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.  

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 [email protected] and Sharon Joyce [email protected] 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.

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.

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?”


“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?”

“I do.”

“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.”

“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.

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?”


“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?”


“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.


“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.


“Do you have work?”


“Some kind of community service project?”


“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.”


“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.


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.


“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.”


“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.

My Grandmother

(I wrote this on December 8, 2016)

This is a photo of me and my grandmother in the summer of 1994 at the Hunterdon Medical Center. Her name was Ruth B. Apgar (maiden name of Brown) and she would have turned 99 today. She died a little over 21 years ago — during the absolute worst year of my life and and also the one in which I had the least ability to handle it.

Gram was not a relative by blood. My parents moved to our house on Water Street in Tewksbury Township in 1971. Ruth and Wilson Apgar lived next door, where they had a family farm. My sister was born three months after my parents moved in, and Ruth volunteered to watch my sister whenever my Mom needed help. A friendship ensued. By the time I was born, Ruth and Wilson were known as Gram and Pop and I grew up at their home and on their farm. I walked by their house everyday on the way to the bus stop. After school, I stopped by to eat (usually hamburgers or milk and cookies…sometimes both) and watch cartoons. I spent Friday or Saturday nights there throughout my childhood (I am intimately familiar with mid-80s shows like Hunter and Riptide).

Life on the farm was grand. The TV was from the 60s (when they got a 19″ color TV, it was a huge deal). The furniture was from the 30s through 50s. There were cows, pigs and chickens. There were two old barns and an amazing number of places to climb and hide. I loved swinging on some dangerous apparatus in the hayloft and walking on the roof. Gram occasionally caught wind of it and expressed alarm for my safety. I would explain that I knew what I was doing. She would tell me about some young man 40 years earlier who fell and broke his back.

Gram bought me my first bike when I was 8. Along with my mother and sister, she accompanied me for two weeks of violin camp in Ithaca, NY during almost every summer in the 80s. She drove me to and from soccer practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1st through 7th grade, and took me to my traveling soccer games all over NJ every Sunday.

She had an older cousin, Mickey, who lived about 8 miles from her house. We would go over there. Gram would drop off medications, cook and clean. She would empty Mickey’s colostomy bag. She would bath her. She did the same thing for Pop’s mother, who was deep into her 80s. Gram did this without complaint or fanfare. I admired her so much for being there for other people. I remember thinking, even at that young age, that I wanted to be someone who was there for others and was willing to get my hands dirty with the most difficult of life’s tasks.

When I was 7 or 8, I found a wallet on the school bus. It had money in it. I momentarily thought about taking the money, but I didn’t and I returned it to the bus driver. I told Gram immediately after school, thinking she’d be proud and pleased. She wasn’t. “You did the right thing. As you were raised. You didn’t do anything above and beyond.” That stuck with me.

I remember sitting on her porch on warm summer evenings. We’d play Monopoly. She would make lopsided trades in my favor, which I didn’t like because it was letting me win (my father brutalized me in our trades). When I didn’t have a friend around, she would play along with my Star Wars action figures (btw – she took me to my first movie in the theater, which was ROTJ when I was 6). When I was 12 and 13, she took me to dozens of summer movies. She was 72 and sickly, but she sat through The Lost Boys, Batman, and Robocop (she was a bit horrified by that last one).

She was an old woman by the time she was 60. She had diabetes. And polymyositis. She was overweight and had a really bad back. All these problems meant that treatment was difficult, and she was in and out of the hospital from the time I was 5. I worried about her health throughout my childhood, and whenever the ambulance was at the house my heart would sink.

When I was a senior in high school, I was causing enough problems with my parents that I moved out and moved in with her for several months. I helped out around her house, picked her up when she fell and occasionally helped her with her blood pricking and insulin. I also threw parties in the barn and on the upstairs floor. She begged me not to do it, but I was 17 and a bit of a drunkard. I got in trouble with the law a few times (my Mom called the cops) and eventually moved home. I still saw Gram daily.

