Redefining Recovery: The Evolution of the Addiction Memoir

By Lisa L. Kirchner 11/04/19

From "Drugstore Cowboy" to "My Fair Junkie," the focus of addiction literature has shifted to recovery.

black and white pic of man with notebook and pen, thoughtful, writing
For years, the words “writer” and “addict” seemed inseparable. Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash

In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that last year, overdose deaths dropped slightly—from 70,000 to 68,000—the first dip since 1990.

“Lives are being saved, and we’re beginning to win the fight against this crisis,” tweeted Alex Azar, the U.S. secretary of health and human services.

But who’s “we,” exactly?

Though I doubt Azar had contemporary literature in mind in the fight against addiction, it was the first thing I thought of when I read the statistic. For years, drugs and alcohol were so romanticized in literary culture, the words “writer” and “addict” seemed inseparable. Here it's worth noting that, while you and perhaps many of the authors listed here might disagree, for this article—and, truthfully, because I do in general—I’m merging alcoholism and drug addiction into one thing, even if the individual recovery looks different.

Back in 1990—when overdose deaths began to climb—novels like Drugstore Cowboy (1990), Leaving Las Vegas (1990), and Jesus' Son (1992) presented a glamorized view of addiction. While these depictions weren’t sanitized, and it could be argued that they were less celebratory of boozy culture than the party chic depicted by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, or even the work of beat generation authors like Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, or later Hunter S. Thompson, these portrayals left their mark.

Sarah Hepola, author of 2014’s best-selling memoir, Blackout (a redemptive portrait of addiction), agrees that she, too, “link[ed] writing with drinking and a kind of artful indulgence and libertinism… something close to a job description.” 

But the culture has changed dramatically, and books today—like Hepola’s—offer more views of recovery than debauchery.

The groundwork was perhaps first laid with Caroline Knapp’s Drinking, A Love Story (1996). Knapp took on not only addiction, but cutting, anorexia, and compulsive spending. Harrowing as her account was, the narrative throughout was informed by the lens of inevitable sobriety.

Hepola remembers reading that book, “Chardonnay in hand.” But even if her “stomach sank” when Knapp sobered up, Hepola sensed that the author “was also thriving.” For Hepola, reading that book was part of an awakening that sobriety “might not be the death [she] feared.”

Yet it wasn’t until Mary Karr’s Lit came out in 2009 that readers really got the chance to see addiction from the vantage point of long-term sobriety. This isn’t to say Karr made recovery look easy. As Karr wrote, “I haven’t so much gone insane as awakened to the depth and breadth of my preexisting insanity, a bone-deep sadness or a sense of having been a mistake.” That she would recover, however, was a foregone conclusion. That she would flourish—more so as a sober person than a drunk one—was obvious from her career.

Since then, books more focused on recovery than addiction began to trickle in. There was Bill Cleggs’ 90 Days (2012), Hepola’s Blackout (2014), Lisa F. Smith’s Girl Walks Out of a Bar (2016), Amy Dresner’s My Fair Junkie (2017), and Catherine Gray’s The Unexpected Joys of Being Sober (2017).

Then last year brought an avalanche. Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, Kristi Coulter’s Nothing Good Can Come from This, Janelle Hanchett’s I’m Just Happy to Be Here, Porochista Khakpour’s Sick, Stephanie Wittels Wachs’ Everything is Horrible and Wonderful, and Tom Macher’s Halfway all came out in 2018.

And it was this plethora of titles that made me wonder, could this uptick in rehabilitative tales have contributed to the decrease in overdose deaths? 

It may not be possible to establish a cause-effect relationship, but there are clear correlations between art and life. The Netflix show 13 Reasons Why (based on a novel of the same name), has faced tremendous backlash over alleged copycat suicides, and research has shown these concerns to be valid. And despite the number of holes that could be poked in this idea—starting with how incomplete this list of titles is and including the fact that this study was provoked by the broadcast and not the book—it’s undeniable that recovery from addiction has a new kind of cachet thanks to these books. 

And this trend doesn’t show signs of slowing, with more recovery titles on the way, including Dan Peres’ As Needed for Pain (February 2020), Eileen Zimmerman’s Smacked: A Story of White Collar Ambition, Addiction, and Tragedy (February 2020), Erin Khar’s Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me (February 2020), and Rose Andersen’s The Heart and Other Monsters: a Memoir (July 2020).

What may be even more interesting—and, dare I say, hopeful—about these titles, is that each offers its own individual path in recovery. There’s no one right way to do it, which not only reflects reality, but might make the prospect more palatable to more people.

Khar, for instance, recalls looking for relatable stories“There were very few books about drug addiction written by women, and I didn’t find any of them.” So she set out to write one.

“I want my book to give people hope and to reduce the stigma around speaking about drug addiction,” says Khar. “I wrote Strung Out because it was the book I needed when I was younger.” 

Andersen, whose forthcoming book addresses both her and her deceased sister’s addiction, puts it bluntly—"For so long, [the] addiction [narrative] has been centered on the white, male experience,” she says. “Even basic AA literature was written by and for men, so to expand the voices that can be read and heard in this genre is vital.”

Another important facet of this trend is that getting sober isn’t the end of the story. Hepola puts it this way: “Addiction and alcoholism has been a helpful lens through which to understand my relationship with alcohol (and food and men), but it's not the only lens.”

These books reassure us that there is life beyond addiction, more to recovery than the sad dirge of replaying past exploits.

“Sobriety is really about cracking open possibilities,” says Hepola. “A life that is so much bigger than the bar stool.”

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Lisa L. Kirchner is the author of Hello American Lady Creature: What I Learned as a Woman in Qatar. She lives in Florida with her favorite husband, where she’s completing her latest memoir, The Joyseeker: How I Lost (and Found) My Happy Place.

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