The best books about substance abuse

8 authors have picked their favorite books about substance abuse and why they recommend each book.

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The Chemical Carousel

By Dirk Hanson,

Book cover of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction

This book also deals with addiction science, and Hanson is a gifted writer who’s able to express complex ideas in simple, straightforward language. And he also devotes a good deal of time to the care and healing aspects of substance abuse. It takes one to know one, as the saying goes, and Mr. Hanson knows from personal experience and extensive investigative research what it’s like to struggle with addiction. Underrated and underread, this book is right up there with the best on the subjects of addiction and recovery.

Who am I?

I took my first hit of marijuana when I was 9. I had my first drink at 12 and my first shot of heroin at 14.  My brother and sister were also alcoholics and ended up taking their own lives. I abused drugs and alcohol for over 30 years, and after many failed attempts to turn my life around, I now have 15 years of continuous sobriety. I’ve also read almost ninety books on the topic of substance abuse and have written several myself about my personal struggles to get clean and sober and stay that way.  Addiction, sadly, is a subject I know all too well.


I wrote...

The Los Angeles Diaries: A Memoir

By James Brown,

Book cover of The Los Angeles Diaries: A Memoir

What is my book about?

Plagued by the suicides of both his siblings, and heir to alcohol and drug abuse, divorce, and economic ruin, James Brown lived a life clouded by addiction, broken promises, and despair.

In The Los Angeles Diaries, he reveals his struggle for survival, mining his past to present the inspiring story of his redemption. Harrowing and brutally honest, this memoir is the chronicle of a man on a collision course with life, who ultimately finds the strength and courage to conquer his demons and believe once more.

Under the Influence

By Rebecca Shannonhouse,

Book cover of Under the Influence: The Literature of Addiction

Using short stories, essays, and memoir selections from such authors as Poe, Tolstoy, Dorthey Parker, and Cheever, this book is an anthology of literature on addiction. Poe’s short story, “The Black Cat,” captures the madness that comes of alcoholism. Tolstoy’s essay offers sage advice about the nature of addiction. A lesser-known but standout story by Donna Steiner, “Sleeping with Alcohol,” teaches us what it’s like to be in love with an alcoholic and watching that person self-destruct. I’m a professor of English, and I used this book in a class I taught called “The Literature of Addiction,” alongside Dirk Hanson’s The Chemical Carousel as a primer for better understanding addiction before launching into stories, essays, and memoirs about it. The short stories in Under the Influence: The Literature of Addiction are entertaining as well as enlightening, and its other selections are just as informative as the books I previously mentioned.

Who am I?

I took my first hit of marijuana when I was 9. I had my first drink at 12 and my first shot of heroin at 14.  My brother and sister were also alcoholics and ended up taking their own lives. I abused drugs and alcohol for over 30 years, and after many failed attempts to turn my life around, I now have 15 years of continuous sobriety. I’ve also read almost ninety books on the topic of substance abuse and have written several myself about my personal struggles to get clean and sober and stay that way.  Addiction, sadly, is a subject I know all too well.


I wrote...

The Los Angeles Diaries: A Memoir

By James Brown,

Book cover of The Los Angeles Diaries: A Memoir

What is my book about?

Plagued by the suicides of both his siblings, and heir to alcohol and drug abuse, divorce, and economic ruin, James Brown lived a life clouded by addiction, broken promises, and despair.

In The Los Angeles Diaries, he reveals his struggle for survival, mining his past to present the inspiring story of his redemption. Harrowing and brutally honest, this memoir is the chronicle of a man on a collision course with life, who ultimately finds the strength and courage to conquer his demons and believe once more.

Beautiful Boy

By David Sheff,

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

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.”


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.

Woman of Substances

By Jenny Valentish,

Book cover of Woman of Substances: A Journey Into Drugs, Alcohol and Treatment

Journalist Jenny Valentish knows treatment, AA, and the pathways to addiction and recovery. It’s brutally honest, and her story reads like so many others – some who didn’t make it to recovery. She further educates the reader with research and a better understanding of the psychology and physiology that drive female addiction with humor and exceptional insight.

Who am I?

I used my first chemicals at age nine. Why? To change the way I felt about myself and my life. It was the beginning of using externals to fix an internal problem. A 74-year old Native American found me at ten months in recovery. He showed me a path to follow, including opening a house of healing for other women. His teachings, spiritual principles, and a lot of work helped me achieve 32 years in recovery.


I wrote...

Finding North: A Journey from Addict to Advocate

By Marilyn Davis,

Book cover of Finding North: A Journey from Addict to Advocate

What is my book about?

Today, Marilyn is a Certified Addiction Recovery Empowerment Specialist, recently celebrating thirty-two years of abstinence-based recovery. From 1990-2011, she opened and managed North House, an award-winning residential facility for women. Before reaching this milestone, she was a desperate woman on drugs, managing rock bands at night, pretending to be okay, but ultimately giving up on herself, losing her husband, children, and friends due to her addiction.

New in recovery, a chance encounter with Gray Hawk, a 74-year old Native American, showed her that healing herself would include looking within, taking Steps, and creating a house of healing for other women. This book is that journey.

