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 Excerpt: Good Intentions

rockford graduation

“Jamir,” I  said (pictured, right, hugging), fighting for calm. “What are we doing?”

He grinned, a big sloppy smile. “Tonight you finish treatment, yes?” he asked.

I nodded, surprised he had even remembered.

“We celebrate,” he said. “Look, look.”

In the street ahead, I saw a blur of sequins, a flash of female flesh, short skirts and bikini tops. Prostitutes. Three or four of them had their arms in the air, waving their hands above their heads. I looked at Jamir with confusion and horror. He mistook the look on my face for a question of logistics. “Just climb in the back,” he said. “I’ll pay.”

The light dawned—I’d finished treatment, I was moving into my new apartment and Jamir wanted to get me something, a sort of housewarming gift. I felt alarmed and disgusted, but also a little touched. There was an awful moment where I just didn’t know how to respond. Then, from the street, we heard the voices of the women waving their hands.

As one they chanted, “GO HOME! YOU’RE DRUNK! NO SERVICE!”

I laughed, relieved. We’d been flagged.

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?

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!

Dopefiend Reading Guide: Chapter One, Honesty

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is about recognizing that alcohol is ruining your life. That may seem a little obvious, but in practice it’s actually one of the biggest challenges an addict will ever face. In the first chapter of Dopefiend, I wanted to echo a similar awareness, with a similar struggle to find the big picture. The chapter opens with the DOPEFIEND adamantly refusing to recognize the role that heroin plays in his life. I remember going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings in Pennsylvania high on heroin and playing it off like I was sober. I fooled no one. But the trick with denial is that, for it to work, you really only need to deceive one person. Fortunately for me, I found myself in a New York City homeless shelter. This drastic change of circumstance, more than anything else, helped me to assess my life situation more clearly.

Reading group questions for Chapter 1: Honesty:

1. Is there any difference between denial and dishonesty?

2. Early in the chapter, one of the attendees at an Narcotics Anonymous meeting points out that the DOPEFIEND is going to die. To which, he responds: “We’re all going to die.” Is this an honest answer? Why? Why not?

3. In a “bid for leniency” from the judge, the DOPEFIEND applies for drug treatment. Does this seem like an honest way to enter drug treatment? Why? Why not?

4. At the intake appointment, Roberto discovers that the DOPEFIEND got high earlier that morning. Although this is told to Roberto as a joke, to lighten the mood, this is arguably the only honest thing the DOPEFIEND says to anyone in all of Chapter 1. What role does this tiny bit of honesty play in irrevocably setting the DOPEFIEND on a course to break through his denial?

5. What role—if any—does the tousle headed deli clerk’s kindness play in breaking through the DOPEFIEND’s denial? What about this same clerk’s firm response to the attempted theft of the ice cream from his store? Which response—firmness or kindness—plays a bigger role in breaking though the DOPEFIEND’s denial?

The End of the DOPEFIEND Book Tour is Really the Beginning

The official book tour has come to an end. I visited Portland, Seattle (pictured), Oakland and San Francisco. Public speaking doesn’t always come easy for me. I had to push myself, but I had a good time. I’m even a little sad now—I was just starting to get the hang of presenting the book.

I feel so grateful for what I was able to achieve with the book tour. When I first started to use heroin, I was seventeen and I thought my world had finally opened up. My lack of confidence was no longer a problem. All the anxiety was behind me. But that was all an illusion. Really my world was already beginning to shrink, only I couldn’t see it. I ended up in a Manhattan homeless shelter—in a tight, claustrophobic, little, tiny world.

Recovery has been about doing the real work to make my world big again. Throughout my recovery I have found concrete, real examples of how my world is expanding. In the beginning they came fast and regular. For example, Mom letting me back into her house. Going to Hunter College. Marrying Holly and being welcomed into her wonderful family. In the last ten years, the milestones have slowed, but when one does appear, it’s really something.

These readings have given me an amazing experience of being connected to something bigger than myself. Except for the multi-author events, all my readings have been modestly attended. There has always been at least one person who I knew was going to show up and at least one more person who surprised me by showing up. But this feeling of connectedness isn’t about the size of the audience. There was this one lady about my age in Seattle (who surprised me by showing up). She sidled up to me after the Q&A and whispered that she had been in recovery for a long time. After announcing a pharmaceutical morphine addiction, she said she really didn’t feel like she belonged at the NA meetings with all the young people. And then she said she didn’t feel like she belonged at the AA meetings with all people our age who drank alcohol. I totally understood what she was telling me. I wanted to say, You are COMPLETELY welcome at the Dopefiend readings, Ma’am. I know just how you feel. In Oakland a woman and her husband mentioned that their son had just got out of treatment for his own heroin addiction within the last three months. They were in that uncomfortable place, wondering if it would stick. How long would it last. I know that feeling. I’ve felt that myself about my own recovery. I told them that sometimes recovery really does stick. I said not to give up hope. I mentioned that it took me a couple of tries before I was successful and that kids kick heroin all the time. They looked a little tense, but they smiled. I was so glad they showed up.

And that’s not even counting all the friends and family who have shown up for me. I had friends brave hours of bay area traffic to attend. I had family drive up to Oakland from as far away as the central coast of California. I have friends who I had never met before, but who I know from making a bunch of bad jokes on the Internet, and these friends showed up for me in San Francisco. And then they hijacked me and my wife and took us to a nice place after the event and we celebrated.

My world feels huge.

And, really, it’s just the beginning. Once you put a book out there—especially memoir—you make an implicit commitment to discussing it. So the official book tour is over, but I’m going to keep discussing the book. Later this month I’m guest lecturing at Theo Pauline (HOW TO SLEEP ALONE IN A KING SIZE BED) Nestor’s memoir class at the UW. I’ve got a few more things lined up after the holidays. And, of course, I’ll keep posting here. Stay tuned!

Dopefiend: the cover art

I just got word that I can post the cover art. I am really pleased with how it came out. It’s bright and colorful, but somehow it’s still a little edgy and dark.

And, of course, best of all: It’s got my name on it.

Thing: The Cover