It's Never Too Late to Change: New Books by Writers in Recovery

By Dorri Olds 03/19/19

If stress has been dogging you and your bandwidth is low, it’s okay to turn off your gadgets so you can refuel. Pick up a book instead and indulge in some battery-free entertainment. Here are 4 faves, all by sober writers.

3 covers of new books by sober authors, writers in recovery
Breaks from YouTube and the 24/7 news cycle can do wondrous things for the mind.

Your nerves shot? Mine, too. Winter is a slog and I can’t wait for spring. When I can’t stand one more minute of worrying about the planet, polar bears, politics and hate, I still choose escape. But… instead of rum and cocaine, my go-to is a good book. So, if stress has been dogging you and your bandwidth is low, it’s okay to turn off your gadgets so you can refuel. Breaks from YouTube and the 24/7 news cycle can do wondrous things for the mind. I went radical this week and even turned off my cell. Twitter can consume me if I let it.

This month I made time to curl up on the couch with my dog and disappeared into these gems:

Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction
by Judith Grisel (Doubleday, Feb. 19, 2019)

“My response to being overwhelmed by the deep void was to leap into it.” — Judith Grisel

Judith Grisel writes about the grizzly years of self-destruction. Stories show the author at her messiest. In a decade, she’d consumed a cornucopia of substances; by age 23, she was a self-loathing mess.

The strength of Grisel’s bestseller is her intimate knowledge about the nervous system and addiction. Grisel peppers the pages with unsettling anecdotes, but she does it sans self-pity. Like a journalist, she reports embarrassing and creepy things.

“I ripped off stores and stole credit cards when the opportunity presented itself, I was still able to maintain, at least to myself, that I was basically a good person. To an extent, for instance, I could count on my companions, and they could count on me. I say to an extent, because we also knew and expected that we would lie, cheat, or steal from each other if something really important were at stake (that is, drugs).”

I never tire of drunken-drugalogues, and Grisel doesn’t disappoint on that front. But telling these stories is not to shock or manipulate readers, nor is Grisel trying to prove she was “a bona fide addict.” Her purpose is to illustrate the bleak existence of those who cannot stop drinking and drugging.

When Grisel “finally reached the dead end” where she felt she was “incapable of living either with or without mind-altering substances,” she sought help. After a 28-day rehab and months in a halfway house, she managed to pull her life together. After seven years of study, she earned a PhD in behavioral neuroscience and became an expert in neurobiology, chemistry, and the genetics of addictive behavior.

This book doesn't brag about having the answers, but shows what a sober neuroscientist has learned after 20 years of studying how an addicted brain works. She makes it easy to understand why it's so difficult to get sober and maybe even harder to stay that way. It irks me when people say they never think about drugs or alcohol anymore. My first feeling is rage—probably because I’ve never experienced anything like that, despite working hard on myself during 30 years in recovery. Grisel refreshingly writes about the temptation that’s always there.

Grisel’s writing communicates succinctly: “A plaque I later saw posted behind a bar described my first experience [with alcohol] precisely: Alcohol makes you feel like you’re supposed to feel when you’re not drinking alcohol.” In another passage, she quotes George Koob, chief of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: “There are two ways of becoming an alcoholic: either being born one or drinking a lot.” Grisel is careful to explain so you don’t get the wrong idea. “Dr. Koob is not trying to be flip, and the high likelihood that one or the other of these applies to each of us helps explain why the disease is so prevalent.”

When she writes about her experiences, it’s candid and clear, and it feels like she’s a friend and we’re chatting in a café. I found myself frequently nodding with identification—like a bobblehead on a car dashboard. It’s a fascinating, absorbing, satisfying book about addiction.

by Michele W. Miller (Blackstone Publishing, Feb. 26, 2019)

There was a huge turnout at The Mysterious Bookshop in downtown Manhattan on February 26. The event was the book launch of Michele W. Miller’s second novel, Widows-in-Law. Lawrence Block, the wildly successful, sober crime novelist, sat beside Miller in the role of interviewer, and he was as entertaining as ever.

See Also: Lawrence Block: One Case at a Time

Miller, a high-level attorney for New York City, said, “Widows-in-Law is about an attorney who dies suddenly in a fire, leaving behind a first wife who’s a streetwise child abuse prosecutor.” She then jokingly added, “who might resemble me a little bit.” That got a big laugh because many attendees knew that Miller had previously worked as a child abuse prosecutor.

In a thick and endearing Brooklyn-Queens accent, Miller described the deceased’s second bride. “You know, legs up to the eyeballs…[a] gawgeous trophy wife.” Block jumped in with praise: “That’s the one that resembles you.” Miller blushed and said, “See? That’s why we keep him around for a hundred books. Another big laugh, another inside joke: throughout Block’s astounding career, the well-loved crime writer has churned out 100 books.

Miller quickly regained her composure and got back to the novel’s setup: Emily is a 16-year-old from Brian’s first marriage, to Lauren. Shortly before Brian died in the fire, Emily moved in with Brian (and his new wife). Lauren hoped they could reel in the out-of-control teen.

The Miller thriller works well. It’s a fast read with dramatic and believable scenes and dialogue. I wanted to dig deeper and find out how much of the novel was fictional. Many novelists write about the worlds they know. Miller agreed to one-on-one time to discuss the three badass women at the center of the story.

“Emily’s mom Lauren is my main character. Her backstory includes being a homeless teenager during the 1980s and ‘90s,” Miller said. “Her parents were whacked on drugs so Lauren left. She stayed at a shelter on St. Marks. It’s an iconic recovery building in the East Village.”