Requiem for a Dream

By Hubert Selby Jr.,

Book cover of Requiem for a Dream

Another book about addiction and the American dream that manages to be beautiful and painful. This is perhaps the hardest book I have ever read, but also one of the most rewarding. It was dark and depressing, but a brilliantly written portrait of addiction. The way addiction sneaks up on you, and how it can become all-consuming; living and breathing the addiction. It was a very intense novel and one that stuck with me long after I finished the final page.


Who am I?

I was a teenage drug addict, starting with alcohol then gradually moving onto marijuana then onto crystal meth. I wrote a memoir about my year as a methamphetamine that details my drug usages, and how it nearly destroyed my life and everyone around me.


I wrote...

Teenage Degenerate: A Memoir that Explores the Depths of Methamphetamine and Drug Addiction

By S.C. Sterling,

Book cover of Teenage Degenerate: A Memoir that Explores the Depths of Methamphetamine and Drug Addiction

What is my book about?

In 1996, Scott was nineteen and lost in adulthood with an endless job and no future ambitions. Teenage Degenerate is his story about drug addiction, music, and growing up. Over the course of ten months, he quickly descends into the dark and dangerous world of crystal methamphetamine. Scott experiments with crystal meth in a dark, deserted parking lot in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado, and soon after his crew of misfits will do almost anything for their next high. One by one, family and friends disappear, and he is left alone with a decision to continue fighting or give up. This is his struggle to reclaim a normal life and the search for something real.

Teenage Degenerate is a vivid, heartbreaking, and harrowing story that explores the depths of addiction.

Forces of Habit

By David T. Courtwright,

Book cover of Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World

Forces of Habit is unbelievably wise and well-written, a tour of force on the drugs-especially illicit ones—can be what they are today. Courtwright looks at the supposedly hard drugs—marijuana, cocaine, and heroin—but also the soft ones—alcohol, nicotine, and even caffeine. I love that he forces all of us to consider how arbitrary the line is between illicit and legal, often depending on current social norms. 


Who am I?

Over my two decades as a scholar of American foreign policy and international politics, I had multiple opportunities to serve as a Latin America foreign policy aide. Given that Latin America plays a central role in the U.S.-hatched modern war on drugs, much of my policymaking was directly or indirectly tied to drug policy. I thus wrote Drugs and Thugs above all to make sure that I had a good sense of the history of this seemingly eternal conflict, one that is “fought” as much at home as abroad. 


I wrote...

Drugs and Thugs: The History and Future of America's War on Drugs

By Russell C. Crandall,

Book cover of Drugs and Thugs: The History and Future of America's War on Drugs

What is my book about?

How can the United States chart a path forward in the war on drugs? In Drugs and Thugs, Russell Crandall uncovers the full history of this war that has lasted more than a century. As a scholar and a high-level national security advisor to both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, he provides an essential view of the economic, political, and human impacts of U.S. drug policies. Backed by extensive research, lucid and unbiased analysis of policy, and his own personal experiences, Crandall takes readers from Afghanistan to Colombia, to Peru and Mexico, to Miami International Airport, and the border crossing between El Paso and Juarez to trace the complex social networks that make up the drug trade and drug consumption. 

A Scanner Darkly

By Philip K. Dick,

Book cover of A Scanner Darkly

The Philip K Dick novel I always recommend. Bob Arctor lives a double life as both an undercover narc and a slacker drug abuser, but the new drug Substance D is the most dangerous drug to find its way onto the streets, destroying the user's brain bit by bit until they are no longer able to recognise themselves. Based on Dick's own drug misadventures in the 1970s, it's a novel about "some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did."


Who am I?

I'm a spec-fic writer who has been fascinated by the world building and deep creativity of sci-fi and fantasy novels for over 40 years. A common theme in these genres is the use and abuse of power, especially of systems of authority that the main characters battle against—not always successfully! I've recently published a complete fantasy trilogy dealing with these same themes—The Wraith Cycle—and am looking forward to the publication of my next stand-alone sci-fi novel—The Currents Of Infinity—due to come out within the next year.


I wrote...

The Blood Within The Stone

By T.R. Thompson,

Book cover of The Blood Within The Stone

What is my book about?

In the isolated traders’ town of Greystone, two young thieves named Wilt and Higgs scratch out a living on the street. Both have quick minds and even quicker fingers, but Wilt has another weapon, an ability to sink into others' thoughts, reading them, knowing before they do what action they will take. Such power is not easily hidden when the Prefects of Redmondis come through town on a pilgrimage to recruit skilled ones, wielders, those who have an affinity with the secret welds that join all living things.

Epic fantasy with an original magic system, likable characters, and enthralling prose—a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered by YA and older readers alike.

