An Unorthodox Man’s Unorthodox Search for a New Home

About a year and a half ago, I wrote an open letter to the universe regarding my search for my next job. While the universe didn’t directly write back, that column led to an all-expenses paid weeklong trip to New Orleans for a job interview, along with a number of sometimes fascinating phone conversations with nonprofit boards of directors.

Given that success, I’ve written another open letter, this time about my search for a home to purchase. Longtime readers know I’ve been living in the Tiny White Box for two-and-a-half years. The box will remain part of my life (and the name of my website), but I’ve decided it’s time to buy a home, preferably one with running hot and cold water, a flush toilet and more than the box’s 72 square feet, of which fewer than 27 square feet is floor space. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

You, Constant Reader, have a chance to help guide the universe, find me a home and win a priceless prize. The person who connects me to the home of my dreams will be awarded an all-expenses paid three-day, two-night vacation in the Tiny White Box. I will personally heat up oatmeal in the morning, spinach and cheese for lunch and broccoli, cheese and sourdough pretzels for diner, the chosen menu of the Tiny White Box. Sit in a chair! Stand (if you’re shorter than 6’1”! Sleep on the custom bed (if you’re shorter than 5’2’)! All that and the universe’s gratitude.

Or I’ll just offer a thanks and lunch on me.

Dear Universe,

You’ve been great to me since my last formal letter. I’ve managed to go to Sedona for a week, England for three weeks of hiking Hadrian’s Wall and enjoying London, and Los Angeles and the Anzo Borrego Desert for a week. Best of all, that last letter led to a job I love as director of Hope for New Hampshire Recovery.  Thanks so much!

Thanks also for making the Tiny White Box a reality. Wintering over on the Canadian border was a momentous, productive and exciting experience (and thanks to Gavin Beland’s craftmanship, it was also warm and dry). While I still haven’t completed that memoir, the chance to focus on writing for an extended period was great. And after all, how does one complete a memoir when there’s still so much of life to savor?

Still, after almost two-and-a-half years in the Tiny White Box, I’m ready to find a house, a home to buy, one with a flush toilet and a shower and more than a microwave to cook with. Being me, of course, I do have some particulars in mind, so sitting inside the Tiny White Box in the middle of December, a light but beautiful snow falling outside, with Bruce Cockburn’s Inner City Front blasting through the speakers, here are some of the things I may want in this house/cabin/cottage/compound. Still, universe, I know you’ve chosen wisely so far, so I’ll leave it in your imaginary hands.

(Yes, in the previous sentence the phrase “chosen wisely” can be translated as “blindly followed a mechanistic path of cause and effect with a Soupçon of randomness thrown in.” If I want to anthropomorphize existence as a wise helper who probably knows best, and use it as a Higher Power, I damned well will, especially since I’ve managed to stay away from a drink or a drug for more than 12 years now!) (I apologize for the hair-on-the-back-of-my-neck-standing-up tone within those last parentheses. I usually manage to synthesize that bile into something more prod


So . . . back to my dream list of things I’d like in a house.

  • Having no need to become a land baron, I don’t necessarily want a huge lot, but I do want to block out any views of my neighbors. I don’t intend to sit in my backyard in just underwear, but I do want the option.
  • Feel of home. I know how subjective the idea of a home’s “feel” is—after all, I know this guy who feels at home in a converted motorcycle trailer with no toilet and an inability to fully open his elbows. Still, I’m looking for a home that:
    1. Feels like a cabin. When I say “cabin,” I’m thinking of a hunting/fishing cabin, not necessarily a log cabin. I have nothing against log cabins—in fact Lincoln is my favorite president—but I’ve found google searches for “cabin” inevitably lead to achingly trendy log cabins. I am neither aching nor am I trendy.
    2. Feels tight—well-made and functioning
  • Small (but not too small) size. Since I’ve lived in the Tiny White Box for a couple years, ANY house will seem big to me; therefore, I’m looking for a house that’s small by conventional standards but huge for me. On the other hand, since I’ve lived in the Tiny White Box for a couple years, my love affair with le petite has cooled considerably. The house I want is between 850 and 1250 square feet (or between 12 and 17 times as large as the Tiny White Box).
  • While the Tiny White Box is small (duh), it’s also, thanks to Gavin, incredibly well i
    nsulated. Even the most beautiful home in the world takes on an ugly flavor by mid-February if the floors are always freezing cold.
  • Distance from Manchester. Ideally, I’d like to be within 45 minutes of town. Closer is better, but better is even better than closer. (I’ve read that last sentence over 10 times and can’t decide whether it’s the best one I’ve ever written or the worst.)
  • Writing space. I’d like a space dedicated to writing. It could be a loft with a view, a separate outbuilding or even a second bedroom with windows. I simply want to escape from my escape.
  • When I was in graduate school, I lived in a small cabin with a sleeping loft. I miss it and wouldn’t mind having it again.
  • Deck or balcony. Ditto number 6.
  • Price. Oh, yes. I’ll need to pay for this. Luckily, I’m pre-approved for more than I’d ever spend on a house. My target range is between $175 and $250K.
  • Two or three things to fall in love with. I’ve made my living and my life on a foundation of quirkiness, and my home needs two or three things that are quirky, unusual or just plain strange. Examples:
    1. A BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary) in a vertical bathtub
    2. A scullery, a place to do dishes separate from the rest of the home. Because I am quirky not creepy, I do not want a skullery, a place to scrape the insides of skulls separate from the rest of the home.
    3. A laundry chute
    4. A walk-in closet with no hangers but innumerable shelves.
    5. A Murphy bed

As with my childhood letters to Santa Claus, I reserve the right to amend or, more likely, add to this list.

I trust you, universe, to know what’s best for me, or at least what’s most interesting. You’ve done a great job for a long time—those growing pains after the Big Bang notwithstanding—and I know you’ll give me what I need, even if I don’t know I want it. Do keep in touch.

Your Friend,


Remember, help the universe do its work, and you’ll get to vacation in the Tiny White Box—and the knowledge the universe is a little bit better place.

Do send any possible homes to me: Thanks

A Drunkard’s Dream

This morning a meatball dropped on my head. Translation for the pious: God reminded me of His grace, giving me a vision of myself had I not been lucky enough to get sober 12 years ago. 

The meatball splattered at about 7:40 am in the lovely seaside town of Whitley Bay, just outside Newcastle. Tomorrow I’m to begin a hundred-mile walking journey across England, following Hadrian’s Wall from beginning to end. I’ve come north from London a day early, wanting a couple days on the North Sea, a body I’ve not seen in 40 years, and then from the German side. I spent the night in a delightful and up-to-date bed and breakfast, and went out for a morning walk about seven, telling my hosts I’d be back by 7:45 or so.

After strolling the coast and performing my morning devotions—transmitting silent and unconscious gratitude to the universe—I was four doors from my destination. I saw from behind a man about my age, or even a bit younger than 60. He stood still, his weight balanced on a stick in his left hand, grasping no folksy hand-carved wooden cane but a medical-supply device, aluminum with rubber on its bottom. Someone to greet with a “Good Morning” as I walked around him.

Passing on his right, I glanced over and saw his face was marked with dry blood and abrasions, as if he’d been mugged by toughs wearing sandpaper gloves. Like Coleridge’s mariner, he reached out his skinny scabbed hand and touched my arm. No albatross around his neck, his worn and dirty coat showed dry brown speckles of blood.

“Please,” he said. “Please can you help me? I need to go to the shop around the corner, and I don’t think I can make it on my own.”

Although my hosts were preparing breakfast for me, I couldn’t ignore a plea like that. Not knowing the neighborhood, I assumed the shop was a pharmacy, and he needed medical supplies.

“If you’d like,” I said, “you can tell me what you need. I’ll run over to the shop and bring it back to you.”

“That’s very kind, but they’ll need my card.”

Who knows the ways of the British, I thought. Perhaps he needed to show a medical card to get bandages, peroxide and iodine.

After grabbing my elbow, the man stood still, as if waiting for a gumption infusion. I statued alongside, wanting him to make the first move.

“What happened to you? You look as if you’ve been beaten. Are you alright?”

‘Nowhere near alright.It keeps getting worse, but I know things will get better.”

“But your face. The blood. What happened?”

“I fall,” he said, as if that answered that. “Let’s go.”

He took five, maybe six, steps, halted abruptly.

“Stop! Rest.”

No matter how close the shop, at this rate I knew I’d be late for breakfast, and suggested I run the 60 feet to the bed and breakfast to let them know, then come back to help.

“No!” he cried, as if I’d threatened to desert him on a tidal island. “Please! Don’t leave me.”

“Okay. Okay. I’ll stay with you. We’ll go to the store.”

“And back,” he said. “I need help o get home safely.

“And back,” I agreed. “I’m Keith.”

“And I’m John. You’re a good lad, Keith.”

“No lad,” I said, and we took another five or six steps.

“Stop! Rest.”

Our journey continued like that, tiny bits of forward motion followed by 90-second rests.

John wasn’t specific about his ailments, although his difficulty walking and need for rest made me suspect nerve and respiratory problems. His odor led to a different line of diagnosis. He smelled awful, the way my friend Chuck had smelled, the friend who’d drunk himself to death in a tiny rented room, leaving me to find his corpse on the floor, an empty half-gallon bottle of vodka to his right and his left hand reaching out for a half-full half-gallon just out of reach. Chuck never smelled of booze. He stank of death, and John had that same aura around him.

After 15 minutes, we reached the store, a trip that would have taken me 90 seconds alone. The storekeeper recognized John and came to the door.

“You should be in a home,” he said flatly.

“They can’t do anything for me,” John said. “They’ve tried.”

Oddly, the shopkeep didn’t say anything about John’s facial wounds, the blood crusted over half his face. How could he not notice them—or were they a commonplace for my new friend? And had he come to the door to greet John or to bar him from entry?

John gave his order, and that’s when the meatball hit me. John was me, or at least the me that might have been had I not found recovery. Instead of vacationing and preparing to go for a long and well-appointed journey, I could have been John. Twelve-and-a-half years ago, I might even have felt jealous of him.

He ordered two quarts of vodka along with a stand-alone pint, a six-pack of beer and two packs of cigarettes. At the end of my drinking, when mouthwash had become my drink of necessity, John’s order would have been answered prayer.

John asked me to get his wallet out of his jacket pocket, and paid using a green Bank of London ATM card. Perhaps he’d been afraid to let me go to the store because I might have taken his card. More likely, in end-stage alcoholism, John worried I’d take the booze he needed, or refuse to help if I knew that need.

The shopkeeper handed me a plastic bag filled with evidence of heaven for John, or at least a temporary avoidance of hell,

“I know the horrors, the shakes, the DT’s,” I said as we fitfully walked back. “Twelve years ago, I had them regularly. By the end,I was drinking mouthwash to keep them away.”

John laughed a raspy empty laugh, and spoke the words every addict and alcoholic has said.

“At least I’m not that bad.”

And, I suppose, he wasn’t. When he asked me to walk him in to his apartment—he still had a place to live, after all—had me help him onto his couch—and furniture to go in it, after all—we walked around a magazine-sized pool of liquid blood on the floor, from where he’d fallen a few hours ago, I supposed. The detritus of spilled ashtrays, crushed beer cans and empty vodka bottles scattered the floor. Once I placed the beer and vodka and smokes at his feet, though, John was living my drunkard’s dream.

And that meatball made me mighty grateful.


When the ER Nurse Says, “Good Luck” It’s Medical Jargon for “Next Step: The Morgue”

My daughter, Meredith (Meri) Howard overdosed on opioids last Friday. She, unlike thousands of other New Hampshire overdose victims, is alive. Meri is 24 years old, adored by the world (if not always by herself) and had been clean of opioids for more than four years. Her mom, Cindy, discovered her, called 911 and Meri was taken by ambulance to a local hospital. If Cindy hadn’t found her, this could be an obituary you’d be reading. Meri could have (would have?) died.

That ambulance ride was the last positive part of the medical response our family experienced. Really. The Hub-and-Spoke Model touted by the state at a cost of $45-million dollars, offered nothing—in fact is banned from the emergency room of the hospital she was taken to. Three or four hours after Meri arrived, our family was escorted by security off hospital property.  Apparently my manner, calm as I may appear in writing, made them very nervous indeed.


I believe I mentioned Meri had overdosed and could have died.

Please read on.

Meri was never introduced to anyone concerned about helping her get into treatment or exploring recovery.


Some problems can be solved by throwing money at them. If I’m broke and you hand me a few thousand dollars, my problem is at least temporarily solved. Most challenges, though, are a bit more complicated, requiring solutions that involve thought and planning, preferably by people who understand the challenge addressed.

