Voices on Addiction: A Conversation with Kristi Coulter
Kristi Coulter is funny and reflective, frank and feminist, the kind of friend you meet at a donut shop for coffee because you are both sober, and instantly start telling your secrets, your stories. This is what memoirists do, anyway, and Coulter has that well-used intimacy muscle which serves to create Sedaris-level wit from both the mundane and the terrible. Better if you have a drinking and a recovery self, because then you have both the terror-memory, and the joy of knowing you can do anything.
Coulter inspired and riled the Internet when she wrote about the things she started noticing when she stopped drinking. Like when you give up a debilitating habit, it leaves a space, one that can’t easily be filled by mocktails or ice cream or sex or crafting. Leslie Jamison (The Recovering) wrote that 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.”
Coulter holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. She is a former Ragdale Foundation resident and the recipient of a grant from the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. Her work has appeared in The Awl, Glamour, Vox, The Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Seattle, Washington, where she has worked for tech companies including Amazon.
The Rumpus: One of the notions I want to begin with is that in the history of recovery movements, going back to, say, Bill W from AA, there haven’t been very many stories from a woman’s point of view. In particular, not very many that I recall that address the drinking culture being this mechanism that also acts to suppress women’s sovereignty. I wonder if we can begin this conversation with how this came to be the theme of your viral essay, “Enjoli,” and how seeing women drunk as a form of coping influenced your drinking and recovery.
Kristi Coulter: I had been reflecting on my (then) three years of sobriety about how deeply embedded drinking had been not just in my life, but in the life of the women around me. But it had been in more of a curious-to-alienated way, not an angry one.
One thing I had noticed with increasing frustration was how, in my relatively privileged (white, professional-class) world, women are expected and encouraged to drink like men do, but then judged much more harshly for it. We expect college girls to party hard, but then hold them responsible for their own rapes. We expect moms to drink at play dates, then want their heads on pikes if so much as a knee gets skinned. That no-win situation is what I initially set out to explore in “Enjoli.” But I’m not a college girl or a mom, and I really wanted to write about my own life versus tell a reported story. That’s what led me back to thinking of how the double bind had played out for me, and then to thinking further back to how that bind drove me to drink in the first place.
I also was thinking about the flappers when I started the essay—about how drinking and smoking were markers of liberation for them, just as they were for the Virginia Slims lady and the Enjoli lady and me and millions of other women. I’m fascinated by the idea of women claiming their pleasure and hedonism as a feminist act and how our culture superficially encourages that, but then slaps us down hard for it, too. (It’s also interesting that some of what we claim as pleasure can lead to self-destruction, but that’s true for men, too.)
Rumpus: You did such service to women in speaking of this bind, and reflecting on the ways drinking can be a sign of the suppression. I’m also intrigued by how, in America, it’s a sin to admit that you’re powerless over anything, for to do so would debunk this bootstrap ethos that runs under our myths. In this book, you don’t ignore your communities; you talk about your circles of influence, your alliances and mentors and friendships and husband and a potential lover, and these seem to be a working out of an empathic response, as well as working with the trauma of the later days of addiction. I wonder if you can talk about how your relationships and how your views of them changed after you got sober?
Coulter: When I think about my relationships I think of that beautiful scene at the end of Angels in America: Perestroika, where Harper Pitt is imagining the souls of the departed forming a giant net that restores the ozone layer. I automatically envision myself as part of a perhaps wonky-looking constellation of friends and guides and lovers and family and combinations thereof. I’m pretty introverted so it’s a curated constellation, but once you’re in, you’re pretty much in for life. People can drift in and out of my life but I’ll sort of leave the kitchen door open and I tend to find I can pick right back up where we left off. I didn’t grow up with a strong sense of family identity, so the idea of this net, this invisible but consistent structure, around me is important, and when it’s shaken, I’m shaken. One of the things I’ve loved about getting sober is that it expanded that net in a really organic way, because when I meet another sober person we tend to just get right into what’s really on our minds, whether it’s directly about sobriety or not, and it’s like a fast track to realizing I click with someone in a deep way. That’s carried over to new relationships with non-sober people, too, at least on my end—a certain shyness I once had is gone. Once you’ve come out as being an addict and the world doesn’t end, it opens up the possibility that you can be authentic in other ways, too, and people might actually still want to hang out with you.
