Mind the gap: Former Summit County resident releases debut memoir, ‘The Distance Between’
FRISCO — Timothy J. Hillegonds didn’t have a perfect childhood. Growing up in a blue-collar family in Chicago with divorced and remarried parents, he was estranged from his father and experimented with drugs and alcohol.
When he was 18, without a high school diploma, he moved to Summit County on Dec. 25, 1996, in hopes to find greener pastures.
“I moved out there with these grandiose plans of snowboarding and going pro and doing all the things,” Hillegonds said. “If I could strap a snowboard on and hit Summit County, I could essentially snowboard my way to a different and better life.”
Once in Summit, however, Hillegonds’ plans changed and his situation got worse. Over the next three years he got into methamphetamine and petty crime along with fathering a child.
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“I just totally got sidetracked and none of that happened. I ended up meeting a girl, having a daughter and things were a little different,” he said.
“The Distance Between” by Timothy J. Hillegonds
University of Nebraska Press, October 2019
280 pages, $20
Available in paperback and e-book.
Those three years were put to the page for his debut memoir, “The Distance Between,” which was released on Oct. 1. The book explores white male privilege, toxic masculinity and addiction. Borrowed from a line in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” the title refers to the geographical distance of Colorado and Chicago, the emotional distance between himself and his parents, the chronological distance between his past and present selves and the distance from his daughter.
A new future
Hillegonds was a professional inline skater when he was younger. As a fan of alternative sports, and wanting to escape his home, he decided to embrace the then-fringe sport of snowboarding after a friend relayed the Summit County scene to the Chicago skaters.
“It became difficult,” Hillegonds said of his distant relationship with his father, who he felt abandoned him. “That loss, and not understanding how to deal with that loss, is what fueled a lot of the anger and rage that I felt in my late teens and early 20s.”
He bounced around Dillon and Silverthorne and eventually met April, a pseudonym in the book to protect her identity, while they both worked at Denny’s in Silverthorne. About a year older than Hillegonds, she already had a daughter of her own from a previous relationship and then the two had a child together. He discovered crystal meth through their combined connections, a drug he hadn’t previously encountered in Chicago.
“It was a hard and fast romance and I think we both harbored a lot of the same type of anger and rage. … When you’re rolling in those types of circles there’s the petty crime, the violence and fighting and all of the things that come along with that,” he said. “It was a tough time. Both of us were essentially being two kids that had two kids.”
Trying to figure out their four lives in the midst of an addiction cycle proved to be difficult. Hillegonds was both verbally and physically abusive to April, and with neither having a proper support system the toxic relationship fell apart. He decided the best thing to do was to go back to Chicago and leave April and his daughter Haley, whose name he decided not to change in the memoir, thereby following in a similar path of his father.
“It took a while, close to three years, but at some point, I knew at some level that I needed to leave to get the help that I needed. But in order to do that, I needed to leave my daughter. I became the same man that I was trying not to become — that I vowed that I would never become.”
Reflecting on the past
Back home, help didn’t come swiftly and the substance abuse continued for five years as Hillegonds tried to put his Colorado life behind him. But while working at a Chicago restaurant in 2005, his sober boss recognized his struggles and helped him enroll in the 12-step program at Hazelden Betty Ford in Minnesota. The center was “commonly known as the Rolls-Royce of rehabs,” Hillegonds said. Though he didn’t immediately listen to the program’s advice, he made it his priority in time. He then had a built-in network of sober allies to help him when he came out of rehab.
“I’m an addict and an alcoholic and no matter whatever ‘success’ I achieve in my life, I’m still one decision away from losing it all,” Hillegonds said.
To help stay on the path he cut friendships and tweaked boundaries to not be tempted. “A guy told me one time, ‘if you hang out in a barbershop long enough, you’re eventually going to get a haircut.’ That just made a lot of sense to me. I probably shouldn’t hang out with my friends in bars if I’m trying to be sober.”
He also got back in touch with his daughter, who is still in state but no longer lives in Summit County, and spent roughly 15 years flying back and forth to reestablish their relationship.
“It has a happy ending, because Haley is 21 and she’s doing amazing and our relationship is better than it’s ever been,” he said.
The most recent turning point in Hillegonds’ life was going back to school. He acquired a GED diploma shortly after returning to Chicago, but it wasn’t until 2009 that he went to DePaul University because his office job required a degree. The company offered to send him to school.
“My life really seems like it’s just been, in many ways, one lucky break after another,” Hillegonds said. “For so long I identified myself as an addict and alcoholic and that school wasn’t for me, it wasn’t in the cards. Slowly that changed.”
Stemming from his practice of journaling during rehab and the organization’s various writing exercises, such as writing about his actions and who he hurt, he decided to tell his story that was intertwined with his recovery.
He went back to DePaul for his master’s degree and used the decades of distance and sobriety to reflect and write. Even with the elapsed time it was challenging for Hillegonds to be vulnerable and honest about past mistakes. But he had a mentor, DePaul professor and English Department Chair Michele Morano, to push him to open up on the book’s emotional scenes.
“I needed to not hold anything back and write them even though they were hard, even though they were showing the worst parts of me.”
In doing so, he hopes the book is more relatable than one person’s public apology while authentically discussing addiction without being preachy.
Hillegonds, 41, still lives in Chicago with his wife Erin and dog Uriah. Though a Colorado book tour hasn’t been planned yet, he’s hoping to come out eventually, if at least to bring Erin to see Summit County — which he occasionally visits to keep up with a few old friends. It’s an area that, for all he went through, still holds a special place in his heart.
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