Day 2,191: Scrapping & Yelling & Mixing It Up

[First, a quick announcement that I have an essay called “Yes, And” forthcoming from Amazon Original Stories on July 30th, and you can pre-order it here for just $1.99! This is a long, meaty piece about marriage, monogamy, and secrets. It took me three years to write and I really hope you enjoy reading it. (AOS publications are only available in the Kindle universe, but that doesn’t mean you need to own a Kindle–you can also just download the free Kindle app to your computer or phone.)]

*

My early soberversaries felt like all-out celebrations. Now I also recognize them as the anniversaries of terrible fear and very little hope. I can’t even say I was operating on blind faith that day, my Day One, because I didn’t expect my life to get better. Just…different. I walked into a blind tunnel because I’d exhausted all my other options. And I’d lived my whole life with a level of privilege that made the idea of running out of options seem pretty unlikely. Actually, I’m not sure I thought I could run out. And I guess I could have kept on like I was. But I’d somehow touched a last-ditch place in myself where the belief that I could change was stashed away, and it intersected with the momentary realization that to quit drinking, I would actually have to quit drinking.

I can only describe it as a moment of pure grace. It was awful. And it’s awful how easily it could have passed me by. But it didn’t and so today I’ve been sober for six years. Words like happiness and fulfillment don’t come naturally to me, the woman whose book epigraph comes from a song called “Unsatisfied.” But I’m here, really hereI’m being a person in the world. Scrapping and yelling and mixing it up.

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What I couldn’t know six years ago today is how many hundreds of emails and messages I’d one day get from people on their Day Ones. Sometimes when I read one, my own fear comes rushing back to keep company with the writer’s. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m grateful every fucking time for the reminder that I never, ever want to be on Day One again. And after the fear comes a little swirl of excitement for the freedom and space and scrapping that’s coming that person’s way if only they can wait out the early hard parts. I imagine them a year later, saying two words: worth it. 

Sometimes the Day One people apologize for writing. I’m sure you don’t need one more email like this. You don’t even know me, but…

Listen, missy/skipper: Yes I do. I do know you. We are the same. And we can only do this by telling each other about it. We can’t save each other but we can help each other and your letters help me. Thank you for them.

*

I wanted to celebrate this day with a Q&A, so a few weeks ago I put out a call on social media for questions, and then I added on a few others that frequently pop up. I had a ton of fun answering these and I hope you’ll get some value out of them, too.

Q. When did the feeling of constantly wanting a drink go away for good?

When I first quit, my job in publishing required a lot of boozy socializing with writers, and I trudged through about a month of cocktail parties and dinners feeling like I’d relegated myself to the children’s table forever. I tried to think of it as athletic training to make the wild discomfort and…fury, really…more bearable. That passed, but it took about six more months for me to stop being hyper-aware that I was doing X, Y, or Z sober for the first time. I didn’t necessarily WANT a drink all those times–often it was pride I felt, not craving, and pride was a novel and thrilling sensation. But I was absolutely WATCHING myself have experiences for those six months instead of just having them. Which was useful, honestly. That’s how you develop strategies and if-then plans and self-knowledge.

As for the last time I wanted a drink? Three days ago. There’s a scene in the first episode of Fleabag S2 set at a fraught-to-hostile family dinner where everyone at the table is guzzling wine in a failed attempt to cope. A character who has been lying about being in recovery suddenly says “Fuck it!” and pours himself a glass in front of God and everyone. It’s as dark and ugly a moment as they come in comedy. So naturally, it made me want a drink. It wasn’t even drunkenness I was craving so much as that initial moment of abandon. Fuck it! I’m going to obliterate whatever is bothering me, or at least my awareness of it. I have other forms of wild abandon in my life, but I don’t have access to that form anymore and I suddenly wanted it.

“You know I hate the t-word,” I said to John. “But that triggered me, dammit.”

“It is very on-brand that this show about unhappy, self-destructive alcoholics would be the thing to trigger you,” John said. Uh, fair.

So, I wanted a drink for about twenty seconds three days ago. But it stands out for being so rare–it happens maybe 2-3 times a year, max, and a brief review of the ways alcohol is basically poison for my happiness and my life takes care of it.

Q. Did you do AA? If not, why not? [And variants, like ‘What is it like to stay sober outside of AA?’ and ‘What kinds of non-AA programs are available IRL, vs online?”]

I’ve dabbled in AA and made personal use of some of the program elements, but I didn’t “do” AA in anything like the usual sense. This wasn’t a conscious decision at the outset so much as the result of my usual approach to major change–live with the potential in my head for ages and ages, suddenly do it at a moment that surprises even me, and then adapt to the results a bit before I tell anyone else. Around month eighteen, I did attend a few meetings, and went to one as recently as April.

Sometimes I find meetings comforting, sometimes inspiring, sometimes depressing. It all depends on the mix and the mood of the room. At the April meeting, several decades-long sober people in a row talked in grim tones about how they know their disease is stalking them at every minute–‘doing pushups outside’–and I left feeling awful, almost doomed. I don’t want to live that way. I once wrote an essay about attending the office Christmas party sober and a man with 27 years of sobriety said “I take my sobriety seriously, so I don’t go to those parties.” I don’t want to live that way either. Well, I would *love* to avoid office parties, actually, but I don’t want to live in a state of paranoia and fear. Addiction took me OUT of life and now I want to be in it. So when I land in a meeting that grim, or one where people are berating themselves harshly for moral defects, it can spook me for weeks because my personal sobriety program rests on the belief that sober life is AMAZING and that I am fundamentally a powerful and worthy person with, yeah, some stuff to work on.

All that said–I’ll probably continue to hit a meeting now and then. I might work the steps someday. My only unshakeable view re AA is that it is NOT the only way to achieve sustained sobriety. It is ONE way. There are also other step-based programs like Secular Sobriety or the Buddhist-based Refuge Recovery. There’s vipassana meditation. There’s therapy, and medication-assisted therapy. I think most people need SOME kind of programmatic approach with a healthy dose of introspection, community, and help building new habits. But in the absence of double-blind studies showing AA to be more effective than other methods, I say choose what works for you (which may well be AA!).

