Raised in a lower-middle class family struggling with debt and haunted by a history of alcoholism, Seamus Kirst ’13 tells a story that began even before he was born in “Shitfaced: Musings of a Former Drunk.” The heart-wrenching but hopeful foreword, written by Kirst’s father, lays the groundwork for the developing memoir through his own story as a struggling writer and a self-described “blackout drinker.” From this foundation, Kirst composes a hilarious, blatantly honest and sometimes downright sad memoir, told from the vantage point of a Brown graduate and recovering alcoholic. While the story focuses on Kirst’s experience with alcoholism, he includes topics of class, sexuality and mental illness interlaced in the complicated saga.
The coming-of-age story begins fairly innocently, when, in Kirst’s early childhood, he would beg his mom to give him extra Flintstone vitamins. The story continues to follow Kirst on a complicated search for identity as he navigates a world of extremes. His battle with alcoholism culminates in his early twenties when he tries to manage a relationship in spite of his excess drinking. Following his breakup and another night he could not recall, he finally reached out to his father and began his recovery process.
Throughout the text, Kirst deals with an unconventional dichotomy in his character. “‘You have the most imbalanced personality of anyone I’ve ever met,’” he recalls his father saying. And though he was repeatedly hospitalized for alcohol poisoning and endured long stays in rehab, Kirst managed to maintain straight-As and made his way from a high school valedictorian in Syracuse, New York to a student at Brown, he recalls.
At times, the reader is jarringly reminded how grounded Kirst’s story is, literally, on College Hill. “One moment, I was on the Main Green of Brown’s Campus,” Kirst writes, adding that “it was 4/20 — the unofficial holiday of marijuana consumption — and everyone was smoking.” But, as the chapter unfolds, the reader realizes how the buzz of a well-known annual campus event easily obscures the darker experiences of its participants. One minute, Kirst is coming down off a high while he and his friends “talked about the Spring Weekend concert,” and the next he describes the impact of his drinking as he “fell deeper down the rabbit hole.”
He recalls calling his dad from the Main Green, reporting that he did not feel entirely comfortable at Brown. In his familial report, however, he did not mention the alcoholism that had impacted his life at school but instead talked about class disparities on campus.
“How could my dad, a normal person from lower middle-class America, comprehend kids running around with limitless credit cards?” he wrote. “I felt on the outside — left out; a feeling that I had been convinced would disappear when I got to the college of my dreams.”
Kirst pairs his personal anecdotes with the shared experiences of students across campuses and, for that matter, anyone who has ever felt like they were on the outside.
In the memoir, Kirst includes an essay he published called “There and Back Again: Why I Gave Up Alcohol at 22.” This condensed version of his story, which reached a global audience, inspired the larger text. “Alcoholism has taught me that you really can convince yourself to do anything,” Kirst writes, highlighting truths that transcend his specific experience. The essay ends on a hopeful, comical and confessional note, mimicked in the voice readers become familiar with in the memoir.
“But what I do have, finally, is the peace of mind knowing that I can wake up every morning remembering all that I did the night before — for better or for worse — and knowing, in the end, I will be okay.”
Seamus Kirst was featured in the March 2, 2016, edition of the Syracuse New Times, with his self-penned article, “Why I Am Crowdfunding My Memoir.” Now 27, Kirst was revealing his plans to write a book that would eventually be named Shitfaced, his “musings of a former drunk.” The collection of vignettes and essays was released last month, with a foreword by his father, veteran journalist and storyteller Sean Kirst.
What sparked this process was Kirst’s personal blog post, upon the two-year anniversary of his decision to stop drinking at age 22, that went viral. It has been reprinted, serving as the author’s introduction. He finished the story in late November, and allowed a couple months of editing and rewriting before revealing the final edition to the world.
“My original essays that would become Shitfaced are in italics in the book. They’ve been written differently than the vignettes,” said the Brooklyn-based Kirst in a phone interview. The longer pieces are dispersed throughout the text.
Appropriately titled with a tipped-over “i” in the title, a metaphor within itself, this is an abridged memoir. The lean text, just breaking the 200-page benchmark, makes for a quick read. Despite the brevity of the material, it’s not an easy read. As the dedication says, this is a book for “anyone who needs a warm hug or a swift kick in the ass.”
