The best books on addiction cover the topic in many ways. We’ve broken down the most important reads on substance use — covering everything from lived experience in memoir, to the latest research, to explorations of what society gets wrong about addiction, and creative interpretation.
Whether you’re trying to kick a habit, ready to up your knowledge after years in long-term recovery, or seeking to understand a loved one suffering from addiction, addiction science has come a long way since ‘Just Say No.’
Jump to the section that interests you:
Books exploring addiction and recovery Books shedding light on the opioid epidemic (nonfiction) Books shedding light on the opioid epidemic (fiction) Memoirs from musicians who survived addiction Books about drinking and recovery from alcohol addiction Other great books about addiction
The best books exploring addiction and recovery
“Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience. A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviors. It is present in the gambler, the Internet addict, the compulsive shopper and the workaholic. The wound may not be as deep and the ache not as excruciating, and it may even be entirely hidden—but it’s there. As we’ll see, the effects of early stress or adverse experiences directly shape both the psychology and the neurobiology of addiction in the brain.”
Dr Gabor Maté advocates for compassion towards people struggling with addiction, as sick people trying to get well the best way they know how. The simplicity of this idea makes so much sense and is often forgotten in everything from AA to drug law. You don’t need to agree with all of Gabor Maté’s theories to see that he has brought a level of hope and humanity to the conversation surrounding addiction.
“While the risks of selling crack may not, on the surface, seem worth the low salary ultimately earned, to many young men it seemed the best of a bad lot. At fast-food chains or in similar low-level jobs, these youth would have to wear dorky uniforms and submit themselves to often demeaning treatment from (typically) white bosses and customers, with rigid hours and little apparent chance for advancement. Selling crack, however, offered a choice of hours, the opportunity to work with friends, and visible routes to success…The potential glory made the risk of prison and death seem worth taking.”
For those asking why we’re seeing so much more compassion for the opioid epidemic than we did during the crack epidemic, Dr. Hart is your man. A neuroscientist who made it out of a bad Miami neighborhood ponders in this memoir why he didn’t end up headed down a different path. Now the first tenured black professor in the sciences at Columbia, he has the opportunity to look back and see why he escaped the social forces so many around him didn’t. Dr. Hart takes many preconceived notions about drugs and the U.S drug war and turns them on their head, analyzing them through scientific and then social lenses.
Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction by Maia Szalavitz
“I used to smoke some [cocaine] that wasn’t good, feel sick and want some more. That’s totally fucking crazy. The point that is best learned from the whole experience is the craziness, the completely illogical short-circuiting of the normal human mental process that takes place in obsessive addiction.”
Author Maia Szalavitz shows us, through her own history, how the current disease model of addiction is not accurate. Science is used to back up the theory that addiction is not just willpower, or a “broken brain” but instead a learning/developmental disorder that lies on a spectrum. This book is powerful because it removes the stigma and takes a 21st-century look at an age-old problem. If you are wondering how you or your loved one got to a place where addiction took hold this book will help to provide you answers.
“The core of addiction doesn’t lie in what you swallow or inject—it’s in the pain you feel in your head. Yet we have built a system that thinks we will stop addicts by increasing their pain. ‘If I had to design a system that was intended to keep people addicted, I’d design exactly the system that we have right now.'”
A bunch of us at Workit recently read Chasing the Scream, a history of America’s drug war, together. One of our team members noted: “I never knew how the War on Drugs came to be before this book. And to be honest, the whole ‘egg in frying pan’ thing used to make sense to me. I guess that’s what happens when anything is oversimplified. And after reading this book, I can’t imagine treating addiction as anything other than a chronic disease; can you imagine if we treated cancer or heart-disease patients the way we treat people struggling with substances? The war on drugs is appalling.”
“Anyone who has lived through it, or those who are now living through it, knows that caring about an addict is as complex and fraught and debilitating as addiction itself.”