[Also, US-centric tangent, but doesn’t it seem a bit… unconstitutional for American judges to sentence people to AA, given its religious foundations? And I say this as someone who isn’t personally bothered by the higher-power thing. But I live in Seattle, where it’s treated very lightly and generally. I’ve known lots of people who live in small towns where AA meetings come with a heavy dose of Christian proselytizing–and again, I’m not blaming the program itself for this, it’s all in the mix of people–and I don’t see how making someone choose between AA and jail is remotely in line with our constitutional freedom of and from religion. So judges, fucking stop it. Sentence people to treatment, sure, but let them pick from a range of options.]

Q. How long did it take for your creativity to kick back in after you got sober? Did it come back naturally and did you expect it to come back?

I absolutely did NOT expect it to come back. Ever. When I got sober I had not written outside of work for twelve years. I’d convinced myself that the thing I’d spent most of my childhood, adolescence, and twenties on had been nothing more than a gambit for approval. Even when I took a job in publishing and felt actual physical twinges hearing authors talk about their work, I ignored them. “Your job is to help real writers write, not try to be one,” I told myself. “You tried that, remember? It didn’t work out.”

I started this blog a month into sobriety as a way to make sense of my own experience and be part of the sober community and hopefully make some sober friends. I told myself it absolutely was NOT a return to capital-W writing. But my posts got longer and more carefully constructed. I caught myself getting picky about how the clauses balanced in a sentence, or how something sounded read out loud. All of which made me very nervous.

One day about six months in I found myself with an idea for a short story, and this time instead of resisting I sat down and wrote the first page. And it’s hard to explain, but as I tinkered with the minutiae of sentences and thought about what to leave out and looked at the white space on the page, something settled into place in not just my brain but my BODY, too. I never got past the first page of that story, but I’ve been writing consistently ever since and steadily getting better at it. At first I didn’t care if anyone else ever read my work. Then I thought it would be nice to have an audience. Now I have large and serious ambitions, the kind we think of as male. But it all comes back to sitting around forever, tweaking what I’m trying to say until my body says I got it right. And I absolutely would not have the stamina, clarity, or ambition be doing that AT ALL if I were still drinking.

Q. What did your addiction destroy forever? 

Time. So much fucking time. I struggle to an irrational degree with the sense that I’m living on borrowed time–that I’ll somehow be STRUCK DOWN now that I’m finally getting started. [It happens, after all.] Sometimes my whole existence feels precarious. And for the most part, the lost time wasn’t even spent on fun tipsy shenanigans, but on worrying and justifying and breaking literally thousands of promises to myself. If I’d just fucking quit when I first realized I needed to, I could have saved myself so much fear and self-hatred and gained that much more time. But I had to see how long I could get away with it, I guess. I had to wear myself down to a stub before I gave in. However many books I’ve written by the end of my life, I imagine an asterix next to that number for the two or three extra I could have written in my decade of heavy drinking.

Q. How do you feel about the new sobriety trend?

I know there’s been some backlash to this recent rather goofy New York Times article, including from some brilliant people I adore. And I certainly agree with the pushback on the notion that you can call yourself “sober” when you’re actually just a light drinker. That’s the kind of language slippage that can be dangerous for people who really do need to quit completely. But otherwise…I guess I don’t see the harm? It’s a trend that leads to better health, mental clarity, clearer communication, better driving. It’s not like when people were eating TIDE PODS. Yes, it’s been commercialized and people are making money off of it. Same with yoga. Same with punk. Nothing is pure, least of all me. 

Also, I’ve talked to so many readers and friends who feel like freaks because they’re trying to get sober as college students, or while dating online, or playing in rock bands. If the sobriety trend can make their lives a little easier by popularizing the idea that it’s possible to be cool or sophisticated or edgy without alcohol, that’s great. Because you absolutely do not need booze to be sexy AF and the more the world knows that, the better off even normal drinkers will be. So, yeah. I don’t need for sobriety to be fashionable, but I’m not upset that it is.

Q. Now that you are sober, would you rather fight one elephant-sized duck or ten duck-sized elephants?

A. I don’t want to fight ANYTHING the size of an elephant, and how could I fight ten little baby anythings the size of a duck? Here is what I will do: I will dress the duck-sized elephants up in charming outfits, give them little beds to sleep in, and as a fight we will challenge each other to Candyland. Though I’m probably gonna let them win just to make them happy.

Q. Do you have a different way of approaching the world than before?

I am profoundly more confident and brave than I was as a drinker. I mean, on a moment-to-moment basis I’ll worry like anyone else about whether the thing I’m writing is awful or my legs look fat or I said something thoughtlessly hurtful. But it passes because fundamentally, I’m standing on solid ground now and my actual self is no longer made of vapor. And that’s because the key to long-term sobriety is YOUR LIFE CAN’T BE A NIGHTMARE. It can have problems–and oh, it will–but it can’t be something you are chronically desperate to escape. So getting sober required me to do some wacky things like have boundaries, and respect my own energy levels vs pushing myself into exhaustion, and get over the desperate need to please all the people all the time. And as a prize I get to have a gravity I didn’t before.

Also, I can talk to anyone now! It’s an ongoing thrill, which is funny because I’m still very much an introvert who often doesn’t particularly WANT to talk to anyone. But I can, in a direct and authentic way. Part of it is from ending up in a position where I give interviews and do public readings and panels and the like. But I was sober for years before any of that happened and sobriety alone cut my social anxiety in half. I have found that any two sober strangers meeting for the first time will tend to get RIGHT INTO the heart of things–about their sobriety or anything else on their minds–and I’ve carried that through to my interactions with civilians. Possibly to their bewilderment.

Q. Is there a point where the changes level out and you think ‘yep, this is me?’ (From someone with two years)

A. Sort of? There’s definitely a point where you stop being hyperaware in that “Oh look, I’m sober on Christmas!” way. That happened probably around year three for me. And I’ve definitely settled into a new understanding of important parts of myself as they relate to family, marriage, work, sex, etc. I’m clear in ways that I wasn’t before. But at the same time, I’m still peeling back layers.