When I asked which parts of the novel are autobiographical, Miller paused, sucked in a deep breath, then let it out slowly.

“Okay,” she said. “Here goes. I’m in my 30th year clean. I was a low-bottom heroin addict.” Miller’s past included a felony arrest for cocaine possession. She was facing 15 to life. To avoid spoilers, suffice it to say that explained why some of the scenes seemed so thoroughly researched.

“The book touches on my experiences with jail, illegal after-hours spots, and the complete chaos of addiction,” said Miller, who is now the director of enforcement for the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board. “Basically, that means I’m the chief ethics prosecutor for the city.” She’s aware of the irony. Before getting clean, Miller ran in the same circles as hitmen, such as the infamous Tommy Pitera.

“Yeah, we got high together,” said Miller. “People knew him as Tommy Karate because he was into martial arts. But it wasn’t until a book that I found out he was a brutal killer who cut people into little pieces. I was traumatized. We hung out, getting high. I don’t know why he didn’t kill me. I guess he liked me. Maybe because I was an accomplished martial artist?”

Miller is proof of how much your life can change when you get sober. She's lucky to have survived her druggy past that included hanging out with murderers. Lawrence Block said, “Michele Miller has had more lives than a cat, and they’ve made her a writer of passion and substance.”

After you read Widows-in-Law, check out Miller’s first novel, The Thirteenth Step: Zombie Recovery (HOW Club Press, November 4, 2013). It’s another fast-paced doozy and a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. Kirkus Reviews wrote, “A humorous and surprising satire of both the zombie apocalypse and the culture of addiction... wholly original... satisfying.... The care taken in both characterization and prose earns the reader’s time. A well-written, thoughtful treatment not just of a popular literary trope but of a nagging social issue.”

The Addiction Spectrum: A Compassionate Approach to Recovery 
by Paul Thomas, MD, and Jennifer Margulis, PhD. (HarperOne, Sept. 4. 2018)

Paul Thomas, MD, is board certified in integrative and holistic medicine and addiction medicine—he’s also in recovery.

“Addiction isn’t about willpower or blame,” he said. “It’s a disease that, like many other conditions, exists on a spectrum.” The spectrum is about how severely you crave your substance of choice when you don’t have it. It’s about how serious your health consequences are. Death, of course, is the worst end of the spectrum.

The Addiction Spectrum offers a system that bases the individual’s needs on where they are on the spectrum. Thomas offers seven key methods for healing, whether you’re active in addiction or already in recovery. “Doctors need a new approach to treating pain,” said Thomas. He mentioned the hazards of painkillers within the medical community, “My wife is a nurse and recovering opiate addict,” he said. 

The book is about any addiction—alcohol, marijuana, opioids, meth, technology. Co-author Jennifer Margulis, PhD, is an award-winning science journalist who’s been writing books about children’s health for over 10 years.

“Making love, eating delicious food,” said Margulis, “these activities release dopamine and make you feel good. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel good. But using heroin or abusing prescription opioids or even excessive computer gaming or binge eating will harm your brain. Too many young people think, ‘Hey, I’m just having fun.’ But there is nothing fun about dying from an overdose.”

But what is it about right now that can explain the drug epidemic?

“We’re animals, wired to avoid danger and seek pleasure,” Thomas said. “We scan for threats and have an immediate fight, flight or freeze reaction. We’re talking about dopamine and epinephrine (adrenaline) responses.”

Margulis agreed: “with cell phone alerts, video games, 24/7 news and high stress from work or school, we are overloaded. We can become addicted to food, social media, cigarettes, and a bunch of other substances and behaviors.”

Both Thomas and Margulis agree it is time to start looking at the root causes. Why is there an increase in mood disorders, fatigue, and addiction? The book answers so many questions and I learned a lot about how to treat my body and mind better. The writing style makes it easy reading—nothing too tough to get through and very practical.

The most anticipated book on my list isn’t out yet, but I’ve been lucky enough to read a sample chapter.

Strung Out
by Erin Khar (HarperCollins|Park Row Books, Feb. 2020)

Erin Khar’s much-anticipated memoir will hit the shelves in early 2020. It’s the story of Khar’s decade-long battle with opioids, but it goes even further by searching for answers. Why is it that some people can do drugs and stop, while others become addicted? She explores possible reasons for America’s current drug crisis and its soaring death toll. The CDC statistics are staggering. From 1999 to 2017, more than 700,000 people died from drug overdoses, and 400,000 of those died from an opioid overdose. This epidemic is devouring our nation.

Khar’s writing beat includes addiction, recovery, mental health, relationships, and self-care. She also writes the “Ask Erin” column for Ravishly.

For a decade, beginning at age 13, she kept her heroin use a secret from friends and family. When she was caught by her then-fiancé, she went to rehab and her book describes her harrowing withdrawal. Three years later, at age 26, she relapsed. Four months later, her using had dragged her to the bottom.

Khar, who has written for The Fix, told me, “I’ve been clean from opiates for 15 years!” That’s an enormous achievement for any addict, and in that decade and a half, she’s completely changed her life.

From Khar’s essay in Self magazine:

“If you had told me 15 years ago that I would be a happily married mother, living in New York City, doing what she loves for a living… I would have laughed.”

She hopes that her book will help shatter the stigma; stop the shaming. She describes its genesis: “I wrote the short story 'David' for Cosmonauts Avenue. Agents contacted me about writing a memoir.” After reading her essays, and following her writing career, I’m eager to read a book by this heroine about heroin.

Every one of these books is written by a sober writer. They are living proof that people’s lives can change at any time.

Mine sure did.

Do you have favorite sober authors? Please share them with us in the comments!

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.