by Jerry Waxler
As teenagers, our first buzz expands options and reveals mysteries. Grateful for these gifts, we shift our priorities, leading to bad decisions and frayed relationships. The substance siphons off the precious energy that could have been fueling the climb toward our dreams.
Addiction exposes this edgy limitation of the human experience: we need to be in control, and yet, we often are not. Consider a comedian whose pratfall turns his body into a sack of potatoes. There’s hardly a surer way to get a laugh. However, what is funny in comedy is shameful in real life. If we stumble, we pretend it didn’t happen. Addicts do the same thing, collapsing toward the substance while claiming they are in complete control. By hiding and lying, addicts push away helping hands.
Beneath the surface, though, some higher instinct compels an upward gaze. With help and struggle, many who have fallen down, get up, glad to march forward, as long as we don’t look back.
Long after recovery, regrets exert a backward pull. “Did I really have all of that and throw it away?” We try to ignore those glimpses in our rearview mirror of screwed up parts of our lives, betrayals not only of other people but of our own ideals.
According to the Twelve Step programs, instead of ignoring the past, we must make peace with it. The Fourth Step, the moral inventory, fearlessly focuses our attention on the things we would rather forget. The Fourth Step collects the fragments and helps us pull them together, reclaiming an appreciation for a whole self, including the years devoted in service to the addictive substance or behavior. Through authentic self-exploration and sharing, the members of Alcoholics or Narcotics or Gamblers Anonymous reach toward each other for support.
However, because of the shame associated with the loss of control, they continue to shield themselves from the public. Perhaps that is changing. In the memoir age, such walls of secrecy and shame are breaking down. Memoirs give addicted individuals a voice, turning the sorrow of their fall into a more complete story which celebrates the courage of return. In the twenty first century, memoirs shine the light of wisdom on such behavior, empowering more of us to help each other or be helped sooner.
Susan Cheever, “My Life in a Bottle.” The daughter of a famous writer hits the bottle and shows how the seduction of alcohol can drain the inner person while the outer one appears competent.
Dani Shapiro, “Slow Motion.” A daughter in a privileged New York family lets drugs, alcohol, and sex consume her life.
Nic Sheff, “Tweak.” Nic Sheff, a talented young man with a promising future, loses himself in methamphetamines. Then he slowly and fitfully climbs out.
Gail Caldwell, “Let’s Take the Long Way Home.” A writer, dog lover, and best friend, recounts her complex journey from alcohol to life. It has some of the best Alcoholics Anonymous scenes I’ve read. Gail Caldwell’s best friend is Caroline Knapp, author of “Drinking, A Love Story,” an intimate personal account of the journey out of denial and back to sobriety. “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” pays homage to their friendship as well as their return from addiction.
Mary Karr, “Lit.” Famous for her first memoir “Liar’s Club,” in this sequel Mary Karr recounts her long bleary journey through the world of inebriation and then step by step back towards society and God.
My relationship to substances
By my second year in college, I smoked dope most days. Before I knew what was happening, my self-concept became murky and confused. The decisions I made during those years dismantled my original dream of becoming a doctor. When I finally stopped taking drugs, I faced a long climb. Returning to health wasn’t the hardest part. Now that I had thrown away my goals, I had to work for decades to replace my original mission with a new one. Eventually, it worked out okay. But how does such an interrupted and resurrected lifetime make sense? By writing my memoir, I see the way each decision led to the next. I no longer need to pick and choose the good parts and try to throw away the bad. The self-concept that arises through the memoir is every bit as whole as the one I originally envisioned, and in many respects far more interesting and multi-dimensional.
What was your relationship to addiction, whether substances or behavior? If you have never admitted these experiences to anyone and are afraid to put them on paper, be ready to delete them or burn them. To help you adjust to these human foibles, speak to a therapist or share your writing in a supportive critique group.
Link to other articles in this series
Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity
Self-concept and memoir – launching problems and identifying with a group
Recovering self-concept after trauma
Self Concept and Memoirs: The Power of Purpose
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.