The Uptrodden Alcoholic

A Review of Leslie Jamison's The Recovering.

Posted Apr 09, 2018

Little, Brown
Source: Little, Brown

Addiction narratives tend to follow a particular arc: an individual begins from a high point (professional achievement, the innocence of childhood), discovers their substance of choice, begins their love affair with the bottle or the needle, then gradually loses all that they once held dear until they are left alone with their addiction like a failed marriage from which they cannot escape. Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering follows this tradition as it subverts it in other subtle ways.

Jamison tells stories of drinking red Solo cups of whiskey alone in her office after a fight with a boyfriend, hiking through Bolivia while on high alert for the white flags that indicated a place to buy chicha, foregoing treatment for a heart arrhythmia because she couldn’t drink while taking the medication. Behind this melody plays an unexpected rhythm: during the heights of her addiction, Jamison graduated from Harvard, completed a MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and published a well-regarded first novel, The Gin Closet.

Jamison chronicles her addiction in unflinching detail while also weaving in sketches of writers who struggled with alcohol use (Denis Johnson, John Berryman, Jean Rhys) and providing a brief history of the treatment of addiction in the United States. At points it feels as if there could be the seeds of several different yet interrelated books here, but Jamison mostly succeeds in tying the strands together. She spends the most time examining the treatment that proved effective for her, Alcoholics Anonymous.

As her book progresses Jamison’s voice fades slightly and allows a chorus of fellow alcoholics in recovery to arise. Unlike some proponents of the AA model, Jamison does not attribute anything mystical or magical to the group. Rather, she shares stories of how she came to encounter people from all walks of life, most deeply different from her own, who share with her only that which they cannot do, drink.

Earlier in my career as a clinician I felt somewhat skeptical of AA. The research on its efficacy is somewhat tenuous, and the stereotypical alcoholic upon whom the program is based, one who would gladly drink themselves into oblivion without outside intervention, is not true of most people. In fact, 75% of people with alcohol dependence stop drinking without professional treatment or a support group, and most people with an alcohol problem vacillate between periods of relatively controlled and then uninhibited use. Jamison nods to this reality in the afterword, but I wish she had integrated such research into the body of her work.

Despite that all, AA remains, and I find myself recommending it to my patients more and more. What I think works best about that model is precisely that which Jamison highlights: community. Sobriety can be a lonely experience. Most people who have used for any length of time have built up a social circle made up largely of other users. When alcohol or drugs are your life, you want to surround yourself with others who share your deepest interest. The most difficult part of recovery for my patients usually isn’t giving up substances but rather being forced to navigate their friendships and romantic partnerships, which were usually predicated upon their use, newly sober. AA isn’t perfect, but it can play a vital role in buffering those feelings of loneliness and provide a space where those in recovery are understood and accepted as they are.

Jamison’s The Recovering also helps build such a space. For those struggling with addiction, she provides realistic hope. For those who want to know more about substance abuse, her unflinching honesty gives perspective on a problem impacting the over 15 million adults with an alcohol use disorder, not to mention those that love them. The Recovering is destined to take a place as a classic among the literature on addiction and recovery.


Jamison, L. (2018). The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath. New York, NY: Little, Brown.

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