From One Former Party Girl to Another: An Ode to Cat Marnell

An In-depth Look at an Addiction Memoir Addicts Love

I shouldn’t like Cat Marnell. I am, after all, a person prone to jealousy and when I was living in New York, she started getting an inordinate amount of media attention—first from Gawker and then from so many publications that she even made it into The New York Times.

And what was she getting attention for? Being a party girl.

As the sober author of a book called Party Girl, I had once gotten some ink—although mine wasn’t quite as mainstream and it also came after I had left my party girl persona behind. In sobriety —and especially in talking and writing about sobriety publicly—I’ve been keenly aware of how annoying sober people can sound. And so I’ve always tried to be as un-annoying as possible — non-sanctimonious, non-earnest and most importantly non-judgmental of those still actively using alcoholically.

But it was hard for me to not judge Cat Marnell. She was, after all, getting attention for being an unrepentant addict—one who used Plan B as her preferred method of birth control, and told Page Six when she left her job that she “couldn’t spend another summer meeting deadlines behind a computer at night when I could be on the rooftop of Le Bain looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust with my friends.” And so, I felt somewhat justified having a problem with the way she—and the media that covered her—was glorifying drug addiction.

This means that when she got a highly publicized (and lucrative) book deal, I shook my head at the way publishing houses are seemingly more interested in capitalizing on scandals than in releasing quality books.

I ignored it when her book, How to Murder Your Life, was released.

People told me it was good. I ignored them. And then I bought her book. And then I couldn’t put down her book.

And then I fell in love with her.

Not literally, of course—but with the way she writes about addiction. The girl I’d written off as some attention-seeking no talent has written arguably the most honest and entertaining book about addiction out there (with the possible exception of Sarah Hepola’s Blackout, which is in its own league and PS if you want a fun fact, Hepola wrote that New York Times story about Marnell that I linked to above.) What’s most interesting to me about Marnell’s book is that while I was busy judging her for being unrepentant, she was busy writing, essentially, 374 pages of repentance.

In the book, Marnell walks us through her Adderall-popping youth, school expulsions, trips to rehabs and institutions, suicide attempts and dysfunctional relationships with a shocking amount of self-awareness. Many addiction memoirs end with the author having a white light revelation in which the person realizes how selfish and self-destructive she was, but Marnell infuses her entire memoir with that awareness. She takes responsibility for every job she lost, every person she abused, every drug she did–and even, in the end, her troubled relationship with the father who got her hooked on Adderall as a teen. But it’s her descriptions of being on drugs that truly gave me the chills—especially an electrifying paragraph where she describes doing angel dust in a way that manages to include feeling like a “fluffy baby chick” and being on a boat as well as on a patio in Sardinia and then something about leopards in a way that makes perfect sense.

“She takes responsibility for every job she lost, every person she abused, every drug she did–and even, in the end, her troubled relationship with the father who got her hooked on Adderall as a teen.”

Marnell ends the memoir by explaining that although she’s not sober, she’s much better than she was—and the spectacular book she’s produced strongly back up that fact. Sobriety isn’t for everyone. Better truly is better. And her book is a strong message that recovery isn’t as black-and-white as some people think.

 

Moby on Addiction, Sobriety, and Surrender

An Interview about Moby’s Sobriety: The Addiction of a Musician, Photographer, and Activist

You can’t be operating in this universe and not be aware of Moby – the musician, photographer and animal rights activist, who burst into the cultural stratosphere in the 90s with his unique electronic dance music. While he came clean about his entire life in his memoir Porcelain, which was released last year, I was able to interview him all his addiction and sobriety. (He’s now been sober over 15 years.) Here are some of the choicest bits:

When did you first get sober?

When I was 13 years old.

What happened next?

That was first time I stopped drinking and doing drugs because I had started when I was nine or ten. But I started drinking again. Then when I was 22, I stopped drinking and I stayed sober for eight years. I was teaching Bible study, but I was judgmental and critical of everybody who disagreed with me and then after eight years of being insufferably sober, I started drinking again.

