R&R: The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath

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Recovery Memoir Review

I spent a lot of time this summer devouring recovery memoirs, articles, and other books and information. In the same way other people have recommended resources to me that have been helpful, I want to share whatever resources I’ve come across with you with the hope that you may find them useful as well.

In August, I read Leslie Jamison’s recovery memoir “The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath.” I loved this book. Jamison is a beautiful writer who is able to weave in and out of her own storyline and the stories of writers and alcoholics before her. The constant switching back and forth somehow gives her own story context. She is an extension of these writing greats, has walked a similar path, attended some of the same bars, and fell victim to many of the same traps.

The book is part memoir, part homage to the drunk creatives who have given us so much great literature and poetry at (seemingly) the expense of their own lives and wellbeing. A few managed to escape the grips of alcoholism and continue their work. The rest were not so lucky.

Throughout the book Jamison is open about her mindset at all the stages of her addiction and recovery. At the core of much of her struggle with alcoholism and her identity as a writer centered around this notion that all the greats drank. Alcohol magnified the madness, which could often lead to masterful creative works. She wrestles with the nagging feeling that she has a problem and this idea that, as a writer, excessive drinking is merely an occupational hazard, even a prerequisite. “Things got dark, and you wrote from that darkness. Heartbreak could become the beginning of a career.” It’s the archetype of the tortured artist and substance abuse appears to be merely the price of admission.

The Politics of Addiction

alcohol abuse disparities
Understanding the politics of addiction and substance abuse

Jamison also explores the sociological and political aspects of addiction, and the differences in how society treats drug users from alcoholics, Black and/or poor addicts from White, more affluent ones. As a White, middle-class woman, she is self-aware in this regard. “My skin color is the right color to permit my intoxication. When it comes to addiction, the abstraction of privilege is ultimately a question of what type of story gets told about your body: Do you need to be shielded from harm, or prevented from causing it? My body has been understood as something to be protected, rather than something to be protected from.”

As an interesting, and critical, interlude to her own story she gives us a brief history of the criminalization of drug use and abuse, how the country has historically tackled the problem, the successes, the failures, the zealots, the sweeping societal impacts, and the tragic abuse of Billie Holiday until her final days. She’s not just giving us her own history, she’s placing her problems within a larger context, which is to say, so much of society does not get the same empathy, that there are greater tragedies when it comes to substance abuse, and it is entirely by design.

Something I really connected with in Jamison’s story was this ongoing sense that her addiction was somehow a fraud (my word, not hers). She often returns to this notion that she didn’t feel wholly entitled to her pain or addiction. What had she ever really suffered? She was privileged; her life had been privileged. What was so bad that led her to become this way?

The reader goes on a journey with her into the lessons of AA, which she begrudgingly submits to after her first major relapse, and we get to experience her simultaneously accept that she is both entitled to her pain, responsible really for owning it, and also that she is nothing special. Her story is just like a thousand others. I appreciate the honesty with which she lets us into her head as she wrestles with this idea, “Could be anyone. Could have been anyone’s story. These were phrases I often heard in meetings, but they struck me as erasures. Giving up on singularity was like giving up on the edges of my own body.”

Ultimately, Jamison takes us on a winding exploration of the self. What does it mean to say I am an alcoholic? Who am I when I’m drunk? Which is real? Take it away, and what is left? Will I even like her?

There is so much of this book that I personally found relatable. I appreciated the mix of introspection and literary analysis (something a few of my fellow Good Reads subscribers were not so keen about). In a fairly saturated recovery memoir niche, I felt like Jamison’s book offered something a little different than we get from other authors, which I genuinely appreciated.

If you love strong, narrative writing, and are also interested in addiction and recovery as sociological and historical topics, this book will not disappoint!

Let me know what you think and feel free to share any books you’ve read that you think we should read. Contact me or leave a comment below. 

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