Everything That Kills Me Makes Me Feel Alive: The Lessons of Dylan Farrow and Phillip Seymour Hoffman

There were two stories in this week’s news cycle that hit home for me: the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, presumably from a heroin overdose, and a letter written by Dylan Farrow about the abuse she suffered at the hands of Woody Allen when she was a child.

While there has been a lot of sympathy and empathy for both Hoffman and Farrow, there has been a fair share of scathing remarks on social media that I just cannot wrap my head around. People suggesting either that Farrow’s accusations aren’t true, or that her timing is suspicious because Allen is currently up for an Academy Award. Grumblings about Hoffman’s death being the result of a choice he made by using drugs. Childhood sexual abuse and addiction are two subjects that I know a little something about. These two recent stories have triggered me into a fury of words and chaos. I’m trying to bring together a string of disjointed thoughts, a wretched chore under the best of circumstances, which this assuredly is not.

Part I: In response to Dylan Farrow

First of all, 7-year-olds don’t lie about sexual abuse. It should never be something they’d know enough about to lie or imagine. That’s the beauty of the whole innocence of childhood thing. Is it possible that the idea was planted in young Dylan’s head by her mother during a contentious divorce? Sure, I suppose it’s possible. But one would hope that Mia Farrow–or any other woman–would never stoop to so low as to plant that kind of belief in the mind of a vulnerable child, knowing full well that once that seed is sown it will grow wildly inside the girl’s soul and destroy her on so many unfathomable levels. I don’t believe Mia Farrow did that. Also, there’s the matter of Woody Allen’s proclivity toward being generally, um, creepy. His predilection for having relationships with inappropriately younger women is well noted. Plus, there’s the Soon-Yi factor. Yes, I realize that Soon-Yi was not Woody’s adopted daughter, but rather Andre Previn’s. I also understand that because Woody and Mia never married, Soon-Yi wasn’t technically considered his stepdaughter. And I know that despite having been in a relationship for years with Mia, living in a state with no “common-law marriage” ruling again speaks to Soon-Yi not being considered any relation to Woody. Technically. But here’s the crux of the problem: In 1992, Mia Farrow discovered explicit nude photos that Woody Allen had taken of her adopted daughter, who was either 19 or 21 at the time (her real age is not known). Allen was 57 at the time…and in a long-term relationship with Mia, the girl’s adopted mother, making him a father figure, legal or not. Creepy. Creepy. Creepy. And let me be clear: pedophiles are creepy. Not all creepy men are pedophiles, but there is an “ick” factor pervasive in both creeps and pedophiles that Woody Allen definitely possesses.

I believe Dylan Farrow. I read the letter she wrote about Woody Allen and I believe that this woman was sexually abused by him when she was a child. I have no vested interest either way. I don’t know any of these people, but I believe it because the pain of the abuse was evident in the words she wrote to the world. I’ve never seen a Woody Allen movie. But the idea that this man continues to be embraced by the film industry is abhorrent to me. What’s even more loathsome to me is the reaction his supporters had to Dylan’s letter and accusations.

Barbara Walters defended him on The View, saying she knows him as a “sensitive and loving and caring” father to his two daughters with Soon-Yi. She suggests that the timing of Dylan’s letter is suspect because Woody Allen is up for an award. Of course, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Barbara, after all, is the same woman who during an interview with Corey Feldman promoting his book Coreyography basically called him a liar when he recounted the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of some of the most powerful people in Hollywood. Are you kidding me, lady? People like you are the very reason that victims of childhood sexual abuse remain silent, enshrouded in shame.

And then Stephen King chimed in. He tweeted: “Boy, I’m stumped on that one. I don’t like to think it’s true, and there’s an element of palpable bitchery there, but…”

An element of palpable bitchery. Just let that phrase sink in for a moment. It’s Stephen King’s fancy way of saying there’s an ulterior motive, and whether he came out and said it or not, it implies that he doubts the sincerity of what Dylan wrote.

A few hours later, after some serious backlash, he tweeted this: “Have no opinion on the accusations; hope they’re not true. Probably used the wrong word.”

You think?

Offering further explanation regarding his faux pas, he wrote [regarding his relative naiveté about Twitter]: “Still learning my way around this thing. Mercy, please.”

OK, you’re new to Twitter. But you’re not new to words, right? Or humanity? I’d never suggest to such a wonderful and prolific author as Stephen King that he should stop writing, except regarding this one subject. The publicity wasn’t good for him, but just imagine how it made Dylan feel.

While Dylan’s case (and Corey Feldman’s, for that matter) are unique in that they are drawn out in the public eye, the problem is the same for any child who was ever sexually abused: the fear that people will not believe them. That fear–along with the gut-wrenching shame–keeps them silent, and that silence destroys them from the inside out.

I know this because I was abused, raped and tormented, by a neighbor starting at age 8 and continuing for years. At some point my abuser infected me with HIV. The gift that keeps on giving. I know all too well the shame, the fear, the anger that sexual abuse brings with it. My rapist is not up for an Academy Award. He’s not a rainmaker in Hollyweird. He’s just a guy, living in suburbia, working, paying his bills. But abusing little kids is something my rapist and Woody Allen apparently have in common. A prince of the film industry and a blue-collar commoner. Worlds apart, yet they share a twisted, depraved penchant for abusing little girls.

I read Dylan’s letter and shivered with disgust and rage. Her words were so relatable. She wrote of triggers that awake in her the awful memories of her childhood. She explained that Allen made her lie on her stomach and watch her brother’s toy train circle around its track and he molested her. To this day she has trouble looking at toy trains. For me it’s motorcycles. My abuser had a massive, obnoxiously loud motorcycle and every time I would hear it come up the street a sea of nausea would stir from deep within me. Thirty years later, motorcycles can be a trigger for me still. I tense up and flash back to the fear I felt, knowing what was going to happen to me.

There are other triggers as well. Everyday things that can stir up the terror and the rage. Things that can make the world around me go silent, so still that all I hear is the beating of my own heart and the breath from my lungs coming harder and faster as I struggle to breathe under the weight of my own fear.

My reality was altered so early by abuse and terror that as I shuffled uneasily into adulthood I became a shape shifter, trying desperately to fit into a world I had no business being in. There are times still when I believe I am simply too broken for this life.

So reading Dylan Farrow’s open letter evoked some powerful emotions for me. Her words were painful to read. But reading her words also left me with a sense of awe for this amazingly strong woman. I envy her strength, and I thank her for speaking out when so many of us cannot.

Part II: In response to Philip Seymour Hoffman

I awoke a couple of days ago to a text from a friend telling me about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. She followed that text up with one that read simply: “Are you next?”

It was a fair question. After managing to stay clean and sober for 7 years I relapsed a couple of years ago and have struggled since then to battle those demons.

Hearing the news of Hoffman’s death shook me. I took to the Internet, as one does, and searched for information. He was found in his bathroom, alone, with a needle in his arm. I had only to look down at my own scarred arms to feel his desperation. I swallowed hard with the knowledge that if you are an addict, any high can be your last.

I was a great fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman. One of my favorite movies is Capote, in which he captured the eccentric writer’s character perfectly. I had most recently seen him in The Master. His co-star in that movie was Joaquin Phoenix, the brother of another who’d fallen prey to addiction: River Phoenix. River was my childhood crush, and I remember well coming home from a Halloween party back in 1993 and hearing about his death. I was pretty loaded myself when I heard the news, already years into my own battle with addiction, but I remember being gutted by the news.

Two amazing actors. Both wildly successful, with endless potential and possibilities. Addiction does not discriminate. It doesn’t take into account race or religion or occupation or economic status. Philip Seymour Hoffman had 23 years of sobriety before he relapsed last year. I had 7 before I succumbed to it again. This is a disease that is not cured. It may go into remission, but is always there and it aches to destroy us.

We’re all well aware of the names of celebrities who’ve succumbed to addiction. John Belushi, Chris Farley, Dana Plato, Heath Ledger, Whitney Houston, Corey Monteith. The list goes on and on. We shake our heads and mourn for these people because it’s a sad situation all the way around, and also because  we feel we’ve lost out in some way. These are people who entertained us, made us laugh, made us cry, made us think. Their loss affects us. Just imagine how their friends and families feel? Now imagine how they feel when they read the atrocious comments from ignorant people who suggest that their loved one died because they were weak junkies who brought this on themselves.

People don’t understand addiction. I get it. It’s a difficult concept to understand when you’re not in the throes of it. But let me be clear: addiction is not a choice. Do you think people choose to destroy their lives, lose their livelihoods, their loved ones, their reputations?

Anyone can be affected by addiction. We know the names of the celebrities. They are written about and mourned and remembered. But there are so many people out there who are hurting, who are dying. Addiction is real and it is a plague among us.

No matter why you pick up that first time, you never think that you will lose control of your life. Taking that first drug may be a choice, but after that it’s out of the hands of the addict. Perhaps experimentation or peer-pressure or sheer boredom is the catalyst. But no matter what, no matter whether you think you have everything under control there is one truth that cannot be denied: There needs not be a catalyst to bring the monster out of his tenuous slumber. If you are an addict you are at risk for relapse. Always.

For me, using was borne from a desperate desire to escape the horror of my childhood. I was 11 when I first discovered that substances could numb the pain I was in. Booze and drugs were never fun for me. They were necessary. They made it possible for me to face each day. They numbed the pain enough for me to function. For so long fear and self-loathing were my masters; drugs wrestled those feelings and won. Drugs made me numb to the torment, and suddenly I became slave to a new master. That high was as necessary as the air in my lungs. Without it I surely would have drown in a sea of sorrow and anguish.

In her book High on Arrival, Mackenzie Phillips writes, “Every junkie’s story has this in common: there are periods of time when the drugs just win. After the seduction of that first high, after the honeymoon when drugs enhance a functioning life–after all that comes submission and demolition.”

If you’re an addict, you’re in a constant fight for your life. Addiction is strong, superhuman and relentless. It wants you dead, and a few years–or a few decades–of sobriety will not diminish its resolve to destroy you. That is its sole purpose, and on that alone it has laser focus.

There are only two possible endings for me: dying or getting clean and sober. I’m not convinced that the latter is possible any more. My body, mind, and soul are so scarred from abuse–by others as well as that I inflicted on myself. How do I live without that which makes life bearable? Then again, this isn’t life, it’s merely existence.

My vision of the world is myopic at best. I expect to be hurt. I expect pain and darkness, and no matter how much light and love I’ve managed to discover in the world, through the love  and support of some wonderful friends I’ve managed to make–despite my being, you know, bat-shit crazy–I still have trouble holding on to it.

The biggest challenge to my recovery and ability to stay sober and live well and fully is my utter inability to love myself. To believe that I deserve more than misery and torment.

The memories of my childhood, they haunt me. And they make me feel wholly inhuman. I think back to when I was 8, to the time before the first time and I wonder what I would have become, what I could have become. Addiction runs in my family. In fact, I have a genetic predisposition toward addiction and general douche-baggery. Alas, I wonder whether I could have broken free of that reality had I not lost that sense of myself at such a tender and vulnerable age. With each breath I take, I mourn the loss of the child I was and the adult I could have been. Would I be more open to love? Would I find it easier to trust? Would I be so scared of the world and everything in it?

I am an addict. Someday I too may succumb to the disease of addiction. Yes, I have AIDS, but to be honest it’s far more likely that addiction will be what takes me from this world. On some level at least. When I’m using I’m not taking care of myself. I come off my meds, I develop AIDS-related complications. That may be what kills me, but addiction will be the fuel that feeds the fire.

And what will be said of me when I draw my last breath? No great loss; one less junkie in the world. That’s true, I suppose. But there’s more to me than that. It’s buried deep and since I am who I am and not a celebrity few will ever know anything about me other than the fact that I am just a junkie and that I brought this on myself. But I am a human being, with feelings and a heart and soul. I’m a lover of words, a voracious reader and a moderately successful writer. I’m a huge fan of baseball and movies and pasta.  I love all genres of music, but my heart belongs to NKOTB. I love to dance and in my healthier days I would dance wildly around my house, music blaring as I dusted and swept and vacuumed. I’m a baseline piano player and a teller of the most juvenile of jokes. One of my favorite things to do is to take a long walk in the warm rain. Watching the sun rise makes me thankful. Watching the full moon at night gives me comfort and evokes in me a sense of wonder and curiosity. I love to laugh and wish to God I could bring myself to do it more often.

You don’t know me. I’m not famous. But I exist, and someday I will cease to. And it will probably be because of addiction. This isn’t how I wanted it. This is not the path I ever imagined myself taking in life. I wanted to live. This is not my choice.

Rest in peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Peace to you, Dylan Farrow.

The One With the Blanket Fort

I’m sitting in my office looking out the window and deep into a sunless sky, as I have been for at least a week now because whatever the hell weather front causes the sun to disappear and me to get all stabby has been stalled on top of us For. Ever. After the long cold winter, I was quite enjoying the beautiful weather Boston has been seeing since late spring (we actually HAD a spring this year, which is rare unto itself). I have been taking advantage of the heat and sunlight and re-energizing on a near daily basis by sitting on my deck for long stretches of time, reading, writing, gazing, dreaming, napping. I’ve even been tending to the garden when my energy and desire to do so happen upon me at once. The garden thus far has produced a copious harvest of…well, so far just strawberries. But all the plants have flowered and are growing wonderfully, and before I know it I’ll be enjoying the fruits (vegetables…HA!) of my labor. Tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, squash, zucchini, green beans, corn, and the sweetest watermelon ever..though the damn gophers have been filling their annoying gopher bellies on my watermelon plants this year.

The sun’s heat and light are amazingly healing and soothing. Alas, for the past week or so the sun appears to be on hiatus, at least in these parts, and has been replaced by a dull, gray sky that is neither healing nor soothing. The monotonous gray is broken up only by the menacing black clouds that roll in just before the sky opens up and releases its deluge, soaking everything to near strangulation. Not a warm, gentle rain; the kind that poets write about walking in. No, no, rather a monstrous, thunderous, pelting rain; the kind that you want to hide from. But I’m trying out this new positive approach to life and the shit storms that tend to accompany it. 🙂 So, rather than wallow in the dark recesses into which I would surely wander if not for my newfound positive outlook, I have taken it upon myself to make the best of this sunless, drippy existence.

So today, rather than curse the universe for yet another crappy, dark, damp day, I decided I would practice some self-soothing and find a way to be comfortable while I’m stuck in my house. So, I built this:

blanket fort

A blanket fort!! Because blanket forts? Rule!! Yes, I’m 41, but they are as awesome now as they were when I was 7 and I am completely unapologetic about it! And let me just tell you, this picture does not do my blanket fort justice. I, in fact, built the MOTHER of all blanket forts. I built a blanket mansion! It had like 6 separate rooms, secret entrances and tunnels. It. Was. Awesome. I holed myself up in there for hours this afternoon with a book and lost myself to the innocence and wonder that only a blanket fort can provide. It was my grandmother who taught me to build the perfect blanket fort, and we spent hours of my youth cuddled inside our cotton and down creations, reading and talking and escaping our respective trials and tribulations. It was one of the greatest things she ever taught me and I put it to good use today.

Relapse Redux

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel;
I focus on the pain,
The only thing that’s real.
The needle tears a hole,
The old familiar sting;
Try to kill it all away,
But I remember everything.

–Johnny Cash, “Hurt”

I made a year sober last month. To celebrate, I picked up, overdosed, my heart stopped, and I spent the next several days unconscious, a machine breathing for me. Go big or go home, right?

Relapse. Redux.

My name is M. I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict, and I’m a complete fucking fraud. I sit at this keyboard and I type out these posts and publish them on my blog, cleverly entitled “Sober Like Me,” but the truth is I’m not fucking sober. Yes, I technically had a year of not drinking or using, but in every other way…well, let’s just say the junk was never far from my mind. To truly be sober I would have had to work some kind of program. I would have had to change my thinking. I would have had to adjust how I do things. Instead, while I didn’t pick up, it continued to rule me, body, mind, and soul.

As I was recovering from the stroke from my last overdose 15 months ago, I worked hard physically to regain my strength, my mobility, my speech. I worked the program of physical recovery and it paid off. Eventually I was able to walk without the cane. Later I was able to walk short distances without the leg brace. I mostly regained the use of my hand. My speech improved to the point where it was no longer agonizing to utter the shortest of sentences…for me, or the person trying to decipher what the fuck I was trying to say.

What I didn’t do during this time was deal with my addictions, other than to not use, which I suppose is certainly a step in the right direction. But I can’t remember too many times when I didn’t have it in the back of my mind. Jesus. This pain, the physical and emotional, would be a whole lot easier to tolerate if I could just have a drink. A couple of Xanax maybe? Taking a bump wouldn’t be the end of the world, right? 

The mental battle raged on in my mind. The thing I knew was that if I did have that sip of vodka, that single Xanax, that line of coke…it would lead to a world of hurt that I didn’t even want to fathom. As bad as I thought I was suffering then? That was nothing compared to what would happen if I let it get ahead of me again. And it would kill me. It. Would. Kill. Me.

So guess what happened? It got ahead of me again. I don’t know when it all started to spiral out of control. A couple weeks before? A month? As my 1-year mark edged closer, I could feel myself struggling. I was anxious and depressed. I was in a bad head space. I was consumed with guilt as I thought about the past year of my being sober and what led to it. See, the day before my 1-year anniversary was the 1-year anniversary of my cousin’s death. The cousin who was a heroin addict, the one I set out to find the night before she ended up succumbing to this goddamned disease. The one I found. The one I used with in the hours before her body lost the battle. The one who died in front of me. Of the two of us, the one who should have lived. The one who deserved to live.

I don’t know. I could sit here all day and try to pinpoint the exact moment and reason for this most recent descent into madness and despair. There were some things going on in the days and weeks leading up that probably all played a part in what happened next. I don’t know what the final trigger was. All I know is that on the day I made a year, I picked up. I woke up several days later in the hospital and stayed there until I signed myself out, much to the dismay of my doctor, who I’m pretty sure thinks I’m a lost cause at this point.

So I signed myself out, but instead of going home I stayed in the city, got a room in a hotel, and have been on a steady descent into hell since. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I’d once again be on the hunt for that which could ease my pain. And it wasn’t.

Over the next, I don’t know, 10 days? 14? I’m not even sure what day it is. Anyway, I managed to numb myself against it all. Minutes have melted into hours. Hours into days. I’ve spent some of that time in this hotel. I’ve spent some of it at the apartment of someone I don’t know, brought there by my old dealer and left to fend for myself until he came back to pick me up. There were a lot of people there. I was surrounded by people. Yet I was utterly alone.  I spent one cold night on the street completely unaware of where the fuck I was. Welcome to addiction.

I’m back at the hotel now. I haven’t used since Sunday. Withdrawals are a whole other level of hell. But this run needs to end. I’m tired. I’m sick. I think I’m ready to leave the city and go home. I miss my dogs. Having them to curl up with while I feel this shitty will help, I think. I hope.

An interesting thing happened today. It requires some back story and I feel like writing it out, so I’ll do my best to make it more coherent and less free association.

I started studying martial arts when I was a kid. I was 11, ironically (or is it coincidentally?…I always fuck those two up). The sexual abuse had basically stopped by then, and that, of course, is when I learned to defend myself. Perfect fucking timing. Anyway, my father was a black belt, and when I was 11 he dragged me to a cookie cutter karate school. I hated it. I really hated it. I took enough beatings in real life; I sure as hell didn’t want to add to it in a dojo three times a week. I wasn’t given a choice, so I sucked it up and did it. Over the next few years I went to a few different schools and learned a couple of different styles. The funny thing was I actually had a natural affinity for it. I was flexible, I could take a hit, and I had pretty good focus. None of this meant anything though until the day I walked into the Martial Arts Academy of Boston* (MAAB) 3 days after my 26th birthday. By this time I had really become interested in the philosophy behind it all, but most of the instructors I’d had never really touched on that.

Chris Walters* was the owner of MAAB. I talked with him for a few minutes before I sat to observe a class. He explained that he taught an eclectic mix of arts, but the main style was an Okinawan karate. I’d never heard of it, but as I sat to watch the class I fell in love with the balance between the fluidity and the rigidity. It was a perfect mix of yin and yang. I signed up that day. For the next dozen or so years I was at the dojo as often as I could be. I rose quickly through the ranks and attained my black belt after 4 years of training. I loved everything about it. I loved being more confident in my ability to at least attempt to protect myself against an attack, but it was more than that. I loved being in the gi (karate uniform). I loved being in bare feet (I’d never wear shoes if I could get away with it). I loved controlling my breathing and my movements. I loved kata, which were so graceful and fluid, but perfectly functional. And I loved sparring. Chris Walters was a hard ass. He never let me (or anyone else) get away with anything. He inspired a confidence in his students that defied explanation. If there was anything we claimed we couldn’t do, he’d kick our ass until we did it 50 times in a row.

One of the first things you learn is a stance that is the core of the training.  It’s the first thing you learn and it’s the stance that takes forever to perfect. If done correctly, your energy is centered downward and an opponent should not, cannot move you from the position, no matter how hard he hits or pushes. At the end of each class we’d have to endure Chris putting us through a test of this stance. We’d line up and he’d give the order for us to get into the stance. Then, one by one, he’d come around and try to make us move. He’d achieve this by pushing on us, hitting or kicking us as hard as he could in the gut, legs, and shoulders, and grabbing then smashing our outstretched fingers in an attempt to throw us off balance. If you blinked, flinched, or moved, you’d be doing push-ups in the corner until you got it right. It’s a physical exercise, of course, but also a mental one. If you lose focus, you’re going to fail. Part of not losing focus meant being able to take a pretty hard hit. We practiced this by partnering with other students and standing on guard while the other student kicked us full force in the gut. We learned to breathe out and tighten up at the point of impact, and amazingly it worked. There was very little pain. Chris used to pull me from class sometimes to demonstrate this move to prospective students. He used me for two reasons: first, I was a girl, so they got to see that even a chick could take a hard hit; second, I was a girl with a killer roundhouse kick and I gave it all I got when it came time to kick him in the stomach. I dreaded this exercise with him only because the guy had a cast iron stomach and I would ultimately come away limping after I unleashed my hardest kick on him.

