About Tim Elhajj

Tim is probably walking his dog.

Outlaws for dinner

Tonight at the meeting the topic was something like, How do you celebrate in recovery without any alcohol?

I can’t think of a duller topic. I’m an alcoholic, but I’ve never liked drinking. It’s just so gastronomical — all the pissing and throwing up. Even if I did drink, I know I would not choose to celebrate a big life event by opening a bottle of — what? I don’t even know. I would much rather get high on heroin. So I did that thing I do at meetings and I swapped out alcohol and put in heroin. How do you celebrate in recovery without any heroin? Now that’s a more interesting question.

And I don’t know if it’s even celebration that I’m longing for. I got high for a lot of reasons, but celebration wasn’t really much of a factor. If you get high to celebrate, it means you have to wait for something to celebrate and I wasn’t much into waiting. I got high every single day. Getting high was the celebration.

Still I think I know what the guy was talking about. For years after I stopped using heroin I longed to be part of that old life again. I loved being an outlaw. I loved deciding to spend the rent money on dope. I loved hustling to get a new apartment or living situation. In my first years of recovery, it was dull. I had a lousy job. I had a roommate and a small apartment. My life was filled with a mind bending  dullness broken only occasionally by sex or sometimes a relationship and sex. In time it got better. I went to school, got better jobs, met  my wife and we started a family.

But here is the thing.

I still occasionally arrive at a place in my life when it’s either so new and frightening or so fucked up that being an outlaw starts  looking mighty attractive again. When my twins were born, I got into a place like this. My life was diaper pails and double size baby push carts.

I just felt so domesticated.

Sometimes the kids would wake up at like 4 am and you could see from their shiny little eyes and smiling face they were not going back to sleep. The only thing you could do was load them in the cart and take them for walks. I would go to the local supermarket and walk the aisles. Back  then I smoked and the supermarkets had the cigarettes in a big case at the front of one of the aisles. It was the honor system, and you  were supposed to grab your cigarettes, and take them to the checkout to pay. Seattle was such an innocent town back then! One morning I put a pack in my pocket, did a few laps around the aisles, and then ducked out the front door. I was an outlaw again. I was still pushing a baby cart, but I felt seriously good about myself and my station in life. I didn’t steal cigarettes every day, but within a few weeks I was getting almost a carton from each snatch and run. Walking out the grocery store doors my heart would race and my palms would sweat. Pretty soon it dawned on me that even though I was an amazingly badass outlaw, one day I would get caught. When that sad day came, the police would have to fold up my pushcart and do what? I don’t know. Put it in the back of the patrol car? And then what would they do with my kids? Jesus.

That was a scary thought.

I started going back to meetings. I had really given myself a scare, so getting into the meetings again helped. But you know, the boredom with life, the fear about what’s around the corner, especially as I get older and the kids get ready to move out of the house, that stuff  doesn’t change. Sometimes I still long to feel like an outlaw.

I have found that writing helps.

Last night at dinner I told the kids a very unflattering story about how I decided to get married the first time. In it, I presented myself as a shameless cad and it wasn’t completely untrue. They’re both sixteen, and they just sort of shook their heads. My daughter — bless her heart — said “So you just got married for the money?” I told her I guessed it was true. I shrugged and looked at my wife, who is kind of used to this sort of thing from me, and she just smiled. One the way to the meeting, I wondered about what made me tell those kinds of stories to my kids. Now I’m thinking maybe it’s my way of remaining an outlaw.


A few words on tolerance

Not everyone in recovery is in a 12 step program.

Some folks go to church, for example. And some people do treatment that doesn’t involve 12 step stuff or 12 step meetings are just a small part of their recovery. The rehab in NYC I attended gave “drinking privileges” to the addicts at graduation and had only just started inviting 12 step meetings into the facility (ironically AA meetings!). When I was there a recovering alcoholic from Throggs Neck came in one night a month. It made me really nervous to learn about the drinking privileges, because by the time I graduated from that facility, I had already been to a lot of NA meetings, and I understood abstinence to mean complete abstinence from both drugs and alcohol. A lot of the guys I went to treatment with didn’t have these same concerns as me. So then at my own graduation, I made a commitment to AA and got a sponsor and started going to meetings and doing the recovery drill.

