Chapter Two: Background

“Some mistakes are too much fun to only make once.” (Miles Davis)

“The thief (Satan) comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy; I (Jesus) came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly.” (John10:10)

In August of 1991 I stood in a semi-crowded reception room at an old Ivy League school, waiting to be introduced along with my classmates, as a new Ph.D. candidate. I had moved from Arizona, where I had spent most of my growing up years, to be there. I heard the professor begin what amounted to a very impressive introduction of a class of 12 doctoral and 26 masters students, considering that he had met each of us only once or twice and was using no note cards. I was directly across the room from the learned professor, and was therefore introduced about midway through his ad-libbed performance. “In the brown and white polka dot sundress,” he motioned to me, “we are pleased to welcome from the sunny state of Arizona, Ms. Judith Ann Hillard. Ms. Hillard comes to us bearing the proud title of Homecoming Queen from Arizona State University, a campus of some 50,000 students. But lest you think her a bubble-head, let me also underscore that Ms. Hillard had the only perfect 800 analytical score on a GRE exam I have ever had the pleasure of assessing.”

At that moment, I felt the weight of expectation crush against my spine. I had left my teaching job of several years and achieved what I considered the distinction of earning a place of study at an old and ivy-covered institution. But in that moment, I felt the eyes of all the other entering and continuing students in the room land squarely on my once tiared and probably pointed head. “Great,” I thought. “Now all of the women in the room will hate me and all of the unattached men will make their way over here with proffered glasses of chardonnay and not-quite benign offers of showing me around the city.”

If I had a dollar for every person, nurse, doctor, therapist who has said to me over the years, “How could this happen to you? You come from a good home. Your parents are still married to each other. You are smart. You are lovely. You are successful. How could you let this happen to you?” I would today be a very wealthy addict, but an addict just the same. “This” can happen to any of us on the planet. It is not reserved for poor black men under the age of 25 living in the inner city. It is not reserved for tired housewives over the age of 50 living in the suburbs. It does not live on skid row alone. I shall do my best to explain, indeed, how this happened to me and how I lived to survive it which is far more miraculous after all than the fact that I allowed it happen to me.

I was a preacher’s kid, the president of both the National Honor Society and the Student Body of my high school. My classmates voted me “most likely to succeed.” I doubt any of them dreamed that less than a year after I started snorting cocaine (which helped my life initially as I began writing my dissertation since I didn’t need sleep, food, liquids, or even people), I had blown out my sinuses so badly that if I slept, I awoke the next morning feeling that my face was on fire. Often I awoke to the sound of myself sobbing in agony. I cannot describe the pain I endured and found, of course, the only numbing agent that worked was yet more cocaine. It reminds me now of that old Sambo story of the tiger running so fast around a tree, chasing his own tail, that he turned to butter.

In a way, I guess my classmates were correct. I learned very quickly to be a “successful” drug addict; once I was fired from my dream teaching job, I was able to use cocaine much more frequently. My life began to deteriorate rapidly when my nose bled often and the pain never stopped. My dealer knew I was in trouble and threatening to stop paying for his deliveries, so he offered to take me to Patrick, another of his “clients.”

Let me insert a word here about drug dealers. In my opinion there are two types of drug dealer: the ones who use and will cheat you by adding baby powder, or Drano, or baking soda to the cocaine so that they can use more, and the ones who do NOT use and will cheat you in much the same way, or will just short you by giving you say $600 worth of coke when you have handed them ten one hundred dollar bills. In summary, do not trust drug dealers. The former look and smell terrible, but can somehow still weigh and count and calculate. The latter look and smell fabulous, usually with dark, slicked back hair, maybe pulled into a modest, short ponytail. They are both slimy, but in completely different ways.

I love my father today all the more because he is not perfect, and because it took us both many, many years to accept this truth. We both expected perfection from him, would scoff at the absurdity of anything less. And I imagined myself to be just like him. I yearned to be perfect for him and because of him. And because I saw early that he was not perfect, I tried unreasonably to be so myself. If I got all A’s, I would bemoan that there were not more A+’s, and expect him to do the same. In fact, I brought the A’s to him, paying homage to our family ideal, underscoring our slightly skewed image of our perfect selves. Because perfection is not attainable by we mere mortals, I grew angry with my father. And because my father worked for God, at least on Sundays, I grew angry with God too. I had it all backwards; I thought they were both angry with me for letting them down.

I did not know at the time that the gift of grace was already at work in my life. I found out when it showered like a summer storm in Maine all around me, some months later.