“My ‘ism started well before the use of alcohol,” says Kristen. “Well before the first time I used.”
Some researchers will tell you that "addictive personalities" don't exist. Addicts will tell you that before their addiction to work, it was sex. Before sex, weed. Before weed, alcohol. Before alcohol, food. Before food, love. Not always in that order.
For her part, Kristen’s first ‘ism was codependency. In simplest terms, this is the belief that one’s wellbeing is contingent upon the wellbeing of another.
Except, the word “codependence” isn’t exactly right. Kristen was nine. And there was no mistaking that her wellbeing, for better or worse, was highly contingent on one alcoholic and exceptionally erratic mother. Kristen's mother was "a big woman, and a big personality... really present. Omnipresent.” When sober, “she’s like the sun, and just love,” says Kristen. “And then: total shut down. Locking herself in her room. All of a sudden the world freezes over.”
Maybe I did something wrong, nine-year-old Kristen would think. Maybe I’m the one that needs to counsel my mom. It wasn't a pleasant thought, but it was the type of thought that provides the semblance of control. It makes it hard to think about other things. That counted for something.
Throughout late elementary school and her early teenage years, Kristen’s time was neatly split between trying to fix her mother, please her mother, and individuate from her completely. Her mother was overweight, says Kristen, and “very committed to this narrative of herself as the wild crazy heathen.” In response, Kristen built a counter-narrative of her own. “I defined myself against that,” says Kristen. “I’m the thin one, I'm athletic, I have control where everyone else doesn’t.”
The trick worked - and so, a deceptively, disappointingly simple story of Kristen was born. Kristen relays it in the brash and booming voice of her mother. “We’re all eating chocolate and Kristen eats a grapefruit! We don’t know where she came from! She’s just amazing!”
At 13, Kristen initiated her mother’s first intervention. “She got drunk on Easter, fell down,” remembers Kristen. “It was super scary. She was incoherent.” Kristen sat her down and told her that she was worried about her drinking. Afterwards, nothing changed. Now, at 41, Kristen sees that conversation for all its developmental significance. “I’m like, holy shit: a 13 year old, being really scared, being brave enough to talk about that, and then having nothing really change.”
Anger, fear, and grief needed somewhere to go.
“So where did they go?” I asked her. “Where did you channel those feelings?”
After codependence came perfectionism. Kristen was the star of the soccer team and all the high school musicals. She was a straight A student. “I killed it,” she says. Since childhood, adults had told her. “You’re going to be famous!” Looking back, she observes how dangerous those comments were. “You have to be so careful with kids,” she says. “It’s not about being famous.”
The next escape was fantasy. “There was a lot of daydreaming, a lot of planning, a lot of talking into the mirror.” It was “very romantic, very flowery, very Jane Eyre." Kristen describes it now as becoming addicted to her thoughts. She almost wore a hole in her favorite cassette tape, a set of classical pieces released by Victoria's Secret. At night, she says, “I would choreograph to [the classical music], and I would also moviescape to [it].” In these fantasies, Kristen, the quiet protagonist, was the polar opposite of her mother: “My mom was committed to this sexy, brassy, hot, crazy, fem fatale thing.” In Kristen’s fantasies, she was “the complete opposite of that: He finds me! The quiet wallflower! Studying my books and reading Shakespeare!”
Fantasy created a safe place to go, a comfortable groove in her mind. She was too well-behaved to sneak out of the house - and plus, there was nowhere to sneak to. Reality couldn’t compete with the places in her head.
In her sophomore year of high school, Kristen’s family moved to Japan, where her parents taught at an international school. Allie arrived in Kristen’s junior year, the soon-to-be target of another ‘ism. It wasn’t sex, but it was the practice of losing herself in another person. “I think I was in love with her. She was amazing and brilliant and this incredible painter and she had done all of these drugs and she had already had sex and she had a bonafide eating disorder. She was edgy. She was amazing.” And Kristen, for her part, was aching to loosen up. She cut her hair and began smoking cigarettes. An injury ruined her soccer season. “In knowing her, there was this undoing.”
Of course, I backpedal. In love? “Did you just admire her? Or respect her? Or were you actually, you know, in love?”