During those years, in the back of your head, did you know you had a problem?

No. I just felt I was an enthusiast. If people said, “I think you might have a drinking problem,” I would say, “No, I just love it.” But I love puppies and still I never missed work and compromised my health and friendship to play with dogs. Yet every time I drank, I couldn’t have fewer than ten drinks.

Then how did you not realize you had a problem?

When I was growing up, an alcoholic was someone who drank every day from the time they woke up to the time they went to sleep and they were getting in car accidents and they couldn’t hold down a job and they had cirrhosis of the liver. But then I started to see…about two or three years before I finally got sober, I started to try and practice moderation and I simply couldn’t do it and that was the first time I realized that I had a real problem.

How do you balance the tradition of anonymity with wanting people to know about recovery?

I am perfectly happy talking about addiction, sobriety and 12-step programs, but I also understand the value of the tradition about being anonymous because if I go out in public and talk about being a part of AA and the next day I relapse, it hurts AA. But I also want to be of service and so it’s tricky. So I guess I don’t know the best way to approach it—whether it’s to be a flag-waving member of a 12-step program or just keep the focus on myself and not worry too much.

What are your thoughts on drinking now?

I had this really nice realization: when I hear people say, “I just wish I could go out and have two glasses of wine,” I realize I never had any interest in having two glasses of wine. I wanted 15 drinks and a bag of shady cocaine, and I wanted to stay up until odd hours just staying drunk and stupid with no consequences. Two glasses of wine at dinner is offensive to me. I wanted chaos and destruction without a hangover.

When I got sober, I started noticing that some people would only half finish a drink or someone would order a beer and it would get warm during dinner and that was when I realized that very few people have the relationship to alcohol that I do. I was myopic: all I cared about if I walked into bar or party was the music, how many women were there and where the bar was, but in the opposite order: first find the bar and order two drinks.

One of the major things alcoholics have to work on is surrender. How do you do that?

I can have preferences, but there is so much evidence in my life of things that I desperately wanted to happen that did happen and they were terrible things and things that I desperately wanted to happen, but didn’t happen and that ended up being for the best. A really remarkable change happens when you actually completely hand something over that you truly care about.

The Road to Recovery is Different for Everyone: Can’t We All Just Agree On That?

12-Step Programs are Not the Only Way to Treat Alcoholism

I recently received a Facebook message from a stranger who told me I was responsible for her relapse—that my closed mind about how to recover had caused her to drink. She railed against my podcast as the direct cause of her issues. I was surprisingly uninjured by the accusation; I just felt bad that she felt bad so I wrote her and said I understood she was upset and that there were plenty of other podcasts out there that she’d probably like more. Her response was so vitriolic that I had to eventually block her.

The irony is that I wholeheartedly believe that any path someone wants to take to recovery is the right path for them. I get why she didn’t see that; my podcast usually features interviews with people who are pretty into the 12-step way. And I was once one of those people who believed that anyone who didn’t do the program was destined to a life of jails, institutions or death.

“The irony is that I wholeheartedly believe that any path someone wants to take to recovery is the right path for them.”

I don’t feel that way anymore.

The problem is that we live in an increasingly polarized world, with two differing factions constantly lobbing insults at one another and labeling the other side as ignorant. While I’m clear about which side of this I’m on, what interests me more than what’s being argued is how it’s being argued. Many of us are simply unwilling to even try to understand the other side and the problem with this is that, as a recent Medium piece stated it, “No matter how smart you are, as soon as you identify yourself with a specific ideology, your intelligence stops there.” In other words, confirmation bias exists, which is to say that if we’re passionate about our opinion on something, our minds snap shut unless we’re hearing or reading about it in a way that supports our point of view.