Also, my actual life has changed dramatically since I self-published “Enjoli” and it blew up. The last few years have felt like stepping from stone to stone across a huge pond. And based solely on what I already know is likely to happen in the next few years, I suspect I haven’t even reached the middle of the pond. (So please feel free to paddle out with snacks and gossip.) So the specific weirdness of my life is an X factor in my own change process. But even without that, I suspect the self-discovery goes on as long as we want it to. And to some extent, we can decide when the time is right to really dive in, vs take notes for a later time.

Q. Do you think it’s possible for a gray area drinker to moderate?

I think it’s POSSIBLE, yes. But–and this is based solely on my own observations–it’s most likely when someone has abused alcohol for a limited time, maybe in reaction to a specific life crisis. Because you’re just undoing a bad habit at that point, not a whole way of life. And maybe the habit hasn’t changed your brain yet. Again, not an expert, but I’d encourage folks to read about the neurology of addiction–Annie Grace’s This Naked Mind is a great starting point. Because at some point, a switch flips for a lot of us, and after that you’re just fighting your own brain, and I don’t like your odds. 

Generally, I’d say that if you’ve tried multiple strategies for moderating and failed, or you’re succeeding but more obsessed with thoughts of drinking than ever, you should just quit. Seriously, just pull the band-aid off and quit. You have much more fun things to do with your time than make yourself miserable trying to control your use of a substance you’re fucking addicted to. I can tell you with absolute sincerity that sobriety is 1.4 GAZILLION times easier for me than moderating ever was.

Also, I’m thinking about how popular the term ‘gray area drinker’ has become. I think it’s very useful in establishing alcohol abuse as a spectrum, vs the old binary of “face-down in a gutter” vs “everything is just fine!!!!!” That said: if you think of yourself as being in the gray area of a spectrum that *kills a fuckload of people*, do you really want to stay anywhere near the gray? I personally don’t even want to see you in the Dove Gray or Highland Mist part of that spectrum. I think you should come hang out with us down in Bancroft White or Cloud White or Ether.* Seriously. Don’t linger in what you have already identified as a perilous zone because addiction is generally a progressive disease and the odds of you being the special-flower exception are not great.

*all real paint colors because I am a professional and professionals do their research.

Q. Do you consider yourself an alcoholic?

Yeah, pretty much, whatever that word even means. I was very uncomfortable with it at first, because it was not exactly my girlhood dream to grow up to be an alcoholic and because I resist labels in general. I started using it because it’s such useful, unambiguous shorthand. (People might continue to push booze on you if you just say you don’t drink, but bring out the a-word and they tend to back off.) Occasionally a reader will get mad because they don’t think I was enough of an alcoholic to even quit drinking, let alone write about it, which is…well, that’s FRAUGHT, isn’t it? Like “Dear reader, thank you for your feedback and I apologize for not drinking myself into total liver failure.”

Basically, I think alcoholism is in the eye of the beholder. I know women who drank two glasses of wine at day at their WORST who now consider themselves recovering alcoholics. I know people who drank waaaaay more than that who don’t want any label. You get to decide what if anything to call yourself. The BIG thing for me is that you shouldn’t have to identify as an alcoholic, gray area drinker, problem drinker, etc. to decide you don’t want to drink anymore. You’re allowed to just up and quit, temporarily or permanently, for any reason you like, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation.

Q. I need a new band–help me out! 

As a person with six years of sobriety, I CAN HELP with this!!! Here, more or less off the top of my head, are six bands/acts (one for each year!) I think should be much better known, along with a Spotify sampler of entry tracks for each. Enjoy!

  1. 1) The multi-racial Atlanta trio Algiers, who I would describe as…let’s see…apocalyptic industrial gospel-punk? Lyrically they can be a bit didactic for my taste–we are talking about a band with song titles like “Irony. Utility. Pretext.”–but the overall impact is still pretty astounding. DO NOT MISS THEM LIVE, and bring someone you really really like with you because the show is sexy AF.
  2. 2) Fellow Seattleites Hey Marseilles. If the Decemberists could just relax and stop trying to impress everyone with their smarts and homework and stuff, they’d sound like Hey Marseilles. They make my heart hurt in a good way and I love how Seattle-specific their songs are and how well they use horns and strings. If you are trying to trick someone into falling in love with you, you could do worse than to put a HM song on a mixtape for them.
    3) Joan as Police Woman. This is the stage name of Joan Wasser, who writes and performs in the part of the Venn diagram where Amy Winehouse and Cat Power and maybe Lana Del Rey overlap. I don’t really know how else to describe her except, you know, “very good.” Bonus: to the best of my knowledge, she’s a sober chick.Â
    4) Jules Shear. Jules is known mostly as the original host of MTV Unplugged and has written a bunch of songs made famous by other people, like “All Through the Night” and “If She Knew What She Wants.” His own singing voice is often described most kindly as an “acquired taste” and less kindly as “a yowl.” I find it warm and human and almost indescribably lovely. Many years ago I met a cute guy under an entire combo platter’s worth of inconvenient circumstances and it came up in an early conversation that he was a Shear fan and I thought “well that’s just fucking great, now we’re probably going to actually fall in love” and we did and it brought no end of joy and misery. But that’s how it is with other people who love Jules Shear, yowl and all. You just know they get you.Â
    5) Look Park. Also speaking of voices…the first time I heard Fountains of Wayne, Chris Collingwood’s instantly made me think ‘oh, here’s a friend.’ A few albums in, FoW started to feel gimmicky and I drifted away, but I never lost my love for their early stuff, and I was delighted to learn last month that Collingwood is now fronting the lovely orchestral pop group Look Park. And even more delighted to hear that he’s now clean, sober, and stable after a very hard crash.Â
    6) Wheat. I’ve loved this band hard for a long, long time. Their late 90s albums Medeiros and Hope & Adams are flat-out masterpieces in the Pavement-meets-Mercury-Rev vein. (If that’s actually a vein.) Just astonishingly beautiful. Then, things went a bit sideways. Their major-label debut alienated old fans and didn’t draw many new ones–though it’s actually not a bad set of songs, just wildly overproduced–and they got dropped and as if in reaction, the album after *that* was so oblique and opaque that even a super fan like me couldn’t find an entry point. But those first two records are so perfect, so timeless, that demanding more of the same would feel not just greedy, but vulgar.

