When I was in a 12-step program, I had so much shame… Some people seemed pissed off when you relapsed. I get that it’s upsetting, but have a little compassion.
Erin Khar is an award-winning writer known for her deeply personal essays on addiction, recovery, mental health, parenting and self-care. “Ask Erin,” her weekly Ravishly column, attracts more than 500K unique readers per month. Her work is published in SELF, Marie Claire, Redbook, and anthologies including Lilly Dancyger’s Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger. Her first full-length memoir, Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me (Park Row Books, February 25), will be released this month.
Khar battled heroin for 15 years. Her intro to opioids came in pill form at age eight. It was the year her parents split up. In Strung Out she writes, “My Dad had moved out and my mother drifted from room to room in our old Spanish house with a weightlessness that I could tell threatened to take her away.”
Khar suffered from overwhelming feelings that she didn’t understand. “A panic spread across my chest, filling my body with heat, trapping me. I ran to the bathroom and locked the door. As I reminded myself to breathe, some instinct led me to the medicine cabinet.”
With anxiety pounding, the third grader fumbled past Band-Aids and Tylenol and found her grandmother’s bottle of Darvocet, which warned: “May Cause Drowsiness and Dizziness.” She wanted so badly to stop hurting she popped two big red pills into her mouth, then gulped from the faucet to wash them down. The burning heat of anxiety soon gave way to a “lightness of little bubbles.” Erin felt like she might float out of her body; this was the escape she’d yearned for.
Strung Out depicts one person’s journey against the backdrop of America’s opioid crisis. The book is written in gorgeous, accessible prose. Candor and vulnerability come through in a natural, believable voice, conveying what many trauma survivors know intimately: pain, anxiety, rage, depression.
Khar snorted heroin for the first time at age 13. At first, she’d said no to the boyfriend urging her to try it; her stolen pills felt like enough. But her guy persisted, describing it as a much better high. It was also the quickest route to forgetting. When Khar was four, a teen boy began molesting her. The abuse continued for years. Like many survivors, Khar told no one and desperately tried to block it from her mind.
“I needed to be somewhere else, someone else,” Khar told The Fix.
Strung Out is a page-turner that follows the progression of addiction: Narcotics seem like a magical solution until the relief morphs into a monster roaring for more. Opioids are now responsible for 47,000 deaths per year—that’s nearly two-thirds of all drug-related deaths in the U.S.
Reading Khar’s book felt like listening to a confidante, a kindred spirit who “got me.” We sat down in a New York City garden to talk about the hell of addiction and colossal relief of long-term recovery.
What idea sparked this book?
I wrote Strung Out because it was the book I wish I’d had when I was younger. I want to open up the conversation. Why do people take drugs? And why can’t they stop? The more we talk about it the more we can get rid of the stigma and shame surrounding it. Many people still don’t seem to understand addiction. I want to encourage empathy and compassion and give people hope.
I love that your then 12-year-old son asked if you ever did drugs. Can you tell me about that?
At first, I pretended I didn’t hear him. [Laughs] I tried not to cringe at my deflection.
I stalled by saying, “That’s a complicated question.” I didn’t know what to say. I did use drugs. A lot of them. Heroin was on and off from 13 to 28. That’s when I got pregnant with him. But how much should I tell him? I’d smoked crack, done acid, taken Ecstasy.
You describe childhood guilt and shame vividly. Looking back, do you think that was rage turned inward?
Oh yeah. It definitely had to do with early trauma. All I knew then was a nagging feeling. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I came to terms with everything. Before that, I minimized what happened to me, trying to shove [memories] aside. It took a long time for me to see that my therapist was right: my anger had sublimated into guilt.
Do you look back now and understand your feelings of shame?
Yes. I took responsibility for things because it gave me the feeling that I was in control. Can anyone process that kind of childhood trauma all in one go? I don’t know. Maybe it takes a lifetime to process? Maybe I’m still processing it.
Do you get triggered due to PTSD?
Yes. Even though I’ve done a lot of work on myself, I still have hypervigilance. My body reacts strongly to some situations, like if I’m startled by something, and especially if I’m asleep.
Can you describe things that helped? Especially for anyone who is trying but can’t stop using.
The first thing was accepting that I wasn’t going to be fixed overnight. Then it was forgiving myself for relapsing constantly. For me, whatever I’m dealing with, if I break it down into small, digestible increments, it’s a lot easier to handle. Focusing on the big picture is not helpful. That’s why they say a day at a time.
How did you stop relapsing?
By being honest about relapses. When I was in a 12-step program, I had so much shame. It was detrimental to worry about being judged at meetings. [Some] people in AA seemed pissed off when you relapsed. I get that it’s upsetting but have a little fucking compassion. [So] I hid relapses, which made it a lot easier to do it again. Finally, I was honest about [chronically] relapsing and that helped me stop. You do not have to relapse. It’s not a requirement of recovery but I don’t think that we unlearn things in 30 days or 60 days or 90 days or a year. I don’t think it happens that quickly. For anyone who struggles with addiction, we want immediate relief.
Like pushing a button?
Yes. I wanted to be numb. Stop thinking. In recovery, my biggest life lessons were learning to have patience, be honest, and work on accepting things I have no control over.
Did you find things easier when you began opening up?
First, I had to get through my fear that people were always judging me. It took work. I wouldn’t say it was easy but yes, I did get better.
How do you feel about your upbringing now?
I definitely don’t blame my parents for any of the choices I made. Even the choices when I was really young. I hid the sexual abuse and my depression from them. I hid my suicidal feelings. If my parents had stayed together and everything had been perfect, I may still have hid things. It may be a function of my personality.
Today I have a really good relationship with both of my parents and they have a really good friendship with each other. I will forever be grateful that no matter what happened, through everything I did, they never turned their backs on me. I have a very different idea about tough love than I used to. When I was first trying to get sober, the general idea of interventions and dealing with somebody who was addicted was this hard line of tough love.
I used to deal with people that way. But now, I really don’t think it works. That doesn’t mean that you should enable people. But, for me, I was lucky. Despite everything I had done to my parents—years of lying and stealing—our family connection remained. That door was still open when I finally asked for help.
Erin Khar talks hope, shame, and recovery: