A Chicago native, author Timothy J. Hillegonds stepped foot in Shepherdstown for the first time in 2012, and found himself smitten from the start. Seven years later, he readily calls Shepherdstown his second home, and by getting to know West Virginia’s oldest town as intimately as he has, he’s also become familiar with the Mountain State’s unfortunate connection to the nationwide opioid epidemic.
The topic hits home for Hillegonds because he spent the better part of a decade fighting through his own substance-abuse epidemic. Now 14 years sober, you’d never know it to look at him—which is perhaps why his debut memoir carries even more significance.
Hardcore substance abusers typically do one of two things: die or go to prison. Rarely do they get sober after ten years, stay committed, maintain a career, start their own business, and earn an MFA. Rarely do they write a book about those hard years—offering readers a sneak peek behind the curtain of addiction, and the brutal life it encompasses. Rarely do they articulate many of the root causes that led to the addiction in a way that echoes through many readers—leaving them to ponder the often-challenging depths of the human experience.
Hillegonds has done all of these things, which is why his book, The Distance Between, lands at an extremely important time and place amid a crisis that has left, and continues to leave, so many people searching for insight.
The Distance Between officially hit retail locations on October 1, and can also be found on Amazon as well as www.timhillegonds.com, among other online locations. To that end, the entire community is encouraged to attend a Book Launch Event at Four Seasons Books (114 W. German St., Shepherdstown) on Saturday, October 12, at 5pm, where Hillegonds will read, answer questions, and sign copies.
I recently took the opportunity to sit down with Hillegonds and discuss both the book, the work that went into making it, and the place it finds in multiple complex conversations in America today.
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Chalmers: Is it accurate to say you started writing this book in rehab, which ultimately led to a belief that your story could have a place in complex conversations that modern society grapples with (i.e., toxic masculinity, addiction, reckoning).
Hillegonds: I guess in rehab is where I essentially reconnected with the idea of writing. The idea of unpacking my life, as well as tapping into a part of my youth. I wrote poetry when I was a teenager, mostly about rebellion, abandonment, being misunderstood. So that was probably the start of trying to figure out how I felt about some of those things, and then rehab was like tapping back into that. The thing about addiction—it’s filled with all of this chaos; you have no time to think about anything because you’re constantly moving on to the next crisis—there’s no discipline. The thing about writing: it takes discipline.
Chalmers: Indeed, you’re not exactly slowing down to reflect on your path and the decisions therein when you’re only focused on the substance and the drama surrounding it.
Hillegonds: Exactly. And so there’s also this natural thing that seems to happen in recovery rooms, where we talk about rigorous self-honesty—attempting to understand why you did so many things. But with this book, I think it took a long time to gain the distance and perspective required to see it as a story I could tell.
Chalmers: You had a blog post-rehab, where people saw your story and even connected with it—even encouraged you to write the proverbial book. But it was a long time before you could comprehend it from a literary perspective.
Hillegonds: For sure. I knew that I had an affinity for writing, but I needed formal training. The instincts were there, just no discipline.
Chalmers: Fast-forwarding, once you were really rounding the final turn on this book, it became apparent that many of the issues within it had become hot-button issues in society: i.e., white-male privilege, toxic masculinity, addiction, domestic violence. How did that unfold and affect both you as a writer and the process of trying to get this book to market?
Hillegonds: There’s no sort of blueprint for how to write a book. So for me, that meant that I had to figure out a way to tell this story. But then it was about the narrative themes that were beginning to emerge in society that also paralleled similar themes in my story. I didn’t set out to write a book about masculinity, or even addiction. I set out to tell a particular story, and then that story was also these other stories. How could I not write a book about masculinity when I was a man? How could I not write about white privilege when I made all of the mistakes that so many people of color have made in other places yet I somehow came out of it catching countless lucky breaks and eventually ended up in rehab and then pretty much came out of it okay? Ultimately, it wasn’t so much the story as much as it was how I understood the story.
Chalmers: You actually sold the book and then that original publisher backed out because some of those narratives were too dangerous given the emerging social climate.
Hillegonds: I guess the lesson to be learned is that I was ready to tell this story, but just because I had all of these things in my life that I wanted to unpack, doesn’t mean that people wanted to hear it. Losing that first deal was frustrating, but I understood it. Telling the story as an abuser—the one that is perpetuating the abuse—is simply going to land differently for different people. But where one press couldn’t get past that for their own reasons, another press thought it was an important story to tell—someone who lived as one type of man, and who moved in a different direction and is working to live as a different type of man now. That’s a story worth telling.
