Tag Archives: recovery

Tim Elhajj in Together Magazine

I’ve got a piece up in Together, a new recovery oriented newspaper for the New York area. I’m revisiting the James Frey boondoggle, but looking at it from a new (I hope) perspective. Check it out: The Millionth Word on “A Million Little Pieces.”

Together appears online and in print. I just got my print copy, and it looks like a gas, not just for people in the recovering community but for anyone interested in a more healthful, contemplative life.

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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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Dopefiend

Dopefiend is the “code” name of my latest novel-length memoir project.

I wanted to write a few words about what I’m doing, as much to keep you folks at home updated, as to track what happens as I continue to work. I’m excited about this project because it’s now gone beyond the good idea stage and has become a fully formed idea. I have in mind a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not only do I know what’s going to happen in a general way, but I also know specifically what will happen in each chapter along the way. And I have it in writing. I’ve created a chapter-by-chapter synopsis.

But before we get into the details, let’s go high level.

This memoir builds on the success of my Modern Love piece, As a Father, I Was Hardly a Perfect Fit, a humorous essay about forging a relationship with Timmy when I lived in New York City. Here is the full title I’m sending around to agents and editors:

Dopefiend: A 12-Step Story of a Father’s Journey from Heroin Addiction to Redemption with His Son

Not sure if I’ll actually be able to use this title for the finished work, but I love the edgy word dopefiend paired with plaintive call for redemption in the subtitle. My apologies to Donald Goines for appropriating his badass title. Unlike Mr. Goines, I’m not planning on covering much of the time I spent using drugs. Instead, the plan is to focus primarily on recovery. I consider it a spiritual road memoir, though it’s a decidedly irreverent trip.

Obviously I’m going to focus on the 12-Steps, which I’ve used to great effect to change my life around. But I’m not interested in getting tangled in dogma or preachy instruction on abstinence. Instead I’m organizing the story in a way that celebrates 12-Step recovery. Dopefiend is a concept memoir: I am writing it  in twelve chapters, with each chapter to focus on one of twelve spiritual values. Each value corresponds to one of the 12-Steps.

Together the chapters form a narrative that describes how I got sober and built a relationship with Tim. I want to stick close enough to the story about Tim to give Dopefiend some mainstream appeal. But I also want to offer a deep and satisfying story about 12-Step recovery that doesn’t necessarily involve a hero’s journey or a Hollywood ending.

Heroin addiction is incredibly debilitating. If you survive, most of the time you don’t get your wife back, you remain distant from your siblings, and you can never recapture the time lost with your son. If you’re lucky, you don’t die from AIDS or the hard realities of this kind of life.

But if you’re thoughtful about it, you might see how your story can benefit others. You might find a little place for yourself, with a different wife, maybe struggling to build ties with your siblings, or learning to make the best of the time you have left with your son.

I’m excited. I’ll post more in the weeks to come.

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Rachael Brownell’s Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore

mama-no-drink-here-no-mo-yo

I’ve done a ton of summer reading that I probably won’t ever find time to write about (especially since it’s Nov), but I wanted to push Rachael Brownell’s debut memoir to the top of the list. I loved it. I watch for recovery memoirs, but had no idea about Ms Brownell or her book until I found a small stack of Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore at one of the big independent book stores in Bellingham.

I am glad I found it.

A fast paced romp through the first year of sobriety, it’s a pretty quick read. Brownell knows how to tell a story. At the end of an early chapter, I found myself astonished at the lengths she was willing to go to carve out a safe place for herself and her children. I don’t want to spoil it, but Brownell is one of those indomitable people whose presence just leaps off the page. Motherhood triggers her descent into alcoholism, although this isn’t a sordid tale by any standard. She used crisp white wine to unwind in the evenings, until eventually she felt the wine had her.

This memoir is notable for its realistic focus on recovery in 12-Step programs. Most recovery memoirs include an obligatory mention of attendance at some sort 12-Step meeting. Some offer critiques of 12-Step programs, while others offer breathless details about the anonymous lives the author finds there. Most of the time I get the impression that the meetings weren’t all that important to the story. Certainly attendance at 12-Step meetings isn’t the only way to get sober. But I always feel a little skeptical about recovery stories where the addicted person’s salvation comes through the love of a good man or woman.

Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore isn’t like that at all. It’s not a testimonial, but more like a celebration of 12-Step recovery, as told through the eyes of a grateful newcomer, who is charmed and appalled in equal parts by what she finds in meetings: the 12-Step lingo, the corny slogans, and the member’s oft stated reliance on a Higher Power.

Read it. You won’t be disappointed.

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Celebrate With Me

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Today is my sober anniversary!

Twenty years ago today I appeared on the steps of the building pictured above, 19-25 Saint Mark’s Place in New York City’s East Village. That morning I had traveled from my home in Pennsylvania to attend a rehab in the Bronx, but then I had been denied admittance to the rehab and had nowhere else to go. I was literally penniless.

I was also hungry. It was about 5pm and I hadn’t eaten anything that day. Dealing with the Bronx rehab’s admissions person, a Puerto Rican man named Americo, had been an epic fiasco, all of my own making. When he gave me the subway token and directions to the East Village, I felt terrified. Really scared. But by the time I got off the train, I had already acclimated to my new situation. 

I asked the other homeless people at the shelter if there were any food. People looked to their left and right. Someone coughed into his hand, another person brushed lint from her shoulder. Food was tight. Finally a large black woman took pity on me and ladled a heap of plain macaroni noodles onto a paper plate. She waited for me to respond to her kindness. I looked at the plate in front of me.

“What, no tomato sauce?” I asked.

The black woman chuckled. “Aren’t you something,” she said. She was absolutely right. I certainly was something. And twenty years later, I hope I’m something else.

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Brevity, Briefly

The Brevity blog is now using the Journalist theme, which includes a little word balloon for the tag line. I love how it makes the old dude in the Brevity icon look like he is offering concise writing advice. 

I have a piece forthcoming at Brevity, the magazine. It’s an essay called Jimi Don’t Play Here No More. Most of the authors who published stories in the recent issue of Brevity have also written blog posts on the Brevity blog. These posts offer the writer’s opinion on their piece or some insight into how it was written. Even though I hadn’t been asked, I already wrote a blog post about my story, Jimi Don’t Player Here No More. Can you tell I’m excited?

This is my first published story about using dope or my ordeal in New York City.

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How I Got My Story Published in the New York Times: The Truth of the Matter

 

When Dan Jones of the New York Times called about publishing one of my stories for Modern Love, I was delighted. I was also determined not to let him know I had a drug history. Dan had emailed me that he thought my story might work well for Father’s Day and wanted to discuss it more by phone. I immediately thought: Don’t tell him about the drugs. He’ll think you’re a loser. But then when he called, we talked for less than five minutes before my drug history came up.

It went something like this:

“So if your son was in Pennsylvania with your ex-wife, what were you doing in New York City?” Dan asked.

I chuckled demurely. Lying seemed like a bad idea.

“Well,” I said taking a deep breath. “That’s another story.”

Continue reading

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RIP: Kurt Vonnegut (1922 – 2007)

Vonnegut

I haven’t read much Vonnegut, but there is one thing he wrote that has stayed with me for a very long time. It isn’t even from the primary text of one of his books, but from the forward to Slapstick:

This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography. I have called it “Slapstick” because it is grotesque, situational poetry–like the slapstick film comedies, especially those of Laurel and Hardy, of long ago.

It is about what life feels like to me.

There are all these tests of my limited agility and intelligence. They go on and on.

The fundamental joke with Laurel and Hardy, it seems to me, was that they did their best with every test.

They never failed to bargain in good faith with their destinies, and were screamingly adorable and funny on that account.

I first read that in 1986.

Continue reading

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Craig Ferguson Takes the High Road

Craig Ferguson makes me laugh, even when he is publicly admitting to being a recovering alcoholic and refusing to take pot shots at Brittney Spears.

I was not familiar with Craig until I ran across this YouTube clip. I rarely stay up to watch TV anymore, but this is late night TV I can get behind.

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