A Most Personal Novel: Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, His Own Battle with Addiction and the Powerful Army of Alcoholics Anonymous

One thing that has surprised me about the website you are currently navigating is how often I mention Stephen King. I’ve always enjoyed him as a writer, but in the last few years I have imbibed his novels with relish. I recently worked my way through The Shining  (a novel). Last weekend, I re-viewed Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. I wanted to investigate why King had such a problem with the popular film adaptation to his novel. He has regularly lambasted it publicly.  I came down to at least five potential reasons (although I would imagine King would add to this list):

1. Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance was, presumably to King, an awful casting choice

2. Danny Torrance’s “imaginary friend” Tony was reduced to a finger puppet

3. The film only scratched the surface of Jack Torrance’s addiction

4. Dick Hollorann quite literally gets the ax

5. The screenplay credit went not to Stephen King but to Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson

I don’t know Stephen King personally. From the personal narratives I have read of his, he strikes me as a “Type A” personality, especially when it comes to his work (as most artists are). Plus, The Shining (a novel) was an especially meaningful story to its creator. King renews his displeasure of the film in the Author’s Note attached to Doctor Sleep, a sequel to The Shining (a novel). He implores readers to understand that the true history of the Torrance clan can only be found in the pages of his novels, not in the reel cans of Kubrick’s film. In this Author’s Note, he also admits that he had been thinking about a sequel to The Shining (a novel) for some time. He wanted to catch up with Danny Torrance, to see how the boy’s life turned out. So in 2013, we were presented with Doctor Sleep.

Danny Torrance (now a grown man) is haunted by his memories of The Overlook Hotel and is exhausted by dealing with the repercussions of his “shine,” so he turns to alcohol to quiet the demons in his head. Knowing full well that addiction helped lead to his father’s death, Dan Torrance is aware of the danger of his need to drink, but he is powerless to stop himself. After hitting “bottom,” Dan is met with a choice: sobriety or continued misery.

The Shining for Stephen King was, to a certain extent, a cry for help. Although he didn’t recognize it at the time, he unconsciously understood that his alcohol and drug abuse was destroying his own life. It is far from a coincidence that Jack Torrance is a writer struggling with his own substance abuse issues. In Jack Torrance, King was creating the monster he saw in himself. King writes about his downward spiral in his semi-autobiographical On Writing. He writes about it with admirable honesty (confessing that you once owned a trashbag full of “beercans, cigarette butts, cocaine in gram bottles and cocaine in plastic baggies, coke spoons caked with snot and blood, Valium, Xanax, bottles of Robitussin cough syrup, and NyQuil cold medicine, even bottles of mouthwash,” in a major publication is, I think, a pretty adequate example of “admitting to God, ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”).

King justified his behavior as a necessary outlet for his creativity: If he didn’t drink and didn’t snort coke, he would no longer be able to work. Of course, King would learn that this was nothing more than an excuse. Sobriety did not stop Stephen King’s creativity. In fact, King’s sobriety spurred his writing. Because King sobered up, he became arguably the world’s greatest contemporary novelist. Had he not, he most assuredly would have ended up vomiting into the gutter of life. As he writes in On Writing, “We all look pretty much the same when we’re puking in the gutter.”

Doctor Sleep is littered with Alcoholics Anonymous “clichés.” Like Jack Torrance, there is a lot of Stephen King in Danny Torrance. Dan Torrance is King’s literary redemption. King’s “bottom” was an intervention that his family held for him, a day when his wife dumped out the trashbag mentioned above at his feet, revealing the true breadth of his troubles. It was this intervention that guided him towards sobriety. Dan Torrance finds his “bottom” in the hazy morning light of a strange woman’s bedroom and in the innocent eyes of a child awaiting his role in an inconceivable nightmare. This memory haunts Dan, until he recognizes that his life had reached a turning point. Torrance was standing at a fork in the road, and he saw an easy walk towards death or a mountainous climb towards salvation. Would he make the choice his father did? Would he let his addictions consume him? Or would he reach out for help? This choice is one that every addict faces.

The Big Book

This is what is known as the “Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.” It is essentially a Bible for the AA program. The “Big Book” was first published in 1939 by one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous Bill W. Bill W. was at one time a successful Wall Street businessman who watched his career fall to tatters because of his addiction. The book is filled with personal stories of people who have been touched by addiction. It was developed to help people overcome these addictions. It teaches the necessity of abstinence and the need for addicts to find a power greater than themselves to overcome their addictions. The true breadth of its success is incalculable. It’s one of the world’s most influential and best-selling books. There is no telling how many lives this book has helped save, but I would imagine the number is in the millions. One of those lives is that of my mother.

25 year medallion

Above is a medallion, or a “chip,” that recovering alcoholics (or addicts) receive for personal milestones in sobriety. This medallion was presented to my mother on the anniversary of her 25th year of sobriety. I inherited this medallion as well the fourth edition of the “Big Book” (pictured above) about a year ago. In fact, it will be a year ago this week when I received the most devastating phone call of my life.

I was working in Texas when my sister called me. My mother had quite suddenly been admitted to a Minneapolis hospital. My sister and I (along with brother-in-law and niece) flew to Minnesota that day. Upon entering the hospital, it became clear that my mother would never leave the hospital alive. She was in a coma and her end was near. The suddenness of it all was mind-boggling. Just a month earlier, my mother had welcomed her first grandchild. She was relatively healthy for a woman of her age. Yet there she was, lying in a hospital bed, fighting a losing battle with nature.  How do you say goodbye to a woman who has sacrificed so much for you? What words would do in that moment? No words, I suppose, would be adequate in such a moment. But with tears waterfalling down my face, I leaned down and kissed her on the forehead and, with a trembling voice, whispered to her, “You are the strongest person I have ever known; I love you.”