The Sheff’s have made quite a canon of addiction literature, offering their own family’s struggle as a learning experience for all others struggling through the same situation. The most well-known and popular is Beautiful Boy, David Sheff’s memoir of his son, Nic’s, addiction. David has also written the (less well-received, but just as important for families) Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, about addiction and treatment. And if you’d like to read his son’s perspective, Nic Sheff has also written his own story: Tweak: Growing Up On Methamphetamines, and a follow-up after a relapse, We All Fall Down: Living With Addiction.
The best books shedding light on the opioid epidemic (nonfiction)
Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones
“Children of the most privileged group in the wealthiest country in the history of the world were getting hooked and dying in almost epidemic numbers from substances meant to, of all things, numb pain. “What pain?” a South Carolina cop asked rhetorically one afternoon as we toured the fine neighborhoods south of Charlotte where he arrested kids for pills and heroin. Crime was at historic lows, drug overdose deaths at record highs. A happy façade covered a disturbing reality. I grew consumed by this story.”
Sam Quinones investigates the perfect storm leading up to the opioid epidemic: Purdue Pharma’s release of Oxycontin, just as America is being flooded with cheap black-tar heroin. This is a uniquely American story of capitalism gone wrong. If you don’t have time to read the whole book, you can get a glimpse by reading the author’s ‘Serving All Your Heroin Needs‘ at the New York Times.
What do all these books have in common? They call into question the beliefs we’ve been raised with, and stereotypes of addiction. Each of these authors demands that we face addiction as an intimate, human story as well as a broad public health and safety issue. They offer no simple truths, and no easy answers.
Ryan Hampton is a former White House staffer and opioid addict who is now a national recovery advocate with ten years clean. With American Fix, he gives an inside account of the opioid crisis from firsthand knowledge through his own personal journey in addition to calling for new, long-term, evidence-based models of treatment that have shown to be more effective than the traditional 28-day model. Overall, the message is uplifting, giving hope of new directions and possibilities for treatment.
American Overdose: The Opioid Tragedy in Three Acts by Chris McGreal
Extensive and exhaustively researched depiction of the epidemic by McGreal, a reporter for The Guardian. It covers much of the same ground as other books like Dopesick, focusing a lot on the start of the crisis and the greed of pharmaceutical companies like Purdue. Where it contributes the most is in the account of the next acts, a “maturing of the epidemic”. As one FDA official puts it, “People are addicted, and that means they’re going to keep needing it. It’s going to be years that they stay on it until they finally get over it. If they don’t get killed.”
Immediate New York Times bestseller and released to high praise, Journalist Beth Macy focuses on central Appalachia as the heart of crisis and widens the scope from there to show how individuals and communities are affected. Through talking to opioid users, family members, dealers, doctors, judges, activists, emergency responders, and law enforcement, we get a much larger picture of the causes and effects.
Everything is Horrible and Wonderful: A Tragicomic Memoir of Genius, Heroin, Love, and Loss by Stephanie Wittels Wachs
Harris Wittels didn’t fit the stereotype of what a junkie looks like. He was a successful comedian, actor, producer, and writer for Sarah Silverman and on shows like Parks and Recreation and Master of None. Even with all his talent and jobs coming his way, he was not able to get clean and stay clean, eventually dying from an overdose in 2015 at age 29. Everything is Horrible and Wonderful is written by Harris’s sister, Stephanie, about his tragic death and the aftermath of losing her younger brother who was her best friend and also an addict.
Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Extremely timely as more and more children are being raised by grandparents due to their parent’s addiction. Krosoczka is a well-known children’s illustrator and author who didn’t realize till later in life that his mother is an addict. Growing up, he was raised by his grandparents after she can no longer care for his basic needs due to being in and out of rehab and his father is out of the picture. This graphic memoir is an honest and accurate portrayal told from the child’s point of view of what it’s like growing up with a suffering parent who still loves and cares and is trying their best but are wrestling with a terrible addiction.
The best books shedding light on the opioid epidemic (fiction)
Cherry by Nico Walker
Debut novel from Nico Walker who wrote it while incarcerated for bank robbery. The fictional book is based on Walker’s life, telling the story of an unnamed narrator who drops out of college, joins the army, returns home to Cleveland, and becomes addicted to heroin as a result of his being lost and directionless. The honest and accurate portrayal of addiction and withdrawal has led to it being called the “first great novel of the opioid epidemic”.