And then a few years later, after I had been sober in AA for maybe 4 or 5 years, I met a woman who was in AA, but also a counsellor at a methadone maintenance facility in NJ. When she mentioned methadone, I bristled about “those people” who (IMO) weren’t really in recovery, and she set me straight. Her thing was that if 12 steppers (on a whole) were more tolerant of people using different methods of recovery, her clients would have an important outlet for fellowship they so desperately needed, improving their chances immensely. It’s very hard for people in methadone maintenance to go to 12 step meetings without feeling judged (can you imagine?) Or worse, being guided to go off methadone against medical advice!.

That kind of tolerant thinking was a real wake up call for me, but has turned out to be a really helpful idea to embrace. I have family (not going to mention any names but someone I introduced to heroin and feel all the requisite guilty) attending church to deal with crack addiction. And don’t we all know people who had a problem with drugs or alcohol and just moved to a new city and started over? Or maybe someone else who found just the right person and started a family (Johnny Cash?) and made an exit from addiction that way.

It’s easy to look at them skeptically and ask if they’re really in recovery (I’ve done it, believe me), but on good days I can just feel secure enough with my own path to just accept they are on a different path than me, but that we’re all trying to get to the same place. 

Have a great day people!

Dopefiend Reading Guide: Chapter 7, Humility

Sometimes humility is easy; sometimes it’s not.

In an earlier chapter, I realized that the stance I’d taken on returning to Pennsylvania after treatment had been completely wrong. My peers and counselors had always advised me to stay in NYC—drumming it into my head for months—but I couldn’t see it. Why? Fear. NYC terrified me. I had no confidence in the treatment center, or my own ability to remain sober. What helped me recognize I was wrong was the absolute relief I felt when I finally allowed myself to entertain the notion of living in New York. I no longer had to rationalize my fear. Once I felt the relief, I knew I was onto something. After that, it was a simple matter of admitting I was wrong. Accepting the will of the group. Being humble.

In a situation like that, humility is easy.

Everything adds up. This is often how it is in early recovery. You can expect to get good direction from the group, whether you’re in a treatment center or relying upon an AA home group. In early recovery, the big decisions are often the most basic: Don’t drink. Go to meetings. Don’t start a romantic relationship. Don’t end a relationship.

But sometimes a situation is more complicated; sometimes humility requires more of us.

In this chapter, I had been in recovery about seven years and the situations I was finding myself in were becoming more nuanced and challenging. I still needed to remain sober and attend meetings, but now I had to make some potentially big decisions about the direction my life would take over the next few years. Worse, there were hitches that added to the pressure – school was about to end, and I had fallen in love with my future wife who lived on the other side of the country. I knew I couldn’t live in Pennsylvania anymore, but that’s where my ten-year-old son lived. I had shared my dilemma with my sponsor and all my AA friends and the answers I was getting back were about what you’d expect: Some people had a strong opinion one way or another. Other people recognized it as the kind of a decision only an individual could make.

For the previous seven years, I had been working with my sponsor to foster an ability to look inside myself; to learn how to solicit help from my peers and to meditate. To listen for the Higher Power.  When I looked inside, here is what I found: the rush of new love; the fear of leaving behind school and all its familiar rituals; and the shame of the failure of my first marriage.

That is what I had to make my decision. Plus the cacophony of people who held a strong opinion one way or the other.

With a situation like this, the real humility—the hardest kind of humility—comes from knowing that you may not have all the answers, but that you have to make a decision anyhow. This type of humility means accepting the fact that one day you may discover you were wrong. Sixteen years ago I decided to move across the country, thousands of miles away from my ten-year-old son. I knew that’s not what he wanted me to do, but I did it anyhow. I didn’t do it to be mean or to escape my responsibility. I did it because I didn’t feel as if I had any other choice. I married the woman I moved across the country to be near. I found a good career at which I excel. I own a home and am raising a small family that I absolutely adore. But I still don’t know if I made the right decision all those many years ago. In my memory, I can still hear my oldest child’s ten-year-old voice crack when I tell him news, when he hears the hard truth. The hardest kind of humility comes from when you understand—you are absolutely certain of the fact—that you royally fucked things up, but you have to go ahead and be kind to yourself anyhow, because that’s just the way recovery works.

