In October and November, Voices on Addiction is partnering with Kitchen Table Literary Arts and its creator, Sheree Greer.
Sheree L. Greer founded Kitchen Table Literary Arts (KTLA) in 2014. Having relocated to Tampa Bay after graduate school in Chicago, Sheree was looking for community, namely a community of BIPOC women and femme-identified queer writers who were committed to craft and supporting each other’s work. When she couldn’t find that specific community, she decided to create it. Born from informal writing meetups on her front porch, a local taco spot, and public libraries, KTLA became a literary arts organization dedicated to supporting and showcasing BIPOC women and femme-identified nonbinary writers in and around Tampa Bay. KTLA Arts is built upon the tradition and legacy of Kitchen Table Press, founded in 1980 by Barbara Smith, Cherríe Moraga, and Hattie Gosett. The tradition of creating and holding space for historically resilient but marginalized voices is at the core of KTLA’s work. This year, KTLA celebrates nine years of community-building and support for writers and readers alike, with book clubs, short story clubs, retreats, workshops, and online classes, as well as community partnerships with foster homes, alternative education spaces, and direct service organizations who serve individuals impacted by abuse, poverty, and/or displacement. KTLA is ever committed to amplifying voices and narratives that dismantle preconceived notions of what it means to be a writer and who gets to be a writer, a dedication that ultimately supports BIPOC writers disrupting the status quo in the literary arts space and beyond.
I took my first sip of alcohol the summer before starting eighth grade. My best friend shook up the alcohol with orange soda from the neighborhood CVS. He whispered to me: I stole the vodka from my older brother.
We stumbled over the soccer field, ducked under a fence, and fell into a ditch behind the school. We drank and pulled puffs of weed from his green bong. I hid my coughs, pretending like I knew how to smoke. I worked up the nerve to kiss him and touch his bare skin under his shirt. He told me there was no one else like me, and in a drunken stupor, I told him I liked him.
We dusted the dried grass from our butts and returned to our friends. When they asked us where we’d been, we lied and said, nowhere.
That’s what I thought love was: a blissful daze, dirty blonde hair, hazel eyes—a lie.
I knew I had to keep it to myself. I knew he would never like me back the way I liked him. In my school, boys like him didn’t date girls like me. I didn’t tell anyone about the kiss. He stopped talking to me the day his ex-girlfriend came back at the end of summer.
I didn’t realize until I wrote this: my first interaction with alcohol was shrouded in secrecy.
I didn’t get drunk again until four years later.
In college, I followed the typical nerd reborn story. I wanted to shed off all the skin of my depressed Korean kid self and rise from the ashes into a fun Korean party girl. Every night on campus meant another themed frat party, another pregame in a dorm room. White boys finally looked at me outside of the high school racial hierarchy, at least a little more than before. I relished their attention.
I stereotypically “lost” my virginity during Welcome Week. I fixated on a floormate with piercing green eyes and flared nostrils who mostly kept to himself during orientation activities. I found him sexy and mysterious. Before the freshman concert at the end of the week, I took a couple of solo vodka shots to work up the courage to approach him. I found him in the grassy quad, and we sipped Four Lokos bought with other people’s fake IDs until we went to my room.
We were virgins; we had no idea what we were doing. He fumbled with his phone flashlight until he finally found the right hole.
I walked around feeling dirty inside for the rest of the semester. There was one rule I was supposed to follow as a good Catholic girl: stay a virgin. I had broken it.
But I also learned that with the help of alcohol, sex could be this simple to initiate, this meaningless to attain.
My drinking changed during my sophomore year. Sure, many of us continued to get blackout drunk during parties and football gamedays, but the context and texture of my newfound drinking felt different. I was drinking to hide from myself.
I can picture it: the color of my drunken nights morphing from a kaleidoscope of neon to a dark gray that blocked consciousness and kept me bedridden the next day with crippling hangovers. My friends texted me all the ridiculous and absurd things I’d said and done that I couldn’t recall from the night before, some hilarious, some hurtful.
The summer after sophomore year, all I wanted was to get as far away from Los Angeles as I could. I joined a business club that sent me to Tel Aviv for a summer internship at a cybersecurity fund. I didn’t know it then, but I was running from my college campus and the weight of the secrets it held.
By that time, I was an expert at reinventing myself. I constructed a whole new party girl persona with a group of Jewish American summer interns. My roommate and I finished almost a fifth of arak before clubbing every night at beach bars, where the gritty sand formed a film in our leather sandals.
I had it timed to a science: with the arak at home, I would be hammered by the time I got to the club, and at the club, two vodka sodas bought by strangers who asked which exotic Asian country I was from tipped me into browned-out territory. I made sure I was always just drunk enough that the edges of my vision slipped in and out of the frame, leaving only hazy faces and shadowy outlines.
At the end of the night, I followed faceless British men home to their marbled apartments overlooking the night sea. I slipped home at the crack of dawn, brushing my teeth again and again to erase the bitterness of minty alcohol from my tongue before walking to my internship office on Rothschild Boulevard.
My current therapist tells me I relied on these sexual escapes to reclaim power after losing it once the sexual assaults began.
Did I? I’m not sure. I do know that when I had drunk sex, when I gave my body freely to men I just met, I felt nothing, no desire, no lust, only numbness. I could be that fun drunk girl I desperately wanted to be, not the fucked up one hiding a terrible secret. Afterward, I bathed in rivers of shame as I laughed off everything I didn’t remember.
I don’t know if that’s reclaiming power. I didn’t feel powerful back then. I drank to erase myself, disappearing into the darkness of men’s bodies.
It feels too simplistic to overlay the timeline of the sexual abuse onto the timeline of my binge drinking. Is it reductive to label a definite cause and effect? Is doing so a cowardly attempt to excuse my embarrassing behavior?
Cause: sexual abuse. Effect: alcohol abuse. One abuse leading to another.
But suppose I retrace the past few years and pinpoint when alcohol became a means of severing myself. In that case, it lines up with when the repeated on-campus abuse began: around the second semester of sophomore year. I started to brutalize my own body when the brutalization of my body started.
I try to imagine an alternate universe. If sexual abuse had never happened, maybe I would never have drank as much. Perhaps I would still have drank as much as I did.
Who even knows? In that alternate universe, maybe something else would have fucked me up. This is the only universe I’ve got, so I’ll never be sure.
My uncle taught me alcohol in Seoul once I reached the legal drinking age of 19. “Teaching alcohol” is something Korean elders are supposed to do for the youth when they come of age. It means letting you get shitfaced way over your limit so you never get as drunk again.
Niece, it’s time, my uncle said. I sat cross-legged on the living room floor of my uncle and aunt’s tiny starter apartment; the wooden square sang between us. Laid out in front of us was a spread of anju to accompany our drinking: dried squid, roasted peanuts, fried dumplings, and spicy beef broth.
Both hands on the glass. Bow your head when receiving a drink. Clink your glass lower than the elder’s. Turn your head to the side when you drink with an elder. Never pour your own drink; always let the elder do it. Never let the elder’s glass go empty, my uncle instructed.
I remember when you were an infant, napping on my bed while your grandmother ran to the market, my uncle basked in sentiment after a few glasses of soju. Now you’re going off to college. I’d heard this story so many times before I nodded and refilled his glass, matching the pace of his shots.
By the time we were done, we had cleared four bottles of soju between us, and my aunt and cousin had long retreated into their rooms. My uncle and I were passed out on the respective sides of the sang. I woke up the following day at 7 a.m. with a trainwreck in my head and marveled at my uncle, who was slipping on his oxfords. He winked at me mischievously. How are you feeling? He stepped out the door to head to work.
Back then, I bragged to everyone that my uncle could drink me under the table—livers of steel. Alcohol running through his veins.
South Koreans drink at the highest rates of anyone in the world. Some studies estimate that Koreans take an average of eleven shots a week. In second place is Russia with their vodka. They don’t even come close at seven shots a week.
