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.


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 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.


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 Excerpt: A Little Help From my Friends


“If I (pictured, left) got thrown out of the house,” I said, almost in a whisper, “I just slept on the couch over at Bud’s, or sometimes up at Mary and Frank’s (pictured, right)…”

R.I.P. Frank K.


Dopefiend Excerpt: Sunday Celebrations at Rockford

facial hair bronx

Each week at Rockford, there was a Sunday celebration: families brought home-cooked meals, girlfriends appeared in tight jeans and teased hair, and sons mended family ties.

Aaron (not pictured) and I (pictured, far right) never participated.

He had a girlfriend in Manhattan, but she was ignoring him while he was in treatment. I occasionally wrote my mother carefully composed letters that never asked for anything, or even posed any questions she might feel compelled to answer. I didn’t want to pressure her. In prior treatment experiences, I had pushed for the organized reconciliation, the weekend visits. I couldn’t imagine going through all that again.

As the summer wore on, counselors began to disappear, with little explanation for their absence. Juan was gone. Rick was gone. A few others were gone. Aaron pointed out that they had actually relapsed and then had to be let go. When I suggested they might have gotten better jobs, Aaron laughed. He was shrewd.

“They’re junkies,” he said. “You can tell they’re in trouble, if their caseload suddenly gets cut.” This appeared to be true.

Miguel, who had pale yellow where the whites of his eyes should have been, had his caseload cut to a third of what it once had been. A few days later, he took his remaining charges into the courtyard, and then nodded off in his folding chair during group. One-by-one his clients stood, folded their chairs and then wandered off, until only Miguel was left in the courtyard, his chin upon his chest. News of the counselor’s relapses terrified me. It was exactly the kind of thing I could see myself doing.


Dopefiend Excerpt: Joey and His Mom Celebrate Three Years Old


More than twenty years ago, I moved to New York City with less tan 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.



Dopefiend Excerpt: Young Joey on His Bike in the Zoo


I followed Joey up Swatara Street. He was still just a noodle of a boy, all sun-browned arms and skinned knees. We were trekking up the high school hill to pass a baseball—me carrying his stepdad’s glove, him loping three paces ahead. I hadn’t lived on this block in years and didn’t recognize many of the neighbors who sat out on their front porches. Joey knew everyone. He waved at some people across the street, then shouted to someone else sitting on a porch.

Sometimes he would stop, address someone on their porch. “My dad’s home,” he’d say. “He lives in New York.”

I’d nod, smile.

I felt vaguely uncomfortable meeting so many people, wondering how much they knew of my story, or if they knew anything at all. On these weekend visits, I tried to let Joey take charge. I followed him. We did whatever he wanted to do, as long as it didn’t cost too much.

We were halfway up the hill and it dawned on me how difficult it would be for me to reach out—wave, or just say hello—to that many people. “You’re popular, son,” I said. “People really like you.”

Joey stopped. I wasn’t expecting him to do that, and I strode past him and then looked over my shoulder to see what had caused him to pull up short. He was standing there with his mouth open.

“Me?” he asked.

“You didn’t know that?” I laughed. “You’re very outgoing. You know everyone, everyone knows you.”

His eyes welled up with emotion, and then he blushed—bright red strawberries across both his cheeks. I was surprised—as much by his reaction as by my ability to elicit it with such small praise.

He put his head down and started walking with me.

“I wasn’t like that when I was little,” I said. “I’m not even like that now, but I wish I were.” I didn’t want to overplay it or embarrass him, but I knew I’d said the right thing.

He needed my perspective. And I wanted to give it to him.


A Portrait of the Dopefiend as a Young Man

mug shot

A girl in Steelton was selling heroin from her third floor apartment on Front Street, across from the main entrance to Bethlehem Steel. “Black-tar” heroin, they called it. Dope so potent some people had been rushed to the ER after trying it. Vince, my connection, assured me, “It’s a smoker.” That some had required hospitalization was more testament to the drug’s potency, than any kind of warning. “People are falling out,” he said. A siren’s song, to be sure. Of course I wanted some. My only concern was how I could improve my chances of getting any: this dope was more expensive than usual—thirty-five dollars for a dime bag, if I got it through Vince—and it was going fast. I attempted and botched the burglary of a friend’s apartment. He called the cops.

