The following is a short story from Katie Boland, award-winning director, screenwriter, actress and author. This piece explores her journey of recovery as an artist and creative, and how through sobriety, she was able to take back her “specialness” and complete her first full-length feature, “We’re All In This Together.”
Trigger warning: Mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation
“You need stitches.”
I feel cold cement beneath me. I’m sitting on a sidewalk. I look down at my dress. Why is it so bloody?
“You need stitches for your chin.”
What happened to my chin? I look down and see a rough bar napkin in my hand, pressed against the bottom half of my face. It’s soaked in blood. I can’t bite down on my left side. In a few hours, I’ll find out I broke two molars in half, too.
The man telling me I need medical attention is Australian, blonde and wearing a hat. I look at the pattern on his shirt, everything blurs. I ask the man’s name for what could be the hundredth time and forget it immediately. I don’t ask again. Even in this state, I know to pretend that we’ve experienced a mutual reality.
My mom calls. My brother calls. My boyfriend calls.
“Where are you?” they all ask.
I have no idea.
In the cab to the ER, I felt the space-time continuum shift from blacked out to sober. I’m an actress, a writer and a director. Whatever state I’m in, I think of life in scenes. Sinking into sobriety felt like when a director calls cut. You exhale. You let your face relax. You look around for some indication that you did a good job.
Instead, I saw a sliver of the cab driver in the rearview mirror. He was scared of me.
In movies, sober women are strong. Their arc is coherent. They start drunk, they struggle, they end sober. In reality, sober women are the most vulnerable adults. We wanted to disappear completely. Now, we walk around, just ourselves, with no armour at all.
When You’re Under a Wave, You Can’t Also Be On It
I started drinking heavily when I became a professional screenwriter. I was 27, pathologically well-behaved and unprepared to spend so much time in my own mind. Writing was actually the first relentless and compulsive thing, drinking followed.
Writing and drinking will always be bedfellows. Where’s the escape in moderation?
I told myself my drinking didn’t hurt my writing, but helped. On weekdays, I worked so hard when I was hungover as a punishment. Meetings were a performance; I’m not hungover, I can do this. Vodka opened doors that seemed locked until I pushed. Drunk, the characters in my screenplays spoke more freely; told me all the ways in which I was wonderful and full of shit. I’d take pieces of conversations with friends, strangers, two people who had become just specs in a dark bar and tap them into my phone.
I’d wake up and look at my Notes. In the light of day, they’d lost all profundity.
Here’s where the arc of a real sober woman becomes incoherent. Of course, my drinking hurt my work. I just can’t describe exactly how. I’ve read every addiction memoir now and David Carr’s is my favourite. “You have no idea what your life was like while getting fucked up.” He’s right. When you’re under a wave, you can’t also be on it.
Did you know that when people die of thirst, their eyes tear up? Our bodies have confused ways of trying to save us, even if they don’t work. I don’t remember falling, but I believe my knees gave out for a reason.
Whatever I wanted to be, I wasn’t going to be living a half-life.
Artists Have a Cheat Code
Every scar on my body is from alcohol. One thick one on each knee. A thin white one on my upper right thigh I don’t remember getting. Of course, my chin, visible only in certain low angle close ups. My jaw will never work the same way it did before The Fall. One side clicks incessantly, the other pops out of its socket if I open my mouth too wide. I now have porcelain molars where real ones should be.
Bukowski called getting fucked up “how I did a safe suicide.” I didn’t know that because I don’t read Bukowski but it came up in conversation. Suicide is why I drank how I did. It was always wanting to die and be reborn, to leave for just a while. That’s the part I miss most. The desire to get fucked up is what distinguishes humans from other animals. A dog doesn’t want to black out. Human consciousness demands an escape.
The problem of consciousness still exists, but artists have a cheat code. When you’re doing it right, all creative work is a black out.
Not Drinking is the Most Psychedelic Experience of My Life
“You have no spiritual life,” my sober little brother would tell me when I was still drinking. That wasn’t exactly true. I had a lot of spirit in me. I just had no way to access it yet unless I was drunk.
Ironically, not drinking is the most psychedelic experience of my life. Sobriety is like living in another dimension where reality bends, perverts, deepens and shifts on loop.
Now, all of life is so visually rich and emotionally nuanced it can be too much. Look at the relief in that old man’s face as he leans out the bus window. Don’t you want to cry? Sometimes I want to get drunk not to invite the magic back in anymore, but to take it away, to notice the devastating, beautiful and obscene details of the world a little less. So it all feels less explicit.
Sobriety has only given to me. Mainly, the one thing I fundamentally lacked, confidence, who’s elusive nature was why I drank in the first place or a comorbidity of my condition. I thought I was boring, or shy, or stupid without alcohol. I wanted to be special.
Here’s the small print no one wants you to read. You can lose your specialness. You can throw it away on bad men or mean friends, anything that distracts you from looking too deeply at yourself.
Ironically, my specialness slipped away with each drink. I knew this but I was in denial. How ridiculous that I was casting the shadow from under which I wouldn’t escape. But that’s drinking, isn’t it? It was a cycle I’d watched repeat over and over again in my family.
Alcohol takes from you, and somehow, you are the only one to blame.
I Made a Movie in the Middle of the Pandemic
I made a movie in the middle of the pandemic. I wrote it, directed it, produced it and played twins. It remains as crazy as it sounds. The only way I could convince myself I could pull it off was by telling myself I’d already gotten sober. Nothing was harder than that. I could only make sense of the two characters through the lens of sobriety. One twin was me drunk, gliding through scenes, avoiding. The other messier, rawer, too loud, untamed, shitty hair and dirty nails twin, is me sober.
Playing against myself in scenes felt so easy because those conversations, between who I was drunk and who I am sober, happen in my head all the time. Reviews have said the twins seem like two completely different people. Yes, of course they do, I think. Then, I’m embarrassed. Most people don’t live with two people inside them like I do.
I Couldn’t Have Made The Movie If I Was Still Drinking
“Are you proud of your movie?”
What’s the real answer? It’s complicated. Sobriety made my relationship to reality clearer, but it didn’t make me more digestible to myself. Seeing myself, large on the screen, twice, allows me to critique myself twice. Now, nothing can dull that.
I like to picture what celebrating the movie would be like if I was still drinking. After whatever screening I attended, I would go out and down a double vodka soda quickly. It would hit me immediately. My shoulders sink and I feel a genuine sense of pride, relief; something very good. I talk a little longer than I should about what making the movie was like to whoever is with me. I let myself believe the person I am talking to is as curious about me as I am about them.
I let the fantasy play out but the whole premise is false. I couldn’t have made the movie while still drinking. I wouldn’t be sitting at that bar celebrating anything.
You’ll Get to Know Yourself Better
What I want to tell women who are getting sober is what I want to tell women who write. Neither one is going to solve your problems. You’ll just get to know yourself better.
I still have the same desire to consume, only now its ideas. I listen to every podcast. I have read tens of books and hundreds of articles, watched every show, seen the movie you want to talk about in a meeting. I wish someone would talk me to sleep at night. I remember the feelings other people’s words and ideas give to me, but none of the details. Like drinking, it’s compulsive. I do it all too fast but I am no longer faded by fear.
I have one thought that stops me from getting drunk, that compels me to do all the exhausting work around not getting drunk again. The saddest thing in life is seeing how things really are, only too late. The act of investigation is a privilege.
It means that the case isn’t closed yet.