Toxic Romance: Addiction

Welcome back to our series on topics within Romance! This week we’re handling a heavy one–addiction. It’s no secret that drug abuse and alcoholism continue to be a rampant issue in many communities around the world, so it’s little wonder that these issues find their way into the plots of romance books. A girl falls for a bad boy with a heroin problem and makes it her mission to save him. A girl falls into a bad way with alcohol and a clean cut guy from her past rescues her. Sounds familiar, no? 

There are a couple of subtopics within this narrative that I want to touch on today. The first is addiction itself and it’s various portrayals in novelization. Like many touchy topics, addiction is hard to get right especially because it is so personal to anyone who has experience with it. The issue of addiction is wide-reaching and can be found in historicals (alcohol abuse and opium addictions are common within the genre) to modern romances (featuring rock stars addicted to all manner of hard drugs). This is a complicated subject area, and I don’t want to lecture you at all but I do think it’s important to grapple with the prevalence of addiction/drug abuse in our everyday lives. 

According to the Addiction Center nearly 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, though only 10% of those people seek treatment. The addiction to drugs and alcohol cost Americans over $600 billion annually, and since 1999 sales of opioid painkillers are up by 300%. The American Addiction Center reports that over half of all American adults have a family history of problem drinking or alcohol addiction. What I’m really trying to say is that this issue is so, so common. Because of this, I think it’s important that addiction is dealt with in some romance books because we certainly can’t pretend we all live in a world untouched by addiction. However, it is a delicate topic that needs to be handled carefully. I also think it’s important that it’s clear upfront when a book touches on addiction, because that can be harmful for someone already struggling with addiction or is sensitive to the topic. 

The second subtopic is that of the savior narrative, that someone with an addiction in a novel is saved by their romantic partner and couldn’t have gotten sober without them. This is also a tricky narrative to navigate and one that is ultimately unhealthy. From a feminist standpoint as well, many ‘savior’ stories are of wayward women incapable of helping themselves in any meaningful way. I don’t like the trope any better when it is turned the other way, and a woman ‘fixes’ a man who everyone else has given up on (ahem, Fifty Shades…) but I think it’s particularly bad when the woman is the one rescued. It’s 2021 y’all, let’s see a gal who rescues herself and then happens to fall in love afterwards, or in a way completely unrelated to that issue. (If this exists and I’ve managed to miss it please shoot me an email, I’d love to have to post an update here later!) Showing relationships in which one person struggles with an issue like addiction, and their partner or potential partner does not ‘save’ them but rather supports them is an ideal way to avoid the dreaded savior complex. 

The world of romance is ever evolving, and I expect as our society better learns to deal with the concept of addiction, we will start seeing romance books that deal with the issue better than ever before. I look forward to reading those! 

This area of romance concerning addiction may have not crossed your path, so if you’re interested please find a selection below of romance books with main characters who are suffering from addiction: 

To Rescue a Rogue, by Jo Beverly

After Midnight, by Sarah Grimm

Addicted, by Charlotte Featherstone

Reclaiming Lord Rockley, by Nancy Butler

The Rake and the Reformer, by Mary Jo Putney

Black Rose, by Nora Roberts 

Heartthrob, by Suzanne Brockmann

Lover Enshrined, by JR Ward

A Risk Worth Taking, by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

Married by Morning, by Lisa Kleypas

If there’s a book you think is missing from this list, or a romance author you think does a particularly good job discussing addiction let us know below!