The best books about addiction, recovery, and the triumph of the human spirit

Katherine Ketcham Author Of Under the Influence: A Life-Saving Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcholism
By Katherine Ketcham

Who am I?

Katherine Ketcham is the coauthor of 17 books about alcoholism/addiction, recovery, spirituality, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and empathy. She is also the author of the memoir, The Only Life I Could Save. She recently updated and revised her first book, Under the Influence: A Life-Saving Guide to the Myths & Realities of Alcoholism, for a 40th anniversary edition (published in September 2021 by Penguin Random House).  A dedicated photographer, columnist, and storyteller, she isn't sure what her 70s have in store for her but she's saving 12 hours of every day for her husband, three children, two grandchildren, extended family, and friends.  Books, walks, golf, yoga, gardening, story-collecting, daydreaming, and a good night's sleep should fill up the rest.

I wrote...

Under the Influence: A Life-Saving Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcholism

By James R. Milam, Katherine Ketcham,

Book cover of Under the Influence: A Life-Saving Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcholism

What is my book about?

Tens of millions of Americans suffer from alcoholism, yet most people still wrongly believe that alcoholism is a psychological or moral problem, and that it can be cured by psychotherapy or sheer willpower. Based on groundbreaking scientific research, Under The Influence examines the physical factors that set alcoholics and non-alcoholics apart, and suggests a bold, stigma-free way of understanding and treating the alcoholic.

The books I picked & why

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A Million Little Pieces

By James Frey,

Book cover of A Million Little Pieces

Why this book?

Over the years I have read this book three times and I plan to read it again and, perhaps again and again. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The writing is punch-perfect, every unpunctuated line offering a gut-grab. I found myself talking to Frey, sometimes shouting, “Why don’t you get it, you stubborn, pigheaded, self-centered jerk?” My questions come from a place of fear for the places where his pig-headedness will take him. I want him to live a good, long, clean and sober life because, strange as it might seem, in recovery those stubborn, pigheaded, self-centered, addicted jerks turn out to be some of the kindest, deepest, most soulful, loving people you will ever have the opportunity to meet.

Frey took a lot of heat from Oprah and her millions of viewers because his book was marketed as a memoir even though it is filled with fictional extravagances (the horrific dentist scene, for example) – so read it as a novel with truth and reality shouting at you from every line (which is why you shout back). My favorite line is the very last line in the book: “Yes, I’m ready.”

Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction

By David Sheff,

Book cover of Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction

Why this book?

If only.” Sheff‘s book about his meth-addicted son dives deep into the “if only” agonies of parents who question their every action, wondering what they could have done differently, or said (or not said) in a different way to help their children avoid the horrors of drug addiction. I asked the same questions in my book, The Only Life I Could Save, and I came to the same terrifying conclusion: We cannot make the choice of life or death for our children.

My favorite lines: “I am in a silent war against an enemy as pernicious and omnipresent as Evil . . . only Satan himself could have designed a disease that has self-deception as a symptom, so that its victims deny they are afflicted, and will not seek treatment, and will vilify those on the outside who see what’s happening.”

Terry: My Daughter's Life-And-Death Struggle with Alcoholism

By George McGovern,

Book cover of Terry: My Daughter's Life-And-Death Struggle with Alcoholism

Why this book?

In a world where addiction is associated with “abuse” and “addicts” are often depicted as morally depraved, physically unfit, and mentally unsound, it’s not difficult to figure out why people suffering from addiction – and their family members– are in denial. They simply don’t fit the stereotype. When Terry McGovern, daughter of Senator George McGovern, was a college student, she drank an average of five or six beers, three or four shots of hard liquor, or a bottle of wine every day. Despite her increasingly heavy drinking, occasional marijuana and barbiturate use, and suicidal behavior, Terry’s psychotherapist did not believe that she was an alcoholic; instead, he diagnosed her underlying problems as depression and unresolved psychological conflicts – a clear case of “professional denial.” It’s a fact that many of us have experienced childhood trauma. But when drug use continues despite serious and recurring problems, the “real problem” that must be acknowledged first and foremost is addiction.

In her journal, Terry described the ongoing struggle between her body and her mind, when her mind told her to stop and her body cried out, “More!” This journal entry was written thirteen months before she left a Wisconsin bar and, in her father’s anguished words, “stumbled into a snowbank and froze to death.”

"My body is telling my mind, just one more really strong one would do it – coat the nerves and they’d stay coated and numbed . . . what happens is that shot gives me a feeling of wholeness, and when it starts to go away there is artificial emptiness just as there was artificial wholeness . . . I could weep and weep that the lie is still alive. How could I want to keep company with the same agent that has snatched from my grasp all that I have loved? God forgive me. Teresa forgive Teresa."

Of all the unrelenting horrors that occur as the addiction progresses into its late and final stages, the most agonizing of all is the belief that if death or insanity does arrive, it is not undeserved.

Drinking: A Love Story

By Caroline Knapp,

Book cover of Drinking: A Love Story

Why this book?

Knapp’s memoir is one of the best books ever written about “functional” alcoholism. In her mid-30s, Knapp knew she was drinking too much, but she told herself that a “real alcoholic” would drink in the morning (which she never did), or be so hungover that she’d miss work (which she never did) or get fired (which she never was). Still, every time she went to a party she would solemnly swear to herself that she’d stop after three or four glasses of wine. A few hours later, after five, seven, or 10 glasses, she’d be smashed. Lying in bed on a Saturday morning with a jackhammer headache, she’d try to remember what she’d said or done the night before and pray with a passion that only alcoholics truly can understand that she hadn’t embarrassed herself or hurt someone else. Some days she’d wake up in the morning, still drunk. She hid a bottle of brandy behind an old refrigerator on the back porch of her boyfriend’s apartment, a bottle of Old Grand-Dad in the bathroom of her parents’ house, and a fifth of Dewar’s in her oversized purse.

Then, one miserable, hungover day, she reviewed the facts. Fact One: She drank too much. Fact Two: She was desperately unhappy. “I had always thought: I drink because I’m unhappy,” Knapp wrote. “Just then, I shifted the equation, rearranged the words: Maybe, just maybe, I’m unhappy because I drink . . . maybe drinking was the problem, and not the solution.”

Two months later, Knapp quit drinking and in sobriety her life “acquired a quality of lightness, and a sense of possibilities I didn’t even know I’d lost.”

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

By Anne Lamott,

Book cover of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Why this book?

This classic book is a gentle guide to the art of writing and, I believe, the art of recovery. Bird by Bird... Step by Step.

“I do not understand the mystery of grace," she writes, "only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

Anne Lamott's books are all about grace. Searching. Finding. Being found. Telling the truth. And laughter, often belly-shakingly raucous, which loosens up the tension-filled striving for perfection and control. "Laughter is carbonated holiness,” she writes, four words with such deep, tender power that I want to leap across the pages and wrap her up in a big bear hug.

I keep Lamott's books by my bedside, imagining them as lullabies singing me into a gentle, soothing understanding of what it means to be imperfectly, searchingly, soaringly human.

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