How I Came to Write About Addiction

By Daniel Gumbiner

Over the past several months, thanks to the generous support of Nevada Humanities, I have had the opportunity to visit several schools in Nevada to discuss my book, The Boatbuilder. I met with high schoolers and college students, traveled up and down the state from Winnemucca to Pahrump. One of the most common questions I was asked was why I chose to write about a fictional character who struggles with opioid addiction, so I thought I'd use this blog post to speak to that question. 

Like the main character of the book, Berg, I suffered a head injury. As a result of that head injury, I developed chronic headaches. I saw many doctors. They did not have answers for these headaches. At the end of the day, I learned, we still don't know that much about the brain and head trauma. And so I was left with a chronic medical condition and few answers. As any doctor can tell you, this is not an uncommon experience. According to the National Center for Health Statistics over 75 million Americans suffer from chronic pain of some kind. It is the most common cause of long-term disability. 

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During the period in which I was suffering most acutely from my concussion-related symptoms, I was prescribed opioid painkillers (among many other things). I used the opioids cautiously, knowing that they were highly addictive. But here's the thing about opioids that sometimes gets lost in the conversation about addiction: they work. They relieved my chronic pain. They relieve the chronic pain of many. I can't underemphasize how huge it is to have relief from a chronic pain, to escape its brutal grip for even for a short period of time. And so, while I did not become addicted to opioids myself, I felt I had a window into the manner by which many others did. I began to write about a character who entered into addiction from this angle.

Around this time I began apprenticing with a wooden boatbuilder near my hometown. I found the work to be therapeutic. It was a practice that brought me into the present moment, harnessed my attention, urged me to consider things as they were, instead of how I wanted them to be. In doing so, it taught me about my own relationship to pain. I came to realize that a good deal of my suffering was the result of my wishing my pain was not there. If I could watch it, and not try to make it go away, I found that the pain became more bearable. This is not a new idea at all, but an old knowledge, rooted in Eastern thought. Still, it was new to me and crucial, and I came to it through craft. And so I wanted to write a story that put these two modalities of dealing with pain into conversation. The resulting book is The Boatbuilder, and my hope is that the story, in some way, sheds light on the manner by which we relate to our own pain. Because we all deal with pain. It is a fact of life. If you are not in pain now, you will be sometime soon. This is just the nature of things and you cannot control it—but you can control how you relate to it. That we will experience pain is inevitable. That we must suffer is not.  

Daniel Gumbiner was born and raised in Northern California. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 2011 and now lives in Las Vegas, where he works as the managing editor of The Believer. His first book, The Boatbuilder, was nominated for the National Book Award. 

Images courtesy of Daniel Gumbiner.

Cheyanne TreadwayThomas