My Top Four Recovery Memoirs
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“I kept getting high to kill my shame at the fact that I kept getting high.” -Jerry Stahl from Permanent Midnight
The genre of addiction and recovery memoirs has been increasing in popularity over the last decade. There is now an abundance of books that fit this description on the market.
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A few of these works stand out for their powerful writing and ability to uniquely capture the horror of addiction while not giving into sensationalism. Imagine riding a roller coaster without being strapped in and realizing midway through that no one is manning the ride.
I have made a list of my “Top Four.” In each of these books, I have gotten to the last page, closed the book and felt as if I had lived another person’s life for a while. And then wondered—what happened to these writers after that last page?
Luckily, I got to find out “where they are now” directly from the authors themselves. Below are my Top Four as well as a follow-up with each of the writers.
Drunken Angel by Alan Kaufman is, at times, a brutal read. Mr. Kaufman, the son of a French Holocaust survivor, takes his reader on a dark journey fueled by PTSD and a powerful drive to self-destruct. Mr. Kaufman seeks obliteration in the bottle, in relationships and in his work until, eventually homeless, he meets a fellow traveler on the dark path who becomes instrumental in changing the author’s destiny.
“The night was hard, its iron sometimes too fierce to withstand, its dark too menacing, and you just knew in your bones that were you to stay out in it tonight it would kill you – stab you as you lay blacked out or abduct and torture you in some basement or set you afire or kick you to death. At such times your nerves became so bad that the touch of a crawling fly on your skin made you cry out for your mother.” -Excerpt from Drunken Angel
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Alan Kaufman shared that he has 24 years of sobriety under his belt. “I have stayed clean and sober by not picking up a drink no matter, even if my ass falls off, picking my ass up, putting it into a paper bag, bringing to my friends in Recovery, who reattach it for me.”
Regarding how he has dealt with challenges in sobriety, Kaufman remarked: “A Journeyman is one who is willing to travel 24 hours in any direction to perform his work. I regard myself as a Spiritual Journeyman who, for the next 24 hours, to the best of my ability, is willing to travel anywhere, anytime, to do whatever is necessary to stay sober and help others to achieve sobriety. So, I pray, meditate and write for three hours a day. I attend a recovery meeting each day. I work with others. I belong to a list of people with time who are willing to go anywhere, anytime to answer the call of someone reaching out in desperation for help. Not long ago, I answered a call to go to a hospital where I found a young boy of 29 years of age dying of alcoholism—collapsed liver, collapsed kidneys, jaundice...he was as yellow as a Van Gogh sunflower. Lying there unconscious. So, I attended to his mother. I held her hand as she wept. I spoke to the doctors. I comforted his young girlfriend. I ran errands. I sat with him. Once he woke up and asked me who I was and I told him and he asked me if he was going to die and I said that all I know is right here and now, and right here and now we are both alive and speaking to each other. And he smiled and said, 'Good enough,' and lapsed back into sleep. I went there every day for two weeks. And then, one day, they had moved him 'upstairs' which is where they take you at the end and he was up there, in the final throes of death and I sat there with his mother and girlfriend as they cried and held their hands and did all I could.
And the boy died. These people did not even know my last name. I left the mother my contact information. As I exited the hospital it was dawn, and though it was a poor slum neighborhood and the trees and sidewalks and buildings all looked run down, worn out, to me the world never looked more beautiful or alive. I felt so grateful to be sober! Visiting that boy and his family kept me sober.”
Kaufman remarked that the biggest challenge to remaining sober has been “Believing that professional success as an author equals wellness. It is very easy when the media covers you and you make paid public appearances and are taken seriously to believe that you have gotten well and may not need as much help as before. The truth, of course, is the very opposite: the more time I get, the harder I need to work, the bigger my head has gotten, the more help I need to stay right-sized. The 'Illusion of Wellness' is the single greatest foe for people with time in Recovery.”
Kaufman shared that many have been “shocked and amazed” after reading Drunken Angel due to the candor and explicitness of the book. “People are shocked and amazed by the memoir. Drunken Angel is an intense book. It describes, in a matter-of-fact, way things that most people wouldn't dare admit even to their closest friends. When you say to a 'normie' that you are clean and sober they don't quite realize what that means. Drunken Angel shows them. Many who read it reported being shaken. But many have also told me in confidence that after reading it they felt less alone in the world because I describe in the book are things they have experienced or felt. I've made many new friends because of Drunken Angel.”