In terms of how my relationships have changed, I feel lucky that I’ve maintained a lot of my pre-sobriety friendships, which is by no means a given. I think it helped that I got sober after forty, and in the midst of a demanding career—my friendships were mostly already based on other commonalities, and I was already at a stage of life where acting like an adult was sort of expected (whether I was playing along or not). I didn’t have a whole party crowd or bar crowd I had to shed. Also, I’d been married for fifteen years when I got sober, and my husband John quit drinking six months after I did, so that’s one more transition we’ve moved through together. Even at the worst of our drinking, we’ve always had a fun, romantic, companionable marriage—it was never some Cat on a Hot Tin Roof scenario with glasses being flung and whatnot. So things always seemed fine between us. But now that we’re both sober, it’s much better. We look back and say, “Oh my god, it was like a CARNIVAL of codependency we had going there.” So be it. After all, carnivals can be fun if you don’t stay too long.
What’s changed in how I think about my relationships is that for really the first sustained period in my life, I consciously think about what I need from them, versus just what desperate feats I should attempt to make the other person love me, or at least tolerate me. That’s like Being a Person 101, but it was a significant revelation to me in my mid-forties—that how I feel matters, too. And I’ve had to learn how to have feelings, period. In “Fascination,” the part of the book where a potential lover comes into my life, I talk about this in a specifically sexual/romantic context—that sobriety has taught me how to want, rather than just to be wanted, and to claim those feelings, whether or not I end up acting on them. The conversation I have with John in the book, and the way our relationship has evolved since then, were initially spurred by me crossing orbits with this one guy and being very drawn to him and freaked out about it. But more broadly, what I learned from that experience is that John and I were both making a lot of assumptions about what the other person needed and expected from marriage, and some of those assumptions—including flawless monogamy as a baseline requirement—just weren’t true. So we’ve learned to design our marriage based on what’s actually important to us, not just what we think is supposed to matter. It takes a lot of talking and honesty to do it this way, and despite our very secure attachment, I can’t imagine us being where we are now if either of us still drank. We just wouldn’t have the maturity or the stamina.
Rumpus: The female essayists of this new century are not interested in trading on the masculine version of the confessional, nor in dismissing the complexities of their lives for bravado. I think one of the things you do here that’s so very instructive is your interrogation of your usefulness, your language, your sexuality, your happiness. We don’t really need that dude-ish grandstanding in recovery, and I really dig how you show that long, painful walk into sobriety. Reminds me of Sarah Hepola in Blackout. So, who were your influences in writing this work, and how did those voices impact your story?
Coulter: Sarah Hepola herself was a big influence. Blackout was published about a year after I got sober, when I was just starting to write again, and one thing I loved about it was that she spent nearly as much time on her sobriety as on her drinking years. You don’t see that a lot in recovery memoirs, especially the more dude-ish ones. More often it’s ten chapters leading up to a very dramatic rock bottom, and then maybe two on what came after. By the time Sarah’s book came out, I knew that sobriety was more interesting than drinking, which (for me) was ultimately a pretty repetitive story. So Blackout was a talisman for me in the early months of writing my own book.
(An aside: I also remember hearing an interview with Sarah where she said that numerous readers complained that the sobriety part of her book was boring. They wanted more drunken drama. So I don’t know what it says about my commercial instincts that I still consciously set out to walk in her footsteps, except that I loved her sobriety writing and thought the world needed more of it. And of course, I’m the one who had to write the book, and I find it infinitely more interesting and challenging to write about being sober than being a drinker.)
