Tag Archives: parenting

Dopefiend, a Recovery Memoir in Twelve Parts

Over twenty years ago, I moved to New York City to kick a heroin habit. I had less than twenty dollars in my pocket and 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 countenance. I searched for some recognizable piece of myself in his chipper smiling face but couldn’t find much.

I lived in Steelton, a small-town in south central Pennsylvania. I had tried several times to stop using drugs there, but had found little success. There was a guy in Steelton who had been a heroin addict himself but had been clean for about five years: Scotty G. At the time, it seemed unimaginable to me that anyone who had once used heroin could go so long without the drug. Scotty was stocky with an open, friendly face. He wore his blond hair in a carefully greased crew cut, two slick curbs of hair rising on the receding hairline of his forehead like a McDonald’s sign. To ward off the coming winter, he wore a long pea coat. Scotty 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. Scotty always drove a new Ford sedan with dealer plates attached by magnets to the trunk. When dopefiends get sober, they invariably do one of two things to make a living: car sales or drug and alcohol counseling. Scotty worked at the big Ford dealership on Paxton and Cameron Streets, but he liked to show up to the 12-step meetings and do a little counseling on the side. We envied his jewelry, his shiny sedan, his pneumatic girlfriend. But his clean time held us in awe. Milling about Scotty during a smoke break at the meeting, we sipped coffee from Styrofoam cups and listened to whatever he had to say.

“There are only two things you need to do to stay sober,” Scotty said.

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

“First,” Scotty 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 drug use is endless. Someone gets busted 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. Not getting high is as much a part of getting high as being able to poke a vein or get your money together. The trick isn’t to stop using drugs, but to remain abstinent for the long haul.

“Second,” Scotty said.

And here he paused for effect and held up two fingers. This was the money step: the crucial information we needed to stay clean. The signet ring on Scotty’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.

Scotty 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. Scotty crushed out his cigarette and grinned. “Come on,” he said, walking past us. “Let’s get back to the meeting.”

Fucking Scotty G.

He was just toying with us then, but I have come to realize that Scotty G.’s little joke wasn’t really all that far from the truth. To successfully stop using drugs, I had to change just about every aspect of my life: I needed 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.

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

We all turned together as one and headed back into the church basement. The only way to get where I wanted to go was to do all twelve.

And it was a good thing I did.

As it turns out, my son grew from a beautiful blonde boy to a strapping hulk of a young man. He towers over me, his eyes still blue, his hair still clipped short. Over the years, he has looked skeptically at my long tresses, my affinity to dress in faded black jeans and combat boots, or my deep and abiding loathing for athleticism of any kind. The one thing we have in common is a penchant for self destruction: This tendency of ours is the most recognizable piece of me that I have ever found in him. The only way I could hope to help him with it, was to first find my own way through the maze.

Here is my story in twelve parts: a part for each step, a step for each part.

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In Sickness And In Health

8-30-2009 069 

Two weeks ago Holly got sick.

We thought it was the flu, but it was much worse. I won’t go into the details here, except to say she ended up in the hospital on antibiotics for a the better part of a week. She is home now, and mostly recovered. I was freaking out.

There are some things I do pretty good. At my best, I like to think I set the spiritual tone and cadence for the family. If there are schisms, I can usually work my magic to put things back together. I do this by acting goofy–having a seat on my daughter, as she lays in a snit on the couch. Or pratfalls into Aaron’s arms. I have no problem making an ass of myself, if I think it’ll do some good. When it comes to work, I’ve had a pretty good run. In the last ten years, I’ve only been unemployed once, maybe twice, and never longer than 6 months. Every month, I balance our checkbook to the penny.

But there are somethings I do terribly. Getting up early, for example. Or making breakfast. For middle school, the kids have to be out of the house at 7:20 A.M. With Holly gone, we were getting by on toast and Popsicles. Of course, this all happened a few weeks away from a major deadline at my work, which didn’t help. There is nothing more humbling than not being able to provide for your kids.

We got a lot of support. Holly coordinated from her hospital bed, using her cell phone. Our friends–the Francours and the Becks–pitched in to haul the kids around to various after school activities or feed them dinner. My mother-in-law jumped on a plane and came rushing to our aid.

Somehow we survived.

I took Holly to the ER in the middle of the night, when we first realized things were going sour. She was in pain and eventually the nurse offered her a shot of dillaudid. Holly always turns down the pain medication, which I have known about her for a long time, but it always catches me off gaurd when it happens. Who turns down morphine? I always feel like I have to explain to the nurse and doctors.

Holly, take your narcotics.

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The Santa Claus Reveal


This year Holly and I told the kids that Santa isn’t real, but then the kids didn’t believe us.