As for the biggest life change, Kaufman shared “I think that the expansion of my reputation as an author into Europe has affected me. Recently, an Austrian publisher, Edition Baes, has brought out the German translation of my other memoir, Jew Boy, and I've just returned from a seven-city book tour through Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. To see audiences there reading one of my books in another language, their own language, and appearing before them onstage, watching their faces as I was interviewed, seeing that we are connected as human beings...that my words, my writing, has mattered to so many diverse people, is a sign to me, of the incredible gift, the miraculous gift that sobriety has been for me. Because 24 years ago I was lying in Tompkins Square Park on a bench in the East Village, NYC, dying of alcoholism, beyond all human aid, in the last throes, and suddenly, now, years later... all this.”
Junkie Love by Joe Clifford reads like a cross-country road trip through hell. Though a novel, the book is admittedly a recounting of Mr. Clifford’s own experiences as an addict. Originally from Connecticut, in Junkie Love, Mr. Clifford travels across the US fueled by his addiction to heroin and saturated with his own and his ex-wife’s mental illness. Redemption comes at a high price as the author finds himself on the brink of suicide.
In describing the experience of injecting heroin, Clifford wrote, “You don’t have to deal with the monotony or meaninglessness of this place. You don’t have to deal with the disappointment of things not having turned out quite the way you would’ve liked. There is no heartbreak for you. Not anymore. No hurt, no loss, no pain. You do not need anyone’s approval or validation. You do not need to curb your spending or save your pennies for that trip to get away from it all, because you’ve already left.” –Excerpt from Junkie Love
In 2006, while already in recovery Joe Clifford suffered a near-fatal motorcycle accident. He broke his back, shattered his pelvis, snapped the acetabulum off of his femur, and collapsed a lung, fractured ribs and vertebrae. Regarding sobriety, Clifford reports, “I guess, no, I’m not sober. What I mean is I still have the occasional glass of wine with dinner. Once in a while, I’ll have a beer at a ballgame.” Due to the chronic pain Clifford experiences from the motorcycle accident “I see a pain management doctor who tests my blood, monitors my intake, etc., but I do take medication to treat the pain. I also see a psychiatrist who prescribes an anti-depressant (Prozac).” Readers of the book will recall that Mr. Clifford spent time being treated for a psychiatric illness. The connection between substance abuse and mental health issues is becoming more widely acknowledged.
Clifford continues, “I am not worried about fitting into anyone’s definition of this or that. I shot heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines for ten years. I ate out of dumpsters. I slept on the street, outside in the cold. I did awful, awful things. I just wanted my life back. My deal with the world was I’d stop living like a selfish jerk and rejoin society, and I’d make a contribution to the betterment of that society. Now I’m not advocating, in any way, that one should substitute drugs, one for another, and for years after I got off the street, I abstained from everything, with an almost terrifying, debilitating fear. But I don’t view drugs in terms of morality. If someone can take drugs and get what they want out of their life, more power to them. I know I, personally, had to make some changes. And that began with not spending every day scoring and shooting smack. So after a long six-month hospitalization, I went back to school, finished college, got my Master’s degree, and I began learning the craft of writing… What I care about most is that I got my life back.”
Clifford credits Rational Recovery for providing him with tools to live safely and sanely.
“I probably used Rational Recovery by Jack Trimpey as much as AA. I loved that book. I remember being in rehab and having to hide the RR text inside the AA book, like a teenager with a dirty magazine. (America’s rehab model is distinctly AA.) I could just relate to it more. I really liked Trimpey’s notion of 'The Beast,' this other 'you' who wants get high at all costs. When you are an addict, or just getting out of the lifestyle, you’d have thoughts—good thoughts—or so you’d think. See, The Beast, according to Trimpey, sounds like you, looks like you, and you never could be sure, and sometimes this other 'you' was just really clever into tricking you to walk down this street, at this hour, knowing who would be there with what. The nice thing now—I mean, I left that world in the early aughts—is that I know when I am talking. Every once in a while, there’ll be a chirping, a silly little idea, far on the horizon. But I can see that it is The Beast now, clearly. Like a tiny sailboat far at sea. And it’s easy to squish.
These days, my family is my life, and my career is what drives me. I am all about being a good husband, father, and the best writer I can be. I am in bed most nights by 9:30 p.m.”
Clifford acknowledged that others' perception of him has been altered since the publication of his book. “There’s another quote I love, by Anne Lamott: 'You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.' Ha! I mean, if you are going to write a memoir (Junkie Love is technically a novel, but I think everyone knows it’s a memoir), you gotta tell the whole story, even if it makes folks look bad. And let’s face it: no one comes off worse in that book than I do. I was a bad guy, who did bad things, and that book was my first step in making amends. In some cases it was too late (my grandmother, ex-wife, brother), some just in time, if barely (my mom). And I live with that. I think sometimes people are much more willing to forgive us than we are to forgive ourselves. I know am my own harshest critic. There are some nights where I’ll think about what I put my mother through and know there is nothing I can do (she passed in 2004). So I close my eyes, go to sleep, and promise to do a better job tomorrow.”
