Writing About Addiction: It Often Takes Two Perspectives

writing about addiction

Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page, now available as an ebook. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Learn more about getting a first-page critique.


First Page

CHAPTER 1: XANAX 2011

“KEVIN!”

My husband, Kevin had never denied me anything. And Sunday October 9th, 2011 was no different. Six months earlier, he had given me his kidney. That morning, all I needed were my pills.

All 97 pounds of me quivered in bed with one objective. Kevin has to pick up my Xanax. I could hear him walking in and out of the house, packing up our one car with his tripod, lights, and zipping up the pockets of his camera bag. He had to be in Orange County by noon to work a wedding. Plenty of time to get my pills, come home, and go to work. Dragging my shaking hands through my hair, I glanced at the alarm clock. 10:07 am. Why was he dawdling? Why was he not at Rite Aid by 9:59 am as the pharmacy’s steel door rolled up offering its medicinal charms to the world? He was such an ass.

I was not sick, but dopesick. A bag of bones wracked no longer with the nausea associated with renal failure, but straight up addiction. My legs twitched under the sheets, knowing my prescription was ready and waiting. I rubbed at my eyes with agitated fingers, aimless fingers that had no purpose unless they were plucking pills from the bottom of their plastic home.

Kevin and I had gone to the pharmacy the day before. I had been told it was “too soon” to pick up my prescription—the dreaded phrase sinks the hungry heart of every pharmaceutical whore. I had thrown myself across the counter angling my scrawny frame towards the pharmacist. Trying to explain why it would be just fine to give. me. my. pills.


First-Page Critique

Writing about addiction is tricky business. While most stories have a single protagonist, addiction narratives are usually about two people: the addict deep in the throes of their addiction, and the recovered narrator looking back objectively on the experience. In that sense, addiction narratives are schizophrenic, offering two perspectives—one reliable, one unreliable—opposing and informing each other. How those two perspectives are apportioned determines the nature of the result.

From its capitalized one-word opener (“KEVIN!”), this first page of a memoir about a woman’s addiction to Xanax put us firmly in the mind of an addict so obsessed with her next fix (“my pills”) she can think of nothing else. Owing strictly to his failure to drive to the local Rite Aid “by 9:59 a.m., as the pharmacy’s steel door roll[s] up offering its medicinal charms,” the same husband she shouts for—the one who, six months earlier, “gave [her] his kidney”—is now “an ass.”

Does the narrator see the irony and injustice in this? If so, she doesn’t let on, not to us readers. She is—at best—unreliable.

Though this opening has us in unreliable territory, it does so retrospectively, in the past tense, with its narrator looking back across so many years. Whether or not we gain any, hindsight almost always gives us some perspective on events. For this reason we expect a past tense narrator to not merely tell us a story, but to shed some light on it.

If, on the other hand, the author’s purpose is to describe addiction subjectively, from within the experience, the present tense would be more fitting. With the present tense, we’re locked with the narrator into the moment, able to see only as far and as clearly as she sees, with as little objectivity, and no reflection. That’s the technique James Frey uses to launch his addiction memoir (novel?):

I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut. I open them and I look around and I’m in the back of a plane and there’s no one near me. I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood. I reach for the call button and I find it and I push it and I wait and thirty seconds later an Attendant arrives.

How far we’ve come from the diffident opening of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, the original addiction memoir:

I here present you, courteous reader, with the record of a remarkable period in my life: according to my application of it, I trust that it will prove not merely an interesting record, but in a considerable degree useful and instructive. In that hope it is that I have drawn it up; and that must be my apology for breaking through that delicate and honourable reserve which, for the most part, restrains us from the public exposure of our own errors and infirmities.

Which isn’t to say that the past tense can’t convey an addicted psyche. In Pill Head, his memoir of addiction to prescription painkillers, Joshua Lyon uses it to superb effect:

I was feeling no pain.

I cared about nothing but this.

It wasn’t just an absence of pain. It was warm waves pulsating through my muscle and skin. Breathing was hard, my chest felt weighted down by my own ribcage but I didn’t panic because it’s impossible to feel anxiety about anything when every inch of your body is having a constant low-grade orgasm.

