Heather King and Addiction as Spiritual Thirst

By Regina Walker 05/06/16
Heather King's discusses her memoir, converting to Catholicism, leaving the law and freedom.
Photo via Amazon

In 2006, author Heather King published her book, Parched. The memoir focused on the two decades of her life she spent as an active alcoholic. 

Parched has been featured as a favorite addiction memoir by many, including The Fix. Since becoming sober, King has made an enormous life shift. From two decades as a blackout alcoholic to a sober Roman Catholic, King has lived many lives over the course of her almost 64 years and experienced numerous trials, including cancer. I had the opportunity to interview her recently about alcoholism, writing, spirituality, and the meaning of life.

Your recovery memoir Parched was published in 2006. You had been sober for some time by then. What moved you to write it?

I’d been sober 18 years when I wrote Parched, which is not a recovery memoir, but a memoir about addiction as spiritual thirst. By that time, I had a viewpoint that was very different from the viewpoint of my drinking years, which basically consisted of self-pity and depression. The impulse came from a spontaneous overflow of gratitude—plus, I had some good jokes.

Was the process of writing about that time in your life therapeutic?

No, I have never written for any kind of therapeutic purpose. My obligation as a writer is to have emotionally, spiritually, metaphysically worked through the central conflict of the story, to the point where I have something useful and interesting and human and hopefully funny to say about it. 

Considering the book's title, do you see addiction as an ineffective manner in which people attempt to quench a different type of thirst? 

For me, alcoholism was not so much a “manner” as a way of being, an organizing principle, my identity, my god. But yes, I chose the title Parched in part because it evokes spiritual thirst. Religion comes from Latin roots meaning “to bind back together.” In that sense, the first time I drank was a religious experience. I felt at one with myself, the other people around me, and the universe. Unfortunately, it was a false religious experience. But of course, I didn’t know that at the time. 

What are your thoughts about the disease model of addiction?

Oh, I absolutely subscribe to it, although disease isn’t really a strong enough word. It’s the strongest word we have, short of plague, which would also be apt. But the problem with a medical model is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough to describe the ravages of addiction. It has to be responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide every year, and let’s not forget the hideous misery the disease leaves in its wake on just about everyone the addict touches. 

A friend recently observed that addiction is stronger than a mother’s love for her child. That is not true of cancer or Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or Ebola, or any other disease on Earth. It implies a malevolence, an almost personal hatred toward the sufferer and all those he or she touches. There’s a passage in the Gospels about the demoniac who strains at his chains and throws himself time and again onto the fire. Christ says something like, “Only prayer can help one such as this.” I always think: Oh, that’s the alcoholic. 

What tools do you use to remain sober?

I was lucky enough in 1987 to stumble upon a fellowship of sober alcoholics and addicts. It changed my stance toward reality. I undertook a very simple action, which was to ask for help. The universe shifted on its axis. 

The way addiction uniquely affects the confluence of the human will and human desire fascinates me. Through drinking, my attitude toward myself, my fellows, and the universe had become skewed, corrupted. So for me, sobriety has led to a lifelong intellectual, existential, and finally, religious quest. 

In 1996, I converted to Catholicism. So the tools are obedience, humility, rigorous honesty. An ongoing examination of conscience. Prayer and meditation. The willingness to have a kind of spiritual director, a person or people who I consent to allow to give me feedback, to mirror back the truth to me. 

You were a practicing attorney in sobriety, then made a significant life change. Could you talk about that?

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said: “We come into this world with sealed orders.”

I haven’t done much else in this world, but I have unsealed my orders. They’re to stay sober and help another alcoholic, and they’re to write. 

I tell the story of how I came to writing in my book Redeemed, but just briefly in 1990, I was newly sober, newly married, new to LA. I had a job working as a Beverly Hills lawyer, civil litigation, and I had a deep crisis of conscience. 

I was working in the law and I saw there was a higher law. I saw that someone else was meant to be a lawyer, but not me. What had I been put on Earth for? What was my purpose? What was my mission?

I looked around at my culture and found nothing that remotely addressed those questions. I saw power, property, prestige. I saw money, sex, consumer goods, the god of intelligence backed by willpower, which had availed me absolutely nothing against my alcoholism. 

It sounds like you experienced a spiritual crisis of sorts...