In 1994 my parents divorced and sold the house. Gram got really sick, she and Pop had to sell their farm. This picture is from when my mother brought me to the hospital. It would be the last time I saw her. Her blood relatives moved her to a nursing home in Delaware. I was such a mess that I couldn’t get down to see her. For a drunk without a license, it was so far away. I talked to her on the phone every week, but the move seemed to accelerate the decline in her health.

She died in June of 1995 and I found out from a notice in the local paper. I can’t convey the depths of the anguish, sorrow and regret I felt. I spent the next 6 months in a substance induced haze. I had watched her be there for everyone throughout her life and wasn’t there with her at the end. It is the single great regret of my life. On December 17, 1995, I took my last drink. I joined the Army in February and went to college that September. During difficult moments in early recovery and basic training, I would talk out loud to her.

I am a very good son to my parents. It is because I love and respect them, but also partly because of my regret for how I was not present at the end of Gram’s life. I only have a few pictures of her (so if nothing else, make sure you have lots of photos of all of your loved ones). Despite never meeting her, my ex-wife had a pretty good understanding of the importance that Gram has in my life. When we were looking at houses several years ago, she accepted that I would talk for a long time to old women who lived alone. They reminded me of Gram.

For years, I thought of her every day. Now it is a few times a week. I had such a great childhood. She was such a force for good and just a wonderful human being. She lives on in the lessons she taught me and much of my altruism springs from her.

  • This was originally posted on Facebook, but I have published it here as part of a series of stories leading up to my 25th sober anniversary on December 17th.

My Early AA Meetings

I attended my first AA meeting while in treatment in March of 1994. My parents, my high school, and the state of NJ had all strongly suggested that I go away for 28 days in the middle of my senior year. I don’t recall anything about the meetings we went to in the community, but I do remember what happened each night in the facility. I was a few months shy of 18, so I was on the adolescent wing. Every evening at 8 pm, an adult from the other side would come over and tell their story. Every time…every time they would talk about how they wished they had an opportunity to get clean at 15 or 17, instead of creating a mountain of wreckage from which to struggle to crawl out from under. It was the one thing from rehab that really stuck with me.

It didn’t get me to stop. I came home and four days later went out with friends and drank a bit. The dam thus opened, it was back to weekends of hi-jinx, lies, pockets of chaos, and parental fits of disappointment. And then I got arrested again. Which got me back to AA meetings.

I was feeling pretty low when I walked into a meeting at the High Bridge Reformed Church one Wednesday evening at 745 pm. There were only 10 people in the room, almost of all of them old white men, which didn’t surprise me at all. But what shocked me, utterly stunned me to my core, was the smiling and the laughter that bounced all over the place. I was sure that people there would be ashen and gray and somber, and that shares would be about how “I can’t do this” and “I can’t go there” and “everything is pretty awful but I’m not drinking.”

One old man said, “You’re going to have a great life kid. Look at you, so much going for you. When I came in, I looked like a Greek God,” and he smiled and looked around the room, his eyes twinkling with mischief. “Just the other day I got out of the shower and my wife told me I looked like a god damned Greek” and he and the others howled with laughter.

I didn’t know that a naked Greek was supposed to look particularly more awful than a regular nude guy, but I appreciated the word play and the self-depreciation and the laughter and the overwhelming sense of welcome that those people put forth. I listened to their stories. I observed their faces. I could see how they carried themselves. They were happy, joyous and free. It was admirable and praiseworthy.

I went to a bunch of meetings. I had reservations. I had just turned 18. Was I really supposed to never drink again? Who the fuck would I hang out with? Where would I go? I felt like if I quit, I would just miss out on so much.

A little over a month later, I drank again. A friend put a beer in front of me, I said fuck it, and that was it. My story spiraled downward for another 18 months. I failed every class at two colleges over two fall semesters, got a bunch of traffic tickets in a 1970 Buick Skylark that had snow tires and no inspection sticker (cops saw me in that car and got a boner almost every time), and I couldn’t hold any job for more than six weeks. I went back to the same rehab in the winter of 95 and was highly motivated to get well.