“Growing up I read a lot of different memoirs,” Kirst said. “It’s my favorite genre of literature. A memoir can be a very static, defined type of book. But people write them so differently.”
Shitfaced turned out differently from the way it started. “I tried to have longer chapters, like a biography, but it was too bulky. I like books that move kind of quickly, especially with this subject matter. I found it natural to write it quick and detailed, with a tone of voice that’s almost floating.”
Readers will find the latter moments in both the obvious and unexpected passages in Kirst’s story, providing mental zaps and gut-twisting churns as effective as horror fiction jump scares.
It begins with growing up in Syracuse, giving several nods to its history and location. Kirst then talks about wanting Barbie dolls rather than the standard boy toys, plus how this preference strengthened the relationship with his sister. He ventures into eating disorders and image issues. The light-bulb moment comes when talking about his homosexuality.
His time around the porcelain chair created a path into other dangerous avenues. Kirst’s parents often rushed him to the emergency room for stomach-pumping. Others had to talk him from walking out into traffic.
He talks about his first sip of alcohol and wanting to get drunk, because drinking never failed to provide a good time. It helped establish his place in the high school popular crowd.
“People have asked me: Was it challenging? Was it cathartic? Not surprisingly, it was a mix of both,” he said. “Some things I write about I am able to say, ‘Wow, that’s really dark.’ Other things I feel totally detached from the situation and I can’t believe I reacted to it in the way described.”
Shitfaced is not a cry for help, because Kirst has gone through therapy, counseling, various hospital stays and psychological examinations. He hopes people walk away with a greater understanding of what it means to be human.
Kirst was valedictorian of his class at Corcoran High School. He went on to study at Brown University.
“My intention was not to have this book be exclusive,” Kirst noted. He’d like to have the book reach further into the LGBTQ community. In fact, a portion of the book’s proceeds will go to the Q Centerin Syracuse and the Brooklyn Pride Center. He also hopes to find an organization in the heart of a red state to continue his charitable giving.
“I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from lots of people not in the LGBTQ community,” Kirst said, “and people who haven’t suffered from addiction or mental illness. I’ve heard that it’s helped people understand better.”
One of the book’s key takeaways is Kirst’s emphasis that people are not alone. He writes that people are suffering from a wide variety of mental illnesses, and there are different extremes for each on top of a range of obvious symptoms.
Note this excerpt from Shitfaced: “One thing is for certain: Having a mental illness does not make you weak, and it does not make you a bad or dangerous person. It makes you a person with a unique set of challenges, but they involve obstacles that can be worked through, and – if not completely overcome – then at least controlled.”
Kirst also talked about the respect he has for his father. “It was cool to have my father write the foreword, especially someone so close to me and whose story is so different. It gives an interesting perspective,” he added. “We’ve both struggled with alcoholism, but we have different stories and experiences. I even learned more things about his story.”
Everyone knows someone with personal issues relating to suffering, whether they are suicidal thoughts or attempts, self-image issues or coming to terms with being gay. Kirst’s revelatory book serves as a reminder that people out there are struggling, and that society should be willing to accept others and help when needed.
Two years to the day after Seamus Kirst gave up drinking he penned an essay titled "There and Back Again: Why I Gave up Alcohol at 22." Kirst's personal story of his struggles with alcoholism struck an immediate chord with readers, not only resulting people reaching out to him to him to empathize, but soon the essay went on to be republished by reputable news outlets across the world. "This, frankly, surprising amount of interest, motivated me to write a longer version of the essay, which became this book. As cliche as this sounds, I figured if I could make one person who was suffering feel less alone, then the book was worth writing," Kirst says.
The book is "Sh_.tfaced: Musing of a Former Drunk"; Kirst's memoir of his early destructive years when battling self-loathing and self-destructive tendencies seemed like the insurmountable path to an early death. Kirst isn't seeking to sensationalize his experiences, but rather hopes that there readers facing similar challenges will find solace and solidarity in what he shares. He also explains, "While in writing this I hoped to create further dialogue around mental illness, addiction and LGBTQ issues, this memoir is in no means meant to be exclusionary to the recovery or LGBTQ communities."
Seamus Kirst will be joined by his father and former Post-Standard/syracuse.com columnist Sean Kirst for a signing and book conservation at the MOST on April 6 starting at 5:30 p.m. For more information on how to attend the event visit the MOST website. Kirst's book is available online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and through local Barnes and Noble stores.