17Aug/21

Bill Kane: A Legend

While I was at the Green Day concert on last Sunday in DC, I got an email about Bill Kane’s retirement luncheon on August 12th.

I was at the Dodgers games in Philly on 10th and 11th (both rain delays, both victories, both times I got home around 245 am) and had plans to go solo in the 98 degree heat for the final game in the series at 1 pm on the 12th.

I try to avoid luncheons and work meetings and random social invitations. I’m very much of the Larry David mindset for things I don’t plan: “No.” But Bill Kane’s retirement luncheon is something that I could not miss. Thus I skipped the Dodgers game.

Bill was born and raised in Newark. He graduated with an English degree from Seton Hall in 1962. He served in the Peace Corps in Africa for two years before returning to NJ and completing law school in 1969. He got sober in 1979, eventualy earned his alcohol counseling credential and, in his non-legal practice time, helped postal workers and adult men in prison get sober. He eventually turned his eye towards helping other lawyers and established the NJ Lawyers Assistance Program, which he directed from 1993 until today. Anyone who is anyone who counsels lawyers throughout the United States has been trained or taught by Bill Kane.

Bill started teaching at the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies in 1981. I took my last three credentialing classes over the course of a week there in the summer of 2006. I had two classes in the morning that were just terrible. I was most displeased. It was 95 degrees out and the afternoon classroom had no air conditioning. Bill walked in wearing a three piece summer suit. I noticed his impeccable fashion, wide smile, and kind eyes, but I was most impressed by the fact that he wasn’t sweating.

He asked us a bunch of legal questions that none of us got right. Then he told us at the end of the week we would get them all right. Each day, he gave us loads of information, told funny stories, and adroitly answered questions. In short, he was the best classroom instructor I ever had in the field of alcohol and drug counseling.

When I became an instructor in the program in 2007, I was most proud to be a fellow faculty member with Bill. What made it even more special was that Bill welcomed me to the faculty and gave me a hearty congratulations. It felt like I had made it.

Over the last 15 years, I have sent my students and interns and supervisees and employees to take his course. “He’s the best teacher at the Center of Alcohol Studies,” I always told them.

That was often met by one of my students responding, “I thought you were the best teacher here.”

And I’d laugh and say, completely seriously, “Not until Bill retires.”

In 2012 I was named the Chairman of the NJ Heroin and Opiate Task Force. Eric Arauz was the vice-chair (I called him the co-chair though). The first three people we picked for the Task Force were Gov McGreevey, Dr. Lou Baxter, and Bill Kane.

Governor Christie’s office put a bunch of government lawyers on the Task Force. A couple were great; others resisted some of my criticisms of treatment programs, insurance companies, doctors, law enforcement, and Big Pharma. Because of money and political power. They would cite some statute or ruling as a way of resisting a new program or legal change. Bill would chime in and say, “That is not entirely correct.” That was his way of saying they were completely wrong. Then he would cite caselaw and name the law by letter, number and year. This happened a few dozen times. On each occasion, I would fold my arms, smile, lean back in my chair, look around and say, “That’s why I brought my own fucking lawyer.”

One time, one of Governor Christie’s people said something about a law involving school counselors. “That is not entirely correct,” Bill responded.

“How do you know that?” smugly replied the Christie stooge.

“I helped write the law back in 1987,” Bill responded.

Eric smiled, and tried to protect the other lawyer’s humiliation, “Well, that answers that.” But it was a complete and total smackdown. But in a gentlemanly way. My guy.

I gave a speech about Bill at the luncheon and told those and other stories. I could have gone on and on. Bill has worked as a lawyer for 52 years, been sober for 42 years, and has worked in the helping profession for 40. I have never come across anyone who had something bad to say about him. He made no enemies. And I am but one of thousands of admirers and people he has directly touched. Bill is an icon and a role model for me. I’m not a snappy dresser, I curse a lot, and I seem to collect a new enemy each year. So we have some different methods, but man, I dig his style.

I admire his fire, longevity, impact, and the joy with which he works. His retirement is a loss for the field, the legal profession, and the public. Make no mistake about that. But he has left an impressive legacy and a workforce than can carry on his teachings and values. And the man deserves some down time. So, I’m incredibly happy for him.

But I’m still going to call him with legal questions.

Salut, Bill. You’re a fucking legend.

17Aug/21

On Emotions: Their Complexities and Their Roles in Our Functioning and Happiness

People who have difficulty acknowledging their emotions, processing them or dealing with them could find themselves feeling very anxious, depressed, disconnected, dissociative, or upset without understanding why. One of the keys to recognizing that there is an emotion unprocessed is confusion. If you can’t understand why you were so angry, or why you were so hurt, or why you felt intense jealousy from a particular situation, then there usually is something else that can explain it. It could very well be that it wasn’t the particular event or person that made you react, but it could be that it had triggered a past unprocessed emotion. Why was it so evocative? What about the particular situation caused the emotion? Was the emotion on a similar intensity as the situation? We’ll come back to these questions once we’ve understood emotions a little more.

Emotions are to mental health as physical sensations are to the body. Through the physical realm, we understand our environments through our senses. The sense of smell let’s us know if there are any pleasant or unpleasant things around us, or if we are safe or not. Touch helps us understand if something is smooth or rough, if it’s hot or cold. Each of our senses has its job in keeping us out of danger and closer to things we need. We don’t get annoyed at their presence. We don’t blame our skin for burning in 97 degree weather, or at our fingertips for burning from hot pans, or at our noses for smelling gas. We don’t get annoyed because all of these sensations are helpful. They help us navigate information for the betterment of our lives and our basic survival.

Our emotions are similar. Emotions let us know if something feels right or wrong. They help us build bonds with people or stay away from those that harm us. They help us practice empathy because we also understand pain and hurt. They help us move through life and achieve our goals and learn from mistakes. They tell us when we’ve done too much or put ourselves in negative spaces. Emotions help us navigate the feeling world; the world of our identities, purposes and futures. But we don’t see emotions, nor do we physically interact with them in any way (sometimes we actually do when our bodies begin feeling pain or tension in challenging moments). And so it is challenging to understand them, especially as we are not taught how to interact with them and are often taught to ignore them. It gets more challenging if one has grown up in an abusive environment or is gaslit in adult relationships or just punished at any age for showing them.

