Rock Bottom Writing

One of the things I asked the father of my son, during the conversation where I told him I was pregnant and he told me, “I’m sure you’ll be an excellent mom and I wish you the best,” was about his family’s medical history. It seemed like a good time to find out if he’d be passing on any genetic tendencies toward cancer or diabetes or what have you, since I was pretty sure this would be the last time I spoke to him.

“Nope. Everyone is pretty long-lived and healthy,” he said, and I breathed a sigh of relief.


There’s always an except.

“We do have a family history of alcoholism.”

Well, shit.

I’m pretty sure I sagged in my seat on the sidewalk bench and groaned. All I could think in the direction of my still-relatively flat stomach was, You poor kid.

Double whammy.

Like my son’s father, I have a family tree with a distressing tendency toward addiction. My dad went into rehab when I was seventeen, an experience rather more terrifying than reassuring at first, as he was hospitalized for convulsions from the cherry of Xanax withdrawal on his booze sundae.

Since then, I have called a friend’s parents for her when she finally admitted she needed help. I have watched other family members get sober who I didn’t even know had drinking problems. I have been unable to do anything other than stand by as other friends spiraled down, never quite getting rock bottom enough to reach for help. I’ve tried to help friends deal with the gaslighting and manipulation that relationships with addicts often involve.

Experience is a practical instructor, in the end.

Nothing Like Paris came out last week, and in it one of the heroes has an alcoholic parent. Writing about that was strange. Like all of my stories, there is plenty of me in it, while at the same time it’s not about me at all. By the time I’ve written about something so intimate, it doesn’t resemble my own experience much, although details belong to my story and Jack’s, both. The anger and helplessness. The shame and the front you put on to mask it. The way the awfulness becomes ordinary over time, just part of a routine. The awkwardness of walking into meetings full of people with whom you are supposed to have so much in common but who still mostly feel like strangers ready to judge your story.

Writing is how I figure out what I think, what I feel. But one story, one set of events, is never enough to explore all of the many mirrored shards of a broken experience.

I watched a Russell Brand stand-up show the other night and, as he often does, Brand talked about addiction. He was invited to speak on the subject to Parliament, actually. He tells a hilarious story about get dressed in the kookiest of clothes, expecting one of his friends to stop him, saying, “You can’t go talk to Parliament dressed like that!” But no one did, so he showed up in an outfit that had Noel Gallagher of Oasis calling him while he testified, to leave a voicemail asking, “Why are you in the House of Parliament dressed like the WWE wrestler, The Undertaker?”

Brand’s point was simple though. “Addiction is a disease, not a crime.”

There a countless kinds of addictions. I write a little bit about one of them in Nothing Like Paris. Looking back on that book now, with the distance of some months, I see that I handled the subject with some damn fine kid gloves. It’s a key part of the story, but I keep most of the worst of Jack’s experiences offstage, focusing on his efforts to work on the person being the child of an alcoholic has made him. Because that’s almost always a little warped when it comes to how our brains work. The behavior and thinking patterns of alcoholics don’t go away when an alcoholic stops drinking, not without a helluva lot of work. And those same patterns are very easy to pass on to those closest to the alcoholic, spouses, kids, parents.

I can see that I wanted to write about alcoholism. And that I made a decent start with NOTHING LIKE PARIS. I can also see that I’m not remotely done with the subject. But I’m a little scared of the book that will take me deeper into a story I think I’m not yet ready to tell.

In the meantime, I’ll talk about addiction with my kid. I’ll prepare him for the fact that his brain and his body’s chemistry will likely not react to drink or drugs the same way as others he will know. I’ll share my own stories late at night with friends or people I’ve just met, often over drinks, ironically enough. And I’ll write about addiction again. And again, probably. And eventually, I’ll find enough words to be done with it. Maybe.

NLP cover vertical 300pFor buy links and excerpts and people saying really lovely things about it, check out NOTHING LIKE PARIS on my website.

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11 Responses to Rock Bottom Writing

  1. Pingback: “Rock Bottom Writing” ~ Wonkomance | Amy Jo Cousins

  2. Cara McKenna says:

    Beautiful, candid post, AJ. And you know I’ll be all over that book.

    • Thanks, lady! I was just rec’ing you on Twitter to someone else who was talking about good representations of addiction in romance. I loved your portrayal in Unbound of an alcoholic who doesn’t drink, but hasn’t gotten sober. That was such a great character & rang so true to me.

  3. Elinor Aspen says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Three of my grandparents were alcoholics, and my parents were deeply impacted by that fact. They have both worked to avoid succumbing to the family curse, as have I, but all three of us have siblings who made different choices and hit rock bottom.

    • It’s an incredibly hard thing to manage. It’s very easy to think, “I’ll be fine. I’ll watch myself. I won’t be like that.” But for some people, there is no chance to “watch yourself.” Your brain goes from 0 to 60 on the addiction meter the very first time you drink/get high. And all anyone else can do is let them know that when they want help. it’ll be waiting. But dealing with all the enabling demands can be equally exhausting. Thank you for commenting, and my heartfelt good wishes for your family.

  4. keller anne says:

    YES! Both of my parents were alcoholics. I have thankfully never had a problem with that but I was addicted to smoking. Quitting at age 25 was excruciating because of the mental aspects. I have talked to my kids about this for years just in case they have that gene. It’s sneaky. You’re snagged before you realize it.
    Really brave of you to focus on it. And I think the aspects you showed will help those who read your book. We are always wanting to know that we are not alone and not totally broken.

    • “We are always wanting to know that we are not alone and not totally broken.” Perfect words.

      And yes, I think talking early and often with kids helps. There’s no magic wand, but knowing that they’re going to see other people doing things that will be highly unlikely to work out the same way for them is good information to have.

      Thanks, lady.

  5. Kasey Lane says:

    Thank you for such an honest post. Addiction/alcoholism is an insidious beast that I, sadly, have seen ravage many families. Thankfully, I’ve also seen a lot of recovery…not just sobriety, but the light return to people’s eyes and meaning come back into their lives. As a romance reader and woman in recovery (10 yrs this past Monday), I’m always interested in reading stories where the topic of addiction is woven into the plot and I look forward to digging into “Nothing Like Paris.” And as a romance writer, I tend to include similar themes in my books…only usually from a main character’s POV. As a mother, I worry about passing on my less than favorable genetic tendencies to my children. I think even being aware that the problem is more complex than just drinking or not drinking puts you ahead.

    Again, thanks for the post!

    • I definitely agree. I’m a “the more information, the better” kind of mom, and this is a subject I’ll be talking about more and more with my son as he grows up. Congrats on your 10 years! That’s fantastic. And thanks so much for commenting. I think the more we can all talk about addiction, the less hidden in the shadows it all is. And maybe the more help can be given.

  6. Lotta says:

    Thank you for this post. Addiction in your family (in my case a sibling) does leave a big mark on/in your life. I know, when starting to write this reply, I thought “well, it wasn’t so bad, for me.” But it wasn’t good. And it’s still a cause of worry. I think I tend to downplay it, a lot, probably as a way of coping.

    • I totally get that feeling, the urge to downplay it. For me, that often comes from knowing so many people whose stories are far worse than mine. I’ve often felt like I had no real right to complain, because my dad was the kind of alcoholic who did his drinking away from home, coming home to go to bed and pass out. The first time I went an Ala-Teen meeting, I told my mom I didn’t want to go back, because how was I supposed to talk to these kids, who were getting thrown out of the house or punched and kicked, when my problems were non-existent in comparison? But everything counts. Everything’s hard. And nobody close to an alcoholic gets away without damage. Thanks for commenting. :)