Dopefiend review at The Rearguard

I had the good fortune to sit down with Michelle Hy from Portland State University a few weeks ago. Her Dopefiend review is now live at The Rearguard, PSU’s alternative monthly newspaper.

Here is a little snippet:

Is religion or belief in a higher power really necessary for recovery? “I would say ‘no,’” Elhajj replies. “The wording is very careful. It’s all about a higher power: God as you understand it. And it’s not about any particular religion and I’ve always really appreciated that and that’s one of the things that I’ve really held onto the most in my recovery.”

Check out the rest of the review here.

Dopefiend Reading Guide: Chapter Two, Hope

The second step in Alcoholics Anonymous offers hope from a higher power. But the big problem with step two is that it involves belief in that higher power.

I have never had any problem acknowledging God. I just never found that sort of admission terribly helpful. In elementary school, I lined up with my classmates for the Sacrament of Penance, a Holy Confession. I always remember feeling terrified that I’d somehow miscalculated the number or scope of my sins. Felt certain my eternal soul would remain miserably stained, a result of my own poor bookkeeping. Could there be a more hopeless place? In my early teens, my parents flew me to Colorado to stay with my cousin Antoinette and her husband. It was the seventies and a great wave of charismatic religious fervor was sweeping the country, a sort of cultural backlash from the sixties. I gave my heart to Jesus and witnessed simple miracles. But by summer’s end, I learned that my cousin’s marriage had failed, then watched my own parent’s teetering marriage come tumbling down. The high school I attended prized athletic prowess, leaving me out in the cold. In my twenties, I tried all sorts of powerful institutions to get my life on track: joined the military; started a family; even went to drug treatment. None of it worked.

Chapter two opens with the DOPEFIEND entering treatment at Rockford. I wanted to show the result of a lifetime of disconnection. Not just a separation from God, but the paranoia and melodrama that always seem to follow an inability to ally oneself within any of the secular social institutions. If the good people at Rockford were going to help me, this is what they would have to overcome.

The second step promises restoration, but makes it sound like a gradual process: “Came to believe,” it reads, “that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” In chapter two, I wanted to show this same sort of rising sense of hope. But I wanted to show that optimism increasing amid—or perhaps even despite—powerful institutions that for the most part are failing or just plain insane. I believe my year-and-a-half stay in Rockford saved my life, but I harbor no illusions about its methods. Rockford is a small step up from an asylum. A very small step. Look at the way Rockford treats the addicts in its care: pitting one against another, a semblance of order imposed only by its heavy reliance upon fear tactics and confidence games. Not unlike a crack house. Rockford is the epitome of the powerful but failed social institutions that I was constantly pinning my hopes upon, only to grow disappointed (often with good reason), when the fissure and shake in these organizations finally came to light. And where had this sort of thinking ever got me?

But recovery isn’t about finding the perfect institution, whether it’s a treatment facility or a place to worship God. Recovery is about learning to make real connections with other people. For me, hope didn’t come from powerful institutions, but from allowing myself to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Hope came from witnessing simple but profound acts of kindness, performed unasked. I think about my ex-wife, Maryanne, and her willingness to broker that first, tenuous connection between my mother and me. Or Blackman, my friend and Rockford peer, and his willingness to reach out to an alcoholic still in the throes of addiction. Or perhaps Terrence Tyson, my Rockford counselor, and even the rest of the clients at Rockford, who tirelessly made the case for me to remain in NYC, until I could finally see the wisdom of that plan for myself.

Reading group questions for Chapter 2:

  1. Can a facility such as Rockford or organizations like the military or churches be considered higher powers? If so, must that higher power be good, noble and virtuous? Or must it only be more powerful than any particular addict, at some particular time? Why? Why not?
  2. What role do race relations play in Chapter 2? If recovery is about learning to connect with other people, how do racial differences play into the process of recovery?
  3. The great irony of chapter two is that a small amount of codeine in Tylenol 3 seems responsible for the DOPEFIEND choosing to stay in New York City. The idea of using drugs for recovery—SSRIs for depression, methadone for opiate addiction—often provokes a strong reaction from people in recovery. In what ways does thinking like this help recovery? Hinder recovery?
  4. How important is abstinence to recovery? What is abstinence? What is recovery?

Dopefiend Excerpt: A Little Help From my Friends


“If I (pictured, left) got thrown out of the house,” I said, almost in a whisper, “I just slept on the couch over at Bud’s, or sometimes up at Mary and Frank’s (pictured, right)…”

R.I.P. Frank K.

Twenty Three Years

I couldn’t remember the exact date, but I knew it came after Thanksgiving and before Christmas, so my sponsor said December 1 seemed like a good choice. He and I had this conversation about three years into my recovery, which wasn’t even my first try. In fact, I had tried so often and with such terrible results that I didn’t even bother to note the date this last time.

And so, today is my twenty-three year recovery anniversary!

About twenty-three years ago today, I was living in a NYC homeless shelter on Saint Mark’s Place on the Lower East Side. Twenty-three years later and I’m a published author. Pretty wild trip.

Things: sober anniversaries!