I was in the offices of The Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) here in Seattle, talking to a caseworker about getting DVR to fund the remaining two years of my MFA. This was 2006, I was 44 years old, seven years off heroin, six years into my education and halfway through an MFA at The University of British Columbia. In my former life as first a failed musician and then a functioning heroin addict and successful drug dealer I had been lucky and smart and devious enough to never have been caught selling or possessing heroin, or when I had been caught, weaseled or schemed my way out of it, and had been funding my new direction in life with Stafford Loans and the odd grant, all channels that would have been off limits to me if I’d ever been convicted of the bazillions of crimes I’d committed over the years. Everything had been running smoothly, through Community College, a BA and the first two years of grad school. I was four years into a memoir I’d been working on and I was beginning to have hope for the future. This was big for someone like me. Pulling oneself out of an addiction as self-destructive as mine is a long grueling process. It takes years to rebuild your self-confidence and to deal with feeling things again and I was well on my way. And then life threw me a curveball, which it’s known to do. George W. Bush, the “Decider,” decided to make some major cuts to education funding, one of which was to cut all student loans to US citizens attending colleges outside the US. That meant me.
The DVR caseworker sat across from me as I explained what was what. She looked at me apprehensively, and then explained that DVR didn’t fund art programs, only vocational stuff. “Anyone can write,” she said dismissively, when I told her what kind of program I was enrolled in. This kind of pissed me off, but I kept my cool. I told her about my disabilities that I’d acquired as a result of my End Game with heroin, the destroyed and degenerating hip that required me to walk with a cane, my mangled right elbow, my contracted hands from shooting up in my arms so much the wires controlling most of my fingers had been severed. She was unmoved. She insisted I change course, give up writing and accept some kind of training in the vocational realm. I told her I would think about it and left.
I’m a very quiet guy, usually.* I’m very good at staying out of trouble and avoiding conflict, which ironically is why I was such a good drug dealer for so many years. But it was less a thought out plan and more just the way I’ve always been, which I think I got from my adoptive parents, Norwegian immigrants, some of the most unobtrusive, hardworking and stoic people on the face of the Earth. When life threw curveballs at my parents they ducked. When it came too fast and the ball hit them, it knocked them down, and then they picked themselves up and carried on. They never complained, and going after the pitcher was never an option for them. They were firm believers that “the meek shall inherit the Earth.” And that rubbed off on me. When people messed with me in school, I never fought back. Never. I don’t know where the hell Mr. Miyagi was when I was growing up. Not in my neighborhood, apparently.
I stewed for a few days after the caseworker told that I shouldn’t be a writer. What she said played over and over in my head. “Anyone can write,” echoed in my mind and the more I thought about it the madder I got. I didn’t want to be a riveter. I didn’t want to work in some damned office. I didn’t want to work on spreadsheets or computer programs or bullet points. I’d always had artistic inclinations that I’d gotten from my biological parents who had been artists and with writing I had found the creative outlet I had always been looking for, the one I had come to conclude was what I should have been doing all along as music had turned out to be too laden with traps regarding my drug problem. It wasn’t that I had delusions of grandeur about writing, fantasies of fame and fortune, it was simply that I wanted to do something that I loved. I had grown to love writing, and I think writing loved me. It was what had kept me clean to that point. It had taught me discipline and perseverance and instilled in me a new kind of work ethic. I knew of course that I could be a writer without finishing the degree, but I was still in a somewhat fragile state regarding my self-confidence, my abilities as a writer and my psychological condition. I had never finished anything legitimate in my life and I wanted to finish this degree. It would be additional proof that my old life was over and a springboard to whatever came next.At least that was what I hoped. And prayed.
Normally I would have accepted my fate. I would have told myself my education was over and it wasn’t meant to be. This was what I’d done my entire life. I had responded to these situations the way my parents had. It was one of the things that led me to drugs. I hadn’t been able to make a career of music and suddenly found that I was good at drug dealing. Really good. Everyone wants to be good at something, and that was my thing, and now that my education was over it looked like it was going to be my thing again. I began to think about selling heroin again, and trying to keep my using under control. I knew that that was damned near impossible, but I still had too much pride, and would rather be successful at something even if it killed me than be unsuccessful at everything and live.
And then I decided to do something I’d never done before. I decided to fight. I really didn’t think anything would come of it. I had no faith in my government, and I didn’t think I would even get a response. I was sure that if anything I would get a letter back from some Bushbot saying “Sorry kid,” but I sat down that night and wrote an email to The US Department of Education, who informed me that when these sorts of cuts had happened in the past, students who had begun something were grandfathered in and allowed to finish what they’d started, but this time, that was not the case. Bush’s ‘decision’ was final. It was over. I was Shit-Out-Of-Luck (SOL) as they say. And then I got madder and decided to fight harder. I wrote letters to Rep. Jim McDermott, Gov. Christine Gregoire, and Sen. Maria Cantwell. I used every writing skill I’d learned to that point and crafted an argument (I should have been a lawyer) that given my physical disabilities I was not suited for a regular labor job, and that I could use a writing degree to become a teacher in the future. I was honest. I even told them that I was a former heroin addict (I left out the part about me being a dealer for almost twenty years) and that I was trying desperately to forge a new direction in my life. I told them about the not being grandfathered in. I made my case.
And then to my utter surprise two days later I received a call from Rep. Jim McDermott’s office. They told me they had received my letter, and asked how they could help. I asked if they could help me persuade DVR to help me fund the last two years of my degree. And that night I got a call from some bigwig at DVR, who said Jim McDermott had called him. He did not sound happy at all, but he went on to say said that DVR didn’t ordinarily fund art programs, but that they were going to make an exception in my case. Jim McDermott, who didn’t know me from Adam, had apparently done some arm-twisting for me. Little old me.
The moral of this story is that people can change. For most of my life I didn’t think that was possible, and for most of my life it kept me stuck in self-destruct mode. This was the first time something like this had happened. It didn’t even happen when I first got clean. That I put down to divine intervention. But this was different. I had changed. Just like the characters we write about have to undergo some kind of change or transformation or overcome an obstacle, I had changed from someone who just accepts things to someone willing to fight for what they want. It was an amazing lesson that informs my writing and it restored (somewhat) my faith in government. And that’s how I graduated from The University of British Columbia, became a writer, finished my memoir American Junkie, got it published and became a fan of Jim McDermott. The End
*Except when I’m shooting my fat mouth off on The Nervous Breakdown (I’m working on it people)