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.

Mea Culpa, Brad Ladner—And Let Those Panties Drop

I’ve always been a smart ass—no surprise to anyone who’s read this column—but I’ve tried to be a gentle smart ass, punching up not down. As part of my recovery path, I’ve learned the importance of apologizing when I’ve been in the wrong. Because my life is filled with mistakes, this ability to say I’m sorry has been honed to a fine edge.

I am sorry, Brad Ladner.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column called My Personal World Records, a bit of fluff with the conceit that I’d done some simply amazing things that the folks at Guinness should enshrine. For example, I kissed a girl when I was seven while “talking” on a wooden block to Kitty Carlisle, a TV guest star of the 1960s. I thought I deserved an award for being named my summer camp’s most improved camper one year, then getting fired from a counselor job at the same camp two years later. It was all tongue in cheek, I thought, for who could possibly believe the Guinness Book of World Records would recognize my accomplishments.

Brad Ladner, apparently, and that’s why I owe him an apology.

You see, as an intro to the piece, I talked about how every man wants to be remembered for his uniqueness, and included comments about three genuine Guinness world-record holders. Among them was—you guessed it—Brad Ladner, who owns the world’s largest collection of Batman collectibles. Here is the quote:

Finally, when Brad Ladner bought his first Batman collectible 30 years ago, he likely did so as girl-repellent. Now, he’s a record holder with a total of 8,226 Batman dolls. (I can hear him from seven states away, “They’re not dolls, they’re ACTION FIGURES! Jeez!” Of course, Brad. They’re figures that prevent you from ever getting any action.)

I am sorry, Brad. I really am.

My comments about Brad were ill-advised and unkind. Although designed to amuse rather than provoke, they upset Brad Ladner enough to write me a lengthy and impassioned response. Because I don’t want to misrepresent Brad’s comments, I’m reproducing them in full:

So freakin weird. First off, if you are any kind of a good man, you don’t want renown for your kindness and acclaim for your good acts. I do plenty of good things for the world, none of which I will list because to list them, well, would make me an asshole. If you do good just to get a pat on the back, how truly good is it? Do you hold onto the $20 bill before letting the homeless have it till he says ‘thank you?’ What you are discussing is pride. If you are religious, pride a sin; and if you aren’t religious, then pride is just pathetic. Yes, I have the world’s largest Batman collection, and you know what, some of them are barbie dolls. And it’s more than 8226 now, it is past 13,000. But it is just a hobby, and I got the Guinness record by applying, not by having Guinness seek me out. They don’t do that. I applied for the fun, and I don’t swing it around like a big dick on a 

porn shoot. I have it and that’s that. Didn’t ask to be in the book, not going around trying to get any type of fame for owning stuff. Having a collection isn’t really a special feat in the journey of life, it’s just buying shit and not throwing it away. I don’t try to make myself out to be anything of importance because of it, and if I did, how truly pathetic would my life be. As far as women, I never made it to triple digits, but I’m happy with my numbers. And the collection, total panty dropper. Good luck with your broad generalizations and uninformed assumptions of people you don’t know anything. If you want to go for the Guinness World Record for stereotyping strangers and mischaracterizing and insulting people so you can pick yourself up, I’d gladly sign as a witness to the marvel of your attempt.

So, Brad Ladner (http://bradladner.com/home.html), I am sorry to have hurt your feelings, stereotyped Batman collectible archivists in particular and collectors in general and offering broad generalizations of people I don’t know anything about. In the future, I will go to a subject’s websites to learn more about them and their lives before attempting to be humorous. I encourage all readers to visit Brad’s website noted above, from which Brad’s photo is drawn, and take a look at Brad’s very impressive collection of Batman Stuff in the video below.

Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.



Grateful for Your Recovery? Open Your Wallet!

Nobody comes into recovery on a winning streak. I’ve yet to meet an addict or alcoholic who decided, while on top of the world, to walk away from a substance that works. Despite the downsides—hangovers, jonesing for product, shame, self-hatred—if alcohol and drugs are working no one walks away from them. Drunks and junkies only try recovery when the shit that used to work doesn’t work anymore. It’s shattered men and women who walk into church basements.

I entered recovery a broken and hollow man.

