ERIN KHAR’S TENDER, at times desolate, yet boundlessly hopeful memoir Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me is, in many ways, a love letter to her oldest son, Atticus. Startled by a story he’d heard on the news about a successful dermatologist who had died of a drug overdose, he asked his mom if she’d ever done drugs. And, well, she had. Lots of them. Mostly heroin, and later crack.
A popular, straight-A student with a penchant for horseback riding, Khar was the only child of divorced parents. When she was four, the adolescent son of a family friend began sexually abusing her. To cope, Khar stole a Darvocet from her mother’s medicine cabinet at the age of eight, enjoying the way “the lightness of little bubbles” made her feel. By 13, she’d moved on to heroin, which she continued using, in fits and spurts, until she became pregnant with Atticus at 28.
For over two decades, Khar’s life in Los Angeles was one of dangerous tumult: abuse, loss, grief, drugs, sex, and more drugs. With generous honesty and grace, Khar guides us through the first time she shot up — “I felt my life vacuumed up at that moment, sealed and put on a shelf somewhere far away where I couldn’t see it, and I liked it” — and through two stints in rehab (one with Dr. Drew), while also chronicling unsustainable romances, near-death experiences, and ongoing lies — until, at last, she made “the decision to walk through the flames” and face her addiction.
Now 17 years sober, Khar is married with two children. She writes the weekly advice column, “Ask Erin,” for Ravishly, where she answers questions on everything from date rape to consistently late friends. And, yes, drug use. She’s an outspoken advocate for drug law reform — her essays have appeared in the Huffington Post, Esquire, Marie Claire, and other publications. A strong presence on social media, Khar is a gigantic-hearted champion for anyone struggling to carve out a better life for themselves.
We chatted via Skype about getting clean, decriminalizing drugs, and the importance of timeouts.
JANE RATCLIFFE: In the prologue to your book, you pose the question: “How can we recover as families, as a nation, and create a healthier space for our children if we don’t talk about [the opioid crisis]?” How would you suggest starting and sustaining these conversations?
ERIN KHAR: There’s a history of looking at addiction the same way we look at a lot of other mental health issues — as an aberration of what’s normal. But I argue that all health issues — mental health issues, public health issues, and that includes addiction — are part of being human. They may be unpleasant, they may be things we don’t like talking about or don’t like facing, but it’s important to put the emphasis on how they are a part of the human experience. Because, when we understand the issue in that way, it lessens the stigma for people who are struggling. We all struggle with things whether we’d like to admit it or not.
In terms of parents speaking to their children, we should speak with transparency about our experiences with drugs or addiction, whatever they may be. You can do so in a way that’s age-appropriate. With my son, I gave him the information without too much detail, but as he’s gotten older, he’s felt comfortable coming to me with more questions.
Your book beautifully illustrates the body/mind connection — the way a high would disconnect you from your body, or how your breathing would bring back often painful emotions. What does it feel like in your body these days?
I’ve learned to sit with discomfort in my body. If I have a really bad migraine, I practice acknowledging it to myself, as well as recognizing that I might need to try a few things, like drinking water. The same with emotional issues. A few years ago, when my husband and I were trying to have a baby, I had four miscarriages and then a late second-trimester loss where I delivered a stillborn baby. It was a very challenging time. I didn’t know how I was going to get through it. So I allowed myself the space to literally sit on the floor and bawl and grieve. That’s something that the old me never would have done, because I perceived any slip into raw emotion as an abyss I would never recover from. But I have the faith now in myself, that I can allow myself to go to those places emotionally and know that I’ll come back.
What did it take to get and stay clean?
It sounds very trite, but when I gave birth to my first son, Atticus, I looked at this baby and was overwhelmed with the feeling that I loved him so much more than I hated myself. So I had to try life differently. After that, it was the willingness to look at the root causes of my addiction. It didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t do it perfectly. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I never went back to drugs.
