Interview with Kristi Coulter
This week Liv interviewed Kristi Coulter. Kristi is an award winning writer, essayist and author. She has the kind of resume that blows your mind. In a good way. Kristi is smart, incredibly funny, warm and quick-witted. She inspires the hell out of me. And I really want to steal her dogs. Well, not steal, more borrow.
Kristi’s blog, Off Dry, is “about getting and staying sober in a world that’s often three sheets to the wind. It’s also about music and running and my neurosis du jour, but it was born when I decided to clean up my act in June 2013, and sobriety is still at its heart.”
Most recently known for her essay, Enjoli, which went ‘mega viral’ in summer 2016. It was picked up by The New York Post and other major media outlets. Her essay collection, Want Not, will be published in early 2018. She also has a novel-in-progress, The Third Party.
Interview with Kristi Coulter
Liv: Let’s kick off with a food question: What have you had for breakfast today?
Kristi: A banana with peanut butter, which is actually what I have most days. I cut the banana in half lengthwise and make a little sandwich. It’s pretty twee.
Kristi on Getting Sober
Liv: In your conversation with The Recovery Revolution, you described your drinking as: surrounding yourself with others that drank as much as you did, so it didn’t seem to be a problem; having limited potential for creativity, which lead to an emotional fatigue and more drinking. In fact, you didn’t start writing again until 6 or 7 months sober. Tell me about how the lack of expression and creativity in your life led to the development of your alcohol use disorder?
Kristi: Great question. I think the lack of creativity led to less and less truth-telling in various parts of my life—in big and small ways, to myself and others—and the less truthfully I lived, the more my life became something that didn’t fit me, and the more I drank to cope with that fact. I’m oversimplifying a bit, of course, but in hindsight I don’t doubt that drifting away from writing (which I’d been doing since the age of 4!) was a contributing factor to my drinking. I was astonished to find the desire to write creeping back after I got sober—I really didn’t expect that.
Liv: You said that you used to blame yourself for your perceived failings. What do you mean by that? How did coming from a family of high achievers effect your drinking?
Kristi: In my family, being a high achiever was sort of the minimum expectation. I spent my childhood and early- to mid-adolescence as a straight A student, semi-professional actor, classically trained vocalist, prize-winning writer, and all-around good girl, but it was still difficult to find the acceptance I craved at home. Punk rock eventually saved my life at 16, as punk rock will do, but not before I’d internalized the notion that only through constant striving and sweat could I prove I was worthy of love. I transferred that belief to my education, to early relationships with men, and eventually to my career. Live that way long enough and presto! That’s how you get yourself a drinking problem.
Liv: You decided to get sober when your husband was out of town and he has since joined you in sobriety. How has his sobriety affected yours?
Kristi: It’s given us yet another common language, just as we once shared the language of drinkers. We can now look back together with the same type of hindsight and say “Whoa, what were we thinking?!” (And because nothing is that black-and-white, we can still look back and recognize that some of it was fun, too—like the time we spent two hours in Tokyo looking for a nameless speakeasy my husband had read about in a magazine. We never did find it—speaking at least some Japanese probably would have helped—but it was a great way to see some very odd parts of the city.)
Liv: Moving on to your essay "Enjoli" , that went viral in late summer 2016. First, wow. Second, tell me how life is this side of the pool?
Kristi: Life on this side of the pool is good. Which is not a synonym for easy! But it has more open space and time than I found on the other side. I can be thoughtful and make decisions based in reality, not panic or magical thinking. I can be quiet and try to understand my own needs. I can revel in my own reliability. And I can often connect with other people truthfully and directly. (On the downside, life on this side of the pool does still require sunscreen and I’m still not as diligent as I should be about that.)
Liv: I watched the furore around your essay, which you wrote about (link here). You talked about how to deal with the reaction in the day. Tell me, how do you feel about the totality of its effects now?
Kristi: Humbled is the word that comes to mind. Humbled and connected. I still get letters from people saying “I’m on day X of sobriety and it’s because of your essay.” All kinds of people, from all over the world. And also from people who maybe aren’t problem drinkers, but were inspired to pay closer attention to why they drink when they do, or to the forces in their lives that make them want to drink.
And also, frankly, like I’m still in a whirlwind. I had some irons in the fire with regard to my writing career when ‘Enjoli’ published, but its success meant I suddenly had amazing opportunities in my lap. It was a shocking experience, and I don’t say that to play down my own talent or hard work, but because talent and hard work aren’t always enough to get a writer noticed or read. So now, with my essay collection due next year and a novel to finish after that, what’s most important to me is to keep working steadily and to be really thoughtful about what I say yes and no to, because I want to be in this for the long haul.
Yoga Behind Bars
Liv: I read your interview with Caroline Leavitt about Yoga behind bars, a nonprofit in Seattle that offers free yoga and meditation classes to incarcerated people throughout the Washington state prison system. You serve on the board of directors. Tell me about it and how it effects your life?