I don’t know how long I lay there on my bed, watching the blades of my ceiling fan slowly turn, lazily spinning tufts of dust before they floated down through the air around me like so much gray snow. Through half-lidded eyes I watched Ollie, my cat, go ape-shit chasing the dust puffs, and it took every ounce of strength to turn my head toward the other side of the bed. …

While it painstakingly recreates his experience (“warm waves pulsating through my muscles and skin”), this opening also objectively reflects on the narrator’s experience (“I cared about nothing but this”). We’re aware of his wish to describe that experience as precisely as possible—down to admitting when he can’t be precise (“I don’t know how long I lay there”). Here the presence of what Philip Lopate calls “the intelligent narrator”—the narrator who has not only lived to tell his tale, but to tell it accurately—is everywhere in evidence.

With the first page in question, on the other hand, we wonder how much we should trust the narrator, or if we can trust her at all. She doesn’t lie. But though she is looking back at her experiences over time, she offers no perspective, no reflection, nothing to suggest a survivor’s hard-won grasp of her experiences. Unless leavened by the sort of insights that only come with reflection, memories and memoirs boil down to anecdote. We get experiences vividly rendered—but, with no perspective to go with them, aside from the vicarious thrills, why should we care? A memoir with no reflection is sex without love, wine without the glass.

Maybe the reflections come later, on the next page. But why not have the intelligent narrator there from the start? I’d do that or lock us into her addictive psyche in a present tense prologue, one that raises the two most pertinent questions: (1) How did the narrator get here? and (2) How will she get out? Then, switching to the reflective past tense, answer them. Either strategy beats having the narrator looking back on the past without perspective.

Otherwise this well-written first page suffers from impatience, with the author trying to do too much at once. It can be whittled down.

Here, whittled, as present tense prologue (minus those hectoring ALL-CAPS):

“Kevin!”

Six months ago my husband gave me his left kidney. This morning all I want are my pills.

“Kevin!” all ninety-seven pounds of me shouts from my bed.

Your First Page SelginFootsteps pad across the kitchen, a screen door slams. I hear the Honda trunk open, zippers zipping, picture Kevin packing his camera, tripod and lights. My bones twitch under the sheets. My hands shake. My aimless fingers quiver as they pluck absent pills from the bottom of an empty plastic vial. I look at my dresser clock. 10:07. My Xanax is ready and waiting at Rite Aid. Why the hell is he dawdling?

“Kevin!”

More foot treads, more zippers, more doors slamming …

I think: you are such an ass.


Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)

Posted in First Page Critiques.
Peter Selgin

Peter Selgin

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2008). He has published a novel, Life Goes To the Movies (Dzanc, 2009), three books on the craft of fiction writing (Writer's Digest), and a children’s picture book, S.S. Gigantic Across the Atlantic (Simon & Schuster). His first essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man (University of Iowa, 2012), was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. A novel-in-manuscript, “The Water Master,” won the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for Best Novel. His memoir, The Inventors (Hawthorne Books), which won the Housatonic Book Award, was among Library Journal’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2016. He is Associate Professor of English at Georgia College & State University. Find out more at his website.

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Maria D'MarcoDeb AtwoodMarian McCarthyMary McFarland Recent comment authors

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Mary McFarland

I love these first-page critiques. I read them all the time because if there’s one thing that creates agony for me as a writer, it’s getting my first page down. I’ve read what feels like billions of first pages, too, so when I critique (constructively) for my critique partners, I try to give a gut-level first impression. I agree with you: writing about addiction is extremely tricky business (I’m doing it, and I’ve received some validation for my efforts–tooting my own horn here). For this first page, my gut level reaction was tone and voice. Tone and voice do not… Read more »

Marian McCarthy
Marian McCarthy

Such a thoughtful assessment of the voice in the addiction memoir.
So many first chapter assessments are too simple, giving the writer no example of an alternative approach. In critique groups, writers often only get gut reactions: “just didn’t grab my attention” or “fantastic!”
Your analysis of the perspective and your examples are true object lessons for the writer. Thank you!

Deb Atwood

I so agree. I love the revision you did of this first page. You pared it down to its essence, which gives this opening to punch it needed. Very enlightening discussion of narrators and reflection as well. Thank you again for this insightful column.

Maria D'Marco

As someone who has lived with a spouse addicted to legally prescribed pain drugs, the last paragraph of this first page is something I experienced repeatedly. I saw the disgusted faces of the pharmacists, their judgment obvious, their bored responses, the rolling eyes… The stunning lack of compassion from anyone who witnessed my spouse’s addiction, even the prescribing physician, was heartbreaking. This first page needs some work, but I value the writer’s attempt to show the various elements that truly mark the life of an addict, especially a pain killer addict. The desperation that exists each day, every day. This… Read more »