Interview by Laura Zera
Growing up in LA, Erin Khar hid behind a picture-perfect childhood filled with excellent grades, a popular group of friends and horseback riding. After first experimenting with her grandmother’s expired painkillers, Khar started using heroin when she was thirteen. The drug allowed her to escape from pressures to be perfect and suppress all the heavy feelings she couldn’t understand.
This fiercely honest memoir explores how heroin shaped every aspect of her life for the next fifteen years and details the various lies she told herself, and others, about her drug use. With enormous heart and wisdom, she shows how the shame and stigma surrounding addiction, which fuels denial and deceit, is so often what keeps addicts from getting help. There is no one path to recovery, and for Khar, it was in motherhood that she found the inner strength and self-forgiveness to quit heroin and fight for her life. Out Feb. 25, 2020, with Park Row Books.
Erin Khar’s memoir Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me opens with a scene in which her 12-year-old son asks if she ever did drugs. As her thoughts race about how to answer, how much to tell a boy of his age, Khar realizes she was only a year older when she started using heroin. “You know, alcohol’s a drug,” she replies, deflecting for the time being. What follows is Khar’s moving story of addiction and recovery; more than that, Strung Out is the odyssey of a trauma survivor who reclaims her mental health.
I talked with Erin in December, two months before Strung Out’s release.
LZ: I think one of the most universal themes in your story is the personal understanding – or rather, misunderstanding—of one’s own trauma. In several places, you wrote that you were broken, or a monster. How did your personal narrative shift when you started to understand that you were a trauma survivor? And that those irreconcilable and confusing feelings you’d had for years sprung from something very real?
EK: When I finally had time off of drugs and was learning how to function and started addressing my mental health in a real way, I realized so much of that old tape playing those ideas—I was a monster, it was my fault, everything bad that happened to me happened because there was something fundamentally wrong with me—was a belief system in place because it gave me a sense of control over things I had no control over. If I accepted blame, then I somehow controlled the narrative, rather than feeling I’d been victimized.
I can even see it in smaller ways, how I did it my whole life with perfectionism: this need to get perfect grades, and even when I was so sick, to show up for my job. I worked hard to have control in those areas because I felt so out of control. Once I was willing to give up control and acknowledge that I didn’t have control over what happened, I was able to heal. I rejected the idea that I’d been victimized for so long because I didn’t want to carry that with me. When I did start speaking to people about being sexually abused, I would really minimize it. That came up in conversations a couple of times, and I would have such an angry reaction. But they were right. I minimized things because it gave me that false sense of control.
LZ: When it comes to the notion of being a victim, was some reticence to acknowledge it because we’re socialized to not fall into a victim mindset, that it’s weak, or not empowering?
EK: Certainly. I also think the moments when my emotions were out of control, people were always quick to point out that they were out of control. I felt this primal fear of being labeled as crazy, and so from an early age, I learned how to hide everything that was wrong with this false poker-faced exterior, even in my closest relationships. In romantic relationships, I acted like I didn’t care, or I would sabotage things, or cheat, or do something to keep me at a distance because I didn’t want to let anyone know they could affect me. I had this initial trauma as a kid, and then my protection mechanism was “if you keep moving and don’t let anyone know they can affect you, they won’t.” I worked hard to keep that lie going. And it wasn’t true, because I was being affected.
LZ: You wrote, “I didn’t want to get high, I wanted to get unconscious.” Can you talk about how that was a response to trauma, and how you needed to obliterate your feelings?
EK: It was around the age of eight when I started having what I would describe as real depression and a lot of suicidal ideation. I found this expired painkiller and took it, not really knowing what it would do. I saw it would make you drowsy. The relief I had, that altering of my consciousness, was great. I just needed something to dampen down the intensity of emotion. And it allowed me to function in ways in which it appeared I had it all together. The times as a teenager and young woman when I wasn’t on drugs are when I appeared to be the most out of control. That’s when people would notice things were wrong. That’s when my parents sent me to therapy when people would intervene because I would lose control completely when the drugs were not there.
LZ: Do you think it was losing control or was it being emotional in a normal way? Feeling the anger, feeling the pain and sadness, but that we’re conditioned to be like, “That’s over the top, that’s so emotional.” Were you throwing things around the house and getting violent? Or were you having emotions?
EK: Both. When somebody comes off drugs, especially with opiates, there’s an intensity to your senses. The air on the back of your neck feels like a knife; everything feels heightened sensory-wise. I think that makes you emotional. So, some of it, I was acting emotional, which seemed out of character because the rest of the time I was able to keep it together. I was also emotionally violent, where I would have outbursts, throw things, scream horrible things to people. I’d know that what I was doing wasn’t okay, but it was like I would lift out of myself and I couldn’t stop the behavior.