As for what has changed in his life since completing Junkie Love, Clifford states “Everything!” Mr. Clifford is married with a four-year-old son and another on the way. His fourth book (a mystery), Lamentation was recently released. “Life is an amazing gift. It is my sole intention to make the best out of this second chance I have been given. It is nothing short of a blessing.”
Orangutan by Colin Broderick details the first 18 years Mr. Broderick lived in NY after leaving his birthplace, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. He worked as a construction worker and sometimes writer while moving amongst relationships and descending into an alcoholic abyss that almost lead to his death. Orangutan is a compelling and often mesmerizing read that kept me captivated throughout its 340 pages.
“I take a good swig of the vodka and I stand and hold on to the rail of the fire escape. I grip it tightly in my fists and try to will myself to make the leap. One short burst of energy and it will be over. I just have to get my feet off the ground and over the rail and I will be finished with this nonsense, with the pain of this existence. I don’t want it anymore. I don’t want to drink anymore and I don’t want to live without drinking.” -Excerpt from Orangutan
I recently caught up with Colin Broderick. Seven and a half years sober and newly married, Broderick stated, “I don't have much problem sustaining my sobriety. I don't really think of alcohol as a solution to the problems in my life anymore. I haven't had a serious temptation to drink in about two years. Dealing with my anxiety, bouts of depression, and self-loathing are still an ongoing challenge though.”
In response to how he maintains his equilibrium and ongoing progress, Broderick shared “I still hit the (12-step) meetings as much as I can. I meditate. I'll see a therapist once in a while, when the need arises. Lately, I have been doing a lot of yoga, which has been amazing. I married a yoga instructor a couple of weeks ago, that helps immensely.”
Since the publication of Orangutan, Mr. Broderick noted the literary community has taken him more seriously but the benefits have exceeded that: “People definitely respect me more, professionally speaking, having published two memoirs with Random House. Being a published author definitely helps open doors. But apart from my professional life, I have established a line of credit so to speak, credibility credit. It's not quite platinum but it's enough to get me and my daughter a slice of pizza once in a while, and that's about as much as I need most days.”
Permanent Midnight by Jerry Stahl is both harrowing and numbing – much like addiction itself. Despite the ugliness and pain caused by his relentless heroin addiction, Mr. Stahl basically writes the most effective and, at times, humorous addiction love story I have come across. Sure, this is not a healthy love but Mr. Stahl expresses powerfully the need, obsession, and all-consuming passion the addict has for his drug of choice.
Nothing can get in the way of this devotion; not work, family or his own health and safety. There is no safety net, this is pure free-fall, and Mr. Stahl does not wrap up the story in a neat little package. This is a story that does not end on the last page.
“I’m so dope sick, my tears taste like urine. It’s as if the air itself were made of broken glass. I try to stop twitching. To stay still, to stop my very breath, let the pain stay inside. The slightest movement grinds tiny shards into my pores. Breathing is like gulping from a bag of claws. I want to die. Want to pass out. Want to stop…this…fucking…feeling.” -Excerpt from Permanent Midnight
Now with over 19 years clean, Jerry Stahl shared that after the publication of Permanent Midnight; “I was lucky enough to get kicked in the teeth by a very valuable lesson early on: the only thing worse for a junkie than not getting what they want is getting it.
A year and a half clean, thanks to Permanent Midnight, more or less all my dreams came true. And, the real horror - I still had that thing, that God-shaped Mommyhole as my friend, Clam, used to call it. That void that dope used to fill. So, flush with success and all good things in life, with a year and a half under my belt, I ended up using again. Which is when a whole new level of incomprehensible demoralization kicked in. The bottom, as my friend and hero Hubert Selby Jr. used to say, is bottomless.
This nightmare, weirdly, was probably the greatest, if most brutal gift I ever got in sobriety. After that, and all the attendant fear and loathing, I managed to crawl back to sobriety. And, despite the occasional dark night of the liver (Mr. Stahl has been diagnosed with hepatitis C and liver disease), have not come to on a motel toilet with a needle in my neck since.”
Concerning how others have responded to his "tell all" tome, Stahl stated, “Well, when you put it all out there, you find yourself occupying a kind of terminally outsider status - sort of like a leper, with better skin and an intact nose. What this does is invite all manner of strangers and desperate characters - some of which look like normal, upright citizens - to feel they can tell you their most intimate and mortifying secrets. And I am, needless to say, more than happy to listen.”
Regina Walker is a writer, photographer and psychotherapist in NYC. She is the Senior Writer of Revolution Magazine (USA).