In Surviving In Spirit: A Memoir about Sisterhood and Addiction, I explore how my older sister’s prolonged struggle with alcoholism and eventual death from cirrhosis at age 30 shaped me—into a person who’s willing to take risks, like stripping for her boyfriend’s dad (for the right reason, obviously!).
In many ways, I’ve come to believe that losing my sister saved me. It took several years plus ungodly amounts of introspection to understand this, of course, and once I did, I felt compelled to tell my story. Maya Angelou said it best: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
The process of trudging through the dark emotional clouds that had been hovering in my mind since the day she died, on April 5, 2009, was often unexpectedly therapeutic. It was also all too predictably trying. Luckily, I found solace in three activities throughout the months I devoted to writing Surviving In Spirit (an acronym for sis, in case you didn’t notice): crying, remembering, and reading.
Below is a list of the five books I credit for reassuring me there’s value in sharing the human experience. (I promise they’re not all addiction memoirs!)
1. Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, by David Sheff
David Sheff’s son Nic was a crystal meth addict who rattled his family’s world for years. What David does brilliantly is highlight the impossible-to-answer questions surrounding the disease of addiction from the perspective of an addict’s loved one: Where is the line between helpful and enabling? Does the person I once knew still exist beneath all of their lies and deceit? Why can’t I just get through to him or her?
When it comes to how to love someone while they’re at their absolute lowest, however, David Sheff provides a clear answer: You just do. Unconditional love is one of those aspects of the human condition worth holding onto. We’re all inclined to behave in wretched ways on occasion, but our ugliness doesn’t make us unlovable.
2. Happens Every Day: An All Too True Story, by Isabel Gillies
Isabel Gillies’ idyllic life crumbled the day her husband announced he was leaving her and their two young sons for another woman. While Gillies entertains some understandably spiteful feelings towards her husband’s new lover, however, she manages to be fair in her depiction of the person who arguably destroyed her life. I’d like to think this is because she realized that, as terrible as life can be, getting back to “okay” is always possible. A suggested alternate title: Shit Happens And That’s Okay So Get Used To It Already.
3. Scar Tissue, by Anthony Kiedis
I didn’t consider myself a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan when a good friend recommended this book, but I am definitely one today and hopefully my fandom speaks to the power of Kiedis’ storytelling. This is a book that celebrates the interplay between life experiences and creativity, and is written in an incredibly candid, unique voice. While Kiedis is obviously a rare musical talent, he comes across as more human than rockstar. As a reader, I felt reassured that you don’t have to be a celebrity to share your individual story, although being one probably helps sales.
4. I Am Not Myself These Days, by Josh Kilmer-Purcell
Throughout early adulthood, a drug addled Kilmer-Purcell worked as an advertising executive by day and club hopped by night, performing as a drag queen whose signature look included round goldfish tanks where you might expect breasts. But while illicit activities are central to its plot, this book is primarily about growth.
Kilmer-Purcell got himself into a lot of thorny, unwholesome situations, but haven’t we all at some point? Today, he’s a clean-cut adult who resides on a farm with his lover. Together, they own and operate a popular lifestyle brand and star on a reality show on the Cooking Channel. It seems important to remember that no one’s past is all that neat and tidy. In the same vein, no one is beyond getting their shit together, as long as they’re willing to do the necessary work.
5. Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp
Truthfully, I remember this book mostly for what I learned about its author after finishing it. In addition to alcoholism, Knapp struggled with anorexia. She was also a heavy smoker who died in 2002 from lung cancer.
The reality that someone could be strong enough to get sober and then effectively succumb to another addiction depressed the hell out of me. It also reminded me that life sucks disproportionately for some, and there’s not much we can do about that injustice. What we can do is summed up nicely by one of my favorite artists, Brian Andreas: “This world is amazing and you’ll forget that again and again your whole life. But if you remember more than you forget, you’ll be fine.”