Voices on Addiction: Self-Portrait


A woman must continually watch herself.
She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.
– John Berger


Young Woman Drinking:

Mother should have told me that booze made a kind of heaven in my body, I thought the first time I felt it. I was fourteen and shared a six-pack of 3.2 beers from a gas station with a girl named Edie who, like me, would become an alcoholic. It was fall, new school feeling, shoes still clean and hair smelling of chlorine from diving practice in the pool. We walked to an old brick apartment building across the street from the gas station. Our town was small, a population of less than 5,000. We climbed the dimly lit stairs to the second floor and knocked on the door. I remember thinking the building was old, and feeling a pleasure in its age along with the loose nerves of my body, the fire of anticipation.


Man in a Room:

Edie knew a man. She’d gotten him to buy for her before. I don’t recall paying him more than the few dollars required for the beer. We knocked and a tall Native American man with pockmarked skin, a red nose, and a ponytail came to the door. It was impossible to tell his age—old, I guess I would have said then, but probably no older than forty-five. The room was clean and sparse. We sat on a couch made of stiff and scratchy upholstery I would later encounter in a chair I was given for my first college apartment. The man nodded to us as we went in. He kept his distance and didn’t look at me directly. I remember feeling safe, believing he would not harm me, though I cannot say if this instinct was well-developed in me, a girl who had spent her life in the safety of privilege. It was likely my naiveté that led to feelings of safety; the daredevil in me would quickly evolve.


Meditation on Pretty:

In the ninth grade I became pretty. Men and boys began to look at me in a way that felt exciting and shameful. “Be careful,” my father said, bewildered by fear, “men are dogs.” I was still a child, what could I do? A girl who had lived powerless but for imagination and games.

“Look away,” my father said when we passed men in a city shouting catcalls. But I looked them in the eye and years later, drunk, I laughed. The man who twisted my nipple in a bar on spring break, the man on a train masturbating, the men in Italy hissing or stepping into allies to expose themselves to me, the American soldier in Spain who asked me to let down my blond hair (of course I did), the teacher wanting things, the boss fondling. But I’m lucky, right? Nothing really bad ever happened to me.


Two Girls on a Sofa:

Edie and I sat on the rough couch in the small, smoky living room while the man went across the street to get our beer. Had I not gotten drunk for the first time that night, there would have been another night. I haven’t thought much of this night until now, only that it rings symbolic or at least ironic in that Edie and I were simply two young women with a disease hidden in our bodies. Still, it was this very day in fall, with this girl that I first found relief from my anxious mind. The world I had long imagined, the one in which I spoke to boys and laughed at parties and went to dances, came alive.


Woman on the Edge of a Bed:

I don’t know how long Edie and I sat on that couch looking at the dead screen of an old TV before I realized that to my right, through an open bedroom door, a woman was sitting with her back to us on the edge of a bed. Behind her a sheer curtain veiled the window through which light came in and made the edges of her sharper. Dark hair braided and heavy-set. I want to say she whispered something, muttered or grumbled, but I don’t really know. I never saw her face. She never turned around. I want to remember it as she was praying, but this isn’t likely.

Rounded like a stone in a river, she did not move. She sat waiting for us to leave—perhaps afraid, probably annoyed. I watched the dust particles floating in the shaft of light coming from the window behind the faux-wood framed TV. I had always thought it fascinating to be able to see those little spots floating in the air, like magic. Edie and I did not speak while we waited for the man to return.

I see only the rough edges of this memory but there was something about this moment, something spirited or anointed, as though a standing still occurred—time broke open to reveal my fate though only now through the tunnel of time and memory do I see this.


Self-Portrait in Red:

Nothing bad ever happened to me, I say, again and again, though some days I’m not sure. I was born like this—jittery, sensitive, anxious and longing for relief.

I became pretty and then angry and what do women do with their anger? Where does a woman put her rage?


Woman at a Desk in Pink Room:

Sometimes I believe I have lived a thousand lives. This comforts me. You have been here before, you will be here again. All the world is of this one breath. And yet it is this very connectedness that allows for the unique experience of each one, allows us to divide and disperse like sharp points of light blown free. Even now at my desk in the pink room, the children gone somewhere with my husband and the sound of the city I live in drifting through my bedroom window, I can feel this connection. But what is holy, sacred, and beloved does not easily make itself known on the page. So, I turn away from it. I know, too, that day with Edie, more than twenty years ago now, was just another day except that for me drinking would nearly destroy my life and that was the day I became smitten with its escape.


