By: Anne O’Toole-Bolthrunis, editor
My life has been touched by addicts.
Although I don’t know anyone who has gone to jail or been through an alternative sentencing program like Changing Lives Through Literature, I know many people who have found solace for their addictions in different forms of literature. AA and NA have their own “literature”, mostly with vaguely or blatant religious overtones. There are daily meditations and articles about the various steps used in these programs. To people who follow 12 Step Programs, these writings can have a profound impact on the recovering addict.
However, there are other novels, articles, and various writings that may also have such an impact. Different people find solace in different places – church, support groups, therapists, friends, and “secular” literature. Some of the writers and works that I have found to have a particular impact include the following:
Self Reliance and Other Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson: The pivotal transcendentalist’s major work encourages the reader to trust him or herself and to work hard to achieve difficult goals. The writing is accessible to all; it’s easy to follow and the lyrical prose is easy to lose yourself in. The goals outlined in these essays are directly related to the addict’s journey – although many 12 Step programs teach the addict to rely on the group and to trust in God, finding inner strength to begin and continue the healing process on their own is also important to recovery. The entire collection is fairly short and each essay can easily be read in one sitting, which makes it an ideal read for someone in early recovery who may not have the attention span to become engaged in a larger work.
Madness: A BiPolar Life by Marya Hornbacher: Although I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone in early recovery (it can get pretty harrowing at times, and detailed descriptions of drinking may be a “trigger” to someone who is not well-set in his or her recovery), it is a great book for someone with a ‘dual diagnosis’ (a diagnosis of addiction coupled with a diagnosis of an organic mental health disorder). Hornbacher is a gifted writer with an amazing attention to detail, and while her account may be difficult to read and may hit very close to home, I have found that many addicts find comfort in other addicts. Reading about someone else’s experience can help the addict to see that not only are they not alone, but other people have had similar experiences and survived and even improved because of them. Hornbacher is also the author of two self-help books for people in recovery who are non-religious – Waiting: a Non-Believer’s Higher Power and Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the Twelve Steps, which are particularly helpful to those participating in 12 Step programs who do not consider themselves religious and are turned off by the religious overtones these groups are famous for.
A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown: Another addiction memoir best suited for those later in recovery, A Piece of Cake tells the story of Cupcake Brown, who goes from a happy childhood to a world of abusive foster homes, drugs, gangs, and prostitution. What makes Brown unique is her journey from “trash-can addict” to law student. The first three-quarters of the memoir concentrate on Brown’s life as an addict, but the last quarter is solely about her journey to become a better person. Unlike Hornbacher, Brown does not suffer from a dual diagnosis, so her story may be more universally appealing to addicts, although it should not be read in early recovery due to some ‘triggering’ material.
Novels by Michael Palmer: Palmer is a Massachusetts native and a writer of medical thrillers. What makes him unique among the masses who make their living from writing in this genre is Palmer is a recovering addict. Although issues of recovery do not play heavily into his books, I have found that people in recovery are interested in reading his books because they are entertaining, easy to digest, and show that addicts can overcome their difficulties and become highly successful and functioning members of society. Those in 12 Step programs may also get a kick out of seeing “Dr. Bob”, the founder of AA, in the acknowledgements in all of his books.
Although these books are regularly read by addicts and seem to be encouraging for them, exposing addicts to any literature early in their recovery can be beneficial. Find out what the addict in your life is interested in and find books about the subject and authors who write about it. Some popular, entertaining, mindless novels can be just as beneficial as high-minded addiction specific works. Merely transferring energy an addict would normally spend on their addiction to a new hobby or interest can be enormously positive in any stage of recovery. Self-help, philosophy, and addiction memoir don’t have to make up the bulk of what changes an addict’s life – it might be Stephen King (who has also suffered with addiction), Jodi Picoult, or Mother Theresa. When the time is right, introduce a friend or loved one who is suffering with addiction to your favorite book. Start your own book club. Distraction can be a wonderful thing, and a distraction that has the added benefit of educating can be even more life-changing.
Anne O’Toole-Bolthrunis is the current editor of the CLTL Blog and a graduate student in the Professional Writing Program at UMass Dartmouth. She enjoys reading, writing memoirs, being a connoisseur of music, and, of course, Facebook. She can be reached for comment here.