An Open Letter to The Sugars: Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond

Below is a letter I wrote in response to the Dear Sugar podcast Episode 46, "Past is Present." As a long-time listener and fan of Steve Almond, Cheryl Strayed and the show, I was heartbroken and disappointed to hear how they addressed drinking culture and alcoholism and my letter explains why. I urge anyone who reads this to first listen to the episode and form your own opinion. My reaction is based less on the fact that they so poorly addressed the letter writer's concerns, but that their views are a reflection of our society's pervasive and deep misunderstanding on the subject of alcohol use and addiction. If my words resonate with you, I encourage you to share this post or email the Sugars yourself at dearsugarradio@gmail.com and link to it. 


Dear Sugars,

It’s Sunday afternoon and I was listening to your most recent episode, “The Past is Present,” while shopping for groceries. I was stopped in my tracks by your words and abandoned my cart mid-aisle to come home and write this.

I’m a huge fan of the show and have listened to every episode with admiration and gratitude for the work you’re both doing. I came to the live taping in Cambridge last fall and sat in the first row, delighted, while Amanda Palmer nursed her new baby boy and played the ukulele. I’ve benefited greatly from your insight and am often awestruck in particular, Steve, by your ability to articulate things with such exactitude. As a writer and someone who co-hosts my own podcast alongside Holly Whitaker, I’ve often used your work as a guiding example for my own. “Tiny Beautiful Things” has saved my life in many ways and I’ve channeled Cheryl’s words through the darkest days of my divorce, the loss of my grandmother and my own struggle to sobriety.

All that said, the way you addressed the letter writer, "Un-Chill," and the subject of alcohol and alcoholism was completely heartbreaking, disappointing and dangerous. Hearing Steve say, among other things, that alcoholism was Un-Chill’s parent’s weakness and that they got themselves addicted to alcohol was such a surprising misstatement I dropped the goddamn chicken sausages I had in my hand. And I’d been warned about it, even; the reason I’d tuned in just then was because one of our podcast listeners—another woman, like the hundreds we hear from every week, who struggles with the shape-shifting grip alcohol has formed over her life and to not feeling like a total failure for “allowing herself to getting addicted”—had emailed asking if we’d listened yet because she was stung and surprised. I backed up several times to re-listen and make sure I hadn’t heard you wrong, Steve.

I hadn’t.

I immediately imagined these words falling on the ears of your thousands of listeners, many of whom are no doubt struggling with one addiction or another (because we are all addicted to something), and hearing the subtext: it’s your fault.

People choose to drink. People do not choose to get addicted. Do you have any idea how important that distinction is? Do you know how many people will never speak up about their addictions because they think it is something they’ve done to themselves? Do you understand the level of shame that creates, and how many people die because they can't bring themselves to come forward because of it? I got home today as quickly as I could because this is the very misunderstanding that nearly cost me my life. I abandoned my cart right there in the f*cking cereal aisle because I thought of every single woman I’ve struggled to convince they are not to blame. I saw the uphill battle of my hard work—and the work of so many others—flush down the drain because you have a far greater reach than we do.

I would probably get past the choice of words (and I do hope it was an error in your choice of words, Steve, but unfortunately I doubt that given your typical precision), if the larger context of the episode was helpful or…accurate. But the essence of the whole thing only underscored what is so grossly misunderstood in our culture: this belief that when it comes to drinking, there are alcoholics and everyone else. That drinking is either “wonderfully joyous” or it is “dark and destructive” when in fact most people fall into the vast spectrum of grey in between. In that grey area there are things like unwinding after a “rough time at work” and "getting hammered" because "you're in in your 20’s" and sometimes those things are dark and sometimes they’re not at all, but the issues of problematic drinking do not only belong to the ten percent of people considered alcoholic. Someone close to me drinks the same 3-4 drinks per night that Un-chill's boyfriend does. Does it classify as alcoholism? No. Is it a problem? I think when something continually disconnects us from experiencing our life and the people in it directly, then yes, it is a real problem.

For you to make the judgment that his drinking isn't problematic (it may or may not be!) was not only unfair to Un-Chill, but it is an injustice to everyone who questions their own habits or the habits of someone they love, but can't qualify the behavior as alcoholic on the 10 question test.

I drank for fun all throughout my 20’s because that’s what people do. I drank to celebrate and I drank to relieve stress and I drank to mask pain and I drank because I was in love with life and I drank because I hated it. I drank while I got my MBA and rose in the ranks to Vice President and had a daughter and ran marathons. I drank like everyone else and then I didn’t drink like everyone else and I never thought I was addicted because it was a slow, elusive becoming.

I did not get myself addicted to alcohol.

What I did was follow a natural human impulse—to soothe, to belong, to regulate—that went awry. Cheryl, on the heels of Steve’s comment, you mentioned eating disorders being in a similar vein and it’s just not so. People do not choose to have disordered eating. Alcoholism and eating disorders are not a “weakness” as Steve put it, any more than cancer or diabetes or mental illness are a weakness. I almost died at the end of my drinking because I was so ashamed thinking this was something I did to myself and, because it had become so woven into the fabric of my every day life—of what’s normal and acceptable and encouraged in our society—I didn’t see it was swallowing me whole.

How dare you say anyone gets themselves addicted to alcohol.

I realize this was a general episode about past traumas carrying forward in our lives, but it was also very much an episode about alcoholism and the role alcohol plays in our society. Yet you didn’t bring someone on with direct experience with this specific struggle. Would you talk about sexual abuse, or rape, or domestic violence without bringing on someone who has direct experience? No. I don’t think you would.

Please, Sugars. You owe it to all your listeners and the family and friends and co-workers and neighbors of your listeners to make a correction, or have a follow-up conversation. You owe it to everyone who struggles or loves someone who struggles and everyone who understands and especially, particularly, and most importantly, the much larger population who doesn’t.

Laura McKowen

Laura McKowen, PO Box 315 , Swampscott, MA, 01907