Day 1,944*: Likability Comma Mine

The asterisk above is because after I labeled my last one Day 1,917, Belle commented that she had it as 1,931. She’s way more likely to be right than I am, so I’m adjusting. It’s actually the second time in the history of Off-Dry that I’ve realized the day count was off. You wouldn’t think it would be so difficult–well actually, if you met me (or if you’ve read my book), you might see that cold hard facts are… not my strong suit, okay?

Anyway, hi! Happy My Day 1,944! I wanted to share a new essay by an incredible writer named Lacy Johnson. It’s called “On Likability,” and it’s about the ways that we–all of us, but especially women–limit and contort and lie about ourselves in the service of being liked by everyone. It’s such a good read: brilliant and rousing and almost comically timely for me, because the threat and fear of being disliked have been coming up a lot in my life recently as part of what I, and now you, will call BathGate.

BathGate started when I took–wait for it–a bath a couple of weeks ago and got so caught up in scrolling through Instagram on my phone that I lay in the tub while the water ran out and for twenty minutes afterward. I thought it was kind of funny, and I also realized it had been the most purely enjoyable half-hour I’d had in ages, or at least since I heard Brett Kavanaugh yell “I like beer!” a hundred times on national television. So I posted about it on Facebook. Soon after, another writer–someone I’d only ever had the warmest interactions with, a “book twin” in that her own debut came out shortly before mine did, so we often shared advice and anxieties over navigating the process–asked in a public comment if I was “trying to be offensively white feminist.”

I assumed she was joking at first. But she wasn’t. She further commented that the post epitomized white privilege, that I was bragging about having time to lie in the bathtub “while other women are trying to figure out how to survive.” She said I gave off Mean Girl vibes and by the way, other women writers were sending her private messages agreeing that both my bath and my general deal were alienating.

It was so out of the blue, and so hostile, that I didn’t know what to make of it, and requests for more context got me nowhere. So I did what I always try (and sometimes fail) to do with criticism that feels off-base: assume that a kernel of it might be true, hold that kernel lightly, and see what develops.

Because, yeah. I was born into a white, middle-class, two-parent family. Through no merit of my own, I started life on second base. That fact alone brought me a lot of opportunities to either seize or waste. I seized them, and then I worked my ass off to make the most of them–but that’s work that less privileged people might have never even gotten the chance to take on. I’m not struggling to survive (except internally). The world gives me the benefit of the doubt at all turns (as long as it won’t inconvenience a white man). I’m the kind of woman who people probably assume reads Goop. (I’ve actually never read Goop, but I get that I still seem goopy.)

In other words, I’m sure I embody white privilege sometimes. I just didn’t think I was doing it by taking a flipping bath.

So I moved on…for a day. And then the new Tana French book I’ve been excited about came out, and I wanted to ask Facebook who else was reading it, and I seriously froze up. Would it sound like I thought all women could afford to buy new hardcover books, or that women had lots of time to read? My mind kept returning to those private messages my bath objector had described, to what people might be saying about how out of touch I was, thinking real women had two seconds for Tana French.

I told John I was kind of freaking out. “Okay, so that’s loony,” he said. “Reading books is a normal, standard thing that women do.” So I wrote the post–partly because I really wanted to know, but also not to let petty bullying spook me–but all along I was silently chastising myself for being an instant-gratification, hardcover-buying jerk who wants to read mysteries while the world burns.

A few days later I went to a play, and it was such a joyous experience that I wanted to tell the world about it. But it was a big national touring production, not cheap to attend. I wondered if I should mention in the post that it was the first time I’d been to the theater in six or seven years, just to forestall the impression that it was an everyday thing for me. Again I imagined what the unnamed women would be saying about me in PMs and group texts, and I said it in my mind for them:

“It must be nice to have time to go to the the-a-tah.”

“Oh, she’s on the main floor, too. No second-balcony seat for Miss Entitlement.”

“How many meals for a poor family could the price of that ticket cover?”

*****

That night I had a dream about being back in sixth grade, on the losing side of a girl triangle. You know what I mean, right? You remember.

*****

The next day, I recalled how much time I’d spent in early sobriety thinking about likability, mine. As I started venturing into the world with a clear head, I realized I’d spent decades contorting myself into whatever shape would make me most likable to friends, colleagues, and goddamn random acquaintances at any given moment. Being liked was, if not my deepest need, certainly my loudest one. It meant acceptance, which meant community, which meant safety. So I did all the things I thought would secure those things. I agreed with all sides of a discussion; I never asked for help; I made myself so mild and unthreatening and self-deprecating that no one else would ever need to knock me down, because I’d already done it for them.

And then I quit drinking and realized that if I was going to make it, I had to let that definition of likability go and replace it with one that gave me room to have ambitions and needs and edges and a little fucking self-respect. (Which didn’t at all mean abandoning decency and kindness and sensitivity, mind you–just the desperate need to be everybody’s go-to gal, their faithful retriever, their frictionless mascot.) Later, when I started to write again, it became even clearer that if I couldn’t live with the risk of some people disliking me, I could probably still have a nice little writing career but I would never be able to do the kind of work I really wanted to do.

That’s what settled it. Because I didn’t drag myself back from the edge of oblivion to chicken out of doing the kind of work I really want to do.

By the way, that’s one reason I deliberately didn’t shy away from the topic of privilege in Nothing Good Can Come from This. I’ve had a little blowback from readers. An online reviewer said it would have been “cuter” if I’d addressed it just once or twice. Well, maybe. But I’m not trying to be cute, you guys. I’m trying to explain my thorny, lucky, deeply compromised life to you and I don’t know how to do that outside the frames of work and gender and class. At various stages of editing I could hear the voices of future readers in my head, just like I heard those women last week:

“She spent what on that bag?”

“Is it absolutely necessary for her to talk about sex?”

“How hard could her job have really been? It’s not coal mining, for fuck’s sake.”

When I listened carefully, some of the voices were giving me useful notes: telling me I needed to add a line, give readers a little more to go on. But the rest were just telling me to be milder and nicer and smaller…more likable. I can’t live or write by what those voices say anymore, not as a sober person, and if it means I sometimes err on the side of having too much edge, I’m okay with that. I’ll find my balance over time. In the interim, as Johnson says in her essay, “the truth is not a request, is not a question, requires neither permission nor forgiveness.” In my case, it means you are absolved from having to find me cute, or reasonable, or (god this is hard to even type!) wholly likable. I just want you to know I’m truthful.

