LOUISE O'NEILL: We think drugs make us interesting when in fact they make us boring

Addiction knows no class, no gender, no race nor religion. All it wants is to feast on us. 

I first became aware of Cat Marnell in February 2012. 

Whitney Houston had just been found dead in the bathtub of her Beverly Hilton hotel, a drug overdose suspected, and the internet was drowning in think-pieces about Houston’s tragic inability to stay sober. 

Then Cat Marnell’s column for xoJane appeared on my Twitter timeline - ‘On the death of Whitney Houston: Why I won’t ever shut up about my drug use’. 

In it she spoke unapologetically about her continued addiction to drugs, prescription and otherwise, and eviscerated the obsession with ‘recovery narratives’ for women, highlighting that the secrecy around drug use in women is what so frequently leads to them overdosing in private. 

“Because look,” she wrote, “look how easy it is, even when you’re Whitney Houston, to withdraw your voice and pretend like you’re a good girl and not mention that you’re using. To slip silently into the water. To disappear.”

I scoured xoJane to read more of her work (sample article titles included ‘Gonna wash that Angel Dust right outta my Hair’ and ‘The Secret Shampooing Life of Pillheads), followed her as she moved to Vice to write a column called “Amphetamine Logic”, and then the news broke that she was going to write a memoir and had received a five hundred thousand dollar advance to do so. 

She told Page Six when she decided to leave xoJane, “I couldn’t spend another summer meeting deadlines behind a computer at night when I could be on the rooftop of Le Bain... smoking angel dust with my friends and writing a book.”

That was in 2012 and it was only two weeks ago that I finally got my hands on her memoir, How To Murder Your Life. 

I’m not sure what I had been expecting. Her column had always been brutally honest, unrepentant; that was part of what made Marnell so compelling. 

She also instilled a sense of uneasiness in the reader, a fear that by enjoying her work that you were enabling her; that you were somehow complicit in her continuing addiction. 

Yet she was funny and charming, and with her doll-like beauty, enormously privileged background, and her high-profile job, Marnell was the person I would have wanted to be at twenty-one, epitomising the searing glamour of Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix. 

Better to burn out than fade away

She almost made her lifestyle seem cool. 

(This is the first mistake anyone who has ever taken drugs makes. We think it makes us interesting and different when, in fact, it makes us boring, repetitive, and glistening with sweat.) 

There are books that perpetuate that myth, movies too; ones that make heavy drug use look like a never-ending party, inadvertently or otherwise.

How To Murder Your Life does not do this. Instead, we are presented with a life wasted. A beautiful, gifted woman, with every opportunity and advantage, stuck in a cycle of obsession and addiction and unable to break free. 

Hooked on ADHD medication since she was a teenager and her psychiatrist father wrote her first prescription for Ritalin, Marnell writes about the doctor shopping in New York to obtain as many scripts for Adderall as she possibly can, the hopeless bulimia as her fixation with maintaining a low body weight spins out of control, the sometimes violent sexual relationships that she seems obliged to indulge in. 

The memoir is thick with her constant lying, her evasion of any kind of honest conversation, and failure to sustain genuine relationships. 

She alienates all those around her, from her sister to her boss at Lucky, shutting them out as they attempt to help her; choosing to stay at home to get high, collage her walls with cut-outs from magazines, or compulsively tweeze ingrown hairs until she draws blood.

Of course, I use the word ‘choose’ here but, as anyone who has ever suffered from any form of addiction will attest, there is no real choice. 

When your addiction wants to play, whether that be drugs or alcohol or food or gambling, it can feel utterly impossible to resist. 

And so you must carve out time to spend satisfying those urges, time that you could be spending with friends or family, but which you would secretly rather use numbing out, chasing the painful feelings away by obliterating yourself on your preferred drug. 

The people around you cease to be sources of support or love, they become obstacles that you must overcome, avoid, and sometimes it just feels easier to keep them at a distance. 

You can’t hurt them then. They don’t realise yet that you are a black hole of need and you will devour them whole, if they let you. 

Better that you are alone. It’s safer that way.

That’s what addiction wants from you. It wants to isolate you. It wants to keep you small. It wants to keep you so dependent that you don’t need anything else, anyone else. 

It’s just you, your addiction, and the crushing, mind-numbing loneliness that would flay the skin of your back. 

It is that sense of loneliness that Marnell captures so well, her wild-eyed search for love, her apparent unconscious belief that maybe love is too ‘normal’ an experience for someone like her. 

But oh, how I wanted her to succeed. How I wanted her to heal, to recover. This book broke my heart.

There are some who cannot stand Marnell and who will find this memoir infuriating, a perfect example of white privilege gone wrong. I can understand that view. 

Yet, too often addiction is seen as something that happens to ‘other’ people, it’s the terrain of the homeless men and women we see begging on our streets. It couldn’t happen to us. 

If Marnell’s story proves anything, it shows that addiction can touch us all. Addiction knows no class, no gender, no race nor religion. All it wants is to feast on us.

And look, as Cat wrote, look how easy it is.


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