Sometimes there isn’t a home group behind you. Sometimes there is no consensus among your peers. Sometimes you have to look inside and take the love and the fear and the shame and do the best you can with it. And then, of course, you have to live with it.

That’s humility.

Reading group questions for Chapter 7:

No questions this month.

Free DOPEFIEND giveaway at 80,000 words


My friend and fellow blogger, writer, and an all around extraordinarily great person to know, Christine Lee Zilka is holding a free giveaway of Dopefiend on her blog!

If you go to Christine’s blog, I can promise you an absolutely adorable picture of a Wiener Dog named Scarlet reading DOPEFIEND! Scarlet actually looks very intent on what she’s reading. I imagine she must be at one of the good parts.

Dopefiend Reading Guide: Chapter 6, Willingness


The sixth step of AA is all about being entirely ready to live your life in a new way. As a guy who relapsed with heroin many times, I can appreciate how important it is to tackle this step, to embrace the spiritual principal of “willingness.” Sometimes the hardest part of recovery isn’t the initial burst of right action to achieve abstinence, but the following slog through the myriad of day-to-day decisions that makes your recovery a reality. In this chapter, being willing meant finding a way to bridge the tension between the path I had chosen for myself in recovery, and the forces that were in constant competition with my progress on that path.

What forces?

By far, the most powerful powers pitted against me came from inside my own head: my insecurities about school, and doubts about my ability to be a good parent and a decent person. I mean, sure, various people would appear in my life and provoke these doubts or insecurities. I know my son’s mother really wanted me to find a way to earn more money. I don’t blame her. Although I was providing the amount the courts had recommended, it was really a pittance. Some of my high school friends felt that I shouldn’t have left Steelton to live in New York City. I know they didn’t understand the whole story, but even if they had, it wouldn’t have really mattered, because recovery isn’t about what other people think. Recovery is about making the best of a bad situation.

If some of my high school friends judged me because I left Steelton, I had to be willing to recognize that some of my friends who were still using drugs were astonished and buoyed by my progress. If my son’s mother felt I ought to pay more child support, I had to be willing to sit down with her and discuss what I was trying to do, and still find meaningful ways to contribute, even if those contributions weren’t always what she had in mind.

I found myself in a complicated situation that was difficult for me to explain. I wanted my son’s mother to understand that by going to college instead of working full time, I was staking my future earning potential. But I’d hatched so many harebrained schemes during our short marriage, even I wasn’t quite sure it would work.

I don’t know how well I conveyed it in this chapter, but I agonized over the decisions that kept me in school, making progress towards a degree. I wanted people to like me, to understand what I was trying to achieve with my life. I wanted people to know that I wasn’t trying to dodge responsibility.

And this is probably why I took such comfort in literature. It made me feel less alone. I found characters with equally complex challenges. I was especially lucky to have good teachers, like Alice Sebold (author of THE LOVELY BONES), who shared frankly with me about her own experience with heroin. If you just surround yourself with people from AA, you can find yourself wondering—as I often did—if we were all deluding ourselves about what it means to be in recovery. Alice brought a much-needed outside perspective to my recovery. And if you’ve read DOPEFIEND, you know that an outsider who brings a much-needed perspective to bear foreshadows a watershed moment between my son and me at the end of the book. Sometimes you just have to be willing to look at things in a new way to recognize the new life that you’re trying to establish.

Reading group questions for Chapter 6:

  1. Discuss the differences between willingness and willfulness.
  2. If “recovery isn’t about what other people think,” then how can anyone in recovery be sure they’re on a productive path? In this chapter, the DOPEFIEND continues to attend school, believing it’s the direction his Higher Power wants him to follow. How can he know this? How is this not willful behavior?
  3. If recovery is about “making the best of a bad situation,” how can a recovering addict trust his own judgment, especially if his best judgment has landed him in hot water in the past. In this chapter, the DOPEFIEND offers guidance to his ex-wife and her husband about how they can have the child support payments increased, even though an increase might surely sink the DOPEFIEND’s plans to complete school. Is this making the tension around money better? Worse?
  4. If you’ve relied on your shortcomings as assets during addiction, how do you learn how to trust yourself, and make good decisions, without your shortcomings? Whatever answer you come up with, how does it tie into the themes of willingness and willfulness?
  5. In this chapter, the DOPEFIEND finds solace in writing and literature, as well as the advice of former drug abusers who aren’t participating in twelve step programs. What are the benefits of incorporating outside perspectives into one’s own recovery? What are the challenges?

