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.

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.

Two Roads Diverged…

I got a text from a friend earlier. “Where are you,” it read. I laughed to myself as I read it and wondered for a moment whether she meant literally or existentially. I wondered because the question could be taken either way. If she meant it literally, then I was (and am) sitting at a desk in an outrageously overpriced hotel in the great city of Boston. Its rooms are hardly reflective of the exorbitant cost, but its relative proximity to Fenway Park command it, I suppose. If she meant it existentially, well, then I was (and am) in the ninth circle of my own private Idaho. Damn. That metaphor worked better when I whispered to myself. Where I am is in my head. And it’s a fucking jungle in here.

Had the question been asked last night, the answer would have been altogether different. Last night, I communed, quite literally, with the dead. I spent several hours at my grandmother’s graveside, propped up against her headstone, talking endlessly about nothing. Not nothing, I suppose. Rather, everything. Everything I couldn’t talk to her about when she was alive. Everything I can’t bring myself to say aloud to anyone with a, you know, pulse. Don’t worry, she didn’t answer me back. I’m not completely delusional. Still, I felt a modicum of comfort sitting there. I’d planned on leaving after I poured my heart out to her. Instead I laid down and just fell asleep. It was a brief slumber, but a fairly peaceful one.

A week or so ago I tweeted the following Erich Fromme quote: “To die is poignantly bitter; the idea of having to die without having lived is unbearable.” Those words resonated with me. I quoted Fromme, and then wrote my own [expanded upon] version of his thoughts: The courage to love is what sustains me now. But if I don’t live to be old, don’t think that I couldn’t have made something out of my life. My only regret is that I will die without having left my mark. At 18 I was prepared to take on the world, to suck all the marrow out of life. Now I just want to hold onto it for a while. I just wish the fear would go away.

Two roads diverged. Which will I take? I’ve no idea, really. I don’t know much, but here’s what I do know: So far I’ve been given 39 years, 8 months,  11 days, 19 hours, and some odd minutes to make something of a life I don’t understand in a world I don’t comprehend. I’ve spent a lot of time questioning my existence. I’ve also spent a lot of time in awe at the world around me and for that I am grateful. I think maybe our reward for putting up with all the other crap is all that having a heart, mind, and soul brings with it. I have been alive to see the sun rise and set roughly 14,486 times; I have stood at the edge of the ocean, looking out into the seeming abyss, and stared with wonder at its vast beauty and mystery; I have read words by poets that have touched my soul, and listened to music that has, at times, moved me to tears; I have felt love and hate, and I have tried to understand the dynamics of both; I have known despair as well as joy, and have tried to live my life with some sense of purpose. I have often struggled to find that purpose, but I have never denied its ultimate existence. Now, in the face of a decision that I’m not sure I have the right to make, I want desperately to understand that purpose once and for all. Only my heart and my God can help me with that one.

Two roads diverged. It’s time to pick a path. But for right now, I have 23 days sober. And I have today. I can’t ask for more than that.

Terror, Revisited

I’m pretty sure I have an ulcer. The pain that has me doubled over radiates deep in my abdomen and leaves me nearly breathless at times. Nauseous almost constantly. I hate it. But usually I can will it away. Not so much will it away, really, as ignore it until whatever I’m doing at the moment distracts me enough to trick my brain into believing there’s nothing going on. That works most of the time. A fistful of Tums doesn’t hurt either. Not so long ago that would have been a fistful of Xanax and the pain that may be a physical reality would have been replaced by the warm and fuzzies that take over as those pills slid down my throat and worked their magic. Follow that with a vodka chaser and I was good for days. Too much to lose if I succumb to that remedy tonight. I know that. Still, the pain this night is as real as ever and I need to purge all these thoughts that are choking me tonight.

I hardly know where to start. It’s been overwhelming. I guess from A to Z. Beginning to end. Only not really. Easiest to most difficult. No. That doesn’t work either. How about I just start then?

I experienced my great crisis in my early twenties. Well, I guess it started earlier, but surely it culminated and became defining then. At that moment in my life I had reached the edge of madness; from that point on my life became an unending desert…a Faustian nightmare…and I began to see the world as a jungle, one in which I was perpetually unable to protect myself. The repercussions of that year, of that very night, have reached far and keep me bound still in their unyielding stranglehold. It is all drawn out so woefully. And there remains only the great solitude in the shadow of memory.

