost undermine her sobriety. When the doctors are baffled as extreme havoc dominates her health, she wonders how she’ll maintain her balance and move forward with faith in the future.
With the help of friends made in 12-step programs and elsewhere, Fisher faces the hardest challenges of her health crisis. But maybe the biggest challenge is allowing herself to be loved, which requires more than being brave; it means she’ll have to be vulnerable. In this stirring memoir, Fisher learns to surrender, and through surrender she finds relief, courage, gratitude, resilience, and love.
Of course, we wanted to know more.
The Fix: How do you define radical surrender and what part has it played in your life? In 12-step programs, they often say that the meaning of surrender is “joining the winning side.” Do you agree?
Eva Hagberg Fisher: For me, it’s a constant, ideally daily practice. I don’t know if it’s joining the winning side so much as, for me, joining the only side that is ever going to give me a chance at having a good life. Or any kind of life that’s worth living. Life keeps happening to me, even though the book has an ending! And I need to keep surrendering. I want to keep surrendering because the feeling of safety and relief that I get is what I was always looking for.
The Buddha’s First Noble Truth is that “Life is suffering.” Do you believe we need to suffer to a certain extent to learn how to grow spiritually? Is the recognition of suffering and how a person then handles that challenge a key to spiritual growth?
I don’t know that we need to, but it does seem to sort of fast-track a greater sense of compassion and the need for connection. I don’t know whether or not my suffering was necessary, but I think that the way in which I kept wanting to be awake for what was happening is what led me to be able to experience what I’ve seen described as post-traumatic growth.
Somewhat similar to your experience, my friend just underwent his second operation on a brain tumor and is now going through radiation treatments. It astounds me that he can maintain his sobriety and his sanity through such a life-altering time. Humor and music both seem to play a significant role for him. How were you able to accomplish this?
I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. And I’m so glad that he has you there. For me, a sense of humor and just highlighting how ridiculous and seemingly inconceivable the complications I faced were was just essential. I think a lot of that is just innate personality — my father is intensely optimistic, as am I. And my friends helped me to have a sense of humor; once they saw that laughing about my situation was really helpful for me, they put a lot of emphasis on being funny with me.
In September 2015, you were diagnosed with a rare disease called mast cell activation syndrome. This devastating syndrome makes the body feel like it’s allergic to everything. How did you overcome this condition?
A variety of treatments: a really intense antihistamine protocol, bio-energetic de-sensitization, various meditative modalities, frequency-specific microcurrent, supplements, nettle tea, time. It’s so different for everyone, so I’m definitely not recommending this, but it’s what I did.
In your book, your illness becomes the force that opens the door to profound friendship. Do you feel like you needed an extreme crisis to be vulnerable enough to accept such friendship and be such a friend?
Definitely. I think illness was the great wind that just blew through my life and cleared away a lot of the resistance that I had to being vulnerable, by making my need to ask for help a literally life and death decision.
When you say that you were “constitutionally unlovable” before the events of the book happened, what do you mean?
I just felt and believed that at my core I was a bad person. That all the mistakes I’d made were evidence for my being constitutionally bad, and that I didn’t inherently deserve to be loved. That I had to prove my value by being helpful or useful or financially supportive.
What role should the ego play in the context of friendship?
The role of ego is definitely one that I play with – I try to remember that my true friends are the ones who can spot my ego and lovingly point it out and help me to ground myself. And I also think that my ego drives me to produce art, and be in the world, and I’m grateful for it.
Tell us a little about Allison and the role she has played in your life.
She is someone who saw me really clearly — and saw so many other people really clearly — and had no compunction about accepting that everyone has deep and often irreversible flaws, and they are still worthy of love. We had a sort of imbalanced friendship for a while, and then when I got sick I lived with her for a few weeks and prepared for brain surgery, and she showed me how to get through something that I thought was totally unsurvivable. She loved me really completely, and that experience started to put new grooves into my brain for what being really loved could feel like.
You have said, “My wish is for people who are suffering to not feel like they have to hide it or fit into a certain narrative.” What narrative did people try to fit you into during both your illness and your recovery? What working narrative did you choose to create for yourself?
I think it’s common for people to see a sick person as a sort of wise sage. It’s definitely a role that I also love because it helps me feel strong and smart and therefore safe, but I think also people were just really compassionate and felt really bad for me that I was going through this, and wanted to be helpful. My own narrative changes all the time — sometimes I want to feel like I’m really blowing everyone’s minds with deep thoughts from the edge of the abyss, and sometimes I just want to feel really kind of regular and like I’m just the same as all my friends.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity