BY COLLIN MITCHELL
Like so many of the recent stories about opiate addiction in the United States, Erin Khar’s journey toward heroin started with a pill. “I pulled The World According to Garp out from underneath my pillow and read,” she writes, remembering the first time she raided her mother’s medicine cabinet. She was eight. “After a little while, the heat in my body was replaced by the lightness of little bubbles . . . . It was the exit I desperately wanted.”
Khar’s experience as an advice columnist for Ravishly is well-suited to turn Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me from what might otherwise be a distressing year-by-year account of addiction into a story that develops context and empathy toward mental illness and drug abuse. Khar is forthright in her opinion about our inability to understand addiction: “The stigma associated with opioids, with heroin, with “being a junkie,” prevents people from reaching out. And that stigma is killing us. Americans are stuck in a spiral of shame, and that shame drives the vicious cycle of relapse that many drug users get caught in.” In a culture that tends to conflate pity and prejudice toward adversity, this could be a helpful guide for the uninitiated in understanding the causes of drug and alcohol dependence.
For readers unfamiliar with addiction, Khar establishes a rapport which illustrates its indiscriminate hold on people’s lives. “Addiction spares no one. Making it out is akin to winning the lottery, even when you have resources and access for help,” she writes, acknowledging the family and financial support she received from her parents and friends. For Khar, the need for an “exit” came from a combination of many things: her parent’s divorce, rape trauma, and a strong desire to maintain the appearance of “the good girl.” “If I just shine bright enough, no one will notice anything,” she recalls thinking as a teenager, while she struggled with an increasing dependence on pills and heroin.
The strength of Khar’s story is in its emphasis that her addiction was fanned by a mental illness which left her vulnerable to finding solace in the most destructive places. Her attraction to opiates was an effort to forget and no longer exist in her body, something she tried to paper over with drugs and sex. “I craved unconsciousness,” she writes, about her life before giving birth to her son, Atticus, who at twelve asks her about drugs. “I did not tell him that, in some ways, the drugs were once what kept me alive.” She continues: “I knew I must have been doing something right because he didn’t understand the impulse to use drugs.”
Raised in affluent Los Angeles enclaves, a student at USC, and a part-time stylist, Khar’s story often feels ripped out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Her first taste of heroin comes at thirteen, and by the time she’s in high school, she’s routinely going to shows at famed Hollywood rock clubs and dating older musicians, all while maintaining her grades and competing in horseback competitions. It’s these details which often feel glossed-over, in what is an otherwise thoughtful and meticulously remembered book. There is curiosity about how she coped during her first year in college or what her relationships at work were like. These details could add insight about the stress and shame inherent in maintaining an addiction, but she rarely elaborates on these particulars. More significantly, the underlying trauma of sexual abuse, the cause of her addiction, is depicted in vague, sporadic bursts, and it’s hard to determine Khar’s thoughts on this part of her life. In a particularly provocative scene, she takes us into the moment of identifying her abuser, but other than confirming that it happened, she keeps her distance and doesn’t thread the effects of shame and loneliness these years of abuse caused, something she does so well in other parts of the book.
However, the memoir does an effective job of taking us into the visceral experience of drug use and withdrawal, and her depiction of a likely near-fatal overdose is terrifying. “Occasionally, a sharp but distant sound interrupted the quiet,” she writes about a friend’s attempts to rouse her from her high. “The sound clawed its way in. It made me aware of how vast the darkness was.” In several scenes in bathrooms, parks, and convenience store parking lots, Khar colorfully illustrates the cross-over between the haves and the have-nots and readily acknowledges her privilege. “The more my father gave me, the more extravagant the gift, the worse I felt,” she writes, remembering a weekend out of town, searching for a new connection in an impoverished area. “I looked across at the rows of identical brick buildings and watched as two kids raced across the barren yard. I felt myself sinking into another type of shame, one that went beyond my desperation for heroin. I make myself sick.” It’s in these moments that Khar’s writing makes it clear that she was never into this for fun.
Most compelling about Khar’s story is the emergence of the shameful double bind a person with mental illness experiences as they try to triage their trauma with drugs. As she makes clear in numerous anecdotes about relationships, especially with her parents, the attempt to hide mental illness with drugs, while covering over the addiction with lies and more drugs, is a harrowing and unforgiving cycle. Friendships break apart, and the ones that can’t, are strained with resentment. After getting an abortion, Khar’s emotions spiral out of control yet she continues to hide her mental illness from her boyfriend. “But letting him think it was just the drugs, that it wasn’t some deep-seated dysfunction was more bearable. I didn’t want him to know how far gone I was again.” Here, Khar beautifully illustrates the premise of her memoir: as a society we need to appreciate the fact that mental illness is a disease, like all diseases, that’s no one’s fault. The fault lies in not accepting that it’s real, treatable with understanding and acceptance.
Collin Mitchell is a student in the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. He lives in Palm Desert with his wife and son.