Photo by Jorge Santiago

The Ism and the Alcohol

A year and a half ago, I published my first essay on addiction.

You’d think having gotten sober at age seventeen would have been fodder for plenty of personal essays, but it took me twelve years to start writing about alcoholism and sobriety. Even then, that first piece did not show me drinking or using, or even considering drinking or using. Instead, the piece depicted addiction’s slippery undertow, contrasting my life as a sober person with that of a down-and-out expat I knew in Phnom Penh.

After its publication, I received some unsolicited advice from a fellow writer: I should rewrite the piece to include the story of my own addiction. I knew what this writer meant. She wanted to read the nitty-gritty. She wanted to see the speed psychosis, the vomiting bile, the selling weed at school and stashing bottles in my bedroom. But she didn’t realize that the slippery undertow was the story of my addiction.


Drugs and literature have been comingling since before the Romantics hung out at Lake Geneva, but addiction narratives became a phenomenon largely in the twentieth century. Predominately the works of outsider white guys—Burroughs, Fante, Bukowski, Thompson—these stories depicted the twists and turns of life in the underbelly. There were exceptions: Braverman’s searing Lithium for Medea; the campy classic Go Ask Alice; characters teetering on the edge of sobriety in Carver’s Cathedral. But by and large, the debaucherous stories of white men dominated the addiction discussion, a discussion characterized by glorification, perhaps, but also an avoidance of simplistic moralization.

In the 1990s, this undercurrent of addiction stories bubbled to the surface of mainstream American culture, recast to fulfill our Puritanical hankering for moral salvation. Cult classics Basketball Diaries and Trainspotting were whittled into movies that depicted hip guys’ descent into the seedy world of drugs. Biopics Gia and Why Do Fools Fall in Love lamented the tragedy of wasted talent, while Kids offered a pseudo-realist glimpse into the harried world of sex, drugs and New York City. Drew Barrymore was touted as a cautionary tale of adolescent drug use and victory over addiction, while River Phoenix, Bradley Noel and Shannon Hoon all died of overdoses in the public eye. It seemed everyone cool was either ODing or going to rehab.

These narratives portrayed alcoholism and drug use as spectacular and sensationalistic but also as having a definitive end: either the person died or the person got clean. A simplistic ending was tacked on to the film version of Basketball Diaries, leaving viewers to infer that the character Jim Carroll got clean, when in reality Carroll wrote openly about the ongoing struggles with drugs that followed him the rest of his life. Trainspotting ended with a fade-out of the smiling Renton walking towards that life of electric tin openers. Gia and Frankie Lymon died. Celebrities who got clean wewere churned through the talk-show circuit, portrayed as people who’d successfully and definitively conquered their demons. Mainstream 90s addiction narratives oscillated between ruin and salvation, leaving little room for anything else.


Depression bloomed young in me. At twelve I was carving my arms up, writing suicide notes and worshipping the tortured artists who had come before me. They were the only people who talked about feeling how I felt, so I decided  I needed to do what they did: a lot of drugs. By thirteen I was chasing my own addiction narrative, and by fifteen, I was a daily drinker and pot smoker with a nasty case of speed psychosis. I drank in parks, did lines in parking garages, passed out on the scabies couch at Gilman Street. In short, not much cool happened.

I began to suspect that maybe not that much “cool” ever happened, that the story I’d been told and was telling myself was bunk, heightened, sensationalized. Maybe the story was just that I was a suicidal teenager doing her best to manage the emotional pain of everyday life. I looked around, and my friends weren’t bad-ass junkies either. They were sweet, profoundly fucked-up kids, and we were all just doing our best to hang in there. That “our best” included daily drinking and drug use wasn’t tough or edgy—it was just kind of sad.

The story of my getting sober isn’t any more enthralling. I didn’t get arrested; I didn’t get kicked out of school; I didn’t get my stomach pumped; I didn’t try to kill myself; I didn’t get roofied; I didn’t spare-change on Haight Street. I didn’t even get shipped off to one of those tough love boot camps in Utah.

It was the last six weeks of high school. Spring had come. Prom and graduation were on the horizon, events I had no intention of navigating in an unaltered state. I had just bought an ounce of weed and had bagged up enough to recoup my expenses. My elbow was busted up from a fall—on what?—during a blackout.

As I lay in bed one night, I thought of a question someone had asked me: could I remember what life was like before I started drinking and using? I had a small moment when I rose up and looked down on myself. I realized that my solution to the pain of life was going to kill me faster than the pain I was running from. Nothing more exciting than that happened. I curled up and cried.