LZ: I want to switch gears a bit. A sentence in the book reminded me of some recent unkind comments on social media about addicts in my city, usually after they’ve been linked to thefts. There’s one woman who’s a repeat offender. She’s been in jail numerous times, and people are so angry that the system keeps letting her out to continue to inflict pain on others through her crimes. When a community is angry about the crime aspect of addiction, what can be said to bring the conversation around to be solution-oriented?
EK: I ‘m a big believer this is a public health issue, not a criminal one, and the crimes associated with using drugs are also a public health issue. Incarceration in the first place shouldn’t be happening. We need people to have easy pathways towards recovery, and that includes harm-reduction services like safe injection sites, needle exchange, and most importantly, medications that weren’t on the market when I was struggling. Things like Suboxone that make withdrawal bearable enough that people are more willing to go through it. Part of the reason people are driven to steal when there’s an opioid addiction is that the physical withdrawal is so intense. Coupled with the psychological aspect of it, knowing there’s one solution to get that horrible feeling out of your body, it really drives people.
The other thing is we keep people in a cycle of shame. So, this woman committed a crime, and she gets locked up and let out, locked up and let out, locked up and let out. Every action she takes that lands her back in jail contributes to the shame she carries. Rather than incarcerate people, we should give them access to mental health services and substance abuse treatment. If we took the money we spend on incarcerating people–not just with addiction; I believe the majority of people who are imprisoned are there because they’ve been brought up in a system designed to keep them in poverty, and/or are lacking mental health services—and focused on mental health, we could solve social problems. That would mean free and low-cost accessible care for people, regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, status as a citizen. Until we do that, it’s not going to change, because going to jail is not going to stop somebody. When you have belief systems about yourself that you’re a piece of crap, not worthy of anything, and the only escape you have is this drug, incarcerating you is just going to reinforce that belief.
Johann Hari said the opposite of addiction is connection. I really believe that’s true. There are systems in places like Portugal where they’ve decreased problems with heroin addiction by more than 50 percent; they don’t legalize drugs, but they decriminalize them and put people into programs where they’re given jobs and housing and allow them to reconnect to society. Make connections again with family and friends. That’s what gives you the motivation to want to be here, not to be constantly leaving. Because that’s what using drugs is. It’s leaving. It’s exiting.
LZ: Then some people would say, “that’s our taxpayer dollars funding all this mental health care for addicts.” But like you said, if we took money that’s spent on incarceration, I don’t know if it would offset completely, or what the balance sheet would look like, but I imagine what we spend—
EK: It’s a huge dollar amount per person, and it’s privatized. It’s profit-making. I don’t understand a person who wouldn’t rather put their tax dollars towards programs that allow people to be contributing citizens rather than keeping them locked up. It doesn’t make any sense even from a financial perspective, let alone from a human perspective. I think part of it, too, is that it’s easy to look at a drug addict and want to punish them, to say it’s a moral failing, and it just isn’t. Addiction is one of many human conditions, not a moral failing. That’s what people fail to understand. Part of what I hope to do with this book is to open conversations about what we think addiction looks like and why somebody would do drugs. It’s important to understand that addiction starts long before the first drug is ever taken.
LZ: You wrote that it was dormant in your body, waiting because you’d had those experiences that made you want to exit.
EK: Yes. And people do it in different ways. Through food, through the way they are in personal relationships, through gambling, shopping, technology, video games. There’s a lot of ways in which people find coping mechanisms to blot out pain. What better way to help people with what it is to be human than to do it on a person-to-person basis, rather than locking somebody up?
LZ: I’ve come to believe the experience of being human involves trauma for more people than we understand. We had a big shift in our understanding of trauma post-2000, whereas in the eighties and nineties, and obviously, before that, nobody linked the dots.
EK: No, not at all.
LZ: That’s why I went right into the trauma question at the beginning. We don’t give it the weight it needs or deserves as part of the human experience.
I wanted to talk about relapses, too. The odds of relapse are high, and you had many, even after inpatient rehab, when there was a 60-day plan and you attended 12-step meetings for 90 days. All in all, those are short periods of time for outpatient. Did anyone prepare you for the possibility of relapse when you were in rehab? Or did no one want to talk about it?
EK: They definitely talked about that most of the people in that room would relapse. The foundation of my recovery was in 12-step programs, and I’m very grateful for what I learned, but one of the challenging things—something I felt and I think other people felt, and I don’t know if it was a result of a general attitude in the rooms or not—was that I felt so much shame over relapsing that I would just not say anything. I pretended I never relapsed, and then kept relapsing. I had so much shame when it came to my parents, and boyfriends and friends. I didn’t want people to know because there was this feeling like, okay, they forgave me this one time.