Kristi: Well, unfortunately in the wake of everything that came my way post-“Enjoli,” I realized I needed to streamline my other obligations, and so I stepped down from the Yoga Behind Bars board, though I’m still a huge fan and supporter. But one of the big things it did for me was reinforce that there is a use for the superpowers that are already within me. Before, I might have thought ‘I’m not a social worker or a yoga teacher, so how can I be of any help to this organization?’ Well, it turned out that my corporate experience—the ability to do strategic planning, organizational development, and the like—was genuinely useful to YBB at that stage in its growth. So I learned not to dismiss those skills as just, you know, serving the capitalist machine or something. Because they are really valuable in any situation where decisions need to be made.
Kristi on Recovery Modalities
Liv: Leading on from the previous question, when referring to the best placement of your skill, you said ‘ I can read a 5-year plan and pinpoint the traps and blind spots that someone else might miss.’ As a non-12 step person, do you think there are blind spots behind that modality?
Kristi: I think there are blind spots to every modality, because they’re all developed by humans! My experience with AA is too limited for me to speak very specifically about it, but I will say that I’m uncomfortable with it being presented as the default recovery modality in the absence of scientific studies proving it works better than others. To paraphrase something I heard addiction neuroscientist Maia Szalavitz say on NPR, you wouldn’t offer someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer a cancer support group as their only treatment. I do not doubt for one second that AA offers valuable structure and community for loads of people in recovery—but it shouldn’t be the only game in town when medication, psychotherapy, etc. could be equally useful in some cases. And speaking as an American, I don’t think attendance should ever be court-ordered, because AA has a religious foundation. I’m personally not bothered by the Higher Power stuff, but our courts should not be mandating that citizens participate in religious activities.
How Kristi Recovers
Liv: What modality do you use to recover?
Kristi: I got sober via the 100-day challenge at Belle Robertson’s Tired of Thinking about Drinking site, so I’d say the web community and especially the sober blogosphere were my main modalities. When I hear people dismiss online relationships as not ‘real,’ I think of the astounding recovery community and beg to differ. Beyond that, I don’t know that I used a formal modality, though I’ve lately felt a need for more in-person community and may try out a Refuge Recovery meeting in my city.
Liv: You said that you ‘amped up’ running when you came into recovery. Tell me about that? What have been some of the benefits of running in recovery?
Kristi: I did, because when I first quit drinking I needed ways to tire myself out in the evenings, and running is tiring! Some months into recovery I joined an online half-marathon training program (because God forbid a chronic high achiever start with a nice 5K or something). Training for a half gave my running a structure and a goal, and l learned to trust the program the same way I’d learned to stay sober—by just doing the next right thing and letting the benefits accumulate. Running has taught me a ton about my body, about patience, and about the fact that both the runner’s high and the runner’s low (yes, this is a thing—just ask anyone at mile 8 of a half-marathon) are temporary conditions.
Liv: What has been your relationship with food in recovery?
Kristi: It’s been…interesting! When I was drinking I was stricter about food, because it was one of the ways I told myself everything was just fine. And then when I first got sober, I did what it seems like just about everyone does, which was shovel as much sugar as possible down my throat. In general I’m at a more balanced place now, but only because I want to, you know, live and be healthy. Sugar’s definitely still a weakness and I’ve got some more work to do on how to really reward or serve myself that doesn’t involve eating something sweet. One thing at a time.
Liv: Penultimate question: what is your favourite meal/dish?
Kristi: You mean besides a 5-pound bag of sugar? ;-) I tend to have a rotating favorite of the moment, and right now it’s this Middle Eastern-inspired dish from Bon Appetit: yogurt spiced with sumac and cumin, topped with browned Brussels sprouts and onions and a fried egg. It is crazy good, looks beautiful, and feels kind of chic yet is super easy. Also, it includes an egg. My husband’s a lacto-ovo vegetarian and I’m a protein-loving omnivore; as a result, we are an egg-centic household.
Kristi's Top 5 (ish) Recovery Tools
Liv: Last, what are your top five recovery tools?
- Writing, because it’s how I find out what I think and make sense of it.
- Exercise, lots of it. Preferably outdoors. I live in Seattle, where it’s dark by 4 in the winter, but you’ll still find me out there, lit up like I’m going to a rave.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy, because thoughts are not reality.
- Meds, because my brain doesn’t make enough serotonin. Sobriety has dramatically reduced my depression/anxiety symptoms, but given that I’ve had them since childhood, I may always need some chemical help, and I’m grateful to have it.
- Saying no to things I truly don’t want to do, or that eat too much into my downtime. I need some open space around me.
- Oh, and if I can have a 5.5 (pretty please?) it would be sex. Sober sex has been sort of a revelation. I mean, who knew? Maybe everyone else knew. But I didn’t. Now I do.