I didn’t get to lock eyes with Madonna and the night I got home the cops threw me in a holding cell for a few hours over a bounced check for buffalo wings. The next day, January 12, 1996, I went to a noon meeting in Clinton. There had been a snowstorm of about three feet, but I knew that the meeting would be on, despite the conditions. I asked my Dad to drive me to the church, which was just a few miles down the road. I walked in and saw that there were at least 30 people there (the idea is that you would get drunk or high in a snowstorm, so you should go to a meeting in one too). I got a cup of coffee, sat down, waited for the meeting to start, and then I raised my hand and said “Hi. My name is Frank and I’m an alcoholic. I just got out of rehab.” I’m sure I said a lot more but don’t recall what it was. A lot of people came up to talk to me afterwards. It was mostly retirees with a lot of sobriety, though there were some working people and a few residents from the local halfway houses.

I cannot communicate how good they were to me.

I went to meetings every day, and that one every Friday. At 60 days sober, I signed an eight year contract with the US Army. People in AA told me to wait, that it was very risky to go and make big life decisions in the first year and that basic training could be really stressful. I heard them, but I was impatient. I had put myself on a shelf for almost two years and I had to do something.

I got a sponsor. He said, “Get a job, get shitty job, show up every day and don’t steal.” Radical stuff. I worked the morning shift at a gas station a mile down the road. I’d get up at 6 am and walk to do a three hour shift. I’d count the days and hours I was clean. I’d usually go to a noon meeting and then hit the gym. Maybe a friend would come over to watch basketball or play video games.

When I had 90 days, I was super excited. At the start of my Friday meeting, the chairperson would ask “has anyone recently celebrated an anniversary?” I had watched others celebrate 90 days, 1 year, 5 years, 29 years (and so on) over the last three months and I was impressed and happy and jealous. My arm shook as I raised my hand (and as I am writing this, dear reader, I got chills and shaky and a little misty eyed) and said, “My name is Frank and I am an alcoholic and I had 90 days on Sunday.”

There was cheering and thunderous applause. Really. People commented on it throughout the meeting, that they had never heard that for someone at 90 days. I felt special. A few years later, I would realize that while the people had gotten to know me and truly liked me, they cheered and clapped and hollered because they had seen people come and go, come and go, and that young people almost never stuck around. My 90 days were celebrated so loudly not because of the wonder of me, but because that it meant that some young person got clean in that meeting and that other young people, perhaps their children or grandchildren, could also do that one day.

At four months sober, I shipped off for basic training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky to become a tanker. I had been going to AA meetings every day, but now I would be without them for sixteen weeks. I didn’t feel any physical or psychological urges. The drill sergeants got us up early, made us do push ups deep into the night, punished us for things that weren’t our fault, marched us all over, joked at our expense, and generally tried to put us in a constant state of stress. I fucking loved it. I really did. After four weeks, my drill sergeant made me the platoon guide (leader). I had to look out for everyone else, and if someone hadn’t shaved or their bed wasn’t made or they didn’t have the right equipment in their ruck, they were punished and I was punished. So I was punished most of the time each day, at least for the next few weeks.

Because I was the platoon guide, I was moved out of the main bay where 20 other guys slept and into a room with the bookman. The bookman was the title of the guy who kept the training schedule. He was another recruit. His name was David Graham. He was 23 and had already been in the Army for 5 1/2 years. He had been in the National Guard in Texas but was going active. David had been trained on the M60 Patton and was told that he had to retrain on the M1Abrams. His recruiter promised him that he wouldn’t have to go through basic training again (or shave his head or do arm circles at 11 pm or get spit on when a drill sergeant screamed in his face) and that he would just have to attend a few classes when the new recruits were learning how to drive, load and shoot the Abrams.

Of course, David’s head was shaved and he had to do arm circles and was screamed at like the rest of us. He was pretty fucking bitter about it, and understandably so. One night, after we had gone through some horrendous ordeal because of some other soldier’s fuck up, David was lying on his bunk and softly uttered, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I was dead tired, but I shot up out of bed. “David, where did you learn that?”


“The serenity prayer.”

“My Mom is sober 11 years. I’ve been to a few AA meetings to support her. She says it all the time.”

“Get the fuck out of here. I’m sober five months.”

“You got sober and joined the Army? Usually it’s the other way around,” he smiled. And we talked and talked. It was pretty cool to have someone like David there with me.