Thousands of opioid overdose deaths in New Hampshire fall into that latter category. It’s not enough to simply spend money, whether directly (“Here’s a thousand dollars—please stop shooting heroin, or whatever passes for heroin on the streets”) or indirectly (“Let’s design a new model to deliver services, creating layers of bureaucracy and administrative jobs in different regions throughout the state”). Given an influx of $45,000,000 over two years, New Hampshire is well funded to address the problem, except that the solution we’ve come up with does not work now and shows no evidence of ever getting better.

I’m a man in long-term recovery, the director of Hope for New Hampshire Recovery, the chair of the Recovery Task Force and a member of the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drugs. This isn’t much in terms of social standing, but it makes me more connected than, say, 99.9% of New Hampshire citizens when it comes to issues of drug and alcohol treatment and recovery. Except for one thing, the criticism of the Hub-and-Spoke model that follows might sound like the bitter words of a nonprofit leader whose funding is being cut. (Yes, money to support men and women in recovery—staying clean and sober for the rest of their lives—is being slashed despite that forty-five-million dollars. In fact, I am recommending my job be eliminated since Hope will need to do more with much less. All that, though, is for a different time and place.)

Halfway through the previous paragraph about the Hub-and-Spoke Model, I used the phrase “except for one thing” and that one thing is this: my daughter Meri almost died two days ago, was treated like a common junk bag at an emergency room and was discharged without anyone from the hospital doing a goddamned thing to get her into treatment or even connect her to the so-called Hub of the Hub-and-Spoke model. This brief essay is a jeremiad, a diatribe, a denunciation, a plea for sanity from an angry father. I speak as Meri Howard’s dad, not with any other voice.

At no point during her stay was Meri connected to the local Hub. When I asked about this, I was told Hub representatives were not allowed into the emergency room because of privacy concerns. I followed up by asking whether I could call them myself and ask someone to come and meet with Meri. They would not have been allowed into the space, regardless of Meri’s or my desires or the fact, as plain as the nose on your face, that the best time to talk with an addict about treatment and recovery might, just might, be when they’re hooked to monitors and recognize they’ve barely missed death.

Meri was treated by a nurse and doctor who demonstrated no understanding of addiction in general and opioid addiction in particular. Example? Meri’s nurse told me Meri wouldn’t need detox services because “she told me she just started using again.”

I asked the nurse if she understood that addicts or alcoholics like Meri and me lie instinctually about the frequency, amount and recency of our use. We will do anything to maintain access to our substance of choice. The nurse had no response to this, shocking for an ER nurse in the midst of what our politicians call a $45,000,000 response to an opioid epidemic. I asked the nurse for her last name, wanting to make sure she received some kind of training in addiction medicine.

“We don’t give out our last names,” she replied, and the next time she and Meri’s doctor came into the ER they stood in the 45-degree posture we’re all trained to use when confronting a potentially dangerous lunatic, a father who’s terrified for his daughter’s life or a man who’s just asked a difficult question.

Throughout the three or so hours we spent at this hospital—which I’m not naming because it could be any hospital in New Hampshire—no medical staff in my presence—and I rarely left Meri’s side—talked with her about the possibility of treatment, of getting better, of living a life free of addiction. Instead, it appeared to me that Meri was nothing more to them than her diagnosis: a drug overdose. Once that acute condition was stabilized, it was time to hit the bricks. In the vernacular, she was “treated and streeted.”

Because Meri is lucky enough to have two parents who love her dearly, her story didn’t end there. Many folks brought in with opioid overdoses have long since slashed all ties with their families, typically because of the lying, stealing and general shadiness a life addiction includes.

Because Meri is lucky enough to have her mother’s health insurance, her story didn’t end there. None of the medical providers talked about treatment, but everyone knows rehab requires money or good insurance. The Hub-and-Spoke Model was supposed to make access to treatment easier, but it’s hard to develop rapport when you’re not allowed to talk with the patient.

Because Meri is lucky enough to have a dad who was lucky enough to get sober, get back in the game and develop a network of supports, her story didn’t end there. I was able to reach out, from the minute I heard the news, to men and women throughout the state asking for guidance, asking for help, asking for prayers. Even in this chain of help, though, I ran into roadblocks, including a message from a Hub-and-Spoke Model representative: “There is certainly great room for improvement re: coordinated care across agencies!!” The person who sent that message is a kind and decent human; still, it sounded like “We certainly could use more life preservers near where your daughter is drowning.”

The prayers were answered in that Meri is now a few days into a month-long stay at a 12-Step-based treatment center in the Lakes Region. What will result from this stay will depend upon Meri, the folks she’s working with, a kind and gentle universe, and some good luck. Meri’s mom, her sisters and hundreds of other people are pulling for her, but who can tell?