Anyway. None of this really matters. It’s just to tell you a little about my history as a student of martial arts as a precursor to the following story, which is about my very last day in class. I haven’t been able to practice in quite a while. I miss it. And I often dream about how strong I felt back then, physically and otherwise.

My last night in class was a Friday night, hot and muggy in the training hall and there we were: just another workout, any typical sparring situation. It was my first time back to class in weeks. I had stopped going initially because I had been feeling vaguely unwell. The frequency of the seizures I was having had increased and the severity of the pain in my stomach had intensified. The idea of being in class for several hours had simply not appealed to me. This night, however, I felt ready to come back.

We were all lined up according to belt order and the way it worked out, I had a little time to warm up. I could stretch, bounce around somewhat – these weren’t very close matches. I didn’t have any problem keeping clear of those lower belts’ feints and kicks. It felt good. There was a clean sort of breathlessness in enjoying the give and take of it, the searching, the easy routine of the blocking and the counter-attacks. I was pleasantly fatigued and confident by the time when, in the rotation, I found myself paired with Tommy.

Tommy had been my regular sparring partner for about 4 years. He and I worked well together and never cut one another slack. We had tested together and always challenged each other to bring our best to the table. It was never an easy workout with him, but it was always an honest one. I felt safe on the floor with him, confident that while we go full contact, he is skilled enough not to hurt me. He had that same confidence in me. A year after I started sparring with Tommy, I had a sparring accident with my instructor that left me with a fracture over my left eye, a partial loss of vision, and a broken collar bone. It was a freak accident, and completely my fault for panicking in the middle of a routine move. If not for Tommy, I may never have sparred again. I came back to class 2 days after it happened because I didn’t want to psyche myself out of something I loved so much, but I had a much harder time putting the sparring gloves back on. Tommy’s patience and his gentle insistence helped me over that particular hurdle.

We squared off and bowed to each other, touching gloves to signal our readiness to begin.

My being the lower degree black belt dictates the roles we play. I’m supposed to lead the attack against the higher rank. So I moved in, back straight, reaching out with exploratory little feints, hoping to draw him out to exposing himself to a real attack. I guess we were both feeling good that day. We moved faster and faster together, our arms flashing and smacking agreeably into each other in the air, our legs pistoning out into kicks we guided away from ourselves, torquing our torsos deeply, looking for a way to slip inside each other’s guards.

It’s a hell of a lot of fun, you know. Despite this – and I don’t care who you are – if you go long enough it really does tear into your endurance. Your movements become more deliberate as your wind erodes, and you have to put everything into your decisions. It’s the envelope again, it’s raising your limbs when you really don’t think you can anymore. It’s finding a reason to go on.

I don’t remember how it happened, but we finally ended up in a situation where I’d just finished trying something, some combination or other, and I was looking at him to see what he would do. Tommy came at me then, sliding in low and smooth and utterly fast, faster than I knew how to handle, too fast for me to do anything other than watch him come at me with that side kick of his that slips out to the side and hooks in at the last moment. It did its thing, unwinding like a crafty tight curve ball and I watched it disappear beneath my guard into my side and I just bent over involuntarily, folding up like a piece of heavy machinery done with its job. I stood outside of myself and observed my body falling, and there was nothing I could do about it. I simply watched as the wind left my lungs with a surprised Unnnngggghhh and felt the floor slam into my knees as I hit the ground.

I have to say, it was interesting. The pain didn’t seep in until just after. And it never went away. It was a sharp pain, complaining in my ribs when I breathed or tried to rise from a reclining position.

I’m telling this story because there are things that slip in and surprise you, and later, you think about whether you really should have been taken by surprise. And sometimes you can even watch these things as they happen. Is it useful to remember them? Is it useful to recall the failure and the loss? Is there any point in turning those memories over in your mind? Is there something useful in reliving how you’ve been hurt, even (or especially) those times you did it to yourself?

The easy answers are either “yes” or “no.” But if I refer back to my personal philosophy of thesis and antithesis yielding a more realistic synthesis, I can see that the answer lies somewhere in between. It depends.

I’ll try to pull this thing together with a timeline: The reason I’m telling this story the way I am is because I fell asleep this afternoon and woke up in that way one sometimes will – completely and totally disoriented in looking down to see you’re not where you thought you were. I’d dreamed I was dying and I couldn’t take a breath. I woke with a start and immediately had a seizure. What the hell is happening, I thought.

Oh, I remember thinking when I finally came out of it.

That’s right.

I began to laugh, and I couldn’t stop laughing. God, I had almost, in that peaceful slumber just before reality set in again, I had almost forgotten. The laughter soon turned to heaving sobs.

The memory was sharp in my chest, rising, and when I thought about it there was no surprise in the thing at all.

So, there we are. Today I dreamed I was back in the dojo, performing kata, feeling strong and confident and healthy. It was a good dream.

But now I’m awake and I’m back in my nightmare.

I just want to get through this kick, clear my head, and figure out what the hell I’m going to do next. I have to try to find a way out of this darkness.

I’m sorry I let you down.

Silent Scream…

I’m feeling a little manic right now. Racing heart and all. And a million thoughts clawing their way out. Hopefully they’ll spill onto the page in some relative order, antithetical to the form they currently take, which is to say a chaotic bundle of words with no start or end and seemingly no way to tie them together or to form an intelligible or cohesive goddamn thought.

A moment in time. I’m writing this in a moment in time between what was and will be. In a moment of clarity and complete lucidity and utter and devastating heartache and loneliness. But also in a rare moment of strength, something which has admittedly eluded me these last weeks. Indeed, on every level strength has been elusive. And I have given in and given up and given myself. Given myself over to it, again. And again. And again. But not tonight. Tonight I am clear and the thoughts are maddening and I have to get them out and write and give voice to the thoughts that have had a stranglehold on me of late, to the silent scream that is building to a deafening crescendo.

OK. I just took a deep breath. I should start over. Let me be clear. I’m not in a desperate place tonight. I’m not using. And I’m not experiencing a dark night of the soul. Truly. I don’t blame you if you doubt the sincerity of those sentences. But it’s true. It’s just, I just… I. I’m writing as I’m thinking, or rather, I’m writing, typing, furiously, to try to keep up with the thoughts in my head and I’m writing them exactly as they sound, as they echo, in my skull. It’s a weird way to do it, but it’s calming me, so please bear with me.

It’s been a little over a year since I overdosed and had the stroke. And it’s been a couple of months since my last extended hospital stay. That one took a lot out of me. Physically, I mean. But I want you to know, first and foremost, that I have been fighting like mad to come back. To get as healthy as I possibly can. I’m taking my meds. I have a visiting nurse who comes to the house every other day. And a physical therapist and speech therapist come twice a week. I’m working at this. It’s slow. Painstakingly slow. I’m frustrated as hell. Mostly, I stay in my house. I don’t usually have the energy to do much else. And mostly that’s been OK. I work to get well and in between that, I read and I write. I listen to music. And I watch football. I watch baseball, too. But I can’t talk about that right now because then I’ll get really depressed. God damn Red Sox. Jesus.

For as slow as daily life is moving right now, my mind is spinning at a frenetic pace and everything–my past, my present, my future–is coming at me with blinding fury. I’m trying to keep that all at bay. There’s a lot going on, which I’m sure is what’s precipitating this chaos, but I’m struggling like crazy right now to regain some strength and fight to undo some of the damage I’ve done to my body, and this emotional and spiritual stuff is kicking my ass.

If I manage to sleep, I wake up every morning just waiting for the weight of the day ahead to descend, to crash, down on me. It doesn’t, usually, but still, I wait for it. It’s an unfortunate consequence of the havoc I’ve wreaked on myself these last couple of years.

While I certainly no longer have a death wish, I’m not sure I exactly have a life wish either. And I’m desperate to get that back. I feel like I’ve been deprived at once of both life and death. It’s my own doing, and I know that. It’s just…I don’t know, like being in some weird existential limbo.

Solitude. Isolation. That’s the problem, I think. I mean, I’ve necessarily been tethered to my house, but it’s more than that. Things can quickly go from zero to Oh shit when you’re in a bad head space. The last few weeks have been a struggle for a couple of different reasons. I’m not ready to write it all out yet. I’ve written the things I had to write for now. Through it all, I’ve managed to stay clean, but a couple of times I’ve regressed and started cutting again. It’s a pain I can control and I need some control. I’m ashamed each time I do it, even as I draw the blade across my skin and feel the momentary respite from the emotional anguish as the physical pain overrides it. I know it’s not going to last. I know it’s not the answer. It’s as bad as sticking a needle in my arm for that momentary relief. It’s such fucking addict behavior. I’m still just a goddamn junkie. No matter what I do, it’s always going to beat me in some way. Even if I’m not using. Even if it’s not manifesting in the destructive physical actions, it will continue to eat away at me from the inside. I hate this fucking disease.

For almost a year I’ve worked so hard on my sobriety. The part of myself that I thought I’d exorcised turned out to have been only lying in wait, ready to pounce at the first opportunity. Tonight seems to be that opportunity.

But here’s what I’m hoping is going to get me through this night: I’m writing these words and I know there are people out there who’ll read them who understand just where I am. They’ve been there and made it through to the other side. So who’s to say I can’t too. I guess. Right? Their example gives me hope. And that is as tangible a thing as any on a maddening night like this.

Flatline: Back from the Dead. Physically, At Least

I’m here. Back? Again. Still? It’s all very confusing. I remember very little of the last few weeks.

Before: I remember feeling quite unwell. Weak. Hurting. Scared. But determined. Determined that I was doing the right thing by not doing anything. Sure this was the right decision. Confident in my resolve. I actually felt at peace with the decision. I thought I did anyway. I woke up one day feeling worse than usual. I remember coughing up blood. I remember feeling very disconnected from everything. I remember screaming in pain. And then it goes blank.

After: I remember waking up, a tube down my throat, unable to move. I was tethered to a myriad of beeping, flashing machines. It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar sight, but something was different this time. Something felt different. As my eyes adjusted after being closed for the better part of a week, my head with swimming with memories. Falling, crashing, struggling for breath. I started thrashing against the various tubes that were holding me in place. A nurse came running in to calm me. Was I alive? Jesus, I was alive. My eyes closed again and didn’t open for another 30 hours. When I awoke this time, I was staring into face of my doctor. He was talking, but I could only hear half of what he was saying. It was hard to keep my eyes open, let alone concentrate on a conversation.

“Stop fighting me, stop fighting yourself, start fighting the disease,” I heard. “You deserve to live.”

He said those words, and the tears began go roll. I wept silently as he left me to ponder that thought, which he did only after touching my shoulder in a show of affection. A touch. An affectionate touch. That gesture did more for me than any medicine could at that moment. It had been so long since I’d had any physical contact that didn’t end in pain. Humans aren’t meant to live free of contact. If I’d have had the strength I would have reached out for an embrace. God, what I’d do for a hug right now. A touch to know I’m alive and that someone cares. Did I believe his words? Did I deserve to live? Did anyone care? He did. And at that moment, that was all that mattered.

I’m such a wretched mess. A broken shell of who I once promised to be. The next few days had me  feeling anxious and confused. Also sad. I didn’t know what to do. That’s just a fact. I say I know what I wanted. I say I’d made my choice. But the truth is I didn’t have a clue. The truth is this wasn’t my decision to make; I had no right to make it. The truth is I was terrified that I’d choose wrong. And so there I was, lying in a hospital bed having made the decision to come off meds and let nature takes its course, only now I’m thinking that maybe that’s wrong. Maybe that’s letting the bad guys win. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned it is that while they may have won some battles, it is NOT ok to let them win the war.

So. Decision time. What do I do? God knows I’ve had time on my hands to weigh the options. On the surface, they’re pretty clear cut: Take the meds and I can stay alive. Don’t take the meds and I’m absolutely hastening my death. My body is breaking down. My t-cells have bottomed out, my viral load is through the roof. I’m battling infections and exhaustion and addiction, and physical trauma.

Those are my options: life or death. Sure, on the surface, the options are clear. But there’s a tangled mess that runs deep beneath both those choices. To choose to go back on the meds means I have to choose life. I have to WANT to live and want it badly, because there’s a whole world of hurt that goes along with living and I need to know I can face it and deal with it, and do it alone. Otherwise, this is all just a waste of time. Choosing life means that my physical self will surely improve. The doctors can control most of that. I can feel good again. I can exist without, or basically without, pain. The infections can be dealt with. I can regain strength.

But it’s the other part of me that’s of concern. If I choose life it means I have to go back to dealing with all that comes with it and I have to do it sober. For a long time I managed to do just that. I had a good life. I was blessed with a lot of good things. Most important, I had once surrounded myself with people who loved me and whom I loved. You can’t live life in a vacuum. I’ve been doing just that for the better part of 2 years. I’ve isolated myself, and in doing so have forgotten what it means to be alive. Many of my friends long ago gave up on me. They couldn’t understand my self-loathing. It made them uncomfortable. They watched me go from a successful, happy person living a full life, to this empty, hot mess. They couldn’t bear to watch any longer. Who could blame them? Slowly, they floated from the center of my life to the periphery, and finally vanished altogether.

If I choose to live I have to be prepared for what that means. It’s going to be a struggle to stay sober because it’s easier to face this stuff completely numb. But if I go back to using then I may as well make sure I take enough to stop my heart because it will all just be a colossal waste. Living means I have to deal with the abuse from my past. If I don’t deal with it the terror will consume me in short order. It always does. It means facing my abuser. It means reaching back 30 years to begin to heal the child I was in order to accept the adult I am. It means I have to learn to face the shame. It means I have to learn to NOT hate myself. Do I have it in me to do that?

I flatlined twice on my way to the hospital that day, nearly a month ago. I died. I remember things. I think I do anyway. I’m a believer. In God, in a life beyond this mortal coil. And I’m sure my beliefs (and fervent hopes) have in some way skewed the reality of what I actually experienced. To that end, I’m not going to write about those things. Not yet anyway. I want to keep that for myself for now.

Right now I have to deal with what’s in front of me. I’ve lost the hearing in my right ear thanks to one of the infections I didn’t bother seeking treatment for. Physically I’m weaker than I’ve ever been. I can’t walk without assistance. My speech is impaired. My lungs still ache when I breathe in too deeply. My gut is a pit of fire. I have a feeding tube that’s delivering the necessary nutrition. My desire to eat is nonexistent.

I just feel very alone. I’m wholly unsure of my ability to deal with what’s headed my way. I know one thing: I have a lot to work out. I don’t want to die in this misery. I thought I was ready. I was wrong.

—-

A month ago I was feeling quite apathetic about life. I didn’t have a death wish, exactly. But I also didn’t have anything resembling a life wish. The demon of apathy had taken possession of me at a very early age. I felt her shadow across my path constantly. It was like a shadow of disapproval, silent and insidious, like a poison slowly injected into the veins. Something else I know a bit about.

As I sit here, struggling to come to terms with this reality, all I can do is write it out. It’s all I’ve ever done. I want to write of my desire to live, but it’s so new to me I hardly know where to start, except to say that my hunger for life is insatiable, but so too, is my fear of it. A fear born from evil, deeply imbued. A fear whose birth I can directly pinpoint. The years which have intervened since that day of the Fear belong to that dark side of life in whose shadow I have struggled to breathe. It is indeed an affliction which poisoned me at the zenith and the nadir of my being, no matter how gallantly I struggle against it.

But the Words will come. They always do. And for now, as ever before, they will sustain me. They will give me strength, the Words.

 

Beyond Words

My friend B called me last night. One of his typical late-night phone calls. He knows me well. B is a palliative care physician in New York who came into my life several years ago after I was introduced to him by a friend who had read a book he’d written on end-of-life care. Our friendship began as a simple email correspondence and flourished over time into great philosophical debates about euthanasia, suicide, living and dying well, and, of course, the Red Sox. In some attempt to inspire me back to life, B suggested several months ago that we collaborate on an article for Atlantic Monthly on “dying hard in America.” I agreed, partly because I was interested in the project and partly because it did, in fact, give me something to hold on tight to. We struggled with the format in the beginning. He wanted me to write straight prose about living and dying with AIDS. But who wants to listen to a woman with AIDS bitch and moan about life and death, I argued, if it isn’t tempered with the wit and wisdom of a God-fearing, Springsteen-loving, Sox-bashing, Jewish (mother-of-a) doctor who, for reasons that defy logic, became her friend.

Thus began our journey. We decided that our email correspondence would serve as the bulk of the thing and we’d worry about editing it later. There are no truer words than those written by the pair of us at obscene hours of the night when life and death and all that weighs heavily upon our shoulders leaves us to the mercy of the Words. It has become our opus. Only, I can’t write anymore, and B called to find out why.

My silence always scares him, he says. He fears it’ll become too much of a burden and I will lose the battle to the Silence. I told him I wanted to stop writing the article. I couldn’t tell him why. It’s all just become too much. The raw emotion of the words I was trying to share left me far more vulnerable than I was comfortable with.

He let me get away with that for now, but vows to re-engage me soon. He asked a final question before he lightened the mood with baseball banter: Was I thinking of going to the cabin? I assured him I wasn’t. We made a deal and I gave my word that I’d tell him if it ever came to that. We have to trust each other.

I Was There; Now I’m Here…

1972 – I’m born.

1972-1980 – I live mostly with my grandparents, who shower me with affection and make me feel absolutely safe and loved. My guardian angels.

1980 – I’m delivered back to the hands of my parents, who, one would have hoped, had grown up enough to take responsibility for their child.

1980 (2 weeks after being put back with my parents) – I am raped for the first time by “J.” The abuse goes on for years.

1980-1983 – I live every day in fear and self-loathing. The abuse continues.

1983 – I take my first drink.

1986 – I start high school. I already have a dealer. I have used pot, pills, booze.

1988 – Cocaine. I start cutting. Physical pain lessens the emotional pain. I can deal better with the physical pain. I’m almost immune to it now. A suicide attempt. A feeble attempt at best. The proverbial cry for help. None comes.

1990 – I graduate high school. Take 6 months off to figure out what I want to do with my life. I think they call it “finding yourself.”

1990 – I start college. Despite my continued and increasing drug and alcohol use, I am wildly successful in college. I write for the literary magazine and school paper. I write my first play, which the college produces my junior year.

1993 – I write my first screenplay, at the behest of one my favorite and most inspired English professors. It’s awful. Really, truly, embarrassingly awful.

1995 – I have a degree, ambition, and a raging drug and alcohol problem.

1995 – I collapse, I assume from exhaustion, in front of a restaurant and am brought to the hospital. I am diagnosed during that stay with HIV. I choose not to process the information. I am released from the hospital and the liquor store is my first stop. Then my dealer’s place. I am pretty well constantly loaded for the next month or so.

1995-1999 – I get my foot in the publishing industry, working first as an associate editor and then a development editor for a large publishing company in Boston. For the last year of my employment there, I bring vodka in my thermos every day for lunch. I have extra bottles in my car in case I work late and run out. When I go out for client lunches, I often make detours to meet my dealer.

1999 – Jaded by the publishing world, I look for something else to do that will pay my bills and be somewhat fulfilling.  I land a job as a journalist at a company that will be my home for the next 11 years. For 2 of those years, I work in-house at the company in NY. When I decide to return to Boston, I continue to work as a freelancer for the next 9 years for the same company. This same year I start an editorial company, working with many talented authors. My own writing takes a dark turn and becomes my albatross.

2000 – I have a nearly completed a manuscript and send out 10 queries to agents in Boston and New York, hoping to get a bite from at least one. Seven respond. I sign with one in NY and he starts shopping my manuscript. Later that year I fuck that up by blowing every deadline I’m ever given. I’m starting to self destruct.

2001 – 9/11. I lose a friend in the attacks on our country. My anger at the world is exponentially increased. So, too, is my self-hatred.

2002 – I have little recollection of this year, actually. There was an arrest for DUI at some point. My health starts to deteriorate toward the end of the year. I am angry all the time.

2003 – I overdose twice. Brought back once by friends and once at the hospital. Fearing I’m going to die, my friends, led by my former pastor, stage an intervention. I surrender.  I get clean. Sobriety sticks.  I start what will turn out to be a 7-year run of sobriety. I work hard at it every single day. I work the program. I am grateful. I am embracing life. My health improves. I enjoy wonderful success, editing for others, selling my own writing. I have phenomenal friends. I buy my first house. Then my second. I get a dog. Then a second. Life is good. I meet a guy. We get married. Two months into the marriage he hits me for the first time.

2004-2005 – The abuse intensifies. A broken collar bone one time. Two broken ribs another. Bruises, cuts. I stay clean. Work is what sustains me now. The old demons start to stretch and claw their way back in.

2006 – My beloved grandmother succumbs to breast cancer. I am devastated. My heart is broken.  But I do not resort to my old habits. Yet. I do, however, garner the strength to kick my abusive prick of a husband to the curb once and for all. I file a restraining order when he tells me he’s bought a gun and that I better watch my back. Don’t have to tell me twice.

2007-2010 – I work non-stop. I continue with the editing work, because I love it, but most of my income for several years now has come from my own writing. I’ve written several plays that have been produced in and around Boston. I start my third screenplay.

January 2010 – My health starts to deteriorate again. I am frustrated, angry, scared. Meanwhile, the sleeping monster within me stirs, letting me know he’s still there. And he is hungry.

April 2010 – I make a call. The call that will change everything. The monster awakens.