Talking about it is so important. De-stigmatizing it goes a long way. Because—and this was true for myself and other people I know–the weight of relapsing seemed so great that then I would just go all out, rather than acknowledging a slip and the next day go back to working on my sobriety. I was stuck in that thinking for a long time. You know, it was funny, I had a conversation with a close friend about this, and she remembered when I was in early recovery and I said relapse was a high probability for people, especially heroin addicts. It upset her so much because she felt it wasn’t a good attitude to have. I tried to explain to her that by saying that, we put more stigma on relapsing.
In any area of our lives, we are not perfect beings. We make mistakes, and the gift is that we learn something from them. Of course, if I could go back and do things differently knowing what I know now, I would, but at the same time, I don’t regret any of those relapses and mistakes and failures because I really like who I am today. I don’t know if I would be that person if I didn’t have the perspective from making all those mistakes.
LZ: That’s a wonderful, beautiful way to be about it.
EK: I think of that with failed relationships, with relapses, with horrible things I did. Again, I would probably do things differently if I had a chance to do it over again. But, you know, I always say that I’m not who I am today despite my past, I am who I am today because of my past.
LZ: You’re close with your mom, but you couldn’t tell her about the sexual abuse that occurred when you were four. I felt like the scene in the psychiatrist’s office, which happened in 2000, was pivotal. You were so hurt when the psychiatrist mentioned your PTSD from sexual abuse, and your mother said, “we don’t know if that really happened.” That door was open as far as it could be at that moment, so why do you think you didn’t tell her then? And when did you finally tell her?
EK: It came out when I went to rehab again and then over the last few years as I’ve written more about these things. Now that I’m a mother, I have a lot more understanding of where my mom was coming from. And empathy, because as a parent there’s nothing harder to confront than something horrible happening to your child. I think it was a combination of that, and also that when I initially told her, I’d given her so little information, it was sort of like, “well, we don’t even know what happened.” But you know, the hurt of that shut me down completely for a while.
Now I have a very different relationship with both of my parents. They read the book. I know it was challenging, especially for my mom. I feel a big arc in the book is this arc with my mom, this love story with her. Because we were so close, and I had a challenging relationship with her, and she had her own things she was going through. But in becoming a mother myself, so much of our relationship changed and healed.
LZ: Earlier, you’d written that you felt a frenzied need to shield people closest to you “from the truth about me that would make them look at me differently.” With your mom, you were shielding her from hurting her. But also, you didn’t want people to think of you differently. Once people knew all the truths, did that hypothesis prove itself?
EK: No, not at all! I was so driven to hide things—and I use this metaphor in the book—that I felt like I was in this room, surrounded by flames, and I was so afraid of walking through them, the flames being the truth. It goes back to this sort of primal thing I think many of us have experienced: If people knew this about me, they wouldn’t love me. I felt shame about the sexual abuse, and because it happened when I was so young and the way my brain processed it, I thought in that very childlike way that if people knew, they would think I was dirty and damaged and they couldn’t love me.
The irony is that after I started getting honest with people, I realized they still loved me and were still there. Of the characters in the book, my boyfriend Pete saw more of me than most people and didn’t turn away, even when I was at my lowest. Both Pete and Diana were people who saved me because they loved me when I was very unlovable. As I had more time off drugs and was showing up for my life and being honest with people, I realized the shame would dissipate the second I talked about it. The thing I was most afraid of, naming the thing I ran from the most, is what alleviated it. And I was like, oh, I wish I would’ve done this years ago!
LZ: Initially, you resented Pete for the vulnerability you felt. I mean, vulnerability is the hardest. I don’t think we have to practice it with everybody, but when we have people who are there for us, the solid people in our lives, those are the people to practice with. But it’s still so hard. It was for you, even with your mother, with Pete, it was hard to do what would have been healing: to talk.
EK: Right. The funny thing is that in the last several years of writing personal essays, and incorporating my personal history into my advice column, and definitely with writing this book—it’s the most vulnerable thing I’ve ever done—I feel okay about it. I’m not nervous about anybody knowing anything in the book. Even my most shameful moments of things I did that I regret deeply. I’m not worried about sharing that because it’s not just that it alleviates shame for me; the feedback I get from people is that it also alleviates shame for them.
LZ: Absolutely. That’s why I’m wanting to talk about vulnerability. Yes, it’s hard, but there’s so much to be gained.
