The world is full of people striving to be the best they can be. When one finds themselves far from the social idea of “perfect” there is a strong need to improve. While self-improvement is hard, it is also a necessary part of life, setting goals for how one wants their life to turn out. Addiction is a huge obstacle in the way of perfection it can destroy lives when the person with the addiction does not want to change. In the memoir A Million Little Pieces the writer and main character, James Frey, leads a drug addicted life that he turns around in a Minnesota rehab center, demonstrating that self-improvement is the way to salvation. This proves to be a main theme in this work, all throughout showing how he goes from barely functioning to a person full of life and hope for a better future. Frey’s improvement as a person springs from his self-reliant attitude, acceptance of pain, and support from family and family, leaving his rehabilitation experience successful.
James’s recovery is admirable because he takes full responsibility for how his life has turned out and he plans on fixing it himself, just as he has ruined it himself. His first decision going into rehab is that he will not follow the AA program that is recommended by his counselors. 15% of people are successful for a year after using AA, which is the highest rate of success in any rehabilitation program. In James’s mind AA does not solve a problem but just masks it. After giving it a fair chance, he explains, “I have been to AA Meetings and they have left me cold. I find the philosophy to be one of replacement. Replacement of one addiction with another addiction…Though the people in [AA] are no longer drinking and doing drugs, they’re still living with the obsession…Take away their meetings and their Dogma and their God…Take them away and they have an addiction” (Frey 76-78). The glossed over looks he sees in people’s eyes who are devoted to AA are the same eyes of those who have addictions to drugs or alcohol.
Being obsessed with God and the twelve steps is better than cocaine and vodka, but the dependency on something is still taking over, leaving the person unable to live their lives. Along with this, James does not use God or any higher power to lead his sobriety. Tying into AA, the success in becoming sober is often related to surrendering yourself to a higher power. While many people are happy being ignorant to their problems, James faces his addiction head on, by himself. He takes control by telling his counselors, “I don’t believe in the twelve steps. I don’t believe in God or any form of Higher Power. I refuse to turn my life and my will over to anything or anyone….I’m not going to be dependent on anything but myself” (363). His self reliance turns out to be his biggest asset, never needing to pray to someone for help but instead having confidence that he is in charge of his actions. They last and most important thing James does not do is give in to the thought that addiction is a genetics problem. Although some doctors and patients are convinced their addiction cannot all be pinned on them, James does not blame anyone but himself for his problems. James becomes very angry over this idea because he knows anyone with an addition has made their own choice to do drugs and should take responsibility for it.
He spends a great deal of time thinking of people with incurable sicknesses such as Alzheimer’s, who cannot help the degeneration of their minds, and knows that blaming addiction on genetics is just an excuse for people who cannot accept the poor choices they have made. As James explains to his parents after hearing of his grandfathers alcohol problem, “I think it’s bulls***. People don’t want to accept the responsibility for their own weakness so they place the blame on something that they’re not responsible for, like a disease or genetics. As far as studies go, I could prove I was from Mars if you gave me enough time and enough resources” (302). As much as his parents wish there was an easy way out, an explanation that showed that his addiction was not his fault, James is a strong enough person to accept what he has done. All of these things show his self-improvement, his strength for working on his problems alone and trying to get salvation in ways he can be proud of after, being able to say he made himself a better person.
Meanwhile, as he is taking responsibility for getting better he also has to deal with pain, both physically and mentally to complete his journey to sobriety. Withdrawal can be described as one of the most excruciating experiences, causing hallucinations, sweating, convulsions and more as the body tries to purify itself. The body’s dependency on drugs becomes so strong after a while it does not know how to survive without them; it keeps waiting to have a need filled, like hunger. At treatment centers, there are detoxifying drugs that help to ease the transition between the addictions from street drugs without causing the body to shut down, slowly easing the body back into its normal state. When James first arrives in rehab, he is put on these detoxifying drugs, as they start to wear off he starts to feel the effects of the damage he has done to himself. As he is waiting for a refill, he describes, “As the line moves forward I start to feel anxious and nervous and angry. With each step closer to the drugs, the feelings become stronger. I can feel my heart beat faster and I look at my hands and they’re shaking and when I get to the counter I can hardly speak.
I want something, I need something, I have to have something. Anything at all” (31). Not only is his body hurt physically but he also has to go through this intense process to improve his health, knowing there is really only one thing he is craving and it is drugs. When James arrives at the treatment center he is very badly injured from neglecting his body over the years, his teeth in particular are something that needs extreme attention. James has to go through a double root canal procedure at the dentist with no pain numbing substances because of his status as a patient in the rehab center. After getting through the surgery, James has blacked out from the pain and then vomits all over when he regains consciousness. All he can think after it is over is, “I’m somewhere in Minnesota and I’m a patient at a Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center and I’m having my front four teeth rebuilt and I’m strapped into a chair because I can’t have any anesthesia. All I can do is endure” (70). Everyone is shocked at the fact that he accepts to have the surgery done and survives through this pain further showing his strength and ambition to get better.
He is taking the necessary strides towards becoming a normal person again, starting with his health and moving on to his appearance. The last type of pain James encounters is looking back at all the people he has hurt besides himself over the years and feeling guilt. He did damage to a lot more than his body, he also ruined relationships with friends, family and sabotaged any possible love he could have had. When dealing with his parents, James describes, “This is how it has always been with me. Give me something good, I’ll destroy it. Love me, I’ll destroy you. I have never felt deserving of anything in my life. I have never felt as if I were worth the diseased space I occupy. This feeling has inhabited everything I’ve ever done, seen or had anything to do with, and it has infected every relationship I have ever had with everyone I’ve ever known. I don’t understand it” (252). Although he does not want to be alone his life is mistake after mistake distancing him from any type of normal relationship he could have established. Blocking everyone out of his life as a defense mechanism, he now has to deal with the consequences and revisit those memories and feelings to move past them and try to repair damage he has down to other people.
Further, as James works through his pain and issues, he also improves himself by creating or fixing relationships, helping him enter back into a life with support. When James first starts rehab he is angry at everything and determined not to make friends with anyone there. He sees that every relationship in his life has been ruined by his problems and he does not even think he can be successful with treatment so there is no point in forming friendships. His aversion to friendships changes when he meets Leonard, who takes James under his wing and shows him a more positive side of life. As James becomes more comfortable with people he forms other relationships with counselors and patients. His roommate Miles is someone completely opposite from him, a quiet black judge who loves music and who is in rehab for a drinking problem. As they share a room they become closer and James can even comfort him to make his journey easier. At a point when Miles is down, James lets his actions speak, “I stand, walk over to him, sit down on his bed, put my arms around him, hug him. He hugs me back strong and I can feel the shame coming through his arms.
I am a Criminal and he is a Judge and I am white and he is black, but at this moment none of that matters. He is a man who needs a friends and I can be his friend” (205). Here you can see that as James relates to sadness in his life, he knows he cannot offer anything but support for a fellow addict trying to get his life back on track. Not only does James create new friendships he also works on repairing old ones specifically with his family whom he has never felt close to. Distanced from his parents over the years, James’s addictions left many unresolved problems. As they become enrolled in the family program at the rehab center, James is forced to open up to them and try to repair their relationship. In order to get forgiveness for all the years of destruction he comforts his parents letting them know they are not to blame for any of his actions. James tells them, “I don’t blame you for this and I don’t think there’s anything you could have done to stop it. I am what I am, which is an Alcoholic and a Drug Addict and a Criminal, and I am what I am because I made myself so. You did the best you could with me, and you loved me the best you could, and that’s all I could have ever asked for from you. I have no excuses for what I’ve done or for who I am or for what I put you though all these years” (pg 251).
Although addiction is self-inflicted, parents often blame themselves if their child gets involved in that lifestyle; in this case James can bring them closer by reassuring them that it is not their fault and they can forgive themselves and eventually forgive him. The last way James improves himself is by letting love into his life again, opening himself to other people, one in particular. He meets a girl in rehab named Lily and even though men and women are not allowed to socialize, they sneak around, refusing to part from each other. Lily is a heroin addict and she has had a difficult life, being thrown into prostitution by her mother and working that way to support their habits. James and Lily can connect through their hardships because although their stories are different, their lives have both known a lot of pain. As James express’s his feelings to Lily, he says, “When I see you, the World stops.
It stops and all that exists for me is you and my eyes staring at you. There’s nothing else. No noise, no other people, no thoughts or worries, no yesterday, no tomorrow. The World just stops, and it is a beautiful place, and there is only you.” (167). Not only does Lily bring out the softer side of James but she also helps him to overcome some awful things that have happened in his past. Although James is determined to go through his rehabilitation alone, the support systems he finds help him to learn how to improve himself and he realises that he does not have to be alone to be strong.
All in all, James ends up finding his salvation and remains sober (in the book), doing his time in jail and going on to live a normal life. Although many of the people he meets in rehab relapse and ultimately die, James chooses to be a better person, learning through all his experiences. Not only does James improve by becoming sober, he becomes a completely different person. He relies only on his inner strength, not replacing his addiction with another, knowledge that there will be pain but he can overcome it and that he has a support system of friends and family who love him to be successful in remission. James Frey shows he is a strong person than even he knew and gives hope to those out there suffering that if you want to be saved it is possible fix yourself.