I got on really well with Drill Sergeant Moses. I did such a good job at organizing the other recruits that he didn’t have to do that much work and he hardly ever yelled or punished us anymore. I was pretty proud of that and David told me that I was getting egotistical. That offended me, but I took in his words and walked down to the Drill Sergeant’s office and requested permission to speak.

“What is it?” Drill Sergeant Moses asked me.

“Drill Sergeant, I would like to go to an AA meeting.”

“What?!” (all these years later, the way I say what is the way he said what)

“Drill Sergeant, before I joined the Army I was a horrific alcoholic. I got sober on December 17th and now I have six months. Specialist Graham thinks I should go to a meeting because….”

He cut me off. “Shut up. I don’t want to hear anymore of this. You might fuck up my drinking.” And then he yelled, “THIRD PLATOON, RED LINE!”

And we all hustled into the hallway and stood at attention. The Drill Sergeant left us that way for a few minutes, then he came out of his office and walked up and down the hallway. And he looked us in the face as he walked and then stopped and stared when he came to me. Then he stepped back and said, “You are all in the Army. I don’t give a shit what you did or didn’t do before you got here. I expect that some of you were into some crazy shit. I don’t want to hear about it. I’m not your priest or confessor or your god damn shrink. You are soldiers now. My soldiers. I don’t want any of you feeling bad about shit that has gone before. Now,” and a Cheshire like grin slipped across his face, “you all best get to bed, because I’m going to work the fuck out of you tomorrow.”

So there would be no AA meeting for me in basic training. But I went to one the day I got back to NJ and talked about my Army adventures. And I was welcomed home.


  • I posted this on Facebook on November 30, 2020. I was telling stories about my addiction and recovery leading up to my 25th year anniversary.

Buffalo Wings

In February or March of 1995, I bounced a check for $14.95 to Hampton Pizza for 3 dozen buffalo wings. This included the delivery fee, which was essential, because I had lost my license the previous year.

Someone from the place called me up and told me the check bounced and asked me to pay. I can’t remember all the details of what happened next, but I think I said “no” and he said “why” and at some point one or both of us cursed and then he said “I’ll take you to court” and I said “great I have a rock solid case.”


This happened in the last year of my drinking. I’d love to tell you that I was under the influence when that conversation happened, but alas, I was not. It was just a time that I was abjectly stupid and distorted from reality.

I went to municipal court a few months later. I told the judge I was offended by the plaintiff’s foul language (I know). The judge laughed me out of the room and fined me $250. There was a guy who admitted to hitting his wife whose case had gone right before me, and he had also been fined $250.

Aggrieved at the fact that we got the same fine, I said to myself, “I’m not paying that. I’m going to school in Long Island next month and I won’t be coming back to this fucking state.”

I went away to CW Post that fall. Failed all my classes. Came home on December 17th and went to rehab (the Madonna rehab).

I completed the program and returned to my Dad’s house in Jutland on January 11, 1996. He told me that the State Police in Perryville, just down the road, had called a few times. I called up the barracks and told them that I had been away in rehab but I was returning their call.

They were glad to hear from me and asked me to come down to the station. I said sure, I’ll be right there. Now that I was sober, I knew I had to handle things in a different way. I had to own up for my bad actions; I could no longer lie or run away from shit. So I walked down the road (1.2 miles or so) and entered the State Police barracks.

They asked me if I had $464.95. I said no. They let me call my Dad. And then they threw me in a holding cell.

It was small. 4×4 or 5×5. There was a cold medal bench. It had a shackle attached to it, but the cops didn’t cuff me. There were some slight streaks of dried blood on the wall and floor, and I noticed what I was pretty sure was a whole finger nail on the ground.

Every 10 minutes or so, a cop would look in the window to see how I was doing. I remember singing a bunch of songs (mostly Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, and Green Day). Not loudly or in protest, just as a way to keep myself busy. I also did a lot of thinking.

I thought about how my actions led me here. My drinking, my foolishness, my lack of money (that was wholly a me problem). I had been sober 25 days and was struggling with the concept of the third step in AA. In the holding cell, it became clear: I didn’t have a fucking clue and needed to follow another path. So I made a decision to do the rest of the steps and take a lot of guidance from those that had gone before me and were willing to freely and joyfully help me.

