Written by: Sarah Dowson
At 28, after struggling with heroin addiction since she was a teenager, Erin Khar found the strength to give it up due to the love of her first child. Now, at age 46, she has been drug-free for 17 years. Strung Out (Harper Collin’s Park Row Books) recounts her difficulties with impulse control and lack of self- worth. The stigma of heroin addiction kept her from reaching out for help. Khar’s book promotes understanding and compassion for those trapped in opioid hell.
Managing Editor for Ravishly, Khar now lives in Greenwich Village with her husband and two sons. Strung Out is her attempt to educate readers on de-stigmatizing drug addiction.
Khar’s debut memoir opens with her 12-year-old son, Atticus, asking her if she has ever used drugs. She doesn’t reply directly, but the question sends waves of feeling through her body and starts our journey through Khar’s life. She grew up amid wealth in Los Angeles, CA. Horseback riding and cleaning stables was a life-sustaining activity during her teen years. After her parents divorced, her mother had mercurial relationships with boyfriends. When Khar was eight, her father moved out. She began stealing painkillers from her family’s and friends’ medicine cabinets. The bubbly feeling from the pills erased her anxiety. She got good grades in high school and maintained conventional friendships, but was tormented inside. Even as a young child, she felt suicidal.
I have compassion for all that Khar has been through, and admire what she has accomplished. Outwardly, at least, Khar was a socially adept teenager and young woman. I was shy and withdrawn, and saw a therapist and took tranquilizers during my early employment years in New York City. Both worked and I ended these treatments. Khar, on the other hand, says she needed pills and later, heroin and other drugs for 13 years.
At age 13, Khar was ill at ease on her first date, where her suitor introduced her to heroin. The drug made her feel relaxed and far away from her troubles. She “dabbled” in heroin for many years, and also used pills and crystal meth. At one point, she stopped using heroin for eight years, but then, in 1996, at the age of 23, she started using it seriously. That year she worked as a freelance wardrobe stylist, and her work appeared in television productions. In 2000, she quit her job working in a high-end boutique and re-enrolled in college. She kept her heroin use hidden except from a few friends who were also users.
Like many addiction memoirs, Khar described repeating cycles of drugs, detox, therapy, treatment, recovery, and relapse She got pregnant and had an abortion. She and her mother repeatedly underwent therapy. However, Khar does not disparage addicts: it is a health, not a moral issue, she believes. Shame of being called a “junkie” kept her from seeking help. She has thus made mental illness part of her empowerment message. She has used antidepressant medication since 2012, realizing that her brain works differently from others. With her new husband and a stable marriage, she gave birth to a new son. After surviving sexual abuse, rape, heroin addiction, depression and trauma, she feels she has learned how to survive extreme pain without destroying her life.
“The core of the opioid crisis is emotional pain,” Khar wrote in a recent article in Huffpost Personal. “And we’re not doing enough to address this.” Khar believes that criminalizing drug use only adds to the problem. She wants to open up a conversation about opioid addiction. She kept her addiction hidden due to shame. We need to create greater access to care that addresses the root causes of addiction, Khar believes.
In her heartwarming finale, Khar initiated a conversation with her now-13-year-old son about drugs and her own drug addiction. She convinced Atticus that whatever choices he wanted to make, he could always come to her for honest, loving conversation.
**While Khar conquered her addiction in 2003, her book is timely: according to the Centers for Disease Control, from 1999 to 2017, more than 702,000 people have died from a drug overdose. And, of those deaths, almost 68% involved a prescription or illicit opioid.
In the 1960’s drugs were a symbol of rebellion against the conformist, cold-war 1950’s. I was around in both those decades, and was eager to explore some of the rebellions. I became a registered Democrat, and attended anti-Vietnam War gatherings.. In June, 1971, President Richard Nixon increased the size of federal drug control agencies and in 1972 appointed a commission to review drug use. In October, 1977, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana for personal use. But Public opinion shifted more against drugs in the 1980’s and 1990’s. During President Ronald Reagan’s terms in the 1980’s, his expansion of the war against drugs led to much higher rates of incarceration. Rates of incarceration were much higher for blacks than whites.
She reflects that she was never stopped by police. Had her skin been darker, Khar said, she would would have most likely been arrested.
“Our drug laws are undeniably skewed to keep people of color and people of less privilege imprisoned and enclaved. And I’ve always been aware of that,” she wrote. In 1997, she was heavily into heroin and credits Los Angeles’ “Clean Needles Now” and other programs for helping her and others avoid HIV and Hepatitis C.
The day after Christmas in 2000, when visiting her father in Rhode Island, Khar and her then-boyfriend looked for Whitey, the drug dealer they had bought heroin from in the past. Instead, they found a 12-year-old boy, Christopher, who was his nephew and now selling drugs. Whitey had been shot and killed Christmas Eve. After her recovery, Khar volunteered to help end this destructive cycle.