Archive for the ‘Addiction/Mental Illness’ Category.

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

Good Morning, Midnight is the disjointed story of a woman drinking too much in Paris.  We can’t say, and she probably can’t either, whether the misery in her life has caused the drinking or the other way around.  She seems to have been always lost, now found only through the alcohol.  It’s a lovingly accurate portrait of a disintegrating alcoholic, but I have trouble with stories written in this vague literary style.  The anal-compulsive in me likes to understand exactly what is happening now, what happened then, and in what order and why.  But then, life isn’t really like that, is it? It’s also hard to like the main character–not hard to sympathize, but hard to like. She’s a bundle of unhappy memories and fears with no redeeming hope or joy. This is intentional, no doubt, but it makes for a sad book.

Tweak by Nic Sheff

Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines is the counterpoint to Beautiful Boy. Tweak is by the addicted son; Beautiful Boy by the suffering father. I first read Beautiful Boy, which was also published first, with every intention of reading Tweak, but Beautiful Boy was a pretty depressing read. As I mentioned in my review of it, I’m accustomed to a “happy ever after” ending for mental illness and addiction books. Although I guess we always know that relapses are lurking in the shadows, you like to end on some kind of hopeful high note. Beautiful Boy ended with Nic in treatment but after so many relapses that neither his father nor the reader could believe he’d been through his last.

Tweak has no better picture to paint. In fact, although it ends where Beautiful Boy did, my edition contained two additional epilogues/afterwords chronicling two more (shorter, it sounds like) relapses. Since then, Nic has had a blog but when I went to check it out, I found the last post was one saying “Bye” because other things were consuming his time, which reads a bit like addict-speak for “I’m getting ready to relapse.”

Aside from my increasing frustration with Nic’s relapses, I enjoyed the book. His writing is a little too obviously casual, peppered with “like” and “you know.” It’s meant to sound like he’s really talking but it comes off as artificial over a space as long as that book is, but he’s honest and open and a good writer. I wish him luck.

Beautiful Boy by David Sheff

Stories of addiction are getting more honest. Once upon a time, they all ended with the uplifing recovery scene. Beautiful Boy cycles through a few uplifting recovery scenes but keeps dropping you back to the reality of addiction, i.e. relapse.

Perhaps more than anything, this is a good book for someone who doesn’t have kids or who hasn’t gone through tragedy with their kids to help them understand how parents feel when their kids are in this much need. Sheff illustrates his own pain very clearly.

Lately I’ve reconnected with some old friends on Facebook and have enjoyed reading old diaries and letters and re-living those debauched younger days. It seemed innocent enough at the time. Why does the man have to hassle you? Then I read Beautiful Boy and see why the man had to hassle us, and why it’s a good thing he did, and why I came out luckier than some.

A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill

A Drinking Life could have been more appropriately titled A Life. Since he starts from very early childhood, not all of it relates that much to drinking. It was moderately interesting from an autobiographical point of view, not much interesting at all from an addiction/recovery point of view. The recovery takes about a paragraph. He decides to stop drinking and he does. And although I’m not saying his drinking was healthy, it didn’t top the charts for unhealthy behavior either. I’ve seen and read worse.

I’d never heard of this guy, frankly. Perhaps I’d have been more interested in his life and how he developed a drinking problem if I had. Plus, the attempts to explain how he developed a drinking problem ring hollow to me. He saw people drink. Drinking was associated with celebration. Drinking made him feel confident and got him laid. I mean, who doesn’t have those experiences? There must be more to it than that.

Dry by Augusten Burroughs

Dry is another recovery story. This one starts from recovery instead of starting at birth and quitting at recovery. Backstory is filled in as you go along (sounds like this guy has lived a chaotic life) but the book focuses on the recovery itself. It’s nice to see that people can have interesting times without being drunk, since it seems like most of these books tell one interesting (albiet frequently destructive) story after another until arriving at the moment where they got all better and, apparently, stopped doing anything worth writing about.

But then he does relapse, so perhaps that explains it. All that good non-drinking stuff was leading up to the moment when he started drinking again. Then he quits again and the story is over. Hmmm. A definite start-from-the-end story is A Million Little Pieces, but it’s not as clear that that one is actually true.

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

I loved A Million Little Pieces but I didn’t read it on recommendation. I picked it up at Borders and read a few paragraphs here and there, what I used to do before Amazon, and bought it based on liking those paragraphs. So it’s not such a surprise that I liked it. People who bought it based on recommendations are a little more split on the issue. Some loved it, as they’d been told they would. Others were pissed off.

I found it compelling. Yes, the refusal to follow modern literary conventions was distracting at best and pretentious at worst. But it’s a long book and you learn to ignore the odd formatting and the needlessly capitalized nouns, the same way you do when reading Dickens or Trolloppe.

The choppy sentences, sentence fragments, and repetitions I was OK with. They mirrored the way his brain was working at the time. It’s true that entire themes and paragraphs get repeated at times and that those parts do get a little boring, but even that is understandable. I’m sure a person going through rehab does keep returning to the same themes over and over.

