Woman of Substances by Jenny Valentish

I saw author Jenny Valentish speak at last year’s Melbourne Writers Festival. At the time, I hadn’t read her memoir, Woman of Substances – I often wonder how much my thoughts about a book are influenced by hearing the author speak before I’ve read it. Invariably their passion and post-publication reflections rub-off, and I go into the reading experience ‘looking out’ for certain things, which is why I left Woman of Substances almost a year before picking it up.

Woman of Substances is a memoir-research hybrid. Valentish uses her own experience of drugs and alcohol to explore how women deal with addiction and treatment. There are two main threads in the book – firstly, Valentish examines how trauma and self-destructive behaviours – such as eating disorders and high-risk sex – complicate substance use for women.

There’s an illusion of power in being as sexually aggressive as men are allowed to be, but it can sometimes take a stupefying blood-alcohol level to override the misgivings.

Secondly, she exposes how the research into problematic substance use and the treatment of addictions has been focused on males, and the implications of that.

Valentish gives a clear and interesting analysis of research from a variety of disciplines (an additional reading list is included). I liked the science edge –

Drugs and alcohol are pain-killers. The pain that is felt might be emotional, but it’s still the anterior cingulate cortex – the area of the brain that responds to physical pain – that agitates the vagus nerve connecting the brain stem to the chest to the abdomen, manifesting distress as real pain in those regions.

Valentish looks at addiction from all angles, getting into the nitty-gritty of psychiatric disorders, genetics, the physiology of trauma, the role of hormones, and why women are pathologized more readily and more often than men.

Many of the addiction memoirs I’ve read don’t reference childhood trauma… But to flip that into reverse, it’s rare for a trauma story not to involve addiction. What I’m surprised to learn is that there’s a physiological component to trauma. Biologically, a girl who experiences it in early life will undergo significant changes in her body and brain. There’s a massive rise in the stress hormone cortisol, which triggers a whole chain of reactions. …Her biological systems are set at a sensitive threshold and she doesn’t have the usual biochemistry that lets her be resilient in the face of the next trauma and the next trauma.

She does all of this with reference to her own experiences which are honest (brutally so, at times), troubling but also relatable.

It was hard to go to bed, because – as any woman who has cut her own fringe and wound up with it getting shorter and shorter will understand – I would finish what was intended to be my last cigarette, but still have a few gulps of fortified wine left in the glass.

The strength of this book lies in the link between memoir and research – her emotion gives the science context.

My life should have been a Duran Duran video. Exotic climes, open-top Jeeps, gleaming hotel lobbies… Upon closer examination, though, it was all pubs and piss-stained raves and sitting on the toilet with my head in my hands… Quitting is one of those rare transition opportunities we sometimes have thrust upon us… A rip appears in our existence, and we can choose to leap through its flickering portal into an entirely new dimension. Or we can make do.

That said, it’s a tricky book to recommend – there might not be enough personal story in it to satisfy memoir-lovers. Equally, the personal reflections might irritate hard-core non-fiction fans. I love memoirs and I’m interested in the neuro-science behind addiction and recovery, so it hit the mark for me.

3.5/5 Insightful.

A notable feature of the AA meetings that Valentish attended was the abundance of cake. Try this blood orange yogurt cake.


9 responses

    • Yes, I’ve earmarked that one – I LOVED her book The Empathy Exams (and also The Gin Closet which I think was fiction heavily informed by her own experience).

  1. This sounds good. I might even buy it, since my library doesn’t have it in stock. There’s a history of addiction along my maternal line that I’d like to understand better, and what you quoted about childhood trauma intrigues me.

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