December 2010 – My best friend dies.

2010-2011 – There are several large chunks of time I just can’t recall.

August  2011 – After almost 90 days clean, I use. Hard. Shortly thereafter I suffer a stroke and spend a couple of weeks in the hospital.

October 2011 – My cousin dies in front of me from an overdose.

October 2011 – I am hospitalized with pneumonia and put on a ventilator for several days.

October 23, 2011 – Day 1 sober.

February 2011 – My grandfather dies. I am lying in his hospital bed with him when he passes. It is both beautiful and devastating.

2012 – I turn 40. Jesus.

2012 – My health continues to deteriorate, thanks in part to my refusing to go back on meds. It’s a decision I struggle with on a daily basis. Mostly I ignore it and focus on writing, trying to finish this last project.

May 2012 – I have some decisions to make.

May 20, 2012 – 211 days sober. Stay tuned…

Having the Guts to Live

I spent a few days at the beginning of this month in the hospital. I’d had a seizure, which has been happening more and more frequently–and usually doesn’t require a hospital visit–but this time I fell hard during the seizure, right into (and ultimately through) a glass-top table in my living room. It’s actually the second time that’s happened to me. I may invest in a wooden coffee table. Or, perhaps I’ll just toss beanbag chairs throughout the room to cushion any future falls.

Anyway. When my doctor came into the room the day after I was admitted, he shook his head and lost his cool. My doctor is usually very patient with me. But I think he’s done watching me kill myself one bad decision at a time. And he told me as much. There was no beating around the bush this time. He told me that because I had come off the meds, my immune system is shot and that body cannot keep up the fight. Nothing I didn’t already know, doc.

So I’ve spent the last week or so doing some serious soul-searching. When I came home from the hospital this past time, I was forced to look at what the hell has been going on in my life. I’m haunted in this house right now and I need to do something about that. I’ve given all the power to those who’ve hurt me and it’s time to take some back. One of the first things I saw when I walked into my living room was a needle lying on the coffee table. I have about 200 hypodermic needles in a box that I had been using to give my dog her insulin before she died not long ago. I hadn’t yet got rid of them and the night before I went back in the hospital I was desperate for a high and considering I’ve been sober for about 6 months and I no longer have a secret stash, I figured I’d improvise. I cooked down some Benadryl I had lying around and was going to inject it. It’s supposed to give you quite the speed high. Really? Is this what it’s come down to? Jesus. I don’t remember why I stopped before I injected it, but the night I got home from the hospital, the syringe was still on the table. I thought of picking it up and placing it against a vein in the crook of my arm. It was just instinct. I’d struggled all day with pain and anxiety. I wanted to be numb. That’s my defense mechanism. Get numb. But if I go back to that now…well, I’m out of chances. This is my last shot. I pushed the plunger and released the liquid into the sink and then I just sat and cried.

I realize I’ve been consumed with self-pity and it’s time to get over it.

A brief non sequitur:

Dante reserved the last and most dire of his nine descending, concentric rings of hell for sinners of betrayal. These were the worst sinners of all, who had the trust of those who loved them yet betrayed that confidence for their own pleasure, their own gain. Like Brutus, Or Cassius, Or Judas with his empty hand full of silver.

As far as I’ve ever been able to tell, with my admittedly superficial understanding, the only sin that Dante missed was self-pity.  I wonder which ring he would have set aside for those who can think of nothing but lost opportunities, of what was done, of what should have been done, and the bleak contemplation of redemption.

Still and all, there is a line, however thin, between self-pity and self-loathing. I consider self-pity to be a weakness of childhood, which can, of course, extend far into those double-digit years. And self-loathing is a much different, more insidious creature. It is the self-imposed curse of those who can conceive all sides of an argument, yet who cannot – or will not – choose to believe there is good in himself.

I wonder when it began. Idly enough, to be sure, because I don’t really care.

And I wonder if I ever really had any sort of judgment with regard to things that can be changed, things that cannot, and whether I ever really knew the difference.

A friend recently gave me a book called Guts by Kristen Johnston and told me I should read it immediately. I love when people are so passionate about their book recommendations. To me, it means that the book moved that person in some way and that’s really all the convincing I need.

I knew who Kristen Johnston was before I picked up the book. I like her because she’s talented and I enjoy her work; I adore her because she’s snarky as hell and that is a characteristic that I admire the hell out of.  Upon completion of her book, I found I love Ms. Johnston for her raw honesty and utter strength. I aspire to those things and so I look to strong women like Kristen Johnston as examples in my sober journey.

To me, the mark of a good book is its ability to make you react viscerally. There were moments of unadulterated hilarity in Guts, times I laughed out loud. And there were many moments where I was left unconsciously shaking my head, shivering, cringing. Her story was utterly relatable. From her childhood stories chronicling her love of Judy Blume books, her tendency to exist as times in her imagination, her penchant for drinking vodka-laced OJ at the local HoJo’s. Those were all things I could relate to. And then there were the bigger themes, of course: the desperation, loneliness, shame, fear, rage. The hopelessness known so well by all addicts.

The line in the book that is kicking around my head as I write this reads thusly: “…despite years of slowly killing myself, all I wanted, with more passion and ferocity than I’d ever wanted anything else in my entire life, was to live.” Yep. That about sums it up. That line clinched this particular memoir as among those that have had a deep, powerful effect on me at a time when I needed to hear the message the author intended. I’ve had trouble with that whole wanting to live thing lately. I’ve been struggling mightily with it, in fact. But today, as  I sit at my desk, window open, sun streaming in, the warmth of spring making it just a little easier to breathe, I can say for the first time in weeks, months, really: I want to live. Thank you, Ms. Johnston, for reminding me. I want to live.

Ms. Jonhston writes that she’s “convinced the only people worth knowing are those who’ve had at least one dark night of the soul.” Well, hell, honey, let me introduce myself. My name is M, and my particular dark night of the soul has lasted about a year and a half. Truth be told, I’m not worth knowing right now. It’s dark in my world, in my head, in my soul. But I was once, and if I’m open to some light seeping into this tortured mind of mine, I may yet be worth it again. Here’s to abandoning the end game and embracing life.  Here’s to having the Guts to live.

Death Be Not Proud

I awoke from a fitful sleep around 6:00 tonight and walked outside for the first time in days. The cold stung my face and there was a deep ache in my lungs as I inhaled the painfully fresh air. I squinted hard against the sun, which was still high in the sky, though descending quickly, preparing to be engulfed by the impending dark. The impending dark. That’s what the recent past has been for me. Gloom and angst and despair and hopelessness, dealt with in times past by yours truly by ingesting whatever was on hand that promised to shield me from such unpleasantness. Of course, we all know that that particular solution brings with it its own set of consequences, no? While I don’t like to admit it, that solution is temporary, and ultimately far more horrifying than just dealing with the realities of one’s life.

So the past couple months have been rough, and I’ve been mostly absent from this social media thing because (a) I didn’t have the energy, physical or otherwise, to sit and write, and (b) I just didn’t give a shit. Some friends say I’ve been isolating. They’re right. I have been. They’re worried I’m using. I’m not. Or at least I haven’t yet. I have no idea what the next 5 minutes will bring. But as I type this I’m 160 days clean and sober. But, fuck, I’ve wanted to use in the worst way. I’ve wanted to use so bad it hurts. I could have used some numb these last couple of months.

