Elissa Washuta is the author of Starvation Mode: A Memoir of Food, Consumption, and Control (2015) and My Body is a Book of Rules (2014), the latter of which was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Washuta has received fellowships and awards from Artist Trust, 4Culture, Potlatch Fund, and Hugo House. Her essays have appeared in Buzzfeed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Literary Hub, Salon, Third Coast, and elsewhere. Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and teaches nonfiction in the Institute for American Indian Arts’ MFA program, where she is also the faculty advisor for Mud City Journal. Additionally, she serves as the undergraduate advisor for the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, from which she earned her MFA. She lives outside Seattle.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
Differently than I would answer almost anyone else, probably, because my first book, My Body Is a Book of Rules, is about sex, (psych) drugs, violence, alcohol, Indigenous identity, and the nuns who tried to teach me how to live. I might whisper to the penguin that I still have all the issues of Cosmopolitan from December 2007 to May 2011 that I used to create a quote-comparison of the magazine’s sex tips and text from The Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
“Prescribing Information,” one of the chapters in My Body Is a Book of Rules, takes the form of a list of the prescription drugs for bipolar disorder I used and, occasionally, abused between 2006 and 2009. The voice is inspired by that of the information pharmacies dispense alongside prescription drugs. Throughout the book, I write about the effects—helpful and harmful—of those drugs, including Seroquel, Abilify, Xanax, Ativan, and lithium.
What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?
Prescription drugs and alcohol warped my brain and the rest of my body for several years. In My Body Is a Book of Rules, I sought to create a book about my failed attempts to master my own body. The use of obliterating agents (shots, shots, shots) and of substances that were meant to soothe and straighten out my bipolar brain (pills) lies at the heart of that story.
How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?
In everything I write, I’m selecting a few moments, themes, or time periods from memory to craft a narrative. For nearly ten years, I relied on prescription drugs to help me function, so they became central to the stories I told about my life. In Starvation Mode: A Memoir of Food, Consumption, and Control, my second book, disordered eating is the focus, but drugs and alcohol can’t not find a place in the story.
In my current book project, I’m not writing about drugs nearly as much, but alcohol is all over the manuscript (not literally—I’m done with that stuff and no longer spill glasses of wine onto my laptop). Many of my ancestors were Pennsylvania coal miners, and almost all those men would have ended their workdays with a beer and a shot, or a few. I’m trying to pay tribute to those predecessors through my writing at the moment.
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
I’m interested in creating narrative situations in which my narrator-self confronts problems, tries to find solutions, and in doing so makes the problems worse. Using alcohol and medications as solutions to psychic pain always resulted in a worsening of the problems—my moods suffered and my body began to break. Some of my ancestors who worked in the mines used alcohol to cope with conditions that seem to me to be too horrific to endure. I began drinking after running out of other ways to cope with the memory of sexual trauma. Sometimes, self-destruction using intoxicating substances seems to be the only way to alleviate pain. That can be an interesting problem for a character to work through.
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that that one of your books gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
Something by Mariah Carey–one of the really upbeat songs. They make me feel optimistic.