Gradually, Then Suddenly by Tim Hillegonds

Railroad tracks with train approaching


The first time I told my wife, Erin, that I loved her, I was propped up in a hospital bed on the north side of Chicago, fresh from surgery where I’d just had stainless steel screws and plates fastened to the tibia and fibula I’d fractured in a rec league soccer game. I was high on morphine—glassy-eyed and chalky-tongued. We’d been dating for more than a year. I had been thinking for weeks about telling her I was in love with her, and that I’d known it for quite some time, but I was scared. I’d lie in bed at night and stare up at the spinning blades of the ceiling fan, thirty-one years old with what seemed like far too many bad relationships behind me.

On the night that I told her, I remember the rush of opiates inside my system, the way they dulled and softened, lulled and relaxed, the way they rolled up the hard edges of my pain. I remember looking at her as she stood next to my bed, her face the most beautiful and familiar face I had ever seen, her eyes filled with both comfort and concern. I posed it as a question as I reached for her hand. “You know I love you, right?” She smiled and nodded, and I drifted back into the rumpled sheets of the hospital bed, into the opiates, into the realization that love and drugs could feel almost exactly the same.


I met Erin on a Metra train heading from the suburbs of Chicago to the city, four years after I left the comfortable structure of a Minnesota rehab. I’d spent the first year of sobriety angry for reasons I wouldn’t understand until much later, but I was mostly determined not to relapse, not to give up too quickly on the change I was attempting. I went to AA meetings and learned to box and found relief in the exhaustion that came after ten hard rounds on the heavy bag, but that first year was a messy one—financially and relationally—and it felt impossible to figure out who I was supposed to be in the midst of trying to pick up the pieces.

In the second and third years of sobriety, as not drinking and not using drugs became an ordinary part of my life, it’s fair to say that I became obsessive about it. The further I got away from the time I spent in that Minnesota facility, and the more sober days I amassed, the less I could think about going back to the time before rehab, about again becoming the person I had been. I had transitioned from a GED holder with a long rap sheet, a felony conviction, and a drug problem, to a businessman—and that seemed so unlikely, so implausible, that I knew I had to draw hard lines in the sand. I stopped seeing certain friends, and no longer hung out in certain places, and that created a gulf between my old life and my new one.

In those first few years of sobriety, I moved from Chicago to Atlanta, and then from Atlanta to Baltimore, and in each of those places I tried and failed in relationships. While there were other factors at play during each of the breakups, my commitment to sobriety had been a central theme in their undoing. Which isn’t to say that the women I dated weren’t okay with my sobriety, because they very much were, but sobriety can be intrusive and pushy and it’s ultimately, at its core, an act of selfishness. I had learned in rehab that anything that comes before sobriety will eventually be lost, but I had also learned that what came during sobriety could sometimes be lost as well.

When I saw Erin that first morning on the train, a strip of sunlight beaming in through the window and resting on her shoulder, I didn’t yet know if we would talk or have anything in common or kiss for the first time in the middle of a summer afternoon just outside the doors of a suburban Mexican restaurant. I didn’t yet know if she would want to understand the broken part of me, the part of me that had to say no to certain people and situations, the selfish part of me that demanded constant nourishment and attention.

But the other thing I didn’t know was how giving and empathetic she could be, how powerfully insightful, how certain life experiences gave her a perspective into the narratives of pain and addiction and loss that I’d never before encountered. I didn’t yet know that she understood pain and love, addiction and sobriety, in a way that was uniquely different from the way I did, a way that would one day protect me from the person I could never truly say goodbye to: the addict version of my self.


I can’t pinpoint exactly when I fell in love with Erin, or exactly when I became an addict, but I know they both occurred, as Hemingway once said, “gradually, then suddenly.”

I don’t recall ever having a specific conversation with Erin about being an addict, but I assume we must have had one. Because I had learned early on in recovery that the only way I could possibly get a handle on sobriety was by building protections into my life, by telling on myself early and often, by admitting out loud to whomever would listen that I was, am, and always will be, an addict.

But what I’d never considered until I found myself standing at the doorway of a physical pain I wasn’t prepared to endure, was the great paradox of addiction: that a time might come when I actually needed the medicine I was addicted to. And what then? Sobriety rhetoric revolves around the idea of abstinence, about not making that initial choice to drink or use. What happens when the addict has to suddenly locate restraint in a behavior that had for so long gone unrestrained?


While still in the hospital, even from within the relative comfort of my opiate daze, I had remembered to tell on myself to the doctor and mention that I was an addict. I asked him if he had any non-habit forming pain medicine that he could prescribe me, but he looked up from the medical chart in his hands and shook his head. “I’m afraid it just wouldn’t be strong enough,” he said, frowning. “And you’re going to have some substantial pain.”

I was hooked up to a morphine infusion pump at the time, with a button I could push to administer more opioid analgesics every ten minutes if I needed them, and I could already feel how painful my recovery was going to be. I knew the doctor was probably right, and the discomfort would likely be more than I could treat with ibuprofen, but I was scared of having so many pills at my disposal, so many opportunities to sabotage my sobriety. Or perhaps that’s simply what the addict inside wants me to say, because it’s so much nicer than the reality I loathe confronting: that even though I’m at peace with sobriety, there are times when I want nothing more than to have a bottle of pills within arm’s reach.

The truth is that I sometimes yearn to be injured. I sometimes yearn to feel the cracking of bone or the ripping of flesh or the twisting of tendons. I sometimes long for that moment just after the injury but right before the pain, that unique moment of suspended animation where immortality seems suddenly possible, where the irreversible injury has occurred but the brain has not yet allowed the body to feel it. I sometimes long for that flash of white-hot agony, that sensory explosion that makes me understand both the desire to live and the desire to die, and that thick, syrupy relief that crests over my entire being once the pain has subsided. I yearn for the hurt so I can experience the abatement, asking it in just to ask it to go.


The years of substance abuse my body has endured—which has included cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, crack, marijuana, ecstasy, acid, GHB, and whatever pills I could manage to get my hands on— have rendered it virtually immune to normal pain medication dosage amounts. This increased tolerance is a common complaint among addicts, and one that’s amplified by my athletic build and quick-fire metabolism.

On the night that I’d suffered the tib/fib fracture, after the ambulance had driven me across the artificial turf and I’d been transferred to a room inside the ER of Illinois Masonic Hospital, the orthopedist, a tall, muscular man with the easy demeanor of a doctor who’d seen it all before, told me he would need to sedate me to set the bones back into alignment.

“It’ll just take a minute,” he said, “but it’s best we put you under.”

I didn’t contest, not wanting to see or hear the doctor force my bones back into their rightful positions, and soon, after Erin and my mother had left the room and while my stepfather and a nurse stood around the bed to watch, the doctor administered the anesthesia. I felt the drugs enter my arm through the I.V., a cold stream of fluid that caused my muscles to slacken and my eyelids to loosen and drop, but I was still aware of the world around me, of the noise and light and of the doctor as he began to brace himself to physically manipulate my bones. It was as if I were operating in a world that existed a few seconds behind reality, a slow motion, gravity-less realm where I was mindful and disengaged simultaneously. But amidst it all, I still recognized that pain was approaching, that if the doctor pulled and twisted at the break site, I would undoubtedly feel it. And so I spoke out loud and watched as heads turned in slow motion and faces screwed up in disbelief and amusement, and as the doctor loosened his grip on my leg. “Unbelievable,” he said, looking at me and shaking his head. “I gave you enough anesthesia to sedate a horse.”

And I think I may have smiled, but perhaps I just leaned back into the peaceful world of drugs, and of love, and let my eyes drift over to the closed door of the room, where just outside stood the woman I didn’t yet know I would marry.


The day after I told Erin I loved her for the first time, my mother and stepfather picked us up from the hospital in their Honda SUV and drove us to my apartment in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood. I lived alone at the time, in a high-rise not far from Soldier Field, and because intense pain had already begun to burn its way up my leg before I’d even made it out of the hospital’s doors, Erin had offered to stay with me until the agony had subsided and I could fare on my own again.

By the third day of my recovery, I had become—in a very literal sense—nearly delirious with pain. As caretaker Erin had inherited the responsibilities that came with the dispensing of my pain medication. She’d become a drug dealer of sorts—a role in which, by day three, meant that she had to deal with my relentless begging and pleading and negotiating that she give me more than the prescribed amount of pills. And even though the timeline from those first few days is blurry, I know with certainty that I used the full arsenal of tools at an addict’s disposal—guilt, ultimatums, aggression, hostility, and the constant application of pressure.

“You don’t understand what this is like,” I said through tears that third night, sweating from pain, exhausted from being unable to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time. “Just give me another fucking pill!”

Erin was mostly calm and collected, propped up on the edge of the couch next to me, gently combing my hair back with her fingers. “It’s not time yet, Tim,” she said, her brow wrinkled with concern. “But you can make it through this, honey. You’re going to be okay.”

In my rational mind, I knew she was right, and that the pain I felt, though it was far more severe than anything I’d ever encountered in my life, would eventually subside; but my rational mind was nowhere to be found. And as we sat there on the couch, Erin softly strumming her fingers through my sweat-damp hair, my eyes zeroed in on the bottle of pills she had momentarily set on the coffee table. It was all so close—the bottle, the relief, the liberation from my pain—and in one chaotic instant, I sat forward and lunged for the pills, not caring about sobriety or Erin or what the consequences might be. But right before I got there, just before I could grab the bottle, Erin plucked it off the table.

It’s possible that what Erin saw of me in that moment was the unfiltered, unencumbered addict inside me, the one who would do anything to make the pain stop, who would forego a lifetime of stability for a moment of relief. It’s possible that she saw the self I had for so long tried to divorce, the alter I thought I’d abandoned back in the rooms of that rehab in Minnesota. Perhaps before that moment I was naïve enough to think that we could leave our other selves behind, to think that we could truly separate the former from the latter, the old from the new, but I know now that the best we can do is disarm those selves, take away their power by acknowledging just how powerful they are.

I grabbed Erin’s wrist and tried to dig her fingers off the orange plastic. We struggled briefly, and then she did what I know now was the only thing she could think to do in the moment—throw the balled fist of her right hand into my shoulder as hard as she could. Her punch was unexpected and precise, an explosion of surprise, and it worked. Seconds afterward I was sobbing into my hands, aware of how ridiculous I was, and unfathomably grateful she was there.

This is another form of love, I think—the denial of what will take away one’s pain, because of its potential to inflict even more. And perhaps the opposite is also true—that inflicting more pain in the moment is sometimes the only way to impede new and greater pain in the future.


During the surgery to repair my broken leg, the doctor fastened a titanium plate to my fibula with five small screws and drove two longer screws through the thickest part of my tibia. To properly heal, there needed to be two additional wounds, a brief but intentional compounding of pain.

The recovery process was long and uncomfortable—as they almost always are—and the surgery left a visible scar, four inches long, just above my ankle. When I pull my shoes off after a long run down Chicago’s lakefront path, a dull ache causes a long-forgotten body memory to flash, and I sometimes rub my fingertips along the length of the scar and feel the metal plate still fastened to my bone. It feels foreign but necessary, much like sobriety did in the beginning, but it also now feels as much a part of me as the bone it’s attached to.

And yet, my ankle isn’t the same as it once was. It doesn’t bend as far or move as easily and it stiffens each night while I’m sleeping. When I wake in the morning, my first few steps are slow and difficult—an adjustment that’s been hard for me. My recovered self is less familiar than the self that came before.

But in those quiet moments in the early morning, when the light is just beginning to make its way across the knots in our hickory floors, I take those first few steps and I’m reminded that recoveries never truly end—they just continue framing the world around us by asking us to remember.

Tim Hillegonds earned a master of arts in writing and publishing from DePaul University in Chicago. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Rumpus, River Teeth, Baltimore Review, Brevity, The Fourth River, the Ploughshares blog, Midway Journal, RHINO, Bluestem Magazine, and r.k.v.r.y. quarterly. Tim was awarded an honorable mention for nonfiction in the New Millennium Awards 36 presented by New Millennium Writings. He was also nominated for a 2015 Illinois Arts Council Literary Award. He serves as a contributing editor for Slag Glass City, a digital journal of the urban essay arts.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Sean Benham

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