Junky

By William S. Burroughs,

Book cover of Junky: The Definitive Text of "Junk"

When I read Junky, I could hear the soundtrack of Low Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, followed by the extended guitar solo on the live version of Heroin. This is Burroughs using a straightforward narrative before he decided to cut up everything and destroy the notion that there was any purpose to a beginning, middle, and end (see Naked Lunch and beyond!). Junky pulses with the desperation of an addict’s life in post-war New York and drifting down south to places like New Orleans and Mexico City. It’s a unique insight into a drug-infested lifestyle, before drugs became a fashionable accessory. It has authenticity dripping through it and is a testament to Burroughs own addiction, which at one point caused his father to collect him and move him back to live with his parents (just like Lou Reed did before he went on to ‘make…


Who am I?

I was educated in the so-called ‘university of life’, before eventually going to a few proper universities, and returning to live in my old hometown in Essex—after spending far too long making loud music and a nuisance of myself in South London. My literary references are eclectic, but I thought I would focus my book recommendations on the anti-hero who comes from the world of French and American dirty realism. It should alert the reader to the kind of novels I write, although they're highly structured crime thrillers, with a heavy dose of very dry, sardonic sense of humor. Finally, the sequel to my latest novel should be ready for publication in 2023.


I wrote...

The Dead Hand of Dominique

By Simon Marlowe,

Book cover of The Dead Hand of Dominique

What is my book about?

The novel is narrated by a young career villain Steven Mason, who lives on a run-down housing estate along the fringes of London and Essex. He is tasked by his gangland boss (nicknamed Grandad) to track down his missing girlfriend Dominique. However, Steven knows things are not going to be simple when he discovers a frozen hand in Mickey Finn's old fridge. Steven then travels up to London with his mate Anthony (a junkie artist who Grandad uses to launder money), to begin the search for Dominique. As Steven speaks to people connected with her, he begins to uncover a plot that is about revenge, money, power, and control. And it all centers on the dead hand, what is on the dead hand, and if it is Dominique’s.

Tastes of Paradise

By Wolfgang Schivelbusch,

Book cover of Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants

A sensual cultural history mixed with economic history, specifically the rise of capitalism, Schivelbusch launches an interesting argument—that one particular substance, or taste, has often defined the zeitgeist of whole nations for definitive periods. This book is wide-ranging and general in its treatment of alcohol, as well as several other drinks and spices. There are excellent imaginative connections made, and the book invites thinkers to think deeply and broadly about the meaning of intoxicants in history and in their own lives.


Who am I?

I’m a professor at Northland College (WI) and an American environmental historian with specialties in wine, food, and horticulture. I mostly write on alcohol, garden history, botany, and orchids. The history of alcohol is wild, fraught, and charged with power—I’ll never tire of learning about it.


I wrote...

Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America

By Erica Hannickel,

Book cover of Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America

What is my book about?

The lush, sun-drenched vineyards of California evoke a romantic, agrarian image of winemaking, though in reality, the industry reflects American agribusiness at its most successful. Nonetheless, this fantasy is deeply rooted in the history of grape cultivation in America. Empire of Vines traces the development of wine culture as grape growing expanded from New York to the Midwest before gaining ascendancy in California--a progression that illustrates viticulture's centrality to the nineteenth-century American projects of national expansion and the formation of a national culture.

Naked Lunch

By William S. Burroughs Jr., James Grauerholz, Barry Miles

Book cover of Naked Lunch: The Restored Text

First published in 1959, Naked Lunch was shocking then, and it still retains its power today. Both in content and structure, Naked Lunch is powerful and wholly original.  In effect, it becomes more than a work of fiction, it becomes an experience. Burroughs invented a technique called the “cut-up method,” where he cut up his coherent storyline into paragraphs, scenes, and even sentences, then reordered them both randomly and editorially. The disorder thematically represents the chaos of existence and the universe, and it also disrupts the reader. Like the book or not, it shakes you into realizing that there are possibilities beyond the conventional.

Burrough’s language is honed to a razor’s edge, and I find that many of the sentences in Naked Lunch burn like fire. The meaning of the title as Burroughs explains it is to bare the naked truth of reality on the end of a fork. From…


Who am I?

As a writer, artist, and actor throughout my life, I’ve explored and enjoyed many artistic forms. While I appreciate books across many genres, I elevate to the highest level those works that manage to break conventional boundaries and create something original. In my own work, I have always challenged myself to create something unique with a medium that has never been done before. At the same time, I have sought to discover a process and resulting work that inspires readers’ own creativity and challenges them to expand their imagination. 


I wrote...

A Greater Monster

By David David Katzman,

Book cover of A Greater Monster

What is my book about?

A psychedelic fairytale for the modern age, A Greater Monster is a mind-bending poetic trip into a radically twisted alternate reality that reflects civilization like a funhouse mirror. A Greater Monster crosses boundaries with illustrations, graphic design, and hidden links to animation and original music. Throughout the experience, you'll encounter sphinxes, gods, living skeletons, witches, and quite possibly the strangest circus ever imagined. Innovative and astonishing, A Greater Monster breathes new life into the possibilities of fiction. Received a Gold Medal as Outstanding Book of the Year in the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards.

“I can't express how brilliant my favorite scenes in A Greater Monster are. In this extraordinary work, Katzman pushes language to do things, which are truly astounding.” Carra Stratton, Editor, Starcherone Press

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