*****

BathGate made me even surer that the path of risking universal acceptance is the only path forward. Because that craving to be liked, and the deeper fear of being disliked, came back fast. My cells have not forgotten what it was like to be twelve and the subject of a whisper campaign because something about me that was fine yesterday became wrong, wrong, wrong overnight. So it’s good for me to practice being okay with not being everyone’s particular cup of tea, and to remember that when I do fuck up, I can own up to it without putting my own head on a pike, or otherwise doing the work of bullies for them. To bring it back to Lacy Johnson’s words:

We can be wrong sometimes. We can make mistakes. Sometimes really big ones. We can be crude and vulgar. We can change our minds. We can say something wrong — or better yet we can say something that is unpopular but right. We can admit that we have sometimes loved the wrong person or gave away too much of ourselves in exchange for fame, or favor, or fortune. We can tell the stories of our addictions, our falls from glory, our kink, our abuse. We can tell the hard truth we learned at rock bottom, and we can admit that it is precisely by climbing back from that lowest place that we have drawn power and strength. We can let ourselves be vulnerable enough to admit our most unforgivable errors, to find our way back from the brink of oblivion, and even if no one likes the story we have to tell, there is no story — none at all — that makes any of us unworthy of love.

I actually need to hop in the shower now, so I’ll leave you with that quote. But read the whole essay! THERE WILL BE A QUIZ. Like it or not.

Day 1,944 (more or less).

Day 1,917: Not All Rowboats & Accordians

Last week I was seated at a dinner next to a woman who’s writing a recovery memoir. When she found out I’m a published memoirist, she had questions about how I’d structured my book to make publishers like it. “Did you put the message of yours up front?” she asked. “Or tell the story first and deliver the message at the end?” I explained that my book is pure memoir, vs self-help or memoir with an advocacy point of view–that it doesn’t really have a message per se.

She looked at me like I was crazy. “So what was your purpose for writing it?”

“Well, I just find sobriety really interesting,” I said. “And I wanted to see if I could sort of crystallize little bits and pieces of what it’s like.”

“Okay, but where did you put your summary? How did you outline your main points?”

I felt like an art-school dickhead, but I also felt like she was acting sort of mad at me for no reason, so I told her the truth: “I wrote it like I was holding a prism that I just kept tilting this way and that.” She all but scowled at that, so I gave it one last shot: “I think you should just write your story and let the structure emerge from what you actually have to say. Just get it all out in a big pile, and then see where the patterns are, and you’ll start to find some kind of shape. It sucks, but it’s really the only way I know how to write. I make a huge mess and I despair over it and then I fix it.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Okay,” she said, and turned to the woman on her left.

***

Yesterday I was sitting in the sun at Fuel, talking to a woman who is writing a profile of me. Toward the end of our conversation, she asked if I consider Nothing Good Can Come from This a feminist book. Yes, I told her, absolutely. But not just because of its explicitly feminist content. “It’s feminist because it’s my story,” I said. I told her I’d just come back from a sober women’s conference where words like phoenix and goddess and warrior were in the atmosphere. Which is fine, I guess. Conventional recovery wisdom, written by and for men, suggests that the newly sober need to be humbled, but from what I’ve observed, what newly sober women (and surely not only women!) often need is to be built up, not broken down. You could do a whole lot worse than to go from hating yourself to feeling like a phoenix.

That said, triumphant archetypes leave me cold; they feel dehumanizing in the most complimentary way. When I think of a phoenix warrior goddess I picture Robin Wright in Wonder Woman, and it’s a gorgeous image. But even Robin Wright isn’t Robin Wright in Wonder Woman. She probably spent months in a gym, in lycra or sweats, mock-swordfighting with a hired coach. Getting comfortable on horseback somewhere in Los Angeles. And that’s actually the more interesting story to me.

So I told the woman who was interviewing me that I’d written the ordinariness and the small details of my story as a feminist act. My flaws, too, and my considerable privilege. I wanted to get myself down on the page as a human, because I don’t think the world wants me, or any woman, to be just a human being. I have trouble allowing myself  to be just a human being.

So in writing the 220 pages of NGCCFT, I made myself practice just being human. I could feel when I was begging to be loved, or trying to reassure the reader of my harmlessness, and when I felt myself writing that way I tried to stop. Mostly because writing meant to ingratiate tends to be bad, dishonest writing, but also because the biggest fuck-you to the patriarchy I can think of is to refuse to make myself easy for it to digest.

I also did it because the recovery community needs new stories. In literature and pop culture, there are a few master addiction narratives: the near-death experience, the jailhouse conversion, the sudden spiritual awakening, etc. But we’re missing the smaller, more ordinary stories. Here’s a question for readers in recovery: how often in your drinking days did you think “Oh, I must not have a real problem, because I’ve never a) lost a job, b) been arrested, c) woken up in a mysterious rowboat in the port of Marseilles with an accordion I did not remember purchasing.” What if you’d understood sooner that the word “problem” was for you to define, and that it could be as non-dramatic as a sense that your life was contracting instead of expanding?

beach boats coast coastal
Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

***

So you know what I think you should do? Write your story. YOUR story. Not your story grafted onto a master narrative. Just write exactly what happened, and what you said, and how you felt. Get yourself a copy of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and do what it says. Keep your hand moving. Keep it raw and close to the five senses. I don’t care where you put the message, because I don’t know that you even need to have one, unless it arises naturally for you. Try to forget all the recovery stories you’ve heard or read, including mine, and just get your ordinary, detailed truth down on paper. Let yourself be surprised by what comes up. Don’t package yourself. 

And then–if you can–find a way to share what you wrote with someone else. When I was eighteen, I used summer-job money to fly to a Zen monastery in Asheville, North Carolina and take a weekend workshop with Natalie Goldberg. (I wish to god the whole thing had been filmed, because I thought of myself as a pretty sophisticated teenager, but the whole hippie-monastery-with-crew-cut-lesbians-and-yoga scene had my eyes popping and I suspect it was pretty funny to everyone around me.) We’d sit in a circle and write for ten minutes, and then people could volunteer to read aloud whatever raw, messy stuff they’d produced. There was no critique, and very little reaction from others at all–I think the rule was that if you found a line or image really striking, you could say so. Otherwise we moved on to the next volunteer.

There were professional writers in the group who probably used some of what they produced that weekend as the start of more formal work, and others who were just there to free-write. But in the circle, it didn’t matter. We were all just people sharing our raw, unpackaged words. You could start a group like that for recovering people in your town. Or you could decide to be a little more polished and blog your experience (anonymously, if you want–this blog was anonymous for the first six months). You could take a writing class and mine your recovery as a topic. Or yeah, you could jump right in and write a book. The format doesn’t really matter. Just find a way to tell your story, yours, and let it be as weird or messy as your addiction was. And as your recovery is, or will be.

Day 1,917.

 

Day 1,879: Win my Book!

So Nothing Good Can Come from This is out there in the world now, in paperback, e-book, and audio formats. It’s been out for a week, and I feel like kind of a dick for not posting here sooner, but it turns out there is a LOT to do when you publish a book and I had to triage. But I have more to say, and I’ll say it soon, I promise. (In the meantime, you can always follow me on Facebook or Instagram for real-time hits of lunacy, panic, and occasional wisdom.)

But for now, here’s a chance to win a copy of the book, plus a limited-edition zine of mocktail recipes (must prevent Mocktail Rage!), plus the cutest enamel Otter of Sobriety pin. And one lucky person will win all of that, PLUS my five picks for Electric Literature’s Read More Women series! Instructions for entering the giveaway are in the intro at the link.

Otter

(Also, check out rave reviews for Nothing Good Can Come from This at the LA Review of Books, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Paris Review, and MindBodyGreen.)

It probably goes without saying that all of this is brought to you by Day 1,879. But I’ll say it anyway.

Day 1,826: In This World, There is a Kind of Painful Progress

A friend of 20+ years called last night. You could say it’s been a complicated relationship, the same way you could say Mt. Rainier is a pretty big hill. We’ve hurt each other at times like only two people who know each other very well can do. We’ll talk every day for a year and then either drift or storm apart for the next one. He made me so mad last year that I all but slammed the door for good on my way out.
But I HAD to send him my book. Not because he’s in it–though he is–and not because he’s thanked in the acknowledgments, though he’s there too. Just because there were a few people who needed to have it in their hands for it to feel fully real to me, and he was one of them, which frankly sort of annoyed me. I didn’t sign it or include a note, just shoved the galley in an envelope and sent it off and didn’t wait around to hear back.
“You wrote a fucking beautiful book,” he said by way of hello last night.
“Well, thanks,” I said, a little shy.
“It’s EXACTLY your voice,” he went on. “Like everything you are as a person is reflected in those pages. I mean I LITERALLY heard your voice in my head saying every single word.”
Now I was starting to perk up a little. (Compliments will do that.)
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I wanted to shut you up a few times,” he said, laughing. “But it was you. For better or worse. You translated the
thing that makes you YOU into book form. I don’t know how the fuck you did it.”
“This is seriously the greatest blurb I’ll ever get in my life,” I told him, and I meant it.

We talked for another couple of hours, and I guess he heard something in my physical voice too, something I was holding back, because every so often he’d circle back and ask “Are you okay? Really, are you okay?” In recent years–since I got sober–I’m usually the one asking if he’s okay. At times it’s seemed like he’s forgotten that I still have problems, too.

 

The third time he asked I said, “I’m FUNDAMENTALLY okay, yes, but…” and gave him the full download on something that happened this month, a head-spinning turn of events involving someone I was close to that blindsided and hurt me. It’s also the kind of situation where anyone looking to judge me would have a glorious CORNUCOPIA of options to choose from. Based on our history, I sort of expected an astonished eye roll from my friend *at best,* so I went ahead and tacked on everything I assumed he was thinking: that I’m a dumbass, that I know I have no real right to feel grief, that I should just be happy things didn’t turn out even worse, and did I mention I’m a dumbass? and so on.
He cut my litany off. “Kid,” he said–he’s been calling me ‘kid’ since around the time he turned 40 while I was a mere 37–“shut up. OF COURSE you feel grief. That’s  heartbreaking. I’m just sorry you have to go through it.”
“Well, the problem is I’m essentially a much stupider person than I thought I was and…”
“STOP,” he said. “You are not stupid. At WORST you’re maddening and confounding. God, you know I hate it when you get hurt.” I was about to say that, uh, maddening and confounding actually are pretty bad ‘worsts,’ but for once common sense prevailed and we moved on to other quotidian sorrows, his and mine.
Just before we hung up, he said “The thing you need to remember is I’m ALWAYS going to be in your army. I’m always going to have your back. Even if we have another blowup–“
“Which we will,” I said.
“–Which we will, it doesn’t matter. We’re permanent. And whenever you forget that, just listen to the song.”
“I will,” I said. Of course I knew which song. In that way if no other, we have twin language.
I thought then of the speech Harper makes at the end of Angels in America, about the net of souls surrounding the earth. I wanted to tell him how fast I realized after we first met that he’d be in my own personal net of souls, and how for a while after I quit drinking I thought maybe I’d been wrong, but finally I’d landed on that same word: permanent. A neutral word that leaves room for drift and flow, private jokes and alienation, deep disappointment and deep love.

I wanted to tell him all of this (though I suspected I’d told him before, drunk) plus just how much that net has come to MEAN to me in this dizzying last year or two–how carefully I’ve tended and even more carefully added to it, with a jeweler’s eye and maybe the eye of a coach, too, putting together a team for the long haul. I wanted to explain that’s why I’m grieving now, because part of my net fell away. But also to explain that my friend’s ongoing presence in my life–his warm, maddening, loving, confounding, worrying, permanent presence–tells me the net is there even when I can’t see it, or feel it.

But it was late–3 a.m. his time, which made it midnight here. Which made me gasp a bit and said “Oh! Oh, wow. As of this very minute I’ve been sober for exactly five years.”

 

Day 1,822: Book News (and Excerpt!)