Marlena by Julie Buntin
After her parents divorce, teenager Catherine moves from rural upper Michigan to a suburb of Detroit and meets her neighbor Marlena, who happens to be the daughter of a meth cook. Marlena is everything Cat is not – cool, worldly, up-for-anything, extremely charismatic, and deeply troubled. Through her friendship with Marlena, Cat cuts class and begins to experiment with drugs and alcohol, that lasts into her 30s. In less than a year, Marlena winds up dead and Cat is haunted for the next couple decades. In one scene, Marlena panics when she drops her oxycodone pills that she always carries on her and Cat thinks, “Now it strikes me as a profoundly American thing — an epidemic that started as an abuse of the cure, a disease we made ourselves. But what did I know about America? Back then I’d been affected with a chronic political apathy, a symptom, maybe, of being part of a family that was always barely scraping by, conditioned to be wary of the system.”
Ohio by Stephen Markley
Similar to Cherry, Ohio is also a devastating depiction of the aftermath of returning from war and getting swept up by the opioid epidemic and is set in Ohio. This novel is about four former high school classmates who return to a small fictional town in southeast Ohio, called New Canaan, one night in 2013. Each one has experienced hard times during their 20s and now wants to make things right. The book reads more like a set of four portraits of characters coming together in a town that has been ravaged by the recession, addiction, suicide, and hopelessness, all with their own forms of escape and return.
Memoirs from musicians who survived addiction
Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton is a world renowned singer, songwriter, rock and blues guitarist, member of the Yardbirds and Cream.
“My second visit to Hazelden was, on the face of it, much like the first, but, on a deeper level, it was very different. This time I had no reservations about why I was there—I had tried to control my drinking and failed—so there was no more debate, no more gray area for me. Also, my life had become very complicated and completely unmanageable during my relapse. I now had two children, neither of whom I was really administering to; a broken marriage; assorted bewildered girlfriends; and a career that, although it was still chugging along, had lost its direction. I was a mess.”
The Autobiography of Gucci Mane by Gucci Mane and Neil Martinez-Belkin
Gucci Mane is a rapper and pioneer of trap music.
“In the beginning, lean [soda mixed with codeine-based cough medicine] had been something special, a vice I enjoyed. An indulgence. Now it was something I required to operate. My fame was at an all-time high, and these pints helped me calm down and relax in situations where I would otherwise feel anxious, like a big performance or a radio interview where I knew I’d get asked about some shit I didn’t want to talk about.”
Wayne Kramer is the co-founder of Detroit rock group the MC5.
“By the mid-’70s, I had been on the fringe of the criminal underworld for years. Ten years prior, before the era of the hippy pot dealer, if you wanted to smoke reefer you had to know somebody. Some of these fellows were real Damon Runyon characters: Freddy the Waiter, Smooth Paul. Crime had an allure for me. I have always identified with and romanticized outsiders. It’s rock ‘n’ roll: being a rebel and all that. I read most of Donald Goines’ black gangster novels, Burroughs’ “Junky,” and dozens of other books about organized crime and lowlife dope fiends. I identified with them, and they became my new idols. The regular world had betrayed me, so I went to a new, harder, darker, sexier world where wrong was right. An upside-down world where stealing and pulling a successful scam was admired, and getting up and going to work was for chumps.”
Hit So Hard: A Memoir by Patty Schemel
Patty Schemel is the former drummer for Hole with Courtney Love.
“That fall, Larry would become my first drug buddy. We liked the way smoking pot made music sound like we were swimming in an 8-track. That sealed it for me; I needed the daily ritual of substance abuse and rock ‘n’ roll. Vodka and Coke in my collectible Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil glass went best with the swirly phaser breakdown of “Whole Lotta Love.” Thank God the two coincided in my life while I was still young. What a waste of music not to take drugs!”
Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis and Larry Sloman
Anthony Kiedis is the lead singer and songwriter for Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“The good news is that by the second year, those cravings were about as half as frequent, and by the third year, half as much again. I’m still a little bent, a little crooked, but all things crooked, I can’t complain. After all those years of all kinds of abuse and crashing into trees at eighty miles an hour and jumping off buildings and living through overdoses and liver disease, I feel better now than I did ten years ago. I might have some scar tissue, but that’s alright, I’m still making progress.”
