Jessica Hendry Nelson’s If Only You People Could Follow Directions Is An Intimate Look At One Family’s Struggle With Addiction

if only you people

Take gazillion and one.
This time with a little less weepy-weepy, please. A little less improvisation. A little less lip. A little more faith. A little more higher power. A little more prayer, a little less wine. Cut the crap. Cut the line. Tuck the chin. Look left, right, faster, slower. Pick seven dandelions on the first day of spring. Hate less or more. Work harder. Chew slower. Be better. Look to god, God, GOD. Watch your language. Watch your back. Collect rocks. Lick ’em clean. Count the pigeons in the backyard and multiply times forever. Give it up, let it go, take it back, take control. Say yes, say no. Say no, no, no. Stick to the script. Steps One through Twelve. One through Twelve. Keep coming back. It works if you work it.
If only you people could follow directions.
–Jessica Hendry Nelson, If Only You People Could Follow Directions

Jessica Hendry Nelson‘s If Only You People Could Follow Directions is like a photo album of a family wading through the darkest depths of addiction. In a collection of personal essays, Nelson describes memories like snapshots, sad and bright and strange, jails and fear and funerals replacing the smiling faces that fill most family pictures.

Rather than try to explain addiction, in medical or historical terms, Nelson leaves those general concepts unexplored and focuses on her own family’s story. This narrow view forms addiction into an ominous cloud, an elusive force pulling and pushing those around her.

Nelson tells of fun, terrifying times with her father, dead early from alcoholism. She reveals guilt at having introduced her brother to drugs, as he’s now following in her father’s footsteps. And her mother does the best she can, smoking and drinking her way to something like peace. In one essay, Nelson traces that unquenchable thirst back for generations, to her great-grandmother. Nelson’s grandmother has memories of discovering her own mother so drunk she’d fallen out of bed, incoherent, and been sick on her nightgown. “Looking at her lying there, crooked and pale, I was so afraid.” Cynthia, Nelson’s grandmother says.

In writing of this as an ongoing saga, Nelson is almost like the survivor of a car crash, or a plane wreck, but not really even that because she’s still lost amidst this familial struggle. So she’s in a car, right now, crashing against this beast of addiction. She’s glancing around, despite the high speeds and the loud noises, and relaying how this crash-in-progress looks. She’s telling us how much it hurts, and how little she can do to stop the forward movement.

Books without much of a plot don’t work if the prose isn’t so moving that it propels you forward, and Nelson’s writing is sad in all the right ways. It’s bittersweet and at times so bare it hurts. It helps to be really interested in this topic, and people who haven’t experienced or been affected by addiction may just not get it. Other reviews are all over the map–some people say it’s overwritten, or that the drifting format feels overwhelming at times.

But sharp memories torn from a disorderly life seem to perfectly express addiction’s elusive, repetitious nature. In the prologue, a letter to her brother recalls the countless locales they’d visit to see their troubled father: rehabs, prisons, “Grandma’s big house.” Then, “He visits us every time you land in the same jail, your twin mug shots forever floating in the same county database, each one more fucked up than the last.” Addiction is such a muddy, messy thing; push up your sleeves, let down your guard, and grab your Kleenex.

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