She’s been lucky so far.

What about the other Meris and Matthews and Megans who OD’ed Thursday night, or today or tomorrow?  Despite an influx of serious cash, opioid users are still treated with contempt and disdain at emergency rooms. Despite the touted Hub-and-Spoke model, overdose patients still get treated and released without any connection to treatment. Despite FORTY-FIVE-MILLION DOLLARS, a huge bureaucracy, public-service announcements and, for all I know, a parade, patients brought in after overdosing are medically treated for “elevated opioid levels” rather than for addiction. Once those levels are down, I imagine the ER nurse blithely calling out, “You’re medically cleared to go. You might want to cut down on the heroin or fentanyl.  Good luck!”

“Good luck,” of course, is medical jargon for “Next step: the morgue.”

Addendum: I’ve always believed criticism should include suggestions for improvement. I’ve written elsewhere about the power of shared lived experience—as an addict and alcoholic, I can establish rapport with a person struggling with drug and alcohol issues, a connection can be created in just a few minutes of honest conversation. This may sound like mystical nitwittery, but I’ve found it true over and over and over. That rapport makes true communication possible in a manner difficult or impossible for the clinical model to replicate. Please go to my website if you’re interested in learning more about this.

Given that connection, I call for every single emergency room in the state to have on 24-hour call men or women who’ve been addicted to opiates, have found recovery and now want  to help others. Tens of thousands of folks in recovery live in the state, and they are the vital lifeline between the sterility of the emergency room and the life of the addict. We can go the certification route, hiring only those folks who have taken the training to be CRSWs (Certified Recovery Support Workers) or we can be more daring and creative. However it is accomplished, we must provide the sick and suffering with shepherding role models who will walk them through the ER and, if the patient is willing, into treatment and recovery.

These folks don’t need to be paid a ton of money—say $15 per hour—and it’s likely turnover would be high for a while. As a man in long-term recovery (with all the other blah-blah-blahs listed above), I believe this is the only way to reach folks living in addiction.

Completely Self-Serving Plug:  Improv Theater Training–February 2—Hope for NH Recovery, Manchester, NH

Each millennium brings with it an event so huge it changes the course of human history.

The first thousand years anno domini brought us the sack of Rome, with its joyous fires, picturesque streams of blood and a return to home rule.

The second millennium’s Black Death helped increase workers’ wages, reduce urban crowding and create a middle class.

This third thousand years brings the Hope Improv Theater.

The Hope Improv Theater comes into the world Saturday, February 2, from 12:30 to 5:30 with an initial training for actors.  We’re looking for enthusiastic folks with a hankering to change the world, spread recovery and have fun. Experience is NOT preferred, but a willingness to explore communication through improv theater is.

To sign up for this free training, please write me at or text me at (603)361-6266.

I love improv theater. When done well, it’s watching a juggler manipulate burning kittens on a high wire while wearing wet ice skates. When done poorly, it’s observing a group of stamp collectors arguing about the value of an 1851 Hawaiian Missionaries 2-cent stamp while wearing wet ice skates. I’ve been part of both, and want to help prevent philately in our time. Hence, the Hope Improv Theater (HIT).

We’ll use short-form improv scenes to educate the public about recovery, communicate the challenges of early recovery and, always, entertain. I spent five years running and acting with a national theater group focused on AIDS, teenage pregnancy and runaways.  This process is simple yet difficult to explain, so if you want to learn more, I’d direct you to Dorothy Oliver’s excellent monograph on the subject.

I look forward to hearing from you and seeing you February 2 at 12:30 at Hope for NH Recovery in Manchester.





Shipbuilders of Sunken Vessels:  Quick Dispatches from the Belly of the Treatment Industrial System

A confession: although I’ve been clean and sober for 11 years, I didn’t go to a 28-day treatment facility. When I reached the jumping-off point, the spot where suicide made more sense than simply wishing for death, I was lucky enough as a veteran to walk into a VA facility and say, “I’m Keith Howard and I don’t want to be alive any more.” From that short sentence, I was detoxed off alcohol—my poison of choice at that point was stolen dollar-store mouthwash—and introduced to a program of recovery that remains central to my life.  After a five-day stay, I was discharged and told to go to meetings. I did. It worked and I’m here to write about it today.