EK: Even in going back to our conversation about how we handle people in active addiction and the effect it has on the people around them: There are so many people out there using who don’t have the support I did. As isolated as I was in some of the trauma, I was fortunate that when I did reach out, there were people there to help me, and it was still so hard for me to get it right. It was still so hard to get to a place where I could stay off drugs, work with my mental health, believe it was possible to have a life. When I think about people who are struggling with addiction, in addition to not having financial or emotional support, it breaks my heart. It’s what I want to advocate for the most: for people who don’t have that. They are as deserving of help as I am, as anyone is.
LZ: You say that the ability to emotionally heal and stay in recovery comes from learning how to sit with discomfort and grief. We do so much that is maladaptive to avoid feeling pain. But you found, and this is gonna sound Lululemon-ish, you found yoga at the end of the book, and the truth is that yoga teaches mindfulness, and mindfulness is the best tool to sit through pain. When you were in inpatient rehab in the 90s, was mindfulness taught, and if not, do they do it now?
EK: It’s definitely more prevalent now. Much of the focus when I was in rehab was on a 12-step model, the physiological mechanics and the disease model of addiction; I have mixed feelings about the disease model. I’ve learned over the years that I had a belief that there was only one way to be in recovery. And if you weren’t that way in recovery, there was no other possible way. Now there are other avenues, and that’s good because I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all treatment.
Certainly, there was some mindfulness in terms of being able to identify feelings, acknowledge them and not be in judgment of them. That’s been a huge lesson: that I’ve always been extremely judgmental of my own feelings. I wrote an article a couple of years ago titled, “I have compassion for everyone struggling with depression except me.” I’ve gotten better, but even now, I put cruelly high expectations on myself and if I don’t meet them, I’m very hard on myself. It’s something I’m constantly working on. If I have grief or anger or disappointment or jealousy or depression or sadness, or whatever it is, I allow myself to say it, to acknowledge it and know I don’t have to solve it in that moment. It’s okay to just feel it for a minute.
I have tools now, things I know are going to make me feel better. These are simple things, but when I’m in crisis, I forget to do them. I literally have a checklist on my computer. It’s things like staying extra hydrated, making sure I get outside to get fresh air, going for a walk, using a bit of scent therapy. There’s a lot of things that seem stupid or woo-woo or basic, but they really help. It allows me to get through it.
LZ: And to divert the brain’s direction. One of mine is to hug my dog.
EK: Animals are a quick path to connection.
LZ: That’s a good lead-in to my next question. You’ve been clean for 16 years.
EK: It’ll be 17 in February.
LZ: Oh, right on! Your book is going to be published around your 17th anniversary. Do you ever still worry about relapsing?
EK: I don’t. I had it drilled into my head in 12-step programs that if you say that, you’re in danger. But I really don’t. I’ve had opioids prescribed after surgery in the last 10 years. If I was prescribed something, I wouldn’t take it for more than two days because the body’s sense memory might trick me into thinking, “Oh, I’m going through withdrawal,” when I stopped taking it. But it was also so bad for me at the end. It wasn’t giving me any relief. Even if I got a little high, it made me feel worse and anxious, and I was just trying to not be dope sick. I occasionally have a dream where I’ve relapsed. It’s always a bad dream. There’s never a dream where I wake up and go, “Ooh, I have a craving.” I’m like, “what the fuck did I just do?” The other big piece of the puzzle is that I’m not interested in disconnecting from my life anymore.
LZ: And you’ve clearly found what works for you, a lot of it through mental health therapy and self-care.
EK: Treating my mental health issues is a huge part because, on a day-to-day basis, I’m stable. That makes a big difference. It doesn’t mean my life is perfect, but if you told me when I was eight or 16 or 23 or 28 that I would ever be happy and able to stay off drugs and have any prolonged length of time that I didn’t feel like I wanted to kill myself, I wouldn’t have believed it. I was certain I would never escape that cycle. I’m not happy all the time, but in general, I am happy, and more importantly, I feel satisfied with my life, and that’s huge. I can’t believe I have the life I have. I never believed I deserved it, that I would be able to have it. And that I do? Oof, it’s a big deal.
About the Interviewee:
Erin Khar is known for her writing on addiction, recovery, mental health, relationships, parenting, infertility, and self-care. Her weekly advice column, Ask Erin, is published on Ravishly. Her personal essays have appeared in SELF, Marie Claire, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and others. She’s the recipient of the Eric Hoffer Editor’s Choice Prize and was featured in Best New Writing 2012 anthology. Her essays have also been published in the Stigma Fighters Anthology (vol 3) and BURN IT DOWN, an anthology edited by Lilly Dancyger. She lives in New York City with her husband and two kids.