But I have to agree with the people who don’t believe it’s non-fiction. It’s fictionalized non-fiction at the least. Some of the fictionalizations aren’t too egregious. Like his avoidance of his own eyes leading up to the final stunning look as he rejects alcohol for the first time after rehab – a little overdone but “deep” and harmless. That’s poetic license. I can understand.

But other stuff – his heroic rescue of Lilly, the secret “angels” who make all his real world problems tidily disappear, the gold-hearted mobster who adopts him – it’s all a bit too Hollywood. A nice climax. Everyone buys into his way of thinking: you were right all along, James. He gets sent on his way. The hero, the renegade, the one who’s going to make it on his own. It’s not believable and it’s not even well-written. Frey does a much better job with misery and pain than he does with tender reconciliations and happy endings.

But the thing that bugged me most about this book is that we didn’t get to hear the story behind the guy with no arms. Now, if the book isn’t real at all, he would have made up a good no-armed man story, right? I wish he had.

I loved the book, complaints aside. I started reading it as soon as I got it home from the store and didn’t stop, if I didn’t have to, until I was done. So I’m recommending it, but take it with a grain of salt.

P.S. If you do prefer Hollywood happy endings, you might not want to read the last page that tells you where everybody is now.

Fat Girl and Wasted – two books on eating disorders

The irony is that Fat Girl made me hungry and Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia made me feel ashamed to eat

Judith Moore’s unhealthy relationship with food is so lovingly recounted that it can’t help but make you crave the very foods that made her fat. “I’d like some of that,” you think, as she stuffs herself in misery, somewhat missing the point which is not the food but the misery.

I’ve never been severely overweight. I was looking for a book to help me understand how it feels, but this book concentrates more on why and how she developed a weight problem, rather than on what it’s like to live with one, although you do get snippets of that.

So Moore had an unhappy childhood. It’s a pretty sad story, but you can’t be sure that it contributes as much to her weight problem as she thinks it does. She eats a lot during the few periods when she’s happy too. She also has an obese father, which is just as likely to be the culprit in my opinion. Both genetics and the culture of eating to excess are passed down.

Marya Hornbacher doesn’t do any better a job explaining how exactly she came to develop bulimia. It started so early for her, it seems like she can barely remember a time before it. As though bulimia just happened. The transition from bulimia to anoxeria is far more clear because it was intentional. She saw anorexia as a higher plane.

She does such a good job explaining her thought processes that you almost buy into them. I’d feel ashamed about the cookies I was munching as I read about the cookies she refused to munch. I had the strangest feeling that she was right and I was wrong. Of course, it’s the middle ground that’s right: eat, but you don’t need so many cookies. That middle ground is hard to achieve, as both writers have shown.

How do you stop obessing about your weight without allowing it to get out of control. And even then, they don’t stop obsessing. Both Marya at the bottom of the scale and Judith at the top spend way too much time thinking about what they’re eating and how much they weigh.

And here I am in the middle and I do too sometimes. To stick in the middle you have to keep flirting with both ends. Sometimes I yell at myself for being fat and lazy and having a cookie, like Marya, and other times I comfort myself with food and reassure myself that eating is human nature and I can diet later like Judith. Sometimes I look at my butt and worry about the way it sags even though I’m at my target weight and sometimes I congratulate myself with a cookie for losing two pounds when there’s a lot more to go. So I’ve seen it both ways, though certainly not so extremely.

Both interesting books, both well written, and a good combo read.

Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood by Koren Zailckas

Smashed got a bit dull. While your own drunken exploits are always pretty entertaining, other people’s are less so. Koren started drinking young, for sure, and continued drinking so steadily it’s hard to imagine how she made it to adulthood in one piece (and with her virginity in tact until mid-college). It’s just not that interesting to read after a while. There she is, drunk again. Frankly, I think a lot of people have had more interesting adventures while drunk than she did.

Although she quits drinking in the end, she never does admit to alcoholism. She just drank too much. Which is different. Somehow. So the book doesn’t even serve as a good introspective look into how an alcoholic develops. It’s nothing more than the story of a safe and spoiled girl from a well off family who carries on binge drinking beyond her college years.

A Bright Red Scream: Self-Mutilation and the Language of Pain by Marilee Strong

A Bright Red Scream is a good overview of the topic of self-mutiliation but a little too text-booky for enjoyable rubber necking. I was hoping for a more intimate view of the actual people – how they got started down this path and whether or not they’re able to recover – and for less technical information.

The author does use real people as examples but she tends to summarize their stories, not to follow them in detail. There are several chapters which cover related physcological disorders, discussing similarities and common treatments, that barely touch on the subject of self-mutiliation at all.

As an outsider, I didn’t find this book to be a particularly interesting read or a good introduction the subject. It might be a good review for a friend or family member who wants to dive deeper into the topic.