Erica C. Barnett, QUITTER

Erica C. Barnett, QUITTER

Journalist Erica C. Barnett joins Zibby to discuss her debut memoir, Quitter, about her recovery from alcoholism. The two talk about the connection between addictions and other forms of maladaptive behaviors, how progress starts when you give yourself achievable goals, and why Erica is not a writer who likes to write. Erica also shares how relapsing taught her to stop seeing herself as a failure, as well as why she has no regrets after publishing this book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Erica. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Erica C. Barnett: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Your memoir, let’s discuss Quitter. First of all, tell listeners what your memoir is about, the full subtitle. I’m afraid I’m going to get it wrong because I don’t have it in front of me now that I’ve been displaced into this other room. Tell us everything.

Erica: It’s called Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery. It’s sort of in the tradition of quit lit, which is the genre of books that are about quitting; in my case, alcohol. I quit drinking a little under seven years ago as we’re recording this. The book is really primarily about my experience of relapse in the process of recovery and in the process of trying to quit drinking. I wrote it because as I was trying to get sober and as I was failing and failing again and again, I became really, really obsessed with reading quit lit books. There’s tons of great books out there. A friend of mine, Sarah Hepola, wrote a book called Blackout. There’s any number of books by women. Caroline Knapp, Drinking: A Love Story is a classic.

Zibby: It’s one of my favorite books of all time.

Erica: I read those obsessively over and over and over again and just thinking, why can’t I get it? Why can’t I get it? These women got it. I read a lot of men’s books too and related to those stories a little more because they were a little more in line with the way that I drank, which is constantly from the second I woke up to the second I passed out at night. The thing that I noticed in the vast majority of those books is they didn’t talk about relapse. They talked about getting worse and drinking more and hitting rock bottom and something usually pretty dramatic happening, not in all cases, but something happened where they just said, I’m done. Then they were done. I didn’t understand why that didn’t happen for me since that’s the story and that’s what’s supposed to happen. Then I started trying to get sober. I started getting a little more serious about it and going to AA meetings, to other types of group meetings, to therapy, all these different things that I describe in the book. I realized that, actually, just anecdotally and, as it turns out, in reality, most people actually do relapse at least once and often quite a number of times before they finally are able to quit or reduce their drinking or whatever recovery looks like for them. That gave me a lot of hope because it made me realize that I wasn’t failing every single time, that I “failed” to stop drinking and picked up again. Getting back to the memoir, I really wanted to tell that story because for me, if I had known that it was actually normal and that I wasn’t insane and that I wasn’t just an utter failure, I think it might have been a little easier for me and it wouldn’t have taken as many years. It took about six years of pretty solidly trying before I finally was able to quit in February of 2015.

Zibby: Wow. The way you write about it is so — really, you’re in it with you. You’re in the moment. You’re in the liquor store. You’re in your office packing up. Your coworkers tried to get you into treatment. Then you went, but it was not successful. You showed back up to get your belongings. The people who you thought were your allies were not, which often happens in all of these types of stories. People have a limit that they’re willing to go to. I have to say, as you’re going home and waking up and bleeding and all this stuff, I was in it every second. You just take the reader right in. You’re a really great writer. I should’ve just said that. You’re a great writer. There.

Erica: Thank you. One response that I’ve gotten — to me, it’s actually a great compliment even if people don’t always mean it this way — is that I come across as really unlikable in the book. People tell me that. I get people saying, I really can’t sympathize with this person. Of course, I read the Amazon reviews because I am an online person. I’m on Twitter all the time. I can’t help but see how people are reacting. When people say that, that was my intent. I was really unlikable. Most people didn’t like me. Even my best friend couldn’t stand me. My parents couldn’t stand me. Nobody could stand me because I was becoming an unlikable person. I was an unlikable person. When I read back and even think about it now, first of all, it’s a long time ago at this point and it feels like a different person living a different life, quite frankly. When I read about that, I’m like, who the hell is this girl? Second, I don’t like that person. I’m frustrated with her. I’m like, girl, why can’t you get it? When you’re on the outside looking in at addiction or just at any sort of compulsive behavior that someone is engaging with that’s maladaptive, you’re like, why don’t you just stop doing that thing that’s maladaptive and do the thing that is better for you? That is the nature of addiction or any sort of mental illness. It’s not entirely within your control. Ultimately, you’re the only person who can take the steps that are necessary to pull yourself out of that, but it’s not as simple as, stop doing the bad thing and do the good thing.