Chalmers: Indeed. So, walk me through how you pivoted. Because you could have put the manuscript on the back burner and moved on to other projects.
Hillegonds: Actually, when I lost the deal, I just started working with another editor, and he brought a completely new sensibility to the book. One of the things that came out of it was that we knew that we had to figure out a way to let people know what they were getting into—a trigger warning of sorts—and that’s where the preface came from. To give it a context, so it just doesn’t seem like another story of men doing terrible things. Because we know that story—it’s alive and well.
Chalmers: As a writer and a former addict, you’ve dealt with “permission” in various forms—giving yourself permission to depart one destructive path, but also to pursue something entirely new and different, albeit very challenging all the same. Both of these themes overlap in your story—not necessarily the book itself, but the overall story of you.
Hillegonds: Well there’s also the natural correlation between recovery and writing. Each one of those things is about going back to the basics and repetition and doing the work every day. The easiest way to stay sober is to not abuse the substance and go to meetings, right? The easiest way to be a writer is to get up every day and write. So, it’s doing those basic, fundamental things every day, over and over again. Early on in AA for me, I asked an old guy how long I had to keep coming to meetings—he said, until you want to. It’s the same thing with writing, at least for me. At some point, you just are a writer. Because you’ve been writing.
Chalmers: To that end, giving yourself permission can be a monumental piece of a journey. How do you equate giving yourself permission with your ability to climb out and away from addiction and the destructive life you were living?
Hillegonds: So much of the freedom of being able to do what you deeply want to do involves permission—either your own or someone else giving it to you in some way, which allows you to give it to yourself. For me, I think, with this book, it was about getting over the guilt and the shame of this story, and accepting that it’s part of who I was, that it shaped me into the person I am today. Obviously, as I got more comfortable in my recovery, and certainly as I became more comfortable as a writer—feeling like I had earned that title—then I perhaps became a little more confident in the choices that I was making in the work—fully understanding that people aren’t going to agree with certain parts of it.
Chalmers: How would you describe this book as having more than one moral: fathers and sons; broken homes; adolescent rage; substance abuse; escapism; violence; self-destruction; depression. Especially when people have different impressions of and reactions to it based on its various morals?
Hillegonds: That’s an interesting question. My reaction is just one of acceptance. For me, the book will be about some things, and for others, the book will be about something completely different. For me, in the beginning of this process, it was about trying to come to terms with this identity crisis when I was younger—definitely tied to the father-son collision, feeling that abandonment and having that abandonment manifest itself in rebellion, and that rebellion lead to this intense self-hatred and related risk-taking that I think, probably at its core, was just aimed at making myself feel something other than what I felt.
Chalmers: People are going to pull from a book what they pull from it, but that’s the magic of books—of storytelling.
Hillegonds: Right. When I workshopped this book in Iowa City for two weeks with a writing group, we did this exercise where each person had read 250 pages of the manuscript in a much earlier form, and then we spent 15 minutes writing the themes of the book on a marker board. I want to say there were 65 or 70 different themes that people pulled from the pages that they read. Many of the expected ones, but also things to me that felt surprising.
Chalmers: Abandonment certainly plays a recurring role in this book—especially at its core, the father-son conflict, but in this case, even the loss of your male friends as a teenager. How does your story speak to so many similar stories, and how those stories end up shaping lives that in turn make up the society we live in?
Hillegonds: Whether it’s losing your friends as a young male, or your father, which both happened to me as a young person—the abandonment can unfortunately take the form of a compass that guides us. Also thinking about that from a patriarchal perspective, you grow up in a society and a house where you’re told that to be a man means one particular thing—usually that you’re in charge, you make decisions, you don’t have any hesitation when you do these things. And then me, who was young, and didn’t have the emotional capacity to deal with these things—add to it the abandonment, which makes me feel like I don’t have a place in the world, and that has a direct impact on my masculine viewpoint based on what’s been told and modeled to me, and I’m basically now a wandering soul, trying to figure out what to do.
And my situation certainly wasn’t unique; there’s so many young boys that grow up in similar situations—and it manifests itself in violence, in toxic relationships, in drinking and drug use.
Chalmers: It’s another part of the substance-use conversation that I think this country is literally just waking up to—the team part of this. How are our young people, our boys in this context (whether it’s drugs, domestic violence, even mass shooters)—how are we as a team—family, friends, relatives—raising our young people so that this type of abandonment doesn’t impact them to the extent that they’re so mixed up by their teen years, and beyond, they’re just toxic and spiraling? It’s a little more than just slapping the “adolescent angst” ribbon on it and telling them to “just say no.”
