I eagerly ripped Erin Khar’s debut memoir, Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies that Nearly Killed Me, from the envelope at the mailbox and read as I walked home, so absorbed that I narrowly avoided twisting my ankle on a curb. I read late into the night and, at my desk at work the next day, I snuck pages, finishing under the shade of a willow tree on my lunch break.
Strung Out chronicles Khar’s plummet to the depths of her fifteen-year struggle with opiate addiction, trauma, and mental illness, followed by her subsequent burrow to the light of recovery, motherhood, and success as a writer. While Khar’s story is inspiring and awe-inducing, the beauty of Strung Out is, too, in its craft. Khar’s prose is simultaneously sharp, visceral, and conversational, while also tender and lyrical. She balances on a fine tightrope, depicting the drama of addiction without romanticizing or glorifying it. Both chaos and the quiet and mundane lay side by side. It’s a redemption story of grit and resilience, yet resists a simplistic, tidy chronology.
Khar’s writing has appeared in SELF, Marie Claire, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and others. She is the managing editor at Ravishly, which is also home to her weekly advice column, “Ask Erin.” She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.
Khar and I spoke via Zoom Video Conference on a quiet Wednesday morning in early December. After we quarantined our pets in separate rooms—her Maltese poodle mix, Pretty Lady, and my mischievous tabby cat, Luna—we had an illuminating, engaging conversation.
The Rumpus: In the prologue to Strung Out, you write, “Shame is a gatekeeper that prevents people from seeking help. Stigma is bred by that shame. Stigma has killed so many that it almost killed me.” This really resonated with me. Even though we are still in the midst of an opioid crisis and someone dies of an overdose every eleven minutes in America, it seems that the stigma of addiction remains deeply entrenched in our culture. In what ways do you hope to shatter the stigma of addiction and mental illness through publishing Strung Out?
Erin Khar: As I started getting honest with myself and then with other people in my life, I realized that the things that I held the most shame about were the things that I was afraid of people knowing. It goes back to this sort of base thing that if people knew X, they wouldn’t love me. But as I started being honest with the people in my life, I realized that talking about it made the shame dissipate.
As my advice column and my writing career grew, I knew this book was something that I had to write. It’s the book that I needed to read when I was younger. I hope that people use it as a way to have those uncomfortable conversations. It’s not just about addiction; there are many things we carry shame and have trouble talking about. Speaking about it is the only way to decrease the shame.
I think that even though there’s a lot more attention on the opioid crisis because of the staggering numbers, there is still so much stigma and shame. I still get comments if I write an online article. Basically, things like, “If a junkie dies no one cares” or “You’re a loser for making that choice.” People have said, “It’s because you don’t have a relationship with God,” which isn’t even true. That sort of shaming and commentary points to something in them they are struggling with. That’s about them, not about me.
It’s easy to look at someone else who has a more visible struggle and say, “Look at how awful they are. This is a moral failing.” It always goes back to the idea that somehow, struggling is some sort of reflection of a person’s character. But addiction is a human problem and our character is built by how we get up again after we have fallen and failed.
Rumpus: You write about these difficult and painful topics in an insightful and accessible way. You started your blog, Rarely Wrong Erin, in 2009 and moved the advice column, “Ask Erin” to Ravishly in 2015. I can definitely see parallels between your column and your book. When did you decide to start working on a memoir?
Khar: I had a clothing business for a couple of years that I shut down in 2008, then I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I went through a break up, then in the book I write about how I had an epiphany with this person I barely knew, that what I really wanted to do was write. So, I decided to go back to school again. I started writing personal essays in 2009. Then, a writing teacher told me that she thought I had a memoir in me, so that’s where the seed was planted. I probably didn’t start working on it in earnest until 2015 when I began working with someone on a proposal. In the middle of that, I was also trying to have a baby. I had four miscarriages, a late term loss, and then got pregnant and had a baby. There was a lot going on, so I was working on it in this background sort of way.
Rumpus: I’m also curious how blogging and your advice column influenced your writing process and voice.
Khar: My advice column has definitely influenced my voice. I think part of my voice is the way in which I speak directly to the reader. I try to be as objective as I can about my own behavior when telling the story. I think it’s important to shine the harshest light on myself. I draw from my own experiences in my advice column, “Ask Erin.” The tagline is, “She’s made all the mistakes, so you don’t have to.” That really resonates for some people. It seems to make people feel seen, heard, less alone, and less ashamed when someone is willing to say, I have my shit together now, but I didn’t always. I also cheated on boyfriends, stole money from my parents, ghosted a friend because they confronted me. I’ve made a whole lot of mistakes, but the benefit is that I survived them and learned something. That’s in line with the theme of the book, as well.
Rumpus: I’m wondering about your literary influences.
Khar: I wrote some of the chapters for Strung Out in Lidia Yuknavitch’s Corporeal Writing workshops. Lidia was a huge influence. I first read the The Chronology of Water five years ago. There was an honesty in the way she wrote that broke something open in me. The chapter about my overdose was written from an exercise she gave us about being in a liminal space between life and death. I wouldn’t be the writer I am without having taken her workshops, without her guidance.
When I was younger, Dorothy Allison was another writer who really influenced me and John Irving, oddly enough, because I read his books when I was really young. There’s a family motto in his book The Hotel New Hampshire that repeats, “keep passing the open windows.” I’ve thought of that in my life so many times, and also as a metaphor for writing. When I want to quit, when I think I can’t do whatever it is I’m attempting, that phrase reminds me to take a deep breath, to “keep passing the open windows.” Don’t quit, don’t take the exit. Keep going, stay. There are so many writers who come to mind and have influenced me, but those are the main three.
Rumpus: One of the many ways your memoir is impressive is that it spans a nearly forty-year period, starting when you were eight years old. How did you find Strung Out’s narrative structure and chronology?
Khar: I had a general idea of the arc. I didn’t have the whole book written when it sold. So, I worked on the proposal with my agent and that was extremely helpful because I really nailed down the narrative structure. I knew I wanted to open it with the question from my son, Atticus, because that was a really good starting point to bring it full circle at the end. Then it was a matter of zooming in on the moments that carry the story through to the next point in the narrative arc. That’s the thing that people who aren’t writers might not necessarily understand about memoir. It’s not as easy as just sitting down and writing out everything in your life. Really, you’re taking specific events in your life, picking them, and then creating an arc. That’s sort of the beauty of memoir and why memoir resonates with me so much as a reader as well.
It was challenging. Usually in memoir people write about a shorter span of time. So, it was a little difficult in terms of trying to pick the important turns.
I wrote my first draft in three and a half months. It was a really intense period of time and I had to be extremely disciplined. I wrote it chronologically. I had portions of the memoir already written that I edited, changed, fleshed out. But I’d say I hadn’t written about seventy-five percent of the book yet. Then, after I submitted it and got edits back, I made major structural changes and completed the suggested edits in a month. It went really fast. Which was good in some ways because I stayed in it.
Rumpus: I really admire that. There’s a line in the book that relates to both the practice of writing and recovery that I love, where you write, “I have learned to stay.”
Khar: That was a big thing because I was always leaving. Whether it was some esoteric thing like leaving my body by taking drugs or leaving a relationship or leaving a city or leaving friends. I think I said this in the book a few times; I was always looking for an exit. But I don’t need to do that anymore. I really don’t think that if someone told me when I was in the thick of this that I would be able to just be and not leave. I don’t think I would’ve believed it. Because I didn’t know any other way to be. And that is true with writing, too. You have to be willing to stay in it for a minute.
Rumpus: Right. Like many writers, I’m still trying to figure that discipline thing out.
Khar: I also think it helps that I had a lot of distance from it. In February, it will be seventeen years since I used drugs. That’s a long time. Longer than I was actively using. I certainly wouldn’t have written the same book a year out, five years out, even ten years out. So much has changed, and I’m glad I had that time and distance because I still had so much work to do even after I got the drugs out of my system. That helped me gain perspective.
Rumpus: In his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Maté writes, “Passion creates, addiction consumes,” and that line came to mind as I read the last chapters of Strung Out. Can you talk a little bit about how your passion for music, writing, and art helped you in heal in your recovery? How did you find a balance between the passion of expression and the discipline of sitting down to do the work?
Khar: I think the driving force for me in anything I write is to reflect the experience of being human. That’s what resonates with me whether it’s a song, a book, a film, a painting. That’s why we can be moved by something even when we can’t explain tangibly what it is, like an abstract painting or something fantastical. There’s something about it that speaks to us on a psychic level, an emotional level. Maybe this isn’t true for all people, but it is for me.
When I write, I want to stay true to that. It’s so important to find something we can connect with, especially in this challenging time that we live in. Even though we have access to so much more, it’s very easy to feel disconnected because so much of it is electronic. Also, on the flip side, what’s been awesome is that through the advice column Ask Erin, I’ve been able to reach so many people and I hope my book reaches them, too.
That’s the thing in the front of my mind as I’m doing anything: “Where is the connection?” Because that’s what is missing for people who are in active addiction or spiritually adrift. That’s what it felt like for me. I had a desire to disconnect. But being disconnected from the world is very painful. I hope when I write something people feel less alone and more connected.
Rumpus: Another part of your book many will connect with is the birth of your son Atticus, and the way he helped save your life. This is such a pivotal part of your story.
Khar: Becoming a mom, as cliché as that sounds, really shifted something for me. I loved my son Atticus more than I hated myself. I don’t know if I’d be alive if I hadn’t had Atticus. I feel like I won the lottery because there was the impetus for me to do the work. This doesn’t always happen for everyone when they have kids. I’m not making any sort of judgement on mothers who struggle with being sober when they are pregnant or have kids. But it just shifted something for me.
In my relationship with my husband, I certainly did a whole level of work in terms of taking care of myself. It’s the longest relationship I’ve had and he is the only person I’ve never cheated on. It’s a big deal to be an actual healthy relationship with someone. My life is by no means perfect, I still deal with things everyone deals with—heartbreak, disappointments, grief. But, I’m happy. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to sustain any sort of happiness or fulfillment or be able to want to live. And I do. That’s huge. With my kids and my husband, it’s pushed me to do more and more work on myself. And doing that work on myself has gotten to that place where I could write and finish the book.
Photograph of Erin Khar by Sylvie Rosokoff.
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.