6 Best Books on Addiction To Break Down Stigma and Open Your Mind

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.' Want to get caught up? These books can get you started:

1. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction by Gabor Maté

Gabor Mate In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
“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.”

I heard Dr. Maté speak at a convention many years ago, and was immediately smitten. He advocates for compassion towards addicts, 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.

2. High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society by Carl Hart

High Price Dr. Carl Hart
"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.

3. Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction by Maia Szalavitz

Unbroken Brain 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."

This one comes highly recommended by Chrissy, our Directory of Counseling: "This is by far my favorite book about the science of 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 lays on a spectrum. This book is awesome because it removes 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."

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

Chasing the Scream Johann Hari
“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. Gloria, our Head of Marketing, says: “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 addicts? The war on drugs is appalling.”

5. Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction by David Sheff

Beautiful Boy David Sheff
“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 of 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 of addicts) 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

6. Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones

Dreamland 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.

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Kali Lux is a content writer and editor with a gift for breaking down big ideas into digestible bits. She loves to talk, write, and read recovery. Her short humor has been featured on McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and her BA in English is from ASU.