While non-fiction books can be intellectually enriching and even emotionally compelling, fiction has a special way of making us feel connected. The brain makes sense of things through story. It is one of the reasons people are generally more drawn to fiction of all kinds. It is why we watch movies and TV shows when we want to be entertained or experience different sensibilities.
If you are struggling with substance abuse or currently recovering from substance abuse, it can often feel overwhelming. Even hearing other people’s experiences, whether that be through support groups or reading memoirs, can sometimes feel just as overwhelming. We find it difficult to make peace with pain that exists outside of a contained narrative.
That is where fiction comes in. Fiction contains painful experiences into something we can more easily accept and understand. It is often the case that we start off reading a work of fiction for enjoyment, and gain unexpected wisdom and perspective by the end of it.
The following are some fictional books about substance use and addiction you can turn to the next time you are feeling lonely, curious, or stuck in your own head.
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
The basis of Danny Boyle’s hit film of the same name, Trainspotting is a collection of interconnected short stories narrating the lives of a group of Scottish friends bonded, in part, by their shared heroin addiction. The book explores the seedy underbelly of Scotland, full of drugs, prostitutes, theft, and violence. Characters try again and again to get clean as they watch those around them die off one by one, testing the limits of their various relationships. Though graphic and dark, Trainspotting is also funny and wild and uniquely its own. Once you get used to reading in the Scottish dialect, you will be hooked.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Though technically considered a young adult book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is just as appropriate — if not more so — for adult readers. It tells the story of Junior (real name Arnold), a 14-year-old Spokane Indian living on a reservation. Born with brain damage due to alcoholic parents, Junior navigates all the bullying, poverty, abuse, and rampant alcoholism happening in his community. The story demonstrates the connection between alcoholism and issues such as cultural oppression and economic inequality: “‘There are all kinds of addicts, I guess,’ he says. ‘We all have pain. And we all look for ways to make the pain go away.’”
Cruddy by Lynda Barry
Cruddy is dark, graphic, brutal, sad, and strange. If that description fails to sell you, maybe the assurance that Lynda Barry can pull all those things off with humor and poignancy will. The story chronicles the 24 hours following a teenage girl named Roberta after she gets grounded for dropping LSD and ditching school. The narrative parallels another narrative of the time, years prior, when Roberta was kidnapped by her murderous father and brought along on a gruesome road trip. Emotionally raw and steeped in alcohol-and-drug-fuelled horror, this book will, if nothing else, make your life feel calm and safe in comparison.
Junky by William S. Burroughs
Junky was William S. Burrough’s first novel, published under the pseudonym “William Lee” with the subtitle “Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict.” Unlike books about addicts finding redemption, or books highlighting the drama and “glamor” of substance use and addiction, Junky is about the bleak, everyday lives of heroin addicts and alcoholics. The characters drift from place to place, searching for their next fix, addiction simply their way of life. It reads almost like a passive defense of the junkie lifestyle, if it were not so clear that the way of the junky is lonely, desperate, and ultimately empty.
The Shining by Stephen King
For more of an unconventional take on the devastating force of alcoholism, Stephen King’s The Shining is a classic tale of horror. When Jack Torrance, an ex-alcoholic, gets a job as the off-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, he intends to use the winter there as an opportunity to spend quality time with his family and get some writing done, without the temptations of alcohol behind the empty hotel bar. But things start to take a supernatural turn, and before long Jack is drinking again. There is a lesson in the story somewhere about the vigilance required to prevent relapse, given more weight by the fact that King himself has struggled with substance abuse. (For fans of The Shining, there is a sequel out now called Doctor Sleep.)
Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr.
Requiem for a Dream is relentlessly dark. The story follows the course of four interconnected as they become destroyed by addiction. There is the woman who becomes addicted to prescription diet pills, her addict son, his addict friend/dealer, and his addict-turned-prostitute girlfriend. It can be painful to read at times as the characters’ respective hopes and dreams are slowly killed by the force their addictions, but it is the type of pain that makes you remember how to truly feel and sympathize.
Reading is a great way to better understand your experiences with addiction and make emotional connections. There is a book out there for whatever you are in the mood for. Use this list to jumpstart your reading, then feel free to make your own.