I have no particular wisdom to offer you nice people today. Life has been throwing some extra weirdness at me lately, and Seattle is having a heat wave (a Pacific NW “heat wave”=over eighty degrees) that I cannot really cope with. And I got sucked back into the fruitless search for a nude lipstick that doesn’t make me look like I chalked myself. And there’s a bee flying around me right now, in my living room, and I can’t tell if it’s the stinging kind or not, and I know in my brain that bees are our friends, but I can’t quite feel it. I don’t feel a sense of warmth and fellowship between me and whoever this is bumping around inside the lampshade.

So yeah. I’ve been worse, but I’ve been better, too.

But I’m sober, because I have at least learned not to do the one thing guaranteed to make any of my problems worse. And, of course, I have a book coming out in August! Isn’t that so weird? I think it’s weird. But, I mean, I’ll take it. We recorded the audiobook earlier this week, which was surreal and intense–as in, I had to read the entire book out loud–but also a huge amount of fun. Not every author gets to narrate her own audiobook, so I feel extra lucky that I did. I just don’t think it would have the same feeling coming from a professional narrator, no matter how skilled.

Here’s a picture of me looking pretty pleased with myself on the way in, and then vaguely like a hostage about thirty minutes later. And also a picture of the little table I sat at for two days, and also a picture of Elvis, one of the studio dogs, who was–well, look, I love all dogs, but he was not the most exciting one I’ve ever met. Maybe the heat was getting to him too.

 

Some incredibly gratifying new blurbs have also come in this month, most recently this one from Leslie Jamison, or Leslie Fucking Jamison as I have taken to calling her. Her own new addiction memoir/history The Recovering is everywhere right now, and I highly recommend it, along with her debut essay collection, The Empathy Exams, which became a surprise bestseller and sort of reset the bar for what an essay collection could achieve in the commercial marketplace. (Speaking of which–did you know there is no legal limit on how many copies of my book you’re permitted to own? You could legally buy a new copy every day for the rest of your life if you felt like it. Just thought you might like to know that bit of trivia, no particular reason.)

Anyway, here’s what Leslie Jamison had to say about Nothing Good Can Come From This: 

“Kristi Coulter charts the raw, unvarnished, and quietly riveting terrain of new sobriety with wit and warmth. Nothing Good Can Come from This is a book about generative discomfort, surprising sources of beauty, and the odd, often hilarious, business of being human.” — Leslie Jamison

If she said it, it must be true! I was also thrilled by this praise from memoirist and novelist Susan Jane Gilman, whose travel memoir Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is particularly stunning:

Brave, whip-smart, and laugh-out-loud funny. Kristi Coulter does not pull any punches tackling the taboos in so many women’s lives: addiction, sex, money, privilege, ambition, adultery, and power. In these essays, she bares her own soul to a greater end, writing with unflinching honesty and unexpected poetry. Although this is framed as a book about drinking, it’s ultimately about so much more: the insidious reasons why so many of us might polish off an entire bottle of Chardonnay in the first place—and how we might better serve ourselves in the end. Coulter herself is addictive to read. She’s a fresh, uncensored voice, offering up more than a drop of insight and hope.”–Susan Jane Gilman

(Susan’s quote is the one you can show your friends who are like “Wah, I don’t want to read a book about drinking.” “Well, how about a book about SEX? you can say. How about MONEY? How about POWER? Do any of these topics appeal to your highly refined tastes?” Just keep going relentlessly down the list until they are forced to admit they actually DO want to read my book. Thanks in advance.)

And finally, I’m super excited to present the very first excerpt, which Longreads ran yesterday! It’s about my very first night sober, and an otter that I’m pretty sure I blogged about here several years ago. There will likely be other excerpts (and some new work, too) to share before August 7th, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy this one. (Also, I love the artwork they chose. As a friend pointed out, addiction essays all too often end up  with a glamorous-looking header image–but this one looks disturbingly like my own recycling bins not so long ago.)

Like I said, friends, life is weird these days, but I guess it’s full of wonders too. Either way, we carry on.

Day 1,822.

Day 1,779: You’ll See

For several years I’ve been in this life phase called “friends keep adding me to secret menopause Facebook groups where women gather to share information, vent, and validate the living shit out of each other.” I hate it. Sure, at first I was game. I’d jump in and introduce myself and start reading posts and then within, say, ten minutes I’d be gripped with a sense of impending doom like you would not believe. Sometimes it verged on panic–racing mind, shaking hands, tight throat. And honestly, panic seemed like a reasonable reaction to the fact that I’d just learned my goddamn life was about to end. 

Not right away, of course! No, first there would be perimenopause: five to ten years of sweat attacks, chronic insomnia, depression, rage, massive weight gain, equally massive beauty loss, brain fog, lethargy, purposelessness, and an end to all interest in sex. All at onceThen my life would end, and when it ended I would emerge into a peaceful earthly afterlife where I would be sexless, powerless, and completely invisible…but wise. A level of wisdom that would make up for the complete destruction of everything else. And I would be able to share this wisdom with, I guess, my fellow invisibles, and we would all wear invisible red hats and feel smug that we didn’t actually die.

I mean, Jesus, I feel my chest tightening up just typing this.

I was 46 when I was ushered into the secret Facebook society of doom-followed-by-sexless-wisdom. Things had already started to change. I couldn’t rely on my body as a 30-day kitchen timer anymore. I’d had a hot flash here and there. I had grown a single wiry chin hair that came back every time I plucked it. It was easier to gain weight and harder to lose it. In other words, I was almost certainly already in that long tunnel of horrors known as perimenopause, and I knew it. It just didn’t seem like that big a deal, I guess. After all, I was also writing, and working at an interesting job, and running, and lifting weights, and starting to have the best sex of my life. I certainly didn’t feel unattractive–yeah, I guess my 30-year-old body was skinnier (and by “I guess” I mean it was definitely skinnier), but I hated my 30-year-old body, hated taking up any space at all, and I didn’t use it for much back then. It could barely get through half a Tae Bo class, let alone a half-marathon. Maybe I didn’t have the ‘glow of youth’ anymore, but I finally had a real sense of style, and anyway, I’d spent most of my glowing years red-eyed from crying over some boy.

