1 April 2021

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison

I've had this book sitting on my shelf for about a year and recently decided to read it after listening to Dax Shepard talk about his relapse. Shepard was very publicly sober for 16 years and recently relapsed after an ATV accident. The podcast is titled "Day 7" and I had been saving it for a few days so I could listen while out on a walk. He tells his addiction story very plainly and I found the episode very moving. Even if you find Shepard obnoxious (which is common), I'd still recommend you check it out if you're interested in addiction/sobriety.

Originally I thought this book was going to be a collection of essays and short stories by multiple authors. I was completely wrong and I don't know how I thought that in the first place. The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath is all written by Leslie Jamison and completely through her point of her. It is also 100% non-fiction. I had never heard of Jamison before reading this book and she was a good reminder of how many talented writers are out there that don't become well-known names. 

While Jamison's book is completely her own, she does reference tons of other writing on alcoholism and drug addiction. There are points where she also acts as a biographer for well known names in Alcoholics Anonymous - specifically its founder Bill Wilson. I found this particularly interesting because I have always enjoyed learning about AA but had no knowledge of Bill W. It addressed how the "spirituality" of the program started, and Bill's interest in acid. 

No matter how long you sit in the car, somebody is waiting in that wooden building. Maybe he will tell you through his silver moustache, your disease is patient, but so are we. Maybe he will look like a farmer, or an ad exec with a sharply creased suit; or maybe she'll look like the annoying sorority girl who lives down the block, or a tired supermarket clerk with bitten fingernails. Maybe he's just another old-timer you confuse with all the other old-timers, except for the moment when he opens his mouth and says something that gets you absolutely right."

Leslie Jamison

At first I found the book a bit of slog. I wasn't that compelled by Jamison's "story," but as I read on that almost became the point. She stresses how the addict's story is one that happens over and over again, for hundreds of years and all over the world:

But the accusation of sameness, just another addiction memoir, gets turned on its head by recovery - where a story's sameness is precisely why it should be told. Your story is only useful because others have lived it and will live it again." 

I suspect the reason I find AA so compelling is that I really respond to some of the lines they're always saying. Shepard talks on his podcast about your addiction "doing pushups" while you're in recovery ... always getting stronger and waiting for you to take a drink. I love the idea of only focusing on today, and not thinking about the endless days ahead of you (something I wish I was better at). As I get older I am especially fond of pushing against being "unique." So many of our experiences have been shared, and I find that very comforting at 29.

The idea of being 'too smart for AA' immediately resonated with the part of me that sometimes found its truisms too reductive or its narratives too simple. But I was also aware that being 'too smart for AA' could become its own siren call to the ego: considering yourself the exception to the common story, exempt from every aphorism - with a consciousness too complicated to have much in common with anyone else." 

Jamison's drinking starts in her early twenties and gets worse as she moves through university and graduate school. It takes a massive toll on her relationship with her boyfriend and she covers that a lot in detail. It wasn't until I got halfway through the book that it really started to click for me and I read the last half in long stretches of time (it's 554 pages). I found myself not caring about her time drinking, but engrossed in her time in recovery.

I loved how often she references other writing on addiction. She talks about popular memoirs of addicts, and writing from as early as the 1900s. Jamison also reads Infinite Jest and talks about how moving she found the sections at the halfway house run by Don Gately. 

At one point Jamison restructures a famous Joan Didion quote:

Recovery reminded me that storytelling was ultimately about community, not self-deception. Recovery didn't say: We tell ourselves stories in order to live. It said: We tell others our stories in order to help them live, too."

If you know anyone in your life who has struggled with addiction, I would definitely recommend you check out this book. Or, if you're just like me and find it an interesting topic, then you should also read it. You won't be disappointed!

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