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I’ve been really busy so January was a slow reading month. I hurt my knee running today so I decided to lie on the couch, ice my knee, and chow down on some books. I consumed the second half of A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, which I had been slowly wading through the past two weeks.
This is one of the most intense books I’ve read in a long time. It’s Frey’s autobiographical account of his six weeks in rehab. The fly leaf sets up the story with the following: At the age of 23, James Frey woke up on a plane to find his four front teeth knocked out, his nose broken, and a hole through his cheek. He had no idea where the plane was headed nor any recollection of the past two weeks. An alcoholic for ten years and a crack addict for three, he checked in a treatment facility shortly after landing. There he was told he could either stop using or die before he reached age 24.
The first half of the book is just fucking bleak. I’m fortunate that drugs, alcohol, and addiction have not had a meaningful role in the play called my life. While I’ve got a friend who became addicted to drugs 20 years ago and I spent a decade trying to help him before giving up, the vast majority of my “one degree of separation” friends and family have not had any addiction issues. As a result, the impact of the book on me might have been amplified as the landscape was so unbelievably foreign to me. I worked my way through the first half slowly during the past two weeks – both because I was concentrating on other things – and it was hard to move through it very quickly.
The second half is a story of renewal. Slowly – painfully slowly – Frey starts to make progress. As the period of time that he’s sober and clean lengthens, he starts to address – with the treatment counsellors and lawyers – his legal issues, his parents, and some of his real demons. He is incredibly stubborn, yet extremely insightful, and admirable in how he takes responsibility for himself. When one of his counsellors – in treatment with his parents – suggests that the core of his problems may be a combination of genetics and a severe / chronic ear infection he has for the first few years of his life (unbeknownst to his parents) he rejects it.
James: It’s an interesting theory. It probably holds some weight. I can accept it for what I feel it is, which is a possibility. I won’t accept it as a root cause, because I think it’s a cop-out, and because I don’t think it does me any good to accept anything other than myself and my own weakness as a root cause. I did everything I did. I made the decisions to do it all. The only way I’m going to get better is if I accept responsibility for the decision to either be an Addict or not be an Addict. That’s the way it has to be for me. I know you’re going to try and convince me otherwise, but you shouldn’t bother.
Joanne (counsellor): … you are the single most stubborn person that I’ve ever met.
James: I just won’t let myself be a victim. … People in here. People everywhere, they all want to take their own problems, usually created by themselves, and try to pass them off on someone or something else. I know my Mother and Father did the best they could and gave me the best they could and loved me the best the could and if anything, they are victims of me. I could say I’m flawed in my genetic makeup, that I have this disease and my addictions are caused by the presence of it, but I think that’s a lot of shit. I’m a victim of nothing but myself, just as I believe that most people with this so-called disease aren’t victims of anything other than themselves. If you want to call that philosophy stubbornness, go right ahead. I call it being responsible. I call it the acceptance of my own problems and my own weaknesses with honor and dignity. I call it getting better.
This exchange reminded me of my favorite quote from Atlas Shrugged, “Nobody stays here by faking reality in any manner whatever.” Buried in this emotionally devastating and ultimately awesomely inspiring 400 page book about one man’s effort to overcome his addiction is a component of my own personal philosophy – “take complete responsibility for all of your actions.” Intense.