I’ve always been a sucker for a recovery memoir. Drinking: A Love Story still stays with me all these years later. Lit by Mary Karr simply lit up my life while I ingested its pages. But why? These are wretched stories of wrecked humans. Why did I love them so? Well there was the hard-won recovery. I used to wonder, even worry, why I liked these books so much. In addiction language they call this denial. I have always had a fair share of denial, and not just in regard to how many glasses of wine I consumed on a daily basis.
What the recovery memoir did for me, I had a hard time saying. Even before memoirs came into vogue, there was Eve Babitz’s amazing novel Sex and Rage, still on my bookshelf with a hardcover price of $8.95 and a bookplate proclaiming “From the library of Cynthia Jablonski.” (I have not been a Jablonski in over thirty years.) So my addiction to addiction stories goes way back. The copyright on Sex and Rage: Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time reads 1979.
Finally after decades of reading these stories, whether fictionalized or true, I started to recognize the main attraction: at least I wasn’t as bad as the authors. I couldn’t have a drinking problem. I knew what addiction looked like, I’d practically gotten a degree in the subject with all the first person accounts I read.
And yet…after staying up all hours to finish It’s So Easy: and other lies by Duff McKagan, I think I finally found the mirror I’ve been looking for all these years. Duff is an unlikely mentor. He’s at least ten years younger than I am, at his height of using he consumed a half gallon of vodka a day plus prodigious amounts of cocaine (enabling him to drink more) and downers (to let him sleep). I get physically ill if I try for a third martini.
Duff is also the former bass player of Guns ‘N Roses, who came into splashy rock stardom in his 20s when I was a 30-something mom of two. I wasn’t a huge fan of the band, but I watched MTV. I mean, what woman on earth would not be caught by Axl Rose’s gorgeous face? Their music? Background, pretty much. I preferred Stevie Nicks, who had addiction problems of her own, and idolized Janis Joplin, who had died of an overdose when I was in my teens.
Still, when Duff listed his musical influences, he named many of the same bands (Clash, Stooges, Stones) I had treasured since my teen years. Okay, Clash was a little later, but boy do I love Joe Strummer. And so does Duff. I identified in so many incidental ways. We’ve both been married three times, have strong connections to Seattle and Los Angeles, both of us became full time college students in our thirties. a non-traditional college student, like Duff. I found other things to like in Duff: he’s a fabulous storyteller and takes great literature and good writing skills seriously. I’m a writer and reader. Those are my two primary focuses and have been for as long as I can remember. The number of parallels in our two vastly different lives, as well as his riveting story, captivated me.
Reading addiction stories, even biographies and autobiographies of writers (another favorite genre) often contain an addiction subplot, helped me understand that I have an addictive personality. I’m addicted to the genre of addiction stories, for example. I get hooked hard on things very easily. That could be why these stories resonate so strongly for me. I’m lucky, because I really can’t do drugs. Just about every drug, prescription or illegal, either bores me, scares me, or makes me physically ill.
After years of reading recovery memoirs I realized there was something worse than reading I was addicted to–junk food. I just could not get off sugar. No matter how many times I lost that extra fifty pounds (btw 50 pounds was the amount of weight Duff gained during his addiction) I’d gain at least some of it back. Prescription diet pills twisted my stomach into knots and made me more anxious than I already was…which was about the time Xanax entered the picture. The only drug, prescription or not, my body seemed more than okay with for a long long time.
Anxiety, panic and phobias are another similarity between Duff and me. I could totally relate to him having to be trashed to board an airplane and his free-floating anxiety, multiple phobias, and full-on panic attacks reminded me of myself. My quite recent self. I recall telling a doctor who’d given me diet pills that if I took a Xanax with it, I didn’t get the twisty tummy. She gave me a lecture, saying that my mixing meds was not healthy. So I stopped taking diet pills and started back up with the junk food. I continued to use Xanax until it gradually became a daily habit, sanctioned by my doctor for sleeplessness, anxiety, panic, migraine, and stress.
Duff shares his own intense go-round with my favorite drug ever, and his story of kicking Xanax inspires me right now, today, as I am slowly coming off what I thought was a pretty high dose. Compared to Duff, my dose was half a baby aspirin.
That I combined wine and Xanax several times a week “concerned” my therapist, who I started seeing about six months ago for anxiety and depression. I told her I had never been seriously depressed and I thought Xanax (among other things) was feeding my depression. I wanted to get off it. Again. (Not my first time kicking.) We immediately halved my dosage of Xanax. Not a huge problem. Going from half to nothing has proven sticky, though, and I’m still trying. Could I be addicted to Xanax? What about wine? Was there something here, or maybe more than one thing, that needed addressing?
Next appointment, I took a deep breath and asked the hard questions, the ones I couldn’t even ask myself for so long. “So does “concerned” mean you think I have a substance abuse problem?” She was non-committal. “Not necessarily.” She said she was not an M.D. and didn’t feel comfortable making a medical diagnosis. Armed with years of addiction stories, knowing the jargon and the way the story always goes, I continued to prod. “Could I overdose? Is that why you said you were concerned?”
My habit consisted of 4 mg of Xanax and three large glasses of Chardonnay every other day with a few martini moments on special occasions. Like if it was Friday. Nothing at all by Duff standards. And yet..if a trained professional was concerned, I was, too. I’ve done a ton of work on myself through the years. I took up yoga and ditched meat. I meditate every day. I gave up sugar over a year ago. I wanted this therapist to help me cut my wine down to one glass (or two) and to help me get off Xanax as a daily habit.
Duff meditates. He eats clean. He calls food “fuel.” He also trained extensively in another form of Eastern body movement, more in intense style of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris than yoga will ever be, but still. He got the mind/body connection and learned, as I did, to find a safe, quiet place inside.
While Xanax helped me relax enough to get quiet inside, it eventually drained me of energy to the point of a mild but chronic depression. Drinking even the small amount I did gave me massive hangovers. My body had never liked what alcohol does to it. And it didn’t like pills much, either. Food, however, was the main culprit. Even after emergency surgery when an internal organ failed. Yet another thing Duff and I had in common. Duff’s explosion Duff’s was way worse than mine, but we are both lucky to be alive.
Back to my question to the therapist: Really? 4 mg of Xanax and 3 glasses of wine every other day might make me in danger of an OD? It’s possible, my therapist said, or, under the influence of that much, you might take more by mistake and then overdose. Ha. She had me. I kept pretty rigid count of my wine. I never finished a bottle. That was my rule. Except sometimes…I broke my own rule. Rarely, but sometimes, I finished the bottle. And sometimes I had five Xanax.
So this is me now, tapering off the Xanax. Taking a mini-break from alcohol, which was my idea. Doc does not think I’m an alcoholic. I was however risking dangerous combinations of substances. That’s over. Duff’s story gave me courage in the midst of my own drawn out detox from Xanax. Having read what Duff put his body through, and how he survived it, has strengthened my determination. I can do this. It’s time.
Now I finally understand why I’ve spent all these years reading addiction stories. I was searching for the one that most matched my own. Book after book, I was relieved. No, that’s not me. Nope, I’d never be able to drink/drug that much.
Duff’s memoir was The One. He exposes his own waking nightmares with anxiety, panic and a crazy rainbow of phobias. I know now that for me this is the baseline reason for all the other stuff. Just as my sugar jones led me to crave more sugar, my mental condition caused some other addictive behaviors. For a long time, I used to think I’d never live to be old. Duff had that same feeling. Yet here we both still are, getting older, in our wildly divergent lives.