Even with the modern disease model, there's so much societal shame around addiction that romance authors probably approach it cautiously as a potential conflict. As Leigh Davis pointed out in her article on addicted heroines, we're more likely to see it in heroes than heroines, and we're more likely to see it as a situational response to some other trauma.
Looking at romance heroes with addictions, it seems that we also tend not to see them in active recovery. Perhaps because of the way masculinity is associated with strength, self-sufficiency, and control, romance heroes are more likely to successfully tough it out and go it alone; often they've basically recovered before the story really begins. Typical examples of more macho recovery are Joe in Shannon Stacey's Exclusively Yours, who quit drinking cold turkey after breaking his brother's nose in a rage, Zane in Cut and Run by Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux, who flushes his pills and stays clean, “because that was what Ty had wanted,” or Declan in Kresley Cole's Dreams of a Dark Warrior, who declares that he'll never shoot up again because, “I don't need to suppress my strength or get mindless again — I need to be strong and clear to protect what's mine.”
It's not usually that simple; just taking the first step of seeking help can be very hard, even for a supernatural warrior. In Lover Enshrined by J.R. Ward, vampire Phury goes to his first NA meeting and, “all he could think about was getting gone again.”
He didn’t belong here. These were not his people, and not just because none of them had fangs and a problem with sunlight.
But Phury is wrong... they are his people. And listening to their stories opens him up to the real possibility of change and freedom.
This was the gift of recovery, he thought. The ability to be here in this moment with the female he loved and be fully aware, fully awake, fully present. Undiluted.
Realistically, it's not that easy for him. The book ends with Phury still in great pain, still yearning for drugs to muffle his pain, but with a new awareness of what he's fighting for:
Life. In all its mundane majesty.
And you couldn’t take advantage of it if you were sitting on your ass in the shadows…whether that was in actuality, or metaphorically because you were trapped in an addict’s darkness.
That first step is also hard for alcoholic Mason in Kathy Love's Wanting What You Get, and he has to hit an emotional bottom before he can take it.
“She asked me if I would get help. If I loved her enough to get help.” Mason said, his voice low and filled with pain. “Such a simple question, with such a simple answer. But I didn’t answer, not with the truth.... And even after I knew that I had hurt her so badly, I still justified my actions to myself. I blamed my inability to tell her I loved her on my ex-wife. I blamed it on my parents. Hell, I even blamed it on this woman herself. But it wasn’t any of them. The blame was all mine. And the fact that I am an alcoholic.
“I couldn’t tell the most wonderful and amazing woman who’d ever walked into my life that I love her because I was too concerned with protecting my addiction. I put my drinking above the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Willingness to start is vital, but recovery is usually a continuing process. Suzanne Brockmann has written alcoholic heroes as believable works in progress in both Heartthrob and Infamous. In Infamous, A.J. definitely isn't doing recovery “perfectly” and his old army friend calls him on it:
"Shit,” he said. “Really? Ten years and you haven’t gotten past … what? Step four?”
“There were … things,” A.J. tried to explain, “that I was trying to ignore. Things I still try to ignore.”
“So are you really sober, sir?” Lutz asked bluntly. And when he called an officer sir that way, with that particular tone, what he really meant was asshole. “Or are you just a super-dry drunk?”
Nonetheless, A.J. is sober, and he has strongly internalized the tenets of recovery.
“I nearly got you killed,” she breathed, as she started to cry.
“That was yesterday,” he told her. “This is today. One day at a time, remember?”
She laughed through her tears at that. “I don’t think that applies to something like this.”
“Sure it does,” he said. “Trust me on this. It applies to everything.”
In But That Was Yesterday by Kathleen Eagle, we find an unusually complex, complete portrait of alcoholism and recovery. Alcohol abuse isn't just something that destroyed Sage Parker's marriage and alienated his family, but it's a major issue in his Lakota community. And so he not only seeks support, he helps to create it, with a recovery group he's called Medicine Wheel, and with local activism.
His white co-worker Megan has trouble understanding the impact of alcoholism on Sage's world, after growing up with a “problem drinker” dad.
“I don't have to be around it anymore. I do think my mother should do something about him, though. He's getting too old to behave so foolishly.”
“I wish my wife had done something about me, too.” He chuckled, shaking his head at the beauty of the notion. “It would have been a hell of a lot less work for me if she'd just taken the bull by the horns —” he gave Megan a lopsided grin along with the expression “—and made me quit drinking. Maybe she could have sewn my mouth shut or something.”
No one knows better than Sage that alcoholism is a life or death issue, and he grows increasingly impatient with Megan's inability to understand its gravity.
“You call him a 'problem drinker.' Why can't you call him an alcoholic?” He struggled to control the accusing edge in his voice, but it was there because of the way she sat up in front of him, so prim and proper. “Why should your family be granted immunity? Huh? What other diseases can't you get? It's killing my people...”
It's significant that Sage, who works harder than anyone for his recovery, is also one of the few romance heroes who actually has a relapse — because his is a story that really aims for truth, and relapses are often part of the truth about addiction.
At the opposite extreme is Rob, from Cara McKenna's Unbound. Rob hasn't had a drink in over two years, but he is less in recovery than in hiding. He's carefully cut himself off from all temptation, which includes cutting himself off from other people. Finding love doesn't cure Rob — or any of these characters — but it helps make him aware of how far he is from true sobriety, and how much work he needs to do to become a functional person.
In a sense, addictions are a perfect conflict for romances: they can cause so much heartbreak and suffering, yet have the potential for recovery, redemption, and a happy ending. These are some of the books that move past stigma and expectations to portray recovery in a meaningful way. Can you recommend others?
To find out more about each book mentioned: