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19 Powerful Memoirs About Mental Illness & Addiction
UPDATED MAY 22, 2021
1. The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin (2017) by Tracey Helton Mitchell
Amazon Description: “After surviving nearly a decade of heroin abuse and hard living on the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, Tracey Helton Mitchell decided to get clean for good.
With raw honesty and a poignant perspective on life that only comes from starting at rock bottom, The Big Fix tells her story of transformation from homeless heroin addict to stable mother of three—and the hard work and hard lessons that got her there. Rather than dwelling on the pain of addiction,Tracey focuses on her journey of recovery and rebuilding her life, while exposing the failings of the American rehab system and laying out a path for change. Starting with the first step in her recovery, Tracey re-learns how to interact with men, build new friendships, handle money, and rekindle her relationship with her mother, all while staying sober, sharp, and dedicated to her future.
A decidedly female story of addiction, The Big Fix describes the unique challenges faced by women caught in the grip of substance abuse, such as the toxic connection between drug addition and prostitution. Tracey’s story of hope, hard work, and rehabilitation will inspire anyone who has been affected by substance abuse while offering hope for a better future.”
2. Come Back: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Hell and Back (2008) by Claire Fontaine & Mia Fontaine
Amazon Description: “In powerful parallel stories, mother and daughter give mesmerizing first-person accounts of the nightmare that shattered their family and the amazing journey they took to find their way back to each other. Claire Fontaine’s relentless cross-country search for her missing child and ultimate decision to force her into treatment in Eastern Europe is a gripping tale of dead ends, painful revelations, and, at times, miracles. Mia Fontaine describes her refuge in the seedy underworld of felons and addicts as well as the jarring shock of the extreme, if loving, school that enabled her to overcome depression and self-loathing. Both women detail their remarkable process of self-examination and healing with humor and unsparing honesty.
Come Back is an unforgettable true story of love and transformation that will resonate with mothers and daughters everywhere.”
3. Drinking: A Love Story (1997) by Caroline Knapp
Amazon Description: “It was love at first sight. The beads of moisture on a chilled bottle. The way the glasses clinked and the conversation flowed. Then it became obsession. The way she hid her bottles behind her lover’s refrigerator. The way she slipped from the dinner table to the bathroom, from work to the bar. And then, like so many love stories, it fell apart. Drinking is Caroline Kapp’s harrowing chronicle of her twenty-year love affair with alcohol.”
4. A Drinking Life: A Memoir (1994) by Pete Hamill
Amazon Description: “Hamill explains how alcohol slowly became a part of his life, and how he ultimately left it behind. Along the way, he summons the mood of an America that is gone forever, with the bittersweet fondness of a lifelong New Yorker.”
5. Drunk Mom: A Memoir (2014) by Jowita Bydlowska
Amazon Description: “Three years after giving up drinking, Jowita Bydlowska found herself throwing back a glass of champagne like it was ginger ale. It was a special occasion: a party celebrating the birth of her first child. It also marked Bydlowska’s immediate, full-blown return to crippling alcoholism.
In the gritty and sometimes grimly comic tradition of the bestselling memoirs Lit by Mary Karr and Smashed by Koren Zailckas, Drunk Mom is Bydlowska’s account of the ways substance abuse took control of her life—the binges and blackouts, the humiliations, the extraordinary risk-taking—as well as her fight toward recovery as a young mother. This courageous memoir brilliantly shines a light on the twisted logic of an addicted mind and the powerful, transformative love of one’s child. Ultimately it gives hope, especially to those struggling in the same way.”
6. Dry: A Memoir (2003) by Augusten Burroughs
Amazon Description: “You may not know it, but you’ve met Augusten Burroughs. You’ve seen him on the street, in bars, on the subway, at restaurants: a twentysomething guy, nice suit, works in advertising. Regular. Ordinary. But when the ordinary person had two drinks, Augusten was circling the drain by having twelve; when the ordinary person went home at midnight, Augusten never went home at all. Loud, distracting ties, automated wake-up calls and cologne on the tongue could only hide so much for so long. At the request (well, it wasn’t really a request) of his employers, Augusten lands in rehab, where his dreams of group therapy with Robert Downey Jr. are immediately dashed by grim reality of fluorescent lighting and paper hospital slippers. But when Augusten is forced to examine himself, something actually starts to click and that’s when he finds himself in the worst trouble of all. Because when his thirty days are up, he has to return to his same drunken Manhattan life―and live it sober. What follows is a memoir that’s as moving as it is funny, as heartbreaking as it is true. Dry is the story of love, loss, and Starbucks as a Higher Power.”
