by Jerry Waxler
In a previous post, I reviewed eight lessons you can learn from the excellent memoir “Dopefiend: A Father’s Journey from Addiction to Redemption” by Tim Elhajj. In this interview, I asked him for more insight into the process of writing the book, and what it felt like to see his story come to life on the page. In the first part of the interview, we discuss shame, self-acceptance, and anonymity.
Jerry Waxler: Your book, Dopefiend hit my memoir buttons such as excellent scene based story building, moral dilemmas that led inexorably to character development, and the drama of ordinary life. Thank you for all the work you did to turn your life into a story and then sharing that story with me.
Which leads me to my first question. Now that you are a responsible adult, with an established career, how did it feel to write a memoir about yourself as a young man who didn’t have a clue about his responsibility to other people? Were you squirming with annoyance or disbelief at your younger self’s lack of preparation for life?
Tim Elhajj: Not really, no. And I’m not even sure why that is. Certainly my behavior as an addict was immoral and irresponsible. I’m not proud of the fact that my first marriage ended as a result of my out-of-control needs. Nor am I happy that my son grew up in a home that didn’t include me. Perhaps I am being too easy on myself, but I like to think that I’ve learned to accept my past for what it is: the unfortunate but all too common circumstances of heroin addiction.
One of my goals with the book was to offer a hopeful story for single parents who might find themselves in similar circumstances, coming into recovery separated from their children, or ostracized from their families. What I learned is that even if you don’t resume a relationship with your previous partner, you might still be able to hammer out a satisfying relationship with your child. But to make something like that work, it’s going to take a lot of forgiveness. While I can’t make someone else forgive me, a good place for me to start is with forgiving myself. If I can get that right, I stand a much better chance that others will naturally fall back into my life, if they are meant to be there. But it all starts with me and my own ability to get on with my life.
Jerry Waxler: Over the period during which you developed the memoir, how did your relationship to the protagonist (your younger self) evolve? Did you grow to like him, accept him, resent him…?
Tim Elhajj: The big awareness I had about myself and my life came with the idea for the book itself: I wanted to tell the story of my relationship with my son, using each of the spiritual values at the heart of twelve step programs. The events I describe at the end of the book actually happened about six years ago. I don’t want to give away the ending of the book, but these events caused me to reevaluate my whole experience in recovery, especially with regard to AA’s twelve steps and my relationship with my son. I realized that by practicing these principles, I had somehow achieved what I had always hoped for with my son, but could never figure out how to orchestrate on my own. With that awareness, I was able to map out the entire story of my recovery, as told through the prism of my relationship with my son. I remember getting really excited the more I thought about it. As if in having this awareness, I had found the secret key to decipher some aspect of my life. In some ways I had.
Jerry Waxler: I notice that you list your day job on your website. So without a pseudonym, that leaves you out in the open. Were you worried that revealing your past would upset your employer or coworkers?
Tim Elhajj: No, not really. I did mention Dopefiend to my manager a few weeks before it came out. He was supportive and I wasn’t surprised. I expected he would be. Prior to publishing the book, I had already “come out” in a few other stories I had published in various journals and newspapers. One of the first stories that I had published was in The New York Times, and it was about my relationship with my son, really a similar version of the story in Dopefiend, but much shorter and without any mention of me being an addict. Dan Jones, the editor who published the story for The New York Times, pointedly asked me about leaving that part out of the essay. I told him I wouldn’t do it. I didn’t want anyone to think badly about me. Mr. Jones, who is just a mensch of an editor, published my story without altering it. But then the more I thought about it, the more I realized: What the hell kind of essayist writes around being a recovering heroin addict, one of the most salient facts of his life? If I wanted to write memoir, I knew I’d have to come to terms with being open about who I am and the life I’ve led. And, really, that was the right choice for me. I don’t think every story I write needs to be about my recovery or my addiction, but evaluating one’s life openly and honestly, without shame or fear, is the right path for me. It’s like the advice Tobias Wolff wrote to Mary Karr as she set out to write the Liar’s Club. “Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else,” Mr. Wolff wrote. “Take no care for your dignity.”
Jerry Waxler: You explore your profound relationship with the Twelve Step programs. Isn’t anonymity one of the principles of the Twelve Steps? Did you worry that you were violating that principle?
Tim Elhajj: Anonymity is one of the traditions of most every twelve step program. As far as the book goes, I was careful not to mention AA or any other fellowship by name in the book, so I think I did okay with the spirit of the tradition.
I am very interested in this question of anonymity and twelve step programs. I think it may have been helpful at some point, but I wonder if that point may have already passed. Twelve step meetings appear in television and movie dramas, even parodied in popular culture. I think people deserve a nonfiction perspective to go along with the fiction and satire. And not just a single person’s perspective either. I’d encourage others to share their stories and experiences as well. It’s really an interesting subculture and phenomena.
And, really, twelve step programs are only a single piece of the bigger picture of resources and therapies available for recovering people. I’d like to hear nonfiction stories from other people who have used different methods to find their way into recovery. No one should be afraid of the truth. The truth can’t hurt you.
For brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.