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 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?

Tim Elhajj @ Redmond Association of the Spoken Word

I’m going to appear at RASP later this month to read from Dopefiend and sign books. I’d love it you came over and said hello. I’ll have a bunch of books and the readings usually include a little Q&A at the end.

Where: Old Redmond Schoolhouse Community Center, Room 105

When: Friday, February 24, 2012, 7 P.M. (and the last Friday of every month)

Map picture

Dopefiend Reading Guide: Chapter Three, Faith

In the third step of Alcoholics Anonymous, we’re asked to turn over our will and our life to the care of a Higher Power. But what does that mean? How can anyone know God’s will for their life? I agonized over this part, probably because I had so little faith in my own ability to stay sober. I had gone to AA and NA meetings in the past. Had worked the steps and found a sponsor with whom I spoke daily. But somehow I always seemed to end up using heroin again, sinking a little lower into an abyss of my own making.

What a jackpot!

And how best to avoid it? It’s not like God speaks words to us, or weighs in on our daily decisions and interactions with others. How can anyone be sure that the actions she takes are the actions that will lead to a satisfying and productive outcome? Perhaps in the early stages of recovery the objective—God’s will, if you like—is a bit clearer, a little simpler to fathom: Don’t Use Drugs. But eventually you have to move beyond the simple objectives and become an agent in the world. Any number of decisions small and large need to be made, some having a real impact on our own lives or the lives of those we love.

In Chapter 3 of DOPEFIEND, I wanted to explore how I learned to have faith in myself, my own ability to make good decisions for my life, and to engage with others in meaningful ways. When the chapter opens, I have about a year sober and need to start making my way out of rehab and back into the community. One of the things my sponsor suggested I do was pay close attention to my feelings. Your feelings, he said, will guide you to the place your higher power wants you to be. I remember thinking this sounded like a bit of woo-woo hooey, but it turned out to be one of the most important changes I made in early recovery, a practice I continue to use today.

By paying attention to my feelings, I understood the excitement I felt on the campus of Bronx Community College spoke to a new direction for me. With no prior inclination toward school as an adult, I realized that getting an education was the thing I wanted to do most. But more importantly, I began to recognize when I had made a mistake with one of the people in my life. And, boy, did I make a lot of mistakes. Chapter 3 reads like a comedy of errors. If I had to engage with you on a daily basis, we were definitely going to have problems. I needed to learn how to successfully relate with other people, and I did this by trial and error. But mostly error. Even if I couldn’t name the mistakes I was making, I knew I was constantly colliding with the most important people in my life—roommates, girlfriends, bosses.

This is where prayer and meditation came in.

Once I determined what I was feeling, I had to take a little time to be thoughtful, to understand what the appropriate response from me should be. I had to learn how to approach relationships without fear and allow myself to be vulnerable. I had to learn how to stand up for what I needed in a relationship without leaving whomever I was negotiating with a bloody mess—no tearing down the kitchen with a chainsaw to get a second cup of coffee. This approach to maintaining relationships and figuring out what to do with my life is still a challenge. And I go about it in mostly the same way: I pay attention to my feelings and allow plenty of time for thoughtful mediation, especially around conflict.

As it turns out, these are also really good exercises for writers of memoir, which is further proof of the existence of a God: who but a Higher Power could have foreseen a recovery memoir coming from the likes of me? I mean, really.

Reading group questions for Chapter 3:

  1. In Chapter 3, the DOPEFIEND makes a lot of mistakes, especially with jobs and relationships. He tangles with his managers and roommate. He breaks up with his girlfriend, even as she is trying to draw closer to him. What is the relationship between making good decisions and recovery? Is there ever an upside to a bad decision?
  2. Though some of the counselors at “Rockford” are recovering addicts themselves, they also drink recreationally. When the DOPEFIEND questions the seeming incongruity of this practice, he is reminded to keep the focus on himself. What can we infer about recovery from this? If some recovering addicts can drink alcohol and still be successful at recovery, what metric can those of us who don’t drink use to determine if our own recovery is a success? What about someone else’s recovery?
  3. Out of spite, the DOPEFIEND attends AA meetings because some of the counselors at his rehab facility drink recreationally. This seems like an example of a good decision made for the wrong reasons. This behavior seems to echo the DOPEFIEND’s decision in an earlier chapter to enter rehab in New York to escape prosecution in Pennsylvania. What is the relationship between intention and making good decisions?
  4. Chapter 3 features the appearance of a specter from the DOPEFIEND’s past, namely Chopper Cassidy, who “died of a drug overdose ten years ago.” Assume that Chopper Cassidy’s role in the narrative is to allow the DOPEFIEND to compare himself as he appears in the present of the story’s timeline to himself as he was in the past. How does framing a narrative around our own behavior over time inform a discussion about intention and recovery?

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.