Review: Lisa Smith’s “Girl Walks Out of a Bar”

No secret that many successful people hide their addictions to alcohol and drugs—often for many years—but, then, either die young or crash. Lisa Smith assumed the former and writes in this painful account of her years of addiction, “Nobody knew that I had stopped contributing to my 401(k) because I fully expected to be dead by forty. No one would have guessed that I never got manicures anymore because no matter how much I drank I couldn’t keep my hands from shaking. And I had to work harder to convince myself that the paranoia didn’t mean I was going crazy. I lived in constant fear of being found out, and that made me more and more reclusive. The less time spent with people, the less chance of being discovered. But snorting cocaine alone on my couch made me feel like a degenerate. Thanks to addiction I was desperate to be alone and I dreaded being alone.”

Booze is the easiest; our culture turns on it. It’s especially the social glue of our youth. Ordering cocaine to be delivered to her apartment in New York City was as easy as Amazon’s one click order option. Although this is a side remark, the failure of our drug policies is so overarching that it isn’t even a concern here. Ditto Smith’s assumption girlwalksoutthat twenty-percent of the people at the prestigious law firm she worked at were similarly addicted. And as any of you who have had experience with high functioning addicts already know, they’re past masters of concealing their habits. Worst of all, nothing will change until they make the decision that it’s time to face reality and change (too often after a horrible crash where those around them are finally in the know). So this is not a pretty story. Girl walks out of a bar and stumbles home, reaching that destination when she’s still lucky.

Smith’s account of her addictive years begins when she is 38, and a highly successful lawyer specializing in corporate law: “Shit. It was 7:00 Monday morning and I needed wine. In two hours I’d have to be at work, which meant that I was going to have to steady my shaking hands.” She crawls out of bed, runs into the bathroom and vomits, noticing blood in the bowl. After steadying herself, she makes it into the kitchen where she begins drinking. And smoking. Then coke. Then a shower, followed by more wine. She leaves her apartment, returns, and calls a friend, finally admitting to herself, “I think I need help….” Then she thinks, “Even if I wanted to quit, I seriously doubted I could go for five hours without booze or coke. I had resigned myself to being an alcoholic and cocaine addict who would eventually drown in a puddle of vomit.” But something on that morning makes her decide it’s time to save her life.

Then, more classic revelations of the addict. Regarding her parents, “They believed they knew me well. They didn’t.” Assuming she could succeed in getting clean, “What would I do with myself sober all day?” And still later, “I knew that alcoholism would probably mean an early death, but that was a hell of a lot better than life without booze. That would be an early death.”

As a child, Smith had observed her parents drinking but never considered them addicted. She was an unhappy child, pudgy, mostly sticking to herself. At age ten, when her parents had guests over and served them alcohol, she would sneak sips of the mixed drinks, believing she was simply tasting them. By 15, she was binge drinking with friends. Cocaine came early, too. By 18, she was—in her own terms—“a blackout drunk,” but at Northwestern, it was easy to drink and still keep up her grades. Then there was random sex, after heavy drinking, and a law degree, from Rutgers in 1991, followed by her successes at a major law firm. Yet the high-functioning alcoholic admits, “I was starting to spend more and more nights home alone, drinking and then crying myself unconscious.”

The pattern continues for several years. The blackouts become worse. The mornings after, she has no memory of the nights before. There’s a brief marriage, and she manages to conceal the extent of her addiction from her husband. Finally, she describes herself as an around-the-clock drinker. Of the coke, she says she’s got it hidden all over her apartment. Her lipstick case makes it easy to carry around a bump in her purse. Her friends drink and do drugs but not to her excess. We all know that some people can control their intake and not become addicted.

After a lengthy account of her addicted life, the part about her rehab is short and less convincing. She breaks her habits with one 72-hour rehab stay, which is remarkable. That’s not sufficient time for most addicts to make the shift. After those three days she attends extended group meetings at one support facility and frequent AA meetings, but this part of her narrative seems too easy. When her story ends, all that’s left is her brief bio, indicating that she’s been sober for ten years and has worked much of that time to help other addicts, especially professional women. Congratulations for that. Perhaps her intent is to make rehab look easier than it actually is but the recidivism rates show a slightly different picture. Still, it’s a harrowing story.

Lisa Smith: Girl Walks Out of a Bar

SelectBooks, 288 pp., $17.95


Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.