I didn’t want to burst their Christmas bubble, but it seemed like the right thing to do.  Most of the other kids in their fifth grade class don’t believe in Santa anymore. Aaron has been pointedly asking me if Santa were real, and I’d been holding him off by shrugging my shoulders and telling him I believed in Santa. That’s not an entirely untrue statement either: I believe a little faith and imagination will take you places you can’t get on reason alone. I would have let the whole Santa business go right there, but then Kennedy started to draw some uncomfortable associations between religion and Santa. “Jews don’t believe in Santa,” she told my wife. The little kids celebrating Hanukkah were telling Kennedy that Santa isn’t real. She would drift toward her church friends on the playground and say things like “You’re Christian. You believe in Santa, right?” But this only elicited eye rolls and other reactions that Kennedy didn’t understand. Holly and I decided we probably ought to tell them Santa isn’t real.

A few weeks ago after dinner, Holly brought up Santa. The kids gave us their full attention. Holly said Santa was a legend, based on Saint Nicholas, who used to sneak around putting gifts into shoes that poor people left out at night. Holly talked about the Spirit of Giving.  Generosity. The Meaning of Christmas. That sort of thing. The room got quiet as a funeral.

“No North Pole?” Aaron asked.

“Nope,” Holly said. “And no reindeer.”

“I knew it,” Aaron said. His voice was even, but disappointed.

Kennedy surprised us by asking a bunch of questions. She wanted to know who bought the Santa gifts. And why the tags on the Santa presents were in a different handwriting than the tags on the rest of the presents. “And who eats the cookies, who drinks the milk?” she asked.

We answered her questions and then started to clean up. I felt terrible. While Holly and I loaded the dishwasher, I wished we could go back in time and do the last ten minutes over. A few days later, I forgot all about it. But then the strangest thing happened: Kennedy said she didn’t believe us!

At first she thought Holly and I were just pulling her leg. She kept asking questions and disbelieving the answers. Soon she convinced herself that Holly and I were out of our minds. It’s probably just a sign of how things are going to go as they get older, but it couldn’t have happened at a better time. Kennedy was planning to prove her theory by writing a secret Santa letter and then asking for something only she and Santa could know about. Fortunately Holly talked her out of it. 

Turns out, a little boy has been needling Kennedy about Santa since kindergarten. Her whole focus has been showing this kid up, proving to him that Santa is real. Holly suggested that Kennedy believe what she believes and let her little friend believe what he believes. A lesson that downplays proselytizing and promotes tolerance all rolled up in one. Can I get an amen?

Kennedy even brought Aaron around to her way of thinking. Earlier this week as we were saying prayers, Aaron blissfully slipped into full blown Santa denial and expressed regret for asking Santa for a 14 karat gold plated portable gaming device. I was pleased. Not just because he was believing in Santa again, but because he was showing contrition for being greedy. What kind of kid needs a gold plated PSP?

I couldn’t be more happy with how this year’s Santa reveal turned out. My faith in the unknowable mystery of life has been renewed.

And I hope Aaron and Kennedy believe in Santa Claus until they’re a hundred and fifty.

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The Joy of Cussing


I love to curse.

When I was growing up, colorful language was the rule. Aunt Polly loved to swear. Aunt Carol could hold her own. Mom seemed more reserved—she would say eff this or eff that. If her sisters got too vulgar, she would chide them to cool out. I would sit in the living room, pretending to watch TV but listening to every word.

No surprise, then, that as an adult I don’t have good boundaries when it comes to my kids and foul language. Case in point: Last weekend Holly and the kids were watching Spaceballs, an old comedy from the 80s with a surprising amount of cursing.

Holly has been exploring old movies and TV shows with the kids, but this was the first with a good amount of cussing. Aaron and Kennedy don’t curse. This is all due to Holly’s good home training, but the kids have really taken to it. I’m a little disappointed. In our house the D-word is dumb and the S-word is stupid.

“Stupid,” I say with mild scorn. “Stupid is a bad word? That’s retarded.” And Aaron slugs me in the arm.

Spaceballs’s Major Asshole scene nearly tipped the old time movie viewing scales in our house. Holly threatened to turn off the TV, but the kids protested. “We’ve already heard all these words,” Kennedy said.

“Where?” Holly asked.

Immediately both kids cried in unison, “DAD!” When Holly told me this story, I laughed. I love to curse.

Here is my favorite cussing story: 

I joined the military when I was seventeen. This was back in the days when the Company Commander routinely cursed out the entire squad, just for good measure.


It was the first week and we were all—leaders and lambs—trying to feel out the situation. The Company Commander’s task was to break us down. He stormed up and down the barracks. We stood at attention at the end of our bunks. He was doing a pretty good job cussing us out. Something he said reminded me of sitting in the living room listening to my aunts swear in the kitchen. I snickered at in inopportune moment and he got right in my face.

“Are you amused, recruit!” he shouted.

I looked at my feet. I thought it was a retorical question, but he actually wanted an answer. He repeated his question, this time even louder and closer to my face.

“What’s so amusing, recruit!”