7. Girl, Interrupted (1993) by Susanna Kaysen
Amazon Description: “Kaysen’s memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a “parallel universe” set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late sixties. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching document that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness and recovery.”
8. Go Ask Alice (1971) by Alice
Amazon Description: “It started when she was served a soft drink laced with LSD in a dangerous party game. Within months, she was hooked, trapped in a downward spiral that took her from her comfortable home and loving family to the mean streets of an unforgiving city. It was a journey that would rob her of her innocence, her youth—and ultimately her life.”
9. The Heroin Diaries: Ten Year Anniversary Edition: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star (2017) by Nikki Sixx
Amazon Description: “When Mötley Crüe was at the height of its fame, there wasn’t any drug Nikki Sixx wouldn’t do. He spent days—sometimes alone, sometimes with other addicts, friends, and lovers—in a coke- and heroin-fueled daze.
The highs were high, and Nikki’s journal entries reveal some euphoria and joy. But the lows were lower, often ending with Nikki in his closet, surrounded by drug paraphernalia and wrapped in paranoid delusions.
Here, Nikki shares the diary entries—some poetic, some scatterbrained, some bizarre—of those dark times. Joining him are Tommy Lee, Vince Neil, Mick Mars, Slash, Rick Nielsen, Bob Rock, and a host of ex-managers, ex-lovers, and more.
Brutally honest, utterly riveting, and surprisingly moving, The Heroin Diaries follows Nikki during the year he plunged to rock bottom—and his courageous decision to pick himself up and start living again.”
10. Lit: A Memoir (2010) by Mary Karr
Amazon Description: “Lit follows the self-professed blackbelt sinner’s descent into the inferno of alcoholism and madness–and to her astonishing resurrection. Karr’s longing for a solid family seems secure when her marriage to a handsome, Shakespeare-quoting blueblood poet produces a son they adore. But she can’t outrun her apocalyptic past. She drinks herself into the same numbness that nearly devoured her charismatic but troubled mother, reaching the brink of suicide. A hair-raising stint in ‘The Mental Marriott,’ with an oddball tribe of gurus and saviors, awakens her to the possibility of joy and leads her to an unlikely faith. Not since Saint Augustine cried, ‘Give me chastity, Lord-but not yet!’ has a conversion story rung with such dark hilarity. Lit is about getting drunk and getting sober, becoming a mother by letting go of a mother, learning to write by learning to live. Written with Karr’s relentless honesty, unflinching self-scrutiny, and irreverent, lacerating humor, it is a truly electrifying story of how to grow up–as only Mary Karr can tell it.”
11. Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity (2008) by Kerry Cohen
Amazon Description: “Loose Girl is Kerry Cohen’s captivating memoir about her descent into promiscuity and how she gradually found her way toward real intimacy. The story of addiction–not just to sex, but to male attention–Loose Girl is also the story of a young girl who came to believe that boys and men could give her life meaning.”
12. A Million Little Pieces (2005) by James Frey
Amazon Description: “At the age of 23, James Frey woke up on a plane to find his front teeth knocked out and his nose broken. He had no idea where the plane was headed nor any recollection of the past two weeks. An alcoholic for ten years and a crack addict for three, he checked into a treatment facility shortly after landing. There he was told he could either stop using or die before he reached age 24. This is Frey’s acclaimed account of his six weeks in rehab.”
13. My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean (2018) by Amy Dresner
Amazon Description: “Growing up in Beverly Hills, Amy Dresner had it all: a top-notch private-school education, the most expensive summer camps, and even a weekly clothing allowance. But at 24, she started dabbling in meth in San Francisco and unleashed a fiendish addiction monster. Soon, if you could snort it, smoke it, or have sex with it, she did.
Thus began a spiral that eventually landed her in the psych ward–and then penniless, divorced, and looking at 240 hours of court-ordered community service. For two years, assigned to a Hollywood Boulevard “chain gang,” she swept up syringes (and worse) as she bounced from rehabs to halfway houses, all while struggling with sobriety, sex addiction, and starting over in her forties. In the tradition of Orange Is the New Black and Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight, this is an insightful, darkly funny, and shamelessly honest memoir of one woman’s battle with all forms of addiction, hitting rock bottom, and forging a path to a life worth living.”