Two other books that had a big impact in the later stages of work were Melissa Febos’s Abandon Me and Claire Dederer’s Love and Trouble. Neither is about recovery—though Melissa is in recovery, and has written about it extensively—but the narrative voices are bold and willing to risk being misunderstood or found unsympathetic. And to your point above, both books unapologetically claim the complexities and ambiguities of their authors’ lives, particularly when it comes to sex and other forms of entanglement. It was very, very important to me to write this book as myself, versus as a model for recovery. And I mean, I think I’m a pretty good egg overall, but I’ve also got my piece-of-work moments, and I had no interest in hiding those. So in the last few months of writing I often thought, Well, if Melissa and Claire can be that frank, then you can be, too.
Finally, of course I have to cite David Sedaris as an influence, because parts of this book are quite comical, and it was his knife-edge mastery of tone that I was aspiring toward—the way he can lure you toward laughing and then just shiv you, or vice versa. He’s brutal and compassionate and very funny and I’m quite jealous of him.
Rumpus: Right? Or nearly every writer with a funny and self-aware way of shaking up the seriousness of trying to save your own life. You do share some of those sensibilities though, of using your flaws for comic effect. And I’m thinking now of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, which redefined comedy by deconstructing what we’re doing in asking for humor to be self-deprecating, for example. I’m curious about how your humor steered out of the false humility of the recovery narrative, and how you found a way to show your ass?
Coulter: First, thank you for making me finally watch Nanette. (My husband thanks you too.) I was sort of avoiding it because I thought it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype, and boy was I delighted to be proven wrong. It feels like a watershed moment, an epoch-defining work. Plus, it was just glorious to watch—she’s hilarious and endearing and her anger is so relatable. I developed an instant crush.
I’ve always been one of those people who can find something funny in almost any situation, as well as the ridiculousness in myself. And being newly sober is a classic fish-out-of-water (or fish-out-of-wine) situation. You’re suddenly in an entirely new world, where both drinkers and sober people seem alien and you don’t know the rules or any of the cool slang. It’s comedy gold. Uh, maybe in a dark way, but still. And for me it was important to be serious about recovery, but not reverent. If I couldn’t have laughed, I don’t know that I would have made it very far.
As for finding myself ridiculous, it’s tricky to be self-deprecating in a healthy way, and not a line I have always walked easily. I used to work at a tech company notorious for beating people up, and even there I had several bosses tell me, “Hey, you really need to ease up on yourself; you’re doing a good job. Relax!” I do think to some extent I used self-deprecation as Gadsby did—to disarm others, to say the awful thing I assumed they were getting ready to say. If you do it with enough charm, it can make you seem lovable. I rode that train for ages, in a real or perceived need for self defense.
When I got sober, a lot of shame fell away from me—partly because I was finally dealing with a major source of it (addiction), but also because I started to realize shame in general was a vicious cycle that had fed my addiction. Since childhood I had been trying to be the perfect girl and then woman of the urban-professional variety: beautiful but not sexually threatening, high-achieving but not visibly ambitious, domestic in a studiedly nonchalant way. And all that effort did get me some things I wanted, but it also landed me in a trap of performing womanhood instead of living a life. In many ways, sobriety has been a process of working my way out of that trap. So showing my flaws, both the lovable and less-so, in this book is more an act of defiance than self-deprecation. It’s me saying, “Guess what: I am ambitious. I can be sexually threatening. And sometimes selfish or naive or hotheaded. Because to paraphrase Hannah Gadsby, men do not have a monopoly on the human condition. It’s my right to be a tangle of complications. That doesn’t mean it’s my right to be a clueless jackass. But I’m that sometimes too, because I’m human. And even in my lesser moments, I’m still fundamentally deserving of love and compassion.”
This world doesn’t have to like me. But it does have to reckon with me, with my humanity. Which, to your point, is not the humility demanded by the traditional (male) recovery narrative. But it’s how I’ve started healing.
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, interviews, and book reviews 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.