Cleaned Up“Strung Out” Complicates the Conversation about Women and Opioid Addiction

Erin Khar, author of Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me (Photo credit: Sylvie Rosokoff )

Erin Khar, author of the popular Ravishly advice column “Ask Erin,” first experimented with opioids when she was 8 years old, swiping her grandmother’s expired painkillers from the bathroom medicine cabinet. She began shooting heroin at the age of 13, in her older boyfriend’s austere house overlooking Beverly Hills, and for the next 15 years, her battle with addiction raged. In her unflinchingly honest memoir, Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me, Khar chronicles the mental-health issues and trauma that left her feeling as if she didn’t “have enough body to contain everything humming” under her skin and helped turn her toward the drugs that gave her the exit she so desperately wanted.

In detailing her personal history, she highlights how shame and the stigma of addiction fueled her desire to use, while also reflecting on the role privilege played in her addiction. On a particularly cold winter day in New York City, I sat down with Khar to discuss how she crafted her narrative, how trauma contributed to her addiction, and the role advocacy and grounding outlets—such as spirituality and writing—have played in her journey with sobriety.

You start Strung Out in the present tense, after your adolescent son asks, “Mom, did you ever do drugs?” This serves not only as a jumping-off point for telling your story about addiction but also provides the narrative with a sense of hope. When you began writing, did you know that was how you were going to start your story?

Originally, I was going to start the narrative right in the middle of my addiction and then fill in backstory. I played around with the structure so many times. Before I signed with my agent, I worked with someone on my proposal and she suggested I start with prologue in present day. At the time, my son had just asked me that question, and as I was trying to think of what the journey of the book was, I realized [it was in] answering his question. That is the whole arc. It was a nice way to contain it and to allow [my current voice] to come into chapters without seeming unnatural. I was able to capture my voice at different ages while still bringing in the voice that has [had] the time and distance to have some perspective. I didn’t want it to just be me at 13, 16, 21, running amok without that grounding voice of me today.

There’s a scene where, while smoking outside of a coffee house, you spot your abuser across the street. You write, “The feelings, the moments, the sounds, the touch—everything came back but all out of order. That’s the thing about trauma; it disperses bits and pieces of information and hands them back to you like an undone jigsaw puzzle.” I very much related to your description of traumatic memories and found your discourse about trauma incredibly compelling. Was it important to you to shed light on the role of trauma in your journey?

Over time I came to understand the role that trauma played with my mental health and addiction issues. I’m glad you highlighted that passage because that’s how it always felt for me—this fragmentation—and because those memories were always so fragmented, it instilled so much doubt in trusting my memories. It allowed me to minimize the trauma or to push it away or [question]: Did that really happen?

I know there’s a high percentage of female-identifying people with opioid addiction who experienced some sort of sexual trauma. And, in general, it’s important to talk about all sorts of traumas that people experience—whether [it’s] from abuse, growing up in poverty, or [experiencing] institutional racism or other forms of oppression. As I mention in the prologue, there’s this American ethos of “Pull yourself up from the bootstraps” and “If you really want to succeed, you can succeed no matter what the odds are,” which puts unrealistic expectations on all of us. People who have experienced trauma can probably recognize that feeling [of being] pulled back in those moments, and it’s extremely important to highlight with addiction because taking the drugs away doesn’t solve the problem. The core issue is still there.

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There’s a wonderfully crafted sense of place throughout the book. We see Los Angeles and Paris from so many angles, both glamorous and not. We also get a real sense of the time, whether through music references or sending taped letters to your friend back in the States while you’re in Paris. Do you think that both the time and place contributed to how your story played out?

I look at L.A. as a separate character in the book. I have such a love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. I never felt like it was my city. I always felt like I wanted to be somewhere else, and I was exposed to and had access to a lot around the entertainment industry, seeing bands play, and the people that were around. I don’t think my story would be the same if I had grown up somewhere else.

And because I have a love of pop culture and music is important to me, when I look back at periods of my life, it’s framed by the pop culture of that time. I did want to capture that time and place of L.A. and Paris in the ’90s. If all this had happened now, I wouldn’t have the same experiences, mainly because of the internet! When I moved to Paris, I didn’t bring my computer with me because it was a desktop. I had email, but I rarely used the computer at school. I had a cell phone, but it didn’t work in Paris. All those factors forced me to do things like write those letters and do those tapes. And because not everything was at your fingertips all the time, you were a little bit more isolated, which allowed you to experience the place you were in more.

You reflect on your privilege quite a bit, highlighting how it informed your addiction. Did you always recognize it? Did you feel like it was your duty to acknowledge privilege in this work?

In the moment, I was aware of it to some degree. Certainly I now have a complete perspective on it. I could not have written Strung Out without acknowledging [my] privilege because I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t have access to care. Even with access to care, it took me a long time to crawl my way out of addiction. I’ve done some panels with public-health officials and law enforcement, and my main point is always that if we don’t offer mental-health services and treatment to people where they’re at, then [there’s no] hope at solving this because there’s so many barriers to getting help. I didn’t have many [barriers]. I created the ones I had. There are so many stories that aren’t told by people because they don’t have the privilege of telling them for these very reasons. While it’s not my place to tell their stories, it’s important to acknowledge that.

