Incorporating addiction into a story can be very challenging for an author. Most of us have been around family and friends who've lost control of their life to either drugs or alcohol. And some of us have watched these individuals quit, going months or years without using their drug of choice, only to relapse, or fall off the wagon. We know that there is no cure and that many times addiction goes hand in hand with some type of mental disorder like depression or trauma, like PTSD. We know that people use alcohol and drugs to self-medicate; to feel good, to smother pain, and to escape untenable situations.
By incorporating addiction into a storyline, not only does the author have to convince us that there is a happy-ever-after in the hero’s or heroine’s future, but the author also has to create a relatable flawed character and explain why the character is acting in a non-heroic way. Most authors do this by writing situational addiction—the loss of a child, the trauma of war, the pain from childhood, etc. Many authors show the addiction in the past, making the character immediately worthy of readers’ regard.
While both hero and heroines deal with addiction, it seems to me that the majority are male. Maybe it’s a throwback to the Victorians' beliefs that women are paragons of perfection and purity, or maybe as female readers we would much rather identify with the person doing the saving rather than the person whose life has spiraled out of control. What do you think—is there a readers’ partiality for tortured heroes over heroines?
So who are the authors that are brave enough to write about female addicts? Diane Chamberlain is one of them. In fact, she's not afraid to explore something that is fairly sacrosanct—an unborn child. While the main story arc in Before the Storm is fifteen years after Laurel Lockwell’s son birth, we see the poor choices Laurel made in flashbacks, such as sleeping with her brother-in-law, which resulted in her becoming pregnant and then giving birth to a child suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome:
“Your brother-in-law said you barely drank at all before then,” the social worker said. “I think you felt so bad after your daughter was born that you started to medicate yourself with alcohol to take away the pain.”
I wanted a wine cooler right then, more than anything.
“The pediatricians in the neonate intensive care unit believe your baby may have problems caused by your drinking.“
I was suddenly alert. “What kind of problems?”
“His small size is probably related to your alcohol consumption,” she said. ”His Apgar scores were low. Fortunately, he doesn’t have the facial deformities we often see in babies with fetal alcohol problems, but he did have some respiratory distress that was more than they’d expect in a preemie of his gestational age. There’s often central nervous system involvement. Possibly intellectual or cognitive impairment. It’s too soon to know how severely he might be affected or even if he will be affected that way at all.“
I froze inside. What had I done?
“Is he…” I tried to picture the baby I’d seen only briefly in the delivery room. “Is he suffering?” I asked.
“It’s hard to know how much neonates feel,” she said. “What you need to know at this point, though, is that Andrew’s now in the custody of Protective Services. When he’s ready to leave the hospital, he’ll go to a foster home until we can evaluate your home situation.”
One of my favorite characters, hands down, is April Robillard from Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Natural Born Charmer. April spent most of her son Dean’s childhood boozed up or drugged out. It wasn’t until she was in her forties, and Dean was an adult, that she finally became sober.
Dean wants nothing to do with her, and only remembers the mother of his past and the chaotic vacations he spent with her. He never knew if he would be staying in a luxury villa, a seedy apartment or fleabag hotel. Of course that’s not all he remembers:
The echoes of her drunken sobs whispered in his ears. “Don’t be mad at me, baby. It’ll get better. I promise. Tell me you love me baby. If you tell me you love me, I promise I won’t drink anymore."
April has been trying for years to make amends but bitter and distrustful Dean still refuses to accept that she has changed. Faced with her son’s endless contempt, and the re-entry of Jack Patriot, an old lover and her son’s father, into her life, she has to take a moment to remember that she is not the woman she was and the woman they remember:
The bars and clubs were where she’d lost her life, and sometimes she needed to go back so she could remind herself that the drugged out party girl eager to debase herself with any man who caught her eye no longer existed.
She has accepted that she is an addict, and relapse is just one drink away. All she can do now is take it one day at a time and realize that:
She couldn’t control Dean’s feelings, only her own. Let go and let God.
Phillips wrote about another heroine who used alcohol to excess, Sugar Beth Carey from Ain’t She Sweet. When Ryan Galantine, the man Susan Beth jilted demands if she ever thought of him, she doesn’t hold anything back:
“I thought about you all the time,” she retorted. “When Daren Tharp slapped me across the room, I thought of you. When he screwed around on me, I thought of you. And the night I staggered into a Vegas wedding chapel with Cy, both of us so drunk we could barely say our vows, I thought of you then, too. One morning—and this happened after my divorce, mind you, because, unlike my loser husbands, I didn’t screw around. One morning I woke in a seedy motel with a man I could have sworn I’d never seen before, and baby, you’d better believe I thought of you then.”
A mixture of emotions played across his face: shock, pity and the faintest trace of satisfaction that came from knowing she’d been punished for what she’d done to him.
In Baby Makes Three by Molly O’Keefe, heroine Alice Mitchell is deep in the abysses of denial, and her addiction:
The hangover, the sleeplessness, this mindless menial job that paid her part of the mortgage, it all weighed her down like sandbags attached to her neck
Tonight no drinking, she swore.
She couldn’t change the fact that she’d fallen from chef and owner of Zinnia’s to head line chef at one of the three Johnny O’s franchises in Albany. The damage was already done and she’d come to grips with it.
But she could control the drinking.
A small voice reminded her that she made that promise almost every night.
And even when her ex-husband gives her a chance to run her dream restaurant, she can’t keep from drinking. She does better, but still at times alcohol is the only thing that numbs the pain of the end of her marriage, of her many miscarriages, and the loss of her restaurant. When Cameron, a young-at-risk boy confronts her, she realizes that she can’t keep lying to herself:
“What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to apologize for the way I acted last week.”
Apologies from drunks don’t mean anything,” he snapped and she felt as if she’d been blasted right between the eyes with shards of glass.
“Okay…” She sighed and steeled herself for his venom because she deserved it. “How about a job?”…
She could feel the hope and longing roll off him and slam into her chest. Breath was thick in her throat, her chest felt tight, but in a good way, as though she couldn’t hold in all the things she felt for him. How glad she was she could help him.
“No,” he said, surprising the hell out of her.
He chewed on his lip and crossed his arms over his chest, revealing a sudden strength she’d hadn’t expected. “I’ve had enough of drunks,” he said.
What stories of addicted heroines have touched you? These examples involve alcohol, with drug addicted heroines harder to find. Is alcohol easier for readers to deal with? Do you find it difficult to believe in a happy every after for a character who is a former addict? Do you prefer stories that deal with active addiction and the recovery process or ones where the addiction is in the past?
Leigh Davis, blogger