I got sober over 20 years ago, when Time broke the news that too-little dopamine caused people to abuse substances. The discovery that one’s neurotransmitters could be faulty, and that there might be a genetic component of dependency, was predicted to change how Americans thought of addicts as weak in character. The Recovery Network was launched that same year, resolving to bring addiction narratives into the public eye, hoping to cash in on the 88 million people who had some connection to addiction. The thinking then was that if we had the right awareness, we could understand and therefore conquer addiction.
My father was a distiller, and I’d grown up in the industry. I thought if I found the right nutritional formula and exercise for my body, I’d stop guzzling the Canadian whiskey my father had made since I was a kid. I needed the ray of hope that solid evidence could offer. I read fitness guru Susan Powter’s Sober … and Staying That Way: The Missing Link in the Cure for Alcoholism with a tumbler of bootleg (neat) on my lap, and I threw the book under the futon whenever someone came near. I was working at a job I hated, raising a family in a Southern city with a history of racism, and furious with where life had taken me.
Eventually I got tired of blacking out, and the sadness in my children’s eyes. Shortly after I stopped drinking, my father congratulated me on having the fortitude to stop. I argued with him over the dangers of believing in self-control as a method to stay sober. But it wasn’t until decades later, when I read “Enjoli,” that I realized why the myth of having the grit to quit irked me so. Self-will meant bootstrapping and restraint, and if I could end addiction on my own, it meant that the drinking culture had no part in creating me.
Enjoli was the name of a perfume, and the commercial I’d watched as a young teen, with its message of a capable woman who could bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man, and this message outlined the rules for my coming of age — buck up, sister. Women had to both manipulate and undermine the patriarchy, their bow-tie efficiency had to include domestic skills and at least appearing to centralize men’s needs while demanding your own liberation.
Thankfully, Coulter spent the year after her essay stirred the feminist frying pan squirreling time away from her job at Amazon in Seattle to write her essay collection, Nothing Good Can Come from This (MCD x FSG Originals, August 2018.) It’s the kind of book I wish I’d had when I was newly sober, to understand that there were common (and funny) thoughts like:
The notion of stacking up sober day after sober day until the occasion of my funeral felt fucking pointless. All that effort, just to die. I didn’t know then that eventually I’d stop stacking days. That I’d just be living a life. That I wouldn’t have to pay close attention to every root and rock on the path in front of me.
Coulter’s essays are short, smart, and with the heart that the (mostly male) addiction stories seem to miss. You know, the sad, serious boys, the John Barleycorn dreamers, or those lost souls who tell of rock bottom and redemption. The masculine addiction narrative of derring-do, of taking drug-addledness to (sometimes James Frey–ian faux-believable) extremes, of strong-arming recovery to requiem heights, is the story that most addiction tomes follow. Sometimes with a side of yuk-yuks. Writers wrapping experience as a kind of enabling legend.
Speaking of Mary Karr’s Lit, Susan Cheever called memoir an “intimate alternative world” and “the Barbie of literary genres,” and if memoir wasn’t ruled by women, then that metaphor wouldn’t work. But the female essayists of this new century do not trade on the confessional. Women are not interested in dismissing the complexities of their lives to make a cowboy drunkalogue. Coulter uses formal experimentation to write about recovery standards that could become cliché in a lesser writer — running after quitting, a riff on a Mary Oliver poem, an account of her favorite booze over the years. Even the tale of Coulter’s journey to the first AA meeting (a fixture also used by Leslie Jamison in her new work, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath) is full of surprises — the power of keeping secrets, a conversation with a potential alcoholic who bemoans the end of wine pairings, to whom Coulter says, “I made and then broke a promise to myself every single day for twelve years […] I failed myself. Every. Single. Day. And now I don’t. Do you think I give a fuck about whether my food could taste 5 percent better?”
The pieces in Nothing Good Can Come from This are pleasantly messy incantations on loss, and what happens in its wake. Coulter shows her stumbles. She interrogates her usefulness, her language usage, her privilege, her ragged happiness. Unlike recovery stories that require epiphanies, and come equipped with insider language and bravado, Coulter — like Sarah Hepola did in Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget — shows the slow, painful walk out of addiction and into recovery. This is where the essays hit their stride, in revealing how Coulter coped with the terrible times, and what it’s like to encounter them sober. When I finally made it to “Notes To Self: Election Night 2016,” I cried. The plan for the night — “Who needs booze when you have cookies and vindication?” contrasted with the revealed reality — “Just sit on the floor, okay? Just sit down on the fucking floor and try to think. Think small. Don’t think about, say, how much America must hate women to let this happen.”
Thrillingly, Coulter writes about the disruption of intimacy that recovery can bring — attraction for others besides our partners, the enchantment of a giving lover, the awakening to great sex. And she writes about something readers don’t get enough of, especially women readers — the connection of power to feeling sexy.
Sober, I started gazing back, and I saw that my desire for a man could match or even topple his for me. I saw that men weren’t the only ones who wanted to possess what they knew deep down they could never own. That I too longed to kiss and bite and fuck myself as close to it as possible.
In her work here, in naming her desire and grief and incomprehension, Coulter directs our gaze outward, and reduces the narcissism we tend to find at the center of personal stories. Her I becomes we, all of us, thrashing about in a chaotic moment, trying to find the center, trying hard not to obliterate our sense of presence, whether in bodies newly adapting to the end of substances, or in bodies accustomed to forbearance.
Addiction memoir doesn’t have to be the [Drunk] Barbie Cake of the lit world. Coulter proves that our stories can be as complicated and powerful as we are. In an America with over 21 million addicts, where barely 10 percent of us receive the care we need, scientific information isn’t changing our fate. But we relate to someone who canceled Rosé Season, noticed all the women around them were tanked, and then lived to experience summer — “We can’t afford to live lives we have to fool our own central nervous systems into tolerating. We can’t afford to be twenty-four hour women. Trying to be one shattered me.” Life after shattering is — “There’s nothing to hide. I’m only one woman now.” Now that story might just alter who we think we can be.
Sonya Lea’s memoir, Wondering Who You Are, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award.