I’ve been in the hospital for a few days. I went in for one thing and, of course, ended up being poked and prodded until this morning when I’d had it and was feeling well enough that I decided to leave and get on with things. I didn’t want to go in the first place, but I was feeling pretty crappy and my desire to make it to tomorrow with the ability to breathe relatively unhindered trumped my distaste for medical intervention. And so, here we are. And now I’m just a couple hours away from being able to say that I am officially one year clean. Tomorrow marks a full 365 days without heroin. There’s a lot to say about that, but there’s a lot to say about other stuff as well, so I’m going to start here:
When I checked my messages this morning after having not looked at my phone in over a week, I saw one from my childhood friend, Beeb, telling me that his brother Frank had taken his own life. The weight of the news took me to my knees as a wave of memories came rushing at me all at once. Frank and Beeb were among my closest friends growing up. We lived about a block apart and we, along with a group of 6 or 7 other kids, spent countless hours together, walking the streets of our neighborhood, trying to steer clear of the adults in our lives, hanging onto one another for support and love and fun and any sense of normalcy we could glean amidst the chaos of our respective worlds.
Frank and Beeb lived with their grandmother and an aunt and uncle in an old, rundown colonial right next to a cemetery. Their mother was dead; their father was in jail. There was a correlation between these two facts, but we certainly never discussed it. I knew little about their home life, except that their grandmother was mean. Her way of keeping her young grandsons in line was to smack them around and instill a fair amount of fear in them. Their family was from the Mid East. I actually have no idea if Frank and Beeb were born here or if they came over with their family at some point later. I met them when I was around 6 and they always spoke perfect English with no accent so I assumed they were born here. They spoke Arabic with their family though, and I remember being pretty fascinated by that.
Beeb was my age and Frank was a year younger. Beeb was the stronger of the two, physically and emotionally. Frank was a tiny little thing. He and I bonded quickly over our love of nature and words and later, our shared desire to stay away from our homes as long as we possibly could. He had this adorable crooked, mischievous smile and a mop of curly jet black hair. He was several inches shorter than me until well after high school when I stayed at 5’5″ and he suddenly shot up past 6′. Below is a picture of him when he was 16. He’s the second one in from the left. That’s part the motley crew I affixed myself to throughout my school years.
I’ve spent a lot of today thinking about the time I spent with Frank. I remember riding quads in the pits behind the cemetery for endless hours and then sitting against the headstones until long after dark just talking and laughing. I remember the town dances we all used to attend. Frank would wear a crisp white shirt and skinny tie and pegged jeans. He was obsessed with Michael Jackson’s music and that kid could break dance like nobody’s business.
When I was a senior and Frank was a junior he asked me to go to his prom with him. Neither of us was looking for a hookup or a relationship; we were friends who loved to dance and talk and so we went to his prom and had a great time together. We went to the after party at a hotel with the rest of his class and at the end of the night I remember Frank leaning in for a kiss. I instinctively pulled back and immediately felt bad. I certainly didn’t mean to offend him. He was surprised by my response and tried again to kiss me. He wasn’t trying to go any further than that, he just wanted a kiss. When I recoiled a second time he asked why I didn’t like to kiss. He’d kissed me on the cheek lots of times and I hadn’t reacted, so I think it just took him back. He didn’t know about the Monster. He didn’t know that our neighbor had been raping me for years. I’d only told one other person at that point but that night I told Frank. I told him a little anyway. I didn’t get into the whole thing, but I told him that the Monster would try to kiss me and that I remembered how it felt and the thought of it made me physically sick. And while it certainly didn’t hurt like the rest of it did, I remembered the kissing and how much I hated it. I told him I still didn’t like to kiss because all tongues feel the same. He sat back and stared at me for a few minutes and then gave me the longest, warmest hug I ever remember getting. He never tried to kiss me after that, but he almost always put his arm around me when we walked together and I remember loving how safe that made me feel.
