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Jemima Kirke on Drinking After Years of Sobriety

Is anything better than two awesome women talking about recovery? Anna David caught up with Girls star Jemima Kirk and talked with the actress on how she went to rehab, cleaned up and then realized recovery wasn’t for her. Enjoy!

As we all accept the fact that Girls is over, I can come out and officially confess that I’ve been obsessed with it. And the aspect of it that I’ve been most obsessed with? Not Lena/Hannah, the brilliant writing or its occasional inconsistently.

No, I’m obsessed with Jemima Kirke.

It’s cool. Nothing too alarming here. Just a good old fashioned girl crush.

And so it was unspeakably thrilling for me that she came on my podcast. Recover Girl focuses on addiction and recovery and I knew Jemima had been sober for a few years. I also knew that she now drinks. The fact that she talked about this for the first time publicly with me makes my girl crush grow to exponential degrees.

Here, in short, is her story with the substances: After a wild youth, which included multi-day benders and bouts of depression, Kirke showed up at her mom’s in early 20s, saying she was ready for rehab. She went from one treatment center to the next, finding enough fault with the program there for her to be kicked out. After years of staying sober and doing the 12-step thing, Kirke began to question whether the one-size-fits-all philosophy about addiction applied to her. And so she had a drink. Contrary to what she’d been told, nothing bad happened. That was a few years ago and in that time, she’s watched her career rise to superstardom and embraced motherhood. In this episode, we talk about self-hatred, rehabs just out to take your money and if meeting your future spouse in treatment is “trauma bonding,” among other topics.

The full transcript of what she told me is below. If you want to hear the episode, click here. If you want to receive show notes on future episodes, click here.

I went to a few rehabs. I was 23 when I first went to the Meadows and then I went to Life Skills. It was a dual diagnosis place; my dual diagnosis was addiction and depression. I was like, “Don’t addiction and depression go together?”

I felt like the healthiest and sanest person at Life Skills. It was called Life Skills because it was supposed to be like a second step program. So you go to rehab and then you go to this place and they teach you how to acclimate to the world like a normal person. They teach you how to get groceries and make your bed and have a schedule. I do remember specifically one time that we went to the grocery store and they would always give you $60 — that’s it — for your week. And you had to live on that. And coming from a family where I grew up quite privileged, it was a really good lesson because I was used to throwing whatever I wanted on there. I was actually looking at prices and I had the embarrassment of having to put things back.

Then I went to this all women’s rehab and there was so much shaming there, it was shocking. Even for me — someone who was and is, but even more so then, so self-hating. I was like, “You can’t say that to me.” They would say things like, “You’re poison, you’re dirty” — really hurtful things. And then your therapists would start using the stuff you’d told them against you. I got sent to the principal — or whatever you call it at a rehab — every other day. And my therapist would be sitting in there, accusing me of things that I told her.

And I remember one time where we’d been to the beach and we were in group the next day. And someone raised their hand and said that I made them uncomfortable because I had changed on the beach — my friend had put a sarong around me, but maybe the sarong slipped or whatever and they said that made them uncomfortable.

I also told one of the girls that I thought she was super pretty or maybe even said hot, but it was supposed to be a compliment. It wasn’t uncalled for — it was in response to something. And they said that I was too overly sexual and made them uncomfortable. And I was just like, “I can’t look after your feelings. I’m sorry.”

I got kicked out of that one. I got kicked out of Life Skills too. But I can’t remember why I got kicked out of that one. I remember they called me in to the office and they said, “Do you want to be here?” And I said, “No, I don’t want to be here. My mom wants me to be here.” And then I remember I started crying about something. And then my therapist said something like, “Jemima, always the victim” and I was like, “You can’t say that. It might be true. But you can’t.” Anyway, it was an awful, awful place.

At Meadows, I just found a lot of inconsistencies. They ban certain things and not others. They don’t allow hair spray, but they allow knives in the kitchen. So I would always be questioning. And what I would have liked was to have someone talk to me like I was a person and not a patient. I always felt like I was being put in my place. And I’m like, “I’m an adult. I don’t need to be put in my place here. I don’t need to be broken down so you can build me back up — that’s not going of work for me. I need you to level with me.” But it felt like school sometimes. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like when things aren’t explained to me. That’s when I feel like a child. If someone had read me well enough, they would have leveled with me. They would have said. “Roll with this. You checked in. It’s a lot of money. Just we have rules. It’s only a few weeks.” And if they’d said that or if they just simply answered my question…instead they’d say things like, “You’re not trusting the process.”

I was a problem drinker and user. I liked to party. I didn’t use during the day. I just went hard when I went and would do a lot of two or three day benders. That was normal. But the one moment that sealed my coffin where I had to go to rehab was when I think I had pulled an all nighter or two maybe and I came home to my mom’s house. I was living in the East Village and I came to my mom’s house and I was like, “I can’t do it anymore.” And I realize now, I was just so tired. And coming down. But she was like, “Yes, thank you, of course darling, yes we’re going — we’ll check you in.” And then I said, “Great, I’m just going to go home for a few hours and then I’ll be right here.” And she said, “You’re not going home.” And then I slept at her house and the next day when I woke up, I was like, “I’m fine, I don’t need to do this.” It was too late.