Zibby: Not to compare, I have the same thing with eating. It’s so much easier when people say, I have a drinking problem. I feel like I have an eating problem, something I struggled with my entire life. I just can’t get a handle on it. I keep trying new things, like what you’re saying. You tried to quit. I’m trying no sugar and no this. It’s a whole diet culture, really. Then it haunts you. I’m like, look at everybody else. They don’t have a problem. Look at them. They’re obviously not struggling with their eating. Why am I struggling? How old do I have to get before this freaking ends? I’m already forty-five years old. Anyway, I understand having this issue that — again, not to compare your alcoholism and whatever, but just that —

Erica: — No, I think they’re very comparable. The reason I say addiction or a compulsion or a mental disorder or a maladaptive behavior, I do think they’re all the same. There are all different kinds of addictions. There’s behavioral addictions, too, that aren’t chemical, necessarily, to the extent that alcoholism is or a heroin addiction is. Man, I talk in the book about, from the time I was — I don’t think I spell this out this explicitly, but I think I was eight when I started exercising with my mom and paying attention to what I ate. Even now, if you look, I’ve tried to sort of channel that behavior into more productive areas of my life. I own a business. My New Year’s resolution is to not work on Saturdays this year, not Sundays because I’m going to keep working on Sundays. I’m going to keep working six days a week. I have to-do lists every day. I’m meticulous about that stuff.

It’s all the same behavior. I think being a “control freak” can play into being an alcoholic. It can play into having an eating disorder. It can play into wanting to work a minimum of sixty, seventy hours a week. I think they’re the same behavioral compulsion. This is just based on my own experience and observation. I’m not a scientist. This is just what I’ve observed in my own behavior and then the many, many people I’ve met in recovery who have to fight against other kind of addictions. Gambling addiction, again anecdotally, seems really common as a secondary addiction among people who’ve quit drinking or doing drugs. Look at people who smoke compulsively. A lot of people start smoking in rehab. I think it all comes from the same impulse toward control. Although, of course, paradoxically with addiction, you lose all control ultimately.

Zibby: Totally. Wow. I feel like now I’m going to have a little bit of therapy here. This is introspection to anybody who struggles with stuff. Yeah, I know, I think that’s the hardest part, too, for people who like to control. By the way, my New Year’s resolution was not to work before nine.

Erica: Wow. See? Exactly. It’s the same thing.

Zibby: I’m blushing as I say this. I’m not going to work before I drop the kids at school. I’m not. I’m not going to post. I’m not going to check email except for the school. Even that’s been hard.

Erica: Last year, my New Year’s resolution was, I’m not going to look at Twitter for more than five minutes a day. I actually stuck to that, which was really hard for me because I was getting a little compulsive about it. I realized, this is just feeding negative energy into my brain first thing in the morning every single day. I think it’s achievable. No work before nine is achievable. Me not working on Saturday is achievable. We can do it.

Zibby: Saturday, I don’t know. Have you read Tiffany Shlain’s book called 24/6? It’s all about taking a tech Shabbat. Her whole family, they apply the wisdom of the Jewish tradition of Shabbat to technology. Every Saturday, starting Friday night until Saturday sundown, nobody in the family uses technology at all, which obviously cuts out most work.

Erica: That’s amazing.

Zibby: She says she’s been doing it for ten years now or something crazy. It’s the best part of their week and everything. I’ve talked to her many times about this at this point. Every time I talk to her, I’m like, I’m going to try it. I’m going to do it. It’s really hard. I don’t know who’s worse at this point, the kids or me. It’s hard. Do you think anxiety plays a role? Do you think there’s comorbidity in that? What do you think?

