People have been writing about addiction for centuries. But whether it's Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) or Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries (1978), substance abuse always seemed to somehow be romanticized. Now however, with America being devastated by the opioid crisis, folks seem much less inclined to romanticize addiction.
That hasn't prevented people from writing about the problem though. And it hasn't stopped folks from facing the issue head-on. If anything, it's created almost a cottage industry. Especially if you include the numerous movies and TV shows that either spring from some form of addiction literature or include substance abuse in their narrative.
Three new and recent books on addiction stand out. One's from an ace reporter. Another's from a distinguished mental health professional. And a third is from an Iraq War veteran and convicted bank robber. To paraphrase A.A.'s "How It Works," the stories disclose in a literal way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. They also recommend what needs to happen if we're ever going to free ourselves and our country from the grip of addiction.
So without further ado...
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says ace reporter Beth Macy's Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America (Little Brown $14.99) is a "ferocious piece of journalism distinguished by unyielding compassion." The New York Times Book Review calls it a "harrowing, deeply compassionate dispatch from the heart of a national emergency," as well as "a masterwork of narrative journalism." While The Boston Globe deems Macy's addiction story "an impressive feat of journalism, monumental in scope and urgent in its implications."
In other words, Dopesick is an addiction must-read. Macy's tale doesn't just cover the corporate greed and regulatory indifference that sparked the opioid crisis, but it also delves deep into the personal histories of folks who've fallen prey to the epidemic. Her reporting is spot-on, as indicated. Yet her empathy and compassion is profound. Consider Dopesick the opioid equivalent of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. With luck it'll also have as much impact as Sinclair's 1906 classic.
The Addiction Solution
Dr. Lloyd Sederer is a psychiatrist and the chief medical officer of the New York State Office of Mental Health. And The Addiction Solution (Scribner $26) is a passionate advocate for enlightened addiction treatment. It's also an equally impassioned critique of the continuing war on drugs and addicts.
Prohibition didn't work then, claims Sederer. It won't work now. Nixon's "War on Drugs" didn't work either. Neither did "Just Say No" or "Scared Straight" or any of the myriad other programs put forth by clueless politicians. And amping up law enforcement to deal with the opioid epidemic won't work either. The whole approach is "so dated and useless," he told US News.
Instead, Sederer insists it's time to find better tactics to fight this battle of addiction, and to apply those tactics across the board.
We need to "move to solutions that are built on understanding the complex relationship between a person's biology, psychology, social setting and the drug," said Sederer. Until then, "we'll be trapped in ineffective solutions."
We can't "just focus on one area, just give people medication, or just give people psychotherapy, or [just] help them with relapse prevention," he added. Yes, "each one of them helps. But each one of these interventions is additive to the other."
In other words, we need a more comprehensive and compassionate approach to addiction. We need to treat the disease rather than penalize or persecute the addict. We did it with TB. And we did it with HIV. There's no reason why we can't also do it with the disease of addiction.
Nico Walker's Cherry (Knopf $26.95) is "a breakneck-paced debut novel about love, war, bank robberies, and heroin." So says its publisher's page anyway. And we've no cause to doubt it one bit. Why? Because the likes of EW and Vulture have also praised the book. So have such literary brights as Donald Ray Pollock and Thomas McGuane. Not bad for a first-time novelist who's still sitting behind bars.
That's right. Walker's locked up. Currently serving the 9th of his 11-year sentence for bank robbery. Walker's also an Iraq War veteran. In fact, he was a U.S. Army medic. And before he started robbing banks he put over 200 combat missions under his belt.
Those combat missions took their toll.
"During his yearlong Army deployment, our flawed hero bears witness to near-daily horrors," writes Mother Jones, such as wading "through sewage canals to scrape bits of fellow soldiers out of bombed-out Humvees."
Things aren't much better back home. PTSD leaves Walker unable to function in polite society. He develops a heroin addiction. That eventually drives him to rob banks. And that, in turn, leads to the federal pen.
Cherry is what's called memoiristic fiction. That is, it's as much true as it is isn't. It may even be too true. Which is why it's filed under fiction to begin with.
By the Books
Walker's Cherry is a stunning addition to the addiction narrative. So are both Macy's Dopesick and Sederer's The Addiction Solution. And all three are recommended reading for any American who's seeking to get a grip on what's gripping us. Would it be a better world if we didn't need these books? You betcha. It'd be an even better world if people didn't need to write them. But this is where we are right now. And we at Recovery Boot Camp are grateful for the insight.