Originally published on substance.com
Recovery memoirs offer a window into a world that is foreign to some and heartbreakingly familiar to others. Whether or not you or a loved one have gone through it, addiction is fodder for some mesmerizing stories, told by a host of outstanding writers who have battled it and come out the other side. The theme of overcoming adversity is both compelling and universal.
I have always been an avid reader. But recovery memoirs have given me much more than literary experiences; when it comes to my recovery, they’ve really been essential. These books bring me the wisdom of others who have gotten sober and remind me to be compassionate. Most importantly, they remind me, through the intimacy of their sharing, that I am not alone. There are countless examples of this genre, but here are 10 books that for me hold special significance.
by M.K. Asante; Spiegel & Grau, 2013
I never go to sleep. I might crash, pass out, fall out, dip, but I never go. I’m like a man on the run and sleep is the cops, trying to take me off the streets, slow me down. I might get locked up, but I ain’t turning myself in. I don’t go to sleep. I wake up everywhere, different parts of the city, usually still high and drunk from the night before, usually on the floor. You can’t fall out of bed when you sleep on the floor…or in the car.
With his mother in a mental hospital and his father gone, Asante grew up on the streets of North Philadelphia. Quickly learning to become self-sufficient, he finds that selling drugs, smoking weed and drinking feel like survival. But hustling itself becomes an addiction and, before long, selling (and consuming) drugs and making money are the only things that matter to Asante. When his best friend is killed and his mother barely survives an overdose, he commits to a different path. He finds a teacher who stokes his love of the written word, reconnects with his father and begins to see a life beyond anything he previously imagined.
Buck is more than a memoir about a boy getting off the streets; it’s a story about the courage it takes to conceive of a life outside of the one you’ve been handed. And it’s a tribute to the unexpected teachers in our lives who both challenge and support us so we can climb out of the most desperate places.
by Augusten Burroughs; St. Martin’s Press, 2003
It’s the kind of friendship that’s easy to make in elementary school when you’re six or seven … “And the amazing part is,” Hayden has said “we’re not drunk in a bar.” This is true. It is possible to make close, instant friendships while sitting at a bar drinking. But these friendships tend to evaporate at four in the morning when the bar closes, or the next morning when you find yourself sleeping in the same bed.
After a stint in rehab, Augusten Burroughs comes home to an apartment full of empty liquor bottles—and no memory of how they got there.This raw and funny memoir is a popular read for people in early recovery, reassuring even those with the most painful of rock bottoms that other people have been there, done that. Burroughs has plumbed the depths and survived.
He recounts his story of addiction to alcohol, and eventually crack, with all the cynicism and wit that readers of his first book, Running with Scissors, would expect. While Dry is often hilarious, Burroughs is acutely aware that addiction is no joke—he describes his struggles with a kind of reverence for its sheer severity.
Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker
by Susan Cheever; Simon & Schuster, 1999
Then my father walked toward me with a gin and tonic. It was a hot, hot afternoon. I took a sip … I took a swallow, gulping down the sweetness to savor the metallic taste of the gin. I began to feel better … I was swept away in the feelings of the music and the heat and the cool glass under my fingers and the taste of gin. I was swept away from my pain, from those sharp, terrible feelings; I was swept away for many years.
Cheever’s deftly written memoir is shaped largely by her relationships. The first alcoholic she loved was her father, the inimitable author John Cheever. Next came a lover. He was followed by bottle after bottle of gin. But aside from the failed relationships and her search for love, this is a story about Cheever’s ineffable longing, which she tried to satisfy the only way she knew how: drinking.
She eventually found solutions instead in 12-step meetings and spirituality. Cheever discusses God for less than a page in the book, noting only that she believes in something “outside life” and that she calls that thing “God.” Without stating it explicitly, Cheever offers a powerful argument against the notion that 12-step meetings and religious dogma are inextricably linked. She cracks the door open on her recovery just enough for readers to peer through and decide for themselves if they want to come inside.
by Mary Karr; HarperCollins, 2009
James wanting to get drunk makes sense to me, and I like how nobody [in the 12-step meeting] rebuked him after. But there were also no bullshit acts like not letting him speak—crazily he’d wanted to testify about his sobriety. But Gerry took his car keys and made him sit through the meeting. It’s my life outside these oddballs that scares me.
