Dopefiend Reading Guide: Chapter Three, Faith

In the third step of Alcoholics Anonymous, we’re asked to turn over our will and our life to the care of a Higher Power. But what does that mean? How can anyone know God’s will for their life? I agonized over this part, probably because I had so little faith in my own ability to stay sober. I had gone to AA and NA meetings in the past. Had worked the steps and found a sponsor with whom I spoke daily. But somehow I always seemed to end up using heroin again, sinking a little lower into an abyss of my own making.

What a jackpot!

And how best to avoid it? It’s not like God speaks words to us, or weighs in on our daily decisions and interactions with others. How can anyone be sure that the actions she takes are the actions that will lead to a satisfying and productive outcome? Perhaps in the early stages of recovery the objective—God’s will, if you like—is a bit clearer, a little simpler to fathom: Don’t Use Drugs. But eventually you have to move beyond the simple objectives and become an agent in the world. Any number of decisions small and large need to be made, some having a real impact on our own lives or the lives of those we love.

In Chapter 3 of DOPEFIEND, I wanted to explore how I learned to have faith in myself, my own ability to make good decisions for my life, and to engage with others in meaningful ways. When the chapter opens, I have about a year sober and need to start making my way out of rehab and back into the community. One of the things my sponsor suggested I do was pay close attention to my feelings. Your feelings, he said, will guide you to the place your higher power wants you to be. I remember thinking this sounded like a bit of woo-woo hooey, but it turned out to be one of the most important changes I made in early recovery, a practice I continue to use today.

By paying attention to my feelings, I understood the excitement I felt on the campus of Bronx Community College spoke to a new direction for me. With no prior inclination toward school as an adult, I realized that getting an education was the thing I wanted to do most. But more importantly, I began to recognize when I had made a mistake with one of the people in my life. And, boy, did I make a lot of mistakes. Chapter 3 reads like a comedy of errors. If I had to engage with you on a daily basis, we were definitely going to have problems. I needed to learn how to successfully relate with other people, and I did this by trial and error. But mostly error. Even if I couldn’t name the mistakes I was making, I knew I was constantly colliding with the most important people in my life—roommates, girlfriends, bosses.

This is where prayer and meditation came in.

Once I determined what I was feeling, I had to take a little time to be thoughtful, to understand what the appropriate response from me should be. I had to learn how to approach relationships without fear and allow myself to be vulnerable. I had to learn how to stand up for what I needed in a relationship without leaving whomever I was negotiating with a bloody mess—no tearing down the kitchen with a chainsaw to get a second cup of coffee. This approach to maintaining relationships and figuring out what to do with my life is still a challenge. And I go about it in mostly the same way: I pay attention to my feelings and allow plenty of time for thoughtful mediation, especially around conflict.

As it turns out, these are also really good exercises for writers of memoir, which is further proof of the existence of a God: who but a Higher Power could have foreseen a recovery memoir coming from the likes of me? I mean, really.

Reading group questions for Chapter 3:

  1. In Chapter 3, the DOPEFIEND makes a lot of mistakes, especially with jobs and relationships. He tangles with his managers and roommate. He breaks up with his girlfriend, even as she is trying to draw closer to him. What is the relationship between making good decisions and recovery? Is there ever an upside to a bad decision?
  2. Though some of the counselors at “Rockford” are recovering addicts themselves, they also drink recreationally. When the DOPEFIEND questions the seeming incongruity of this practice, he is reminded to keep the focus on himself. What can we infer about recovery from this? If some recovering addicts can drink alcohol and still be successful at recovery, what metric can those of us who don’t drink use to determine if our own recovery is a success? What about someone else’s recovery?
  3. Out of spite, the DOPEFIEND attends AA meetings because some of the counselors at his rehab facility drink recreationally. This seems like an example of a good decision made for the wrong reasons. This behavior seems to echo the DOPEFIEND’s decision in an earlier chapter to enter rehab in New York to escape prosecution in Pennsylvania. What is the relationship between intention and making good decisions?
  4. Chapter 3 features the appearance of a specter from the DOPEFIEND’s past, namely Chopper Cassidy, who “died of a drug overdose ten years ago.” Assume that Chopper Cassidy’s role in the narrative is to allow the DOPEFIEND to compare himself as he appears in the present of the story’s timeline to himself as he was in the past. How does framing a narrative around our own behavior over time inform a discussion about intention and recovery?

Dopefiend Excerpt: The End of the Line, Free Drug Treatment


Spring rolled in hot.

One afternoon at the rehab facility, I (pictured, right) was sitting in the Vehicles Office with Aaron (not pictured), one of the drivers. Aaron had a broad forehead, a quick wit, and thin brown hair that he wore pushed straight back. We had the morning shuttle route, which left at 7 a.m., and was usually done by noon, having us both back at the facility by 2 p.m. Vehicles was a cushy job.

Reading the New York Times, Aaron tipped his thick glasses up onto his nose. I sipped coffee from a paper cup. Another driver, Keith, poked his head into the office and shook the shaggy mop of blonde hair from his eyes. Keith tapped his fist to his chest, and then held up three fingers.

Looking up from his paper, Aaron grinned and made the same gesture.

“What’s that?” I asked.

Wehicles,” Aaron said, tipping his glasses higher on his nose. He held up three splayed fingers to make a W.

Keith grinned.

Creasing my brow, I shrugged. “Wehicles?”

Aaron looked surreptitiously out the door and then whispered: “Wehicles is for white people.”

I laughed. All the drivers were white. During the morning shuttles, the radio was a flashpoint for tension. Black people wanted Soul on one end of the FM dial, while the white people liked Rock down the other end. I tuned to Soul going downtown, and then Rock after the van had emptied. I hushed the occasional impertinent request for Rock on the downtown leg with a soft, “Oh, I want to hear this one,” regardless of what was playing, and then conveniently forgot the request soon after. Sometimes I patiently dialed in a baseball game on the AM band. Baseball was like a balm for the tension caused by the radio.

“That’s true,” I said. “Why are all the drivers white?”

“Brothers don’t need a license,” Keith said. He cut his eyes toward the hallway outside the office and kept his voice low.

I nodded as if this made sense. But I couldn’t imagine anyone not having a driver’s license, much less an entire race without a license. Aaron explained that public transportation in New York City was so good, you didn’t need a license unless you lived in a suburb. The few white people at Rockford other than me were from Staten Island, The Rockaways, or Throggs Neck. Mostly the white people were older, had lost their jobs, lost their health insurance, and then succumbed to some sort of addiction, typically crack. Rockford was the end of the line, free drug treatment.