Before I got sober, I assumed that 12-step was a cult. They had creepy bumper stickers that said things like “Let Go and Let God” and people who evangelized about how amazing it was. And so I read every book I could that confirmed I was right to hate it. Then I got desperate enough that I was willing to try anything—including something that I was sure was a cult. So I tried it and discovered it was nothing like I expected it to be—that, in fact, it saved my life. I thought every addict and alcoholic—and even so called normies—needed it.

Then I learned that I was wrong.

Turns out there are all sorts of ways to treat alcoholism and 12-step is only one of them. I am 1000% clear that it works for me—not just in terms of eliminating my desire to drink or do drugs these past 16 years, but also in terms of helping me to deal with the issues that caused me to drink and do drugs alcoholically. But I am also 1000% clear on the fact that there are plenty of people out there for whom it doesn’t work.

“Turns out there are all sorts of ways to treat alcoholism and 12-step is only one of them.”

If I hadn’t spent the past decade writing about addiction—and thus hearing from those on both sides of the spectrum—I don’t think I would have arrived here. But over these years, I’ve heard from people who quit on their own, people who got sober with 12-step but haven’t done the program in years, people who quit doing drugs but still drink and seem to manage it just fine, people who quit drinking but still occasionally do drugs and seem to manage that just fine, people who got sober using cognitive behavioral therapy, people who quit through chanting or Buddhism or Celebrate Recovery or yoga. Who am I to say what they’re doing doesn’t work? It’s working!

And so I’ve realized I can’t have an opinion on anyone but me, since I don’t have access to anyone else’s brain (no matter how much I may fancy myself a mindreader).

I still wish more members of the anti 12-step camp could have the same attitude. Honestly, I’m tired of seeing them rail against a program that’s saved millions of people’s lives, throwing around low success rates despite the fact that meetings don’t offer survey takers and so every study is based on a small sample group that is at best unreliable. Some of them seem to have little experience with the program directly, and thus sit stiffly in the camp I was in before I had direct experience. Others do have direct experience—direct bad experiences with a few people—and thus believe that the people with whom they’ve had those bad experiences represent everyone in 12-step.

The truth is this: in politics as well as in recovery, no side is going to convince the other that it’s right. So can’t we just agree to disagree and stop with the vitriol?

 

Why I Embrace the ‘Addict’ Label

Anna David calls herself an addict. Here’s why.

There are people out there who want to eliminate the word addict. They say it’s derogatory, that it stigmatizes people. I wholly disagree. I think it’s time we embrace the word.

I get why the word bothers people. Before I realized I was an addict, I was horrified when people labeled me one. An addict, I thought, was the person clutching the empty bottle in the gutter, and not the girl from the nice family who graduated from a good college but just happened to spend much of her twenties holed up doing coke by herself.

“An addict, I thought, was the person clutching the empty bottle in the gutter, and not the girl from the nice family who graduated from a good college but just happened to spend much of her twenties holed up doing coke by herself.”

Of course, because I was holing myself up for days at a time doing coke, I knew something was very wrong with me. I figured I had to be crazy or not made for this world or a freak destined to spend her days alone. And I discovered, once the pain of what I was doing got to be so extreme that I felt like I had no choice but to change, that there was something wrong with me: I was an addict. I still am—I’m just one that hasn’t had a drink or a drug in a really long time. Still, discovering that I was an addict—and ultimately embracing that label—has given me more freedom than I could have imagined.

To me, the problem isn’t that we label people but that we do it in such a close-minded and extreme way. If we could use a label as a starting-off point and not a conclusion, it could be one of our greatest tools for open-mindedness.

“If we could use a label as a starting-off point and not a conclusion, it could be one of our greatest tools for open-mindedness.”

Consider how much comfort labels can bring because of the feeling of solidarity they provide, the way they allow someone to feel a part of a group of like-minded people. “I’m a Lakers fan.” “I’m a writer.” “I’m a Burner.” (For the record, the only one out of those 3 I can claim is the middle one. I barely know what sport the Lakers play and have never even considered going to Burning Man.) But my point is that the feeling of solidarity is part of what made me embrace my own.

