Book Review | Dry by Augusten Burroughs

dry.jpgHoly shit, how am I going to review this? I guess the first thing you need to know is this: I am recovering alcoholic. Dry is the story of an active alcoholic who becomes a recovering alcoholic and then an active alcoholic and then a recovering alcoholic, etc. etc. It’s a memoir, these things are true, and boy did I have a lot of feelings about it.

In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever flagged as many passages in a book as I did in Dry. No, wait, that’s not true – I think I used about five hundred in that book about potatoes that was one of the vilest things I’ve ever read. Still! So many fucking flags!

First, I should say that the writing is good. I like my memoirs written pretty novel-like, you know, with dialog and such, and Burroughs does that well. The story is fast paced, the characters are fleshed out and complex and very real. You’d think that characters who are literally real would generally translate to “real” on the page but it’s harder than you may think. Burroughs does it well.

I identified with so much in this book:

  • His inability to separate himself from his drinking. “The thing is, I know I drink too much, or what other people consider too much. But it’s so much a part of me, it’s like saying my arms are too long. Like I can change that?”
  • His feelings in early sobriety that he’ll just get sober for a little bit and then all will be well. “Now I’m thinking rehab could turn out to be great. I’ll dry out for thirty days and it’ll be like going to a spa. When I come home, I’ll be able to drink more like a normal person drinks.”
  • The way he compartmentializes his life. “I also can’t ever have any of my friends meet each other. I have to keep them all separate. And they all think this is a little strange, but for some reason it’s normal to me.”
  • His attempts to convince himself that since he’s not as bad as ‘those people’, he can’t be a ‘real alcoholic.’ “I would never drink cologne and therefore am not an ‘alcoholic’ and am, in fact, in the wrong place. This is clearly the place for the die-hard, cologne-drinking alcoholics. Not the global-brand-meeting-misser alcoholics, like me.”
  • His (incorrect) assumptions of what Alcoholics Anonymous would be like. “I’m afraid what I see in my head might be close to the truth: Held downstairs in the dank, unused basements of churches, I envision a shamed group of people wearing long dark coats and old Foster Grant sunglasses, sitting in folding metal chairs. Everyone is clutching a white Styrofoam cup filled halfway with bad coffee. Filled only halfway so the coffee doesn’t slosh out, due to the fact that everyone’s hands are trembling from withdrawal.”
  • How completely baffled he is with his drinking. How it makes no sense to him. A good example of this takes place when he returns home from rehab and sees bottles lined up all over his apartment. “My apartment is my secret. It’s filled with empty liquor bottles. Not five of six. More like three hundred. Three hundred one-liter bottles of scotch, occupying all floor space not already occupied by a bed or a chair. Sometimes I myself am stunned by the visual presentation. And the truly odd part is that I really don’t know how they got there. You’d think I’d have taken each bottle down to the trash room when it was empty. But I let two collect. And because two is nothing, I let three collect. And on it went. The ironic thing is that I’m not the kind of person who saves things.”
  • The fact that he had to learn how to understand emotions. This was true for me. I could tell you if I felt good or bad, but in early sobriety there was no additional nuance to my feelings. Was I angry or scared? No idea! In Dry, Burroughs discusses how his rehab folks dealt with this issue. “It was illustrated with about twenty different faces, drawn with simple black lines and displaying an emotion. Under each face was a caption. Happy. Sad. Jealous. Angry. Confused. Afraid. ‘When you’re wondering what it is you’re feeling at any given moment, simply pull out this chart and find the face that fits your mood.’ So it’s basically an alcoholic-to-normal dictionary. I found myself carrying the thing folded up in the front pocket of my jeans and referring to it constantly, trying to decide what I was feeling.”
  • Eventually he begins to really embrace AA and be grateful for it. Once again, something I can relate to. “I feel bathed in safety. I feel like I have this secret place I can go and say anything in the world, about anything I feel, and it’s okay. And this makes me feel grateful to be an alcoholic.”
  • He does an excellent job describing the frustration of trying to talk to non-alcoholic people about alcoholism, like when his friend says, “Yeah, but beer isn’t alcohol. It’s just . .  . beer. I mean, right? That’s right, isn’t it?”
  • One of the hardest things for me was grieving the loss of alcohol. Even though it was literally killing me, even though it was destroying everything in my life, even though I no longer even wanted to drink, I grieved the loss of it. Burroughs writes, “I miss alcohol. Like it’s a person. I feel abandoned. Or rather like I’ve walked out of a violent, abusive relationship and want to go back because in retrospect, it wasn’t really all that violent or abusive.”
  • The emptiness that alcoholism creates in us. “‘Nothing is enough, nothing is ever enough. It’s like there’s this pit inside me that can’t be filled, no matter what. I’m defective.’  ‘You’re not defective. You’re an alcoholic,’ he says, as if this neatly explains everything. Which, of course, it does.”
  • Early sobriety is hard. It’s hard to explain just how hard it is – and not just for the reasons people think of. Yes, not picking up a drink is hard, but learning how to live is hard. The mood swings are ridiculous. Burroughs describes an experience in early sobriety very well, “It’s Saturday, noon, and I’ve been chain-smoking and drinking coffee alcoholically since seven this morning. I’ve had two pots. I feel electrified, like I’ve been blow-drying my hair in the bathtub. I’m completely manic – singing along loudly to the radio, but to different songs than they’re playing. I’m like somebody who has just decided to stop taking important psychoactive medication. I’m so crazy this morning that Hayden couldn’t stand being around me and went out for a walk,” and later that chapter, “I hate having feelings. Why does sobriety have to come with feelings? One minute I feel excited, the next I feel terrified. One minute I feel doomed and the next I feel free. I think about lobotomies.”

I know that’s a lot of things I just wrote and I could write a lot more things, some in this book and some not covered in this book. Suffice it to say, Dry gave me a lot to relate to and a lot to think about. I’m curious about the experience of reading it for the non-alcoholic but for this alcoholic it was a very true-to-life memoir that excelled at explaining what it’s like to go from drop-dead drunk to jonesing sober person.

3 thoughts on “Book Review | Dry by Augusten Burroughs

  1. That is a very touching review on a difficult subject to talk openly about. Sounds like it was a positive if trying experience. And your review of the book on potatoes(?) was spot on and hilarious – impressed you could be articulate about claims that just would have left me roaring with incoherent rage!

    • Thank you kindly! And I just re-read my potatoes review and realized that at no point in that review do I mention potatoes, so I imagine that’s confusing! Basically, the guy who wrote that vile book wrote what I imagine was another vile book called “Faith Like Potatoes” and then they made a movie of it and the trailer is extra special terrible. My friends and I laughed and laughed at it and then talked about “that potato guy” a lot.

      And yes, I did roar with plenty of rage while reading and reviewing that vile book but writing the review was actually pretty cathartic.

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