My mother was an alcoholic. MY MOTHER WAS AN ALCOHOLIC! I would scream these words from the rooftops, broadcast them across the world, or write them down so they would live forever on the world-wide-web. I’ve never been ashamed by this fact; in fact, I have such an immense pride that it is very difficult to put into words.

The connotation of the word “alcoholic” comes attached with a lot of negativity. Alcoholics are seen as weak; they are viewed as impulsive and unable to control themselves. It is my belief, though, that alcoholics are capable of immense strength. To me, recovering alcoholics are people who have admitted to having a problem, have put their faith in a higher power, and are continuously working the twelve steps of the AA program. This person faces his/her addiction day by day, attends AA meetings regularly, and is clear-eyed in the fact that maintaining sobriety will improve his/her life and conversely not maintaining sobriety will lead him/her back towards the life that brought him/her to AA in the first place. This is an ongoing process that is never fully complete. As they say in AA, “once an alcoholic always an alcoholic.”

***People may rightly argue that AA is not the only path to sobriety. For this article, I am using recovery from an AA perspective, although many have found sobriety absent of AA.

Alcoholism is a disease as devastating as cancer. If you disagree with this, you ought to take a stroll around in the gutter. Alcohol has destroyed marriages, ripped apart families, and brought some extremely powerful men and women to their knees. This disease has no absolute cure, but it does have a potential antidote and, for many, that is sobriety. This antidote comes with it a daily battle as difficult as any in war. It may be hard for those who do not suffer from addiction to understand the excruciating struggle it takes to maintain sobriety. If you have never wanted to scream at a dinner guest for leaving a half empty beer glass on the table, hidden bottles and cans from loved ones out of fear or embarrassment, or stared at a tumbler knowing that downing that drink is the absolute worst decision you could possibly make but are powerless to stop yourself, then you might find empathy difficult.

My mother was surrounded by alcohol from a young age. As a young woman, she bonded with her own mother over glasses of vodka. Later she would be in and out of rehab, in spite of having two small children at home. It was about three decades ago when she was presented with an ultimatum: sober up or lose your children. For most people, this choice would be an easy one. For an alcoholic, it is anything but. Alcohol to an alcoholic is a loved one and a member of the family. Alcohol is there to console in times of pain and to celebrate in times of joy. It is a confidant and the most seductive of mistresses. As King points out in On Writing, it is extremely difficult for an alcoholic to imagine life without alcohol. It has become such an important part of life that getting rid of it is almost unthinkable, not to mention an incredibly terrifying thought.

Approached with an enormous challenge, my mother steeled herself for a final push towards sobriety. I can only imagine how trying it was for her in those early days. For her, Alcoholics Anonymous was a lighthouse to a boat stuck in a terrible storm. She worked the steps and found the sobriety that had so desperately alluded her throughout her life. In AA, she found a family. Her friends, boyfriends, and eventually her husband all worked the program. She prayed to that higher power and treated the twelve steps as commandments. Her church was inside 2218 in Minneapolis. It was there she found a purpose. It was there she shared her experience and guided others on the path towards salvation. Inside those walls, she laid down her burden and came to the holy realization that her life was better without alcohol.

As a child, I remember tagging along to a few meetings and retreats with her. I can still smell the burning cigarettes and taste the coffee. I can remember one AA retreat in particular. I think it was a New Year’s Eve party (one of those more than grim evenings for a recovering alcoholic). My mother asked me why I wasn’t playing volleyball on a nearby court. I told her that the adults wouldn’t let me play. She fixed that problem, right quick. It is one of those cringe-worthy memories I have of my mother that I now cherish.  I have a sneaky suspicion that a lot of the good things that have happened to me in the past year have something to do with her. I can almost see her badgering the Almighty, saying “you’d better fix this.”

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

– Serenity Prayer

My mother and I prayed together nightly. I can automatically recite the Serenity Prayer, and I often do when life or a jagged memory gets too overbearing. A solid AA “cliché” was never far from her lips: “Fake it ‘til you make it.” “This, too, shall pass.” “One day at a time.” Through my mother’s own strength and the AA program, I was given a relationship with an incredible woman. I would often joke with her in her final years that she could probably handle a glass of wine. But she remained steadfast in her sobriety.  She probably was aware as they say in AA, “We are either working on recovery or we’re working on a relapse.” As Stephen King writes in Doctor Sleep: “For every seven alcoholics who walk through our doors, six walk out again and get drunk. The seventh is the miracle we all live for.” My mother was that miracle.

 

mom
The strongest person I’ve ever known: my mother, Jo White-Linnemon

 

Some view AA as a cult. Some would say that abstinence is too hard, that alcoholics need an easier path to sobriety. All I have is my perspective. AA helped give me back my mother. For that, I will remain eternally grateful. She fought a war every day for herself as well as for her family. Remember that, if you ever stumble across a “Big Book” on the desk of a colleague or pick up an AA “chip” that has spilled out of a stranger’s purse on the subway. Give a knowing nod. Let this nod be not out of pity but out of admiration, because you have just met a warrior, a solider in the army against addiction.

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