And when I did, I noticed something: sober addicts and alcoholics are some of the shrewdest, smartest, funniest, resourceful, talented and determined folks around. It’s no coincidence that Russell Brand, Elton John, Robert Downey, Jr. and Stephen King are a part of this group. It’s no wonder that Hemingway, Burroughs, Kerouac, Faulkner and Fitzgerald struggled with alcoholism. Now, until I started spending time around sober addicts and alcoholics, I didn’t think of myself as shrewd, smart, funny, resourceful or determined. But when I started to notice these commonalities among almost all of the sober addicts I was meeting, I slowly come to believe those things were true about me too.

The problem, as I see it, isn’t the word addict. It’s that some people don’t allow that label to evolve. But consider how other labels have evolved. When I was a kid, the worst thing in the world you could be was a nerd. And now, who does our society worship? Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Malcolm Gladwell, to name a few. And what about dyslexic—a word that, when I was little, was synonymous with stupid? If I were going to continue to embrace that old definition, I’d have to somehow find a way to reconcile that idea with the fact that Steven Spielberg and John Irving are among those who have worn that label. And how do I know that? Because they’ve all talked about it publicly. In other words, they embraced it and in doing so allowed others who may feel ashamed of those labels the freedom to embrace them as well.

“The problem, as I see it, isn’t the word addict. It’s that some people don’t allow that label to evolve.”

That’s why I say we don’t de-stigmatize by eradicating a label. We de-stigmatize by embracing it—and allowing our embrace to change people’s perceptions of it.

Why I Stopped Trusting My Brain Implicitly

An Addict’s Reasons for Saying No to Themselves

Once upon a time, I trusted my brain implicitly. Why wouldn’t I? It had kept me alive, after all, and no one had ever told me that this cerebral cortex of mine was unreliable. When my brain told me certain things—say, that I didn’t have feelings for someone anymore, that a friend had wronged me or that my boss deserved to get an earful about how dissatisfied I was—I assumed it was correct and acted on those thoughts. Even when I started to see that these actions often delivered terrible results—that it could mean losing a great love or important friendships and getting fired from jobs—it never occurred to me that the problem was with my thinking. The problem, I was certain, was with the unfairness of the world. The problem was that bad things happened to me.

It took me roughly a decade-and-a-half of sobriety to realize there were times when I couldn’t trust my brain at all. These were times when I felt uncomfortable and instead of trying to tolerate the discomfort, I became determined to figure out what was causing it, without seeing that sometimes feelings are just feelings that don’t have a culprit, but just need to pass through us. Addicts are notorious for not being able to handle feeling uncomfortable for even a millisecond—it’s what we tried to drown out to the point that it nearly killed us. As Carrie Fisher wrote in Postcards from the Edge: “Instant gratification takes too long.” And so I would feel uncomfortable and name that boyfriend or friend or boss as the problem.

Yes, it’s taken me this long to learn that if you just sit through discomfort, it will pass and that it’s the precise act of trying to name it and then do something about that which causes suffering.

“Addicts are notorious for not being able to handle feeling uncomfortable for even a millisecond—it’s what we tried to drown out to the point that it nearly killed us.”

I’m an extremist—always have been. I decide on things and I go after them. It takes me about a second to decide if I like someone, roughly five seconds at the dealership to pick out a new car and a good 10 seconds determine a career shift. I’ve jumped out of planes and swung from trapezes and rappelled down buildings. I’ve done cryotherapy as well as sweat lodges. I was just as addicted to Ambien as I was to cocaine.

The difference now is that now when I have one of my extreme feelings, I try to look at them the way I would a bad acid trip. (For the record, I never did acid or had any desire to; I was someone who didn’t do drugs that would help me experience myself more; I did ones that helped me experience myself less.) But I can nevertheless imagine what a bad acid trip would feel like and so I pretend that’s what’s happening when I become absolutely convinced I suddenly see something clearly and it happens to be the opposite of how I normally feel about it. I take a beat. We talk in recovery about how we need to pause when agitated. For me, that pause sometimes has to be an hour, a day or even a week. Eventually I come back around and often look at the feelings I was absolutely convinced were deep core beliefs as a trip through temporary insanity.

