America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life - Benoit Denizet-Lewis

America Anonymous is the unforgettable story of eight men and women from around the country -- including a grandmother, a college student, a bodybuilder, and a housewife -- struggling with addictions. For nearly three years, acclaimed journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis immersed himself in their lives as they battled drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, and compulsive gambling and sexuality. Alternating with their stories is Denizet-Lewis's candid account of his own recovery from sexual addiction and his compelling examination of our culture of addiction, where we obsessively search for new and innovative ways to escape the reality of the present moment and make ourselves feel "better."




Self-knowledge has never been a match for addiction.

~~ Benoit Denizet-Lewis




**This review originally posted on my old Blogger book blog May 2013



So, I had a pretty awful day the other day. Not awful in any way in particular but wow, I just had a Category 5 bad mood. It happens every now and then. The little peeves of the day -- the dogs acting up, my mom calling to talk about something we've already talked about at least half a dozen times already, getting a package in the mail that wasn't packaged very well, leaving your purchase all exposed to the elements -- just the little everyday arrghhhs! It just got to me worse than it might on the average day. Luckily, my husband has the kind of job that somehow magically keeps him away during my worst moments. I long accepted this weird out of nowhere dark cloud that rolls by every so often as just a quirk of mine, one I prefer to work through at home alone, so I can carry on with some semblance of sanity when Mr is home lol. By the end of the day, I was desperately wanting a drink. But I learned long ago (the hard way) that it typically doesn't end well for me -- drinking alone, or drinking angry.


So what does all this have to do with addiction? Well, I come from a family with a long history of all sorts of addictions and various degrees of mental illness -- alcoholism, delusion, self-absorption, manic depression, food addiction, gambling, hoarding, sex addiction -- yep, it's all passed somewhere through the family line at some point. I grew up with all sorts of addicts around me, grew up to have friends and family still battling, me getting near the edge of a few addictions myself. I still have, at times, a tendency to want to self-medicate. Some sort of residual inclination to fall back on what's familiar, I guess. With myself though, I always heard an inner voice just before I was about to really ruin my life saying C'mon girl, you know where this path leads. Get your shit together! Still, since high school, I've been tearing through various psychology & sociology books as I find them, trying to figure out why my family is the way they are, how did they get that way... how anyone gets that way. I find the psychology behind it all fascinating.



Here recently, I picked up America Anonymous by Benoit Denizet - Lewis. It reads kind of like an episode of True Life or World of Jenks. Benoit, a sex addict himself, follows eight other addicts (of various vices) for nearly three years (all of them having different types of addiction but similar struggles to get clean), letting them tell their stories from their perspective and showing how their stories turn out.



"If anything, writing this book further complicated addiction in  my eyes. Is addiction a disease like hypertension or diabetes, or is it a malady of spirit? Or is it, as many suggest, a cruel combination of both? Will we ever effectively combat addiction with medicine, as we have been "on the brink of" doing for much of the past two centuries? Why do some people recover from addiction, while others die from it? And why did Bobby and Janice become addicted to drugs while Sean and I became enslaved by sex? I don't know.  But if I believe anything about addiction, it's that its roots can usually be found in childhood. Not every young victim of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse develops an addiction, just as not every addict had a terrible childhood. But if neuroscientists truly want to combat addiction, a good place to start would be to develop a pill that buffers kids against the struggles and mistakes of their families."

~~ Benoit Denizet-Lewis


This book is also an education in the history and statistical side -- successes and failures -- of addiction and rehab in general. I had no idea rehab centers dated back to the 1800s! It was in 1810 that the idea of alcoholism being an illness first started getting passed around medical circles. By the 1840s, doctors and organizations were discussing the development of "sober houses" where alcoholics could safely "dry out". In 1841, the Washington Society of Boston opened the first sober house (precursor to rehab centers of today) in the country. Rooms under the meeting hall were offered to alcoholics who seriously wanted to get back on track.


In my judgement, such of us who have never fallen victim {to addiction} have been spared more by the absence of appetite than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have.