(Please forgive the narrative break, but T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men” is one of my 12 favorite poems of all time and Daniel Amos is one of my 12 favorite bands of all time. The two come together here as the latter covers the former.  Really and for true. It may be the greatest marriage of high art and pop music in the history of the whole human rat race.)

(Please forgive the rerouting of the previous narrative break, but I know certain readers will want to know some of my other favorite poems. In no order: “Acquainted with the Night” by Robert Frost, “Power” by Adrienne Rich, “The Journey of the Magi” by Eliot, “The Second Coming” by Yeats and almost anything by A.E. Housman or Ron Koertge. )

To remind you. I entered recovery a broken and hollow man.

Today, my life’s breaks have knit, and I am filled with gratitude. It’s this latter notion I’d like to explore a bit today. As regular readers may remember, my first sobriety mentor made many useful suggestions: “Go to a variety of meetings,” “Sit in the front and pay attention,” “Hold off on dating for the first year of sobriety” and “Don’t drink.” The slogan that has stayed deepest in my consciousness, though, is simple and, for me at least, absolutely 100% true:

“A grateful heart will never drink.”

Life is balanced when I focus on what the universe has given me instead of what I’ve been denied. Interestingly, gratitude implies at least two separate notions—I am thankful and something outside me has met my needs. Whether that something is God or god, Universe or universe, he, she or it doesn’t really matter. My thankfulness is directed outward, also acting as wind to blow resentment away. In short, the feeling of gratitude as an emotional high colonic on the crap that builds up inside my soul.

I used the phrase “feeling of gratitude” above, and that’s probably correct. Unfortunately, feelings are not facts, and they flee with the turn of my head. Instead, I need to express my gratitude, which brings me to a sermon of sorts to those who have been saved through sobriety.

The Preacher clears his throat and begins.


Every single one of us whose life has been improved by recovery has reason to overflow with gratitude. While November is Gratitude Month for all, those of us who have been saved from ourselves and our self-destructive behavior must demonstrate our thankfulness, and that demonstration must include putting our money where our mouths and hearts are. In other words, I’m calling for all of us in recovery to look unflinchingly at our earning power today versus when we got sober and to give 10% of our income to charity.

That’s right, I believe us folks who used to daily find the money to keep us in our substance of choice should tithe to charities we believe in. While folks who belong to churches that emphasize tithing as a spiritual practice should probably begin there, my experience has been that recovering men and women are less likely to say, for instance, “I’m an active member of my local Presbyterian (or Catholic or Pentecostal or LDS or Jewish or Muslim or any other damn thing) worship community. Instead, we say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Great! Now spread your spiritual experience by opening your wallet.

I’ve never put this in print before, and have told only a few people, but for the last three years I’ve tithed to local and national nonprofits, charities focused on veterans causes, recovery and protection of our constitutional rights. As part of full disclosure, I’ll say I’m currently tithing to Hope for NH Recovery and to Shower Them. I’m employed by the former and sit on the board of directors of the latter. More important, though, is my faith in them as organizations with goals that align with mine.

I don’t care where you give your money; I just want every man or woman who’s today making significantly more money than we were when drinking or drugging to find a cause that matters and to write out a check or click on a donate button. Ten percent of what you make. Immediately. Turn that feeling of gratitude into an expression of progress.

End of sermon. Now a brief return to the inspired jackassery you’re used to from me.

Please don’t forget Angry Haiku this Tuesday at 6 pm at Manchester Hope for NH Recovery.

Call me for directions.

Or a description.

Or to brag about how you’ve started tithing.
























































My Personal World Records

Every man, I think, wants renown, wants to be known for his uniqueness, the thing that sets him apart from his mates. The Guinness Book of World Records is filled with people like Mike Carmichael, who’s added 17,994 coats of paint to a baseball, starting in 1977. The baseball, which began approximately baseball sized, now has a circumference or more than 9 feet. If used in a game, according to Carmichael, it would be impossible not to pitch a strike. Likewise, Cherry Yoshitake may like apples and may like holding his head under water, but it was a desire for immortality that led him to bob for 37 apples in one minute. Finally, when Brad Ladner bought his first Batman collectible 30 years ago, he likely did so as girl-repellent. Now, he’s a record holder with a total of 8,226 Batman dolls. (I can hear him from seven states away, “They’re not dolls, they’re ACTION FIGURES! Jeez!” Of course, Brad. They’re figures that prevent you from ever getting any action.)