I’ve been in therapy so much so in terms of self-awareness — I’m like, “I’ve got it.” I don’t get a blissful break from not knowing what I’m doing. I always know what I’m doing. I miss being like, “I’m doing this because I feel like it. “ I always know why I’m doing something.

I’ve been in therapy since I was 5 — my whole life basically. When you’re little, they watch you play or they ask you to draw a picture of your home and family.

I’ve learned that self-hatred has nothing to do with anything. It has nothing to do with what you’ve achieved or how talented you are or how good looking you are. It’s about what you believe about yourself and the world. It’s whatever messages you were given as a child about the world and about how people see you and what your value is — that’s going to carry over no matter what you achieve in your life. And as long as you don’t somehow change those beliefs — and that’s a fucking hard thing to do — then you’ll be that way forever. I’m working on it. And it never goes away — these things that you’re taught about yourself and about, I guess the world. It never goes away, but you just — you learn to recognize that it’s a voice.

My therapist would always say to me, “You’re really bad at being uncomfortable.” And I was like, “Really, that’s it, that’s what I am, I’m just bad at being uncomfortable?” It’s so simple and it also makes me feel like such a dick. He also said this recently, which is really huge for me, “You’ll never get hurt by being in pain. You’ll only get hurt by trying not to be.” And I was like, “Pain hurts. So what are you talking about?” And he said, “Pain is a given. And if we resist it we just destroy ourselves instead of going into it” — which I’ve almost never done. I don’t want to go, “Wow, that hurts real bad so I’m just going to sit here and look at it.” I’m always like, “Okay, where can I go next? We’ve got to get out of here. How do we get out of here?”

I recognize that I use things as an anesthesia and that can be anything from shopping to sex to a conversation or some sort of attention. Drinking, smoking a cigarette, anything — it’s an anesthesia. But I didn’t fully relate to — I related to a lot of feelings in AA. But I didn’t relate to the sort of psychic need for alcohol or the irresistible urge for it necessarily. I’m not someone who drinks excessively, but I will drink for a reason sometimes. I know enough to know that excessive drinking doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an alcoholic. The way I saw it was more that I had a problem with alcohol and drugs and less that I had an addiction. It was problem drinking. And I think that’s possible. And my friend said — she was my sponsor, now she’s my friend — “A problem drinker is someone who stops drinking and the problem reveals itself and it sort of goes away or is suddenly dealable. And an addict is someone who stops drinking and everything falls to shit.” That was very over simplified but I can relate to both. It goes back to my thing with rules. Suggestions can turn into judgments and become rules and I know what my threshold is for having rules. The more there are suggestions, advice, a list of what to do and a formula, the more I will kick back. And I did it [AA] for five years. But I was always asking questions.

I never liked the disease model. That bothered me. I know that’s a touchy subject because really a lot of people believe in it. I don’t like that people would call whatever their defects were, their “alcoholism.” I’m like, “No, that’s you being a dick.” It felt too simple for me. And so I stopped relating. And for me when it’s too simple, I get suspicious. I prefer it to be complex. Maybe that’s just masochistic. But if it’s complex, then I feel like a real person as opposed to a number or someone who fits into a mold.

When I decided to drink, I had the voices in my head from AA that once you drink, you can never come back or you’re “out” now. And that scared me because I’d been in that for five years. I didn’t want to be out. I didn’t want to lose the things that AA had given me. When I started drinking, I was like, “Oh God, now I’m on the other side” because they do make it that black and white. But it was fine. The first year I didn’t drink that much. I was so used to not drinking that it was kind of like, “Ooh, I’m just going to have a glass of something occasionally” and I did.

And then there were a couple of shitty moments where I drank too much and I beat myself up for it. I thought, “Oh my God, I really can’t drink” and then I realized, “Wait, it was my birthday. I got drunk. It happens.” And that may have been me rationalizing, but the point was I was just trying to get away from the shoulds and shouldn’ts and pull myself out of the mold and just be a fucking human.

In the beginning [when I first started drinking again], I kept asking myself, “Is my drinking unmanageable? Is my life unmanageable right now?” And it’s not. Or when it gets unmanageable, it’s got nothing to do with the alcohol right now.

I want people to know that there is such a thing as having a problem and not being an addict. You’ve don’t have to fit into to mold. You can stop drinking and you don’t have to stay stopped but maybe it’s good for right now. It doesn’t have to become your lifestyle if it’s not for you. But there are very practical reasons for not drinking when we need to. And I have plenty of friends who say things like, “I’m not drinking at the moment. I was drinking straight for two weeks, so I just need to chill.” They’re normal, non-addicted people. But that’s just a choice they make. Alcohol is a tricky thing.

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