Book Review by Alan L. Chrisman
I wrote recently (“Relationships: It’s Complicated!”) about Susan Shapiro’s 1st devastatingly funny memoir, Five Men Who Broke my Heart, where she went back to interview old boyfriends to see why her relationships had fallen apart.
Well, this is her 2nd memoir and an equally funny and insightful book about her trying to get off her various “addictions”. As she described before, she has been living in New York trying to make it as a writer and teaching part-time at NYU.
She’s been in an off-and-on three year relationship with her more successful boyfriend who’s writing for several well-known TV comedy shows, but he seems reluctant to commit to marriage to her. So she agrees to accompany him to his psychiatrist as a last ditch attempt to salvage their relationship. Surprisingly, it works.
This psychoanalyst happens also to specialize in addiction therapy. Her now husband had always been careful to not criticize her, while dating, about her long-time smoking habit. But concerned about her health, he convinces her to try out this same therapist. After all, he has helped her boyfriend to finally commit, so she agrees to try.
And he’s not at all like her previous older Jewish psychiatrists. He looks younger and handsome (sort of like Pierce Brosnan) and has his own methods to help patients break their bad habits. She doesn’t really think, at first, that she has a problem. She’s had a much longer relationship with cigarettes (and other substances) than with any love relationship she’s had. She’s been smoking since she was 13 and is now nearing 40. Her dad, even though a cancer doctor, had been a long-time smoker, as well as a couple of eccentric aunts.
But she’s been having trouble finishing her first book and getting it published, although she’s free-lanced for every well-known publication in New York. This Dr. Winters tells her to just concentrate on her book and teaching, while at the same time to stop her addictions and predicts that if she does these things, she will get it published. She calls this new hopeful savior, her James Bond. She’s on the nicotine patch and going through withdrawal, but she’s also “addicted” to several other things: chewing gum, alcohol, pot, sugar, food. She just substitutes one with another for a while. But eventually she does slowly conquer each and learns through more sessions with him what is really at the root cause of her addictive personality.
Dr. Winters says, “Underlying every substance problem I have ever seen is a deep depression that feels unbearable.” He believes that addictions are all about trying to cover up the pain and bad feelings by trying to always escape. But that an addict gets stuck emotionally at that age when they started using. And sure enough, she can trace hers back to rebelling against her conservative over-achieving Jewish family from suburban Michigan. She’s the only girl, with three science-loving brothers, but with a very domestic mother, with whom she’s also always trying to compete for love and acceptance, as well as for her successful dad’s. She’s very intelligent though (she went to college at 16) and learned to be a good student for her family, but by “cutting corners”, at the same time hanging around with the “bad” boys. They only reinforced her addictive personality and desire to be cool. Her first love relationships are with cigarette smokers and pot users and it shows just how entwined social situations and addictions are. Most of her friends and fellow writers (and the idea that artists can’t create without it) are also involved with various substances. But Dr. Winters tells her she must learn to face her “sufferings” and not run away from them. He says she’ll have to re-program her feelings, for an addict goes for instant gratification.
It’s again very funny and perceptive, like her previous memoir, with great witty one-liners and observations about her addictions and herself and family. But it then takes an unusual turn. Even after she has pretty well seemingly come to grips with her various substances, it’s still not easy, for she has become super-sensitive in her new skin. But she has now become dependent on her therapist instead. He often arrives late or cancels, at the last minute, her appointments. She starts to feel rejected just like in her old bad-boyfriend rejection days, she’d written about in her previous book. Her confrontation on this leads to him revealing to her his own personal problems and life (unusual I’m sure in therapy), which are as complicated as hers. They reverse roles and she almost becomes his psychiatrist!
But with her addictions finally waning, her marriage and sex life improves. Her husband seems, luckily, an opposite and perfect match for her, and he rarely gets flustered with all this drama all around him (he is still going to Dr. Winters himself). Now, all she has to do is just figure how to finally overcome her addiction to Dr. Winters- which she does by the end of the book. As her therapist had first predicted, when she does end her scattered dependencies, she gets her 1st book published and also this second one and both are a success.
Lighting Up is one of the best and certainly funniest books I’ve read which captures both the allure and negative sides of common addictions and she describes them well. If you like to laugh and also at the same time might like to gain some insight as to why so many of us become addicted to so many things, I recommend her books.
But now, I have become “addicted” to Shapiro’s hilarious, but touching writings.
Susan Shapiro has now written nine books including, Secrets of a Fix-up Fanatic, Only Good As your Word, Speed Shrinking, Overexposed, as well still teaching at NYU and The New School. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Village Voice, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, Salon.com, etc.
Below George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set on You.” (which could be also be about “addictions”, and getting off them):