Author Laura Cathcart Robbins recounts life as a tough pill to swallow
Everyone has their own ideas of what drug addiction looks like. If we were to close our eyes to envision someone who is dependent on drugs, we may see any number of people and things, most of them informed by outside forces such as social media, television, anti-drug educational programs and even pop-culture at large.
Laura Cathcart Robbins had her own ideas of what addiction looked like, even while she herself was in the throes of dependency. In her recently released memoir, “Stash: My Life in Hiding,” she upends many misconceptions of what this struggle might look like. This helps to dispel the many antiquated and narrow outlooks on who it affects — that this struggle really can affect anyone.
“Even I had my own ideas of who’s an addict, who’s an alcoholic,” Robbins admits from her home in Los Angeles. “It was a big decision for me to present myself as both an alcoholic and an addict, being who I am and the privileged life I’ve lived. I like to say that privilege doesn’t protect you from pain. That was important for me to point out.”
In many ways, “Stash” has been over a decade in the making. At nearly 15 years sober, Cathcart Robbins — and by extension, the book itself — has a unique perspective when it comes to the trials of substance dependency and the lifelong journey of recovery.
More than 300 pages, with chapters that weave back and forth between her childhood, her addiction and her eventual recovery, Cathcart Robbins presents a distinct perspective, one that she felt has long been missing from what is often referred to as “Quit Lit.”
“Usually, these types of memoirs were from women of color who were telling these stories from places of sexual trauma or prostitution, or from places like drug dens and (they had) to claw their way out of that,” says Cathcart Robbins, who says she’d search through pages of online lists of books about addiction looking for something that was similar to her story. “Those stories are amazing and admirable, but that’s not my story.”
So, what is her story?
It begins in early 2008, with Cathcart Robbins — at this time in the throes of alcohol and prescription-pill dependency — preparing to ask her then-husband for a divorce. This moment, however, was not her rock bottom. That comes later in the chapter when, a few days later, she drives one of her two sons to his basketball game and suffers two grand mal seizures during the game. She briefly regains consciousness in an ambulance and is eventually transported to a hospital, but it’s a jarring beginning to a tale that is filled with recollections of self-bargaining and self-destructive behavior.
“I knew exactly what I wanted to write about; I wanted to write about these 10 months of my life in 2008, and that’s what I did,” says Cathcart Robbins, adding that she later added stories about her childhood and her early adulthood to give the reader a sense of the types of behaviors that led her to self-medicate.
“Those were chapters I did not want to write, but I understand now that they really fill in the experience for the reader,” she said.
Raised primarily by her mother in Cambridge, Mass., Cathcart Robbins was often “the only Black kid” in her class. After they moved to the Bay area city of Berkeley, Cathcart Robbins spent her formative years hanging out in Oakland, where she ended up dropping out of high school, having an affair with a pimp and experimenting with drugs, particularly freebasing cocaine on the weekends.
In these particularly affecting chapters, she fluidly makes connections between addiction and honesty, or lack thereof, when it comes to her struggles in school, including skipping classes, and how those influences and decisions laid a foundation for her later struggles in adulthood.
“My relationship with dishonesty began very early on,” she says. “Even before I told an outright lie, there was my desire to conceal who I was authentically, because it seemed to rub people like my stepfather the wrong way.”
After giving up drugs, she moves to L.A., works as a publicist, and eventually meets a successful actor-turned-director and has two kids. While she had hoped to make it as a writer, she gives up after a few rejections to focus on raising their children.
In the book, she admits to living a comfortable, privileged lifestyle, complete with nice cars and a second house in Malibu, but this only further drives home feelings of otherness, leading Cathcart Robbins to self-medicate. Often writing in the present tense, the text is peppered with an italicized inner dialogue, giving the reader an unfiltered glimpse into her feelings of self-doubt, existential dread and impostor syndrome.
“I wanted the reader to have a window inside because the way I looked on the outside was much different than what was going on inside,” says Robbins, who points out that she was the PTA president and on the board of trustees at her child’s school while also struggling with her addictions.
As the chapters weave back and forth between her early life, her addiction, and eventually her journey into sobriety, Cathcart Robbins deftly connects the dots on how one influences and informs the other.
“There’s that saying, ‘wherever you go, there you are,’” Cathcart Robbins laughs. “I brought everything with me into adulthood—all my childhood stuff, all my teenager stuff, and all of my young adult stuff—and I brought with me into this fabulous life and marriage. And I had to reconcile that in order to get well.”
She’s been “well” now for nearly 15 years but writing “Stash” still proved to be difficult. Despite being addicted to Ambien, a sleeping pill known to cause short-term memory loss, she says she’s “surprised” that she remembers nearly everything from her days of addiction.Along with taking writing classes and starting a blog, she says starting her podcast, “The Only One in the Room,” helped her develop the precise voice and tone she wanted to have for “Stash.”
“Certainly when I was going through this I’d wished that there was a book like this, but I never thought I was going to be the one to write it,” Cathcart Robbins admits, adding that even before she was sober she was a voracious reader and writer. “But after I got sober, I didn’t write or read for years. After about six years sober, I began to take writing classes. Somewhere in there, this is the story I kept going back to.”
“Stash” is many things, but can ultimately be seen as a fluidly told testament to Cathcart Robbins’ perseverance, not only in her nearly 15 years of sobriety, but in her commitment to tell her story despite years of rejections from publishers.
“The hard work is the thing for me — if you want it and you’re willing to work hard for it, and I know that sounds cliché, but that’s the way to get it,” she says. “And it doesn’t matter how old you are. It’s never too late. If it doesn’t sell at all, I’m still incredibly proud and grateful for this experience.”
“Stash: My Life in Hiding” by Laura Cathcart Robbins
(Simon & Schuster, 2023; 288 pages)
Warwick’s presents Laura Cathcart Robbins
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Warwick’s, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla
Combs is a freelance writer.
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