The Book Of Drugs: Mike Doughty Gets Out Alive

by Jason Warburg

mikedoughty_bookofdrugscover_320I made it. 

That was my first reaction upon finishing The Book Of Drugs, the memoir by singer-songwriter and former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty. It was no sure thing for awhile there; after the first 120 or so pages I was pretty sure this was the most infuriating book I’d ever read.

The form alone irritated me—a faux-epistolary style where there’s no attempt at building any sort of narrative; one anecdote simply blurs into another for page after page after page. But what really drove me to distraction around page 100 was my strong desire to grab Doughty by the shoulders, slap him hard across the face and tell him to either (a) get a grip and do something about it, or (b) shut the hell up with his endless litany of victimhood and self-pity.

My perspective may or may not have been affected by the fact that I am not a fan of—in fact, before picking up this book, I’d never heard a single song by—the band that Doughty spends most of these pages writing about, Soul Coughing. His 1994-2000 role as singer-songwriter-guitarist for the group offered a launching pad for his current, successful solo career, a point which at times seems lost on Doughty himself.

Instead—once he’s sped past what sounds like a genuinely tortured childhood that inspires genuine sympathy—he occupies the next hundred or so pages cataloging in excruciating detail the horrors associated with achieving his dream of being in a band with a record deal, radio play and a steady following. Managers: horrible. Producers: horrible. Engineers: horrible. Fans: horrible. Life on the road: horrible. Doughty himself—a hot mess of expensive drugs, cheap sex and bottomless self-loathing—horrible.

But the most corrosive acid in the table of elements lurking inside Doughty’s pen is reserved for his former bandmates. Doughty from the start refers to them only as “the sampler player,” “the bass player” and “the drummer.” Perhaps his publisher’s attorneys demanded this before printing a book that paints such an unrelentingly bitter portrait of each—the drummer who willfully refuses to follow the arrangements of songs, then denies it; the bass player whose blood-sugar issues and prima donna outbursts constantly create chaos; the sampler player whose petty rants are all pre-chewed for him by his shrewish, paranoid wife. Whatever the case, this no-names affectation, besides being annoying, has the opposite effect from what Doughty seems to have intended. By painting such an obsessively one-dimensional picture of these individuals—who are, after all, real flesh-and-blood human beings with names and friends and moms and dads and most likely a kid or two by now—Doughty throws the reliability of his entire narrative into question, i.e. what else are you exaggerating?

It’s said that all great art comes from great suffering, but in the early going at least, Doughty doesn’t come off as a tortured artist so much as a whiny, immature kid with a victim complex and an insatiable appetite for drugs and impersonal sex. His frankness in describing events feels brave and bracing the first time, but soon grows tiresome. (“You really needed to share that little detail? To what end, sir? What conceivable artistic purpose is served by your assertion that you outperformed the other guy in the threesome when giving oral sex to this particular groupie?”)  (And, by the way: when exactly did exhibitionism come to be equated with artistic integrity? Why is the sharing of unsavory personal details generally viewed today as courageous rather than self-indulgent, entertaining rather than off-putting, important rather than trivial? Sorry, folks, I don’t get it.)

About two-thirds of the way through this 252-page memoir, things finally take a turn as, in no particular order, Doughty bottoms out as a shaky, constantly out-of-breath junkie, gets into therapy, kicks heroin, and quits Soul Coughing. Soon he’s attending twelve-step meetings daily (in “the rooms,” his favored shorthand for addiction recovery groups) and beginning to build a life and career outside of the band and the drugs that nearly consumed him.

mikedoughty_375This is also where the big reveal occurs: Doughty is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This was, given my own experiences with several people I’ve been close to in my life, a “whack the forehead” moment. Of course he is. The black-and-white thinking, the episodes of lethargic hopelessness intercut with bursts of creativity, the headlong pursuit of self-medication. A textbook scenario. On The Daily Show recently, author Jonah Lehrer (Imagine: How Creativity Works) asserted that creative people (writers, artists, musicians, etc.) are somewhere between eight and 40 times more likely to manifest bipolar disorder than the general population. I can’t vouch for the reliability of those numbers, but anecdotally speaking, they seem in the ballpark.

The last third of The Book Of Drugs does a decent job of redeeming what came before. In the late going, Doughty’s struggle to build a healthy life becomes genuinely poignant and affirming, without a hint of sentimentality. Doughty’s discussion of his bipolar diagnosis and treatment is brave and candid, and its coda reflects what I’ve heard from others in similar circumstances: “The cocktail of meds has wrought amazing relief. There aren’t any notable side effects, sexual, soporific or otherwise. Though I sometimes feel naggingly inauthentic. As if it were cowardly to need medical help.” It’s never easy to admit you need help, let alone that you need it every day; that admission is the single most courageous thing Doughty does in the entire book.

Doughty also writes movingly of the rewards offered by staying in “the rooms” long after he’s achieved and maintained sobriety: “Once you get your shit together, you stay in to help other people. It astonishes me that I get one of the best feelings in my life when I encounter a stranger, suffering from the same thing I suffer, who needs help.” Beats the hell out of dying young in a Paris bathtub, right?

I imagine writing this memoir was cathartic for Doughty—a purging of negative memories that might help in the continuing process of moving on from the person he used to be and becoming the person he wants to be. The Book Of Drugs was by no means an easy read, but in the end, I made it, and I hope Doughty makes it, too. He seems like a decent enough sort now that he’s gotten off the bad drugs and onto the good ones, not to mention grown up a bit. And if I wish I could un-read a few of the things I read, well, at least I didn’t have to live them.

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