Interview with Lisa F. Smith, Author of the Memoir, “Girl Walks Out of a Bar”

Lisa SmithFrom time to time, we post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you.

 Lisa F. Smith is a writer and lawyer in New York City. She is the author of “Girl Walks Out of a Bar,” her memoir of high-functioning addiction and recovery in the world of New York City corporate law. Lisa’s writing has been published in The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, AfterPartyMagazine.com, and Addiction.com. She is passionate about breaking the stigma of addiction and mental health issues.

Prior to beginning her more than 15-year legal marketing career, Lisa practiced law in the Corporate Finance group of a leading international firm.

Lisa can also be found at girlswalksout@gmail.com, on Twitter @girlwalksout, and on Facebook at Lisa F. Smith, Author.

Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?

Lisa F. Smith: When I was about eight or nine years old, I started sneaking sips of leftover drinks at my parents’ parties – things like gin and tonics and whiskey sours. I was a self-conscious, anxious kid prone to sadness. I learned pretty quickly that the cocktails adults drank could make that anxiety disappear for a little bit. It made me feel peaceful in much the same way that scarfing down a couple twin packs of Yodels in two minutes did. By the time I was 13, I had found the kids who liked to sneak into the woods to drink Budweisers. These were my people.

How did/does your family treat drinking? 

I grew up in the 1970s and drinking was very much part of life. There were nightly cocktail hours at home, but no one got drunk, nasty or out of control. Alcohol was a happy, tasty reward after a long day. It made the adults around me relaxed and friendly. I was an insecure kid who never felt comfortable in my own skin, so I couldn’t wait to grow up and let alcohol work its magic on me! I had no reason to fear that anything bad could come of drinking because I grew up with happy memories around it.

How do you approach alcohol in your everyday life?

Being in recovery now for 12 years, alcohol isn’t really part of my daily life. My husband will have one or two drinks if we’re out, but he gets super buzzed after just two, which I find remarkable. I always tell him that he wouldn’t have made it through breakfast with me when I was drinking. Two drinks were down before 7 am. I have to be around alcohol occasionally for work or social situations, but I avoid places like bars, where drinking is a key part of the evening, as opposed to it being something incidental to the evening.

If you have kids, how is the subject of drinking handled? Do you drink in front of them? With them?

I don’t have kids.

Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?

My alcoholism and, later, cocaine addiction were progressive. What started with weekend drinking became daily drinking, which included drinking alone. Then the amounts increased from a couple glasses of wine in the evening to at least a bottle. After that, lunchtime drinking dropped into the mix (people in France drink at lunch!), followed later by morning drinking (it’s lunchtime in France!). By the end I was drinking and using cocaine 24/7. I needed it to be steady. If you saw me when I hadn’t been drinking or using, I looked much worse off than when I had that appropriate calibration of substances flowing through my body.

What’s your drink of choice? Why?

Seltzer with lime because abstinence from alcohol is the only choice for me (I cannot speak for anyone else) and my nutritionist made me cut out the artificially sweetened diet CranCherry juice I used to add to the seltzer.

Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?

I actually don’t think I could narrow it to one. So many incredibly wonderful times in the first 38 years of my life involved drinking.

What about the worst time?

I actually don’t think I could narrow it to one. So many incredibly awful times in the first 38 years of my life involved drinking.

Has drinking ever affected—either negatively or positively—a relationship of yours?

Drinking nearly killed me and it crushed so many of my relationships–many I have been able to repair through making amends, which very much includes living amends and showing up for life in a way I never did when I was drinking. The fact that I no longer drink has allowed me to have relationships I never could have had if I hadn’t gotten sober. For example, I wouldn’t have made it through one date with my husband when I was drinking. He would have run for the hills and been smart to do it. Also, I have great relationships with my niece and nephew, who would likely think I was a disaster if they saw what I was like when I was drinking.

Do you have a favorite book, song, or movie about drinking? 

Yes, yes, and yes. “Lit,” by Mary Karr is probably my favorite addiction memoir, although I love so many of them.

I love every Red Hot Chili Peppers song that references addiction and recovery. There are many, but I might relate most to “She Looks to Me.” Anthony Kiedis is kind of a sober shaman to me. Whenever getting drunk sounds tempting (big difference between having a drink and getting drunk – I really never did the former and always chased the latter), I tell myself that if Anthony Kiedis can stay sober, so can I.

“Candy” with Heath Ledger is my favorite addiction movie, although it’s more about heroin than alcohol. The addiction element is the same with either substance in my mind. The movie is so hard to watch, but it contains my favorite quote about addiction. Heath’s character, Dan, at one point says, “If you’re given a reprieve, I think it’s good to remember just how thin it is.” I need to remember that every day.

How has alcoholism affected your life?