I was terrified. I didn’t know what to say, but decided honesty was my best apporach. 


I said it with earnestness and enthusiasm. He just looked at his feet. Out the corner of my eye, I could tell he was trying to hide a grin. After a few seconds, he said, “Aunt Polly likes to curse, does she?”

“Sir,” I said. “Yes sir.”

“Okay, then.”

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April Fool

1-27-2006 001

“Let’s get the kids,” I whispered to Holly in the kitchen. “For April Fools.”

Her eyes lit up. “What should we do?”

This was the challenge. Until I started to surf the Web this morning, I hadn’t even remembered it was the first of April. I was totally unprepared. Whatever we did, the kids were not expecting it. Although they are nine and perfectly capable of playing jokes on their parents, it was 10 A.M. and neither had made even a feeble attempt.

“I can fall down, stick out my tongue, and thrash around like I’m dying. Then I can jump up and yell April Fools.”

Holly looked at me like I lost my mind.

“We can promise them ice cream, and when they get good and excited tell them April Fools,” I said.

“That’ll impress them.”

I was joking. Okay, half-joking. It’s not easy coming up with a good April Fools joke at the last minute, but I love the idea of nailing the kids. As far as I’m concerned, this is what good parenting is all about.

Going into the living room, I sipped my coffee and waited for something to come to me. I hadn’t been waiting ten minutes, when Holly came into the room and announced we had to give our brand new dog back to its previous owners. I resisted the urge to giggle even as I felt mildly appalled: Dad flopping about on the floor in an epileptic fit seemed less cruel than the specter of losing Pace, our beloved new dog. We just got him in November and he’s really acclimated to our family. I love him, but the kids adore him. Aaron looked at his feet, his face grimly set. Kennedy had her wounded look on and was ready to burst into tears.

“April Fools,” Holly chirped.

I started to laugh.

Aaron and Kennedy both kept their faces neutral, letting the news sink in. The Great April Fools Challenge 2007 had begun.

“I got you so bad,” Holly said to Aaron. “You too,” she said to Kennedy.

They both denied it, but now there was a new look in their eye: revenge.

Later that afternoon, Holly and I were walking Pace and Aaron phoned. Holly answered and listened for a few seconds before sighing deeply with much disgust. I could only hear her side of the conversation, but it was enough.

“The juice spilled?”

In the fridge.

“Did it go all over?”

Pace and I started to silently creep to the other side of the sidewalk. Holly looked about ready to explode. But then she laughed.

“Oh, Aaron. You totally got me,” she said.

They laughed for a bit. The great thing about Aaron is that he is old enough to pull off a awesome April Fools joke like that, but not sophisticated enough to understand that it won’t work again. He immediately asked Holly to pass the phone to me.

“Are you gonna get him?” Holly asked. She looked at me and chuckled. “Maybe you should give it a few more minutes, buddy,” she advised.

When we got home, Aaron pulled the exact same prank on me. I probably should have fell to the floor, stuck out my tongue, and then thrashed around a bit, but instead I just tried my best to look suitably shocked.

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Speaking of Sex…

11-26-2007 015

I recently had a chance to discuss sex with my nine-year old son, Aaron, and it was possibly the most satisfying parenting experience I’ve had in a long time.

After being cooped up with the kids for an entire week of Winter Break, where first one, and then the other, came down with the flu, Holly and I went out Saturday evening. When we got back home, the babysitter, a twelve-year old from across the street, was out on the front porch to greet us, and he looked excited.

Never a good sign.

As I got out of the car, he started talking about having an evening that was a babysitter’s worst nightmare. “Oh, my,” I thought. My mind raced with possible worst case scenarios, but I tried to present a calm front.

“Yes?” I encouraged.

He stuttered nervously and looked at his feet. “You know the computer in Kennedy’s room?” he said. My daughter Kennedy is a budding writer. I had just set her up with an old laptop to write stories on, so she wouldn’t have to bug Holly for time on her laptop. “They were looking at something they probably shouldn’t be looking at.” He said this last part with so much  gravity it was hard not to laugh.

“Really?” I said.

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Christmas Spoilers

I hate spoilers. I was at a church social right after the last Harry Potter book came out. Everyone knew they had killed off a main character, but nobody knew who it was. I humiliated myself and my family by scowling at one of the church ladies who couldn’t resist spoiling the book. I expect more from church ladies.

Here is my favorite spoiler story: We were taking my daughter, who was 4 years old at the time, to a Christmas play and we had one of her friends in the car. My wife and I had just started attending Catholic church that year and my daughter was enjoying a mild surge of curiosity about Jesus. We played up the idea that Christmas was baby Jesus’ birthday and got a little nativity scene for the house. From the back seat, I heard my daughter start humming a little Christian tune, “Jesus Loves Me.”

Then I heard her little friend say this: “Jesus? He’s dead. They stuck pins in his feet and hands and killed him.”

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