In addition to getting honest with myself, I got honest with the people in my life about how bad it had been. My parents knew only this much of the story, my friends knew only that much. I started being more open, and the shame started to lift. That was the first wave of recovery. And then it was therapy, working on cognitive behavioral tools that I could use to retrain my old, harmful thought patterns. And then finding a spiritual center for myself through Sikhs who taught Kundalini yoga. I didn’t completely go down that path, but I was taught things about being in my body and in my breath. That was the closest I had ever come to meditation. Before that, I couldn’t quiet my brain enough.
The final step was going back on psychiatric medication. And the difference! I’m like, oh my god, I could have saved myself years and years. I had such a block with psychiatric medication. I felt like other people would judge me for it. Now, if I have to stay on it for the rest of my life, I will because I’m very lucky to have found something that works for me. And that doesn’t make me feel any different, other than I just don’t go to those extreme places.
What role did shame play in your addiction? Did it help you get clean?
Shame was my first drug. There’s this quote, often attributed to Russell Brand, that the gateway drug is trauma. For me, trauma was the catalyst, but my gateway drug was shame. All of my behavior that harmed me was a reaffirmation of the shame. I felt bad about myself, and then I did things that would produce more shame. It was this perpetuation of a shame cycle. And shame keeps people locked in abusive relationships. It keeps people in toxic work environments. It keeps people in all sorts of unhealthy situations because it’s really difficult to confront the reality of a situation, because that’s more painful. It stopped me asking for help.
You’ve experienced a tremendous amount of grief and trauma in your life: the death of family members and friends, but also losing friends, sexual abuse, being a child of divorce, plus all those years of addiction. Do you feel it’s all still close by you?
For the most part, it’s not close. But sure, there are still moments when something will be triggered. Healing from trauma is a lifelong process. It’s not something that is one and done. I don’t know if it ever has an endpoint. And that’s a really scary thing to face. But, at the same time, it’s comforting because I don’t have to have it all figured out.
Like many people, especially women, you struggled to recognize your own anger, let alone express it.
I had this therapist say to me once that all of that guilt I felt was unexpressed anger. I was always the first to say, Oh, I’m sorry, it’s my fault; I felt so much guilt for other people’s problems, other people’s emotions. And he was right. Once the drugs disappeared, I wasn’t good at handling my anger. It’s still something that I struggle with, but I do much better than I used to.
In the early years, when Atticus was young, I would have moments when I would scream or throw something — never at him. I carried a lot of shame about that, because I didn’t want to be that kind of role model for him. My hope is that he has also seen me progressively learn better mechanisms to handle it when that sort of anger comes up.
It’s a tough thing because sometimes your anger is justified, right? But even when your anger is justified, sitting with it is only going to hurt you. Or lashing out at people is only going to end up coming back at you, too. So I’ve learned how to funnel that energy in other ways. Getting outside and going for a walk to cool off is a really good way to let that anger disperse. I’m a big fan of giving myself a timeout. I’ll go to the bathroom, lock the door, and just sit in there and let myself chill out. If I’m feeling panicky in a situation, I run cool water over my hands for a few minutes. It literally cools down the anger. I also really respond to scents, so I have certain essential oils that serve as small cues to give myself a pause so I can get back in my body. Because anger sometimes brings us out of our bodies.
You write, “The people who love you, even others in recovery, can unwittingly place expectations on you” that make it difficult to stay clean. How do we best support people in recovery?
The number one thing, and this is really hard to do, is being able to love someone, even when they disappoint you, even when they’re in their addiction, even when your expectations are let down. And that doesn’t mean that you have to enable people. But when I was in recovery, it was the tough love approach. And I don’t totally agree with that. We have to meet people where they’re at. That doesn’t mean, if you have a family member who’s on drugs and they’re constantly coming to you for money, that you just give them money or that you let them do drugs in your house. You need personal boundaries. But acknowledging and accepting that certain forms of harm reduction are beneficial, whether those are safe-injection sites, Suboxone (an opiate blocker, which has helped a lot of people stay off of opiates), needle exchange programs — these are all ways we can keep people as safe as possible.