It’s important to take a step back when a very strong emotion is experienced. Let’s return to the introductory questions. Why was it so evocative? What about the particular situation caused the emotion? Was the emotion on a similar intensity as the situation? While there are some people who can answer these questions by themselves, all of us could benefit from getting some feedback from someone else. Hence therapy.

Even when we do understand why we are feeling the way we are, we may experience frustration at the emotion. “Why am I still feeling this emotion? Why is it still in my life? What can I do to stop feeling this emotion?” That frustration could be the result of an inner conflict in which there is denial or even a sort of self-berating that happens. “Because I am feeling upset, I am not, a good person/a forgiving person/a rational person.” And so, as one is attempting to feel the emotion, the inner voice comes in to express disapproval.  And feeling the emotion becomes almost a triggering event.

If feeling the emotion leads to avoidance, confusion, frustration or another complex emotion, it is important to express curiosity as I did earlier in this post; asking non-judgemental questions that allow for free expression. We ask these questions to ourselves as our dearest friends would ask them of us. We want to understand why so that we can feel. There will be times in which an emotion can be felt and it will no longer have a strong hold, and some times when it will keep coming back. In both scenarios, you are learning about yourself, building trust with your emotions, and allowing yourself healing whether it feels like it or not.

The only way to let an emotion go is to go through it. It is normal to feel. It is okay to feel. It is important to feel. It is necessary to feel. Feeling and expressing curiosity allows us to go through the emotions. It allows us to heal, and it allows us to become more intentional with our lives and others.

To get to the point in which one can embrace their emotions and use them to help navigate the world, there are a couple things that can be done. Journaling about these emotions in a dialogue-style where one is conversing with the emotion is a helpful way to make something abstract and hard to grasp very apparent and clear on paper. Drawing out emotions allows us to not intellectualize the emotion but to see how it feels. Taking walks, breathing exercises, yoga sessions are all great ways to calm the body down when it’s felt a strong emotion. Being able to talk to a therapist to understand these emotions can also be very helpful in keeping one consistent with this inner work.

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About the author: Ayah Issa is a therapist who works with trauma, spirituality issues, identity issues, depression, anxiety, and relationship conflict. She received her social work degree from the Columbia University School of Social Work with a concentration on international affairs and community work. She works through a trauma lens with an understanding of community, spirituality, intersectional identities and a holistic view of the self. She can be contacted at ayahissatherapy@gmail.com.

15Aug/21

Writing Prompts for Death and Grieving

A few years ago, Frank wrote an article about writing as a way to deal with death and grieving. When Eric Arauz, his close friend and colleague and veritable big brother, died in 2018, he took his own advice and wrote about him for 30 days. Those stories and other people’s memories were eventually forged into The Book of Eric.

Most of us aren’t writers. Just sitting down and typing out stories is quite daunting, especially if we are grieving. So I took Frank’s grieving work (with his blessing) and added over 30 different prompts to help people remember their loved one and process their grief.  

What: Write about the person for 30 days straight. Without failure. Could be for five minutes or a few hours. Write. Every day. For 30 days.

Why: Grief triggers emotions and memories. You will have many thoughts that come up and you will never remember the person that passed better than you do in the month after their death. These memories will fade. So, Write. Every day. For 30 days. Preferably at the same time each day.

While this is most effective in the immediate aftermath of someone’s passing, anyone who has some unresolved grief should consider doing this. Even if the death was six months or 5 years or 20 years ago, you will still benefit from this exercise.

Tips: Do not worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. No need to proofread as you are writing, just write. Below are some ideas. Feel free to come up with your own, go in any order, or edit them as you feel necessary.

Writing Prompts

  1. A lesson they taught you 
  2. A time you made them laugh  
  3. A small memory that seems minor/insignificant (a day before or after school, a dinner time story, a car ride, a trip to the dry cleaners, the time you spilled fast food all over their desk) 
  4. Another small memory that seems minor/ insignificant 
  5. A winter memory
  6. Funny things they said (quotes, words, pronunciations)
  7. A time you spent the day together alone (did you do something? go somewhere? get food? what happened? how did it feel?)
  8. Activities you did together (big or small. pick at least 1 to describe in as much detail as possible)
  9. A summer memory
  10. A time a joke/ prank was played (either you to them or them to you)
  11. A time you were pissed off with them (what happened? what did they do? how was it resolved?)
  12. Find one of your favorite pictures with them. Describe what happened that day. (you can repeat this with other pictures, as Frank did with Eric) 
  13. A time when they embarrassed you 
  14. If you were having a rough day, what would they say to you? 
  15. One of you happiest moments together
  16. Your earliest memory of them
  17. Another random memory, seemingly minor/ insignificant (watching a movie, going to the store, a conversation, anything. describe it in as much detail as you can). 
  18. One of their birthdays
  19. Something they did for you on one of your birthdays
  20. A late night or early morning spent together (or one of each)
  21. A time you both could not stop laughing
  22. One time on Thanksgiving (can replace with any holiday)… Finish the prompt
  23. An inside joke or saying that only you two would understand 
  24. A time you felt the most comforted by them 
  25. A habit of theirs that drove you nuts
  26. Find a random picture, describe that day
  27. Their favorite movie or TV show
  28. A time something went wrong
  29. What was their first job? (what was their last job?)
  30. A time they helped you (learn a skill, homework, fix something)
  31. Words or a saying they repeated to you over and over again 
  32. A time you didn’t listen to them and they found out (or said “I told you so”)
  33. Random memory that has something to do with the color pink, yellow, blue, green, or purple
  34. A time you felt the safest with them
  35. A time they came to your rescue 
  36. Something really awkward was when… Finish the prompt
  37. How will you continue to honor them? 

You can use none, some, or all of these in any order. You may also change prompts around or use some of them to spark other memories. Use this as somewhere to start as emotions, thoughts, and memories arise. During or after the writing process, you may want to share this with a therapist. Or religious figure. Or friend. If other people are grieving the same person, they might really like to read a couple of your memories. It may be the best thing you can do for them.


Shayla Carroll, MSW, LSW, is a first generation college graduate. She double majored in social work and psychology at Rutgers before completing a masters in social work there. Partly because she grew up in an intricate and extended Dominican and Irish/Polish/Hungarian family, she understands how challenging it can be for young people to start and gain control over their lives. Shayla is passionate about helping adolescents, young adults and their families overcome difficult situations, unhealthy patterns and maladaptive behaviors. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, anything by the water, eating sweets, walking her dog, reading modern Latin and Caribbean fiction, and spending time with her family and friends. She can be reached at shaylacarroll3@gmail.com

01Apr/21

Medicinal Tobacco’s Shocking Success at Treating Mental Health and Substance Misuse Disorders

Tobacco has been grossly misunderstood, unfairly maligned, and improperly utilized. For over a decade, I have had tremendous and shocking success using medicinal tobacco in treating people with serious mental health symptoms and grave substance misuse disorders.

I’m sure that some of you are incredulous. You know about the incredibly strong link between cigarettes and cancer, and you may be aware of vaping and popcorn lung. There is a decent chance that you know someone who has had some serious health problems caused or exacerbated by smoking. I am not denying any of those problems. But to be clear, those problems are caused by cigarettes and vaping devices.

For over a hundred years, cigarette companies have been loading their products with over 7000 different chemicals; and we know that over 250 of them are dangerous, including hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, and ammonia. There can be no denying that cigarettes are still one of the top health problems in the United States.

Vaping devices sprung upon us a decade ago, with sweet flavors (for the kids) and the false promise of the safe ingestion of nicotine. While vaping devices avoid some of the harms caused by cigarette smoking, it is pretty clear that they cause a variety of serious lung and brain problems that we are still just beginning to understand.

Naturally grown, 100% pure tobacco has been unfairly lumped in with cigarettes and vaping devices. American Indians and the indigenous people of Central America and Cuba have been using organic tobacco for thousands of years. It has been used in a variety of shamanic ceremonies, celebrations, community events, and at the sacred moments of birth, marriage and death.

The colonial big cigarette companies snatched up this wonderful, all-natural product from the indigenous people, added poisons, commercialized it, mass produced it, glamorized it, and lied about its negative side effects. And native discovered, organic tobacco is paying the price. It is grossly unfair.

I have a Panamanian friend whose grandmother uses fresh tobacco leaves to make a medicinal tea. Her friends and customers claim that it helps with low energy, constipation, anxiety, and shyness (additionally, fresh tobacco leaves also keep bats and rats out of houses when strategically placed near the entrances of a house). She was so confident about the benefits and the lack of negative side effects that she gave medicinal tobacco tea to her children and grandchildren.

I have used medicinal tobacco to treat Soldiers, Marines, and Veterans with complex and severe PTSD. I have used medicinal tobacco to help people deal with the tragic grief that accompanies suicide. I have used medicinal tobacco to assist people with getting over the end of a marriage. I also have found it wonderful in treating social anxiety.

I combine medicinal tobacco with my patented radical truth therapy. Now that I have had well over 500 smashingly successful cases, I am confidently telling the world. The long drawn out smoke that comes from organic medicinal tobacco eases anxiety and calms nerves. Stunningly, it raises perception and energy levels at the same time. A wonder! Only something so natural and from fresh soil can do this.

There are no unnatural pauses or silences in my radical truth sessions when medicinal tobacco is used. Clients will draw their cigar slowly and blow out the smoke even slower (those that are really trying to make a significant change will hold it awhile before releasing it). A bond forms in our individual and group sessions; the kind of bond that sustained Native American cultures for thousands of years before colonial conquerors brought lies, diseases, guns, and death.

I have had such success with my military clients using medicinal tobacco that it is unethical for me not to offer it to them. Those that smoke cigars with me do far better than those that don’t. It is uncanny. A majority of my cigar smoking clients who are in recovery from substance misuse have abstinence rates that are far higher than the non-smoking clients. No rehab in America can compete with my numbers.

But it isn’t me. It’s organic, medicinal tobacco. And I’m happy to inform you about it. Those that rail against my radical share may be in the pockets of Big Cigarettes, Big Pharma (why use horrific and addictive drugs when there is a much cheaper and more natural alternative), or Big Marijuana (don’t get me started). Or you may just be horrifically racist and anti-Native American and/or anti-Cuban. Or you may be anti-military. Shame on you if this be so. You have no right to let your misconceived notions interfere with the freedom and health of the people that can benefit from medicinal tobacco. Check yourself.

* I have found Cuban medicinal tobacco to be the very best, though Native American medicinal tobacco can be decent in a pinch. I do not recommend the Dominican and Nicaraguan strains, as they have still not refined their process, nor do they have proper regulations.

** I owe much to the groundbreaking work of Jonathan Swift for this article

15Jan/21

Optimism after the Day of Traitors and Terrorists

I watched the attack on the Capitol on January 6th with a mixture of horror, rage, and embarrassment. Horror that US citizens would invade a Federal building, threaten officials, and attempt to overthrow the oldest continual democracy in the world. Rage at the Confederate flag, the Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt, and the other paraphernalia that celebrates racism, anti-Semitism, ignorance, hatred, and failure. And embarrassment due to the current state of our country.

President Trump’s embrace of white supremacist values and terminology has led to an increase in the numbers, activities, confidence, and violence by these awful domestic terrorists. Those that have held elected office, served in the military, or worn police badges have earned the additional disreputable label of traitor, for they betrayed the Constitution and the American people with their malignant and treasonous actions.

I believe that January 6th, 2021 marks a new era in our country. An era that will be filled with more ultra-ludicrous conspiracy theories, constant threats to state and federal officials, violent protests before and after elections, and regular terrorist acts against the public, particularly communities of color.

And yet, one week later, I see reasons for optimism.