Hillegonds: For sure, it’s a deeper story these days about how we’re raising our young. Undoubtedly. There’s an unrealistic standard that exists as boys, especially, are born into the world. It says you can’t emote, and if you do, it has to be measured, finite. Whether it’s anger or grief. And of course, the power dynamic that so many of us are raised to believe. The dominance. It’s unrealistic to try and live up to that, especially in adolescence. As people, we start to understand that we can’t live up to it, but then what do you do when you can’t live up to the thing you’re supposed to live up to—especially in a world as diverse and dynamic as today? It can become a catalyst for some. A perfect storm.
Relatedly, the onslaught of addiction—it’s so interwoven with an inability to simply feel what we’re feeling, and be alone with ourselves. And have deeper, complicated interior lives, where we think about things and stop looking outward for both validation and/or someone to save us.
Chalmers: The order of the day, right? Critical thinking, personal assessment is way down, and yet addiction numbers in American are through the roof. It’s not a coincidence.
Hillegonds: There definitely seems to be a correlation between how, at such an early age, a kid can jump on a cell phone and get that immediate gratification. It’s really the only area of your life where that can happen: you can’t go to school, take a test, get your grade immediately and be gratified. Sports—you might score every now and then, but there’s all this practice and work, delayed gratification. It’s the same with so many pursuits. But the places where young people seem to be spending the most time—internet communities, social media, gaming (on their phones mostly)—are continually putting into their mind that immediate gratification is what they’re after. And so, in many cases, the natural place to go after that is drugs—where you can get it, essentially.
Chalmers: As an addict, you pretty much went all out—similar to just about everything else you did, and in many ways still do. How much would you associate the addiction part to your personality, as much as it was the nature of the substances? But also, how was digging out equally representative of you—that “all-out-ness”—which became your worst enemy with substance-abuse, but also your guiding light in recovery?
Hillegonds: I do think that people are built a few different ways, and certainly there’s a segment of us that become addicts and it’s often because of the way we’re built—like an internal combustion engine that just moves a little quicker in everything we do. For me, whether it was skating or soccer or taking risks, it was as much and as hard and as often as possible. I’ve always had a problem with moderation in my life. When I was younger, it wasn’t always a problem because the things I was into weren’t all that destructive—soccer, skating, snowboarding—but once things changed, then it became about drinking, partying—it just moved the needle really quickly in the other direction.
Chalmers: When you got sober, it did become a catalyst in your recovery.
Hillegonds. It did, yes. I thought at some point in that first year, if I’m going to take this seriously, and this is the direction I’m going to go, then let’s do it all the way and let’s look at my entire life. So from physical fitness to my diet to trying to excel in areas of my life that I had for a longtime completely forgotten. I also just felt like I was running on a treadmill for so long, as fast as I could, and then right in front of me was a gate, and that gate was addiction. But I could never reach the gate to, essentially, pass through it. And then I got sober and it was like someone turned off the treadmill and lifted the gate, and it felt like, oh yeah, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be—how it’s supposed to be.
Chalmers: You never got into opiates. Why? And would you credit that with your escape from your larger addiction crisis?
Hillegonds: Honestly, I want to say that the reason I didn’t get into opiates, heroin in particular, was that I was scared, or the needle, or I had a sliver of sense left to know better. But unfortunately, I think the real answer is much simpler than that: it just wasn’t around. It was luck. As I said before, I wasn’t saying no to very many things back then. But at that particular point for me—there was definitely a bunch of meth going around, coke, ecstasy, acid, mushrooms, alcohol, of course, weed—I just don’t remember ever being in a scenario where anyone was even on heroin. Even when I came back to Chicago from Colorado, I did have a good friend who was a heroin addict. And I was still using, but that step did feel pretty scary. Now, I can’t say fully if heroin would’ve altered my course—I’ve never done heroin, so I don’t know how hard it is to shake—but I have seen it, and certainly looking at the statistics today, the havoc, it feels like I avoided something super dangerous.
Chalmers: It’s such a comprehensive issue in America at this point. Have you thought about how a country recovers from something, versus what you know about recovering at the micro level?
Hillegonds: I feel like it’s sort of like trying to figure out a budgeting solution that would work for every household in America, right? There might be some fundamental principles that could help, but I don’t think it could be done on a mass level. Look, the recovery model is out there. Realizing there are complexities—physical withdraw, and heroin does seem to be a beast of a different color—but the people who have recovered, by and large, recover the same way, through a group recovery model that focuses on the underlying trauma in the individual’s life, and then the repetition of making a decision every single day not to drink and/or use … and connecting with someone else who’s been in the same struggle they’ve been in. That model is there, but it’s a solution that has to be applied on an individual level.