The cops kept looking in the window. I guessed that they had to check, to make sure that I wasn’t suicidal. I was at a peace. I knew I was going to be ok. In both the short and the long run.

My sister showed up, paid the money, and gave the cops a bunch of shit for having me come down without telling me to bring money in the first place (those are, by far, the two nicest things my sister ever did for me). $14.95 for three dozen wings cost me an additional $450 and three hours in jail.

(laughing). It wasn’t jail. It was a holding cell and not stressful at all. Years later, when I started counseling men and women in jails and prisons, I would joke, “yeah, I did my share of hard time” and they’d look at me and ask me where and I’d say, with a smile and some laughter, “for three hours in a holding cell at the Perryville State Trooper Barracks. Actually, I have no idea what you are going through.” And they’d understand that I had once been a fuck up and was a real human being and that I wasn’t looking down on them and they would open up to me.

I’ll have 25 years clean and sober in a little over three weeks. I haven’t been arrested or detained in all that time. A minor miracle. I still really like Buffalo wings too.


  • I posted this on Facebook on November 27, 2020. I was telling stories about my addiction and recovery leading up to my 25th year anniversary.

Lessons From Rehab

I went to rehab when I was 19 in December of 1995. It was at a center in the Catskills, somewhere between Liberty and Monticello. I was highly motivated to get clean; one of the many reasons was that I felt like I hadn’t accomplished shit in about 18 months and wanted to hit my twenties with a full head of steam.

There was a young black man from the Bronx that was in group with me. “Frank, I’m 29. I don’t have shit to show for my twenties. Nothing man. No education, no job, no money. I haven’t gone anywhere or seen anything. But I want to have a good thirties. You are way ahead of me. Lucky as hell.” He and that little speech stuck with me.

Christmas in rehab sucked. Not really for me (my Dad was a real champ and drove up), but it was brutal to see other people there without families all sad and shit. A lot of people were pretty down for the next few days. Then it got better. And then people started moaning about New Year’s.

There was one group counselor/tech that really stuck out. I don’t remember his name, so we’ll call him Jerry. He split his time with the adolescents and the adults, so we only got to see him in small doses. Jerry was a white male in his late 60s. Totally bald. Thin. Cursed a ton. He was sober a few years. He had abused all kinds of substances, but he bottomed out on “doggy cough syrup.” People laughed when he told them. “Fuck you, it’s the best. It’s loaded with alcohol and sedatives and painkillers. I used to get it by the fucking case from this crooked veterinarian.” His groups were fantastically funny and informative. For whatever reason (choice, short straw, punishment), Jerry was on duty with us New Year’s Eve.

8 pm: Some people had dressed up. They were smiling and trying to spread a little cheer. Others sat there in sweats, unbathed, arms crossed, with sour puss faces. I was somewhere in the middle, a relaxed observer.

8:30 pm: Jerry came downstairs and called everyone to order. “Listen up people. We have a new resident coming in tonight. She’s had an awful time of it this holiday season and is ready to get sober. She’s a celebrity (people started looking around at each other), and I want you to leave her the fuck alone. (He looked around the room with a series of hard stares) I’m deadly serious, she’s an addict just like everyone else. So I don’t want anyone to fucking bother her. She doesn’t need your bullshit.” (Then he paused and just glared around some more. We could tell that he meant business)

After twenty seconds or so, he turned and started up a spiral staircase that went to the second floor. He was about halfway up when someone asked, “Who is it?”

Jerry raced back down the stairs and yelled, “It doesn’t matter who she is. Don’t fucking ask me. Leave her alone.” The veins in his neck bulged out.

9:15 pm: Three middle aged women (they were probably in their 30s, but they seemed pretty old to me at the time) ran into the room and said that they had cornered Jerry by the coffee machine in the cafeteria and that they hounded him until he gave up the identity of the celebrity. He had sworn them to secrecy and then returned to his office, at which point they literally sprinted into the big room where we all congregated.

“It’s Madonna! Madonna is coming here tonight!”

The energy in the room changed. A couple people over by the door started singing “Material Girl” and dancing. Others nudged each other. Most everyone was smiling.