Two uniformed police officers took me to the municipal building on the other end of Front Street. Their faces were familiar, as was the face of the young plainclothes detective who sat at a desk sipping coffee. During the cavity search, I could hear the detective and one of the uniforms reminisce about Richard, an older addict I knew, who had waited for his own cavity search to blow a greasy, wet fart into the face of his inspector. By the way they spoke, I could tell it was a familiar story for them. I had heard the same story myself, but told to me by my own circle of friends. I had always thought it exaggeration or gag. I mused on the mutability of truth as I held my ankles.

One of the uniforms led me to a little four-by-four cage with a heavy iron-barred door at one end of the office. He insisted I remove the shoelaces from my sneakers. I looked at the ratty laces, the plastic tips of which had long since disappeared, leaving only a blooming mass of string on the ends. I snorted at the ridiculousness of me attempting to hang my 160 pounds from this tiny iron closet with these dirty laces. I negotiated to give him the entire sneaker, laces and all. So I sat in my stocking feet in the little cage, resigning myself to my new circumstances. County jail.

After about an hour in the cage, the detective came for me. He took me to a chair beside a desk, gave me a can of Coke, and both my sneakers. He proposed an alternate plan: help him bust the girl on Front Street, earn a favor.

I sat there dumbfounded with my sneakers in my lap.

I didn’t want to bust anyone. I wasn’t even certain I could buy the drugs. Vince usually did that for me. He also had the syringe and helped me inject the drugs. I wasn’t even sure which apartment the girl was living in. All I really wanted was a bag of that dope. I told the detective the dope was more expensive than usual, trying to make him see the futility of his plan. He said it didn’t matter. How much did I need, he wanted to know. He said this with a smile, a big toothy grin. As if he were a patient uncle, lending me money. I told him I wasn’t even sure which was the right apartment. He said he definitely knew.

I looked at him. I realized I had been looking past him all night. Now I looked him right in his eyes and he smiled.

“How much money do you need,” he repeated.

I had resigned myself to jail, but now my enthusiasm was rising, blooming, my mind on fire with possibilities. For an addict, this racing mind is the hardest thing to quiet. I really did not want to bust the girl. There were few rules for addicts. I stole from my mother and my wife. I traded sex with men for money. Snitching, however, was different. Nobody likes a snitch.

I did some quick calculations in my head. I wanted to buy extra dope—some for me, some for the cops. I also wanted a couple of dollars to buy a syringe.

“How much?” he asked again.

“Ninety-eight dollars,” I said. I ended up blurting this out. I don’t know why I picked that number, but it was too late to call it back. I was glad I hadn’t gone over a hundred.

“For one bag of dope?” He looked at me skeptically.

“Yup,” I said.

I realized it was a ridiculously high amount, but I smiled.

“Ninety-eight?” he smiled. “Why ninety-eight?”

“’Cause that’s how much it costs.” I said flatly.

“You don’t need ninety-eight dollars.” This from one of the patrolmen on the other side of the room. His tone was contemptuous.

The detective stood and left me sitting at the desk. On the other side of the room, he engaged the cop with hushed whispers. I heard the uniform’s voice rise in disgust, “Ninety-eight dollars?” he hissed. “For one bag?”

Between the three of them, they didn’t have ninety-eight dollars. But I wouldn’t budge on the price. I put on my sneakers. I stood and put my foot on the chair to knot the laces. They called in Pickles, a wiry black officer, who owned a car repair garage on Front Street. The detective met him at the door. As they spoke, Pickles flashed me a look of utter disbelief. The detective grinned over at me and waved. He put his arm around Pickles’s shoulders and turned him to the door, both their backs to me. They continued to talk for a few more minutes. Finally they broke.

Pickles reached into his front pocket for a huge roll of cash. When he peeled off the money, I didn’t feel like I could back out.


