7 tips for writing a memoir about addiction (drug or alcohol or gambling)

7 tips for writing a memoir about addiction (drug or alcohol or gambling)

“When you can stop you don’t want to, and when you want to stop, you can’t…”
― Luke Davies, Candy

Memoir writers are the custodians of memory. Each one of us should leave some sort of written record of our lives. It can be an informal family history, an oral history, or a formal history.

Some may ask, why write a memoir about your own or someone else’s addiction, be it drug and alcohol, gambling of whatever?

By writing the addiction memoir the writer helps themselves heal and reflect. The sharing of experiences can shine a light in the darkness of addiction for others who may be struggling as well.

I am an advocate for healing through writing, be it a memoir, journaling, scribbling notes on the back of an envelope or exercise book. Addiction memoir is currently very popular and there are subgroups such personal addiction stories, celebrity addiction, families of the addicted.

Louise DeSalvo in her excellent book, Writing As A Way of Healing. How telling our stories transforms our lives, stated that writing traumatic or distressing events in detail and exploring deep emotions and feelings improves health.

7 tips for writing a memoir about addiction (drug or alcohol or gambling)

1. Always write from the heart, be authentic.

The key to successfully writing an addiction memoir is to be completely honest. If disclosing some facts makes you uncomfortable, you are on the right track. It can be a painful experience.  If it is too overwhelming, please make an appointment to see a counsellor to assist you to process the feelings.

2.  Each story is unique

Each recovering addict has a unique and personal story that tells of their journey and recovery. Many of the symptoms of an addiction may be similar, but no stories are the same.

3. Set realistic writing goals

Louise DeSalvo suggested you try for realistic goals as to how much you will write each day.

Write 20-30 minutes per day at an allocated time and place.

Where will you write? In a coffee shop, at home, somewhere else.

Make sure you write in a private comfortable environment where you won’t be disturbed.

Write about your personal issues, trauma, unset. Write about your successes and pleasures. How did an event make you feel? Link events that happened to you and your feelings.

Pick a format that is comfortable for you, writing in a notebook, using a computer, speaking into a tape recorder.

Don’t judge your writing.

Don’t correct your grammar, do that later.

Just write a quick draft. Let it spill out of you.

 Louise DeSalvo suggested that you are not overly intellectual in your writing. Tell the story simply.

Don’t use your writing to complain.

Don’t be too self-absorbed.

And don’t use your writing as a substitute for therapy or medical care.

Digging deep into your life is like going down a winding road or steps.

 4. Decide what to write about.

Further tips to help you to open to your memoir:


Which years will you write about?

Start your memoir where it feels right.

It may be describing your family, the problems of your life.

Discuss the experimenting with drugs or alcohol or gambling.

How did you start using the drug or alcohol or gambling?

What was that like at first?

What did it feel like?

When did you need more and more to get the same buzz?

Did you lose control of your use?

When was the dark night of the soul when you knew you had a problem with the substance?

When did you decide to cutback or stop?

Discuss going into treatment or joining support groups.

Did you receive counselling?

Did you relapse?

How is your recovery now?

What changes have you made in your current life?

5. Read other addiction memoirs

Gabor Mate in his excellent book In The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts takes us into the lives of emotionally destitute and drug affected humans who are his patients.

If you have not read this book, please read it. It is a wonderful book and has helped many thousands of addicted men and women.

Gabor Mate details the stories of the suffering of injecting drug users with moving case stories. At times his reflections are harrowing, but always compassionate.

Gabor Mate states that addicts constantly seek something outside of themselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfilment and the aching emptiness inside. He said most addicts spend their lives as hungry ghosts on the edge of life. The urge to escape extracts a fearful price.

How to soothe souls inflamed by intense torment imposed by childhood experiences? Drugs and alcohol can be an emotional anaesthetic, to fight feelings of emptiness.

Gabor Mate said addictions always originate from pain, felt openly or hidden subconsciously. He states that many hardcore addicts come from abusive homes and neglect and maltreatment early in life.

Going into the past can feel like entering a dark and frightening tunnel.

Lit a Memoir by Mary Karr

Mary Karr has written several memoirs including The Liar’s Club and Cherry. Mary Karr is a well-known and highly respected author. However, her intellect did not protect her from her inner demons and she drank herself to numbness- as her alcoholic mother did before her.

Mary Karr’s wonderful memoir about her slide and recovery from alcoholism makes for emotional reading. Her book takes us on a life journey with Mary and we want to see her succeed. Her authentic story strips away at pretence or artifice.

 In My Skin a Memoir by Kate Holden.

Kate Holden’s memoir chronicles her experiment with drugs with friends that quickly morphed into full blown addiction to heroin, which lead to prostitution to support her addiction.

If you wonder how ordinary decent people with a good education and loving families could drift into drugs and prostitution- this is the book for you to read. Kate Holden’s descent into addiction is brutally honest as is her recovery.

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

Most people have heard of James Frey. He is one of the most famous authors of addiction memoirs, especially since his book was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey in her Oprah’s Book Club.

There has been a great deal of controversy around A Million Little Pieces. It was revealed that James Frey embellished many of the anecdotes in his memoir and entirely made up other parts.

As I mentioned before always write the truth.

However, having said that, James Frey’s story is a great read and his tale of addiction, rehabilitation and recovery will speak loudly to others who suffer addictions.

His book focuses mainly on his time in a residential treatment centre.

There are many other excellent memoir books on addiction. I mentioned a few. I would suggest googling best addiction memoirs and see what comes up that meets your memoir.

6. Who is your target audience?

Always keep your audience in mind.

Are you writing for yourself?

For your family?

As part of a 12-step program?

Do you want to help the wider community?

 7.  Use personal reflection to grow

Writing a memoir about your or some else’s addiction will enable you to recover your power and strength.

Despite your addiction, you are still a magnificent unique human being.

There is only one of you on this planet.

Sometimes others only see the addiction and not the human.

Your memoir will enable others to see you clearly.

For the truth is, we are all addicted to something, some repetitive behaviour that gives us comfort.

I use hot chips as my go to when I am stressed. When I was a child my mother cooked me wonderful hot chips when I came home from school on cold wintry days. To me the hot chips are a subconscious reminder of my Mother’s warmth and love.

Others use addiction to excessive dieting to regain control.

Others may be addicted to chocolates and sweets.

Currently, many of us are addicted to technology and the use of Smart phones. The notifications from Facebook and others gives us a boost. Each time the phone pings and we check our phones to see who has connected with us – we receive a small dopamine burst. Which makes us do it again and again. All addictions work on the dopamine enhancing aspects of the brain.

When writing your memoir ask yourself- what are my strengths and weaknesses and what makes me unique? Honest self-awareness can arise when we are authentic.

A reminder- to overcome any addiction is more than using will power. The brain having been used to the substance and the dopamine bursts will demand more of the substance and when it stops will go into withdrawal. To stop the painful withdrawals people will use again.

By sharing your addiction memoir and working at change. Recovery is possible.  Note that relapse as normal aspect of making changes.

Life can grow and flourish where once there was no hope.

Writing a memoir about addiction / dependence will help you understand your addiction triggers and enable you to be better understand yourself.

I hope you enjoyed my blog and the tips to writing a memoir about addiction.

May your writing journey be supported by loving friends and family and helpful support groups.

Take care, you matter. I wish you well. Thank you for coming to my blog.

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Regards Cally



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