The other night I went to an addiction book panel at the NYU Bookstore moderated and hosted by Susan Shapiro, the co-author of "Unhooked: How to Quit Anything." She gathered some amazing panelists, like Maer Roshan, founder of the website The Fix, about all things addiction-related and Koren Zailckas, author of one of my favorite memoirs, "Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood."
At first, as the panelists told of battling their addictions, I found myself thinking, Poor her! (The one with the food addiction, and bipolar to boot!) Poor him! (Couldn't stop partying, night after night, until he turned himself into a shaky mess.)
Thank God I never had to battle any life-threatening, character-assassinating addictions. Thank God I was spared the skin-crawling moments of despair, the humiliation, the tabloid-worthy bad behavior.
But then the literary agent spoke. When Susan Shapiro asked him why he was drawn to addiction memoirs, he got this sparkle in his eye as he tried to explain the magic of these books. Let's face it, he said (and I'm paraphrasing) -- these stories sell. Nods all around. By these stories, he didn't mean stories of falling into the gutter and never getting up. He meant the superhuman ones -- the stories of transformation, where people fall into the gutter and then pick themselves up, only to start websites, write novels, and do other enviable things.
At that point, my pity started to morph into other kinds of emotions ...
Envy: I started thinking these writers were like certain girls in high school -- the edgy, risky girls. The girls who did things I'd never do and had experiences I'd never have. If only I'd had the guts. These were the lucky ones who were able to quit. And then, when they weren't allowed to do the drugs, the drinking -- whatever edgy addiction -- anymore, they could relive the highs and lows indefinitely by writing about them. So I couldn't even pity them for having to quit. Instead, I envied them their material.
And then, envy morphed into:
Resentment: It always goes back to the addict, the one who screams ME ME ME the loudest.
Then came the:
Defensiveness: A little voice inside me was also thinking about something my mother would say to me when I was growing up: "You just don't have the personality for it." This was meant to reassure me that I would never be an alcoholic or an addict of any kind, but it had the opposite effect: it made me feel defensive, like, "Oh yeah? I'll show you."
And finally, the:
Regret: I never did show her, though.
Being the daughter, lover, sister of an addict is like always coming in second place. You're never the center of attention because the addict is screaming out for help and your problems just aren't as flashy. I'm sorry, but they aren't.
When that literary agent looked at us in the audience and explained that these memoirs were sexy, I flinched, as if he had just said, "You'll never be sexy."
Then Susan Shapiro explained how she went on to write eight books after she gave up her addictions.
Envy again: I found myself longing for something to give up. Coffee? Maybe I could give up coffee.
I know there's something pathetic about envying an addict, but when you really think about it, if you hit rock bottom, then you can have the big transformation, the ah-ha moment of clarity. And you get people cheering you on.
Where's my cheering squad and support system? Where's my memoir? Where's my exciting life? These were all the ugly thoughts swirling through my mind as I sat, outwardly calm, listening to the panelists.
One by one, they told how hard it was to write a memoir. They spoke about the heavy costs: family members alienated, embarrassment about their older kids Googling them and finding out things they preferred to keep hidden, the wish to take back what was written.
And then the literary agent said something else. Recently, he'd gotten a brilliant manuscript, a memoir by a young woman, full of glittering prose and crazy exploits. Such promise! But then, after page 100, he realized the story stayed the same. There was no transformation. No fall and redemption. Just freefall. He said there were many addiction memoirs he rejected.
I bathed in my envy, my resentment, and my regret, but then by the end of the night, I decided to leave it all at the bookstore.
Leah Odze Epstein is a writer and co-founder of the Drinking Diaries. She is currently working on a young adult novel about a character who is the daughter of an alcoholic. She has reviewed books for BookPage and Publisher's Weekly, among other publications. She also writes poetry, and her poems can be found on the website Literary Mama.