Erica: Yeah. I talk in the book about having this incredibly anxious personality from the time I was very, very young. I had insomnia from the time I was about seven or eight years old. I’m an only child. I think that my family really piled onto me, this notion that, and I think mostly to the good, but this idea that I was going to be a super-achiever. My grandad was the first in my family to go to college. My grandmother did not go to college. Both my parents did. The expectation was, you’re going to go to medical school. You’re going to do something amazing with your life, whatever it is. You’re going to get straights A’s, and on and on and on. I was sort of primed to be a super-achiever. That causes a lot of anxiety. I started drinking to deal with social anxiety, which I think is really common among people in general. It just became, I don’t even want to say a crutch because it was a tool for dealing with anxiety of every kind. Alcohol is a depressant. It kind of shuts down some of your higher cognitive functions, including the hamster wheel in your brain. At least, there’s a hamster wheel in my brain. It just constantly reminds me of everything I’m not doing.

Zibby: I have one.

Erica: At every moment, you’re not doing this. You’re not doing this. You’re not doing enough. You’re disappointing this person. You didn’t respond to this email. It’s a tool. It was a tool for me to kind of shut that up for a little while. Ultimately, as I said, it’s a very maladaptive tool for me personally. There are lots of better ways. I got really into cognitive behavioral therapy, which I think is just an amazing tool for people with anxiety, especially those who also like to write. Anxiety and addiction I think go hand in hand just as much as depression and addiction do.

Zibby: I want to do a survey of authors to find out what percent have anxiety issues because I really feel like it’s ninety percent. I feel like there’s also something with writing through it, too, which helps the anxiety or setting it to paper. I don’t know. I just keep finding this over and over again, the same themes and struggles and all of that.

Erica: I would say I’m not one of those writers who loves to write. I love having written. I discovered this when I started — during the pandemic, I started running, in part to deal with stress and in part because I couldn’t go to the gym. It was the kind of same thing. I hate running. I kind of hate writing. In my professional life, I’m a political writer. I’m a reporter and cover local news and politics. I love the feeling of being done with something. It’s the greatest feeling in the world, but the process of writing it, eighty percent of the time, kind of sucks. It’s the feeling of, oh, my gosh, I did that. It’s done. Now I can put it out in the world. It’s not going to burden me anymore. I think that’s how I write through anxiety.

Zibby: Do you put things on a to-do list that you’ve done just so you can cross them out?

Erica: Yes. It’s funny, when I was first getting sober — I don’t know, maybe this is not funny, but sad. I kind of can’t tell the difference anymore. When I was first just coming out of the last place that I went, which was a detox facility, and trying to even deal with thinking about the wreckage of my life — I had tens of thousands of dollars in debt. I had tons of people who I needed to apologize to and make amends to. Nobody trusted me. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t know how to get a job. My rent wasn’t paid. I would do to-do lists that were like, brush teeth. Take a shower. Go outside and get the mail. It really started from there just feeling like, okay, I’m doing the basics of my life. Now, of course, it’s spun out into, today, I wrote down, prep for this podcast. I was like, yep, I already did that yesterday. Check.

Zibby: I do that too. That’s why I asked.

Erica: I can see that list getting smaller. It gives me that little dopamine rush of, I’m actually doing things. I think it’s a pretty healthy coping mechanism for anxiety, but I don’t know what my therapist would say about that.

Zibby: It sounds like you have a pretty good therapist, so that’s good.

Erica: I do, actually.

Zibby: We should get her on. I should do a side show of all the writers and then —

Erica: — Authors’ therapists.

Zibby: Authors’ therapists, oh, my gosh. They wouldn’t be able to say anything, but it would be so funny. Maybe one special episode or something like that. What was it like, then, reliving these moments, especially the unsavory ones that you didn’t feel as proud of and when you felt your most unlikable and vulnerable? What was it like writing through it? Then now that it’s out, do you have any regrets? Do you feel exposed? I know you were talking about the people who don’t like it. You can’t please everybody. I don’t buy into that. Forget it. They’re not your people. That’s okay.