So I absolutely felt a responsibility to acknowledge my privilege throughout the book. It wasn’t just in terms of what would’ve been different for me had my ethnicity been different, had my skin been darker, had I not had access to money in the way that I did. I also felt it was important to address the way that privilege plays into the whole ecosystem of drug dealers, drug users, and buyers—and how that affects entire communities. That is also part of the discussion about privilege.

You write about making use of the Clean Needles Now program during your addiction, and you advocate for such groups now. What role has advocacy had in your sobriety?

It’s certainly been a developing role. I grew my little advice column from being on my blog to having an audience of half a million readers a month. The more I wrote about my past, the more people responded to it. I realized I had this opportunity to tell a story that might help people who were struggling with addiction or have loved ones struggling with [it], and to open people’s minds up [about] the experience of addiction. I repeat this all the time: Addiction is not a moral failing; it is a public-health issue. Someone in the midst of addiction is a human being dealing with a human condition. When we look at it that way, [addiction] doesn’t feel like an aberration; it’s one of the experiences humans can have.

The number-one thing harm-reduction services—needle exchange programs, injection sites, Narcan distribution and training, fentanyl testing strips—do is prevent people from dying. We can only help people if they’re alive; the only bottom you can’t recover from is death. There’s always hope as long as someone is breathing. A lot of documentaries and news reports depict the opioid addict as the zombie passing out on the street, in a store, or in their car. Yes, that’s happening, but there’s still a human being there; we can’t reduce them to this caricature. I get why people do it: It makes us feel insulated from the problem, like it couldn’t happen to me. It couldn’t happen to my family because look at that, that’s not us. That’s a big part of why I wrote the book too, to show that an addict doesn’t look like any one thing. I was able to hide my addiction for a decade because I didn’t look to the people around me like [their perception of] a drug addict.

My hope is that I’ll have more opportunities to speak with lawmakers and public-health officials about policy changes as my platform grows. Law enforcement’s attitude has changed a lot about needle-exchange programs: I did a panel in New York and the representative from the NYPD who’s dealing with the opioid crisis came from a much more compassionate place than I think she would have 15 years ago. I hope we continue moving in that direction. Being able to write this book [has] changed my whole purpose. I was very satisfied as a writer before. I felt like this was the path for me, but now there’s this secondary purpose [that] is so much bigger than me. It really feels like this is why I’m here. This is what I can do. This is what I can contribute. And it feels really good.

Addiction is not a moral failing; it is a public-health issue. Someone in the midst of addiction is a human being dealing with a human condition.

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Toward the end of the book, you discover two grounding outlets: yoga and writing. I’ve also recently read your essay about converting to Judaism and finding a sense of spirituality. What role have these forces played in your journey with both sobriety and motherhood?

I wasn’t on drugs [when] I had my first son, Atticus, but I was still really struggling. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but yoga [helped me] learn how to be in my body [after] spending so many years trying to escape my body. Yoga was the first time I was able to sit in my body and be okay there; that made me feel connected. It was the closest I’d [come to being] successful at any sort of meditation, and it was a way for me to start getting in touch with the spiritual side of myself because I really didn’t have any desire for organized religion.

My son [wanted] to go to religious school, but when we started going to our synagogue, there wasn’t any sort of proselytizing. It really appealed to me that the rabbi said if you believe in God—[expressing] the idea [that] you’re studying and grappling with the question more than having blind faith. In addition to wanting to leave my body before, I always wanted to disconnect. But being disconnected is also painful. So, having god as a concept of energy that connects you to everything else resonated with me.

Writing is also spiritual in some sense, because it was sort of the final page—[to use] a bad metaphor—of finding my way to truth again. I spent all those years hiding who I was, lying constantly; in the book I talk about feeling like I was in a room on fire for so long and so afraid that if people knew the truth that they wouldn’t love me. That shame alleviated when I started telling people the truth. That doesn’t mean I’m perfect or I don’t have days where I feel sad or regret things, but I just don’t have that shame anymore. I look at yoga as opening me up for the first time, having my mind connect to my body again, and being able to sit in my body in present time. Writing expanded on my ability to tell the truth, which made me feel more open and connected to other people. And finding a faith that rounded out my spirituality and worked for me in a way I didn’t think any religion could was really the bookend to that part of the journey.

All those things have obviously informed the way I mother. I’ve not been a perfect mother, but I hope my openness about working on my problems and growing as a person has shown my children they’re going to make mistakes. You can make huge mistakes and they won’t define the rest of your life. My biggest failures and mistakes have defined my life in a very positive way. I say this a lot [to my children]: Our character isn’t built on our failures but on the ways our life changed after those failures. I’m here today not in spite of my mistakes, but because of them.

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by Elizabeth Lothian
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Elizabeth Lothian is a writer, editor, native Brooklynite and the Digital Director at Guernica.