YA Author Mary H.K. Choi Talks Substances, Family and Grief

YA Author Mary H.K. Choi Talks Substances, Family and Grief

New York Times best-selling author Mary H.K. Choi explores her personal journey with substances, family and grief in a special episode of YR's Adult ISH podcast. Join producer Dominique French as she and Choi discuss the intricacies of sobriety, the life-altering effects of loss, and the makings of meaningful friendship.

Adult ISH (@yrAdultISH) is produced by YR Media and brought to you by PRX’s Radiotopia.

If you or someone you know needs support with substance abuse or eating disorders, there are resources available.

For non-urgent information about mental health and substance abuse you can call 1-800-662-HELP.

Other resources:

National Eating Disorder helpline: 1-800-931-2237
Hopeline Network: 1-800-442-4673
ANAD (Peer Support for EDs): https://anad.org/
ANAD Helpline: 888.375.7767
National Eating Disorders Association: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/where-do-i-start-0

Episode Transcript

Nyge: Welcome everyone to Adult ISH produced by YR Media and distributed by Radiotopia from PRX. 

Last week’s listener letter was about the loneliness that can come with sobriety, and for that letter we interviewed a number of people, one of them being author Mary H.K. Choi. 

Mary is the New York Times bestselling author of "Emergency Contact," "Permanent Record" and "Yolk." She has written for many outlets, among them GQ, Wired, New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Elle, Allure – and even Marvel and DC comics. She also records a podcast called “Hey, Cool Life” and is working on a screenplay adaptation of her second novel.

Even though we initially interviewed Mary about sobriety, we got so much more than just thoughts and feelings surrounding drinking. Our producer Dom ended up having such an honest and deep conversation about growth and the pain that comes with it. It rang so true to the feelings we go through as young people just trying to figure things out. So we decided to share that special conversation with all of you today. Before we begin, I’d like to warn the listeners that this conversation includes admissions of substance abuse and eating disorders.

Now Dom and Mary, please take it away. 

Dom: Can you take us back to the weeks before you decided to stop drinking what was going on in your life at that time? 

Mary: OK, so sobriety for me is sort of like multi-faceted. So I definitely stopped drinking around the time I sought recovery for an eating disorder. So I identify as a bulimic with restricting tendencies, and I didn't know that I was still bulimic because I had stopped purging sometime in my early 20s. But I was still an exercise bulimic, and I was still incredibly obsessed about this sort of like transactive aspect to eating where if I ate something, then it was immediately a problem to solve. And so I would have to like either get rid of it or restrict the next day. And to be honest, like food and food addiction and obsession with my body was definitely like an outcropping of a pretty dysfunctional childhood. I am the child of immigrants and immigrants in my experience, basically, AKA my parents, were kind of workaholics, and they were extremely absent, and they didn't really have a lot of time to model healthy attachment behaviors. And so, you know, and I'm just a sensitive person. And so I think a lot of my coping mechanisms were just to like numb out and self-soothe with food cause that was like the primary love language in my home because there was so little time for anything else.

Dom: Right. 

Mary: And so sobriety for me was the cessation of drinking. But it was also, I stopped smoking weed. And so at the point that I sort of put all of these behaviors down and these substances down, I was just like, “You know what? Like, I need to be sober enough that I can let the feelings come up that I've been sort of running away from my whole life. And so that I can gain more of a tolerance towards discomfort and ultimately fear.” 

Dom: I have to say that the candor that you've had in the public eye about your struggles with these things, the sort of things that you've sought treatment for is very inspirational to me as someone who has sought treatment for eating disorders and for mental health reasons. I can't imagine doing it in the public eye with people consuming your literature at the same time. But I thank you for it. 

Mary: Oh, well, yeah. And I just want to send some compassion your way. Like, you know, grappling with being a sensitive person on this planet of all places and sort of dealing with mortality in dealing with other humans in the way we treat each other, sometimes it's like, I think I'm much more of the mind that most of us probably have some collection of isms that we've used as...

Dom: Yes.