What’s been going on? First this happened:

[Written in early February]

I’m sitting in my grandfather’s house. The house in which I lived until I was 8, next to the man who, along with my beloved grandmother, raised me until my parents came back to claim me. I’m lying next to my grandfather in his hospital bed, provided to him about a month ago by hospice. He and I are the only ones here. The house is quiet, except for the whirring of the machine supplying oxygen to help him breathe. The machine, mercifully, is drowning out the occasional moans and sighs coming from my grandfather. I take those sounds as indications of pain and I am stricken each time I hear one. I want to take his pain. He has been unconscious for 2 days. They have him on high doses of morphine to stem the pain that racks his body when he wakes. The cancer is beastly and is consuming him from the inside out. Selfishly, I want him to open his eyes, to look at me, to smile, to tell me he loves me, to squeeze my hand. Anything. I’ll take anything. Just a brief response, and then a return to peace. It’s selfish, I know. But I’m desperate for it. I’ve been by his side since Monday. It’s devastating to be here. But it’s where I have to be. It is the greatest gift I can give him, and it’s the greatest gift he can give me. To be here with him, by his side. Holding his hand, stroking his forehead, wiping his brow. This is his final journey. And I am part of it. I am here. Present. He is peaceful. I want this to be peaceful for him, above all else. Meanwhile, there’s a storm raging in my gut, in my heart. I am losing him. I am lost. Exactly two people in this world ever loved me unconditionally: my grandmother and my grandfather. I lost my grandmother 5 years, 9 months, and 19 days ago. It’s time for my grandfather to join her. He is ready. I am not. There’s a pillow under my grandfather’s legs. The blankets are pulled up to his chest. His hands lie by his side. His mouth is open, his breathing labored. I spend most of the time with my hand placed gently on his chest, rising and falling with the cadence of each labored breath. The breaths were coming more evenly earlier today. Now they are halted, far less rhythmic. I can feel his heart beating beneath my hand. I never want to take my hand away. I need to feel his heart. My own beats in time with his. We are connected on a level far deeper than I can understand or convey. I can feel his soul, his spirit stirring, restless. I can hear our hearts beating in time. I talk gently to him. I don’t know if he hears me. I think he does. The sights, the sounds, the smells of this house. The memories. They envelop me. I am a child again. I am safe. I never want to leave. I want to stay forever in this exact moment in time. I would crawl into my grandparent’s bed as a child. After a nightmare, or when I wasn’t feeling well. It provided an instant measure of comfort. I melted into their arms, their embrace, and knew I was safe. I was loved. I was protected. I’m 8 years old again. Only instead of me being ripped away from them, he is now being ripped away from me. Heartache is a real and true thing. My grandfather. Gramps. Grampy. I miss his voice already. I heard it for the last time 2 days ago. I already long to hear it again. The throaty southern accent. At once gruff and soothing. Please. Just one more word. A lucid moment. One more thing I can lock away to remember. To hold on to. We always think there will be enough time, don’t we? But I can feel the time racing away even as I push against it with all my strength and will. It’s no longer years or months or weeks or days. It’s hours or minutes or seconds. Passing and passing and passing, cruelly, before I can catch my breath to pray and beg and plead. Just a little more time. To lie here with him, my hand on his chest, my cheek against his. He is warm. He hasn’t taken food or liquid in 3 days. His organs will start to fail soon. It won’t be long. And I will be here, next to him, holding his hand. I am on this journey with him. His journey is my own now. Because it is the greatest gift I can give him, and the greatest gift he can give me.

And then this happened:

[Written two days later]

Gramp passed away at 2:18 this afternoon. I was lying next to him, holding his hand. His breathing had become shallow during the course of the day, and then he took one final breath and he was gone. Just like that. The journey that had started for this man, this World War II vet, this husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, friend back in 1921, ended peacefully before my eyes 90 years later. I have witnessed the very beginning of life and the very end of it. The first brought me immeasurable joy; the second, immeasurable sorrow. Still, I feel blessed to have been there with him. But how my heart aches this night. I’m exhausted. Physically and emotionally. I feel empty. He is at peace. There is no more pain. He’s back with my grandmother, where he belongs. For these things, I am so grateful. I’m back home now. I was going to spend another night at his house, but I couldn’t bear the silence, the stillness, the emptiness. It took the funeral home an hour to come get my grandfather this afternoon. I never moved from his side. I wanted to stay with him as long as I could. It was so surreal. To feel the warmth, the breath, the essence of life leave and be replaced by such stillness. I felt his skin grow cold, watched the color drain from his face. At one point I thought I felt his chest rise with a breath. I know it was my mind playing tricks on me but it sent a chill up my spine. I couldn’t bring myself to leave his side. Finally, though, I had to. The funeral home came to get him. I kissed his forehead, hugged him tight, and told him I loved him. And then I was alone. Alone in the house. Alone in life. For the first time in my life, there is no one on this planet who loves me and has my back no matter what. My grandparents were my rock, my protectors, my life. Now both of them are gone. I am fighting with everything I have not to let my sadness morph into despair and desperation. I can feel myself on the razor’s edge of self-destruction, wanting so badly to just be with my grandparents again. Wanting so badly to just end the pain, once and for all. But I know that anything less than living my life clean and sober and in some meaningful way would be doing a huge disservice to my grandparents. These wonderful, loving people who raised me to respect life, not spit in its face. I can be sad. But if I let it consume me, I will be dishonoring them. So I’ll get through this night. And the next one. And the one after that. And I’ll do it with the strength they instilled in me during the first 8 years of my life. That strength has pulled me through hell and back. And I can take some comfort knowing that my grandparents are together again, holding hands, watching down on me, pulling for me still. Always.

———

Anyway. That’s what’s been going on the last couple of months.

Also, I came off my meds. The pain in my gut is almost intolerable. And the seizures are coming more frequently. I don’t know if I’d given the meds enough time to work, but my viral load hadn’t come down and my T-cells hadn’t improved much. Plus? I stopped giving a fuck. So there’s that.

I have a bad attitude. I know. I’m working on it.

It’s snowing tonight. It’s a light snow, and it’s dancing around in the light from the back deck. It’s really quite magnificent.

I just opened the widow beside me a crack to get some fresh air. My dog, who was curled next to me on the couch, jumped down in protest to the invasion of the cold. A snowflake just came in through the screen and landed on his nose, dissolving almost instantly. He licked his nose and jumped back up to nuzzle me. I’m happy for the company.

I am desperate for sleep. But I’m terrified to close my eyes. Nightmares. They started the day of my grandfather’s wake. Perpetuated, no doubt, by grief and sadness. But the loss wasn’t the catalyst. Not precisely anyway. The catalyst was the horror that followed. Having to deal with my bat-shit crazy family, sure. But worse still? The encounter at my beloved grandfather’s funeral.

But I can’t write about that now. In fact, I’m done writing altogether this night. I’m going to sit outside for a bit. I need some fresh air.

Tired…

It’s fear and uncertainty that influence me on every level these days. My existence seems almost mechanical at times, as I try to bury what I can’t bring myself to face. So I’ve worked too hard, and I’ve stayed awake too long, and I’ve indulged too often, and I’ve tried to forget. But in the process, I’ve forgotten what the whole point is, or perhaps I never knew it. I think I did though, because I remember a time when I could feel. I just want that back.
 
I’m tired.
       I’m tired of doing this.
              I’m tired of doing this alone.
 
I’m 49 days sober today.