For the last two decades, not much has happened in Seattle politics that hasn’t been covered by reporter Erica C. Barnett. As a staff writer at Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, Seattle Met’s PubliCola and her own website, The C is for Crank, Barnett has tenaciously written about issues like homelessness, police accountability and institutional racism.
Her new book tackles a more personal topic: her alcoholism. In “Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery,” Barnett details a decadelong addiction to alcohol, her experiences in detox centers, multiple rehabs and her eventual sobriety.
“Obsess, seek, score, consume, do it again,” she writes in one section. It’s a powerful recovery memoir, in part because Barnett uses her investigative reporting skills to examine how detox centers and treatment rehabs operate. Barnett had five stints in detox, two inpatient rehabs, two outpatient programs, hundreds of 12-step meetings and years of therapy. It took “the loss of nearly everyone and everything I cared about to make me stop,” she writes.
Those experiences made her decide to investigate the treatment industry. “I started thinking of different aspects of the industrial recovery complex, and how badly the treatment industry misrepresents results,” she said in a June phone interview. “They talk about treatment as the ‘be-all end-all’ of recovery. I didn’t get sober from those treatments.”
Much of “Quitter” chronicles Barnett’s struggle to feel comfortable in 12-step meetings. In a chapter titled “Anything but A.A.,” she details how the clichés and sayings of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the concept of a higher power, turned her off initially. Eventually, she returns and finds connection in those very sayings.
“I think my discomfort with AA is that there are so many other things that work for a lot of people, and there’s this idea that AA is the one true way to recovery,” she says. “I don’t know if that’s AA’s fault. I haven’t felt pushed into AA as the only solution, but I fell back into it because I tried everything else, and nothing worked. It’s for really desperate people, and I was one of those.”
Her multiple relapses inform her journalism, she says, particularly around the policies of harm reduction.
“I think ‘better’ is better, and I consider that message to be part of my mission as a journalist,” Barnett says. “I am sober, I don’t drink, and I don’t use drugs, but for a lot of people, that is not where they are. I don’t like shaming people if they are doing ‘better.’ If it keeps people alive, then it’s better.”
She found some of her treatments too “shame-based,” while detox was essential for her to kick booze. “Treatment, in my experience, was more available than detox,” she says. “The problem I ran into, and this is a bigger and more important issue, and critical when you are trying to get sober, is that detox is very hard to get into.”
Barnett feels Seattle is behind Vancouver, B.C., in harm-reduction policies. “We’ve made gestures towards ideas of safe injection sites,” she says, “though that’s never got off the ground. The reason we don’t have those is entirely political.”
“Quitter” also is an examination of what it was like to be a young female reporter working for alternative newspapers. She doesn’t paint a pretty picture of The Austin Chronicle, Seattle Weekly or The Stranger, where Barnett worked for seven years.
She describes being part of a culture of unchecked, heavy drinking, saying, “Since there were no rules about how you behave, it gave me a license to behave pretty badly. I drank every night once I started working there.”
“Quitter” details many “bottoms,” including Barnett getting caught for shoplifting (she was released without arrest). She lost jobs due to her drinking, but eventually Barnett “quits” near the end of the book. “I’ve read a lot of recovery memoirs, and the after is not always the interesting part,” Barnett says.
She wrote the book both to document her life, but also to help people understand that treatment alone is often not the only answer. “My parents thought treatment was a carwash. And treatment failed.
“The main message of the book is that relapse is incredibly common,” she adds. “You are not a failure if you don’t get it right away.”
Being sober during a COVID-19 lockdown is challenging, she says, as is watching repeated incidents of racial injustice. Barnett was released without going to jail for shoplifting. If she had been Black, she predicts it would have ended differently. “I’ve covered people who have ended up in jail for shoplifting,” she says. “Seattle is a racist city. I got 16 hours of community service, and they dropped the charges.”
Politics is also a business that has a drinking culture, and Barnett worried about being sober in that world. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to be on the inside circle,” she says. “Everything happened over drinks. … But it was toxic for me.”
That’s gotten easier, as Barnett has found solid ground in recovery. Writing “Quitter” was cathartic, but her real life still has struggle.
“I don’t consider myself redeemed,” she says. “No. 1, I’m lucky. I’m a real work in progress.”
“Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery” by Erica C. Barnett, Viking, 324 pp., $26