The nice thing about using drugs in a small town is that the girl who was selling the heroin looked into my face and instantly recognized my family. She was a big girl, probably in her early twenties, with a round full face. The wan light from her kitchen made her cheeks glow. I won’t repeat her name here.

“You one of them Elhajj boys?” she asked.

“Tim,” I said.

In time, she would eventually send a message from the female wing of the Dauphin County Prison, to the larger male wing where I was housed, forgiving me for what I had done, and making it clear she was asking for no retribution. In fact, she was actively using her influence to protect me. She hoped to use the bust as an opportunity to start over. The person who gave me this message—an addict from Steelton who had been incarcerated on unrelated charges—delivered her words with an odd mix of reverence for her and undisguised contempt for me. I felt shame, but not much surprise. She seemed a kind woman. That night on the landing of her third floor apartment, just before she stepped aside and let me in, she said: “You shouldn’t be doing this.”

I got the last three bags of dope.

She wanted thirty-five dollars apiece. I was a few dollars short for three, but she let me slide. Another woman hanging out let me borrow her syringe. She was older. Tight white jeans and a heavy leather purse. Old enough that I felt ashamed of myself for how my eyes kept wandering back to the curve of her hips and thighs in those white pants. I rinsed her syringe with Clorox, then with clear water. I opened one of the glassine bags and emptied it into the spoon. Not black-tar, but a fine powder with a dark tint, like instant chocolate milk. It was 4 a.m. and the police were waiting in the alley out back. The girl who had the dope was frying eggs in the kitchen. This was my first time purchasing heroin from a dealer on my own.

I opened and dumped the other two bags into the spoon.

The woman who had lent me her syringe balked. “That’s good shit,” she said. “You sure you want to be doing that much?” I resealed the empty glassine bags and put them into my front pocket. Beat bags. One for the cops, the others could be filled with crushed aspirin. Or just left empty. You couldn’t determine what was inside the milky-white glassine bags without first opening them.

I made it into the living room before I passed out.

Around 6 a.m. the police busted down the door. I woke to the sound of the glass in the apartment door bursting. I had passed out in such a way that my body had crumpled to the floor, propped between couch and the coffee table, cutting off the blood to my legs. I could barely stand. They put me in handcuffs, but I was wobbly from the drugs and my legs, and on the way out the door my arm got hung up on a shard of broken glass.

I stood in River Alley handcuffed and bleeding, the heel of my shoe filling with a puddle of blood. Someone called a paramedic and he sutured my arm in the lane. I couldn’t see any of the women from the apartment. Looking to earn favor, I told the cop who was watching me that I had purchased the dope. He reached into my front pocket and took all three of the empty bags. The rest of the cops were searching the apartment, but couldn’t find any dope or Pickle’s money. They came out in the alley and asked me if I’d help. I berated them for what had happened to my arm as they took off the handcuffs, then followed them up the stairs. The apartment was trashed. Everything was in one massive pile in the middle of the room. As I glanced around the apartment, I noticed a stereo sitting undisturbed on a milk crate near the bed. The detective noticed it at the same time as me. Pickles’s money was under the stereo.

At the station, we all herded into the briefing room.

The police chief produced a little test tube filled with clear liquid. He looked around the room and said, “We’re looking for blue, gentlemen.” He intended to test the heroin for potency. Had any heroin remained in those bags, I feel certain it would have turned the water in his little glass tube the bluest of blues. What could be done? Only hope is real and reality is all a bitterness and a deceit. The chief opened the first bag and upended it over the test tube. Of course, nothing came out. The detective shifted nervously. The chief did the same with the second bag.

I remember him peering into the third bag with one eye shut.

Damn—” I said. I sniffed, rubbed my nose. “She ripped us off!”


ReWrite: An Evening of Prose From Writers in Recovery

If you’re in San Francisco, come see me at Re Write: An Evening of Prose from Writers in Recovery. It’s a fabulous line up of recovering dopefiends, ne’er-do-wells and misfits, who all love to write. Get your tickets here. Click the flyer to open a PDF version of the flyer or go here for more details and a map.

I hope you can make it! I know just what I’m going to read.