Chalmers: Most people, by no fault of their own, simply don’t understand the magnitude of what actually goes into recovery—even if it looks black and white from the outside.
Hillegonds: Absolutely. It’s hard to wrap your mind around looking in from the outside. When you’re sober for a week, it’s an enormous achievement—one that felt impossible just a few weeks prior. You can’t envision a future self, because you’ve never been that self before—you’ve never been a sober self. It’s the idea of putting your trust in a process and some people that you don’t know who say they’ve got your best interests in mind, and then listening to them.
Chalmers: A way to understand might be to take something you do every day—likely food and/or pleasure related—and not do it anymore. How hard would it be? Could you even do it?
Hillegonds: Right. Or further, take the thing or things you love to do the most—whatever they are: shopping, running, eating, singing in the shower—and then stop doing that and see what it feels like. Because that’s what it is—even though, in this case, it’s the thing you know is destroying you—it’s the thing you want to do the most.
Chalmers: But the idea of not doing the thing you want to do ever again is a difficult concept to get your mind around.
Hillegonds: Especially when you consider that we live in a society that says we can do whatever we want any time we want. You can be whoever you want to be, live wherever you want to live, achieve whatever you want to achieve. And that’s not true, and it’s also the fundamental message of recovery—you actually can’t do everything you want to do. In fact, you’ll find out, if you stick with this long enough, you actually don’t want to. There’s a great amount of life that you can find in restraint, discipline, but it’s tough. The lessons we often learn every day can be counterintuitive to recovery, which teaches us to do the same things every day—be a little bit bored sometimes, don’t do many of the things you want to do, connect with people physically, get up and go to a meeting when you don’t want to. And then society’s like: yeah, don’t do any of that. Get all the money you can, have a flashy car, go out to eat, go on vacation, put everything on Instagram, hashtag it all.
Chalmers: So true. Was there a magic moment for you where you knew this lifestyle absolutely had to end for you or you were headed for death, prison, or both?
Hillegonds: Yes, there was, essentially, but for me, it was like a whole bunch of moments that led to a moment where I thought to myself: I just can’t do this anymore. I’m not sure I understood it completely, but I do know that, for me, there was the moment that I had a job that I really had no right to have—I hadn’t even graduated from high school—a good job in the business world. I was behind on my rent. I had these warrants in Colorado, and no relationship with my daughter. I had a cocaine and alcohol habit that I couldn’t pay for, and the one thing that I had—the job—was taken away from me. I was fired.
So for me, it was about survival. This was the only thing I had, and I managed to screw it up, and now it’s going away. Something had to change. Because I didn’t know what else to do—how else was I going to survive? There was a real moment. And then when rehab was offered, I took it. But again, I didn’t go because I was determined to get sober and recover. I needed a job. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what gets you into rehab; it’s just about getting you in a place where your thinking can clear up a little, and some of the things the professionals are talking about can begin to sink in.
Chalmers: It seems today that so many people on opioids can’t find that moment. They can’t seem to get there.
Hillegonds: Again, opioids seem to be a different beast, but at the end of the day, what is rehab? It’s an interruption in your life. So if you look at the timeline of your addiction as this perpetual thing—you’ve never had an interruption like that, which has never allowed your best thinking to form. So all we’re trying to do in recovery is to get you as far past your last use as possible. That interruption is when all the work can happen.
Chalmers: The “opioid pull” seems to be stronger than virtually every other drug. Which requires an additional urgency to get as far past it as possible, as quickly as possible.
Hillegonds: It certainly seems that way. I think the thing that people have to keep in mind is that the problem didn’t manifest itself in 30 days. And it’s never going to fix itself in 30 days. I mean, let’s be brutally honest: the rehabilitation model is based largely on what insurance companies are willing to pay for. No one has any science that says 28 days is the perfect amount for a human being to get back on track and on the road to recovery from some insane addiction. I thought about this the other day: I was actively drinking and then using drugs from 17-26 years old. So to think that I would make any sort of substantial progress in the first couple of years, let alone months, is nuts.
Chalmers: Which segues into the “team-recovery” concept. It’s more challenging for a lot of people than they think, or want to accept. But it’s often paramount for the person in recovery that the people in his or her life also live their lives in a way that best supports and sustains that recovery.
