Writing Addiction in Fiction

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As a writer of emotional, character-based stories, there are few topics I find more rich and complex than addiction. There’s so much potential for both tragedy and redemption, and people love rooting for a (not quite) lost cause. But there are countless novels about addiction out there. Some are contrived and excessively angsty, and some are so frustrating the reader might lose faith and give up. Steps to writing a great fictional addiction narrative––make sure the story is realistic and not overdone, and make it so frustrating that the reader would give up if they weren’t so absolutely engrossed and attached to your characters. Substance use disorders are some of the most difficult psychiatric problems to overcome, so an authentic portrayal of addiction should be almost as maddening to the reader as it is to the character themself.

In order to make your story as convincing and compelling as possible, you need to start with a good understanding of how addictive behaviors manifest. And while substance abuse can present in any number of ways, there are some traits and experiences common to most addicts.

Many if not most people struggling with substance abuse want to stop, but are either afraid to or unable to.

It’s pretty common knowledge that most addicts don’t actually want to be addicted to their drug of choice, but the specifics of how these individuals relate to their problem are nuanced. Some addicts may be in denial with regards to how serious their addiction is, and refuse to admit they want to stop using, even to themselves. It would be very realistic for your character to be in denial early on in the story, eventually reaching a point where they openly admit they need to change their behavior. For the most part, people with substance use problems do eventually understand that they are harming themselves, and possibly others as well. Still, they may not be able to stop using. That’s the nature of addiction. It would be very true to life for your character to try many times to get sober, relapsing over and over before seeing any success with staying clean. There’s also a strong element of fear in quitting drugs / alcohol. I’m an alcoholic (sober two years), and was also addicted to benzodiazepines and prescription painkillers. While I was high functioning and only used at certain times a day (I was always sober at work / school), these things were still a BIG part of my life, and the idea of stopping, particularly in a social context, terrified me. Some addicts may be so deep in their addiction, especially if it’s gone on for a long time, that they don’t fully know who they are without drugs. That in itself is scary, and could be something your character struggles with.

There are many signs of drug and alcohol abuse. Some symptoms vary by the drug, while others are common to many different drugs. These symptoms may include both physical and mental changes.

Before writing your story, it’s important to know what your character’s drug(s) of choice is / are. A quick Google search will give you a good idea on what signs of use an addict might be exhibiting, based on the substance they’re using. But some symptoms of addiction are common to abuse of many different drugs. Physical signs may include weight changes (losing or gaining suddenly), tremors, pupils looking larger or smaller than normal, slurred speech, and poor hygiene. Mentally, it would be realistic for your character to withdraw socially, show signs of depression, become easily agitated or anger, and have some memory loss as a result of consistent drug usage. Knowing the specific symptoms your fictional addict / alcoholic would be showing is crucial to crafting an effective addiction story, because direct effects of any given substance are the most tangible markers of addiction. You might have other characters in the story become suspicious that the addicted character is using drugs / drinking, or just sense something is off. And as you begin to flesh out how the individual’s substance use disorder looks outwardly, you should also be thinking about the way it manifests and affects behavior in a less visible way.

People with substance use disorders are often sneaky about their drug / alcohol usage to avoid conflict and / or pressure from loved ones to stop.

This was a huge thing for me. When I was around my family, I would always be sneaking an extra drink or making mixed drinks that just looked like juice, and would always order the beer with the highest alcohol content. My family drinks very regularly and is in no way against healthy alcohol usage, which is pretty indicative that there was a reason I was hiding (some of) my drinking with them––I kinda sorta knew I had a problem but was still in denial. With pills, I was even sneakier. Very few addicts / alcoholics, unless their friends and family are using too or at the very least enabling them, will be totally forthcoming about what and how much they’re using. Denial doesn’t mean that you legitimately don’t know what you’re doing is bad for you––you’re just keeping your feelings shoved down in your subconscious. In fiction, especially if you write in the third person, it can be hard to authentically depict the addictive thought process. But really, the mental gymnastics and actual measures taken to continue feeding an addiction are all founded on the principle of how can I get more?

