Synchronistic Reader

Where Life Intertwines With the Books I Read

Lauren J Barnhart

Lauren J Barnhart
Seattle, Washington,
April 11
Author & Publisher
Knotted Tree Press
My memoir 'No End Of The Bed' spans my search for truth through differing perceptions of sex, with some surprising parallels made between the fundamentalist church and the sex-positive movement. It is now available at most online retailers. You can also find my writing in past issues of Jersey Devil Press and Monkey Bicycle.


Editor’s Pick
JANUARY 17, 2012 2:25PM

Portrait of an Addict

Rate: 28 Flag


            For the first time in twelve years, I am sober now for the last five months.  I am happier and more productive than I have ever been.  My mind feels crystal clear every morning – excited to write, bursting with ideas and thoughts.  And when I’m out with friends and the bars close and they’re all loaded and stumbling through the streets – I realize I am the only person who is really seeing everything, feeling everything, experiencing a memory that won’t slip from my mind by morning. 

            I have just finished reading Bill Clegg’s memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.  Clegg is a successful Literary Agent in Manhattan who struggled with an addiction to crack.  The very drug, crack, is symbolic of his state of being at the time.  Though outwardly he is a success – amazing job, parties, beautiful home, loving and supportive partner, friends that care about him – on the inside he feels an absolute disconnect.  He does not love himself, does not even seem to know himself, and he would rather be dead.  Eventually, he loses everything he had.

             “It feels as if each week, there is some lunch or some dinner or some phone call that is going to blow my cover, reveal that I am not nearly as bright or well read or business savvy or connected as I think people imagine me to be.  My bank account is always empty, and when I look at the ledgers at the agency, I wonder how we will pay our employees, the rent, the phone bill…  I often wish it all felt the way it looked, that I could actually be living the life everyone thinks they see.  But it feels like a rigged show, one loose cable away from collapse (Clegg, 128).”

            I relate to this so completely.  I too worked as a Literary Agent in New York and never stopped thinking that someone would blow my cover.  My boss was a bit of a rogue, and I liked that about him.  We clicked - I was his first employee, and in the beginning it was pure joy.  He trained me intensively.  I read books on law, and editing, and publishing.  I read manuscripts to report back with critiques.  He helped me refine my style and challenged me.  Then I began taking on clients and lunching with editors, which is when the shit hit the fan.

            Being an agent is like being a gambler – and I’ve never had good luck.  You put your time and energy into a book in hopes that the editors will buy it – but you don’t get paid until they do.  My boss wanted me to quit my restaurant job, so I did.  He gave me $1,000 a month – but my dad always ended up having to give me $300 more.  After paying the bills, there was barely anything left.  Lunch with the editors was the only time I wasn’t eating hot dogs and lentils or some other cheap fare. 

            My boss gave me money to go out and buy a decent pair of shoes, but the ones I finally found didn’t even seem right.  I certainly couldn’t walk miles in them, and I realized they were too trendy.  I felt like I was wasting all of his money.  He believed in me so much.  Outwardly, I looked and seemed ready to be a success.  But on the inside I was a raging artist, becoming more and more lost in the role I was playing. 

    There was this voice that wouldn’t shut-up inside my head – I believed in my own writing more than anyone else’s.  It felt selfish.  But I was putting all of my energy into the others – and nothing was left for me.  My boss grew upset that I couldn’t keep up with the two new hires.  I wasn’t reading fast enough.  There was no time for a life outside of work.

            But I was leading a parallel life.  I lived in Hoboken.  My tribe was a crowd of never do well musicians.  The bartenders only charged me six bucks to drink all night.  And when the bars closed we’d head to someone’s apartment and drink till the sun came up.  On weekdays, I’d wake up with some passed out rocker in my bed and then go into the process of switching lives - from braids to sleek ponytail, from combat boots to heels, from gypsy skirt to pressed slacks.  I’d rush to the train in a crowd I didn’t belong in – the yuppies that we’d just been taunting the night before.  And then I would reach the perfectly sleek office with the glass doors and the blonde hardwood floors and the giant view of the Empire State Building and the insanely bright lights.  Suddenly I would realize that I looked like shit – that my eyes were bloodshot and my skin dull and dry.  At lunch I’d buy something greasy like a patty melt from the corner deli.  My boss would cross over from his office to my cubicle and stare down at my desk at the mess of a sandwich and say, “Hangover food.”  And then I’d make some lame denial, “Not really, it just looked good.”

            My first potential sale was a client he’d pawned off on me – a chick lit thing that I didn’t really like.  I failed to sell it and felt humiliated.  The pressure was unbearable.  None of my clients seemed exactly right.  I’d grown attached to them and was driven more by the emotion of making their dreams come true than by their talent.  Their work was good, but not great.

