Why I Quit Being a Drunk Writer

Here is a story I tell a lot: I got sober more than 10 years ago, in a tiny studio apartment in Portland, Oregon. I was 23 years old and convinced I was going to be great. Maybe I already was great, I told myself. I merely needed to be discovered. Zoe Trope’s novel Please Don’t Kill the Freshman had just come out: she was two years younger than me. The reviews called her precocious. My friends and I took turns reading excerpts out loud to each other, being snide. In reality, I was jealous to a degree that was unhealthy.

I felt a weird rivalry with other writers. I obsessed about other people’s writing habits. I read the memoirs and biographies of well-known writers, and copied what they did. I’d been writing since I could hold a pencil, but what I did didn’t feel real. More than anything, I wanted to be able to point to a novel on a bookstore shelf and say, That’s mine. I wrote that.

At this point in my life, I’d already survived a heroin overdose. I was a round-the-clock drinker, craving the release of my blackouts the way a mailman looks forward to taking off his shoes at the end of the day’s deliveries. I had written many stories, mostly flash fiction. A few of them showed up in my college’s new literary review, in part because one of the editors was a friend of mine. Instead of an academic thesis, I’d written a novella. It was about a breakup. Nobody wanted to publish it.

I was 23 and positive that I’d missed my chance.

My first flash piece in a real journal, however, got a Best of the Web nomination, and this encouraged me. I decided that the novel I wrote would be even better than Kill The Freshman. It was a low standard, in retrospect, but still looked like Mount Kilimanjaro to me.

At the time, I was still holding down a job at a virtual receptionist company. I came in early every day, first one to the office. This wasn’t because I was a good employee. I was usually hungover, or still drunk from the night before, and the first one in made the coffee — -as strong as I wanted. I would sit in my cubicle, answering phone calls and sending emails, until my lingering sense of intoxication faded and I could start to feel my hangover setting in. By the time I clocked out at 1:30, I was usually in bad shape. The bars didn’t open until after 3. Every day, I tried to reason with myself: tough it out, or hair of the dog? I rotated the shops where I bought alcohol after work, always sticking with wine, never making small talk with the cashier.

When I see girls doing this now, in line at the grocery store in front of me, I think, I know what you’re up to. They buy four bottles of rose at once and then make a point to describe how many friends are coming over to help them drink it. Yeah, right.

Every day, I went home, rolled a skinny joint, stuck a towel under the door, and popped open my first bottle of champagne. I was pretending to be F. Scott Fitzgerald, I suppose. The novel I was writing was about a young man, sorely out of place, and the beautiful older woman who becomes his mentor. I was sure it was going to be a hit: it was just so literary. There were a lot of feelings in it, I think. A sense of being displaced. I wrote, drinking and smoking, until I blacked out. I usually slept for a couple of hours, woke up, and went out to the bars. I came home late, after everything had shut down, slept briefly next to my new husband, and then went to work.

Up to this point, my story is identical to many of the other ones I’ve read. I was stuck, I was insecure, I was making myself sick. I lost friends. My manager at work commented on the sickly smell that stuck to me. I couldn’t eat. In the mornings, I’d wake up and feel my swollen liver slide into its cavity. My hangovers were excruciating, so I dulled them with morphine and marijuana and tried to stay drunk as much as possible. Some nights, alcohol had no effect on me, and I’d drink in a panic, racking up three-figure bar tabs. I went home feeling like I’d swallowed a bag of cotton swabs.

I had plenty of trauma to point to: if you’d been through what I had, you’d drink too. And I was an artist. I was fragile, dammit. I needed an outlet, and this was it.

What makes me different from so many other people who have walked this same, vertigo-inducing road? I made it out. And I stayed out. What’s more: I don’t miss that shit at all. It was boring. It was cliché. It was killing me.

Honestly, did the world need another drunk writer? How trite.

After almost 1,000 days without a drink, I went to my first AA meeting. An old hippie, who’d been sober forever, told me that the thrills of addiction were nothing compared to what recovery could offer me. “Try reality. It’s a long-acting psychedelic.”

Everyone laughed, but I’ve found that to be true. I stayed. I went to another meeting. I didn’t drink. Years later, I am still here.

Life is really fucking trippy.

I am sharing this not because AA is the perfect solution — -it’s not for everyone, though I believe it can help anyone. I am telling you all this because there is a painful lack of stories from people like me. What is recovery like? Nobody seems to know. We get sober, and it’s intense and miserable, and we write shitty, self-indulgent essays about it, and then — -nothing. We go back to drinking. We feel isolated at parties where everyone else is getting hammered and congratulating each other. We have to figure out how to have sex without a few glasses of wine first, and write stories that aren’t about tortured, brilliant people with substance use problems. It’s a learning curve, for sure. But I can tell you that life in long term recovery is incredible. Worth the work.

I’m a different person today. I am self assured. I divorced my son’s father and am now in a partnership with someone who respects and loves me. I put myself through graduate school while working three jobs, and now write full-time, supporting myself and my son. My short story collection, I’ve Never Done This Before, came out last year. This August, American Fix, which I co-wrote with Ryan Hampton, will be published by St. Martins Press.

I have fulfilled so many wishes that I had a decade ago. If you’d told me, sick and strung out and 23, that one day I would be here, I would have spit on the ground. Impossible. But it’s not. The things my heart desires, as it turns out, are not unobtainable. Recovery, for me, is a lifelong journey towards my own greater good. Ten years in, it’s going pretty well. As it turns out, I am a lot more resilient than I thought — -and a great deal happier than I thought I would be.

This isn’t meant to be a hard pitch for recovery. My path is not the only one. Results may vary, as they say. I’m just saying that it’s possible to stay sober, for a long time, and actually enjoy it. Anyone can drink, or get high, or carouse. Not everyone can stay sober. Anyone can dress up in the affectation of ‘being a writer,’ like I did. Not everyone can finish what they start. I learned to grow up, in recovery. My experience is that staying sober isn’t a tentative bargain I have to make with myself every day. I don’t feel like a hostage anymore, telling myself that if things don’t work out, at least I can drink. My recovery isn’t an extended existential crisis, like my addiction was. I don’t feel isolated anymore. I feel whole. I care a lot less about what other people think of me. I worry less. When I’m an asshole, and sometimes I am, I know I’m doing it on purpose.

The novel I wrote? I found the draft when I was moving. The stack of pages was on a shelf in my closet, and I took it out with shaking hands. My masterpiece. I started to read. After a few pages, I found myself flipping back and forth. Was this a mistake? No. Almost every page was identical to the one before it. Writing between blackouts, I’d rewritten the same scene over and over again. My character stood, frozen in time, at the top of the bannister that I was about to push him over. I flipped the page. He didn’t move. The next page. The hand of fate held, suspended over him.

This was not a brilliant novel. It was pages: words. A pile of trash.

That’s what drinking was, for me. I think of that draft when I work on the book I’m writing now. I type, and drink coffee, and consider how much potential we have, when life starts to have a plot again.