For someone in the throes of addiction, life often revolves around their substance use.

This might vary depending on how severe an addict / alcoholic your character is. Most people who are truly addicted do, to some degree, plan their days around their usage. But this will look different depending on how high-functioning your character is, so you should determine this first. Are they still attending school / work? Are they using covertly (or not so covertly) at school / work? Have they lost their job or been kicked out of their house due to their substance use? Once you figure out how the character’s life has already been affected by their addiction, you can decide how it fits into their life.

For many addicts / alcoholics, there’s a sort of “ritual” to their substance use.

This is partially an effect of how addicts plan their lives around their addictions. There’s also a comfort element of it, as a result of psychological conditioning. Drugs and alcohol feel good (until they don’t). Because addicts come to associate such positive feelings with their substance of choice, they also frequently become attached to the practices and routines surrounding the drug. What does this mean? Some heroin addicts truly grow to enjoy the needle prick because they so strongly associate it with relief. In my book, the main character is addicted to prescription opiates and is relaxed by the mere process of cold water extraction. And it isn’t just that your character enjoys preparing the drug for usage––realistically, it’s also likely that they’ve developed almost ceremonial practices surrounding their drug use. The drug itself holds such an important, at times nearly spiritual place in the user’s life, the trappings of being an addict also become familiar and “neccessary”.

If your character does stop using during the story, be aware of the fact that if they have a significant physical addiction, they will feel it. In more serious cases, withdrawals can be nearly unbearable, and in the most extreme cases, they can be deadly.

Most hard drugs, and alcohol, carry the risk of physical dependence. And when somebody is very regularly using a substance for a long time, it’s not a question of if they’ll become physically addicted to it, but how severe their dependence is. If you intend to write a character coming off drugs, it’ll be important to look up symptoms of withdrawal for the specific drug your character is addicted to, because symptoms vary widely based on the substance (although many drugs do also share common withdrawal symptoms). The other biggest determinant of what your character’s experience of getting clean will be like is exactly how dependent they are on the drug. For example, when I quit drinking, I didn’t feel any negative physical symptoms at all. I quickly felt better, and lost weight. This is because alcohol withdrawal generally only occurs with severe alcoholics who are drinking throughout the day most days. On the otherhand, when I got off Xanax, it was literal hell. Benzodiazepines are a notoriously addictive class of anti-anxiety drugs, and Xanax is particularly habit forming, but I didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was. After years on a very high dosage, I quit cold turkey and was feeling sick for at least a month. In the beginning, I didn’t sleep at all, for days at a time, and had almost no appetite such that I lost fifteen pounds in a couple weeks. I was shaking, constantly cold, and intensely depressed and anxious. It was fucking terrible, and there are more difficult drugs to come off. So if you’re writing a story of addiction and recovery, don’t minimize the role withdrawals play in relapse. It can be extremely emotionally impactful and create a lot of tension (which is good in fiction) to show your character dealing with the effects of quitting, and perhaps considering whether they have what it takes to get clean.

Think about how your character’s addiction might affect their relationships (and it’s highly likely it will).

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an addict / alcoholic, real or fictional, who hasn’t had at least one relationship in their life negatively impacted by their addiction. It’s kind of a no brainer. Something that makes you act out, make poor decisions, and possibly need help financially or even help performing basic self-care, is naturally going to cause problems with the people in your life. When writing a story of addiction, the way drug or alcohol abuse affects relationships will likely be the most emotional, complex part of the story. To ensure said interpersonal problems feel realistic and raw, you’ll need to really get deep inside the character’s head. How would it feel to lose friends and alienate family members as a result of choices you continue to make? What would it be like emotionally to be out of control in this way? To make it easier to put yourself in the headspace of an addict, I recommend writing some journal entries from your character’s perspective. As you prepare to write your story, you should also have some idea of exactly how various relationships are impacted by your character’s addiction. Some loved ones may remain very supportive, and even enable the addict. Others may completely cut ties. Often it’s somewhere in between. Either way, addiction is something that’s almost certain to put strain on a family / couple / friend group.

