As a teen, Judith Grisel used drugs every day. Then she got clean. Now, after twenty-five years as a neuroscientist, Grisel has written a reader-friendly account of what scientists know about drugs: specifically, what happens to our brains when we smoke tobacco, drink alcohol, or use various chemicals. Which parts of the brain receive those messages and what they do with them? She also provides the scientific data for why the brain declares that it can never get enough, even as the brain risks shutting itself down. Knowing how addiction works may help all of us to take better care of ourselves and those we love.
Strong in the Broken Places
As an adolescent and continuing as he grew up, Quentin Vennie struggled with anxiety and depression. In the Baltimore neighborhood where he lived, it was easy to self-medicate with drugs such as heroin, which allowed Vennie to numb his emotional pain. But he was well-aware that street drugs were a risky way to find relief. In Vennie’s remarkable memoir, he describes the moment when he made a conscious decision to focus on his health, and he details the parts of the routine that now guide him on his healthy journey. His approach to wellness is one that can be of benefit to anyone, especially those who are in search of a healthy life.
Jowita Bydlowska is at an art show when she finds a small baggie of cocaine in the women’s bathroom. Without any hesitation, she uses it, and then tucks the baggie behind the photo of her baby boy who is home with a babysitter. All of this happens despite Bydlowska’s having spent three years sober until this point. In this extraordinary and unvarnished memoir, Jowita Bydlowska writes about behavior that violates all of our expectations of young mothers. And she offers hope to other young mothers who may still be struggling as she writes with that same candor about her journey to recovery.
Nico Walker wrote his novel while in prison, where, as of this writing, he is still incarcerated for bank robbery. The narrator of Cherry is a college freshman when he joins the army and serves as a medic in Iraq. The chaos of war gets into his head, and he starts abusing painkillers in a search for peace. PTSD follows him back home and there, he and his girlfriend, Emily, chase heroin and opioid painkillers right into dangerous criminal activities. Walker cuts the darkness of his subject with humor and a writing style that speaks to the gentle souls caught up in the madness.
A Guide for Murdered Children
This genre-breaking novel is a hard-boiled mystery in which Detective Willow Wylde discovers that a twenty-year old “cold case” has become scorching-hot potato no one wants him to touch. But the novel also works as a guidebook for recovery, as the fresh-out-of-rehab Wylde attempts to work his program while confronted with the types of horrible crimes that he had always used alcohol to cope with. Sarah Sparrow re-maps the boundaries of time and space by making Wylde aware that he keeps witnessing events that are taking place away from the quotidian activities in suburban Detroit. Sparrow provides an excellent primer to the culture of early recovery.
Sigrid Rausing writes searing prose on the subject of the ‘most tragic self-inflicted wound:’ addiction. In 2012, police recovered the corpse of Rausing’s sister, Eva, from her London townhouse, where she had died of a drug overdose. In Mayhem, Sigrid Rausing has written a memoir of her relationship with her sister from their childhood right up to the period before Eva’s death, and she has combined it with cultural and social information about the impact of addiction and its deleterious effects on parenting, family relationships, careers, and of course, the health of the addict. She also poses difficult questions that ask who is culpable when an addict dies. Is it solely the fault of the addict? Or does society have an obligation toward those who can no longer control their consumption of deadly products?
Leona: The Die Is Cast
This crime novel by Swedish writer Jenny Rogneby combines the gritty noir of Scandinavian detective fiction with a fascinating protagonist. Leona Lindberg is a detective with Stockholm’s Violent Crimes Division. She’s also a woman with a marriage that is falling apart and a gambling addiction that may destroy her career. Rogneby presents readers with a complex character whose addiction, while lesser-known than those that involve chemicals, is as equally destructive; one which makes her vulnerable to the criminal elements who control the flow of money that Leona needs to feed the beast. This is the first novel in a planned trilogy.
Janice Erlbaum’s mother kept making horrendous choices when it came to the men she allowed to live with her and her teenaged daughter. Erlbaum opted to move out when she was fifteen, rather than live with the constant violence. But out on the street, Erlbaum now faced random violence, a struggle for shelter, and the temptations of the drugs that could numb out all of it. She continued to go to high school, but when not in class, she roamed the streets of New York, scored hard drugs, and found a way to survive her interrupted adolescence, which she writes about in this fascinating work.
