By Charli Engelhorn
If there was a warning label on the cover of Kristi Coulter’s debut book of essays, Nothing Good Can Come from This, it might read, “This book will cause you to interrogate your life, habits, and doctrines and challenge any previous assessments made about your relationship with alcohol.” That is not to say Coulter’s essays presume to convince the reader of a closeted drinking problem; rather, her heart-rendering prose ladled with sardonic wit create a rumination on the mundane persistence of time, the dichotomy of who we are and who we pretend to be, and the nature of society and compromises required therein, which, if one is not careful, can accumulate into addiction. With a quick and often dark cadence, Coulter weaves her essays to create a remarkable story about the unremarkableness of her journey to sobriety, not in the feat itself, but in the banal scenarios that led to her drinking and decision to stop. There is no melodrama infused in the stories of her alcoholism or sobriety, no sensationalism about addiction, no wringing hands or desperate pleas to the gods. As Coulter explains, after years of massages, yoga, therapists, and other attempts to trick her into wanting to quit, she woke up one day and realized, “what I wanted was no longer important. I would just have to wait and hope that eventually I would want something else.”
In the essay, “A Life in Liquids,” Coulter dissects her timeline of drinking, tracking the progression of her disease from her first drink to her last and exposing a pattern of behavior that encompasses the concepts of belonging, status, and fortitude. Through the blips of life spanning multiple decades, common motivations such as liquid courage with the opposite sex, celebrations that demand to be toasted, a newfound affluence that opens up a coveted way of life with of more respectable drinks, and a stressful job that encourages as much as influences heavy drinking are discussed with a humorous irreverence. Everyone can relate to one scenario or feeling or another, and the ease with which these stories string together to create addiction make it clear that anyone could follow a similar path, one in which one day, “You suspect by now that you are no longer a real person, just a machine that drinks and lies to itself.”
Coulter carries this conventional tone through essays regarding her efforts to stay sober. For instance, in the essay “Want Not,” she discusses an early moment of craving for her usual evening glass (or bottle) of wine and likens the hardship to general and universal hardships to which the reader can relate: “Think of all the times you haven’t had something you’ve wanted, I told myself. Houses, jobs, men. […] A happy childhood. I’d missed out on all these things and lived. I could lose this and live too.” Other seemingly innocuous occurrences also allow the reader to feel connected to her journey, such as the essay “Desire Lines,” where the experience of going to restaurants without drinking makes Coulter feel less interesting and socially irrelevant. In “Notes to Self: Neil Finn Concert,” the tiny victories of not drinking at a concert—no more long lines to buy drinks, inconveniently timed bathroom breaks, or post-show comedowns with other intoxicated people—are celebrated, and again, the simplicity of her logic is recognizable and digestible: “You are in an ordinary human mess that can be fixed […] Let’s start very small. Let’s stand in one place while this man plays a song, and then we can look for the next right thing to do.”
More than simply a reverie on alcoholism and sobriety, Coulter’s essays also ruminate on what it means to be a woman in modern society and the relationship between womanhood and drinking. In these essays, Coulter’s gaze turns from inward out to a larger feminist manifesto regarding the grievances, micro-aggressions, conditioning, and compromises women manage daily that slowly deplete their sense of worth and drive. In the opening essay, “Enjoli,” Coulter expresses, “there is no easy way to be a woman, because there’s no acceptable way to be a woman. And if there’s no acceptable way to be the thing you are, then maybe you drink a little. Or a lot.” She tackles the issue of being the “Only Woman at the Table” in the corporate world fighting for a voice in a sea of male dominance and directs the blame for the pressure women feel to be everything and nothing at once at a 1970’s commercial for Enjoli perfume:
The chick who could bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man? I blame that bitch for a lot. For spreading the notion that women should have a career, keep house, and fuck their husbands, when the only sane thing to do is pick two and outsource the third.
Coulter’s interrogation of the woman’s role in patriarchal society is not developed as a scapegoat for addiction or an excuse for her own failings. Not every woman will deal with their grievances by drinking or become an alcoholic. What Coulter’s critique suggests is that the landscape is skewed toward a foundation on which the need for women to endure, self-sooth, and survive is mandatory, regardless of the manner in which one chooses to do so. Getting sober helped Coulter see that she’d been “surfing a wave a male aggression all my life” and drank to manage the subsequent emotions, a consequence too dire for women to ignore. She writes:
I’m burning with clarity, and I want all of womankind to burn with me so we can incinerate the patriarchy just by existing. I don’t want women to blur their edges of their bad days or use wine to talk themselves down from causing righteous trouble. […] We can’t afford to live lives we have to fool our own central nervous systems into tolerating.
Coulter never attempts to situate herself as a guru of sobriety or the final word on the motivations of addiction. By divulging aspects of her life that had profound effects on who she thought she was and who she became, Coulter elevates the trite stereotypes of addiction to a subjective, introspective experience. In doing so with sincere pragmatism, the reader is able to identify with her journey and see that, although addiction can be isolating, the human experience connects us all.
Charli Engelhorn is a freelance writer and editor and currently pursuing an MFA from UCR Low-Residency MFA for Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. When she is not reading and writing, she can be found frolicking in the woods with the best travel dog in the world, Jacopo. She lives in Los Angeles.