Sobering RealitiesWomen Write Their Way into the Addiction Canon

Illustration by Dani Pendergast

Monster cover showing an close up image of a Black person wearing a colorful patterned mask with hands by their neck and against a patterned background
This article was published in Monster Issue #89 | Winter 2021

For far too long, the addiction-memoir genre has been dominated by men, from Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend (1944) and William S. Burroughs’s Junky (1953) to Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight (1995). As a result, narratives about who struggles with addiction and what it means to recover have often excluded women. Yet, slowly but surely, women have been adding their stories to the memoir canon: Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story (1996), Mary Karr’s Lit (2009), and Sarah Hepola’s Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget (2015) are proof that women have written themselves into conversations about addiction. But even as more women write addiction memoirs, the scope of their stories has remained limited: Straight white women struggle with alcohol addiction until they find 12-step recovery and get sober after one of their first attempts. These linear narratives belie the fact that addiction and the path to recovery look different for everyone. Though relapse is a common part of the recovery process for between 40 and 60 percent of people struggling with addiction, that part of the journey rarely makes an appearance.

Some people with addictions never recover and some take a harm-reduction approach; that’s what made Cat Marnell’s best-selling 2017 memoir, How to Murder Your Life, so groundbreaking and important. Marnell is a complicated protagonist who never fully recovers in the way we often think of recovery—completely sober from any and all mood-altering substances. She wrote the book in the throes of active addiction rather than in hindsight, through the language of recovery mantras. Three other recent books—all written by women—have also attempted to close some of the narrative gaps in addiction memoirs: Erin Khar’s Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me, published in February 2020, grapples with the trauma at the root of so many addictions. In Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls: A Memoir of Women, Addiction, and Love, published in April 2020, Nina Renata Aron shines a light on the loved ones, usually women, who are so often supporting characters in stories of addiction. And Erica C. Barnett’s Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery, published in July 2020, goes to the dark, ugly places that have, until recently, been exclusively within the purview of male alcoholics.

Addiction memoirs penned by men, including Augusten Burroughs’s Dry (2003) and David Carr’s Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own. (2009) often bring the reader to the grisly places the disease can take someone. We follow low-bottom drunks as they pass out in parking lots, live in squalor, and don’t shower for weeks at a time. These tales involve dirty, repugnant behavior, but these experiences aren’t unique to men; addiction can bring women to the same dark places—like when Khar buys drugs from a 12-year-old boy. “When I was trying to get sober, addiction memoirs were my favorite genre,” Barnett told Bitch. “I found myself relating more to the men’s memoirs because they were really ugly accounts of addiction that were similar to my own experience. They didn’t shy away from the details and the horrible stuff that happens.”

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Wreaking Social Havoc

Historically, there have been gendered standards that dictate how women are allowed to exist in the world. Women have been and continue to be socialized to be pleasant, keep up appearances, and remain likable. These expectations can be found in the pages of addiction memoirs—dominant stories have been written by white middle- and upper-middle-class women who, because of their more privileged positions, don’t end up in the more extreme and messy places the disease can take less fortunate people. That’s one of the reasons it’s so refreshing—and sometimes frustrating—to read Barnett’s account of passing out in the bathroom at work, drinking from sunrise to sunset, and cycling in and out of rehab facilities. Conversations play out over and over throughout the book between Barnett and her coworker and best friend, Josh: “You have to get your shit together,” he tells her. “You cannot keep doing this shit!” His refrain of, “I’m worried about you,” becomes both predictable and repetitive.

Barnett’s story makes the reader want to shake her while pleading that she get herself together and stop repeating the same mistakes; this is precisely how it can feel to be a friend, loved one, or coworker of someone in the throes of active addiction. “I didn’t want the reader to feel sympathetic [toward] me. The reader is supposed to be frustrated with me,” Barnett said. “I put my subjective feelings at the forefront of the story.” Like Barnett, Khar takes readers on a sometimes exasperating journey full of relapses in Strung Out, which chronicles the 15 years she spent fighting an addiction to heroin. Though Khar’s story takes place before the current opioid crisis, she was still a well-off, white-passing girl who struggled in isolation because no one suspected she was addicted to heroin. Only a small number of people—a boyfriend and her best friends of the moment—knew the truth.

“There are very few memoirs about female heroin addicts, in general, and when I was using heroin I was an anomaly,” Khar told Bitch. “Today I wouldn’t be, but I hid so well because people around me didn’t think that I was what a drug addict looked like.” Aron, on the other hand, continually returns to a toxic relationship with K, a man who’s addicted to heroin and refuses to get sober. Good Morning comes to a crucial realization: Aron ultimately understands she’s responsible for the chaos in her personal relationships, rather than being the victim in them. “Realizing that ‘exactly 50 percent of the dynamic was me’ is a really painful thing when you’ve centered your entire identity around martyrdom,” she said. This is something Khar also wrestles with via the carousel of men who come in and out of her life— a never-ending parade of people whose names cease to matter because they all blend together. “So much of my addict behavior was around intimate relationships, from my parents and my friendships to my lovers and boyfriends, it was a part of the story,” Khar said. “You could see the addiction playing out in all areas of my life. There’s a relationship for a lot of people between how you are in your interpersonal relationships and your behavior around addiction.” 