Mary: ...force fields and as shields and shelter and like. I mean, my eating sort of saved my life, like food saved my life. Sugar addiction saved my life. Like it made things that I could not do by myself a lot more manageable. And to your point about like the public eye, it's like when it's you.

Dom: Mmhmm.

Mary: It always feels like it's happening in the public eye. There's always like shame 

Dom: Yeah.

Mary: And there's always like, ugh, just like that feeling of being like overexposed. And so I think it's probably really *cringe* for literally everyone. 

Dom: As far as your sobriety, how do you feel like it changed your social life and your relationships with your friends? 

Mary: I had a really screwy relationship with my friends and I was always like, “They're going to ditch me when they find out who I am. They're going to be able to smell the ways in which I am defective. And it will just confirm everything that I sort of grew up believing.” And I really operated as if that day was coming. And so with my friends, it was always like, “Be really sparkly, be really attractive.” 

And when I couldn't be drunk or high and just like, ditch my body, like abandon my body and just be like “sparkling reflection of what I think you want.” Like, those relationships got really uncomfortable. 

And for a while, I was just like, I don't have anything to say. I don't feel cute. I'm like saying what comes to mind in a sober brain and like, it feels awkward. They can tell that I'm awkward. And then it was just like, “Oh shit, like they're drunk.” Or like the frisson of the party has gelled together and is now escalating on the party train. And I just can't like reach that level because I'm like, you know, sober. And so now I'm alone. “Of course I'm alone. I'm always alone!” You know just like all this stuff. And so for a while, like I was just in my head a lot and I just gave it time. Like when you're sober, you start finding sober people. And that's really nice  and then you start having conversations with those people and you're like, “Oh, you're not even like a host of new friends that I'm making. You're like my friends already already. But like, we're just talking about other things or like we're both arriving with like, you know, like a case of Lacroix to the party,” you know what I mean?

Dom: Yeah!

Mary:  and then that feels sort of good, too. 

Dom: Yes, I absolutely know what you mean. So if we could talk about your newest book, Yoke, for a second, it deals with young adults and two estranged sisters, and they're keeping a lot of secrets. One of them is about alcohol use. How would you say your relationship with alcohol has changed the way you write and what it is that you write about? 

Mary: I don't think my relationship with alcohol has really changed the way I write. I think my relationship was sort of like sobriety and like emotional sobriety has really changed the way I write. Like, I don't sort of like gloss over this, this sort of crunchy like fricative aspects of like connecting with people like, I'm just kind of like, “Oh yeah, this is uncomfortable. Let's like, sit here.” 

I also like am really aware of how self-obsessed I am and how recursive my intrusive thoughts are. And so actually, if I'm writing for the first-person like, I think the way it's changed is that I make all my characters so much more neurotic. 

Dom: Mhmm. 

Because as I become more and more sober, you know, and as I put these things down that let me see myself with more exactitude, I'm like, “Wow, I am deeply and profoundly unwell!”

Dom: It's like one of those 5X mirrors that you see. Like at CVS. 

Mary: Yes! It's like a 10x mirror with like the magnifying mirror mounted on top of that mirror with the ring light. You know, you're just like, “holy smokes,” and it's fine. I also do want to say that I'm not currently sober from alcohol right now. like, I'm actually in a period of great grief. And so I'm really contending with my workaholic tendencies. And so, you know, I had a drink last week and  I might have a drink sometime this week. And then before that, it was like several months. But like by and large, most of my friends still know me as someone who doesn't drink. It's just that to be clear, for right now, I drink sometimes and for me, knowing that I do drink sometimes, usually is enough to make me not want to drink that night.

Dom: And what made you decide to transition from a place of sobriety, you know, capital s to the sort of period you're in now? 