Alcoholism has been the worst thing that I have ever experienced, but also led to my recovery, which has been the best thing that I have ever experienced. In the 10 years before I got sober, I could count on one hand the number of days that I didn’t drink and I would still have fingers left over. Alcohol owned me. My mental obsession over drinking, when I would have my next drink, was complete. It was with me from the moment I opened my eyes in the morning until the moment I passed out. Although I never lost a job, got a DUI or lost my family due to drinking, I lost immeasurable parts of life living in obsession and self-loathing, as well as feeling miserable physically.

I am beyond fortunate that I was able to find recovery and begin a new life. Recovery is the only reason that today I have an incredible husband and family, a job that I feel proud of, and a healthy emotional and physical life. I wrote my memoir, “Girl Walks Out of a Bar,” in the hopes of helping the next person who feels as alone in their addiction as I did to learn that there is a way out, people who can support them, and a kick-ass life on the other side of drinking.

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How Novelist Joyce Maynard Realized She Had a Drinking Problem

UnderInfluenceWEBIn a candid 3-part series for The Huffington Post, Drinking Diaries book and blog contributor, Joyce Maynard, reveals how writing her new novel, “Under the Influence,” led her to examine her increasingly fraught relationship with alcohol. We can’t wait to read her new novel. Below is an excerpt from her Huffington Post piece:

“I was reading a book I wrote when I realized: I had to give up drinking.

This happened a few months back. I had just finished writing this novel, and was reading it over one more time, the way I always do before a piece of my work is published. And it was hearing my own words about addiction to alcohol, spoken in the voice of my fictional character, that revealed to me what my daily morning headache, and my trips to the recycling bin with all those empty bottles, had not.

There was a reason why I had been able to get into the head of a woman who had a problem with alcohol. I had one too.”

To read the entire post, click here.


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A (Gulp) Miley Cyrus Post…

miley cyrusI really didn’t want to write a Miley Cyrus post, to add to all the post-VMA posts, but….

But….then I read writer Julianna Baggott’s post, “Why Miley Cyrus is a Tragedy We All Must Bear,” on her excellent blog.

Baggott’s post went beyond the slut-shaming and open-mouthed “can you believe the train wreck” talk and cut to the essential sadness behind Cyrus’ performance, her video, and her song:

…There may well be partying, drugs, overdoses, orange jumpsuits, a hotel room where things go very wrong…

 Is there any way to stop it? This is what I thought of the first time I saw her “We Can’t Stop” video, which now has over 157 million views. Despite the fact that it’s supposed to be a party song, it’s played in a melancholy minor key. The beat is slow. Stripped from its video, it’s a sad song that seems, if anything, to be about addiction… to what? Hers or, culturally, ours?

The first time I heard the Miley Cyrus song and saw the video, I was struck, like Baggott, by how depressing it was, like a bad trip or a tranquilized vision of fun seen through a veil. In the song, Cyrus makes references to ecstasy (molly) and doing lines of cocaine in the bathroom, but the song seems to be more about the comedown and the lows, than the high.

I’m a huge fan of the eff-the-responsible-adults party anthems, which can be contagious in their rebellious spirit, but this is something different than a freeing, countercultural rebellion.

In “We Can’t Stop,” Miley Cyrus sounds like a toddler, still tied to her parents, throwing a tantrum. (“And we can’t stop. And we won’t stop” “It’s our party we can do what we want.” “It’s my mouth I can say what I want to!”). The video enacts the wrung-out exhaustion of a toddler after the tantrum, succumbing to numbness, giving in.

Onstage at the VMA awards, Miley Cyrus bent over while Robin Thicke sang “Blurred Lines” and humped her. It was sad to see the angry toddler—with her piss and vinegar—enact total submissiveness. It’s as if outside forces have totally taken over: the pills, the drugs, the marketing machine, the culture, the “man.”

This all takes me back to a point we’ve made over and over on Drinking Diaries: drinking, like anything else, can be a great thing when it’s a choice, freely made, rather than a default mechanism, a crutch, or a numbing agent, or a tool to say “eff you” when you feel powerless and can’t say it directly.

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We Want to Know: What Is Your Definition of An Alcoholic?

In response to an article on The Huffington Post, “Rush People Who Have 1-2 Drinks to AA?” one person wrote: “I’ve been in recovery for seven years. Zero alcohol intake. I thought complete abstinence was the point. Have I been wrong all this time?”

The author, addiction expert Stanton Peele replied:

“You need to be a critical consumer of information for your own life. But, if your decision to abstain for life was based solely, or largely, on the idea that human beings with problems that qualify them as alcoholics never reduce their drinking – you probably should consider the scientific information that this idea is false.”

Peele was referring to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s (NIAAA) detailed study of 43,000 drinkers nationally , which found that three-quarters of alcoholics recover without treatment, and more than half drink safely.

It seems there’s some discrepancy over the use of the word alcoholic.

I’ve always thought (and many of my friends have fought me on this) that if someone was diagnosed as an alcoholic, the only “cure” or solution was to never drink again. I also felt, based largely on my mother’s experience, that it would be nearly impossible for alcoholics to quit drinking on their own, and that they need some combination of therapy, detox, and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

But I missed an important distinction. According to NIAAA, there are two forms of alcohol dependence: time-limited, and recurrent or chronic. As the writers at NIAAA put it, “In most persons affected, alcohol dependence (commonly known as alcoholism) looks less like Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas than it does your party-hardy college roommate or that hard-driving colleague in the next cubicle.”