Hillegonds: I will say that it is, first and foremost, the addict’s responsibility—the buck stops with them. They are ultimately making the decision every day not to drink or use. So that said, the people in that person’s life play a huge role. They’re either doing things that are going to help facilitate sobriety, or doing things that are going to help facilitate relapse. There’s no middle ground. There’s a reason they call addiction a family disease. Usually within families, there’s co-dependency issues. Usually within a family, people are trying to love an addict but they’re doing all the things that are going to keep them sick, and enabling them—finding them places to stay, giving them money, taking care of bills, or debt, or legal issues—because they can’t bear the thought of their loved one on the street or in jail, etc. But they’re keeping that loved one from ever realizing and then experiencing the natural consequences of their actions.
So, when people enter recovery, I think the people who love them the most have to make really inconvenient decisions—which is what it boils down to.
Chalmers: How did that play out with your situation, and the people in your life?
Hillegonds: In my case, my step-father called me at rehab, and said he really admired and supported the decision I was making to be sober, and as of that day, even though he didn’t have a problem, he was never going to drink another beer, as long as I was sober. That’s an example of someone literally making the same commitment with me, and for me. Not because he had to—but in solidarity. And I’ll never forget that.
Chalmers: You had to draw clear lines with the people in your life, then and now.
Hillegonds: Exactly. I basically had to say, I’m moving in this direction in my life, and if you’re not going to support this—i.e., you’re going to be around me drinking or using—then I’m not going to be around you. For my wife, sure, it’s an inconvenience sometimes. We go to places and she makes decisions not to drink. She doesn’t have a problem drinking, but she knows that it could put me in a squirrelly spot. And I know people struggle with certain analogies, but if it were anything else—if your loved one was a diabetic, would you constantly ask that person to go to the bakery with you, or something similar? If your partner was trying to quit smoking, would you smoke around them all the time—or do things with them where there was cigarette smoke everywhere?
Chalmers: It’s back to this larger introspection our society is seemingly beginning to undertake—and maybe problems have to get to a certain size before mass numbers start to look at them, examine them. But the enabling piece of this conversation has always been a hard one to address for a lot of people. It gets at the root of self-analysis in a way that many people simply aren’t comfortable, or willing to wrestle, with.
Hillegonds: For sure: it often involves admitting one’s role in it in order to find the road back. A road that leads to recovery, sustainability.
But on the flip side, this is one of the rough parts of recovery, and probably what keeps many people from committing to it. At its core, recovery is a selfish act; I’m saying that my issues are actually more important than your issues, and you need to readjust your life to support me. And it’s frustrating for everyone involved.
Chalmers: As non-addicts, very few of us have anything where we look around and tell everyone around us that they need to readjust their way of life to accommodate us.
Hillegonds: Right, and that’s what recovery ultimately is. It’s not fair. And it could easily lead to resentment on top of whatever resentment is already there. Whatever conflict. But then, it’s a testament to love. It comes down to that. You have to love this person—often in a way that even requires you to test your understanding of and capacity for it.
Chalmers: You’ve been sober for 14 years. What do you still do on a daily basis to honor your sobriety as well as confront your past and continue the path you’re on.
Hillegonds: The habits have changed. Early on, one thing that I did was read two books—I guess you could call them daily devotionals. One was called 24 Hours a Day, and one was just a little meditation for men that was recovery focused. They were short, but they put me in a head space every day where I thought about who I was as an addict and alcoholic, and also made me feel grateful that I wasn’t out there drinking and using.
I also went to a lot of daily meetings early on. I don’t go to quite as many anymore. But every night, I’m still in the habit of thanking God for my sobriety, and every single day, no matter what’s happening in my life, I do have a moment where I think about the fact that I’m and addict and an alcoholic, and I’m in recovery. It’s integral to who I am as a person. And it’s something that I take a great amount of pride in.
Chalmers: Even as far removed as you are from that period in your life, you still don’t put yourself in those situations. And you’re still regularly aware of who you are, and what you were.
Hillegonds: It’s about building a different kind of life—a safe place for me to exist. And that starts with my home—putting up safeguards. I don’t go to bars. You hear a lot about “hungry, angry, lonely, or tired”—I take stock of my life and don’t put myself in situations that will require a lot of willpower if I’m hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Super basic stuff, yes, but it’s bringing intentionality to my life, my existence, because I know that I’m always just one wrong step from losing everything that I’ve built, and I’m not going to do that.
Chalmers: What do you say to a person or people that are simply lost within addiction, and don’t know what else to do?
Hillegonds: Well, that’s a huge question, but one thing does come to mind, which I’ve heard in recovery. Your best thinking got you to where you are—i.e., the plan you made for yourself got you here. Let someone else do the thinking for you for a while. The planning. And just follow that plan. Yours didn’t work. And maybe you’ve tried everything, but one thing you haven’t tried, is truly listening to someone else. Or you wouldn’t be here.By Mike Chalmers