            It all came to a head.  I lost my footing completely and anxiety took over.  And then came the talk.  My boss took me to the conference room, and said, “Lauren, you are the artist, not the agent.  This is a waste of my money.”  I called all of my clients to tell them they would need to find new representation.  I’d lived vicariously through their hopes and dreams, and it felt terrible letting them down.  My hands were shaking.  But there was a huge sense of relief as I walked out the glass doors, rode the elevator down and was at last out on the street where I could breathe.  Where I didn’t have to be something for anyone.

Drinking was only part of my failure as an agent.  I was young, introverted, uncertain, and completely inept at sales.  My boss always told me, “If people are drinking, you drink.  If they are smoking, then smoke.  If they’re talking about church, then you’re a church-goer too.”  But I didn’t want to live my life to please others.  I’d escaped from that already.  All I wanted was truth. 

I didn’t stop drinking of my own accord.  For years it was normal to have six drinks a day.  I’d try to take two days off a week, but rarely managed that.  Then for the past five years, after particularly heavy nights, my liver started to hurt.  By last summer the pain became constant.  Even one sip caused sharp pangs to shoot through my side.  Physical activity grew difficult from the swollen discomfort.

            I’m not sure if or when I’ll ever get to go back to that feeling I always loved.  Not much beats that charge of excitement, that interconnectedness with other human beings; on the other hand - the monotony of going in circles, the hangover, the lagging energy, the boredom.  It used to be a social crutch, but now I don’t need it, and don’t need to go out as much.  The worst of it was, alcohol was always good for taking a romantic night and turning it into a knock-out fight.  Eventually, it may have ended my marriage.

            I enjoy the experience of being around others who are drinking.  I like to ride the wave of their energy and partake in the free flowing conversation.  I’ve learned to not try and make sense of what they say beyond a certain point.  And the only time I feel depressed is when there is a ridiculously nice bottle of wine on the table, and I can smell all of those complexities and the journey it could take me on -complexities that I was known as an expert for describing.

            “But it’s more than just a conversation, it’s the best sex, the most delicious meal, the most engrossing book – it’s like returning to all of these at once, coming home, and the primary feeling I have as I collapse back into my desk chair and watch the smoke roll through my office is:  Why on earth did I ever leave (Clegg, 187)?

            For years I looked down on people who were numbing out the pain and not working through their issues.  Their drug of choice kept them stagnant.  But when I quit drinking, I realized that I was this person.  Everything came up from before the time that I had my first drink.  I had recurring dreams of being trapped in college.  It began to purge out of me, painfully, as I remembered the person I left behind a long time ago.  I began to make peace with her.  And I am still making peace with the fact that addiction can steal your life away.

Bill Clegg was a man who lacked self-acceptance.  But I think he found it through his writing and through sobriety.  He purged his secrets, and freed himself from the power they had over him.  Having a perfect life is a façade that doesn’t really exist.  Accepting the truth makes for a much better story.




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ironic: i told myself that this is why i "abused":

"My mind feels crystal clear every morning – excited to write, bursting with ideas and thoughts"

i was numbing pain in order to reach clarity.

how i wished it, chased it, got a glimpse, a moment, but
then the pain afterwards. the inevitable
mess you make when u lose control of
your mind.

Having a perfect life is a façade that doesn’t really exist. Accepting the truth makes for a much better story...
honesty is the only way. otherwise
you lie to your very being, you
are split in half, and need
a drink, dammit.
I hear you.
Even now I feel inadequate whenever I browse half-price books. It's this payola with precognition. Euphoria. Expertise.
I even tried selling shoes, dated a tooth model, and got dry fucked when those planes collided on the Canary Islands.
Vut vut vut
Well of course the enamel wore out; and she didn't tell me the boy was watching....
What's your favorite HBO if I may be so cold....?
Bold I meant, Laurie, if I may?
If only people could find some route to faster uncovering of the pain which they are trying to conceal through addiction. In many cases, I don't think it's even accessible until something, therapy, a triggering event, a crisis precipitated by their avoidance behavior, brings the issue to the fore.

The brain seems to have a lot of ways to divert us from pain we had no way to deal with at the time. Once the addictive cycle, with all of it's attendant behavioral and social connections are established, the avoidance of life, is a very convincing version of life. Addicts then gather with other addicts, at bars, to smoke pot, to do crack or shoot heroin etc., and there, no one will judge them and everyone pretends to give a damn, when in truth, everyone else is just an object in the quest for the fix.

Congratulations on seizing your life again. Hang on, creating your reality is a pretty wild ride, but there's no addiction that can provide a high that good.
Congratulations on being sober. I understand the need for the drink and the numbing of the pain, believe me.
Clearly the artist quietly IDs the pleasure X pain ignition and then MUST produce. Faster than he-we-she *thought*.

There is no dirt.

Beneath the snow, maybe :)
Touching, beautifully written post. I have a niece struggling with addition...your post will help me empower her.
Thank you Elizabeth, that means a lot to me.
Just finished reading the first part of Stephen King's On Writing, in which he describes his decades of alcoholism and pharmaceutical addiction, and how he finally shook them off. Fascinating and sobering, both of you. I have my own similar story - trying to emulate the Hunter Thompson style and damned near killing myself. Glad to be free of it, as you seem to be. Yours is an especially compelling account, partly, I guess because of your youth and promise. Welcome back from the brink.
Really powerful, and poignant. Are you writing your memoir?
I was a junkie, after a prolonged romance with cocaine..

Realized there were three choices; jail, death, or life

Wishing you the best going forward.
Yes, I am writing a memoir. I've finished one on the years that led up to moving to New York, and now I am diving in to those east coast experiences. This post is just the tip of the iceberg! Will keep you posted.
The posts of yours I've read before have been great--the way you connect a book with your life is amazing. Thought-provoking and clear. But this post goes far beyond what I've seen so far. Your honesty surely speaks to at least some part of most of us. So happy you are free and breathing again. Someone as brave and strong as you surely will make it. I look forward to reading the whole tale.
Nice. I think we've ruined entire generations with our acceptance [not me actually] of their "partying." When did this become a verb and an accepted part of growing up. All it does is cause illness, death and the lack of emotional growth. When I went to college we studied, now they just black out and vomit. rated.
Maybe this is why I don't seem to be able to trust literary agents.

I think a lot of us try to work in a field to be close to the action, but then, when we're not doing what we really want in our hearts to be doing, we get bitter, and do stupid things to ourselves.

What's next for you? Please keep writing.
Lauren, thanks for shedding light on the issues of our most accessable drug and its simple, fleeting euphoria. The effects are so short lived in the grand scheme of our complete experience...and the pleasantness always comes with a high price, later on...

I'm very happy for you, and I hope the clarity continues, becaus you write very fine pieces.
This is absolutely fabulous writing. I'm jealous! faved and rated
♥╚═══╝╚╝╚╝╚═══╩═══╝─╚For sharing your liquid sky type situation so clearly and honestly.
It takes a lot of courage to share something so personal in a very public forum. Good for you. Glad you got back to the business of living a healthy life. Glad you rediscovered you.

Your post reminded me how, back in the day, my friends and I would spend every weekend drinking ourselves into oblivion. It was a lot of fun to get so wasted we could hardly walk. It sends chills down my spine to think we would actually drive in that condition. We were so lucky we didn't kill someone, kill ourselves. We were stupid.

One particular night, while at a club, I wanted to dance, but for some reason, I felt anxiety about it and I remember thinking I wasn't drunk enough yet to get on the dance floor. That was the moment when I knew I had to stop the partying and re-evaluate my life. I was 22.

I stopped partying so hard. I thought about how my father lost everything because of his drinking and I didn't want to end up like him-- choking to death on his own vomit. So, I quit going out to the clubs and house parties and put my energies else where. I got my head together and started making better choices.

I still indulge in a nice glass of wine, or a hand shaken margarita, but as a responsible adult, I also know when to call it quits.
Amazing and touching piece!!! you truly inspire me, you must continue in the direction you're headed, I just celebrated my 7th year of sobriety on Jan 10th and it's truly a rewarding fight. Don't beat yourself up for the past start from this time which is the time your new life begins. Please feel free to contact me for any feedback or advice or to give me advice. Stay strong one day at a time!!!!
Lauren, this is excellent. Your voice is so clear, so human, so insightful. I feel like, in some small way, like I've known you for years. That's no small achievement with the written word.
Stunning - did Al Pacino play your boss in the movie?
Clear and concise piece. Kudos or your rediscovery.
It's probably redundant to say, but anyone who grew up around substance abuse, usually winds up doing the same thing they swore they'd never repeat. The only variable is the substance of choice: drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, fitness, gambling, whatever.

Mine was food. Eating was a way of avoiding having to deal w/whatever was wrong in my life. In retrospect, I can see where it was a way of non-avoidance: if I kept eating, then I wouldn't have to deal w/the issues that were creating the feelings of: anger, pain, fear, joy, fill in the blank.

It took ballooning up to 300+ lbs, plus adult-onset diabetes, that finally put the brakes on my addiction. But what really happened is that I learned how to eat, exercise, live, all over again--and realized that I'd never really learned how to begin w/; the addiction had always so colored my life til that moment.

I lost 140 lbs and gained a whole other life; I actually weigh less now than I did at age 14. It's such a comfort now to be eating b/c I'm actually hungry and not b/c I'm mad, sad, etc. I'm also in a whole lot of angst--now I have to feel the things that food helped me deaden--but I can deal w/the issues now and so much happier.

I so empathize. Thank you for sharing, and for your continued battle against your demons: they'll never completely go away, but you'll be far better equipped to deal w/them as time passes.
Second article of yours I read. I like the writing.
Most excellent. Keep it coming!
six drinks a day in nothing. Six bottles is drinking! some addict.