What explains this nation of alcoholics?
Colonialism, my grandparents answer.
Overwork, my uncles answer.
Men, my aunts answer.
Twenty percent of Koreans are binge drinkers. Two percent of deaths in Korea every year are attributed to alcohol. Koreans, it seems, pay for their alcoholism with their lives.
The way my mother tells it, my grandfather drank almost every day during weekday dinners, at family gatherings, and on the weekends with his hiking club.
But he mostly drank at after-work hweshiks with his work colleagues. Hweshiks were practically mandated gatherings back then, but Korea recently outlawed forced hweshiks to cut down on overwork, alcoholism, and sexual harassment.
Once, an employee my grandfather managed ran off with a large sum of money and disappeared. My grandfather shouldered the blame and sank into despair and incredible stress. The only thing that kept him going was the thought of his daughter (my mother) and the pride he received from her excellent grades.
I remember my grandfather pouring himself shots of clear soju at the dining table, sometimes even during breakfast or lunch. No one else would be drinking but him. He sipped on the soju delicately, like he sipped on tea, making it through a bottle or more during the meal. We never chided him, avoiding our gaze when he would ask for another. Men got a free pass to drink since they had the breadwinner weight on their shoulders.
Decades later, when my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the first culprit my mother blamed was alcohol.
Your grandfather drank so much because he spent his whole life providing for our family with his shoestring salary, she lamented. That’s why he’s sick now.
Whenever my memory is foggy after a night of drinking, I feel a flash of terror that I’ll end up like him. I click on every study I see about the effects of alcohol.
The headlines read: A GLASS OF WINE IS GOOD FOR YOU!
ANY DRINKING IS BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH.
DRINKING INCREASES THE GRAY MATTER IN THE BRAIN, AND EXCESS GRAY MATTER IS LINKED TO HIGHER RATES OF DEMENTIA!
All the conflicting studies stress me out way too much.
Meanwhile, please stop drinking, my mother pleads with me. You know why your grandfather ended up the way he did.
My first big-girl post-college job had a heavy drinking culture. Happy hours expensed on corporate cards, followed by dinners with more drinks expensed on corporate cards. Client sites during weekdays followed by team dinners in the city with an open bar.
My project was primarily comprised of men. I drank to keep up with them, thinking that I could. I frequently ended my nights in Ubers back at my hotel, with no idea how I’d gotten home. One time, my work friend had to pick me up after I mistakenly had the car drop me off at the client site instead of our hotel.
After one such night out, I went home with an older coworker who had a long-distance girlfriend. I blinked my eyelids awake the next morning in his room, with only a fuzzy recollection of what happened the night before. How had we ended up in the car home together? To this day, I cannot remember.
I’d drunkenly flirted with guys in relationships before but never crossed the line to partake in physical cheating. I would never have gone home with him if I’d been coherent and sober or even just simply drunk. My blackout-drunk self was utterly unrecognizable to me, the way it wreaked havoc and self-destruction without regard for consequences and the harm it might cause others.
I was terrified of what I might do next if I got that drunk again. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this moment was when I hit rock bottom. I felt my conscience, or what was left of it anyway, rot away and disintegrate. I kept telling myself, you are a bad person; you are a bad person.
My best friend M pulled me into her room after I’d avoided her for weeks. You should look for help, M told me sternly. You turn into someone I don’t recognize when you’re drunk. And I know you have a lot to process.
Deep down, I knew she was right. I sobbed, apologized to her, and felt shame coursing through my veins in hot rivulets. I promised her I’d find a therapist soon.
Then I kept drinking to forget what I’d done.
When the pandemic hit and my company transitioned to fully remote work, I moved back in with my parents. I was just a little kid in my childhood bedroom again, but this time with a shitload of baggage from years of repressed trauma. My drinking reached a new high. I bought boxes of red wine from the CVS I frequented as a middle schooler, hiding them from my parents in the back of my closet.
I finally started therapy during the pandemic. I didn’t know that jumping off the high plank into the pool of my most painful memories to drudge up the shit I’d spent years stowing away would give me night terrors and flashbacks throughout the day.