Mary Karr did not want to be an alcoholic. Her beautiful and fearlessly written memoir describes how painfully she fought against accepting this truth, and also the relief and struggles that sobriety brought her. Lit is the story of a woman who strips away the protective blanket of alcohol and then must come to terms with the person she finds underneath. That person, Karr learned the hard way, was a depressed, anxious woman who had been self-medicating since she was a teenager. Add to this the challenges she faces in motherhood, and the story of Karr’s recovery only begins when she gets sober; a mental breakdown sends her to the hospital.
Though her anxiety and depression are daunting, Karr’s wit crackles through even in the toughest moments. Her reliance on 12-step meetings coupled with outside help for mental health issues make Lit an especially important work.
Drinking: A Love Story
by Caroline Knapp; Dial Press, 1996
It happened this way: I fell in love and then, because the love was ruining everything I cared about, I had to fall out. This didn’t happen easily, or simply, but if I had to pinpoint it, I’d say the relationship started to fall apart the night I nearly killed my oldest friend’s two daughters.
For Caroline Knapp, like many addicts, her relationship to alcohol had many of the traits of an abusive friendship or romantic relationship. Initially, the pairing was blissful. Knapp and alcohol were meant to be together; she had found the answer to all her problems. As bliss transformed into dependence and finally addiction, Knapp found herself vowing never to go back to drinking, the source of so much of her pain. But, of course, she did.
Even someone with no interest in recovery memoirs is likely to walk away from this one in awe; it’s worth reading for Knapp’s beautiful writing alone. She exposes the stormy internal world of an addict with all the craving, comfort, shame and confusion that entails. Her ability to describe the complex experience of addiction with such precision is a gift to anyone seeking to understand it. Knapp describes getting sober as “the first truly adult decision I ever made.” Though she started attending 12-step meetings out of desperation, she found that they gave her the tools to manage her life, instead of allowing alcohol to do that for her. She also describes how she found allies there—people who loved her unconditionally, until she was able to give that to herself.
by Noah Levine; HarperSanFrancisco, 2003
To a lot of kids in the Santa Cruz punk scene Micah and I became the ‘spiritual ones,’ so we started organizing little meditation groups at our house … It was hilarious because the group would inevitably fall into a pillow fight or wrestling or fart jokes or something. Hardcore punk kids can only handle so much spiritual shit before we need to act out some.
After stints in Juvenile Hall and group homes, and losing friends to alcohol and drugs, Noah Levine knew he had to get sober. The idea scared him for many reasons, not the least of which was how closely his punk identity and his drug and alcohol use were intertwined. Finding a group of punks who were Straight Edge—a movement that developed out of the DC punk and hardcore scene: be punk rock, but be completely drug-free—was the beginning of Levine’s dedicated sober life.
Dharma Punx takes the reader on Levine’s journey from an addicted punk rock kid to sober Buddhist meditation teacher. For Levine, Buddhism becomes as bound up in his recovery as the punk scene was in his active addiction. This book could be illuminating for anyone seeking to incorporate Buddhist practice and meditation into their own life.
Unwasted: My Lush Sobriety
by Sacha Z. Scoblic; Citadel Press, 2011
While alcohol gave me instant intimacy, which can be as dangerous as it is seductive, making friends without booze was clumsy and sometimes embarrassing … I didn’t speak the language:
Normal Person: Do you want to go to dinner with us tomorrow night?
Me: Oh, sorry, I don’t drink anymore.
Normal Person: Um, Okay. But do you want to go to dinner? We’re going to Luna Cafe.
Me: What kind of twisted games do you people play out here in the so-called real world? Why on earth would anyone go to dinner and not get wasted? What, are you trying to get me to relapse, you sick fuck?!