  1. I think it is impossible for a rational person to watch the violent white domestic terrorists and traitors of January 6th and the lack of a security presence and compare it to the mass personnel and regular use of excessive force against peaceful protestors of color. American hypocrisy was on full display in our national Capitol for our citizens and all the world to behold. Those that deny it are most likely liars, racists, or delusional.
  2. Multiple social media companies banned Trump and purged a number of extremist groups shortly after the day of terrorists and traitors. This slows the spread of disinformation, disrupts their ability to recruit and organize, and sends a very clear message that Mr. Trump and many of his most ardent supporters have spoken and operated in ways that are antithetical to our democracy and principles. These actions were years too late, but I still applaud that they have finally been taken.
  3. After 9/11, the US security state turned its full attention to terrorism from the Middle East. The Department of Homeland Security was created. Our Armed Forces engaged in a perpetual state of war for almost twenty years. Over the last four deranged years, President Trump and many of his followers made specious claims about the Deep State, the corrupt failures of the FBI, and the oppressive and unfair attention paid to some right-wing groups. These were vicious falsehoods. After 1/6/21, I hope and believe that the US security state will, for the first time, be giving a great deal of attention to alt-right militia groups, white supremacists, domestic terrorists, and other abject human failures who preach hatred and violence. This should have happened over a decade ago, but our history has shown that we get most things wrong before we finally get them right. I can think of no better use of the National Guard then to seek out and destroy those who waive Confederate and Nazi flags on American soil.
  4. In the fall of 2019, I deployed to Poland with the US Army National Guard. Our base was in the Northeast, less than 50 miles from the Russian border. I traveled around Poland and the Baltic States. I visited museums in all four countries that were dedicated to WW2, the Soviet occupation, and the peaceful overthrow that happened between 1988 and 1991. Those people have endured far worse in their lifetimes than the typical American can possibly imagine and today their countries are freer and more prosperous than in any time in their histories. We have a number of advantages that those countries lacked, including a free press, huge oceans as borders, and a democracy that is 231 years old and survived a civil war, the Great Depression, two world wars, a false red scare, and the nuclear age.
  5. Most significantly, my heart has been warmed by the response of Fortune 500 companies over the last eight days. Coca Cola, Goldman Sachs, Marriot, Dow, Visa, Walmart, Google, Microsoft, Hallmark, and many others have halted political donations and some have cut financial ties with Trump’s various businesses. It was a bus boycott that began a move away from segregation in the South. Since World War II, economic pressure has led to many changes in our country, for both good and bad. I imagine that corporate boards and executive officers have been partaking in extensive, nervous, and soul-searching meetings and weighing whether saving 5% in taxes and eliminating regulations is worth the tradeoff of conducting business and living in a country where home grown terrorists seek to thwart democracy and federal politicians urge rioters to kill their rivals in the streets.  Pay close attention to what these companies do over the next six months: if they refuse to donate money to Congressman who sought to decertify Biden’s landslide election without a shred of evidence and cut permanent ties with the Trump organization and selfish politicians who seek to pick up his baton of fraud and disgrace, then you’ll know that, in the words of the immortal Bob Dylan, the times they are actually a’changing.  
04Jan/21

What to do if the drug/alcohol treatment program you are at is shit

Three years ago, I wrote this piece on what to ask of programs so that you can identify if they are honest and effective.

Most of the detox, inpatient and outpatient substance treatment programs in NJ are terrible and can’t give viable answers to the questions that I listed in that article.

So if you or a loved one are at a treatment program and you have experienced problems, this is what you should do:

  1. File an internal grievance. Every program is required by law to have a written policy on the wall at their center that describes how to file a grievance and whom to send it to. You need to write something up (short, detailed examples of the problems) and send it to the clinical director, executive director, and the owners. Save a copy for yourself.
  2. You should contact the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services and let them know about your problems/concerns. You can contact them here.
  3. You should send an email to lawyers at the NJ Attorney General’s Office. Kelly Levy LevyK@njdcj.org and Sharon Joyce Sharon.Joyce@law.njoag.gov are two lawyers there that I trust and are assigned to look into abusive programs.
  4. You should probably go to another program. Don’t think that your complaint is going to lead to better treatment for you.

By the way, treatment programs that have sober living attached are not allowed to make you attend their treatment programs. You can continue living at their housing and attend a different treatment program. If they deny this, they are in violation of the law.

Also, sober living houses cannot deny you from living there if you are taking medication to help with your addiction. If so, they are in violation of the law.

If you want to sue those awful treatment programs, go get an attorney. I really trust CK-Litigation.

24Dec/20

The Horrific and Inaccurate Portrayals of People in Recovery on TV and in Movies

The Umbrella Academy is a comic book written by Gerard Way (NJ native and former frontman of My Chemical Romance) that was turned into a hit series on Netflix. The second season just concluded. In one of the later episodes, a main character who is three years sober relapses. Klaus Hargreeves is number four of the seven siblings who make up the team.

Faced with losing the love of his life, Klaus gives up and goes to the liquor store. The sequence is disturbing: he is smiling and skipping up and down the aisles to a happy musical montage. His drunken period afterward is played for laughs. I was quite irritated when I watched and it marred an otherwise excellent season.

For years, I’ve been explaining to people how poorly alcohol and drug problems are portrayed on TV and in movies. Much too often, alcohol and drug use is humorous. I’m still waiting for the producers to come back with the much needed sequels: Cheech and Chong with Early Onset Dementia and Harold and Kumar Go To Rehab. The funny and harmless depictions send the wrong message to the public.

I don’t have much of a gripe with depicting the downward spiral (A Star is Born) or going to treatment and entering early recovery. In fact, The Days of Wine and Roses, Clean and Sober, When a Man Loves a Woman, Ray, and Walk the Line all do a pretty good job with early recovery. Bubs begins his journey in The Wire as a homeless IV drug user in season one. He gets beat on by dealers, ripped off by other users, mourns friends who overdose, suffers the cold, is shunned by his sister, and he routinely trades his knowledge of criminal activity to cops for $10 to spend on dope. He experiences a horrific trauma at the end of season four and his early recovery is handled brilliantly throughout the fifth season. Despite it’s radiant storytelling, The Wire falls into the category of all the other shows and movies in that it only hits upon early recovery.

Whenever there is a show or movie that has a character that is in recovery from alcohol or drug problems, we are most likely going to see that person struggle at some point or even relapse. And while a lot of people with substance misuse disorders do struggle and relapse, there are a few million Americans who are clean and sober many years and they are usually quite stable and productive. Their stories are not being told.

TV and movies are good at showing that some people with drug problems are wildly talented, whether they are using or clean. But those characters are often flaky and inconsistent and unreliable. And while those cases absolutely are rooted in reality, they are promoting an inaccurate message that all addicts and alcoholics (pejorative terms for many these days) are like that. And it just isn’t so.

I am waiting for the TV show or movie where the smartest and most competent character is in long term recovery and they never relapse. It isn’t hard to imagine Lester Freeman in The Wire or Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones or Five in the aforementioned Umbrella Academy as characters who are sober for decades. I know a lot of people in long term recovery who are smart and competent and prompt and resilient. A few are incredibly strategic and wonderful leaders.

I’m not asking you to do anything. This is not a call to write your state senator or cancel a studio (I’m anti-cancel, even for the shitbags out there) or engage in hashtag activism. I just want you to be aware of this. So that the next time a show or movie introduces a character in recovery, you can pause it and turn to whomever you are watching it with and say, “I bet they will have them be flaky or even relapse as part of the story.” And then let them know that shit ain’t right.

And if the character is sober and never relapses and they happen to be the most competent person on the show, please contact me. Because I’ll need to give that writer-producer-director-actor team an award.

21Dec/20

A Father and Son Tale of Recovery

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?”

“Yeah.”

“No, I’m not doing that.”

“So you don’t give a fuck about the kids?”

“What?”

“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?”

“3.75”

“No.”

“Frank, c’mon. Do you know how hard my classes are?”

“I do.”

“So I can go?”

“No.”

“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.”

“Standards man.”

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.

15Dec/20

Going to Rutgers in Early Recovery

I was about 20 months sober when I showed up for my first semester at Rutgers in late August of 1997. I was unpacking in my dorm room in House 27 on Livingston when Andrew and his twin brother Chris walked in. Years later, Andrew would laugh when he told me that he remembered the very first thing I said to him: “I see you are also a fan of the white t-shirt.” All three of us were wearing shorts and plain white t-shirts.

“What do you I call you? Andy? Andrew?”

“Andrew,” he said, intimating that Andy was not something he ever wanted to be called.

“Cool. Like Andrew Cunanan.” The month before moving in Andrew Cunanan had concluded his California to Florida spree by killing Versace and then taking his own life. The Cunanan nickname stuck, so much so that over a decade later many people actually thought it was his last name and how unfortunate it was that he shared it with a deranged serial killer.

After we had moved in, I told him that I needed to tell him something. Like most people that are new to college, he was already a little anxious, but I had to let him know. “I’m in recovery from alcoholism. I got sober in December of ’95. I joined the Army and then went to community college and now I’m here. I’m extremely serious about my recovery, but it’s not something you have to worry about. I just need you to know about it, since we are going to be living together.”

He was slightly stunned. “Do you ever want to drink?”

“No.”

“Do you mind if I drink?”

“I don’t care what you do outside of here. I’d like to avoid having booze in the fridge. But if you want to have someone over and drink, I’ll dip out. I just don’t like to deal with drunken or rude people.”

That night, I went to an AA meeting at the bottom of one of the river dorms. I was sorely disappointed that there were no students there, just some older adults from town, a few homeless people, and one dude who puked on the floor in the middle of the meeting. I talked to people afterwards and a woman offered to take me to another meeting that started in about 15 minutes. I figured I should meet as many people in New Brunswick as possible, so we went outside and she told me to get on her motorcycle. She was a former go-go dancer turned biker chick, and if that excites you, the image in your head is wrong. As she motored down George street, I was slightly terrified and thought, “This is college!”

After the second meeting was over, I walked through New Brunswick back to campus. It was a Friday night, and I passed a number of drunks on my way back to the bus stop near Scott Hall, including: a cross-eyed man stumbling by the train tracks, a very angry Mexican man being restrained by his friends outside of a bar as he cursed at a fairly scary looking bouncer, and a bunch of frat guys making noise and being their general cunty selves.

Over the next few weeks, I met a number of people that I grew very close with and are still in my life today. I went to see Lisa Laitman at Hurtardo. She was a drug counselor who ran the Recovery House. When she learned that I was almost two years sober and living on Livingston, she asked me why I didn’t apply to the recovery house.

“I thought about it, but I really wanted to live in a regular dorm and meet a bunch of earth people. I figured I’d get to know everyone in the recovery house anyway.”

A few times that fall, she contacted me and asked me to take students who had gotten in trouble to their first meeting. One time, I was driving a guy back from Cook to Busch and he asked me how long I was sober.

“Just about two years.”

“And you still go to meetings?”

“Yeah.”

“How often do you go?”

“Three or four times a week.”

“You are still that sick?” he asked, clearly very confused.

I laughed. “No man, because I’m that well. My life is great. I went through a bunch of shit, most of it my fault. I got sober and joined the Army. I’m no longer in any trouble with the law, I work, I have a good relationship with my parents, lots of friends, tons of activities, and now I’m here. I love Rutgers. I’m really at peace.”

“Huh,” he replied. I never saw him again.

Sometime in late October or early November, Andrew asked me if he could throw a small party in our room.

“Sure.”

“There is going to be alcohol.”

“Oh. Yeah, that’s fine. I’m not going to stick around for it. They can be here ’til 12, then everyone has to leave.”

“That’s cool. Thanks.”

Eight or nine people came over. I hung out in Steve Castro’s room next door (he was one of the partygoers). When Seinfeld was over at midnight, I returned to my room.

“Hey Frank,” said a few people, very happy to see me. Half were also friends of mine, but the others I didn’t recognize.

“Ok, everyone, time to go.”

“Can we hang out a little longer?”

“No, everyone needs to get the fuck out.” I didn’t say it mean, but I was clearly serious.

After they left, Andrew said, “You can be pretty gruff sometimes.”

I smiled. “Yeah.”

I worked as a security guard two to three nights a week. I usually had the midnight to eight shift. I have always been a night owl. I went to work and read textbooks and wrote my papers. Most of the work I from my first few years in college I completed while on the job. I’d get back to the dorm around 830 and go around and wake up all my friends. “Time to get up,” I’d yell while clapping my hands (I have a very manly, very loud and very powerful clap. Not a Trumpian exaggeration).

“Frank, you are a fucking nightmare,” said Neilan, whom lived one floor below. I would open the windows, poke him in the chest, and sometimes even put ice in his bed. After a while, I would just knock on the door and he’d quietly get up in order to avoid my antics.

If you have ever been in a college cafeteria at 845 in the morning, you know that it is sparsely populated and people are usually eating by themselves or with one or (maybe) two other people. We’d have 10 to 25 people from House 27 at breakfast a few days a week. Occasionally, someone from another House would come and ask us if we all were in the same class.

“No.”

“Do you have work?”

“No.”

“Some kind of community service project?”

“No.”

“I don’t get it. Why are so many of you here right now?”

“Frank got us up.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Whenever he works all night he comes by and gets us all out of bed and makes us come and eat.”

“Why don’t you say no?”

“It’s not really an option.”

Andrew asked me if he could come to an AA meeting, to get a better sense of it. “Great, I’ll take you to an open speaker meeting.”

I’m not sure if I took him to one in New Brunswick or further away, but he was really impressed. “You have a roomful of people that are trying to improve their lives and supporting each other doing it. That kind of thing would be good for most people, even without a drinking or a drug problem,” he said.