There’s a high incidence of relapse among opiate addicts, so another way we can offer support is not piling on judgment. Or making ultimatums like, well, if you relapse, I’m going to da-da-da, which I understand is really hard to do when you’re frustrated and you’re on the other side of it. It’s helpful to remind people that they have connections, that they have people who love them and care about them, rather than just shutting the door completely.
I was touched by how you and your friends stuck by one another. When one of you reached out for help, the others, to the best of their varying abilities, responded, even when freshly clean themselves. It really underscores how much of life depends on kindness and community.
It reminds us that we’re human. It reminds us that there are people who think we are worth something. And that was really important for me. When I was at my lowest, when I didn’t believe in or love myself at all, I had an ex-boyfriend and a good friend show up for me. I was able to put enough trust in their belief and love for me to get some help.
I firmly believe that, for somebody who has connections in a community, it’s a lot easier to reach out for help. It’s a lot easier to believe that a new life is possible. A lot of people don’t have that option — they get no help, no mental health services. Maybe they’re a convicted felon with a drug charge — because a lot of opiate violations are felony convictions, especially for people of color. There are a lot of barriers we’ve put up in our war on drugs to keep people from actually getting help.
As you grew older, you became acutely aware, as a light-skinned person buying drugs, of your place in what you call the “ecosystem that kept people in poverty, especially people of color.” And later, as you cleaned up, you write: “The people who are most at risk — those in poor and marginalized communities — have financial and social barriers to accessing help.”
I am 100 percent here having this conversation with you because I had access to care. I had financial privileges. I had the privileges of the support of friends and family. And it was still painfully hard for me to get help, right? So think about, when you take all of that away, how exponentially harder it is for someone to access help, even in terms of harm reduction services.
My biggest hope, in terms of how we treat drug addiction, is complete decriminalization and then channeling all the money we’ve spent on criminalizing drug addiction into helping people. There’s been so much news coverage this past year of lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies. I’m not saying these companies aren’t culpable for marketing opioids on a mass scale to people, they are. But holding them financially responsible is a very neat and tidy way of thinking we’ve solved the problem. And we haven’t.
If this settlement money is ever collected, it should go directly toward services that benefit people struggling with addiction: harm reduction services, mental health services, and rehabilitation services. There needs to be more than just a rehab model. Yes, that’s the acute care that somebody can get as the drugs are coming out of their system. That’s the easy part. It’s everything that comes after that’s hard. So it’s not just offering somebody care for 28 days and then that’s it. We really need to have programs in place that offer long-term support.
The second issue is that taking the drugs away, punishing pharmaceutical companies, punishing addicts, punishing low-level drug dealers is not going to solve what’s happening inside a human being. That’s going to require more time and it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. You can’t say everybody is going to benefit from a 12-step program. Or everyone’s going to benefit from Suboxone. Or everyone’s going to benefit from SMART recovery [Self-Management and Recovery Training]. We need to recognize that. We would spend a lot less money, because incarcerating people requires maintaining all these prisons and privatized institutions, and we could use that money instead to get people mental health services, and also give them a pathway to find stable housing and employment. It’s really getting somebody to reconnect with society.
You write about having contempt, even hatred, for yourself throughout the book. How do you feel about yourself these days? Do you look back on young Erin with compassion?
I still have moments where I don’t like myself, but I don’t hate myself. I love myself. I believe I’m worth something, that I have something to contribute. And, absolutely, when I look back at myself at any of those ages — and I get emotional just talking about it — I have a lot of compassion for the person I was then. I look at myself then and it breaks my heart because I know how much self-hatred I lived with on a day-to-day basis, and how unnecessary it was. And, had I been able to reach out for help in a real way earlier, and had I been able to have faith that I could be honest with the people that loved me, it would have brought me to recovery a lot sooner.
Jane Ratcliffe’s work has appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine, The Sun, Longreads, Tin House, and Narratively, among others publications. She has just finished a novel about the peace movement and women’s movement in London during World War II.