A Review of Timothy J. Hillegonds’ The Distance Between
October 2, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Penny Guisinger
Disorder is rarely static. The word implies a certain kind of motion: erratic, unpredictable, chaotic. This is only one of the reasons that this thing we commonly call “addiction” is, perhaps, better referred to as substance use disorder. It’s a condition that keeps the afflicted in that certain kind of erratic, unpredictable, chaotic motion.
In his debut memoir, The Distance Between, Timothy J. Hillegonds captures the terrible and terrifying motion of the life of his younger self: a self trapped in a state of ricocheting between chaos and control. The book chronicles four years of the author’s life, opening when he was only 18. Hillegonds spent these first four years of adulthood diligently trying to self-destruct using whatever tools he found: drugs, alcohol, teen fatherhood, violence, toxic masculinity, and a finely-developed skill in the art of running away from, or at least deftly steering around, the smoldering ruin of the life he was creating. In constant motion, the story starts in Chicago, then whisks us off to Colorado, then comes back. The problems that get started in Chicago multiply exponentially in Colorado, then further fail to resolve once back in the Midwest.
But before all that, Hillegonds craved a healthier flavor of motion. A teen inline skater with aspirations of turning pro, he spent his days spinning, shifting, sliding and sailing over the heads of his teammates in gravity-defying acrobatics. He explored the outer rims of self-preservation, then went farther, faster. He writes with such grace about the thrill of being airborne, just off the edge of a skate ramp: “I began to flip forward just as I cleared Dan, the last person in line, and the world disappeared, but I could still feel it, the world, could still feel where I was in relation to it, and then my eyes found the blue they’d been searching for, the horizon, and my body slowly unfolded.” Hillegonds’ writing is at its best when he releases into these long, momentum-filled passages that evoke the sense of motion present throughout the book.
His journey to Colorado was meant to start his new life as a snowboarder. Instead, he jumped into a toxic relationship with a woman with whom he drank, drugged, fought, and had a child. Then they drank, drugged, and fought some more. Enraged by the phantom pains of a father who walked out on him, Hillegonds tries to fill that empty space with stuff that could not do the job: substances, violence, arrests, jail time. He is guilty, twice, of violence toward his girlfriend. He breaks a lot of things. He enacts a lot of pain onto others and himself. Not surprisingly, nothing about this turns out well.
Except that to someone with substance use disorder, it actually can be confounding when nothing works out. The illogical, flawed thinking is one of the many things that makes it a disorder. I read this book as I achieved 2.5 years of my own sobriety, and I thought so many times about one of the first things my therapist said to me in treatment, “This disorder makes you do things that are against your own values.” It’s one of the truest things I’ve heard in recovery, and it’s writ large in Hillegonds’ memoir. He didn’t want to be an angry, violent man, just as I never wanted to be a risk-taking, irresponsible woman, but there we were anyway, in spite of our own moral codes. If addiction is a bowling ball, a good moral code is a perfectly-placed set of pins.
When Hillegonds writes about the most shocking, violent events of his past, his prose takes on the frenetic energy of those moments, as in this passage in which he’s kicking in someone’s door: “I was kicking at the door, black scuff marks that looked like exclamation points, my voice rising, getting louder, and I was screaming and pounding, and the door was groaning, the space next to the doorjamb widening each time I kicked it, and it seemed that it might break under the pressure. And then I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder, and I turned, and it was Austin. He was saying something to me, his mouth opening and closing, but I couldn’t hear him, could only hear myself, my breathing fast and hard and violent.” Interestingly, the violence reads with an effusiveness that comes close to the joy expressed during the passages about stunt skating. The prose takes flight.
How easy it would have been for Hillegonds to present this as a self-congratulatory study in overcoming a glorified, misspent early adulthood, but he resists. Instead, he presents this as a study in toxic masculinity and he writes with great awareness that it was his whiteness, and possibly only his whiteness, that afforded him second and third and fourth chances that eventually got him back to Chicago and into residential treatment. It would have been similarly easy for him to blame circumstances around him – his girlfriend, his absent father, the high school that expelled him, his mother and stepfather, his dead-end job as a waiter, the dealers who sold to him, the friends who used with him even though they saw he was in trouble – but he doesn’t do that either. Instead, he unflinchingly keeps us focused on the things he did and can’t undo, the pain he rained down on everyone around him. He doesn’t understand his own rage, but he doesn’t let that lack of understanding free him from responsibility.
Those of us in recovery live in a delicate balance. We have to be accountable for the doors we kicked in and the people we scarred, while also understanding that our inability to quit using, or even to moderate our behavior while we’re using, is the result of a disorder. We have to take a long, painful look at the chaos we created while simultaneously learning how to forgive ourselves. It’s not easy. I feel like the title of this book – The Distance Between – captures, not only the miles travelled and the motion created in the story it tells, but as the ending of the book asks us to look forward, the title also conveys something about that space between who we used to be and the people we can become. The afflicted, after crossing that distance, can find stillness.
Penny Guisinger is the author of the memoir Postcards from Here. A Maine Literary Award winner and twice named as a notable in Best American Essays, she has appeared in the pages of Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, Solstice, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is a former Assistant Editor at Brevity Magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: Short Prose Conference, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program. She is blogging about sobriety at: mycrankyrecovery.com. She can be found at: www.pennyguisinger.com and @PennyGuisinger.