Writing about addiction is hard. It feels too intimate. It feels drenched in sentimentality. How do you describe the sound reverberating off gymnasium walls as a circle of people in folding chairs voice their ugliest secrets? How do you describe the morning after a relapse? How do you describe the last of what will become so many lasts?
I think that’s why I keep rereading William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind. Set in the town of Oxyana, West Virginia — a nickname given to the town of Oceana due to the number of deaths associated with OxyContin and other opiates — Brewer introduces us to a cast of speakers all grappling with addiction from different angles. Some are users, some are family members, some are recovering addicts in rehab centers and halfway houses, some are the dead.
Brewer’s approach is not to tell one linear story following a character’s spiral into addiction, a rock-bottom-come-to-the-light moment of realization, followed by a rehabilitation that leads to a tear-jerking happily ever after (a story most addicts either wince or roll their eyes at). Instead, Brewer casts light on the complicated issue of opiate addiction by employing a multitude of voices that blend and twist in and out of one another until we aren’t certain who exactly is speaking.
In “Resolution” we meet a user the morning they’ve decided to get clean (“While everyone / was drinking and ringing in / the New Year, I stood in the yard / and decided that sometimes / you have to tell yourself / you’re the first person // to look out over / the silent highway / at the abandoned billboard // lit up by the moon / and think it’s selling a new / and honest life”) as they contemplate a future without even the luxury of over-the-counter pain medication: “They’ll say / the hard part’s coming. / When you can’t / take anything for the pain, / the pain takes you.”
In “Relapse Psalm” an addict recalls their introduction to their substance: “I first felt the tongue of warmth and glamour / innocently enough — an ER bed, / two stabs of morphine for my snapped shin / bent like an elbow.” A reminder that addiction can begin in the safest and most innocuous places. We later meet an enabling brother who finally denies their sibling cash and a father whose son has abandoned rehab: “I wish I could settle on which tense you belong to.” The “Messenger of Oxyana” appears as a coroner going house to house to report deaths to families: “I have held the still hive of his head, / have placed my lips against the shadow // of his mouth, screamed air into his chest, / watched it rise like an empire then fall / into that one and stupid sleep.”
When it comes to addiction, I find people want simple answers. And the hardest part about addiction is there aren’t any. Even as a culture, we oversimplify. “Get help” is our numb, useless mantra. Brewer is constantly disrupting that narrative about addiction — constantly complicating it. As the voices blend, the distance between self and other disappears. In Oxyana, there are no divisions between us and them, lost or saved, sober and addict. There is only a we: “Oblivion is all we have” and “Oblivion is liberating.”
Every couple of years, news reaches me through the grapevine of my hometown that another name has been taken by an overdose, or I hear rumor that so-and-so from high school is using again. I read the short obituaries. I read the platitudes that inevitably cover Facebook. We distance ourselves from it because it’s terrifying. We try to control with empty clichés what is by definition a lack of control. But Brewer is adamant — this isn’t just their fight. It’s ours.
Our rehabs are full. And many are outright scams full of empty promises and laughable treatment plans. And even if you get into one, there’s no guarantee you’ll survive it (“First the rapid deaths. Then those after. Brittany was clean, / KC’s brother too”). And even if you do, you leave with thousands of dollars of debt and a gnawing fear — what if it didn’t take?
There aren’t easy answers:
“When they said it’s time
to get sober, they really meant it’s time to wake
as bait on a hook cast onto the black tongue
of a river, sinking through breathless dark into the currents
sweetened by limestone. The hook is tied to a line that goes up
past the stars — where it ends, I cannot see. When it tugs me,
I twitch like a living thing; I play along, an invitation
to every mouth that is alone and hungry and without words.”
- Andrew Reeves