Drinking: A Love Story
Caroline Knapp was a talented journalist with a deadly secret. Although she was only in her thirties, she had been struggling with drinking for twenty years. As she details in chapters devoted to topics such as “sex” and “love,” alcohol acted a role in each part of her life. Knapp paints a portrait of an addict as a person who keeps thinking that a physical solution will solve an emotional or spiritual problem, despite those solutions’ constant failures. Her honesty about her days of drinking and her hard-won sobriety creates a moving account of her self-destructive love of booze.
Anne Lamott started writing about her comedic struggles with perfectionism and addiction when she was a columnist for Salon.com. Since then, she has written a number of books that are full of the wisdom, experience, and hope that she has acquired as she moves through life. Traveling Mercies was the first of these, a collection of essays in which she shares with readers her struggles with alcoholism, food addiction, and body dysmorphia, among others. Anne Lamott’s writing makes readers laugh, but she balances the humor with a poignancy that often provokes tears.
How to Grow Up
Michelle Tea may have the life that many aspiring writers think they want, which includes a handful of critically adored memoirs and books of essays, but in this collection of autobiographical essays, Tea provides evidence that she had to get past obstacles that she kept putting in her own way. Here, Tea talks about a range of issues, most of which she sees as part of the transition through which one emerges as an adult. She writes about heavy drinking, excessive drug use, working dead-end jobs while trying to secure writing work, sharing horrendous housing with difficult people, and dating men and women who also hadn’t finished growing up. Transitions are hard but Tea makes a great companion on the journey.
Jean Rhys had a long career as a novelist, and her “prequel” to Jane Eyre, the novel Wide Sargasso Sea, gave humanity to the young woman who married Edward Rochester before he locked her away in an attic. But in David Plante’s Difficult Women, he profiles Jean Rhys when she is in her eighties and her mind had been ravaged by the effects of alcoholism. Plante provides intimate details of Rhys’ behavior as she drinks and grows increasingly physically incapacitated. When this book was originally published, many were savagely critical of Plante for his reporting on Rhys’ private suffering. That criticism may have been deserved, but his eyewitness report of Rhys’ decline reads like a case study.
The Lost Weekend
Don is a writer who has spent much of his time clambering back up on the wagon from which he keeps falling. In The Lost Weekend, Taylor narrates a five-day bender in which Don attempts to drown his feelings of self-loathing and despair in bottles of cheap whiskey. Taylor’s realistic rendering of the isolated life of the addict was lauded as a masterpiece. Its fast pace and accurate rendering of alcoholic life make it a timeless read. For years afterward, those who met Taylor assumed he was the expert, and they demanded that he share with them the “secret” to kicking addiction.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Anne Brontë was the younger sister of Emily and Charlotte, and while both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are better known to modern audiences, it was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that caused a major scandal upon its release in 1848. Anne Brontë depicted the private life of a troubled marriage, and turned her main character, Helen, into a criminal when she leaves her abusive, alcoholic husband and takes their child with her. At the time, women had no legal right to their children, and the life that Helen claims for herself as a fugitive makes for a thrilling read.
In thousands of church basements, conference rooms, meeting halls, and school classrooms, people who are seeking help with their addictions to alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, even sex, gather to offer each other their “experience, strength, and hope.” Twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous provide those who wish to stop using with a program of recovery. In hospitals across the country, those in the throes of detoxification are treated by medical professionals in order to prevent serious health effects that may result when quitting various chemicals. After detox, addicts may opt for an in-patient rehabilitation that provide an institutional setting for the vulnerable periods faced by the newly sober. Others find that daily attendance at Twelve-Step meetings provides the necessary support. Some of those who are sober may begin using again almost immediately, finding that the level of their addiction returns to its pre-detox level right away. Sobriety requires vigilance.
But before anyone makes the decision to seek help, they must first recognize that they have a problem. Regardless of which behavior or substance is the issue, addicts engage in a behavior that meets the Twelve-Step definition of insanity, which is “repeating the same disastrous behavior over and over again and expecting a different result.”
In these fourteen books, people who have experienced addiction or witnessed the addiction of others and medical professionals and scientists who study addiction take readers inside the issue. Whether it’s a novelist who writes about a character’s alcoholism in ways that illuminate motivations, or a memoirist who takes readers inside the writer’s personal experiences, or doctors who want to educate people as to the effects of certain chemicals on the human body, there are plenty of ways into the topic.