Update: Caroline Knapp died in 2002 of lung cancer. She was a heavy smoker. Very, very sad.
I had my eye on this book for years so it was perfect timing that it is recommended reading for one of my fall classes. I read it straight through in a few sittings which meant it was a bit overwhelming and redundant at times but as a whole it is a well-written and profoundly insightful memoir about drinking and alcoholism. What most resonated with me is the idea that there are phases of alcoholism from having alcoholic tendencies to full-blown homeless alcoholic. If this is true there are many, many more people with alcohol problems than meets the eye. I believe this and the idea that there are not a lot of people who truly have a healthy relationship with alcohol. I definitely have a love-hate-horrific-ecstatic relationship with alcohol which is far from healthy! The painful experiences and hard lessons Knapp details holds true for all addictive behaviors so if you're interested in addiction, I highly recommend this book.
Two passages I particularly liked:
One of the first things you hear in AA - one of the first things that makes core, gut-level sense - is that in some deep and important personal respects you stop growing when you start drinking alcoholically. The drink stunts you, prevents you from walking through the kinds of fearful life experiences that bring you from point A to point B on the maturity scale. When you drink in order to transform yourself, when you drink and become someone you're not, when you do this over and over and over, your relationship to the world becomes muddied and unclear. You lose your bearings, the ground underneath you begins to feel shaky. After a while you don't know even the most basic things about yourself - what you're afraid of, what feels good and bad, what you need in order to feel comforted and calm-because you've never given yourself a chance, a clear, sober chance to find out. p. 75
Essentially, drinking artificially "activates" the brain's reward system: you have a martini or two and the alcohol acts upon the brain's circuitry that makes you feel good, increasing the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is central to feelings of pleasure and reward. Over time (and given the right combination of vulnerability to alcohol and alcohol abuse), the brain develops what are known as "compensatory adaptations" to all that artificial revving up: in an effort to bring its own chemistry back into its natural equilibrium, it works overtime to decrease dopamine release, ultimately leaving those same pleasure/reward circuits depleted. p. 126