I didn’t know Frank well as a man; I knew him mostly as a boy. Still, my heart broke when I learned of his pain and his passing. It brought me back through time and suddenly I could hear his voice and his laugh and the hope he had for the future. And then it stopped. We reconnected about 10 years ago after having not seen each other in well over a decade. I’ve seen Beeb from time to time. He and I had drugs in common. I’d see him on the streets of the city now and then. But Frank, for as troubled as he was, never got into drugs. He traveled to try to escape his past. I’d get postcards or emails from him every once in a while from wherever he happened to be. The last time he wrote he was in Jordan. This is the last picture I have of him. He’s standing on the banks of the Dead Sea.
It’s funny how we’re drawn to certain people in life. Frank and Beeb and I seemed to have this restless soul thing in common. I escaped through books and words and getting high. Frank took off for adventure and I always admired that about him. We were all perpetually running from that which haunted us, desperately afraid that our pasts would someday catch up to us and finish the job. Our pasts seem to be winning the race right now.
A year sober. To be honest, aside from not actively using every day (hour) and avoiding the inevitable overdose or run-in with my dealer, not a lot has changed for me over the last year. There are times I feel worse now because I’m not using to escape and I haven’t developed a whole lot in terms of coping skills. I haven’t used in a year. But I’m not sure I really consider myself in recovery and sober because aside from abstinence from using, nothing has changed. I haven’t faced my demons and worked toward some semblance of a life. Basically what it comes down to is this: My stubborn Southie pride has managed to override my desire to use for no other reason than as a BIG Fuck You to those who never thought I’d be able to make it a year. Not great incentive, but it’s kept me from the needle, so there’s that.
I’ve had a year before. In fact on the day I made a year the last time, I had an epic relapse that almost killed me when I overdosed on a speedball. I love heroin, but speedballs are the craziest thing I’ve ever done. It’s like bungee jumping and having the most intense orgasm of your life in the middle of the free fall. The whole point of it is to get as high as possible. But it’s one of the most dangerous things you can do because it speeds up and slows down your heart at the same time. It’s the ultimate game of Russian Roulette. Will the pull of the trigger set off a hollow click or will your heart explode into a million pieces?
It was always an exercise in futility to find the balance between oblivion and lucidity when I used. I’m actually having the same trouble sober if you want to know the truth.
The past few months have been difficult. I hate the holiday season. This is always a difficult time for so many reasons. I miss Paul, I miss my grandparents, and thoughts of family fuel the rage. Thanksgiving, in particular, is difficult because I always spent it with Paul and it marks the lead-in to the anniversary of his death. I struggled most of November and December to keep my head above water. I thought many times about just filling a syringe to capacity and pushing off into a peaceful nod. It was exhausting trying to fight off the sadness and despair. Heroin protected me from anything that could hurt me. It filled me with peace and calm. Until it didn’t. It’s the broken promises of heroin that I need to remember.
The past 12 months have been surreal. The months leading into the holiday season last year were among the most difficult I’ve ever had. Between brief infinitesimal stints of sobriety I was abusing my body with heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. I was, quite literally, living in a closet in some junkie shit hole in the city. A year ago Thanksgiving week I was in such desperate shape that I made a really lame attempt to smite my misery by securing a belt around my neck and hoping it would strangle the last hopeless, wretched breath out of me. I was so sick at that point that I didn’t think I had anything left to fight with. I was on the Cape that week with D and R, who had come from across the country to get me out of where I was and offer me from respite, some love. I think we all thought that I wasn’t going to live a long time and they wanted to be there with me.
I was still using then, but during the first couple of days with them at the little house D had rented I started to feel something I hadn’t expected. I decided that if I was going to die, I didn’t want to be using when I did. So I flushed what I had left and started to go through withdrawals. But I wasn’t alone this time, and the care and love they showed me helped get me through the worst of it. The unfortunate belt incident was most probably a reaction to the confluence of emotions that hit me like a hammer: the fear, despondency, and loneliness were met head on with hope, love, and compassion and I really had no idea what to do with it all.
I remember just wanting to talk. I had been alone for so long. Silence had broken me down and I just wanted to talk. About ordinary things, about extraordinary things. I wanted to hear them talk. I wanted to just listen to their voices as I lay there shaking and exhausted. Mostly, though, they seemed to know that what I needed most was just some human contact. They held my hand often that week, wiped my brow with a cool cloth when I had a seizure or my fever spiked. My discomfort with opening myself up like that diminished over the course of the week and eventually I embraced the connection. That week they seemed driven to get at the deeper places inside me, knocking on doors I had long ago locked. They were urging something else, but demanding nothing.
While I believe they were prepared to be there for the end of my life, I know that they hoped to ignite in me a spark of life, of hope. D asked me, I believed sincerely, if I would return with him to the west coast. I had begun to fight and he wanted me to continue. I couldn’t commit to that then, but a couple of months later I came to believe that my best shot at staying sober and of living was to leave Boston. So in February I flew to R in Florida and then we flew together to California a couple of weeks later.
“You never forget the face of the person who was your last hope.”
Except sometimes you have to.
This is not where I pictured myself being right now. In this place, in this head space, in this anything. But it’s funny because for so much of my life, I never did the “I wonder where I’ll be in a year” type thinking. I lived day by day, for better or worse. Ok, usually worse given my proclivity toward recklessness and self-destruction, but my point is I never really thought too far into the future. That changed a year ago. It changed on the Cape. I guess gradually it had started a little before that, but though I relapsed soon after the Cape trip, that week was really the impetus for my current state of sobriety. Though it’s not exactly the journey I would have expected. I was moving ahead with such vigor and promise and then I landed back here and hit a wall. Today I’m back to living day by day.
I’m just not doing a lot of forward-thinking these days. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I don’t think. The thing that sucks about it is that I don’t get to experience the joy and peace that I felt when I allowed myself to be open to possibility and to love. Conversely, I don’t feel the pain I felt when I allowed myself to be vulnerable and open. So, while C.S. Lewis would most certainly disagree with me, I’m willing to forgo the former to avoid the heartache of the latter.
“Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man.” -Nietzsche
The room I’m currently renting has a small couch by the window and a little alcove off the living area. I live, eat, and sleep mostly on the floor in the reading nook. I have couch cushions laid out on the floor and a sheet on top of them. Arranged around the perimeter are dozens of books in various stages of being read and not being read, a fortress with me walled off inside. My safe place. A portable safe place I can take with me wherever I go.
I’m no longer taking my AIDS meds. I came off them months ago. I suppose I’m being very passive aggressive about both life and death, holding onto neither particularly tightly. One consequence of not taking the meds is that I have been having a lot of seizures lately and night sweats many nights. I have a lot of trouble sleeping. I wake with great urgency, ripped from any peace that sleep had rendered, and writing is the only way to calm the thoughts. I keep a notebook next to me and without turning on the light I scribble faintly in the night’s small hours, often trailing away and off the page as I struggle against my body’s desire to fall back into unconsciousness.
Right now I’m just filling my days with books and some writing. I’ve been thinking lately about the themes in my life: sexual abnormalady, family division, abandonment, loss. It feels like there’s a Herzogovinian revolt brewing in my soul.
The silence is getting to me again.
The moments between the sounds of life feel like chasms of emptiness. I hardly have the words to describe the absence of sound. Each heart beat is like an explosion. I feel like a Dharma bum of the northeast these days. Completely unsettled, without a home, waiting for the silence to overtake me.
“Without a family, man, alone in the world, trembles with the cold” -Andre Maurois
I fell asleep this afternoon and woke up angry, enraged really. I had a nightmare about the Monster. It’s been happening more and more lately. I always thought I’d have the chance some day to confront the man who stole my childhood, my innocence, my life. But he died last summer from the same fucking disease he infected me with and I lost that chance forever, and that has only fueled my rage more. I have such a desperate need to confront the people who’ve hurt me. And lately I’ve felt an intense need to look back at my life and excavate something from the depths and memorialize it in words so it won’t be forgotten or denied. So I won’t be forgotten or denied. To leave my mark somewhere on the world. I wasn’t born broken. That happened later. I was a child once, full of innocence and hope. I laughed and loved. And then I didn’t.
It’s just after 3:00 in the morning on the 23rd of January. I am officially a year sober. I’ll stay here a few more days, then perhaps make my way back to the cabin for a bit. Ultimately I imagine I will end up back in Boston if for no other reason than to fulfill my need to confront part of my past.