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Open windows into the lives of addicts

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America Anonymous

Eight Addicts in Search of a Life

By Benoit Denizet-Lewis

Simon & Schuster, 342 pages, $30

THE number in this arresting book's subtitle is wrong.

There are nine addicts in America Anonymous -- the eight Massachusetts writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis profiles, plus one more, himself.

Between his self-revelatory introduction and glimpses of him that surface in the portraits of his eight subjects, you get a window into his life as a sex addict.

Though this is his first book, Denizet-Lewis is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated and Details.

His is an admitted "expanded understanding of addiction. That is, I believe that gambling, sex, food, spending and work (to name a few) can, for some people, be as addictive and debilitating as an addiction to drugs."

Where orthodox medical thought still defines addiction as a state of physical dependence on a drug or alcohol, Denizet-Lewis adopts a liberal interpretation that includes psychological compulsion or obsession.

So while his eight men and women include an alcoholic and heroin, crystal meth, crack and steroids addicts, he also profiles a food (compulsive overeating) addict, chronic shoplifter, problem gambler and a sex-and-porn addict.

The statistics he cites to bolster his recountings of individual addicts' lives are staggering.

"Today, nearly 23 million Americans -- 9.2 per cent of the population 12 or older -- are hooked on alcohol or drugs," he writes, "another 61 million smoke cigarettes, and millions more are slaves to gambling, compulsive overeating, and sex and pornography."

Running parallel to the gripping individual stories of addiction and recovery -- or just as often, failed recovery -- are Denizet-Lewis's conclusions about the nature of addiction.

While it's a virtual given there's a genetic predisposition to certain addictions, like alcoholism, addiction likes to run in pairs or troikas, according to Denizet-Lewis.

For example, a heroin addict is apt to combine that dependency with crack and prescription drugs. Or a steroids user might also use crystal meth. Several of the profiled addicts are multiple-substance abusers.

More surprising still is the ease with which addicts switch addictions.

Users who wean themselves off heroin readily become alcoholics. Alcoholics often successfully dump booze only to embrace nicotine and prescription drugs. Even food addicts who've had otherwise successful popular obesity treatments, such as gastric bypass surgery, frequently start abusing alcohol and drugs.

All of which often makes recovery a difficult, complicated and frequently elusive goal.

The stories of Bobby, a junkie from South Boston, Todd, a bodybuilder and male escort enslaved by steroids and crystal meth, and Janet, a Harlem crack addict taking a last-ditch shot a getting clean after her latest drug conviction, are stirring.

But oddly, the most moving accounts feature non-drug-or-booze addicts.

Ellen, a 51-year-old radio executive, wife and mother, scarfs down food in so many obvious and closet ways that she regularly soars to a weight of 300 pounds -- and then can't even bend down to tie up her shoelaces.

Kate, a 32-year-old stay-at-home mom is a compulsive shoplifter for whom a trip to Wal-Mart or Toys 'R Us is akin to plunking down a recovering junkie in a shooting gallery.

And then there's 20-year-old college student Sean, who spends 14-17 hours a day chasing down Internet porn and telephone sex, and who's had plenty of sex with prostitutes, but doesn't have a clue about how to get, and treat, a girlfriend.

The book's transparent intention is to tell compelling stories that lead to an understanding of, and thereby de-stigmatizing of, addiction.

It succeeds admirably.

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2009 B9

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