Jenny Valentish’s book Woman of Substances is subtitled “A journey into addiction and treatment” and sets out to explore how addiction is triggered and plays out specifically in women, across a range of behaviours: drug abuse, alcoholism, abusive or obsessive relationships, eating disorders, self-harm and self-mutilation, and other compulsive behaviours, including sex and theft. She investigates social and historical factors as well as neuroscience, endocrinology and psychiatric approaches.
Organised in three parts, (Part One: Predictors of a problem; Part Two: Gendered adventures in addiction; Part Three: Woman’s Lib), this book is part sociological research, part memoir. Both aspects resonate with me. Valentish writes as someone who came of age in south-east England’s music scene in the early ‘90s, who published a fanzine, was publicly represented in the tabloids as a music groupie, who was immersed in music and drugs and alcohol, was sexually abused, who relocated to the other side of the planet, has intimate experience of addiction and (arguably) mental illness. She now lives in regional Victoria.
We have common ground. I was a rock music writer from ages 17 to 29, writing for rock music publications, pilloried as a teen by Molly Meldrum on Countdown as a “stupid female”, constantly negotiating the crosslines between sexual experimentation, peer perception and shame, witnessing drug and alcohol abuse, occasionally participating, with intimate experience of other forms of addiction, and mental illness. I crossed the planet, in reverse, to spend my 30s in ’90s London. I now live in regional Victoria.
Like Jenny, I am fascinated by the challenges posed by writing memoir.
Jenny Valentish describes her personal experience woven through her research findings as a “case study”. As it happens, one of my freelance employments is editing the psychiatric case studies required of trainee psychiatrists. It’s all too easy for me to condense and mentally reformat Valentish’s accounts of her personal experiences as third person psychiatric reports. It’s easy, too, for me to follow her accounts of different treatment methods and wellness strategies, as set out in the book’s final section. Truthfully, that section is so lucid I would recommend it to anyone who hopes to learn what works.
She writes wonderfully.
I nearly did not read this book. I’d seen a review that commented on how direct her language was, presenting as an example,”I had a cock in my mouth by the age of seven.” I took that to be the book’s opening line. I was concerned this would be a sensationalist, exhibitionist narrative – the “crazy woman as attention-seeker” trope. A part of me felt I already knew this story. Why revisit it through someone else’s darkness?
To learn, to contextualise, to rethink, to reframe, to empathise, to better understand. Because it’s well-researched. It’s useful reporting. It’s entertaining. It’s encouraging.
I had some predictable responses. I found it impossible not to map her experiences against mine, not to place us in relative positions on a graph mapping “Just how bad was that?”
There are no prizes for being the most out-there addict. That said, as a reader, and as someone who had thought our experiences might be loosely comparable, I was shocked, actually distressed, by much that Valentish recounts. I felt outraged on behalf of her 14 year old self, being inducted into music scene sex; her 18 year old self, raped in an alley; her 26 year old self, fleeing an abusive ex across oceans; her 7 year old self, sexually abused by a neighborhood teen – outraged by the continuum of her experiences. I felt shocked, confused, by the extent of her substance abuse. Why would she subject herself to that? How did she function, build a career?
The “Why would she subject herself to that?” is, obviously, the question the project addresses. How did she function, build a career? Seems to me that side by side with – or within, or fronting, or inextricable from – the identity Valentish presents on the page, the person who stumbles and trips and can’t articulate coherently, there was the person who functioned just fine, thank you ma’am, within her chosen environments, aided by considerable intelligence, her talent, her resilience, her humour, other character traits she doesn’t make explicit, and by her social capital (education, beauty, middleclass background).
In the final section, the section about treatment options and the experience of weaning off addictions, Valentish writes briefly about narrative therapy. This is the process whereby a person articulates their story and then, with an appropriately qualified therapist, they “look at some of the dominant narratives that they are using to give themselves a hard time: ‘I’m to blame’, ‘I’m an alcoholic’, ‘I’m a bad mother’ or ‘I’m a failure’. […] The therapist and client will then look for the subjugated narratives of resilience, courage and strength, and work on lifting those to the fore.”
My brother-in-law is clinical director of a private psychiatric clinic and is a senior psychiatrist within the public health sector. Narrative therapy is an approach he promotes. I have gleaned a few hints observing him and asking him about his work, and a strategy I do find useful is consciously noting how I am telling my story – to myself, to others – and consciously exploring ways of representing it that are true to those events and yet empowering.
Jenny Valentish I think employs this strategy too.
In the Acknowledgements section Jenny Valentish writes: “I realised afterwards, once I’d signed off on the book, that I skimped on the love, support and good times. Certainly they’re more obvious now (who really basks in those good fortunes in their twenties anyway?), but they were always there from family and friends, keeping me afloat. To this end, Women of Substance is a memoir of addiction, not a memoir of a girl.”
She writes: “My life should have been a Duran Duran video. Exotic climes, open-top Jeeps, gleaming hotel lobbies with marble floors and ceiling fans rotating lazily over potted palms. I should have been thumping hard-oak boardroom tables and powering through airports in my safari suit.”
This is Jenny Valentish being self-deprecating, aware of middleclass privilege. I know I too have benefited immensely from class privilege. In fact, chunks of my life have been a Duran Duran video, especially, but not exclusively, my life in London advertising agencies. I still get to check-in occasionally to glamorous hotels with thriving indoor plants, and though my cashflow is constrained, to say the least, I live very comfortably, in a beautiful upper middleclass environment, and I do not lack.
She writes: “I’m lucky. While Woman of Substances isn’t exactly a beach read, my own experiences only skirt the edges of awful possibility. With my drug use I was just a tourist, albeit the type that overstays their visa. I didn’t get into trouble with the police. I didn’t drive under the influence, or even learn to drive. I didn’t overdose or take drugs with anyone who did. I didn’t get rushed to hospital. Nobody beat me up. I didn’t need to have sex with anyone for drugs, nor for drug debts. I didn’t want kids, so I didn’t accidentally drink through my first trimester, or use through a pregnancy. I had a secure childhood and parents who were able to look after me.”
Me neither. Me too.
Quite apart from the shock of how sordid many of Jenny Valentish’s experiences were (and I say “sordid” as a descriptor, not as a judgement), the shock for me in reading this narrative was realising just how conservative I’ve been. Yes, there were a few months sucking bongs at age 17. But my dope-fiend career was cut short by my complete inability to draw back, a failure I recall one rock musician friend murmuring must be “a terrible handicap for a girl”.
There was the one occasion I attempted to snort cocaine off a mirror; my long hair fell forward and wiped the mirror surface. (That same musician friend laughed and remarked how popular I must have been.) There was the time backstage when I reached for a proffered white powder and a rock musician friend, a famously drug-abusing rock musician friend, slapped my hand sharply, saying “Not that! That’s smack.” There was the life-changing, hideous episode with white powder backstage that led to a blackout and a blow-up my brain never stored in memory. There was the sleazy paparazzo with his date-rape drug.
Thing is, after age 18, I never smoked dope. After 21, I stopped drinking, almost entirely. After the white powder episode, I never touched white powder. After the date rape, I moved back to where my parents lived. As I once told an old friend, I never met a drug that liked me. Every time I tried an illegal substance it blew up in my face (so to speak), and I immediately stopped.
For a so-called groupie (“bandmoll”, we called it), I wasn’t even promiscuous. Over time, in my twenties, I had sex with more men than the girls I grew up with did – I think. But highly discriminately. And rarely.
Eating disorders? Overspending? Compulsive behaviours? Impulsivity? Stalking? I put my hand up. I did those other things that fit within the realm of addiction.
This is not a review; this is a personal response. My personal responses to what Jenny’s written are complex. Foremost, ultimately, they take the form of a chorus of “BRAVA!”, directed with a metaphorical bouquet to Valentish.