The yellow gloom of sleepless nights. A powerful memoir of addiction forces Julian Keeling to recall his own experiences of rehab

A Million Little Pieces

James Frey <em>John Murray, £16.99, 383pp</em>

ISBN 0719561000

Although it is never mentioned by name, the US drug rehabilitation centre where these memoirs are set is the one I stayed in during the mid-1980s. I sweated and withdrew in the same detox unit, threw up in the same pristine toilets, and ripped branches off trees in the same pine woods. Like Frey, I was appalled by the bumper-sticker platitudes, and heavily resisted the corny, God-lite approach of the 12-step recovery method that was offered as my salvation. Like Frey I formed extraordinarily close bonds with fellow-patients, experienced terrible alienation, and under- went several journeys back and forth between suicidal despair and elation. Like him, I eventually made it back to a state approaching normal health.

Apart from the odd flashback to Frey's days as a drug addict (his preferred substances were crack, alcohol, speed and glue), A Million Little Pieces focuses exclusively on his month-long experience in rehab. His intense, repetitive prose accurately captures the physical experience of being in recovery. The book helped me to relive the yellow gloom of those sleepless nights, the days spent staring at unpainted brick walls while people I did not trust offered me help that I did not think would work.It helped me to remember, too, the sudden relief when I briefly felt all right. I don't know how much enjoyment this book will give to those who have not had similar experiences, but I found it impossible to put down.

Yet this is not the whole story. Nearly two decades later, I find myself working in a prison rehab. Reading A Million Little Pieces, I found it hard not to picture Frey as a patient. He is the worst kind: arrogant, rude, proud, refusing the help on offer without even being open to it. His motivation for writing the book (ten years after undergoing the treatment) seems to be to stand on a chair, stick out his tongue and say: "Nah, nah, nah, I did it without your help. I did it my way and it worked."

In contrast to those who looked after him in rehab, he is rageful, opinionated and contradictory to the point of stupidity. Having spent the first half of the book stuffing himself with food and then vomiting it up, he is appalled when he is told that addictive behaviour can spread to other areas of life: "To suggest that . . . eating is dangerous and should be monitored is ridiculous . . . To state that I need to be on guard against all manner of potential addiction everywhere I go for the rest of my life is pathetic. I won't live that way. It is fucking pathetic." Having convincingly described how the overwhelming compulsion to consume drugs destroyed his body and mind, he is enraged when his doctors tell him that addiction is a disease. The American Medical Association and the World Health Organisation happen to think so as well, but Frey merely discounts this as "fucking bullshit". A disease, he reckons, "takes over the body and the mind and it ruins them" - which is surely a useful, if not clinical, description of what addiction does.

Frey's stylistic ticks are irritating: he doesn't use quotation marks, randomly capitalises nouns, and breaks his paragraphs erratically. None of this makes the reader feel well-disposed towards him, any more than does his angry sniping and biting of the hand that fed him. A Million Little Pieces confirms the widespread belief that addicts are selfish, self-centred and self-obsessed. Even many years later, some still are.