In my early twenties I went through a phase of bingeing on addiction memoirs. I finished one and had to have another. I spent money I didn’t have on them. I shoved them into my handbag when my boyfriend came home so he wouldn’t see. The extremely thin irony was not lost on me: I was treating these books like I treated drinks.
It was a time when I drank alcohol less than ever, but thought about it all the time. I was coupled up, domesticated, and my partner’s personality did not allow for sloppiness, or loss of control, or weekends given up to hangovers in bed, surrounded by strewn pizza boxes.
Drinking moderately made me feel more addicted to alcohol than when I was free to drink as I pleased, because it meant I was painfully aware. I was aware of everything I drank at home beneath his quizzical, critical gaze, and I was aware of what I drank when I went out on my own or with friends because he would witness the aftermath.
I bought the memoirs on my lunchbreaks, or downloaded them if work was quiet and I could read them minimised on my computer screen. I inhaled them all, especially those which described people with outsize, outrageous problems very unlike my own.
One was James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and I was enthralled by its abjection and physical violence; all that bile and blood and theatre. When I found out he had exaggerated or invented a good number of the book’s more dramatic moments, I was deflated but also felt I understood why he would do a thing like that.
Leslie Jamison, the American essayist and novelist, also understands this impluse. Her excellent book The Recovering, which I read last week, is part memoir, part study of addiction among writers and artists, and in America as a whole.
Jamison writes about the addiction memoir industrial complex, within which Frey tried to distinguish himself – the one pumping out enough books to keep me entertained for the long, dry year I spent living with my partner.
Yet Jamison realises in The Recovering that one cannot stand out in all things – that commonality and shared experience are not flaws. She had grown up believing that she could only be loved because of how exceptional she was. At AA, finally, she began to see that her story was like a thousand other stories, and no less valuable for it. She writes:
The word itself – “cliché”– derives from the sound that printing plates made when they were cast from movable type. Some phrases were used often enough that it made sense to cast the whole phrase in metal, rather than having to create an arrangement of individual letters. It was about utility. You didn’t have to remake the entire plate each time.
Yet Frey’s sensational trajectory separated him from the more everyday alcoholism that publishers feared had saturated the market, and singled his story out in a sea of AA successes.
Why did I so love to read addiction memoirs? Partly because anyone who has problems with drinking loves to hear about what others drink: the one subject as compelling as your own drinking.
Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald – those abrasive old friends, alternately united and divided by booze – would eagerly demand to hear what the other had put away on a certain night, and then note the figures in their respective journals with either relief or panic, depending on how their own tally compared.
I was morbidly curious to read books about people who were much, much worse than me, and I also sneered at the mannered American ones mainly written by well-educated young women who, it appeared to me back then when I was younger and crueller, drank a bottle of good sparkling wine most nights for a few years and defined their lives by it forevermore.
These stories were also the only place I could find my own fears and thoughts represented. Things that I felt about my own drinking (which had occasionally been serious and daily but more often was generally normal-ish with sporadic episodes of disaster) were in those books. Only I could never say them because I hadn’t given it up. Because I was not – am not, have never been – sober, it was impossible to voice any worries, considerations or fears about drinking and what it does to me.
Reading this, you may want to know exactly how much I drink, to feel comfortable absorbing anything I say about drinking – to pin me down either as an alcoholic in denial or a frivolous socialite who has a bit too much champagne at parties. This is one of the problems with a culture only able to speak about alcohol problems with forced jolliness (aprons reading “Prosecco Mummy”, pub chalkboards encouraging you to come inside because it’s a day ending in “y”) or through the redemptive lens of AA.
We can never speak about a problem while we’re having it. We can never have a grey or in-between story. We can never say that we have a problem without also saying that we are sober, or planning to be. Alcoholics, and people who have problems with alcohol, know intuitively that they can never be truthful about anything at all to do with drinking until they have renounced it.
There are innumerable good reasons for an alcoholic to live in a black-and-white world, where sobriety and drinking must be posited as opposites. The Recovering does a wonderful job of painting an expansive, humane picture of what AA can do and why it works for so many people. It lends a dynamic narrative complexity to an organisation often blandly portrayed with platitudes.
Yet the book made me wish for writing on this subject by people who drink, too. I wish we were allowed to interrogate our feelings around drinking without having to be sober first. I wish I could speak about my own without having to laugh it off or solemnly bow my head in apology.
Often I think about drinking – when it has been very bad for me – as a terrible kind of privacy. A world-building exercise that excludes those you love. A way to allow yourself to be motionless and silent. I still feel it calling all the time, even if I’m able to ignore it more often. I feel the release of that solitude singing to me when I no longer want to deal with the difficulties of other people or of real life. That allure of privacy is dangerous and dreadfully, inescapably seductive to those who hear it sing. And I think it could be less so if we who still drink were able to speak its name.
This article appears in the 19 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news