I was sitting on a well worn couch that reeked of cigarettes and sweat (people could only smoke outside, but the furniture still smelled) as I took this all in. I looked at the women dancing by the door. The rehab couples whispering to each other. The barely detoxed heroin users who were nodding out and the hyped up forty year olds who had all kinds of energy with the booze freshly out of their system. I made a point to take a quick inventory of all the men.

“I’m the best looking guy here,” I thought to myself. A huge grin exploded across my face, “I’m going to fuck Madonna!”

I ran upstairs and took a shower and put on the best clothes that I had.

9:30 pm: I came back downstairs and sat on the couch that was opposite the door. I couldn’t see the TV from that vantage point, but it was an easy sacrifice, because I wanted Madonna to lock eyes with me when she walked into the treatment center (I knew that Elizabeth Taylor had met her seventh or eighth husband in rehab).

9:45 pm: Jerry came downstairs. I didn’t want to look at him because I was afraid that he’d see me and immediately know what I was up to. To my horror, he took out a pack of cigarettes and headed for the door. I tried to slink down, to hide myself, but to no avail. He saw me. “Frankie, you got all cleaned up. Why?”

Fuck. I had to think fast. “Um…I figured that I’m a new sober man and this is a new year, so I should try to start it off in a new way.”

He stared at me. I figured he knew. I was waiting for the explosion. He smiled, “Good idea.”

10:30 pm: People kept talking about Madonna. Many were singing and dancing. I was tense, looking at the door like a hunting dog. I just knew that we’d hit it off. She’d appreciate my hair, my muscles, my knowledge of music and the sensitivity that I had hidden from so many people with my substance abuse and youthful arrogance. I expected we’d have crazy rehab sex and then she’d take me to warm places after we both had 28 days clean. I was in a daze.

10:45 pm: Jerry came back down for another cigarette. “Jesus, you are still sitting there? What are you doing?”

Fuck. “Just thinking about my life.”

“Good boy.”

11:15 pm: No Madonna. About 25% of the residents had already gone to bed.

11:30 pm: No Madonna. My emotions would rise and fall every time I saw headlights.

11:45 pm: No Madonna.

12:00 am: “Happy New Year!” screamed half the people left in the room. I didn’t move from the couch, nor did I acknowledge the moment. I had laser focus.

12:15 am: Still no Madonna. Only about five people still remained. They were all talking and laughing. It didn’t matter. I was waiting for Madonna and for that moment for our eyes to meet. What the fuck was taking so long?

12:45 am: I was the last resident that hadn’t gone to bed.

1:00 am: Jerry came down for another cigarette. He saw me, “Why are you still awake? Is something the matter?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Frank, what is going on?”

I gulped. The moment of truth. I didn’t want to tell him and deal with his rage. But I also couldn’t think of anything else to say (I was 14 days clean, my head still foggy). I sighed. “I was waiting for Madonna.”

Jerry grinned and let out a big laugh. This was unexpected. “Oh that?” He bent over, laughing. “That was a lie. I was just bored and decided to fuck with everyone for a bit. Teach a lesson. I see one was learned.”

“God dammit,” I muttered.

Jerry was laughing and sat down next to me. “Look, kid, if Madonna came here, you, probably more than anyone else, would have the best shot with her. But, Jesus man, you think she’s coming to a place like this? You’re smarter than that. I didn’t think you would have fallen for it. And you really shouldn’t mess around or date anyone in the first year anyway. (He stared at me). You know that, right? (I slightly nodded). Good. Well, you made my night son. Made my fucking night.” And he smiled and walked away.


About ten years later, I told that story at the last drug and alcohol class I ever took before I got my license. The room was 90% female and almost all of them were 20 to 40 years older than me. I told it because the teacher had asked us to tell some stories about celebrity encounters. As I wove my tale, I could tell the audience was rapt. When I got to the punchline and the fact that Madonna was never going to come (and thus, we weren’t going to have fantastic rehab sex), there was a chorus of painful sighs. I swear to you, they were more upset that I was that I didn’t get to fuck Madonna.

  • I posted this on Facebook on November 20, 2020. It is part of a series of pieces on the end of my addiction and beginning of my recovery.