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On Elissa Washuta's "Drinking Story"

8 January 2023

On “Drinking Story” by Elissa Washuta (found in Best American Essays 2022)

Washuta’s piece takes the standard CNF essay and runs it through a bartender’s blender. All the elements of plot are washed out, diluted, muted, and mixed. In her piece, Washuta even admits that she’s mangled Freytag’s pyramid:

What happened is a memory hole where narrative drowned…Meanwhile, my uninebriated brain began putting together a private narrative that could be as long as I needed. Without an audience, it could resist the easy clasping of cause and consequence, and the visceral pleasure of the arc. I had to stop grasping for the closest source of narrative menace I could find—myself, the dipsomaniac—and enter a space where there was no tension to be modulated, no structure to guide me toward a triumphant resolution. I had to understand why I needed alcohol so I’d never go back there looking for something I’d lost (7).

Washuta knows what is expected of her as an essayist writing a story (a story within a story, given the AA concept of alcoholic narrative); yet because of her alcoholic’s episodic dissociation she cannot provide it, so she deliberately avoids the form. Instead, her essay is a mashup of individual anecdotal sensations—flashes, really. She writes, “Hitting bottom became a plot point, and my history was a chain of cause and effect leading to it. Meetings gave me that vehicle for meaning. But once I let the plot sprawl, I couldn’t bring it back there” (8-9).

Nevertheless, her story has a few major plot points. We learn that there was an inciting incident that set this arc in motion. It seems as though Washuta was either sexually abused or raped or in any case had sexual encounters with men that were traumatic: “…men want to hurt me. Soon after the first one got inside me, I began to drink. Alcohol mashed a button in my hypothalamus that made my adrenals light up” (9).

We also learn that Washuta did, in fact, have a climactic moment, a turning point, too: “Hitting bottom became a plot point, and my history was a chain of cause and effect leading to it” (8). Nevertheless, that point is murky and undeveloped--which, frankly, makes me a touch mad at Atticus Review for telling me I had to give the full story when I alluded to something in the essay I sent them: clearly, it’s ok to make an underdeveloped allusion if we don’t wish to divulge the truth. Clearly. Because Washuta published it that way. We don’t know what “rock bottom” looked like for her, nor do we know what, precisely, her narrative turning point consisted of; we know only that there was one. Fascinating.

This weaving of three narratives, the one for her AA meetings, the one for herself, and the one for her CNF essay, intrigued me. The Freytag’s pyramid for them all is the same, with the details muddled in different areas for each. The metaphors are not lost on me. Some parts she does not wish to admit to the men at the AA meetings, other parts she does not wish to admit to herself, and still others she will not share with the general public. Noted.

As I’m working my way through The Myth of Normal by Gabor Maté, that reading shapes everything else I read. Maté’s theory is that no mental illness, no diagnosis, is genetic or heritable. All mental illness, to include substance dependence, stems from our primary attachment wounds (or perhaps secondary). Given that claim, which I admit I find indisputable, Washuta’s insistence that she “was born wanting” and thus predetermined somehow to alcoholism, is faulty (7). Maté would likely tell her that it might feel that way, because the wanting began so early; yet, we are not born this way. The wanting is a result of not receiving the attachment needed in infancy. If Washuta’s parent(s) were alcoholic, the trait may have been handed down not by genetic inheritance, but rather by generational trauma—by behavior patterns that influenced attachment dysfunction.

That said, Washuta hits upon the issue precisely, and Maté would agree, when she writes, “I think alcohol was the only tool I had to shutter the memory palace in my head, where all the hallways led too rooms where I was on my back, pressed against a bed or a couch or a floor, suffering” (9). My guess is Maté would tell Washuta she cannot expect sleep to return to her until she works through all those things she was attempting to escape via alcohol (suppression, dissociation). That is to say, her ghosts she must address out in the open, via therapy, before her brain will allow her to become less hypervigilant, allow rest.

Having recently decided to give up alcohol myself, I could relate with Washuta’s story to a certain degree. It’s clear I never drank as heavily as she. However, likewise, I’ve found sleep difficult without alcohol. I find, as she does, that “…without the generous erasure of the blackout, you meet a million details demanding to be stored” (6). My mind races with all of the inputs it received throughout any given day, deciphering it all. It can take me hours to fall asleep at night. Even the hunger is similar for me as for Washuta: “I began to understand hunger as a kind of faith, the demand for fuel to keep going” (9). For me, without alcohol, I’ve been turning to food for emotional comfort. Yes, my hunger reminds me that I’m alive and moving forward, but it’s also partially filling the space that alcohol has vacated—for better or for worse (my new pudge says for worse).

As a concluding thought, let me return to my opening thought: Washuta’s writing is great. Her imagery is vivid and engaging. There are moments that her words slip into the esoteric to a degree that I could not precisely follow her logic—instead, I followed a sense or flavor of the logic. I looked closer at these moments to determine where I’d gone wrong, what I’d missed, and found nothing lacking in my cognition. Her words had waxed poetic; she was writing her drunken experience, something to which none of her readers could possibly relate. While my not comprehending her words initially frustrated me (I blamed myself), I see now that they were craft elements that the publishers would allow as art. And perhaps that is what makes CNF so wonderful: it falls at moments closer to poetry than prose, and that’s quite alright. Rather than take a personal hit from reading Washuta’s essay, I’ll take a lesson from it: don’t be afraid to lean in to sensational imagery, if it lends itself to the situation (as Washuta’s did for her drunken moments). It worked for her; it could work for me, too.

5/5 - highly recommend Washuta's essay.


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