Girl in a Pretty Dress:

I was still a child in the ninth grade when I became pretty, relatively safe, living in privilege in white America. I did not yet understand dehumanization or misogyny, that one makes the other an object to do things inhumane to her without guilt or conscience. I did not understand how men rape a woman, each taking a turn like a pinball machine. How one’s pleasure can be thus, I will never know. How the threat of rape keeps women imprisoned, a kind of war against her body all her life. Each time I hear a report in the news another piece of me goes numb, turns blue-black with death. Each time a man values a woman for her appearance I remember how the scales balance on a spectrum that light-hearted jokes uphold. Knowing this, I stop myself from telling my niece her dress is “so pretty.” Pretty is nothing but an ugly attachment to self-destruction, to seeing one’s self divided—not as I am but as I am seen.


Self-Portrait in Red #2:

Tell me, what does a woman do with her anger, with her rage, or with her shame over being made subservient, secondary, object? Where in her body does it live? How many times can she circle back?

She sees herself through the eyes of a man looking at her looking at him, a self divided. What she cannot tolerate about the world she buries there, in her body.


Two Girls Walking Downhill:

The man returned and handed us our paper bag. Did we thank him? Did the woman scold him as we departed, taking the steps quickly, giddy and eager. Looking back, I am certain that this man also carried the same disease, and was a harbinger of what was to come for me. But, of course, I could not see this.

Edie and I walked slowly down the hill to her mother’s brick house in the fading light of autumn. Edie may have promised good things to come or discussed the bad taste of our beers and how to alleviate this—I don’t recall anything but the nervous anticipation I would often feel again in moments when I knew I would soon be drinking. Later, my body would fill with calm in anticipation of the relief of alcohol.

I would see that man again, though I doubt he recognized me, when I worked the register at my father’s drug store, which I did for many summers. I would see him waiting, stinking of cigarette smoke, hunch-shouldered, and quiet, and I would wonder and want to know if he still lived in that apartment. And where was the stone-shouldered woman? He radiated a sorrow that drew me too him, perhaps it was intrigue, but perhaps a part of me could already identify with his grief.


Self-Portrait with Bed:

Even now, years into recovery, this disease rips apart my carefully stitched seams on certain days. I lie in bed and feel my body riveted by fear. There is no light in the sky; the window is open but I see only gray and the cracking arms of bare trees across the rectangle of lightlessness. I cry all day, filled with relentless self-hatred: I am not good enough, I am failing at everything, I will never be enough. It is, some say, a disease of perception, for just yesterday I felt the warm heat of love, the light rabbit of creativity at my feet, the glow of children messing the house, tumbling about, wild with laughter, and the body of my husband like a luminous constellation at my back. I will feel it again if I go and sit with the others and tell them everything. They will nod and say, “Yes, us too, you are not alone.” The opposite of addiction is connection. We will trade comforts like Sunday morning wafers on my girlhood tongue that I washed down with a thimble full of grape juice, sitting in a pew with my family. We will say, come back or you will die, speak the truth or you will die, and this will be true.


Self-Portrait of Arrival:

When I felt drunk that first night, after gulping down three foamy, watery, bad tasting beers, I thought of my mother. It was a fleeting thought in my mind but there it was: Why had she not told me about this? Why had she kept this ecstasy from me? All my life I had lived in a body riddled by nerves, tense, painfully shy in certain moments, acutely aware of the emotions of others, burdened by a longing to run free of it all. Everything would be okay now, I thought, if I could keep drinking on my way to drunk and never run out of more. Though there could never be enough.

This is it, I thought, as my body went numb with the most spectacular relief I had ever known. I have arrived.


Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.


Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.

Emily Arnason Casey’s writing has appeared in Hotel Amerika, the Normal School, Mid-American Review, American Literary Review, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is the Creative Nonfiction Editor for Atlas & Alice Magazine. She lives in Vermont with her partner and their children. More from this author →