~~ Abraham Lincoln


 Some of my favorite POVs in this study of addiction --


DAVE ( sponsor to Sean, a sex addict):


When I first met Dave at a Twelve Step meeting five years ago, he told me that he was addicted to virtually everything: sex, food, alcohol, drugs, power, control and work. I asked him if that was all. He laughed. Then he said that when he gets control over one addiction, another will rear its ugly head and take over his life. He called that dance

"switching seats on the Titanic."


ROBERT (counselor to Janice, a crack addict)  -- this one really hit me:


 Robert also wants Janice to look at what she was medicating by using crack for most of her adult life. He hopes Janice will grieve the childhood she never had and unlearn the negative messages she internalized growing up -- messages that still affect how she sees herself. "The bottom line is that if people treat you like crap all the time, which is what happened with Janice, you start feeling like crap and thinking you're crap," Robert told me. "Janice has a serious case of the 'Ugly Duck' syndrome. Growing up, Janice got a lot of ridicule, had a lot of people who neglected her feelings. She was overweight, considered unattractive. She had sisters who made fun of her and a mother who abandoned her, who sent her away. She was raped and then told it didn't happen. She had so much trauma that she's never dealt with...Because she's bought into that idea that she's ugly, that she's worthless, that she's expendable... Those internal tapes that play in our heads are tough to change... 


JODY, addiction counselor, battling his own addictions to heroin, crack, opiates, gambling and nicotine. Jody is also legally blind from retinitis pigmentosa. Jody's observation about people around him just cracked me up :


At a restaurant near the beach only a few blocks from Jody's sober living community, a middle-aged waitress seats us close to a table packed with attractive college-age girls. "I figured you guys might like the scenery here," she says with a wink and a smile, handing us our menus and leaving us alone, presumably to gawk in peace. Sadly, the scenery is mostly lost on us. I'm gay and Jody's blind. "Man, I'm at such a disadvantage when it comes to picking up women." Jody tells me. "Everything depends on that eye contact, but when I look over at that table, I just see shapes, a big blur. I wouldn't know if any of them were checking me out. I never know what the fuck is going on!"...Jody walks without the help of a cane or a guide dog, meaning most people assume he can see normally. That creates problems when someone he meets  runs into him again days or weeks later, waves or tries to make eye contact and receives a blank stare in  return. "I can't tell you how many people have said to me,'Jody, I thought you were the biggest snob, the biggest asshole. I waved, I walked right past you and you pretended you didn't see me,' " he says. "I'm pretty sure that I look like I can see a lot better than I can actually see. Everyone bases blindness on whether you run into shit. People are like 'Nah, Jody's not that blind -- he never runs into shit.'" :-P



Denizet-Lewis also mentions a little tidbit of history I had never heard about before that I found pretty interesting, regarding some famous sticky-fingered ladies:


One of the first shoplifters to gain unwanted notoriety was Jane Austen's wealthy aunt, who in 1799 was arrested for pocketing a piece of lace. Some seventy years later, wealthy feminist and New York philanthropist Elizabeth Phelps was arrested at Macy's for stealing a small package of candy. The press had a field day with the story, and by 1880 newspapers routinely reported the "shocking" shoplifting arrests of respected middle- and upper-class Victorian women. 



Something else to check out: "When Ladies Go A-Thieving", an English ballad about kleptomania mentioned in the book, here covered by the UK band, Bandoggs.



 Neuroscientist Steven Hyman proposes that addiction is a form of "pathological learning" and "extreme memory". The problem with the addicted brain, Hyman believes, is that it remembers the good feelings that come from drug use but forgets the pain, suffering and demoralization that inevitably come after them. This dysfunction is critical to the addictive process, behavior long after the drug has left the body or the addictive behavior has been stopped, the powerful memories associated with them remain. These hardwired  memories can cause intense craving when triggered, leading to a rush of dopamine (the brain expects the reward) that can overwhelm the brain's frontal cortex, which is responsible for

planning and decision making.

 ~~ America Anonymous, Benoit Denizet-Lewis