Seattle journalist Erica C. Barnett on her winding path to sobriety
For the past 19 years, journalist Erica C. Barnett has been covering local politics in the Seattle area. For much of that time, she was struggling with alcoholism.
Addiction, she says, turned out to be the one problem she couldn’t talk her way out of. In her new book “Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse and Recovery,” she takes readers on her circuitous journey to sobriety.
Barnett spoke with KNKX’s Gabriel Spitzer. Listen to their conversation above, or read a transcript of it below. Both have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Gabriel Spitzer, KNKX: In popular culture we have this idea of the story of addiction and recovery as being this big “V” shape, where you have a rapid descent toward a rock bottom, and then a slow climb back up into sober life. How well does that narrative map onto your life?
Erica C. Barnett, author and journalist: It doesn't map onto my life very well at all because I didn't drink a lot for a long time. Then I started drinking problematically and I became addicted. And I had a lot of different instances that you would call perhaps rock bottom — I mean, ‘I'm sure she quit after that.’ And of course, that is not what happened. And what preceded sobriety for me was not a rock bottom at all. It was just another regular day.
KNKX: I don't know if you want to pick one to sort of talk about a little bit.
Barnett: Yeah, well, the thing the story that I start out with is when I was going to my old job, where I'd been fired, and picking up some of my stuff, and I showed up very drunk with nothing to carry my stuff away. And while I was walking home, I fell down really hard. I mean, it was pouring rain. And I remember looking up and figuring out how to get up — because I was just drunk, you’re dizzy — and figuring out how to stand up from the direction the raindrops were coming.
And I remember staggering home, and I woke up the next day on my floor, you know, basically fully dressed just inside my doorway. That looks like a rock bottom. But the fact is that, you know, another rock bottom came before that, which was when I was fired. And many more rock bottoms came after that, which I describe in the book. And there just really was no one that I would pinpoint, or have felt at the time, was a rock bottom. They just all felt bad.
KNKX: You write about a lot of harrowing moments in your life, including blacking out, hallucinations, trips to the ER, losing your job. Was there one of those episodes that was especially hard to write about?
Barnett: You know, the hardest one was writing about when I had hallucinations, because it's such an unusual experience, I think, even among people who get sober. And it really feels like having a psychotic break, and describing that was really — it was both painful and hard to write about because it was so alien to my whole experience. You know, I was seeing spider webs and spiders, and I knew what was happening while it was happening. I mean, I knew, OK, this is the DTs. This is the thing that can actually, literally kill you. So it is painful to talk about that because it was so terrifying. And it's painful for me to talk about terrifying things, more so than it is to talk about embarrassing things.
KNKX: So, you have a pretty conflicted relationship with Alcoholics Anonymous throughout this story. And I wonder if you could talk about just kind of how you approached it at the beginning, what you thought of AA at beginning and how well or poorly you felt like it was a fit for you.
Barnett: Well, at first I thought AA was a bunch of cult members. And as part of the cult indoctrination process, it kind of bought into all these dumb slogans that, you know, were like, “easy does it,” “live and let live.” And I just thought, well, that is how they've simplified their philosophy of life down to something that's really dumb. That's what I thought AA was at the very beginning. One thing that really annoyed me about it was — I'm not saying this is fair, I actually think this is kind of funny now — was that everybody talked about how happy they were all the time. And that could be really off-putting it for somebody just coming in.
I finally ended up in AA because I was desperate. I was like, well, I have all this unstructured time because I didn't have a job. And so the meeting that I went to every single day was a 1 o'clock in the afternoon meeting, which I came to think of as the unemployment bunch. And it was the same people all the time: a comforting sort of chorus of the same thing every day, same time, it was a routine. And what's really inspiring for me is seeing somebody come in who is on their first day of sobriety, and I'm on my 30th and I am thinking to myself, “oh, I have something to teach this person.” Like, I could actually help this person because I have 30 times as much sobriety. I mean, I don't know anything about how any of this works, but I can tell them what my first few days were like.
KNKX: Was there a point at which you felt like you knew your remission was going to be a durable one?
Barnett: Probably about six months in. When I started being able to walk past the liquor aisle in stores or walk down it, and the liquor bottles were there, but they had no pull on me at all. You just suddenly wake up one day and you realize it is like, whoa, I don't know what changed, but something something just clicked.
KNKX: I mean, do you think something really just clicked or do you think that that was connected in some ways to all the things that had come before it, all the backsliding, all the relapses before that? Was that all leading up to that click?
KNKX: Was that all necessary for the click?
Barnett: I think for me it was all necessary. I mean, I think whatever precedes your time of sobriety is probably necessary for you to get there. All those relapses and eventually feeling like it was just impossible. All of that was necessary for me to get to the point where I just suddenly — you know, it felt sudden. It obviously wasn't sudden, it took years and years and years — but I just noticed that I didn't feel that desire to drink anymore at all.
KNKX: So you've had about, what, four or five years now?
Barnett: About five and a half years.
KNKX: Five and a half years. Congrats.
KNKX: Do you worry about relapse, still?
Barnett: I don't know if “worry” is the word, but I'm vigilant because I don't think that I'm exempt because people relapse after 20 years. Relapse doesn't feel like a decision, it feels like a forgetting. And I think what happens to people sometimes is that they forget the reasons that they decided to get sober in the first place. And so I always try to remember everything that happened. And, you know, writing a book about it is part of it, because it's like sitting there on my shelf and I can pick it up and turn to any page and go, 'oh, my God. Right. That happened because of my drinking.' So, yes, I'm not worried, but I am vigilant.
Erica C. Barnett is a journalist in Seattle. Her book is called “Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse and Recovery,” and she writes at thecisforcrank.com.