Basically I felt just, you know, fine. But then I’d get sucked into these menopause pages, each woman’s story more awful than the last, like some sick form of Jenga, and come away convinced that maybe I just hadn’t been hit by the freight train yet. After all, how could feel okay when so many other women were in full-on crisis? How could feel vital and sexy when literally hundreds of other women were sure they were losing their minds? Once or twice I hesitantly ventured that maybe for some of us, the process was fairly mild. “Just wait!” I was told.

Once I admitted that I didn’t feel at all invisible–that I felt vocal, powerful, beautiful. “Just wait,” someone said. “It’s coming for you, too. You’ll see.” (This is verbatim, and can I just say, what the fuck, lady.)

That’s about when I decided that the secret menopause groups weren’t right for me. Emphasis on for me. They were clearly a source of valuable information and community for many women who were suffering awful symptoms and weren’t getting straight talk from their doctors. But for me, they risked drowning out my actual lived experience. My inner voice wasn’t strong enough to withstand a chorus telling me this was really hard, that I would be suffering. Sometimes the chorus–which was often focused on how to gut out the symptoms with no medical relief, the same way some people approach childbirth or depression– seemed to say that I should be suffering, or else I was doing menopause wrong, being a woman wrong (yet again). I closed my browser windows and resumed living my pretty good life as a person who maybe just didn’t fit the mold.

After maybe eighteen months on shore leave, I dipped a toe back into the waters recently when I interviewed a woman my age who has written extensively on perimenopause. On the page, she’s so frank and blunt and funny in describing her issues and how she’s addressed them (for instance, did you guys know that in addition to attracting moisture to the skin on your face, hyaluronic acid will also un-dry your vagina? I know!!! It sounded crazy to me too, but apparently it works!) that I wasn’t sure what to expect in person. But when I found her in the cafe based on her description–corner table, blue dress–my first thought was “Why didn’t she just say to look for the hottest fucking babe in the room?” She was gorgeous. She was sexy. She was wide awake on the planet. And as we chatted for an hour about feminism and power and sex and hormones, I kept having trouble squaring the brilliant, funny, devastating babe across the table with her writing about feeling crazy and ugly and unfuckable. It was only later, walking back to my car in Pioneer Square, that I thought well, that’s her lived experience, and maybe it doesn’t show on the outside, but that doesn’t make it any less real. (I also chalk some of the gap up to the fact that she took action on the things that were bothering her–there is real help out there, people.)

So what does this have to do with sobriety? Well, because for the two or three years before I quit drinking, I read a lot about sobriety, and though the  details varied some, the prevailing collective narrative was something like this:

  1. It’s going to be an absolute nightmare for a while. It will take everything you have just to hang on. Life will become unrecognizable.
  2. But then eventually everything will be fine!
  3. But seriously, it’s gonna be so fucking hard for a while.
  4. Oh, and your addiction will be lying in wait for you every moment of the rest of your life. Just sharpening its claws and waiting for you to drop your guard.
  5. But you should totally get sober anyway because it’s great!
  6. Just don’t feel like it’s too great or Pennywise the Addiction will suck you back into the sewer.

This prevailing narrative made me…a little anxious. A little in need of just one more drink. Thank god I finally found a gentler, more optimistic voice, one that didn’t sugarcoat early sobriety, but also didn’t make it sound so militaristic, so unrelentingly brutal (so…male). That gentle voice gave me the courage to try being sober for a hundred days. And when I did, I found that it was hard. I did have some skin-of-my-teeth moments. Life did change in uncomfortable ways.

But all that hard stuff? It still happened within the context of my personality and temperament and life circumstances. I wasn’t ripped out of my core self. And when I remembered to pay attention to my own lived experience, and not just what I was “supposed” to be feeling, I realized that even the hard parts weren’t half the nightmare I’d expected. Don’t get me wrong–talking to other sober people was and is a huge part of my recovery, and early on I often spent two hours a day just reading sober blogs. But I was somehow able to take comfort in the commonalities I found with my new sober buddies, and still leave room for our differences.

Also–and this is important–I didn’t try to talk myself into thinking it was harder than it really was. I didn’t assume that feeling good meant I was doing it wrong or right. I just thought it meant that for whatever reason, I was having an easier time of it than some of my new friends. (And maybe a harder time of it than others.) I felt lucky, but not smug.

I’m 48 now. Next time a nurse says “And when was the date of your last period?” I’ll say “Sometime in the last four to six-ish months, maybe? I mean, do you really expect me to know?” I’m thinking about just having that chin hair zapped. A few times a year my entire body continues to heat up from the inside–I can actually feel it moving outward toward my skin–and then I sweat like a motherfucker for a few minutes. Because it doesn’t really disrupt my life, I find it fascinating. (If you’re around me when it happens, I’ll probably narrate it for you because it’s just so weird.) I run and lift and eat like a fairly intelligent person and still my belly is, you know, even less awesome than it was at 40, when I was already nothing to brag about. I have a book coming out. People ask me to talk because they want to know what I have to say. I feel a little sad that I probably can’t have a baby anymore, and then I remember that I don’t actually want to have a baby, at all, that all I really want to do is name other people’s babies for them. No, that what I really want is for all options to stay open forever, and I guess that’s just too bad for me.

I feel sexy and beautiful most of the time–in my living, feeling, full-of-curiosity totality, not as a snapshot or an isolated body part. I move through the world like someone who feels beautiful and mostly the world is a good sport and plays along. And then a little bit of the time I feel like the plainest, most invisible woman on earth, and I’d chalk it up to menopause except that I have been paying attention so I remember I’ve been cycling through those two states all my life. In both states I continue to have jaw-dropping sex that my younger self–even my 46-year-old self, let alone the 36-year-old one–couldn’t have anticipated. My drinking self certainly had no idea.

And then there’s that: I’m sober, and I think about my sobriety every day and I look after it, but I don’t live like a fanged monster is waiting to grab me back when I left my guard down, because living like that I exactly how I won’t stay sober.

How won’t stay sober. It might be different for you. If you want to find out, don’t let anyone scare you and don’t let anyone make you think it’s trivial, either. Because beyond the core stuff that seems to apply to most of us–community helps, having if-then plans help, putting recovery first helps– they don’t know! No one really knows what your sobriety will be like but you. It’s like that menopause lady said: “You’ll see.” Except in this case, the rest of us don’t know what you’ll see. You’ll have to come back and tell us.