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When it was first published in 1996, Caroline Knapp's memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, became a near-instant sensation and a bestseller. A young woman with a comfortable upbringing, a high-flying job and an active social calendar whose life, all along, had been consumed by alcohol? It turned out Knapp wasn't the only one.
Drinking remains near the top of the list of books recommended to people taking the first uncertain steps toward recovery, but hundreds of thousands of people have read it. It is difficult to quantify how far its existence has gone in cracking stigmas and stereotypes about addiction.
Drinking is a deceptively straightforward story, eloquent but unsparing, about a woman who loves the feeling of alcohol and can't see in the moment how it slowly yet completely seeps into every corner of her life. One short paragraph, about halfway through, pretty well sums it up. "It can make your life feel full of risk and adventure, sparkling and dynamic as a rough sea under sunlight," writes Knapp. "In fact, the opposite is true: Drinking brings your life to a standstill, makes it static as rock over time."
Knapp, writing sober, excavates her childhood and unpacks her love life: An emotionally elusive psychologist father, a boyfriend who brings home fashion magazines to point out how she should improve her appearance.
But Knapp's great love is the one that diminishes her the most as the years pass. The book weaves in some stats and science on alcohol addiction, and we glimpse some of the author's friends whose addictions drag them to horrifying places. Knapp's own history, though, of small indignities, never-resolving frustrations, rage, shame, numbness and inertia, may be the most familiar thread for many readers who began to give up their lives in addiction.
"These sound like such stupid little escapades, such unnecessary little falsehoods," Knapp writes about the lies, insecurities and bouts of what one friend calls the "uh-ohs"—sloppily covering up infidelity, forgetting where you parked your car in a blackout. But they chip away at the soul, out of view from most people, compounding the isolation of the disease until the end.
In recovery, we'd say Knapp's memoir has a happy ending. But she does not let up on the book's blunt intensity in the final chapters of early recovery. At a reunion of three friends from rehab, one shows up intoxicated and hostile, telling her she's fooling herself. Sometimes situations and emotions are overwhelming. Yet other times: "To rediscover [joy] in sobriety is an amazing thing," Knapp notices, "the emotional equivalent of realizing that your shoes are painfully tight and then sighing with relief when you finally take them off."
Caroline Knapp died tragically young, but sober, of lung cancer in 2002. Her story was praised as an accomplishment in her lifetime because it was unflinching and brave to publish, but it endures as her legacy to those in addiction and recovery because it is ordinary.
Cover image: Copyright © 1997, Penguin Random House