Erica: It’s a losing game. I don’t have any regrets. The thing about writing through it is I don’t think I could have written it right as I was coming out of the whole story. Not that the story’s over, but right as I was coming out of the part that I write about in the book. I wasn’t ready. I had to process it. I had to do all those amends to people and paying back my debts and just taking care of life, getting a job, getting a new apartment, all those things that were really hard in the moment. Once I had done that and once I had kind of processed it — I went to a lot of AA meetings, which is nothing but — it’s basically cognitive behavioral therapy by non-professionals over a very long period of time where you repeat the same stories over and over again. In telling your story in that context, it loses its power to hurt you. By the time I wrote the book, I felt pretty comfortable talking about it. I was sort of, not disassociated from it, but I was distant enough that I could be a little dispassionate. I don’t have any regrets about the way that I wrote about it. The only thing about writing a memoir about what I’ve learned from my experience is that once you’ve written it, it’s done, and I’ve continued to learn. I have actually continued to change my thinking about addiction and about my own experience and the people in my life and how they reacted. Life goes on. You evolve. You have different perspectives on things based on your experience. Yet it’s all just set in stone in this one moment when you sent the book off to your publisher. That’s just the nature of memoir. Maybe I should write another one. I’m proud of the way that I set out the story.

You mentioned the people at my work who I thought were my allies. I actually do think that the people who were at my work and who I talk about in the very first scene of the first chapter taking me to rehab and then when I got back, firing me or orchestrating my firing, I think they actually were my allies, just not in the way that I wanted them to be at the moment. I was contacted by one of the people, one of the two women, the publisher at the magazine where I worked that I got fired from. She was really mad at me. She was like, “You really make me look horrible. I was trying to help you.” I do regret if anybody read it that way because I was sort of trying to paint myself as the villain in that scenario and in a lot of the scenarios in the book because my behavior — I want people to come away thinking that I was a hard person to like. To the extent that people would read it and sympathize with my point of view when it’s a distorted addiction-oriented point of view, I don’t want people to come away with that impression, but I can’t really control that either.

Zibby: What I say to my kids is, it’s not that people don’t like you or it’s not that I don’t like you, it’s your behavior. Your behavior may have been unlikable, but that doesn’t mean people totally gave up on you. Did they?

Erica: No. That’s the amazing thing. One of the things they say in AA all the time that I don’t think is a very good bit of blanket advice is, you’re going to have to get all new friends and get rid of everybody from your old life. In certain circumstances and maybe when AA was being founded in the 1930s around men who would go out and drink with each other, maybe that was true. One of the amazing things about my story is that every single person who was there with me at the beginning of it when I first started going down that path of addiction, they all came back. They’re all still here. A lot of them didn’t go away. My best friend, Josh, I was telling him the other day — he said, “I just read the section about me again.” I was like, “What are you talking about? The whole book is about you.” He never left. He got very, very frustrated with me, but he’s still my best friend. I was very, very lucky. I also was very determined to mend those relationships. It takes a lot of work. Despite having kind of a dramatic story, I was really lucky at the end of the book and still have all my great friends. We have much stronger relationships, too, because they’re based in a foundation of a lot more honesty.

Zibby: Now that you have this whole book that came out and have said that you’re in a good place, are you afraid secretly that maybe you’re going to relapse again? What would happen then? Do you fear that?

Erica: I think I did at first. I thought, oh, my gosh, I’m jinxing things by putting this out in the world. First of all, if I relapse it’s not going to be because I said that I a person who relapses. I’m talking back to my own self-talk, which is like, oh, no, you said things are good, so things are going to be bad. That’s how my self-talk works. At this point, I’m seven years in. You’re considered to be in remission after about five years. The odds of drinking now are about the same as somebody who has never taken a drink before. Those are just statistics. It has nothing to do with me in particular. I have tools. I think I know what to do. I think I know what steps I would need to take at that point. Learning that relapse isn’t the end of most people’s story and that you can actually recover after relapse I think gives me a lot of confidence in the fact that if I do relapse, that isn’t necessarily the end of the story or the worst thing that’s ever happened to anybody, which is definitely what I thought when I was trying to quit and relapsing. I felt like a failure. In fact, I was typical.