Dopefiend Reading Guide: Chapter Five, Integrity


The fifth step of Alcoholics Anonymous asks recovering alcoholics to admit to God, to themselves, and to another human being the exact nature of their wrongs. You have to have a lot of integrity to make this kind of admission. But let’s forget about you for a minute and consider the guy who has to listen to all this stuff. He’s the real hero of the fifth step.

You need a lot of integrity to hear a fifth step. You may have no idea what you’re going to hear. If you’re also in recovery, you have to continue to practice all the other principles of recovery. It’s not like you get time off from your own program just because someone has asked you to listen to their fifth step. In fact, hearing someone’s fifth step—or any time someone shares something intimate with you—is probably the time it’s most important to be spiritually fit and on your best behavior. You certainly don’t want to judge. You also don’t want to find yourself getting so caught up advocating for a certain outlook or perspective that you inhibit whatever good work a Higher Power might be doing in someone else’s life. You have to be clear in your own mind that recovery only happens when the person who is sharing their story is ready to make whatever leap is required of them. You can’t get anyone else sober. You can’t force anyone to act with integrity. Recovery is absolutely an inside job.

These are the things I was thinking as I wrote this part. Certainly there is a lot of questionable behavior in this chapter. I cover every sort of dubious conduct from sleeping with newcomers, to judging the old timers, to dragging my feet on my child support obligations. None of that matters. I hope that doesn’t sound too glib. Of course, acting with integrity is important to recovery. These days I try to offer something helpful to the newcomers, to be respectful to the old timers (especially the ones who get under my skin), and to follow through on my obligations. But in this chapter I wanted to show how my sponsor’s unconditional love and acceptance of who I actually was early in my recovery helped me to see the role I played in becoming the person I wanted to be. And that is to say that my part in acting with integrity is this: I am solely responsible for all my behavior. All of it. But I can’t imagine how I would have been able to make that connection without my sponsor’s unconditional love and support.

My favorite part of this chapter is that it ends with my nervous admission to the dorm manager all my failings, a sort of pseudo fifth step. I’ve always been struck by the irony of how simple it was to get a room at the dorm. I tried all sorts of slick maneuvers and none of it panned out. In the end, I just needed to be honest. Ask for what I needed.

Reading group questions for Chapter 5:

  1. What might be the benefit of admitting one’s wrongs to another human being? Why not just keep your wrongs to yourself?
  2. The DOPEFIEND tells his sponsor, Roger, about the trysts with the newcomers in the crosstown meeting. At first Roger objects to this behavior, but the DOPEFIEND isn’t ready to hear this criticism, so Roger changes his tact and takes a “wait and see” approach. Is Roger acting with integrity by offering this kind of support to the DOEPFIEND?
  3. Discussing his behavior with the newcomer from the cross town meeting, the DOPEFIEND says he feels judged by Roger. He becomes combative, defending his decisions. When Roger decides to accept the DOPEFIEND’s behavior with a “wait and see” attitude, the DOPEFIEND immediately feels discomfort. He says his “confidence crumbles.” What is the relationship between Roger’s “wait and see” attitude and the responsibility for what happens next? Why is this important?
  4. A lot of the questionable behavior in this chapter is mirrored in an ambivalent light by at least one other character. For example, Rose doesn’t seem to mind the afternoon trysts with the DOPEFIEND. A girl from Hunter College reports that all the girls get dorm rooms by exaggerating scandalous circumstances. Dean Bernstein asks Leo to use inside connections to get the DOPEFIEND a coveted room at the dorm. Who is the ultimate arbiter of acting with integrity? How is this important to recovery?