14. Parched: A Memoir (2006) by Heather King
Amazon Description: “In this tragicomic memoir about alcoholism as spiritual thirst, Heather King—writer, lawyer, and National Public Radio commentator—describes her descent into the depths of addiction. Spanning a decades-long downward spiral, King’s harrowing story takes us from a small-town New England childhood to hitchhiking across the country to a cockroach-ridden “artist’s” loft in Boston. Waitressing at ever-shabbier restaurants, deriving what sustenance she could from books, she became a morning regular at a wet-brain-drunks’ bar—and that was after graduating from law school. Saved by her family from the abyss, King finally realized that uniquely poetic, sensitive, and profound though she may have been, she was also a big-time mess. Casting her lot with the rest of humanity at last, she learned that suffering leads to redemption, that personal pain leads to compassion for others in pain, and, above all, that a sense of humor really, really helps.”
15. A Piece of Cake: A Memoir (2007) by Cupcake Brown
Amazon Description: “There are shelves of memoirs about overcoming the death of a parent, childhood abuse, rape, drug addiction, miscarriage, alcoholism, hustling, gangbanging, near-death injuries, drug dealing, prostitution, and homelessness.
Cupcake Brown survived all these things before she’d even turned twenty.
And that’s when things got interesting. . .
Orphaned by the death of her mother and left in the hands of a sadistic foster parent, young Cupcake Brown learned to survive by turning tricks, downing hard liquor, and ingesting every drug she could find while hitchhiking up and down the California coast. She stumbled into gangbanging, drug dealing, hustling, prostitution, theft, and, eventually, the best scam of all: a series of 9-to-5 jobs.
A Piece of Cake is unlike any memoir you’ll ever read. Moving in its frankness, this is the most satisfying, startlingly funny, and genuinely affecting tour through hell you’ll ever take.”
16. Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America (1994) by Elizabeth Wurtzel
Amazon Description: “Elizabeth Wurtzel writes with her finger in the faint pulse of an overdiagnosed generation whose ruling icons are Kurt Cobain, Xanax, and pierced tongues. In this famous memoir of her bouts with depression and skirmishes with drugs, Prozac Nation is a witty and sharp account of the psychopharmacology of an era for readers of Girl, Interrupted and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.”
17. Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood (2005) by Koren Zailckas
Amazon Description: “Garnering a vast amount of attention from young people and parents, and from book buyers across the country, Smashed became a media sensation and a New York Times bestseller. Eye-opening and utterly gripping, Koren Zailckas’s story is that of thousands of girls like her who are not alcoholics—yet—but who routinely use booze as a shortcut to courage and a stand-in for good judgment.”
18. Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines (2009) by Nic Sheff
Amazon Description: “Nic Sheff was drunk for the first time at age eleven. In the years that followed, he would regularly smoke pot, do cocaine and Ecstasy, and develop addictions to crystal meth and heroin. Even so, he felt like he would always be able to quit and put his life together whenever he needed to. It took a violent relapse one summer in California to convince him otherwise. In a voice that is raw and honest, Nic spares no detail in telling us the compelling, heartbreaking, and true story of his relapse and the road to recovery. As we watch Nic plunge into the mental and physical depths of drug addiction, he paints a picture for us of a person at odds with his past, with his family, with his substances, and with himself. It’s a harrowing portrait—but not one without hope.”
19. With or Without You: A Memoir (2014) by Domenica Ruta
Amazon Description: “Domenica Ruta grew up in a working-class, unforgiving town north of Boston, in a trash-filled house on a dead-end road surrounded by a river and a salt marsh. Her mother, Kathi, a notorious local figure, was a drug addict and sometimes dealer whose life swung between welfare and riches, and whose highbrow taste was at odds with her hardscrabble life. And yet she managed, despite the chaos she created, to instill in her daughter a love of stories. Kathi frequently kept Domenica home from school to watch such classics as the Godfather movies and everything by Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, telling her, “This is more important. I promise. You’ll thank me later.” And despite the fact that there was not a book to be found in her household, Domenica developed a love of reading, which helped her believe that she could transcend this life of undying grudges, self-inflicted misfortune, and the crooked moral code that Kathi and her cohorts lived by.
With or Without You is the story of Domenica Ruta’s unconventional coming of age—a darkly hilarious chronicle of a misfit ’90s youth and the necessary and painful act of breaking away, and of overcoming her own addictions and demons in the process. In a brilliant stylistic feat, Ruta has written a powerful, inspiring, compulsively readable, and finally redemptive story about loving and leaving.”
For additional book suggestions, visit Must-Read Books for Therapists and 25 Top Therapist-Recommended Books.