“Here” is Los Angeles and my putative purpose is the Evolution of Addiction Treatment Conference, a five-year old gathering of treatment professionals. Apparently, four or five conferences are held each year in Cape Cod, Palm Springs and other epicenters of the addiction challenge. I used the word “putative” because I’m really here for the first West Coast Faces and Voices of Recovery Mid-Year Leadership Retreat, held concurrently with the treatment conference. Like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Rancher and Cowman, treatment and recovery folks should be friends, although that’s not often the case, with treatment folks relying on a clinical model and recovery people favoring peer-based supports. In short, and perhaps unfairly to both, treatment partisans believe letters after one’s name are important while recovery supporters see lived experience as key.

Anyway, I’ve got a free morning until an afternoon-long leadership meeting, so I’ve been chatting with a variety of treatment professionals. Despite my introversion, I can strike up conversations with most anyone. Here are some quick impressions:

–Addiction treatment is an industry, and like all industries it needs to grow to survive. I had an interesting conversation with a marketing exec for a California treatment center where they’re broadening the treatments they offer to include “addiction” to smartphones and other technologies. While I’ve broadened my view of what the solutions to addiction can look like, I’m a bit put off by the word used to include every damn behavior. During our conversation, my newfound acquaintance told me “addiction” only requires two behaviors: 1) You sometimes do more than you’d intended to, and 2) you continue despite negative consequences. Thus the following are some of my addictions:


TV news

Stephen King novels

Peanut M&M’s

Conversations with marketing execs for treatment facilities

–I’ve been invited to be part of a focus group for a treatment facility. Not because I run a recovery center. Not because I’m an active member of a recovery program. Not because I’m from New Hampshire.

I’m invited because I’ve never been to treatment and that’s apparently a black-swan event in this field.

–Interesting conversation on data with the director of an Arizona treatment program. She believes follow-up phone calls to discharged patients after 30 days, 90 days and one year are an appropriate way to determine program success. Apparently these phone calls consist of asking the former patient whether they’re using and whether their lives are better. Her concern was that it’s hard to find people after 30 days, much less a year, and that her statistics were meager because of that. When I suggested the problem might lie in asking people with substance-use disorder to be honest about their usage, she looked at me blankly. I said I spent 30 years lying to people about my drinking and drug use. She responded that if that’s true, every treatment facility faces that problem so statistics are still comparable.

People lie at the same rate no matter who the questioner, so we can trust the results of these lies? Oh.

–Treatment folks I’ve talked with seem to think the 28 days users spend in treatment is the most important part of the solution to addiction. They’re very concerned about how to structure that time and what modalities to use, with little regard for the following 20, 30 or 50 years after treatment. In fact, there’s some expectation users will go through treatment multiple times. It’s like talking with representatives from the boatbuilding industry who are focused on the mechanics of ships and their creation while ignoring all the sunken vessels clogging up the harbor’s mouth. After all, those boats can be rebuilt in 28 days and sent out to sink again.

A Radical Moderate Take on Recreational Marijuana Use


Smoking marijuana is not a revolutionary act.  Finally, at 60, I understand this. You see, boys and girls, I started smoking weed in 1972 when I was 13, and the whiff of revolution—at least as defined by Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies—still hung in the air.  While I was going door to door for George McGovern, I also read Steal This Book, Revolution for the Hell of It and Woodstock Nation. Abbie and Jerry Rubin were my Marx and Engels, and they were one-hundred percenters when it came to the benefits of smoking weed.  Not only would it make The Who and Dylan sound better and mean more, it would help bring down the sexist, racist, imperialist government.  Lighting a joint was also poking Richard Nixon in the eye.

They were naïve, and so was I.

Smoking weed is simply smoking weed.

+         +         +

Recently, through a chain of events too convoluted to explain here, I’ve been asked to opine on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in New Hampshire. As a man in recovery from opiates, alcohol and a variety of other chemical solutions to life, I don’t use pot in any form.  Still, my first response was “This issue is outside my concern. I don’t smoke, although I know plenty of people who do without any negative consequences.  Likewise, I know opioid addicts who have ceased using that substance but continue to smoke weed.  More power to them.  Recreational weed use is, honestly, none of my business.”

My public and political position remains the same, but last night I had a chance to experience public recreational marijuana use. I didn’t much like it.