Dopefiend Extravaganza at Jerry Waxler’s Memory Writers Network

I met Jerry Waxler  in one of my writing groups.He’s a seasoned writer with an easy-going, introspective outlook. If you follow his reviews, essays and interviews on the Memory Writers Network, you already know this is true. I’ve benefited from his sage writing advice time and time again.

Now it looks like I’m benefiting from his vast writing network. And you are too. A few weeks ago Jerry turned his attention to Dopefiend with a review of the book, and then an essay with writing prompts inspired by Dopefiend. This was followed up with a three-part interview with me that starts here.

Enjoy this feast of essays on all things Dopefiend!

Dopefiend Reading Guide: Chapter Four, Courage


In the fourth step of Alcoholics Anonymous, we’re asked to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of ourselves. I’ve been to AA meetings all over, and while every group runs itself a little differently, one thing that seems constant across all groups is this: the fourth step brings up a lot of fear and apprehension for people. It’s that journey inside: Everyone seems terrified about what they might find.

The fears of addicts seem remarkable to me especially if you consider the ups and downs of an average day in the life of an addict. When I was using drugs, someone was always after me. I remember one night, a guy—let’s call him Bill—pulled over to give me a ride. It was early evening on a cold winter night, and I was hitchhiking to a small neighboring town, to purchase Dilaudid from a paraplegic named Bobby, who occasionally got prescriptions that he resold. I stood on the berm of the road and cautiously eyed Bill’s car. A big husky guy, he had a job at the mill, and was usually flush with cash. I had a vague memory of getting the best of him in a drug deal, but I couldn’t remember how we had left it. Why had he stopped? I grinned winningly to see what he’d do. He rolled his eyes and said something like—Get in, ya fuck. We’re blockin’ traffic. Sounded friendly enough to me, so I dove into the front seat. Right off, he asked if I were headed up to Bobby’s. I said no, not really sure why I had bothered to lie. He drove us into no man’s land, a deserted stretch of road that runs alongside the mill. A mile or so along the isolated road, he pulled off to the side and brought the car to a stop. I thought maybe he was having car trouble, but then he leaned his fat, sloppy body weight against me and put his hands around my throat. I said something like, “Jesus, Bill.” And he said he was certain I was going to Bobby’s and that he wanted all my money. I coughed pitifully, not really needing to, but hoping the sound of pitiful coughing might make him feel bad enough to remove his hands from around my neck. I never seriously considered handing over my cash. Headlights from a passing car lit up the cab, and Bill gazed into the rearview until the lights passed, plunging us back into darkness again. “What are you going to do with the body?” I croaked.

I don’t remember feeling scared. If anything, I felt gratitude I had lied about my destination. That lie had offered me just enough plausible deniability to bolster my own resolve, just enough doubt to ward off Bill’s attack.

But that’s not courage. For courage, you have to feel fear and move forward anyhow. Recovery demands courage. In chapter 4 of Dopefiend, I wanted to show the kinds of things that did terrify me. Looking for work, asking for help. Trying to convince my family to take one more bet on me. None of it was nearly as life threatening as my ride through no man’s land with Bill, but all of it was absolutely terrifying at the time. I was trying to hammer out a completely different way of being me in the world. Fortunately for me, I had a lot of help.

That night in no man’s land, after he gave up trying to rob me, Bill beat on his steering wheel in disgust. “You’re going to let me choke you,” he said, “rather than give me your money!?” He said this with so much revulsion and disbelief, I found it amusing, but I did not smile.

Holding back the money from Bill wasn’t hard. What’s hard is standing up to my own fears and doing what needs to be done. And that’s the sort of thing that requires courage.

Reading group questions for Chapter 4:

  1. What is the relationship between fear and courage? Can you have one without the other?
  2. The young agent in the bursar’s office requests tax records from the DOPEFIEND, which can only come from the DOPEFIEND’s mother. The DOPEFIEND describes this as a “deal breaker” for receiving financial aid from the school. Is this reluctance to ask his mother for financial records about fear?
  3. What feels “life threatening” about doing a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves? What kind of death do we fear in sobriety? Why don’t we feel more fear for our life while in the throes of addiction?