I came home from Japan in October of 2003. I had spent the year teaching English in Tokyo and I got a couple of life long friends out of it. It was a year lived well: I climbed Mt. Fuji despite doing almost everything wrong, found that I had an appetite for convenience store sushi, visited a ton of Temples in Kyoto, and survived a three week bout of food poisoning without killing a perpetually barking dog that lived in our complex that drove me and my roommates absolutely fucking nuts.
I also had spent much of the year mourning my friend Frazer, who had succumbed to his own set of addictions in 2002. His death and the grieving period after were the final deciding factors in my decision to become a drug counselor. My Mom was pleased that I was finally committing to something; my Dad was concerned about the nature of the work, as well as the compensation. “It’s a lot of hard work for little pay. There isn’t much funding for those programs, and as you’ve told me, most people don’t make it. I’m afraid you are setting yourself up to be poor and heartsick.”
“I’m going to do it for a bit. I think I can really help people. If I can’t, then I can always move on to something else.”
I worked at Integrity House that year. Dad came to visit once and I remember him talking to a couple of residents and being horrified by the trauma in their stories. “How would people like us ever even know about the kind of suffering they’ve experienced?” he asked me with a stunned look on his face.
“They don’t. Their stories aren’t talked about or reported on. We only know because I’m here.”
Several years later, I created a ceremony for graduating Rutgers students in recovery. They would talk about their journeys and thank their families. Some of the stories were hilarious, others were deeply moving, and a couple were both. My parents and friends would come each year to see these stories of rebirth and redemption. “A lot of positive vibes in here,” my Dad said after the second or third ceremony.
In 2009, a 19 year old male was brought to the counseling center by another 19 year old male. The second male was concerned about the first one’s drug use. He saw a psychologist right away and she was so overwhelmed by his story that she brought him down to my office and asked if I could meet with him. And thus I met Thielen (name has been changed).
“Who gets brought in by their teenage friend? You must be all kinds of fucked up?” He was failing his classes and owed money to drug dealers all over campus. He had tried to deal himself, but was terrible at it because he ended up using everything that was in his possession. I learned that he was a good athlete and musician. He was smart, though he often appeared in a fog. His hair was bleached blonde and always unkempt. I wasn’t sure if it was manicured to look that way or if it was the addiction; either way, it was awful. We met each week and I tried to get him to see that his substance use was a problem. I wanted him to go to a meeting, but he disappeared before I could sway him. That happens a lot.
A year or so later, he called me up and told me that he was living in Florida and almost a year sober. “That’s fucking great man….you know, I thought that you might have died. A little courtesy next time.”
“Sorry Frank. I have to get out of Florida. It fucking sucks here. Rains every day, super hot, tons of old people. Bland food. Shit jobs. I was at a meeting and I learned that Rutgers has a recovery house. Do you know who runs it?”
“Yeah I know who runs it.”
“Great. Can you introduce me? Put in a good word?”
“It’s me. I run it.”
“That’s awesome. What do I need to do?”
“You need to pass a couple of interviews with me.”
“Ok, let’s do that. Can we start now?”
“No. In person.”
“I live in Florida.”
“I know where you live. You’ve told me three times. You have to come up here and meet with me.”
He tried to move an immovable object and eventually gave up. A few weeks later, Thielen walked to the bus stop. He got rained on while walking. He boarded the plane and then sat inside for three hours while some mechanical issue was addressed. When he arrived in Newark, he missed the train by a few seconds and had to wait 25 minutes for the next one. By the time he arrived in New Brunswick, it was 95 degrees and he was exhausted. He trudged the 1.2 miles to the counseling center and checked in at the front desk.
I was thrilled when the secretary called me. I went to the lobby and smiled and hugged him. We talked for ten minutes in my office, and then I stuck out my hand and said, “Thielen, I’m proud to accept you into the program.”
“Woah woah woah. What the fuck? I traveled 10 hours for a ten minute interview?”
“Yup,” I said with a shit eating grin.
“What about the screening? About being sure I’m a fit for the program?”
“The journey told me all I needed to know.”
He lived in the recovery house for two years. We went hiking a couple times, had a bunch of late night pancakes, and trained for a half marathon together. He spoke to other college students and even presented a few times at different high schools.
“Are you going to run the Big Chill next week?”
“The race at 8 am on a Saturday in the cold?”
“No, I’m not doing that.”
“So you don’t give a fuck about the kids?”
“The cost to enter is a toy for some poor child this holiday season. Don’t you care about them?”
Utterly defeated, Thielen agreed to run the race.
I would take students who got a 4.0 each semester to a dinner at Steakhouse 85. I hate grade inflation and GPAs are not something I pay much attention to at all as an employer, but I did like motivating my students to do well and I really liked the dry aged delmonico at the New Brunswick establishment.
Thielen was an engineering student. “Can I go to the dinner?”
“What did you get this semester?”
“Frank, c’mon. Do you know how hard my classes are?”
“So I can go?”
“Frank, my classes are so much harder than art or social work or communications. A 3.75 in engineering takes a lot more effort than a 4.0 in those subjects. You know that. I know you know that.”
“I do. You are completely correct.”
“But you aren’t going to let me go.”
His last semester he got a 4.0. At the recovery graduation ceremony, his Dad was talking to everyone around him in the food line about Thielen. And deservedly so. Not only was his son alive, but he was off drugs. And he was graduating with an engineering degree and he already had a job and was not moving home. Win win win win win. He was the mayor of the line, shaking hands, telling stories, and asking questions.
My dad was in line behind him. Thielen’s Dad turned to my Dad. “Hey, who are you here for?”
This took my father by surprise. He just wanted to get some pasta and wasn’t really interested in having a chat. He tried to play it cool, “I’m here for my son.”
This had the opposite effect that he wanted. Thielen’s Dad’s eyes grew wide, “ME TOO! I’m here for my son. Thielen. They must know each other. Who is your son?”
He knew the answer to this question would open up further lines of conversation, so he answered quickly and softly as a way of sending a subtle message that the communication should cease. “Frank.”
Thielen’s Dad started to cry. He said, “Your boy saved my boy’s life. Thank you.” And he went in for a hug.
This is one of those moments that I would pay $1000 to see. When my Dad came back to the table with his food, he was noticeably shaken. I asked him what happened. He shook his head. He told me a couple of days later. We were sitting on his porch, overlooking the Delaware River. “You’ve made quite the difference in that family’s life,” he said.
“Yeah. I’m pretty lucky.” And we stared at the sunset.