Zibby: I think the journey, so to speak, is never over for really anybody. If it’s not that, I think you’re so right, it’s managing the impetus for all of that behavior, managing what comes underneath or managing the temptation or managing something deeper than just the behavioral part of it.

Erica: It’s like anything. We were talking about eating disorders or compulsions or gambling addiction or anything. You just have to keep trying. It’s not like if I work on a Saturday or if I do something that I said that I was not going to do I’m like, okay, I guess I just work on Saturdays now. Of course not. I say, okay, that was a setback. I try to respond to it in the way that I know how. I talk in the book about all the many, many things that I tried. I think that all of them were effective in some way. AA was probably the most helpful for me just because I’m a person who really needed that structure and needed to be able to talk to people because I was really isolated. Once you know the tools, you can go back to the tools. That’s true for addiction. It’s true for any number of behaviors. That’s what I would hope that I would do. That’s what I encourage people to do. I get contacted by people from all over the world, and certainly all over the country, saying, hey, I read your book. I’m struggling. I keep relapsing. The only advice I can give is, you’re not a failure. Just keep going back to the tools that you know. Keep going back to the tools that worked for you the first time. They will work again. You just have to keep trying.

Zibby: It’s that black-and-white thinking. I’ve been trying to go on this new health kick or whatever to be healthy. I was with my mother who — that’s a whole nother podcast. We were together over New Year’s. I started eating this piece of cake. I was like, “It’s okay. I’m going to allow myself two treats a week.” I started eating the cake. Then of course, I couldn’t stop because the sugar was like, whoosh! Then I started eating and eating. Then next thing you know, I’m eating off someone else’s plate. Next thing you know, I’m like, “Don’t –” That’s halfway in the garbage. I’m like, I’ll just finish that scrap in the garbage. Then I said to mom, I was like, “I’ve ruined it. It’s over again. I thought this time it would work.” She’s like, “It’s never going to be over or not over. This is your life. It’s just a day. It’s just a meal. Tomorrow’s another day. Don’t worry about it.” It would be nice if we all could have that voice in our own heads. We’re all so harsh on ourselves for the tiniest missteps. I’m massively extrapolating here, which I probably shouldn’t. It seems very black or white. I’ve relapsed. I haven’t. Maybe in alcoholism it is more black and white. Maybe one drink. Maybe I’ll be okay with just this.

Erica: For me, I’m a person that — the way that I historically drink and I think would continue to drink is, I can’t have just one drink. I probably could tell myself that. Then I think I would be on the spiral. I also think that there is a spectrum of relapse. Some people refer to it as a slip, like when you just have one drink and then you are like, whoa, I can’t be doing that. Tomorrow’s another day. You start over. I think that there is all-or-nothing thinking among some circles in the recovery world where you go back to day zero and you start all over. You’ve done it now. You may have had ten and a half years, but now you’re back at day zero. You’re crawling back. I think that’s really, really not helpful and counterproductive. It keeps people away. I prefer to encourage people and to encourage myself to be gentle on myself. I wouldn’t talk the way that I talk to myself to a friend, ever. I wouldn’t have any friends. That’s a really important thing that I try to — when people ask me, and they do ask a fair amount, is just to be gentle on yourself with whatever it is that you’re trying to change in your life because it’s not a sprint.

Zibby: Very true. I don’t know if this applies or not. For me, when I’m trying to just be more mindful of food and not wanting to eat dessert every second, I’m like, okay, this is a craving. This is a feeling. This is a feeling that is going to pass. I’m going to ride out this feeling. I’m going to walk in the other room. Slowly, it’s going to go away. It’s not going to be as hard. Feelings are one thing. They’re one piece of your brain. Anyway, I’m sorry I’m talking about myself so much. I really apologize.