A woman’s sexual behavior is judged much more harshly than a man’s is, which Khar says has been the biggest complaint she’s received about her book—not the graphic scenes of injecting drugs or the beautiful but haunting description of what it feels like to overdose but the number of partners she has in the story. “It makes people uncomfortable, and that’s particularly true because I’m a woman,” she said. “There are memoirs written by men where there is a lot of sex, and there isn’t this commentary.” All three of these books do an excellent job of grappling with the protagonists’ place in the larger world, another element that’s often missing from the addiction-memoir canon. Khar, Aron, and Barnett zoom out to show the reader how they’ve been shaped by societal pressures and oppressions. Whether it’s Barnett shining a light on the exploitative and ineffective nature of the treatment-industrial complex, Khar struggling with her role in the larger drug epidemic and its impact on poor communities of color, or Aron examining the impact of men’s alcoholism on women throughout history, these books ask larger questions about society and, in doing so, challenge the systems that keep women and other marginalized people from determining their own realities.

Unpeeling the Layers of Trauma

There’s a subtle, underlying queerness to Aron’s book, which she says was intentional—a quiet thrum beneath the main narrative about her relationship with K. “Maybe [women] can only become [themselves] in the spaces where [men] aren’t,” she writes. Over and over she questions, and seeks to unlearn, the patriarchal, heteronormative ideas about love and romance that women are taught amount to happiness. “There are ways in which the book feels very straight,” Aron acknowledges, “but I’m questioning the heteronormative life choices I made throughout.” The attuned reader will catch brief moments where the narrator notices a hot butch woman but feels intimidated at the prospect of pursuing her. “There are a lot of possible understandings of the journey that I go through, but one of them is a journey of letting go of the fantasy of heterosexual love and romance, of the idea that that [dynamic] was ever going to be good for me [or] to me,” Aron said. “Part of the freedom at the end is the freedom of letting that go.”

Khar explores her trauma by explicitly detailing the childhood sexual abuse that ultimately became the catalyst for her drug use. She also addresses through subtle writing what it’s like to move through the world in a body that’s read as female. “I knew the trauma was important to write about. It’s so much a part of addiction stories; it’s a high statistic that opiate addicts have some kind of abuse-based trauma,” Khar said. “I don’t have any friends [that] identify as women who became heroin addicts [without having] sexual trauma in their story.” Barnett’s book discusses some of the more complex layers around sexual assault, exploring the ways gay men can contribute to sexual violence against women through a sense of entitlement to their bodies. This dynamic is showcased through her relationships with two gay male former coworkers, including Dan Savage: “I was two nervous pints in when Dan showed up, sauntered over to my side, called everyone to attention, and said, ‘Welcome to the team!’ Then he slid his hand onto my back and undid my bra.”

Until the canon includes stories that encapsulate the full spectrum of the disease—adding gender, race, class, orientation, and ability diversity to the conversation—it won’t be complete.

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While shocking in the moment, Barnett said she came to see that behavior as normal, because it was part of a larger pattern of incidents explained away because the man crossing the line was gay. Barnett ventures into even murkier territory, which Hepola also touches on in Blackout: Sexual assault isn’t always as cut and dry as it seems. “I know that an impartial observer might conclude that I was a victim of men who took advantage of me when I couldn’t give meaningful consent,” Barnett writes. “If it wasn’t me we’re talking about, I’d probably say all those things, too. But it isn’t how I feel. What I regret now isn’t the sex itself, or the things I don’t remember. It’s the fact that I spent so many years thinking that if I got drunk and had sex with a guy, my own value would increase.” The experience of sex during blackouts is “hard to talk about,” Barnett said. “I’m making a choice, but it’s not me in my right mind making that choice. But I don’t want to take away all my agency in that situation or assume that a guy is going to know I’ve had nine drinks.”

She makes a good point—conversation around sex during blackouts often assumes that the “perpetrator” can tell the “victim” is intoxicated; but for many alcoholics like Barnett who operate at all times with a blood alcohol content near or above the legal limit, tolerance looks different. “It’s very simple to say the guy should have known, but that puts you in the position of being a passive object,” Barnett said. “If you’re finding yourself in that situation over and over, like I was, it’s probably time to stop drinking. Everything is more clear-cut when you are mentally present and able to understand what’s happening around you.” There’s still a lack of class diversity among the authors, and Barnett’s book misses several opportunities to explicitly racialize herself and name her white privilege; she mentions more than once that she was able to drink openly on a bus during the day and shoplift because she was “a woman in yoga pants” who didn’t look the way the world expects a criminal to look, but her whiteness is the other key part of that equation.

And yet, despite these missed opportunities, both Khar and Barnett do something important in their memoirs: They stress the importance of seeking support outside of 12-step programs, which are often presented as the only solution for people seeking addiction treatment. While both women utilized the program and found parts of it useful, they employed other methods too. “It took aftercare and years of talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy and a spiritual life for [me to get] to the place I am now,” Khar said. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all formula to recovery.” The addiction-memoir genre can feel oversaturated, and while there may be a surplus of books that share a similar narrative pattern, these three books prove we need more like them. Until the canon includes stories that encapsulate the full spectrum of the disease—adding gender, race, class, orientation, and ability diversity to the conversation—it won’t be complete.

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by Britni de la Cretaz
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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer and baseball enthusiast living in Boston. Follow them on Twitter at @britnidlc.