A few years later, Andrew would leave school for a little bit because (a) he needed to work full time and (b) college kids got on his nerves. He got a full-time job at a liquor store and people would often be waiting there when he opened up at 10 am. Several people came in multiple times in the same day, and they’d give an unasked excuse that they either (a) broke the bottle or (b) some friends came by. He was able to see the dark side of drinking; between that job and knowing me and my sober friends, he got a great education in addiction and recovery. He is now a scientist at Johnson & Johnson. Two years ago he had an employee who had a substance problem and he was so understanding and supportive of her.

The hijinx continued in our dorm. We had communal bathrooms. One day I decided to dump ice cold water on one of my friends while he was in the shower. I’m not sure if I saw it on a tv show or movie or just thought it up on the spot. But it caught like wildfire and soon escalated. One time we crushed Jimmy with four freezing buckets, one after the other – it felt like the Sonny Corleone hit in the original Godfather. Eventually, I just chased after people with buckets of water when they were walking down the hall or coming back into the building. I was terrifying.

I majored in history and English. I took US History 1914-45 with Professor William O’Neill that fall. There were about 60 people in the class. If you were a minute late, he’d mark it and if you had five lates or three absences, you failed. It was an early behavioral lesson, as I was never late or absent. He didn’t let us out early and he always gave an 80 minute lecture without notes. People were terrified of his tests that were comprised from his lectures and the four huge books we were assigned: 60 or 70 opened ended questions and a couple of essays. He hated grade inflation and fought it by only giving 10% of the class A’s. I loved him. I took him three times (all A’s, still a source of great pride for me).

Another wonderful professor was Matt Matsuda, now the Dean of the Rutgers Honors College. I took Development of Europe II with him. He began each class with music (something I copied him when I taught English at Elizabeth High School) and slides of art. He was witty and funny and very casual. I took three classes with him as well, and in the last one I gave a presentation on the literature of the Pacific and how it infantilized the natives in Western eyes. Afterwards he told me I showed tremendous promise as a teacher and speaker and asked if I had a forum.

“12-step meetings,” I answered.

He laughed but soon realized I was serious. “Well, you should consider becoming a professor.”

Lisa asked me to come with her to the Center of Alcohol Studies. She was presenting something in Gail Milgrim’s senior seminar. Gail was the director of education at the Center, a job she held for close to thirty years. I was brought along to tell the students my story of addiction and recovery. Afterwards, Gail asked me if I had thought about becoming a drug and alcohol counselor. “I want to be a professor,” I responded.

“You can do both,” Gail replied. And she gave me a full scholarship to the Summer School of Alcohol Studies in 1998. I took courses and liked it so much that I convinced my Mom to pay for the second summer session. There, I met a whole bunch of counselors. Many of them were in recovery and they told me three great lessons that I’ve remembered every since: 1) no one wants a 22 year old therapist…get some life experience; 2) helping others does not count as self care; counselors in recovery have a high relapse rate, so continue to go to therapy and meetings; 3) don’t get power hungry, remember that your clients have put you in a position of supreme trust.

Nine years later, Gail would give me my first job in higher education as an instructor at the Center. Two years after that, Lisa hired me to oversee the Recovery House. Both were fantastic jobs; I still have the former and the latter gave me a number of powerful, lifelong relationships.

During the second summer session at the Center, I met a first year medical student. She was there with a bunch of other future doctors learning about addiction. It was a brilliant program that was far ahead of its time. The girl was gorgeous and very bright. She was in one of my classes and she showed up at an AA meeting I spoke at. I had a huge crush on her but didn’t have it in me to say anything. School concluded with a dance. I was, by far, the youngest person taking drug counselor courses. A number of the adults (old people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s) took me under their wing. One guy told me, “Go ask that cute little doctor to dance. I bet you two would really hit it off.”

“No.”

“Why? Aren’t you attracted to her?”

Five of the adults were looking at me. I was 22 but felt like a kid in that moment. “I’m shy.”

“Fuck you and your shyness. You’re not shy. You talk all the damn time.” And he walked over and talked to her. I was mortified.

She came over, all smiles, “I heard you want to dance.”

“Yeah,” my heart was beating really fast. “I was hoping you would talk to me in class. Why didn’t you?”

“There has never been anyone I’ve tried to avoid more.”

She smiled, “I’ll take that as an amazing compliment.” Clearly, she was way more mature than me. We hung out the rest of the summer until she went back to school in Chicago. I half considered leaving Rutgers to follow her but didn’t and eventually chalked it up to a summer love.

“I can’t believe how full of life you are,” she told me when we were playing mini-golf.

Indeed.

08Dec/20

The End of My Drinking

This is the story of the end of my drinking.

I was a 17-year-old high school senior in the fall of 1993 when I moved in with my grandmother. Her house was only 300 yards from my parents, but I could no longer live under their rules. In retrospect, they weren’t unreasonable, but I had always struggled with regulations and restrictions. Still do.

For the first few weeks, I would go out each Friday and come back on Sunday. One night around 6 pm in mid-October, Gram asked me to stay home. I told her I would, and I sincerely and thoroughly meant it. But when 9 pm rolled around, I was off. It hadn’t been my intention to break my word.

Eventually, I just threw parties at her place. They were small get togethers of 10 to 20 people. We had a lot of fun. The merriment went on for several weekends until the Tewksbury police arrived. They said some neighbors complained about the noise. The cops walked around outside and said that things looked fine and that they knew we weren’t into drugs, so they would leave us be but told me to “quiet it down.” Reasonable and damn fine police work.

The next weekend, the neighbors complained about the noise again and the cops returned. This time, they claimed that someone threw a bottle through a window at them. It was bullshit, but they used that as an excuse to enter. I was arrested and charged with under-age possession of alcohol, underage drinking, and distribution of alcohol (that last one still rankles a little).

A few days later, a friend of mine came home from college and we drank on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving. I went to school the next day and the pre-calc teacher said I smelled of booze. I was suspended and sent to get an evaluation. My parents and sister came along and told their versions. It was there that I learned that my mother was the neighbor whom had complained about the noise. Of course. The counselor told us all that I was a mid-stage alcoholic. I balked at that. I had been drinking for less than two years. I had a cute girlfriend and a varsity letter.

My parents asked her what the options were. The counselor recommended rehab and counseling and AA meeting attendance. To my amusement and my mother’s chagrin, my Dad said that “if the choice is between him becoming a Jesus freak and being on the sauce, I think I’d rather have him on the sauce.”

I refused to go to treatment but agreed to move home and attend some AA meetings. I never went, but lied and said I did and that people there told me that I didn’t have a problem. A few months later, I got arrested again for throwing a party at my grandmother’s house. There was an intervention after school on St. Patty’s Day and after a 90-minute talk with my parents, teachers, coaches, class advisors, guidance counselor and the student assistance counselor, I agreed to go to a facility in the Catskills.

I was a couple months shy of 18, so I was put on the adolescent wing. The other kids chain smoked cigarettes and told wild stories about their abusive parents, homelessness, violent crimes, sexual assaults, fights with cops, shitting green ooze, and hallucinations of ninja gremlins tugging on their ears. They clearly had problems.

One counselor had a wooden leg. He told us that he had been shot in a drug deal gone bad and that he woke up in surgery as the doctors sawed his leg off. He said that it had ruined his high and that all he could think about was getting off the operating table to get another shot of dope. He was now a few years sober and said that he still couldn’t listen to Radar Love because it reminded him of when he used to run drugs across the Canadian border.

Between the one legged counselor and the green-ooze shitting, chain smoking teens, I didn’t identify. The adults who came over from their wing each night to tell stories about their crushed finances, shattered marriages, lost children, chronic legal troubles, and ill health did leave an impression on me. “I might need to stop down the road,” I thought.

Kurt Cobain died while I was in rehab.

I drank again the first weekend after I got home. Three weeks later, I got pulled over after dropping some friends off after an afternoon drinking a couple of 40s in the city. I was doing 70 in a 55 when the Lebanon cop pulled me over. He said he smelled alcohol. I told him I drank in NYC that afternoon. He had me step out of the car and walk a straight line, say my ABCs backwards, and touch my fingers to my nose. I passed all the tests. He said that he was going to let me go. Lucky. And then he went to his car and then came back five minutes later and said that he had to arrest me and that he called a towing company. I asked him what changed and he said he called his station and the Tewksbury cops heard my name and said that I should be arrested and that they would like to pick me up. “They are out to get me,” I thought as I focused on them and not my own actions. This was a long-standing pattern of mine.

The cop was cool. He asked me if I was ok and then put me in the back of his patrol car. I remember sitting there wishing I could undo the last few hours. Just turn back time. I thought about the adults that spoke in rehab and their chronic legal troubles. Fuck. I was taken to the Lebanon station and given a Breathalyzer test. It came back .03, well below the legal limit, except when it came it people under 21. I was charged with DUI. The chief came in. He was in civvies. He was unshaven and his hair was all messed up. He sat down and lit a cigarette and talked to me. He said he was addicted to smoking and that I was addicted to booze. He said that the Tewksbury cops “have a hard-on for you but I’m not letting them at you.”

The arresting cop took me home and let me go inside to tell my Dad on my own. It was a difficult conversation to start. I went to some AA meetings and was amazed at their candor, humor and happiness.

A few weeks later I went to court for my party charges and the DUI. I lost my license for six months, got a year of probation, a fine, community service, and mandated counseling.  I didn’t schedule a counseling appointment in a timely fashion and my probation officer flipped out and ordered me to come in twice a week. That was an additional problem, as I lived 15 miles from Flemington and had no license and neither my parents nor girlfriend were interested in driving me.

My friend Frazer introduced me to some other substances. He was a character: funny and smart and cynical. His addictions were probably worse than mine and he had carried the fuckup label far longer. Together, we were on a freight train towards ruin marked by regret, resentment, chaos and regular blackouts. At parties, we entertained other revelers with funny stories as we all got buzzed. As evenings wore on, the wry anecdotes and clever observations occasionally turned into angry rants and uncomfortable ruminations. Many nights ended up in wrestling matches in kitchens, with broken furniture, destroyed phones, mayonnaise on the wall, and puke everywhere (I had become a projectile vomiter).  

I worked at a gas station in Clinton that fall, a video store at the Bridgewater mall in the winter, and a huge golf course in Bedminster the following spring. I didn’t hold any job for more than a couple of months, as I was often late and sometimes didn’t show up at all. I enrolled at the local community college but never went. My girlfriend dumped me. I had already felt bad about not being at a four year school. Being on probation. Losing shitty jobs. Not having a license. The end of the relationship, even though there was a lot of fighting, was crushing. With a lax schedule, a pile of sadness and shame, and nothing to really look forward to, my drinking increased in amount and frequency.

My parents divorce was finalized around the same time I lost my license. My Dad bought a new house with a barn out in Jutland. The barn was a good little hide out. Late one night, my father came into the barn and caught a few of us drinking: “Frankie, you sneaky little bastard!” My friends loved that line and would repeat it over the next few months.    

In March of 1995, I attended a two day class for drunk drivers (IDRC) at Hunterdon Drug Awareness. There were 12 or 13 other people in the class. I was the youngest by at least a half dozen years, but most of the people were in their 30s to 50s. We had to go around the room and introduce ourselves. We had to say our name and where we were from and talk about the night we got arrested. The first guy said that he was leaving his brother’s wedding when he got pulled over. He hadn’t had much to drink and that the cops were assholes and that he was targeted and unfairly arrested. I identified with him and I remember thinking, “YEAH! Fight the power! This is bullshit!”

And then the next guy shared something similar. And the man after that said he didn’t have a drinking problem. And the woman after that bitched about the cops. By the time the sixth person talked how the cops were assholes and that they didn’t have a drinking problem, my heart was racing as I realized something fundamental: all of these people were full of shit and they were spewing the exact bullshit lines that I had thought and spoken. Clearly, I was an alcoholic.

A few days later I told my Mom about my experience at IDRC. She asked me if I was going to stop drinking. “No, I’m not ready. But I know what I am.”

I completed probation in May. I got my license back. I bought a 1970 Buick Skylark (my grandmother’s last car was a ’77 Skylark) for $350. It was purple and rusted and the body wasn’t fully attached to the frame, so it swam a bit when I drove. It had snow tires and couldn’t pass inspection; cops would pull me over and write me three or four tickets at a time.   

And then my grandmother died. I was already at the lowest point of my life, and her death sent me into an abyss. Even if I got drunk or high, I felt like utter shit. I hadn’t made a conscious decision, but my solution to all of this was to get completely smashed as much as possible.

On August 9th, Jerry Garcia died. He was 53 years old. I was a big fan of the Grateful Dead. I thought about Jerry’s drug use and my own. Four days later, Mickey Mantle died. He had gotten sober about 18 months before and talked about how he would have taken better care of himself if he knew he was going to live so long. Both hit me hard. I thought about their lives and how they had gone off track and ended early because of their addictions. I continued to drink and smoke and snort, but their deaths weighed heavy.

I bounced a check for buffalo wings and had to go to municipal court.

My Dad got tired of me sleeping until one, careening from job to job, not being in school, and occasionally throwing parties in the barn whether he was home or not (I had entered the full on “I don’t give a fuck” mode that often comes in late stage addiction). He gave me the choices of getting a full-time job, going to school, or moving out. I couldn’t hold a job; I wasn’t qualified to do anything and I didn’t even have the soft skills necessary to keep an entry level wage-slave job. It was clear that I had to go to college. But the trick was to find a place that would accept someone like me in mid-August.

That is how I ended up at CW Post on Long Island. I applied and was accepted a few days before school started. There wasn’t much room left on campus, so I was placed in the quiet dorm. I had a Dominican roommate from the Bronx and a Puerto Rican roommate from Islip. A Boston Jew with a heart problem lived next door. The Dominican liked Wu-Tang but was a straight edge, so I bonded with his weed smoking friends. I introduced about a half dozen of them to the first bong of their life (a 4 footer made of glass) and when Alejandro came back to the dorm and saw all his friends passed out on the ground, he asked me if I had killed them.

Carlos and his cousin and I went out partying. I blacked out. When I woke up, his cousin told me that watching me in the middle of the night was one of the worst things he had ever seen.

“What are you talking about?”

“You rolled off your bed and smashed your head against the wall, and then rolled back over and smashed your head against the bed. I think I’m going to quit drinking.” I was amused by this instead of being alarmed.

On campus, people would come up and start talking to me. They’d share personal details and reminisce about some recent evening where we partied and chatted all night long. I had no idea who they were. One time, I came out of a blackout while standing on a table at a frat house. I was surrounded by women and people were staring at me. “Well…?” someone asked.

“Well fucking what?” I responded.

“Finish the story man. This is hilarious.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about. I just got here.” And I got down and walked out. That concerned me. I was walking and talking and going places and meeting people and I couldn’t remember any of it afterwards.

I decided to quit everything for the month of October. I made it to October 8th before I got drunk and high. Discouraged, I went to the campus counseling center and asked to see a drug counselor. They said there wasn’t one, but they gave me a pamphlet with 20 questions about whether or not you had a cocaine problem. I scored 17 out of 20 on a quiz that you needed only a three to pass.

I felt like such a fuck up. Walking back to the dorm, I saw this outrageously cute Hispanic girl walking with a guy in an Army uniform. “I should really join the Army,” I thought.

I drank that night or the next. A few days later, I bumped into a couple of young Mexicans who were working on some campus construction project. They didn’t speak English and I sure as fuck didn’t speak Spanish, but they had some beers and I had some weed and we ended up partying together. I showed them how to use a bong and then on my second hit, I had what seemed like small seizure (I shook and fell down and everything appeared to rush towards me). I was lying on my back when I came to about ten seconds later. Two of them were leaning over and staring me in the face, like some kind of movie shot. I got up and told them I was ok. They were freaked out and left.

I went home for Thanksgiving and out with my friends that Friday. I went into the city with Frazer and a few others. Frazer and I ended up in a bar. Chaos ensued. There was a minor melee. Frazer drunkenly drove us home and cried out while wickedly smiling, “I’m pie eyed.” I remember thinking that I needed to get sober.

I went back to school to find that my room had been broken into. All my DJ equipment was gone. I knew instantly what had happened – people that had sold me drugs had come by over break and ripped me off. The window had been smashed. It was never fixed the rest of the semester. Carlos had moved out earlier in the month to live with another cousin off campus, so it was just me and Alejandro. He felt bad about my stuff but was pissed about the window and how we had to sleep in the cold.

I was so lost. I hated looking in the mirror. I kept thinking about how my life was a disaster and I couldn’t see a way to fix it. I’d wake up and think “I need to get drunk and high.” Then I’d be drunk and high and think “I need to get sober.” I was near the jumping off point.

I brought a few hundred dollars to school and went through that in about two weeks. Just by chance, I figured out a way to make money. Sometime in late September, someone whom I never met knocked on my door.

“Yeah.”

“Hey Frank. Are you still willing to write that paper for me?”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“The other night. I told you about my Civil War class and how I was stressing and you said you could write the paper for me in your sleep.”

“I don’t recall saying that.”

“C’mon man. I’m desperate. I’ll pay you 25 bucks.”

So I wrote his paper. And I wrote 63 other papers that fall too. I failed all my classes because I neither went to class nor did any work. But I wrote 64 papers for other people. I thought I was brilliant. That I had figured out how to get drunk and high without having a job. I would get messed up all alone and speak Shakespearean type soliloquies of hubris and pain to an audience of no one. “Who else could do this?” I’d say to the wall.

On December 15th, Frazer and two others showed up at my dorm room. “You look like shit,” one of them said.

“Yeah, I’m not doing so hot.”

“Can you party? We drove all this way.”

“Of course.”

And we got fucked up. They asked about the broken window. I told them about the robbery. And then I told them about my classes. And my self-loathing.

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t see how I can go home. I’ve fucked up everything. You know, I’m here on Long Island because I fucked up everything in NJ. Now everything here is fucked too.”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve been thinking. I’m going to go home, go to rehab, join the Army, go to community college, and then go to Rutgers.”

“Yeah right.”

“No, I think that’s what I’m going to do.”  

I got to my Dad’s house around noon on December 17th. I was home a few days before he expected me. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“I called Mom. She’s coming over here. I only want to say this once.” A few years later, my Dad told me that waiting for my mother to arrive was one of the worst hours of his life. That he was afraid I had committed some horrible crime or accidentally killed someone.

My mother showed up and the three of us sat down at the dining room table (it had belonged to my grandmother and is now in my kitchen). And then I said the most important single sentence of my life:

“I’m an alcoholic and an addict and I’m ready to get sober.”


  • I wrote this about 10 days before my 25th sober anniversary. I wanted to share my story with others in the hopes that it would help reduce stigma and supply a little hope. So thanks for reading. It’s pretty heavy at times but it has a good ending. After the last line, I went to rehab and then to meetings. And then the Army. And then Rutgers. And life got a lot better.