While Guinness has never approached me for proof of any of them, I lay claim to more than a few world records of my own. In fact, more than a few, quite a lot actually. Enough, in fact, that I may hold the record for number of Mundane World Records© held. For example:

  • At the age of seven, I kissed Sheila Draves while talking on a walkie-talkie with Kitty Carlisle. The walkie-talkie was cleverly disguised as a scrap of 2×4, and I don’t believe I ever had even a brief conversation with Sheila again, despite the fact she was my next-door neighbor. For you sticklers, the record includes first kiss and (fictional) encounter with a nearly-fictional celebrity.
  • The fastest climbing of a crab-apple tree near the house where I grew up. To my knowledge, no one else ever climbed that tree. If they did, I don’t believe they ever timed themselves. Regardless, the tree has long since been cut down, preventing any further challenges. My record climb? It took the time it takes to sing “Mr. Dunderbeck” twice with all three verses and the chorus in between each.
  • I was the first boy in Camp Mi-Te-Na history to be named Most Improved Camper and be fired from the camp as a counselor two years later! The Most Improved award came about because I went from being shy and nervous my first year at camp to loud and obnoxious my second. The firing was the result of bad breaks against me and misunderstandings of my behavior. There is an innocent explanation for why, on my first night off as a counselor, I led three other counselors to hitchhike into Alton Bay (the town, not the water), get big kids to buy us a case of beer, drink it and end up jumping off a ladder-less pier into Lake Winnipesaukee. The coup de firing was being picked up in a police boat and driven back to camp by the cops.
  • I am the only boy in the long and glorious history of the Newington Mall Orange Julius to be fired for dropping acid 30 minutes before my shift. More honestly, the complaints brought to mall management were not about interior chemicals but outward behavior. Although I was the only employee working, I refused to wait on anyone, choosing instead to laugh at the idea they would stand on line for sugary orange juice with vanilla milk. By the time my cheeks were sore from laughing and smiling, security had already frog-marched me to the parking lot and watched me drive away. Which brings us to:
  • While tripping on acid, I believe I have logged the most miles driving a 1968 Chevy Malibu. While the Malibu was a member of the Chevelle family, and not armored, I can swear to its ability to change size and color while going over 60 mph and to protect the driver from recently-opened holes in the highway and vicious razor-toothed birds swooping from the sky. Also, it can be a portal into heaven when playing an 8-track of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Brain Salad Surgery.”

I realize, looking back at this list, that all my records are self-centered, self-destructive or both. I do wish at least one of them showed me in a positive light. I mean, every man, I think, wants renown for his kindness, wants acclaim for his unique good acts, the things that set him apart from his mates. In many ways, all men deserve that. Except, apparently, me.

Another record!




Angry Haiku?/What? No nature image? No peace?/WTF?

As anyone who’s successfully completed second grade can tell you, a haiku is a Japanese poetic form, usually used to capture a philosophic snapshot of nature. The reason second graders know haiku has less to do with poetry than with learning about syllabification—the ability to break down words into their component syllables. Unlike most western forms of poetry which rely on rhyme and rhythm, a haiku needn’t rhyme but it must adhere to the following form:

Line 1: Five syllables

Line 2: Seven syllables

Line 3: Five syllables

Typically, haiku are contemplative, wistful and telegrammatic with a focus on imagery. For example,

Image may contain: one or more people and text

Thunder rips eardrum

Fireflies escape dampened grass

Lightning brings blindness


Sun bakes river mud

Frog hops, hoping for water

Circle expands–nothing.

(Remember, I said example, not good example.)

Life, my life at least, is fullest when I’m comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Thus, I was excited to learn of a new writing group at Hope for New Hampshire Recovery in Manchester beginning Tuesday, July 10 at 6 pm. (Full disclosure for those who haven’t followed my life as closely as I have: I

still live in the Tiny White Box, but it’s been transported a couple hundred miles south, and I’m now working at Hope.) Turning the placid meditations of eastern haiku on its head, Angry Haiku proposes to provide writers the opportunity to express anger, pain, dread and other uncontemplative emotions into the simple 5-7-5 of haiku.