Mary: Honestly, it is intuition for me. There's something like very black and white about the way I think, and there is something very sort of like good and bad to the way I think. And I do a lot of things where I can even weaponize sobriety and I can weaponize recovery and I can weaponize the work around like spiritual ambition in where I start thinking that because I abstain from, like all of these things, that somehow I am superior to other people. And again, like if I were an alcoholic where if I had one drink, that means I will have two. And if I have to drink, that means I'm having like that means next Wednesday, I will re-emerge with two black eyes. Like, if that was my story, this would be a very, very different thing. It is definitely a thing within 12 step that my, my thing might kill you. And certainly, I mean, it's different for AA. It's different for NA, but like with the food program and with any of the people programs like and the money program and the shopping program like it's, there's just different permutation of what will save your life. And I am currently walking through arguably like one of the hardest things that I have ever had to sort of confront and like basically my father is dying and I'm showing up, you know, I'm showing up imperfectly, I'm showing up to this family that is the source of so much grief and pain. But I am like showing up and I am asking for support from my chosen family. And I'm like doing the things I'm doing, the work I'm doing, my own work. I'm working, I'm writing, I'm meditating. I am like stretching and hydrating and doing all the things. And there was a time a few a weeks ago or months ago, it was a few months ago where I decided to have a cocktail and the person I was with was like, so super stunned and was like, felt a little bit dysregulated and like alarmed. They’re like, “Is that OK?”And I was like, “I think it is”. And it turned out it was and I don't know, it's almost it's kind of like it's a kind of harm reduction for me, like if I'm honest, sugar consumption is up for me as well, which is another marker. But I know why these things are here, and it's because I'm in a lot of pain. And for right now? If I'm honest, it's helping. And so, like, I have a lot of shame and judgment around that because I'm just like, “what are you saying?” And you know, like, I think if it welcomes any indictments for other people for whom that kind of course of action seems threatening, like, I think that makes a ton of sense. 

Dom: Well, thank you so much for sharing that in the first place, but also for showing up with us. I am so sorry to hear what it is that you're going through, but I'm very thankful to share the space with you right now. 

Mary: It is amazing to me that people die. And that people like around them just sort of keep going. It blows my mind, like talk about adulting. Like it blows my mind that like young people lose their parents. Like it makes my heart just cave in. And like, And you don't get a reprieve, right? Like these things happen to you. Like, life is rarely what you ordered from the menu you're like. First of all, this is amazing. It's not what I ordered. I don't know what it is. It's great or it's just like... 

Dom: It's a little bitter. 

Mary: Yeah, totally. It tastes like shoe. Like, I don't know, like, there's just so much that's unpredictable. And I think it's like wild that you don't get to pause things like, I wish I could pause work or I wish I could pause joy, even like while I sort of, you know, finish processing this. And like, I'm really  grateful for de facto sobriety. Like, there is a part of me that looks at all of this where I'm just like, “Oh my god, I'm so glad I'm not drunk and high.” Like, I'm so glad I'm not in the middle of like a bender. There's a lot going on, and I'm really glad I'm awake for it. I mean, I think that's what sobriety is to me. Like, I'm so glad I'm not kicking the can down the road and being drunk and fucked up this whole time and then retrieving my body like months after my dad dies and feeling horrible about it. Like, I'm so glad. I'm really grateful for the types of future mistakes that I  am not making now as a sober person and as an awake person. 

(music break)

Dom: You talked a little bit about not doing this alone, whether that be. You mentioned your, your sponsor. It's something that you don't have to carry all by yourself. Could you speak a little bit to the kind of community that you've been able to find and the community that you would encourage other people to find if they're in a similar situation? 

Mary: Yeah, I mean, like, I don't know if this is your experience or everyone's experience, but like, you know how when like COVID and lockdown happened, there was just like the people you wanted to hit up and the people you would schlep in the cold to go see alfresco like you know, you see each other's breath. It is like a thing. You're six feet apart, you know, just talking. That like that's like the cream, right? That is like the people who love you and have put up with your inscrutable ass this entire time, who are practically begging to know if they can support you. Like the type of friend who it's like, you sent them your own Amazon wish list to your heart, right? Like, they're like, “I am so pumped to hold space for you. I am so stoked to engender this truthful intimacy with you.” I am so happy that you've given me permission to also rely on you. And so like those people exist, you already know them already. And the thing about it is it's like if you can't count those, if you're looking at your immediate friend group that you spend the most time with and you're like, I don't have one. The truth is, you might have one, but they didn't shine for you before. Like those people. Like, those friendships really deserve like oxygen and like mulch and like love and attention. The thing that I found that helped me heal the most and the thing that I think is the most sort of like profound medicine is I don't have any secrets. Like, not that everyone individually has the full launch code. Do you know what I mean? 

Dom: Yes

Mary: Someone knows the most shameful thing about me. In fact, oftentimes I've recited the most shameful thing about me several times, and it's almost like semantic satiation, where the more you repeat a word, it loses its meaning or you're like Toyota or like whatever. 

Dom: Yes.

Mary: That's, like a made up word. So it's a bad example. You know what I mean, like you become so inured to the shame hit - the shame hit shifts the more you see things, and the whole thing of you're only as sick as your secrets is so true. And so when you talk about the fact that like you struggle with alcohol or that you have alcoholism through your family, or that you had a drunk mom, and the only way that you could feel any sort of intimacy for this person was to also drink like things that are so sad, saying it aloud, really, it like dulls the teeth of it, you know? 

Dom: Yes. 

Mary: And it really draws out the poison and like, it is amazing. The amount of relief you can feel and like it's a it's it's a lot like getting high and it's a lot like getting drunk and it's a lot like sex. Where you're like telling someone the truth about you and having that person, oh my God, not fix, not manipulate. Not anything, but just hold space. And then you feel that acceptance of like nothing happened. The house didn't fall down. You didn't like, stab your mother in the eye because you said something bad about her, like and then even more mind-blowing, the person who listened to you takes their turn and you hold space and receive what that person has to say. And you're like, “huh? The horrible thing I told you is equivalent to the horrible thing you told me.” We all have horrible things, and then it just sort of is like neutralized. And it's the same thing. You're like, Oh, yeah, like this too is like a miraculous weird thing that humans can do for each other. 

Dom:  What you're describing, the sort of space that two people can hold for each other in that sharing of secrets sounds almost religious. It sounds like, like prayer. It's it sounds big and bigger than two people can be. And the two people together are so much bigger than the sum of their parts when they can come together and share who they really are. And it's. Absolutely terrifying in my experience, but also absolutely incredible. 

Mary: I mean, it's really it's it, it is incredible. It's like sanctifying, it is prayer, it's prayer. And like we already love each other already and then shit gets in the way and like drugs feel like love and alcohol feels like love, like there are people designed, physiologically designed where like they take their first drink and they're like, “ugh! Thank god!” Here it is, because I've, I've walked it through a lot of different things like. I really can say that, like just like human connection, it's just it's the one that just is so much quieter than the other things. It's harder to maintain, it's harder to sustain, but it really is the one that actually lasts that you can revisit.

Nyge: First, I want to start off by sending love to Mary H.K. Choi. Thank you so much for coming on our show and being so honest, and vulnerable with us. My takeaways for this week are to let yourself be open to all of your feelings, take them all in and give yourself the time, space, and grace to really process them. And remember, in the darkest of times, to find a person to confide in and connect with, because that’s what truly makes all the difference. 

You can find Mary’s books `Emergency Contact, “Permanent Record,” and “Yolk” at your local independent bookstore or public library. 


Adult ISH is produced by YR Media, a national network of young journalists and artists creating content for this generation. Special thanks to Mariah Dennis. 

Our show is produced by Georgia Wright, Dominique French, and by me, ya boy Nyge Turner. 

Our executive producer is Rebecca Martin. Our intern is Tamara Sanchez. Thanks to all the young people at Y-R Media who contributed art and music to this episode.

We are also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX, an independent listener-supported collective of some of the most amazing shows in all of podcasting. Find them at Radiotopia.fm. And if you haven’t reviewed our show on Apple podcasts, please be sure you do. Five stars are much appreciated.

You can follow us on all the socials @yradultish and on that note, we will see y’all next week. Later.

Support the Next Generation of Content Creators
Invest in the diverse voices that will shape and lead the future of journalism and art.
donate now
Support the Next Generation of Content Creators
Invest in the diverse voices that will shape and lead the future of journalism and art.
donate now