Scoblic infuses levity into the heavy experience of getting sober, endowing her account of getting clean with a generous heap of sarcasm and humor. A self-identified party girl, Scoblic realizes she is having the opposite of fun and reluctantly begins attending 12-step meetings. As days of sobriety turn into weeks, she has to figure out how much of her old self fits into her new world. Flashbacks from her pre-sober life are described with a combination of horror and nostalgia that will be familiar to any person in recovery.
This book is so intimate it makes you feel as if you’ve stumbled across someone’s diary. It’s also impossible to put down (a familiar sensation for any addict). Scoblic’s friendships are particularly compelling, as they transform through her story. She documents her realization that, while she will always love her two best drinking friends, their respective worlds are no longer the same. Meanwhile, acquaintances with whom she’d only had superficial relationships turn into intimate friends. Her discussion of having a partner who drinks adds another layer of complexity and interest.
We All Fall Down: Living With Addiction
by Nic Sheff; Little, Brown, 2011
Looking at the little ball of packed white powder, I can’t help but laugh … I know what hard drugs have done to my life … they’ve basically destroyed everything I’ve ever had … Obviously, I should flush the shit right now … I set up a line. I don’t hesitate. I take the powder up my goddamn nose.
After writing Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines (2008), Nic Sheff relapsed. Accordingly, his second book describes not just the struggle to give up drugs, but the even more difficult task of staying sober. Sheff learns that girls can threaten his sobriety as much as drugs can and navigates his conflicted feelings about 12-step programs with brutal honesty.
Sheff offers no simple suggestions for staying sober. Instead, he portrays the complexity and difficulty of the real world. It just goes to highlight the one-day-at-a-time nature of any recovery.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
by Cheryl Strayed; Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.
I looked up to see an enormous brown horned animal charging at me.
‘Moose!’ I hollered, though I knew that it wasn’t a moose. In the panic of the moment, my mind couldn’t wrap around what I was seeing and a moose was the closest thing to it. ‘Moose!’ I hollered more desperately as it neared. I scrambled into the manzanitas and scrub oaks that bordered the trail pulling myself into their sharp branches as best I could, stymied by the weight of the pack.
As I did this, the species of the beast came to me and I realized I was about to be mauled by a Texas longhorn bull.
Strayed’s bestselling memoir isn’t about recovery from addiction per se, though she dabbles with heroin at the beginning of the book and experiences a short but frightening addiction to it. But it is still an almost perfect account of, and metaphor for, a broader kind of recovery. After the collapse of her marriage and the death of her mother, with whom she shared a fierce bond, Strayed decided to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. And she decides to go alone. With little guidance and less experience, she begins her life-changing journey in a pair of too-small hiking boots.
Her journey is analogous to addiction recovery in that she feels compelled to plow ahead, despite the pain and discomfort. Step by step, she learns to reconcile the grief of her past and move forward.
The Harder They Fall: Celebrities Tell Their Real-Life Stories of Addiction and Recovery
edited by Gary Stromberg and Jane Merrill; Hazelden, 2005
There are some common threads that weave through these often stirring narratives of recovery: initial success fueled by various stimulants, the inevitable crash and burn, and then somehow, often at the last possible moment, against all odds and having been dragged kicking and screaming into a rehabilitation program, finding redemption in the quiet, steely disciplined, deeply personal process of healing the self, making peace with inner demons, and finding a renewed way to live. -Gary Stromberg (from the introduction)
This collection of essays doesn’t strictly qualify as a memoir but it will make you feel as though you are sitting in on a celebrity-filled 12-step meeting. The authors don’t get lost in the drama of their drug and alcohol-fueled pasts, instead focusing on the relief found on the other side of them.
It’s an important reminder that no matter how successful or famous you are, addiction can bring us all to our knees. It’s reassuring, too, for people with addiction to know that even people who seem to have everything may have shared their struggle. Above all, these essays gleam with hope, reminding us all that however bleak things may be now, recovery is possible.