I began to write about the sexual abuse. I wrote every night.
Because it was the first time I was writing for myself—not for an extracurricular, not for a class, and not for work—I was afraid to write. I was afraid of what I would say. I was afraid that no one would want to read what I wrote.
As I wrote, alcohol masked the fear of the emerging truth. Writing while drinking became inseparable from drinking.
I thought I only knew how to write about the abuse when I was drunk. It was too difficult to delve into sober.
Sober me was a completely fine, functioning adult, not a sexual abuse survivor.
Drunk me was a sinking wreckage, an alcoholic, barely holding on to my job and sanity.
As long as I could clearly delineate between the two, I could slip into the pain during my drunken bouts and put it on the page.
I drank to write.
Once I met my current partner, T, I was forced to confront hard truths head-on. He saw how I disappeared and tipped beyond myself whenever I had a few drinks too many. I realized it caused him pain to see someone he loved so much turn into a different person. It was the same thing M had tried to tell me years earlier, but it finally stuck this time.
T was someone I wanted to build my life with. I could heal now that I had someone who understood why I was hurt.
I wanted to change my relationship with alcohol. I began actively admitting my alcohol dependence to let go of the shame of stowing it away.
Sexual abuse victims are significantly more susceptible to alcoholic abuse. According to some studies, sexual assault victims are almost thirteen times more likely to abuse alcohol and twenty-six times more likely to use drugs than those who have not been victimized. This number is even higher when you look at Asian American victims. Asian American victims are also much less likely to seek help from mental health experts.
There is no clear causal connection between sexual trauma and alcohol abuse. However, scientists have gathered that feelings of shame, secrecy, and self-blame after sexual assaults can lead to overreliance on alcohol to dissociate and cope with PTSD symptoms; this lines up with why and how I drank during and after the assaults.
I drank to forget what was happening on that campus, feel something other than empty inside, and become someone else entirely.
During the past two years, I’ve been trying to hold my abuser and my alma mater legally accountable for what happened during college. I still remember that first-year Welcome Week—the thrill of newly printed fake IDs, dorm pregames with my floormates, the sweetness of reinvention—like it was only yesterday. Now, I’m entering the last stretch of my fight against a school I once trusted with my life.
I’ve decided not to drink at all as the final battle approaches. Though I’ve experienced firsthand how the “justice” system tears survivors down, nothing I’ve learned has prepared me for what I’m about to face.
Staying sober is a preemptive measure because I know myself well enough now. I know my tendencies to lean on alcohol like the trusty crutch in the corner whenever I’m wrestling with my past. I know I can use alcohol to mask my double life and act like I’m fine when I’m not. I’m no longer afraid of admitting it aloud: that it’s a bad idea for me to drink when I know some hard days are coming my way.
But most of all, I’m not drinking because I no longer want to numb the pain. I want to sob on my friends’ shoulders when I feel like it; I want to scream and throw a tantrum when I’m upset; I want to shriek in lucid joy when I get the justice I deserve. I want the judge, the jury, and my abuser to hear my every cry and to feel every drop of hurt I show on the stand.
The truth is, I will always love drinking. I love how it makes me feel light, airy, loud, and expressive. The queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I’m forced to talk about myself disappears with a few drinks. I pontificate on my little soap box about my mother, my politics, and my philosophies about love. I love drinking with friends, going to K-town karaoke, and singing sad ballad OSTs. I especially love drinking with my family in Seoul. I love nothing more than when we get buzzed off ice-cold tap beer and plow through piles of the best Korean fried chicken I’ve ever had.
Once the darkest days are over, I can’t wait for a celebratory drink with my friends. In my dreams, I emerge victorious from the courts, throw a huge party in T’s backyard garden, and clink glasses with those who have loved me enough to keep me alive.
I imagine alcohol might still play a part in my life. I don’t know yet if sobriety will happen for me or if I want it to happen. And that’s okay. This is not a story about sobriety. This is a story about naming pain where it exists.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden