Voices on Addiction: The Churn


Nothing mattered but the churn. Enough chaos and you didn’t have to feel, only panic. I knew the cycle well because my family was always moving. Though only swapping one Rust Belt suburb for the next, we might as well have been time-traveling. This was before the internet. There was no scoping out a place on Instagram. Instead, I was dropped into various environments, a sea turtle hatchling fleeing predators in the dark till I could find camouflage among the waves. The one constant was the other kids. Everywhere, kids were vicious.

I was in third grade, Wilson Elementary, shaking spitballs out of my Dorothy Hamill (read: bowl) haircut during recess when Tracey – the goddess of third grade – floated past with her perfect hair and perfectly-matched Garanimals outfit. As she ignored the smiles and waves of her eager classmates, including mine, it occurred to me that popularity wasn’t about having friends or being friendly. It was about not looking like the kind of kid who had spitballs in her hair; it was about looking and acting a certain way, like Tracey. Already cafeteria poison in Reading, Pennsylvania, I set my sights on the next crash landing. Eventually, I’d get it right. Float.

At Bangor West in Bay City, Michigan, bell bottoms and a pookah bead necklace made me the kind of kid the other kids saved a seat for at lunchtime. The following year, despite adopting the uniform of Mountain Brook, Alabama’s Cherokee Bend—Oxford cloth/Levi’s/penny loafer uniform—I faltered. Unable to decipher the southern accent, I was placed in the slow learners’ classes.

By eighth grade in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, Franklin Regional, thanks to liberal adoption of Aqua Net and Bonne Bell lip gloss, I made cheerleading. But soon I had a new problem — we didn’t leave. Instead, my father quit his corporate job in steel to buy a gym, and the constant upheaval came to a screeching halt. Overnight we became a working poor family living in a middle-class suburb.

I’d been drinking for years by then, alone. I never suffered the delusion this behavior was normal. My parents weren’t drinkers. That I acquired the habit is a mystery, but if I had to guess my motivation, it would’ve been that alcohol was for grown-ups, and adults stood taller than any school’s shallow waters.

With only library books to guide me, I learned to steam and reseal liquor bottles, replacing what I took with water. Although my parents didn’t drink, it was the 70s. A bottle of Cutty Sark was a standard Christmas present and, oddly, Mom and Dad carted their full bar and ever-paler stash from state to state.

I began to babysit when I was ten, though I looked all of eight. “There is wine on the counter,” the Germans in Birmingham invited. I always said yes when Europeans asked me to watch their kids. They always had booze. And later, the hippies. They kept weed.

When we stopped moving, my cohort started throwing parties. This was where the complications arose. No longer pushed around by external circumstances, I drank the chaos. “Kirchner, do you know what you did last night?” was a refrain I came to dread. The answer was no.

The other answer was more.

By the third summer at the same address, I was assigned split shifts at the gym, eight to eleven and six to eleven. This was not churn but total submersion. Less than two weeks into “summer break,” my partying got in the way of this schedule.

“Come on, lazybones,” Dad yelled into my bedroom.

Did he yell? My head was pounding. Lying in bed to keep the world from toppling on its axis, I wondered why I’d painted the ceiling the same sky-blue as my walls. I rolled over and moaned, “I don’t feel well. I’m not coming.”

Suddenly my dad was in my room. The air had to have been heavy with the stink of unmetabolized alcohol and cigarettes. Even he couldn’t ignore this evidence.

“You’re a disgrace.” He was definitely yelling. “You’re never going to amount to anything the way you’re ruining your life. You disgust me.”

He slammed the door on the way out, but thanks to the vagaries of architecture, the door didn’t close but puffed back open. Fury licked at my insides as I rose to shut it, pulling the hallway phone into my room.

Mark answered on the first ring. “Fuck you.”

This was before caller ID, and though Mark had left me at the end of our driveway two hours earlier, I knew he’d answer. He had his own phone.

“My dad is such an asshole,” I started right in. “Why do I have to work all summer?”

“That sucks.”

“I hate my life. I can’t take it,” I whined. “Let’s go to West Virginia today and get shitfaced.”

West Virginia, the next state over, was our go-to place for partying. The drinking age there was only eighteen, which made Mark legal.

“Fuck that,” Mark said.

My heart sank.

Mark and I weren’t lovers or even close—I was fifteen-year-old a virgin without a driver’s license—but I knew he was into me. Between always having money, a car, and a crush, he’d always been willing to drive the hour and a half to get to Wheeling. If he’d tired of me, I was screwed.

“Let’s go to California,” he said. “I have an aunt there who’ll put us up.”

Not what I’d been thinking, but YES. “I have five hundred dollars in savings.”

Our plan was hatched.

While I waited for my mother to leave and join my father at the gym, I stuffed a garbage bag with clothes, my camera, and my journal. I’d miss my cat, Tiger, but I wasn’t going to lose heart. I couldn’t stay in this drudgery another moment.

Mark rocked up our driveway in his bright orange 1972 Pontiac LeMans convertible. Knowing what else was in his parents’ eight-car garage, I was disappointed. Besides lacking in stealth, all that eyesore had for sound was an 8-track player. The only three tapes Mark had were about as old as the car — Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath’s, Paranoid, and Rush’s 2112.

“Where’s the Porsche?” I asked, attempting to glare at Mark. He had wiry red hair, pale skin, and a right eye that liked to wander, so looking directly at him during a conversation was near impossible.

“My dad would kill me if I took that,” he said. “Besides, this is big enough to sleep in if we need to.”

Both excellent points. Our next stop was the bank, where I closed the account that contained all the money I’d saved since I started babysitting, five hundred dollars.

“We’re going to have to get creative,” I said as we walked to the car. “If we want to shower.”

Mark smiled and looked at me sideways, pulling a credit card from his pocket. “We can use this for at least a couple of weeks,” he flicked the plastic. “Till we’re far enough away they can’t catch us.”

Since technically I couldn’t drive, Mark did most of the driving with me as the navigator. We got lost a lot.

It took us days just to reach Illinois. By the time we hit Chicago, I couldn’t listen to Rush for one more second. Mid-song, I pressed eject and threw the tape out the window.

“What’s the matter with you?” Mark asked. This wasn’t the first time I’d been asked that question, just the first time Mark had asked. He hadn’t asked when I’d popped the clutch on his car while he was driving it, or when we’d taken off and left my friend Missy in the Monongahela River with cops on her tail, or when I’d thrown up all over the people seated in front of us at the Foreigner concert moments after our arrival.

What’s the matter with you? was the darkness, the exact question I avoided with the stupid shit I was always doing. What if Mark dumped me on the side of the road?

“We’ll get another one,” I assured him to fill the dead air. As far as I knew, the 8-track tape was extinct.

As we meandered across the country, somewhere in the middle, we discovered that the 8-track lived, but rock ‘n’ roll did not. Country and Gospel tapes abounded, but we could listen to that sound on the radio. I’d lost interest in fitting in. My sights were set on the promise of whatever was coming next.

We stretched our money by camping—the Badlands, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone—and by stealing. We’d drive up to someone’s tent, act like it was ours, and pretend we’d forgotten something—food, a stove, beer—or that it was time to decamp.

The charge card we’d used for gas was canceled as we hit California. Mark’s aunt was willing to put us up, but we had to talk to our parents. Fine. Though it had taken a month, we’d made it to California. Mark was eighteen, so he could do as he pleased anyway. My family was another story.

I’d never heard my father cry. “I love you more than your mother,” he said. The words made my skin crawl.

“I’m not coming back,” I said. Vicious.

We found an apartment in Pleasanton at the end of the BART line. The place was cheap and had a pool. Though I wasn’t yet sixteen, I got a job at a nearby McDonald’s. The restaurant didn’t open until after my September birthday, so we had to get by on what money was left till then. We weren’t drinking or partying at that point. Legal age was twenty-one, and no one was willing to share their “crystal,” which I only learned much later was homemade methamphetamine.

While I worried over our dwindling cash, Mark sat in his car for hours, day after day. Maybe he was frustrated that our relationship never developed. I wouldn’t know; we didn’t talk.

I furnished the apartment from yard sales, an upholstered chair, a folding table, and my prize—a black and white TV molded into a space helmet. The visor was the screen.

By then, I’d become adept at portioning my meals from a can of soup. My final triumph was scraping breakfast, lunch, and dinner off a single .19 can. If I could keep this up, the money would last until I could start eating at work. I didn’t know what Mark was eating.

As summer was ending, I walked to the local high school. There I discovered something called transcripts. These records of grades and classes were necessary if I wanted to enroll. My parents refused to allow my high school to release them. I could either get a GED or legally emancipate from my parents.

I believed a high school diploma was necessary and didn’t know colleges accepted GEDs. I found a lawyer in the classifieds who told me that emancipation would cost five hundred dollars, which I no longer had. The prospect of living off McDonald’s wages until I turned eighteen loomed, promising a stagnation I feared rather than the chaos I craved.

Hunched over my lunch portion of chicken noodle soup, I watched The Guiding Light. A mother/daughter duo was discussing a marriage proposal. The prospective fiancé was not the baby’s father. My future did not include sitting on a couch with my mother talking about anything. I couldn’t even envision a couch. I needed to rattle this trajectory before it stuck.

I went to the street pay phone and called my mom collect.

“Get to that airport this instant.”

That was the longest discussion I had with my family on the matter. I abandoned Mark in Pleasanton, but I know he stole my diary because I heard about it when I rejoined my class. The rest of high school passed by in a blur.

“Kirchner, are you always high?” the star quarterback asked me junior or maybe senior year. Not that the year makes any difference; the answer was yes.



Four years later, at nineteen, I would check myself into rehab. If anyone asked, I’d credit running away with giving me an early start on recovery because it had shown me a terrifying future. I would stay sober on that belief for more than seven years. But then I’d pick up again.

That first hit felt like taking off a wetsuit two sizes too small. My entire being unfurled into vast stillness, swaddling the bruised and ragged edges inside with a tenderness I hadn’t felt since the last time I’d found this oblivion. I was floating. Until I wasn’t.

Eventually, I dragged myself back to the shores. Not because I minded the wreckage—that was never what mattered. Destruction was the goal. But I did need to get off all the psych meds.

I was at a meeting sometime in June of 1996. Looking at the graying heads around the room, I panicked. Was this future better?

Then an Irishwoman in her forties started to talk. “I was just at home over Memorial Day, and while my family sat silently around a meal, I realized that this was why I drank.”

I’d heard similar comments, but just then, a spring inside uncoiled. A weight I didn’t know I carried shifted from my shoulders, and I saw how I’d landed here. Without turmoil in my environment, I had no choice but to feel everything. The only way to survive was to keep up the rotation of fear, shame, humiliation, and remorse. For as long as I’d been “sober,” I’d been taking whatever drug would get me there—food, shopping, sex. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but the churn.

Seeing this vicious cycle in stark relief, at last I learned to float.






Rumpus original art by Liam Golden

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.

L.L. Kirchner is an award-winning screenwriter and author. Her next book, Blissful Thinking: A Memoir of Overcoming the Wellness Revolution, will be out 9/26/23 with Motina Books. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, BOMB Magazine, and Brevity. She's currently working on her first novel, Florida Girls. Find her on socials @LLKirchner_ or her website, llkirchner.com. More from this author →