I’m in Los Angeles for a conference. After a day filled with canceled flights, shuttles and Ubers and buses (oh my), I got to my hotel around 7 pm. Being in a place where going outside doesn’t require layering, bundling or gloving, I went for a two-mile walk to a CVS. Along the way, the smell of marijuana smoke was almost ever-present, except when I walked by In-N-Out, where fries and grease overwhelmed it. In an hour-long walk, I passed five or six folks smoking weed on the street, engaging one woman with a very cute dog. She offered to share her weed with me in a kind and neighborly way, but I preferred playing with her dog.


All this marijuana smoking didn’t have much impact on me.  None of the smokers seemed any more or less threatening or kind than any random collection of humanity. Still, I remember when I was first in recovery, battling an obsession to drink. If I’d walked a gauntlet of folks with bottles of vodka in their hands and offering me a sip, I’m not sure how I would have responded, or how long my resolve would have lasted.  Frankly, I have serious doubts. In the same way, I wonder how many newly clean and sober folks, offered joints on the street will walk away and how many will say “screw it” and get stoned.


Getting stoned is not a big deal for non-addicts.  Getting stoned is nothing more than a form of relaxation for the vast majority of Americans. Getting stoned, for people like me, can be the first step backward into the abyss, the beginning of an end that can come soon enough.

If New Hampshire does legalize recreational use, I hope communities can implement and enforce regulations to keep marijuana use off the streets. Let it stay in the living room where it belongs, and away from the newly recovering.




Where There is Life, There is Hope: Rethinking My Notions on Recovery

I am an alcoholic in recovery. Without treatment, an alcoholic of my type is like a medieval town under siege. The military tactic of a siege, of course, is used to cut off all incoming supplies and to prevent escape, and so it was with me. I huddled in my drinking as all other forms of support melted away. By the end, an alcoholic has two choices: die within his own crumbling walls or surrender and walk out in search of recovery. After years of denying my alcoholism while watching my world get smaller, darker and emptier, I am grateful that second choice was still available. Life under siege is barely life at all.

I am also a heroin addict in recovery, although I haven’t shot dope in 40 years, having discovered in the Army that I could meet my need for self-escape with booze rather than dope, with a socially-acceptable rather than a stigmatized substance.  Still, I remember dope sickness, the emptiness and its physical manifestations that could only be filled and relieved by heroin. Daily, I was under siege from an enemy I loved more than life itself. I was lucky, though, not just to have switched from heroin to booze, but to have been a young addict in the days of artisanal opiates, made from poppies picked by hand, separated into opium with ancient tools, then boiled down to make a morphine base. Even in its final stages, when the base is converted into heroin, the chemicals used are familiar and homely ones:  ether, alcohol, hydrochloric acid.  Ah, the good old days.

Today, the addict faces not just opiates—chemicals derived from poppies—but opioids—synthetic and much more powerful versions of the drugs of days gone by. Consider N-(1- phenethyl-4-piperidyl) propionanilide citrate (1:1), for instance, with nary a pronounceable nor recognizable section in its name. More commonly known as Fentanyl, this mouthful of chemicals is significantly more powerful than morphine or even heroin, has no organic roots and can lead to overdose death immediately.

It may have seemed glib to refer to artisanal opiates, but the difference between the heroin addiction of 40 years ago and today’s opioid addiction is the difference between life in a town under siege and the same life in the same town—but with a catapult outside the village lobbing large boulders over the walls. In the former, death is always imminent, but the resident can at least hope to sue for peace and surrender; in the latter, death from above comes unwarned and unbidden. It just comes and you’re just dead.

One of my favorite passages in the book Alcoholics Anonymous:

We do not like to pronounce any individual as alcoholic, but you can quickly diagnose yourself. Step over to the nearest barroom and try some controlled drinking. Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it more than once. It will not take long for you to decide, if you are honest with yourself about it. It may be worth a bad case of jitters if you get a full knowledge of your condition.

Forty years ago, heroin users could be given this same advice—try some more controlled dope-shooting and determine your condition. Today, though, with fentanyl and other opioids, no sane person would send a user out to field-research his condition—he might well find death unwarned and unbidden. This difference animates my vision of addiction, illuminates my understanding of treatment and recovery, and has altered my approach as a leader and, more important, a human. Although my life was saved by a faith-based recovery path, I now fully embrace and support any and all forms of treatment, whether clinical or peer-driven, medication or talk, spiritual or scientific. Whatever works is what works.

After all, death from overdose is not a bad case of the jitters.

Again: death from overdose is not a bad case of jitters.