Despite getting clean, despite writing a lot of poetry and despite going to college to study creative writing, I didn’t write about any of this for years. The addiction story had been done, I told myself. It was tired, played-out and it wasn’t even my story. My story was something quieter, lamer, less tough and edgy. And who wants to read that?

But I was also aware of something else, if only dimly in those early days. Sitting in the folding chairs of those first few twelve-step meetings, I began to suspect that the story of my addiction wasn’t over. That getting clean wasn’t the end of addiction—that in fact, there might not be an end.


The aughts ushered in the era of the memoir and with it, the addiction memoir. Recovering alcoholics and addicts told stories that took us beyond the bright lights and big bangs of the previous era’s narratives, and portrayed addiction as more nuanced and varied: Mary Karr’s Lit; Ann Marlowe’s How to Stop Time; James Brown’s Los Angeles Diaries; David Carr’s The Night of the Gun; Cupcake Brown’s A Piece of Cake; Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City—do I need to keep going? Augusten Burroughs’ Dry; Nic Sheff’s Tweak; William Cope Moyer’s Broken; Heather King’s Parched. Even Anthony Kiedis wrote an addiction memoir.

But there were parts missing in these stories. As with most cultural phenomena, only a sliver of voices was being represented. The stories largely depicted a middle-class experience, with protagonists who had middle-class means of recovery at their disposal—people with the wherewithal to write and publish a memoir in the first place. With the exception of works like Another Bullshit Night, we didn’t see low-bottom drunks, the people getting sober in homeless shelters, prisons or the Salvation Army. Further, the stories were nearly exclusively the works of white authors. Outside of A Piece of Cake, the stories of people of color were largely absent from our addiction memoirs.

Still, these memoirs expanded the previous eras’ depiction of addiction by exploring sobriety not just as an end point but as a story in and of itself. The fact that A Million Little Pieces largely took place inside a rehab clinic and not out on the streets shouldn’t be overlooked. Neither should the falsified sensationalism James Frey felt the need to rely upon—the fact that he clearly believed his own true story wasn’t enough to create a compelling narrative.

As a reader, I often felt that the sobriety portion of these stories was the point at which they fell flat, lifeless. I could feel the narrator groping to tell a story he or she didn’t know how to tell—what happens in addiction after active drinking and drug use. As a sober reader, I almost didn’t want to admit how much the recovery side of many of these stories disappointed. But as a sober writer, I could understand the groping, the fumbling, the struggle to tell the untidy and unsalvageable side of recovery.


When I was in my first ninety days of sobriety, I was given Caroline Knapp’s addiction memoir Drinking: A Love Story. The book’s redemptive overtones and triumphant ending struck me as excruciatingly false.

Dually diagnosed with depression and alcoholism, there were no trumpets blowing or clouds parting when I got sober. Instead I was stripped of my self-medicating buffer and not immediately equipped with an arsenal of new coping mechanisms. The neural pathways of addiction had been dug, and I didn’t get to undig them. So I found other ways to race down their highways: food, obsessive crushes, overworking, overspending, travel.

At seventeen years old, early sobriety was also intensely lonely. My old friends were supportive, but they didn’t make great kick-it buddies anymore. Meanwhile, the kids I met at college were just starting to drink. Young People’s twelve-step meetings in my area were mostly populated by upper-middle-class teenagers who’d been ejected from spin-dry treatment programs. Their parents bought them cars for staying sober. There was a heavy hook-up culture that I didn’t vibe with, but outside of that, my dating options appeared to be straight-edge vegan bike messengers or celibacy. I choose the latter.

When I turned eighteen, I discovered “thirteenth steppers”— predatory men who took advantage of younger, newly sober women. After a meeting one night, I accepted a ride home from man ten years older than me, who had double-digit sobriety, who announced as he pulled into the driveway of my parents’ home that his intentions with me weren’t “entirely pure.”

Shortly thereafter, I bailed from Young People’s meetings and instead holed up with old timers—spunky spinsters with old-lady fros, and retired men in suspenders who played dominoes all day. While this was great for my recovery, it wasn’t great for my social life. But I stuck around, matured, gained more clean time, and slowly my mental and emotional health stabilized. Over the years, people my own age mellowed out as well and my social life normalized.

This experience is as much a part of my story as the actual drinking and using, but it’s even harder to tell, even less sexy and cool. There are no burning bushes. There is instead a slow unfolding, muddled by lingering addictive impulses both in me and in the recovering people around me. It is also a story that is not over. While the addiction narratives I was raised on ended when the protagonist got clean, my own story has limped on. It’s still limping on. I’ve watched enough people relapse, overdose and commit suicide to know that I have not escaped any of these fates. All I’ve really done is avoid them for today.


