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 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 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?