Slash by Slash
Slash is the original lead guitarist for Guns N’ Roses
“I wasn’t fine. But I was almost ready to admit it. I knew that my debauchery needed to end. I had planned to get some space from my wife and from my band after I’d allowed myself those predetermined four months to let it all hang out; I knew I was in need of some solace and quiet. And I got it. This time rehab turned out to be really good for me, because this time I surrendered. First I kicked the drugs, then I cleared my head and did some work on figuring out why I liked to put myself in the same position over and over again. Early in the morning of July 3, 2006, I checked into rehab. I did a full thirty days, I fully surrendered…I learned more about myself than I ever thought was possible. And of this writing, I’ve been sober ever since.”
Nikki Sixx is the co-founder and drummer for legendary rock band Motley Crue.
“There is something about spending Christmas alone, naked, sitting by the Christmas tree gripping a shotgun, that lets you know your life is spinning dangerously outta control.”
Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol by Steve Jones
Steve Jones is the guitarist from the notorious punk band The Sex Pistols.
“Even now I’ve been sober twenty-five years, I still wake up kind of miserable a lot of the time, but I don’t think you’re ever going to think, ‘Everything’s gonna be great from now on, because I’ve discovered the true meaning of me.’ I’m just happy not to be loaded. To that end, I do a lot of talks and sponsor a couple of other people as well, which I get a lot out of. Plus I still go to four or five meetings a week. I get there early and I thank the speaker afterwards.”
Many famous musicians struggled with various addictions, but many were also able to recover and went on to produce a lot of great music instead of falling victim to the stereotype. Their stories serve to provide strength and inspiration to others on a path of healing and health.
The best books and drinking and recovery from alcohol addiction
Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola
A memoir of unblinking honesty and poignant, laugh-out-loud humor, Blackout is the story of a woman stumbling into a new kind of adventure — the sober life she never wanted.
Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp
Fifteen million Americans a year are plagued with alcoholism. Five million of them are women. Many of them, like Caroline Knapp, started in their early teens and began to use alcohol as “liquid armor,” a way to protect themselves against the difficult realities of life. In this extraordinarily candid and revealing memoir, Knapp offers important insights not only about alcoholism, but about life itself and how we learn to cope with it.
Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnson
In Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, award-winning journalist Anne Dowsett Johnston combines in-depth research with her own personal story of recovery, and delivers a groundbreaking examination of a shocking yet little recognized epidemic threatening society today: the precipitous rise in risky drinking among women and girls.
Other great books about addiction
Clean by Amy Reed
A captivating novel about five teens in rehab. Olivia, Kelly, Christopher, Jason, and Eva have one thing in common: They’re addicts. Addicts who have hit rock bottom and been stuck together in rehab to face their problems, face sobriety, and face themselves. None of them wants to be there. None of them wants to confront the truths about their pasts. And they certainly don’t want to share their darkest secrets and most desperate fears with a room of strangers. But they’ll all have to deal with themselves—and one another—if they want to learn how to live. Because when you get that high, there’s nowhere to go but down, down, down.
My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean by Amy Dresner
In the tradition of Blackout and Permanent Midnight, a darkly funny and revealing debut memoir of one woman’s twenty-year battle with sex, drugs, and alcohol addiction, and what happens when she finally emerges on the other side.
Girl Walks Out of a Bar: A Memoir by Lisa Smith
A darkly comic, honest, and completely relatable inside look at high-functioning addiction in the world of corporate law-a sort of ‘Sex and the Psych Ward.’ It’s inspiring, informative, and impossible to put down.
Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster by Kristen Johnson
One of the Workit team says about this memoir by the award-winning actress, “Real, Honest, Raw, Recovery.”
Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life by John B Arden
One of the Workit counselors says about this book, “It’s not exactly recovery specific, but it’s really well done on why and how Cognitive Behavioral Therapy works. It also gives examples, stories, and exercises to try!”