Staying sober takes work.

Regardless of whether or not your character ends up getting sober and staying that way, it’s a good idea to have a sense of where their story is going as you write. If you intend for them to finally achieve sobriety, it may be an ongoing struggle. Even if the story ends happily, it’s likely that realistically, the character would be fighting the impulse to start using again for the rest of their life. This may be more or less true based on how severe the addiction was to begin with, and what drugs are involved. I go out to bars all the time with friends, and even though it makes me kind of sad I have to stick to seltzer while everybody else takes shots, I’ve never felt in danger of drinking again. Painkillers, on the other hand, I am still very wary of because I truly love them and know that if I had unrestricted access to opiates again, bad things would happen. Still, I’m able to stay off them. I also know somebody who has tried to quit pills time and time again, been to rehab multiple times, gotten life threatening injuries as a result of her drug use, and alienated almost everybody in her life, but still cannot go more than a week without relapsing. There are as many experiences of recovery and relapse as there are addicts, and usually how difficult staying clean is depends on what the substance is, how severe the addiction is, how disciplined and committed to recovery the individual is, and what supports they have. But even if the impulse to start using again is relatively manageable, steps will need to be taken to ensure the addict doesn’t fall back into their old habits. In a story centered around addiction, if and when the addicted character is in recovery, it’s a good idea to include in the story the specific ways in which the individual struggles. It isn’t enough to say that they thought about using all the time, but stayed disciplined nonetheless. Say that everytime they think of using again, they think of how afraid their daughter must’ve been when she found them passed out in their own vomit. Have them driving to meet their dealer, then halfway through the trip wonder what the fuck they’re doing and turn around. Maybe when they feel the urge, they look at a photo of themselves at their worst, emaciated with their skin covered in sores. There are so many emotionally salient ways you can depict the battle between drug cravings and desire for recovery. Just make sure you do depict it, and how exactly your character fights it.

Read primary sources! I always give this advice, but it’s the best way, and IMO the only way, to make sure your depiction of drug abuse or alcoholism is accurate and truly captures the experience of addiction.

As far as where to do your research––Google and other popular search engines can be good for quick lists of symptoms and drug effects, but when you research the actual experience of being an addict you need to go beyond this. Look at forums for addicts, and read memoirs by people who have struggled with addiction. If you’re writing about alcoholism, I highly recommend Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering. I also absolutely loved the HBO drama Euphoria for its realism (and the makeup, and watching Jacob Elordi be hot but evil). It’s fictional, but still a highly authentic addiction narrative because it’s heavily inspired by creator Sam Levinson’s experiences with addiction as an adolescent. But my top primary source recommendation for drug research is Reddit, hands down. There are communities for various drugs, and most of them are not focused on recovery. With a quick search of the massive site, you’ll find current users sharing their method, what dosage they’re at after years of tolerance building, street cost, and how to potentiate the drug. These are all things that for the most part, only somebody who uses the drug would know. For example, grapefruit juice potentiates (increases the effects of) many drugs, particularly opiates. Orally ingested drugs will generally be absorbed faster if placed under the tongue. Xanax tastes very bitter. Benadryl can be taken with opiates to decrease itching while increasing effects. You won’t find things like this on most sites with medically based drug information, so when in doubt, look to someone (or a whole Subreddit) with first hand experience.

And above all, remember that the individual is more than their addiction. If you’re taking the time to write about an addict, obviously you’re not likely to dehumanize them on purpose; but build the character before you build the addiction. With their substance use in the back of your mind, develop their personality and background, and from there introduce the drug habit.

Writing Addiction in Fiction