Before getting sober, I didn’t have anything really against God. I just thought God was for simple, mildly stupid people, not people like me, who read Kafka and Dostoyevsky. The short version is, I ended up bringing my childhood Bible to work. And I met the Christ of the Gospels: this astonishing, confounding Person who blows every old idea we have, every system, every effort to get spiritual straight As apart.  

Did this realization affect your writing?

I’d known since the age of six that I wanted to write. I saw the biggest sin of all, the biggest missing of the mark—which, with my track record, was saying something—would be to fail to at least try to follow that call. So I gave up the money and benefits, quit my job, came into the Church, and began to write. 

From the beginning, I wrote for a certain number of hours a day as a discipline, as a moral obligation, as part of a policy of love. My marriage ended soon after.

How has sobriety changed you?

Sobriety has allowed me to live out the ideals I always had, even as a falling-down drunk, as a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It has given me the strength to resist to the last drop being a guinea pig for a pharmaceutical company, an algorithm, a piece of data for an ad agency. 

My work isn’t reducible to a brand or even really to a category. I spend as little time on “social media” as possible, and when I do, it’s usually to post a photo of a jacaranda branch or a loquat leaf. 

I have a bunch of books, I’ve done over 30 slice-of-life commentaries for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” I write a weekly column on arts and culture for The Tidings, the archdiocesan newspaper of LA, which is kind of the joy of my life. 

I’ve written on my friend, ultra-marathoner Geoff Cordner, who does 100-mile runs through the Angeles Forest. I’ve written about the secret staircases of Silver Lake; the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont in a drought; my own brother Geordie, who’s a commercial fisherman back in Gloucester, Massachusetts. I’ve written of the ballet Don Quixote; the opera Bluebeard; African-American self-taught artists from the South; Grist & Toll, an urban flour mill; and LA’s weird and wonderful Museum of Jurassic Technology. The whole spectrum of mystery, reverence, paradox, awe.

It sounds like a new world appeared to you once you put down the drink.

Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986), the Russian filmmaker whose works include Andrei Rublev, Solaris, and Stalker, wrote a brilliant book on art: Sculpting in Time. In it, he observed: “In order to be free you simply have to be so, without asking permission of anybody. You have to have your own hypothesis about what you are called to do, and follow it, not giving in to circumstances or complying with them. But that sort of freedom demands powerful inner resources, a high degree of self-awareness, a consciousness of your responsibility to yourself and therefore to other people.”

Would you characterize the opposite of addiction as freedom?

That’s what sobriety has given me: freedom. I write and speak from a Catholic viewpoint in a literary culture in which even to believe in God, never mind be a practicing Catholic, is career suicide. I’ve never had a lot of money but I also have no debt. And the world has opened to me. 

I gave a talk over the weekend. I met a young guy—a would-be writer who, turns out, lives near me in some 20’s bohemian canyon with stone walls, cabins, hiking trails—we’re going to have coffee. I met a woman who lives on a small organic ranch near the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in Fillmore, California: “Come visit me, we’ll have goat’s milk, fresh eggs, citrus.” I met a woman who runs a retreat center overlooking the Pacific who wants me to come and lead a couple of 12-step retreats. I got an email last night from a woman who was born at Dachau and was to have died through a Nazi experiment to see how long babies survive when delivered and deprived of heat and their mother. Would I like to hear more of her story?  

That has all come from being freed from the obsession to drink. I have never—not then, not now—had the slightest desire to drink “normally.” The very thought of having, say, two drinks irritates the crap out of me. I’m an addict through and through. I don’t want two drinks, I want twenty. To make me into a person who’d find two drinks attractive would require a transplant of my entire psyche, nervous system and being, which would be monstrous. For all the pain my alcoholism has caused me, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. All the drive and urgency and passion, that for years led me on a single-minded quest for the next drink, has been turned toward the things and people about whom I’m dying to know more.

One of my heroes is the late comic Bill Hicks. My favorite clip is the anti-marketing rant where he compares the New Kids on the Block to Nazis, he screams, “Since when did we do our kids a favor by teaching them mediocrity?” and gets down on his knees to plead, “Play from your fucking HEART!” I actually cried the first time I watched it.

In a way, the most interesting question you can ask another human being is: “What are you willing to suffer for, out of love?” That’s what I’m always on the lookout for.    

“I didn’t want to hear that people lived happily ever after. I wanted to know that other people suffered, too.” ~ Heather King, Parched

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