More than twenty years ago, I moved to New York City with less than twenty dollars in my pocket to kick a heroin habit. I was leaving behind my beautiful three-year-old boy, who had his mother’s straw-colored hair and clear blue eyes, exactly the opposite of my own dark hair and eyes. I searched for some recognizable piece of myself in his chipper, smiling face but didn’t see much.

I was twenty-six and leaving Steelton, the small town in south-central Pennsylvania where I had grown up amid high school football games, Bethlehem Steel, and the shallow waters of the Susquehanna River. Nine years earlier I had first shot up heroin here. No drug I tried in high school had ever made me feel the way heroin did. After finishing with the military, I returned home, eager to resume using this drug. My friends and I mocked the older heroin addicts we knew, many of whom still lived in their mother’s houses, slept in their childhood beds, and rarely dated or did anything other than chase heroin. Unlike those guys, I soon married a girl a few years younger than myself. My addiction seemed to stir some strange mix of benevolence and fascination in her. She would set little abstinence tasks for me to perform, and these I cheerfully subverted or undermined. I felt confident that once I found a comfortable groove, I would throw off my expensive habit.

When my wife got pregnant, I knew I ought to stop. But as she gave birth in the hospital, I raced from the waiting room to purchase Dilaudid, a fancy name for pharmaceutical heroin. In our bedroom, I would stare at my infant son’s tiny fingers and delicate nails, so pink and magnificent, and realize I hadn’t a clue how to be a good father. Soon my wife took him and left.

I rallied to win them back. My mother suggested a drug treatment program with her Charismatic Christian Church. But I ended up as unenthusiastic for religion as my son’s mother was for my efforts in treatment. Soon I began hanging out with the older addicts I used to mock and getting into real trouble with the Steelton police.

I ended up in drug treatment again, this time at a secular facility. Attending my first recovery meeting, I found many of my friends were starting off their own recovery this way. In the course of a “reconciliation” effected by the rehab facility, my wife made it clear we were through. Whatever spark she once carried for me had long since flickered out.

No drug I tried in high school had ever made me feel the way heroin did.

Moving on, I tried to figure out how to be a good parent, but I still hadn’t even figured out how to remain abstinent. During the short bursts of recovery I did manage, I’d show up with presents or for some daddy time.

Even as a toddler, my son made his interest in athletics clear: He would clamor to watch any sport with a ball on TV, even golf. As a boy, I’d always done terribly in sports. During my childhood, I’d watched with growing alarm, and then envy, as my older brothers developed into excellent athletes. So why, I wondered, had God made me the father of this sturdy, sports-minded boy? With each relapse, I grew more cynical. Soon all my friends were celebrating their  first years in recovery, and I was still mired in addiction.

During this time, there was a guy I knew who had been a heroin addict himself but had been in recovery for about five years: Buster B. At the time, it seemed unimaginable to me that anyone who had once used heroin could go so long without the drug. Buster was stocky with an open, friendly face. He had a receding hairline and wore his blond hair in a carefully greased crew cut, a slick curb of clipped hair rising and falling across his forehead like a McDonald’s sign. To ward off the coming winter, he wore a long pea coat. Buster liked to wear black Wayfarer sunglasses, a host of gold rings on his fingers, and thick ropes of gold chain around his neck. He had a beautiful girlfriend, a busty redhead who smoked long brown cigarettes. Buster always drove a new Ford sedan with dealer plates attached by magnets to the trunk. When dopefiends get into recovery, they invariably seem to do one of two things to make a living: car sales or drug and alcohol counseling. Buster worked at the big Ford dealership on Paxton and Cameron Streets, but he liked to show up to the recovery meetings and do a little impromptu counseling on the side. We envied his jewelry, his shiny sedan, his pneumatic girlfriend. But it was his recovery time that held us in awe. Milling about during a smoke break at the meeting, we sipped coffee from Styrofoam cups and listened to whatever Buster had to say.

“There are only two things you need to do to stay in recovery,” Buster said.

We all raised our eyebrows. We’d heard in meetings that there were at least twelve things, even if we couldn’t articulate exactly what those things were. Yet here was Buster talking about doing only two. Seemed like a bargain. We all shuffled in a little bit closer.

“First,” Buster said. “Don’t get high.”

This was an obvious first step, and a little chuckle rose up from the seven or eight of us standing there. If you’re not an addict, it may seem like this solves the entire problem. It does not. The list of things that can impose a moratorium on street drug use is endless. Someone gets pinched somewhere along the distribution chain and suddenly there are no drugs available. You have to stop. Or one day you might not be able to get your money together. And, you can always get busted yourself.  Not getting high is as much a part of getting high as being able to poke a vein or get your money together. And let’s not forget about the legal highs like sex, gambling, and alcohol. The trick isn’t to stop using, but to remain abstinent for the long haul.

“Second,” Buster said.

And here he paused for effect and held up two fingers. This was the money step: the crucial information we needed to stay in recovery. The signet ring on Buster’s stubby pinky glittered in the afternoon sun. I didn’t want to seem too eager, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was about to hear something momentous. I leaned in a little closer.

Buster had a little half-smile on his lips as he sipped his coffee and adjusted his coat.

“Boys,” he said. He glanced to his left and then to the right. When he was sure he had our undivided attention, he said: “Change your whole fucking life around.”

He laughed heartily at his own little joke and stroked his tummy. The rest of us stood there in silence. Buster crushed out his cigarette and grinned. “Come on,” he said, walking past us. “Let’s get back to the meeting.”

Fucking Buster B.

He was just toying with us then, but I have come to realize that Buster B.’s little joke wasn’t all that far from the truth. To make the most of recovery, I would have to change just about every aspect of my life: I would need a spiritual, emotional, and intellectual makeover of the most sweeping kind.

Of course, I didn’t understand any of this back then. None of us did.

Change your whole fucking life around

We all groaned and smirked and scowled. Someone shook his head. Another person laughed good-naturedly and mumbled, “Cocksucker.” We were a forlorn little group of barely recovering addicts, who thought we had stumbled upon a good deal. Instead we had the same old dusty twelve “To Dos” we started with.

The only way to get where I wanted to go, it seemed, was to do all twelve.

And in New York, this is exactly what I did. It was a good thing, too. As it turned out, my son grew from a beautiful blond boy to a strapping hulk of a young man. Today, he towers over me, his eyes still blue, his hair still clipped short. Over the years, he has looked skeptically at my long locks, my affinity for faded black jeans and combat boots, or my deep disinterest in athleticism of any kind. The one thing we have in common is a penchant for self destruction: This is the most recognizable piece of me that I have found in him. The only way I could hope to offer him much as a parent was
to first find my own way through the maze of addiction to recovery.

Here, then, is my story in twelve chapters: a chapter for each step, a step for each chapter.