10 best books about addiction

This collection of 10 books, spanning memoirs and studies of addiction, offers both excruciating stories from the very trenches of addiction and the hope you need to push toward sobriety. They can transform the way you think about addiction, bust stigma, give you actionable advice to apply to your recovery, and make you feel less alone.

1. The Outrun, Amy Liptrot

The first 50 pages of Amy Liptrot’s memoir The Outrun are full of the familiar excesses and self-immolation of addiction memoirs: the precocious teenage drinking, the parties, the late-night runs to the liquor store, the accumulating losses (boyfriend, house, job). But The Outrun soars to new heights when Liptrot returns to her island home of Orkney, straight from rehab, and sets about healing herself through nature. She swims in the icy sea, travels to uninhabited islands, and learns lambing, snorkeling, and bird watching. Liptrot’s memoir is a testament to finding an individual path to recovery and that you don’t have to give up the questing, thrill-seeking side of yourself when you get sober.

2. The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin, Tracey Helton Mitchell

Rather than lingering on the horrors of her eight years living on the streets of San Francisco and shooting heroin, Mitchell’s memoir focuses on the hard work of her recovery. And it is desperately hard work: she has to re-learn how to handle money, build healthy friendships, and interact with men after years of sex work to pay for drugs. She also must rebuild relationships with her family and reckon with the body image issues and depression that pushed her to seek bliss in heroin. 

Now an addiction counselor and mother, Mitchell is particularly attuned to the unique struggles women face in recovery, including the failure of 12-step programs to address parts of their experience and their vulnerability to sexual harassment in some recovery spaces.

3. The Night of the Gun, David Carr

Before he was a feted columnist for The New York Times, David Carr was a cocaine addict, frequenter of crackhouses, low-level drug dealer, heavy drinker, and brawler. He beat up girlfriends, fathered twins he couldn’t support, was repeatedly jailed, and—in the incident that gives the book its title—once had a close friend draw a gun on him. Except, when Carr begins to fact-check his addicted past, he learns that it was he who brandished the gun in a fit of rage.

Bringing journalistic rigor to his own life, Carr examines medical records, police reports, and legal documents and films interviews with 60 friends, family members, fellow addicts, and dealers. What he uncovers smashes his romanticized stories of partying and exposes painful truths about his drug-fogged years, but also charts his remarkable recovery.

 

4. Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher

Behind the infamous hairdo and metal bikini, Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher was leveling out the mood swings of bipolar disorder with a cocktail of cocaine, prescription medication, LSD, and alcohol. In this memoir, equal parts hilarious and lacerating, she documents decades of drug use, overdoses, stints in rehab, relapses, electroconvulsive therapy, broken marriages, and the friend who died beside her in bed. 

Wishful Drinking has more than a sprinkle of Hollywood stardust (Fisher’s mother, MGM musical queen Debbie Reynolds, recruited Cary Grant to tell her teenage daughter to stop using LSD) and uproarious one-liners on every page. But under the bon-mots and Star Wars anecdotes, there’s a well of deep sadness in this book, made even more poignant by Fisher’s 2016 death, attributed to a relapse.

5. Dry, Augusten Burroughs

Another agonizing and uproarious memoir, Dry follows Burroughs from the bottom of the bottle to queer-focused rehab—and then back to living his New York life, just sober this time. Recovery isn’t linear: a friend’s death from HIV sends him into a tailspin, using cocaine and crack, but at the end of the memoir he’s clean and helping an alcoholic friend fumble toward recovery.

6. Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Meth Addiction, David Sheff

Substance abuse can be just as destructive for loved ones as for addicts themselves, as journalist David Sheff’s devastating memoir of his teenage son’s methamphetamine addiction attests. Beautiful Boy charts not just Nic’s relapses, physical disintegration, and homelessness, but also how David became “addicted to addiction.” He obsessively researches meth addiction and treatment, interrogates himself and his parenting to find a purported cause for Nic’s struggles, and neglects his wife and younger children. He worries ceaselessly, continuously anticipating another late-night phone call, from Nic, from an emergency room, from the police.

Nic also penned a memoir, Tweak, revealing that as grisly as his father’s nightmares for him were, the reality of his addiction was far darker. Together, the books were adapted into a 2018 film starring Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet.

7. Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, Koren Zailckas

From her first swig of Southern Comfort on her 14th birthday, Koren Zailckas embraced alcohol like a best friend and spent the next decade drinking into amnesia. Smashed is gruesome with details of party aftermaths: the vomit, the stomach pumping, the strangers’ beds, the spiraling what-ifs of blacked-out nights. But Zailckas’ memoir is at its best when she probes the reason so many young women are slinging back drinks. She points to the use of alcohol as a substitute for self-confidence and as a shield for sensitive, vulnerable women and to the celebration of alcohol abuse on college campuses and glamorous media depictions of what amounts to self-poisoning.

Zailckas denies she was an alcoholic but her memoir shows just how compulsive and corrosive partying can be and how it can blur into addiction.

8. In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, Dr. Gabor Maté

Dr. Gabor Maté has spent decades treating drug addicts in Vancouver and his patients haunt this sprawling, outraged book—the human faces of a failure of medicine, policy, and law. Maté challenges the idea that addiction is a medical disease and that drugs are inherently addictive. Rather, addiction emerges from a confluence of personal history, emotional development, and brain chemistry. For some people, he argues, addiction eases the pain of trauma by replicating the effects of feel-good brain chemicals that the more fortunate of us experienced during a loving childhood. Self-understanding is therefore key to recovery, he contends, and fills the book with positive solutions addicts can apply to themselves.

9. Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Johann Hari

Chasing the Scream is simultaneously a history of the war on drugs—from the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914, the world's first drug control legislation, to the US-funded battles against Mexican cartels—and a persuasive case for doing things radically differently. Hari examines research challenging traditional models of addiction in favor of more complex theories positioning drug dependence as a symptom of wider sociological and psychological problems. He ultimately concludes that the best way forward is to “legalize drugs stage by stage, and use the money we currently spend on punishing addicts to fund compassionate care instead.”

10. Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, Maia Szalavitz

In this provocative and paradigm-shifting book, Szalavitz argues for a new conception of addiction, not as a brain disease but rather as a developmental disorder. It’s a learning disorder, she says, by which she means addicts, primarily young people, learn their addiction, developing habits of action, reaction, pleasure, and reward when their brains are malleable.

In her telling, an individual’s addiction emerges out of a confluence of the substance, family, childhood trauma, peers, culture, and timing. Recovery also develops from these same forces and that’s why one-size-fits-all treatment doesn’t work. 

It’s a theory Szalavitz, a science writer and former cocaine and heroin addict, is uniquely equipped to advance and one that may reframe addiction entirely for you.