For example:

Promises broken

Lies escape your lips daily

Daddy Mommy why?


You’re so mistaken

Cruelty is not a virtue

Kindness not a crime


Hunger meet anger

And now comes desperation

Party all the time


Friendly direction?

Left. Right. Up. Down. Silly fool

All roads dead ended


Ignore evidence

I’m gooish tub, dripping fat

Not bones but loose skin

As above, these are mere samples of what an angry haiku might look like, not superlative examples of the form. Your results may vary, and will almost certainly be better.

If you’ve completed second grade (or made your best effort to do so), if you’ve ever felt any negative emotions, if you want to meet some twisted people with senses of humor, please join us at Angry Haiku beginning July 10 at Hope.

If you need more information, or are afraid this might be a huge joke, please give me a call at (603)361-6266.

The Thirst that Cannot be Quenched Must be Removed

Back when I was a boy, or slightly before, a group of drunks at Chase’s Tavern on Liberty Street in Baltimore found a solution. On April 5, 1840, six drinking buddies sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, formed a total abstinence group, the Washington Temperance Society (later the “Washingtonian Total Abstinence Society” or the Washingtonians.)  They’d grown tired of church-based temperance organizations preaching about the evils of liquor—instead, the Washingtonians banded together to support each other. Much like AA meetings today, this band of besotted brothers met and shared stories of drunkenness and recovery. No religion, no politics, no creeds; just one alcoholic establishing identification and rapport with others and providing support to stay sober.  Their thirst for fellowship was able to overpower their thirst for alcohol.

The Washingtonians did amazingly well, growing like crazy throughout the country, eventually documenting about 150,000 recovered alcoholics. By 1842, when Abraham Lincoln spoke to the Springfield, IL, Washingtonian group, meetings were being held in every city and most towns up and down the eastern seaboard. Unfortunately, the group lost its focus, spreading its message and methodology into suffrage, education reform and the abolition movement. By 1847, a mere seven years after they’d begun, the Washingtonians had devolved into a spent force, many of its early leaders having made money through speaking engagements and later converts returning to drink. Still, they’d shown a way—some would say THE way—for alcoholics to recover—through identification and group support.

Today, as in 1840, 1900, 1920 or 1980, getting sober is hard for an alcoholic; staying sober is nearly impossible without some kind of active program of recovery. When I got sober back in 2007, I was lucky enough to find a ready-made and healthy group of people who’d overcome their alcoholism. Living in a shelter for homeless veterans in Nashua, NH, I was within a 45-second walk of a noontime meeting of such folks. Today, in larger cities in southern New Hampshire, such groups exist under the banners of Alcoholics Anonymous, Smart Recovery and the Three Principles. Not everyone is so lucky.

Once you get north of Concord, the population density gets lower and lower, so the recovery community gets sparser and sparser. During my nine months in Pittsburg, I’d drive 45 minutes each way, twice a week, to attend meetings in Colebrook. As a man who recognizes my need to be part of a community, this was second nature to me, but consider the case of the person new in recovery or, even harder, the one who has a hankering to quit drinking but no knowledge of how to do so. Unless he or she has a driver’s license, a car, the means to pay for extra gas and a fair amount of free time, the hope for recovery becomes pretty dismal. I mean, one of the first signs many alcoholics see of their need to quit drinking comes in the form of blue lights in the rearview mirror signaling a DUI and concomitant loss of license and with it, due to loss of transportation, potential loss of job. The drunk in Pittsburg (or Columbia or Milan or any other small town in New Hampshire’s North Country) is often stuck with no solution but to keep on drinking. Given the natural tendency of the later-stage alcoholic to isolate, many North Country alcoholics dive deeper into the bottle rather than seeking help. I know I would have.