It was all of the above. It always was. “I put her on a pedestal,” she says. “And there was a lot of comparing. Comparing my body to her body, my mind to her mind, my creativity to hers….Wanting her respect, and wanting her to love me back.” While it never became a physical or romantic relationship, Kristen would go on to be with women later in life. “I do feel that I was physically attracted to her.”
In short, Allie was another place to go. This girl, the associated feelings, were perhaps more powerful, more addictive than the drugs and alcohol that would ultimately bring Kristen into recovery. The wrong person, I'm reminded, is even more convincing than the wrong drug.
Kristen began to use drugs regularly as a senior year in high school. She favored weed, in large part because her mother favored alcohol. That year, says Kristen, “I got small.” Spiritually small. When using, she says, “I always felt that there was this blanket that would overlay my spirit. It felt heavy, dampening.”
And yet, just like Allie, weed contained the possibility of undoing. The first time she smoked, she and a group of girlfriends went to Taco Bell and ate a whole box of Cheez Its. “I had this relief from that perfectionism… like all the tight grippings just loosened, and I could kind of breathe...That was something I chased, well, forever.”
“I had this relief from that perfectionism...That was something I chased, well, forever.”
Of course, Kristen did not want that undoing reflected in her body. She wanted to be “tiny, skinny, wiry, with no boobs.” Although thin was in at the time, this desire “wasn’t a cultural thing.” Rather, Kristen says, that wiry frame was the “complete antithesis” to her mother. Her mother, after all, was increasingly absent and depressed, and progressing quickly and recklessly through the stages of alcoholism. Mother was not a safe person to be.
In her freshman year, Kristen attended Boston University’s Honors College. “I got used to alcohol being in my system… I drank a lot, and I was around people who drank a lot.” These people were smart, they were artsy, and more often than not they drank away the weekends.
In this context, says Kristen, “Food became a thing that you really could use and abuse.” By the end of her freshman year, Kristen’s relationship with food was defined not only by control, but by lapses in control. After smoking, she and her friends would eat with abandon. As a child, with her mother in the next room over, Kristen had never dared to use food in that way.
Like she had in high school, Kristen found her way towards another imitation of a relationship. Like Allie, Jared was artsy, a dancer and a photographer. He had high standards, and Kristen structured her inner life around how to meet those standards. Like the fantasy world from her childhood, Jared was a “place to go.” He was also gay, and wholly disinterested in her romantically.
For Kristen, a burgeoning songwriter at the time, this was just as well. “Angst and unrequited love were really great to drink over, really great to get stoned over, really occupied a ton of time, and were great fodder for a lot of creative work.” Perpetual longing “made me feel angsty and dark like I always wanted to be.”
After her freshman year, Kristen transferred to art school. This was where she built a habit of hiding her drinking. Unlike many who identify as alcoholic, Kristen smoked and drank in measured amounts. She typically didn't lose control, and she did have a kill switch. But, just like other alcoholics, Kristen often felt compelled to hide her use. “If I was around people who were cool with drinking and drank a lot, then I was safe. But I didn’t want anyone who was healthy or moderate to know.”
Kristen smoked and drank in measured amounts. She typically didn't lose control, and she did have a kill switch.
At 23, Kristen joined an Irish punk band. At 26, despite having an IUD, Kristen got pregnant with her partner and bandmate. The subsequent abortion led to an escalation of Kristen’s drinking. “That’s when it became totally self-medicating,” she says. “I was smoking all day in this very controlled and secretive way.” She likens herself to a chemist: “Some sugar, some caffeine, some weed. All this stuff to not have to feel what I was ultimately feeling.”
Music was a place for Kristen to process deep feelings. She brought not only the grief of ending a pregnancy, but the anger, frustration, disappointment, and longing she had been redirecting since childhood. Unlike codependency, perfectionism, food, or drugs, live performance and songwriting helped Kristen to meaningfully process her experience. She begins to say the word “transcend,” I think, but something cuts her off.
Making peace with "not bad enough"
“I wasn’t a ‘get-wasted-and-make-art' type." Kristen was firm in her resolution that on-stage ought to be a “safe zone.” Drinking and using were meant for the isolated hours in her hotel room after a performance. But alcoholism is a progressive disease, and Kristen’s disease was already creeping in in subtle ways. “The more I used, the less I was writing. The more I used, the less I was practicing.”