“We talk in recovery about how we need to pause when agitated. For me, that pause sometimes has to be an hour, a day or even a week.”

In other words, to paraphrase another classic Carrie Fisher quote, “I now feel very sane about how crazy I am.” I hope one day to be very sane about how sane I am, but I’m not holding my breath.

How I Learned to Surrender Everything

An Addict’s Struggle with Acceptance and Patience

When I was struggling to get sober, people told me that I needed to surrender. All I could picture when they said that was a white flag, as well as one of those trust exercises where you’re instructed to fall back into the arms of people you may have just met at some Trust-Building self-empowerment weekend event.It also just meant confusion. How, I wondered, are you supposed to surrender? What does that even mean?

Alarmingly perhaps, after more than 16 years of sobriety, that’s something I’m still learning.

The first surrender, the one where I quit drinking and doing drugs, was actually the easiest one. I was so emotionally beat up, so depressed and hopeless, so willing to try anything, that I followed what some sober and happy-seeming people suggested—go to meetings, get comfortable with praying, write some things down and don’t drink or use—and quite quickly discovered that my desire to drink and use drugs was gone. It wasn’t unlike when I’d had my tonsils removed at the age of 20; the part of me that had once been an essential element of my makeup, the part that craved and needed to do drugs or drink, was gone. And it’s pretty much stayed gone.

But oh, those other surrenders. See, I’m still an addict; I just don’t do drugs anymore. This means that the same part of my brain that got me to hole up in my apartment with only cats and cocaine for company is still in me. That part of my brain is irrational and obsessive. It wants what it wants when it wants it. It believes, on a certain level, that if it doesn’t get what it wants when it wants it, it will not survive.

This isn’t always fantastic in a world that demands patience and acceptance—a world that only rarely gives even the luckiest of us what we want when we want it.

And so I’ve had to learn to surrender everything—my career and relationships as well as my regular old day-to-day desires. It means I have to go after what I want with the same zeal that got me speeding over to the dealer’s in Skid Row, but I have to accept that I’m not going to be delivered what I want as quickly as I was handed a packet of cocaine for my $60.

And so I’ve had to learn to surrender everything—my career and relationships as well as my regular old day-to-day desires.

This has been my hardest lesson—and alas one I’ve had to learn over and over and over again. As people in recovery circles say, many alcoholics seem to have a built-in forgetter. I’ve also heard that the “ism” in “alcoholism” stands for “Incredibly Short Memory.” In other words, my greatest epiphanies can feel just like Groundhog’s Day—something I realize only to forget entirely the next time I most need to remember it.

And so, when I recently stumbled on the wisdom of Sir David Hawkins, a psychiatrist and spiritual teacher who wrote extensively about enlightenment and self-realization, I was struck by a phrase that hasn’t left me since I first read it: We get what we want when we stop insisting on it. To me, that means that it’s okay—great, even—to want things. It’s even better to go after them. But if we cling to the results—if we feel like we need what we want to happen or we’re not going to be okay—we’re actually preventing ourselves from getting it. People say that the universe doesn’t know the difference between a worry and a desire and I believe that. And look—if we want something so badly that we feel like we may die if we don’t get it, it’s safe to say this has us worried.

People say that the universe doesn’t know the difference between a worry and a desire and I believe that.

So I’ve learned (at least sometimes) to wear my desires loosely and to not abandon them just because I’m not hand delivered what I want. Ironically perhaps, whenever I do that, I seem to get what I want. This is so contrary to what I was taught growing up—which was basically that I needed to win at whatever cost and sue anyone who got in my way—that I need constant reminders. As it happens, the universe provides these all the time—so long as I remember to see it that way.

Still, you’ll still never catch me falling back into the arms of near strangers. My trust only goes so far.