This past week I spent three days in Berlin at the Hope for New Hampshire Recovery program, a support center for folks in recovery or those with a hankering to do so. Support meetings of various kinds are held there, and the center offers a clean and sober space for hankerers to hang. The Hope center in Manchester, a city with about 20 times the population of Berlin, hops and hums with activity, while the Berlin center is slower paced and less active. Still, a message of recovery is available there, and I’d like to pass on a couple pieces of information about it:

  1. Saturday, June 30, from Noon to 4 pm, the Berlin Hope center hosts a block party for the community and for anyone who’s interested. Food, music and a dunking tank will be available. If you live in the North Country or if you’ll be travelling through, please stop by and demonstrate your support for Hope and for the hope of recovery.
  2. If you’re working a solid program of recovery, are a college graduate, have a desire to help save lives and transform people, and would like to relocate to the Berlin area, please give me a call at (603)361-6266. We’re looking for a center manager, and you might be that person.

Regular readers of this column know of my great regard for Abraham Lincoln, and here again he demonstrated, in the speech referenced above, an understanding far ahead of his time. In talking about drunkards, Lincoln said, “In my judgement, such of us as have never fallen victims, have been spared more by the absence of appetite, than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have.” The thirst I feel for alcohol is fundamentally different from that of the social drinker or the teetotaler. While I will never know that normal thirst, I have found a way to escape the bondage or that which I feel.

By the Light of Burning Tires I Watched My Life Go By

It’s hard for a fish to imagine the challenges of being a bird. The Uruguayan peasant child probably lacks identification with the Inuit boy. Only the most insightful fruit fly, living seven days, can picture the tortoise’s challenge of filling up a hundred years or more.

And for each of these, vice-versa.

Social drinkers and alcoholics of my type are in the same position. I may have briefly been a social drinker. Very briefly, since the first time I drank alcohol I was in 8th grade at a high-school cast party for a production of “Oliver.” My social drinking career may have begun at, say, 10:15, when the party started, and lasted until shortly before I ended up passed out on Jack Edwards’ lawn, face down in my own vomit. When one of the high school kids called my dad, he had to drag me to the car. To be very generous, my social drinking period lasted a bit less than two hours. After that, I drank for effect. I drank to get drunk. Apparently, social drinkers aren’t like that.

As for effect, I really believe alcohol interacts with me differently than it does with non-alcoholics. From the moment I take a first drink, I want to get to that brief space between the fourth and fifth drinks, that place where my perception of the universe changes and I am, briefly, on top of the world, able to look down with disdained amusement at all beneath me. I am 10 feet tall and bulletproof. After that, I drink until I am either knee-walking drunk or passed out. Apparently, social drinkers aren’t like that.

As I write this, it was a week ago that I spent my last night in Pittsburg, five miles from the Canadian border, alone outside the Tiny White Box. Wanting to mark the occasion, I built a small campfire in a fire pit as the sun was going down. There, I meditated on what I’ve lived in the last nine months, reviewed the writing I’ve done (and left undone) and thought about the next stage of my journey. In short, I looked back with pride and forward with excited anticipation. As the sun went down, the fire grew brighter until I was engulfed in darkness but for the glowing wood in front of me and the stars above me. After a couple hours, I spread out the fire’s embers, covered them with sand and went to bed. While I didn’t need the fire, it added to the experience.

From conversations with social drinkers, that campfire is analogous to their experience with drinking. On certain occasions—a wedding, a barbecue, a neighborhood party—they have a few drinks. These drinks add to the experience, lubricating fellowship, increasing celebration. Although they like having alcohol as part of the wedding or barbecue, the bride wouldn’t be any less lovely nor would the grilled chicken be less delicious without booze there.

So, if normal drinkers see a few drinks at the right time as being like a campfire to mark a passage, how does this alcoholic view drinking?

Imagine a tractor tire with gasoline poured on it. Imagine a lit match. Imagine the heat—not warming but scorching. Imagine the smoke—almost plasma and black black black. Imagine the smell—chemicals tearing through your nose like a straight razor through an Achilles tendon.

That’s what starting with a few drinks does for me. On a typical Thursday night. When I’ve got things to do in the morning.

On a night when I can drink the way I want always to drink?

Imagine that gasoline-drenched tractor tire burning on an ammo dump. At best it’s going to smell real bad. At worst someone’s going to lose a life.

I am not a social drinker, although for a long while I thought if I just learned to stop at the fifth drink I could become one. Now I know if I were a social drinker, I’d be drunk all the time, with the odor of burning rubber lingering in the air and the sound of explosions soon to come.