If the 90s were the era of addiction narratives, and the aughts were the era of the addiction memoir, we are now in the era of recovery narratives.

With the boom of the personal essay and the internet-as-we-know-it, first-person stories about living in sobriety proliferate online. The Rumpus and Salon frequently publish narratives that focus more on recovery than active addiction, while entire websites such as The Fix are dedicated to sober living. Amy Liptrot’s recent Aeon piece “On the Lonely Midnight Trail of Orkney Corncrakes” did not include one image of the narrator drinking. Ruth Fowler’s “The Loneliest and Saddest Kind” on Guernica carved into the messy, unredemptive side of sobriety with particular truthiness.

Meanwhile, celebrities like Russell Brand have largely only been in the spotlight post-using, and have been vocal about the complicated reality of living sober. Rachel Getting Married was perhaps the most cringingly honest portrayal of a person in early recovery that I’ve seen. Even a show like Celebrity Rehab, for all its dramatization and exploitation, at least somewhat accurately depicts the precarious shitshow of early sobriety. For as controversial as his anti-AA stance may be, the title of Paul Carr’s Byliner Original pretty much nails the cultural moment at which we have arrived: Sober Is My New Drunk.

These narratives serve to further complicate the idea of easy redemption. They show that addictive thinking and behavior persist after active addiction; that there’s often no triumphant ending; that there’s more to being an addict than the physical act of using drugs. Sometimes these stories even use addiction and recovery as a lens through which to tell a more universal story of loneliness. This is progress. But we still need more.

During the first season of Girls, the character Adam filled me with so much hope. Finally, here was a full, complex, unsaintly character whose sobriety wasn’t a plot point, but just another aspect of who he was. He wasn’t yogi-wise. He still went out dancing and got into unhealthy relationships. On the one hand, we glimpsed the ways addictive behavior manifested in his recovery, while on the other, his character was also allowed to be more than his addiction.

Then in the second season, he relapsed over a broken heart. All that careful character construction was reduced to a plot point, and not even a terribly believable one. In the third season, he appeared to uneventfully slip back into sobriety without a lot of damage or lost time. This was also woefully unbelievable.


In my first year of recovery, I went to a meeting in San Francisco’s Haight district called “Artists and Writers.” The room was filled with newly sober creative types who fretted about how to access those creative channels without chemical assistance (spoiler: the solution often included moving back to New York). But even as a teenager, I knew that the drugs and alcohol had only been a shortcut to entering that creative realm, that I didn’t need inebriation to make art. In fact, I might make better art without the drinking and drugs—or at least write poetry that was legible the next morning.

But I still didn’t write my recovery story. I watched other people get clean and brand themselves as The Tattooed Sober Writer. I ended up getting tattooed, and I stayed sober, but I didn’t want to be just that. It felt too easy, like a cop-out. Besides, after coming of age on a diet of Hollywood drama and Hunter S Thompson, my own story wasn’t that interesting. And beneath that uninteresting story, I sensed a gravity, an impenetrable truth at the center of my new sobriety that was non-linear, unknowable, not to mention untellable. It’s still untellable.

And yet the story seeps out. It keeps trying to tell itself, and because I’ve spent most of life struggling with addiction in some form, I can’t contain it. It’s a story inside and underneath nearly every story I tell.

Because I got sober young, most of my experience of being an addict has been in recovery—with the “ism” rather than the “alcohol.” And that’s what we’re finally beginning to talk about, after all these decades: that being an addict is less about the titillating glamour of active drug use and subsequent salvation, and more about a way in which the brain is wired, a way a person thinks and acts and exists in the world. It’s an unfinished story, one without a definitive beginning or end. It’s a story that sleeps in you, a door that’s been left cracked open, unfinished plot lines that dangle like exposed wires.

When Phillip Seymour Hoffman passed away in February, I spent days avoiding all the think pieces. When I finally clicked on a link, I read an opening paragraph that pondered why Hoffman’s “greatest role” as a father hadn’t saved him from addiction.

We need more addiction narratives. We need different addiction narratives. We need ones that represent a wider breadth of experiences, that don’t rely on shock value or cool-kid points or the mainstream American thirst for sensationalism and redemption. We need to tell stories that are unsexy, unmarketable, messy. We need to tell stories that don’t end.

We’re getting there, inching there. But for me there still exists an untellability, an undertow, something at the center I can’t say. At the heart of my story, there’s a gravity I still circle around—that I suspect I’ll keep circling around, tapping against, never fully entering until the day my story finally ends.

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