“The more I used, the less I was writing. The more I used, the less I was practicing.”
Kristen’s bottom was more emotional than physical, defined nearly as much by destructive relationships as it was by destructive use. These relationships were “mentally addictive” at best and, at worst, emotionally abusive. One partner created a special nickname, “Asshole Guy,” that he would adopt whenever he wanted to criticize her. Kristen, locked in the cycle of using and shame around using, often believed what Asshole Guy had to say. So much as a buzz would muddy her own internal compass.
In 2016, three days before Kristen got sober, she attended the wedding of a friend. In their vows, says Kristen, “There was this incredible vulnerability. [The groom] said something like, ‘you’re my favorite.’" A few days before the wedding, Kristen had driven drunk. Another night, she had passed out on her bed with the back door wide open. The wedding vows caught her aching for change. "I want to feel safe. I want to feel like I can just be myself. I want to be committed to somebody someday." Kristen knew instinctively that those things would remain unattainable if she continued to use.
Several months before that wedding, Kristen had begun going to a twelve step program for the family members of alcoholics. Looking back, this was an important step to admitting her own problem with alcohol. That twelve step program was a gateway to another. “As you start any form of recovery...if you really lean into it, your other ‘isms’ get harder to continue to play out.”
So it was with liquor. Staring up at the bride and groom, Kristen hit something like bottom. It wasn’t a crash; it was a knowing. She was finally ready to stop chasing a feeling that, in 37 years, she'd never really had. “I’m not really into the edge and the high anymore. I don’t like that feeling anymore. I don’t like the cycle of addiction and using. I don’t like how that feels.” Yes, she could probably drink for another ten years before anyone was concerned, let alone intervened. But she had to ask herself: “If I do this another ten years, what will that look like?
“I’m not really into the edge and the high anymore... I don’t like the cycle of addiction and using. I don’t like how that feels.”
“A lot of people struggle with feeling like their bottom isn’t crazy enough," says Kristen. In reality, there's nothing wrong with getting off the train before it crashes. By the grace of something she doesn't quite understand, Kristen was finished. “I think I’m ready,” she told a friend of hers in recovery. “I think I’ll get off here.”
That was four years ago, and that marks the last time when Kristen was truly small. In sobriety, she says, “there’s a brightness to it... it feels bright and effortless and joyful.” Of course, she still has ‘isms - but her willingness to play them out diminishes on a daily basis.
Most recently, Kristen is making peace with cereal. “[My partner’s daughter] got a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch that I can’t stop thinking about,” says Kristen. “When she leaves the house, I’m like a little squirrel.” Kristen stealthily micro-doses on sugar the way she once did with alcohol or weed. The solution proposed by her sponsor was to eat as if she was already free. “I’m not going to do it when everyone is gone… if I’m going to eat them, I’m going to get a bowl and sit down and enjoy the cereal.” More often than not, granting herself sugar removes the allure; addicts, after all, are mostly addicted to their secrets. “It’s not fun to sit down and eat a bowl of sugary cereal in front of everyone.”
Addicts are mostly addicted to their secrets.
In sobriety, Kristen began what is her first ever healthy relationship. Like a bowl of cereal, it’s disarmingly - and sometimes disappointingly - straightforward. “I can be 100% myself...I feel super safe. I’m not on edge at all.” Ostensibly, that's a good thing. And yet - “it took some getting used to,” says Kristen. “I'm like, where’s the rush? I feel safe and comfortable but where’s the hit?” She now knows from experience what instinct had told her at the wedding: an honest, healthy, and committed relationship was only achievable when she stopped using and started working the twelve steps.
As a professional musician, Kristen lost her full-time gig to COVID-19. She transitioned instead to virtual teaching. Quarantine, she has found, is a lot like sobriety. Amidst this not-quite-calm, deeper truths about herself have crept forward. "What are the sounds I really like?" "Do I have anything I want to write about?" "Do I actually want to share this with anyone?"
Unlike her 'isms, music offers a way through the pain of existence - rather than a way out. And now, with no financial or professional incentive to perform, Kristen experiences her art with fresh eyes. "Sometimes, now, [music is] back to the way it was in the beginning - it’s divine, like I’m just a channel.”