Erica: That’s okay. I think it’s all related. It’s funny, I mentioned that AA is a lot like cognitive behavioral therapy. You learn the twelve steps in AA. You do what’s called working a program. You try to apply tools that you’ve learned to every part of your life. I often say to friends who are not in recovery and who don’t necessarily have addictive-type issues, I feel bad for you that you don’t have a program. Having those tools is so useful. Whether it comes from therapy or a recovery group or whatever, it is so useful to be able to just talk back to your thoughts in that way. That’s one of the things that we learn in recovery circles. Like you said, this is just a feeling. This will pass. Live for today. One day at a time, etc., etc., all those clichés. I talk in the book about how they are really annoying at first. Then something changes, and they start to seem like wisdom. I think about that stuff all the time to this day. I think, this too shall pass. One day at a time. All that stuff that just seems so stupid and like a dumb little slogan on a wall, it is incredibly useful in the moment.

Zibby: I agree. Very true. Having written a memoir, even though you don’t like to write, what advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Erica: I think that the reason I was able to write this particular memoir — I’d never written a book before — is because I had an idea of what I wanted it to be and what I wanted to say. In very practical terms, if you’re going to be pitching a book, I think outlining it is really an important first step. I sat down and I wrote an outline. I wrote a pitch. I did the whole thing in a weekend. Again, this is my compulsive work behavior. I wrote fifty pages in a weekend. I don’t recommend doing that. I think it’s really important to have a theme and an idea of what it is that you want to say in the book. I’m speaking about memoir and nonfiction because that’s my area of expertise. I come out of the alternative weekly newspaper/magazine world. Now I write a website. The pieces I write are usually between a thousand and maybe three thousand words. A book, my first draft was something like 120,000 words. Initially, that number of words just seemed so daunting that I couldn’t imagine putting anything on the page.

Again, I used the outline. I broke it down. I just thought, okay, this is not a book, this is a series of stories that will proceed in a more or less chronological order from the past toward the present. I broke it down into chunks. The book has a lot of chapters. It could’ve had ten chapters, but it has many more than that. That, in part, is just because my writing practice, it was more effective for me to write it in small chunks and to think of it as small chunks rather than this mountain that I had to climb. Then eventually, I got to 120,000 words. My editor said, “This is way too long.” We ended up cutting about twenty, twenty-five thousand words out of it, which was great. I love that process. I love editors. Thank god for editors. I also am an editor myself, but I can’t edit myself. I was really, really grateful to have this amazing editor who was willing to work with me and just cut mercilessly. I think the biggest thing is just, don’t think of it as a mountain you have to climb. Think of it as a series of discrete plateaus that you have to reach.

Zibby: I love that. I just wrote a memoir that’s coming out this summer in July. I did the exact same thing. I was like, I can’t do this. It’s too long. What am I going to do? Then I was like, I’m going to write a series of scenes. I’ll just write a scene at a time. Then we’ll link them all together.

Erica: Actually, for me, it was weird. Once I started doing that, it just proceeded like magic.

Zibby: Me too. It was like, boom, boom, boom.

Erica: You think it’s not going to work, but then it does. It was a really amazing process. It took way longer than anything I had ever written took. People often ask, wasn’t it really hard to write a book? It wasn’t any harder than the rest of the writing I do. Once I set myself to it and put myself in the mindset of not being a news writer, but being a memoir writer, it actually was really, really fun to play with the way that I wrote and to write in a way that I don’t usually. I’m usually a very straightforward, just the facts sort of writer. I didn’t have to do that with this, which was really fun.

Zibby: Awesome. This is great. I feel like I have someone I share a brain with, in part here, so many of the same coping habits. It’s nice to see it reflected

Erica: Awesome. Likewise. This has been really fun.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on. I will think of you as I don’t work in the mornings. I will think of you on Saturdays and hope you’re sticking to it. Thank you so much. It was great to get to know you.

Erica: Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Take care. Bye.

Erica: Take care. Bye.

Erica C. Barnett, QUITTER

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