Your party-hardy college roommate? Most likely, her drinking will ebb and flow as she goes through different ages and stages. Just because someone has a heavy-drinking stage of life does not necessarily mean they are a candidate for AA.

In my opinion, it’s confusing to label time-limited alcohol dependence as alcoholism.  I think that there should be a distinction made between heavy drinkers and alcoholics.

What do you think, readers?

We Want to Know…What Is Your Definition of An Alcoholic? Do you think alcoholics can safely drink again and/or recover without treatment? Should there be a distinction between problem drinkers and alcoholics?

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Whitney’s World–And Ours

Whitney Houstonby Martha Southgate

I met Whitney Houston once, briefly.  She was, as everyone says, absolutely stunning, truly startling in her beauty.  It was 1995 and I was a contributing writer at Premiere magazine, doing an article on the making of Waiting to Exhale. While I’d been granted a fair amount of time with the other three principals (Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, and Lela Rochon), catching up to Whitney on my behalf had proved more of a challenge to the on-set publicist. But a meeting was finally arranged, under strict time limitations; I was given 10 minutes, as I recall. Here’s part of what I wrote:  “She seems to come closest to telling the truth about her life when she looks out her trailer window, her eyes distracted yet steely, and says, “My world just keeps going. This movie is just one small section of it.” The Whitney Houston business, it seems, is enough to make a diva out of anyone.”

Tragically, we now know the full extent of the torment that comprised her world. She was, as they say, “difficult” during the making of this film and she does not come off well in the article, though I reported only what I saw and heard. Reading my words now, it is heartbreaking to know what made her so difficult.

Whitney Houston was an extraordinary artist who had a God-given gift that very few receive. Like many great popular-music singers you could name (Judy Garland, Etta James) she was addicted to a number of substances for much of her adult life. It is almost certain that that’s what killed her. Addiction is a brutal, brutal beast that some are simply unable to beat; she was one of them. These are the only things that can be asserted with certainty in relation to her life and death. There has been a great deal of speculation about how she got started on drugs, how it’s all Bobby Brown’s fault, how her gift was too much for her to bear, how, how, how. Because of course, we all want to know how or why someone with such a remarkable talent would live in a way that destroyed it—and ultimately destroyed her.

But we never will know how, and really, it’s useless to speculate. That is one of the savage truths of addiction; no matter how or why you start, it ends in only one of two ways: you stop or you die.

What it takes to stop is an almost inconceivable amount of strength, particularly for someone in Whitney’s position, which entailed so many other pressures and a constant return to the people, places and things (as they say in the 12-step programs) where her addiction began. Like Michael Jackson, she broke under the pressure. And like Michael, she was African-American and unimaginably wealthy.

As I researched addiction and alcoholism for my novel, The Taste of Salt (which is in part about the effects of alcoholism on an African-American family) I read many memoirs by addicts and alcoholics. Memoirs by white alcoholics and drug addicts are a dime bag a dozen—but when it came to African-Americans writing about the same subject, I found next to nothing. If the work is available, I couldn’t find it—the only other novel I’m aware of is Carleen Brice’s Orange Mint and Honey.

I believe that this is reflective of a larger issue—that there is still reluctance in parts of the African-American community to air our “dirty laundry” in public. But that reluctance leads to there being too little public conversation either within the African-American community (or outside of it) about the workings of addiction among wealthy or middle class African-Americans and the best, most culturally sensitive ways to treat it (An aside: I am well aware that no matter what your race or class, the state of drug and alcohol treatment in this country is a mess—no room to talk about that here, nor do I have the expertise to do so). There is no way that all of the addicts in the black community are beat down, broke crack addicts or homeless bums. But that’s the primary image you see. There are more stories to tell—and we can tell them.

One tiny bit of good that might come from Whitney’s death would be if we in the African-American community used it as an occasion to further acknowledge the reality of addiction across all class lines. Be honest about the costs, don’t focus so much on why or how it happened or whose fault it is; don’t assume it only happens to some people.  The important thing is that it’s happening. While the only person who can ultimately stop an addict is him or herself (though most need the help of a 12-step program and/or other support), we can admit that addicts in our community, at all levels, are not aberrations, are not people to be ashamed of or accused, are people who need help. It’s a small step, but an important one

We will never know what complex factors forced Whitney Houston to succumb to her powerful disease, nor will we ever know how hard she tried to stop or who tried to make her stop. But perhaps more honesty and openness—and perhaps more storytelling—could help someone who isn’t famous, isn’t as gifted, is just a person loved by friends and family, take that first difficult step toward getting clean.

Martha Southgate is the author of four novels, most recently, The Taste of Salt. To read an interview with Martha, click here.

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