I survived that night to be sure. But I am vulnerable to the continual relapse that has me on the verge of terror or in fear of madness. I retreat then to the safety of the blank page before me. It is my valley of death which I traverse, the dark interval during which I lose my relation with the cosmos. It is the time of the Assassins. I no longer “vibrate with exultation,” as young Rimbaud said. I writhe and squirm with fear ad uncertainty. And it has brought me to this very place. This place where I now find myself laying bare my soul to the anonymous Reader, opening the wound and letting the blood flow. The blood. The virulent blood running, wreaking havoc though my veins. I find myself relaying to no one the truth of who I was then, the end of my life as it was, and the beginning of this journey that has haunted me for so many years.

It’s taken all my energy. I don’t have the strength, physically or otherwise, to fight it off. It has robbed me of sleep again and again and has finally landed me here.  Too afraid to close my eyes, too tired to keep them open. A crossroads. The stuff is so vague. In case. And did you know that. There is. And. Wait. Not. No. Sure. But maybe. And endless stream of consciousness. Or incessant babble. I’m tired. And weary.

This post hasn’t gone where I expected it to go. It hasn’t gone anywhere actually. Still, I’m loath to scrap it altogether. It’s what came out. It is what it is. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the happenings of the last few weeks. The last few months, really. I’m trying to establish a timeline of the insanity, but I’ve killed several million brain cells via my indulgence in this substance or that recently, and it’s only coming back in dribs and drabs.

I’ll try to make sense of it all later. Right now I need tea. It’s going to be a long night.

All in the Family…

Well, it’s official. Addiction has finally decimated my entire family. I spent the day with my grandfather. My grandfather, who wants nothing more than to make it to his 90th birthday in December, but whose cancer is spreading wildly throughout his body, making that goal less and less likely to be achieved. It’s gone from his lungs to his bones and his brain. Just like it did with my grandmother. The difference is he’s in a lot of pain. She, thank God, never was. I sat with him today, as I did with her at the end, holding hands and just being in the moment. I put the morphine under his tongue when I sensed he needed it, though his pride prevented him from actually asking for it. He’s out of it enough that he failed to notice my own physical limitations. My slurred, halted speech and impaired mobility. He fell in and out of sleep. While he slept I did what I could to pick up around the house. I did his laundry and put fresh sheets on his hospital bed. I emptied the two urinals that sat by the chair where he slept. I tossed old food from the fridge, food that’s gone to waste because he’s no longer able to eat it. And I cleared the kitchen and dining room of all the empty alcohol bottles. I’m sure some of the older ones were his. Most were my uncle’s or my cousin’s. It was just my grandfather and me today. I had been afraid I’d run into someone else but I couldn’t put off seeing him any longer. His time is running out.
I wanted to take a long sweet sip from the full bottles that remained. I wanted to feel the burn as it slid down my throat. I didn’t want to stop until I was numb to all that surrounded me. I didn’t. But I wanted to. The nurse came around 7:00. It was time for me to go. I hugged him tightly. I could hear the rattle in his lungs. His lips had a blue hue to them, though he’s on continuous oxygen. He struggles for each breath. Still, he was warm. And I settled into the familiar embrace for longer than I expected. Both our cheeks were damp with tears as I lifted myself up. I swallowed a sob, told him I loved him, and said I’d be back. I don’t think either of us is entirely sure we’ll see each other again. I felt the familiar heartache.
I left and immediately had to switch my mind from heartache to determination. I took the long cab ride to the hotel in the city that will serve as my home until I accomplish what I came here to do. As I write this I’m waiting for a cab to take me to a place I shouldn’t be going. I wouldn’t be going, but for the fact that I have to go find my cousin who I quite literally just found out today has a raging drug problem and has been stealing and borrowing money from everyone she knows, including me. Ten thousand dollars in 5 months. Ten grand. Five months. My cousin. What the fuck. I sure as hell can’t judge. However, she’s been stealing our dying grandfather’s pain meds. Time to get involved. She was the last best hope for this fucking family. The one I thought escaped. She was in nursing school. She’s not any more apparently. Her sister, who hasn’t spoken to me since our grandmother died, texted me and asked me to go look for her. Guess she figured I’d know the seediest placed to look. She’s not wrong. There’s a warrant out for my cousin’s arrest. I should probably just let them do this. But I can’t. I just hope we don’t both fall tonight.

Ruminations on the Nature of Things…

I’m starting to lose myself. Even as I creep slowly back to awareness, back to consciousness after these last dizzying 6 weeks, as the reality sets in and I’m brought back around to this realm from the one in which I’ve been ensconced, even now I’m not sure what’s real and what’s not. I’ve been faking my way through the last 6 weeks, but now, finally, it’s all catching up with me. The armor of strength I feigned to avoid the inevitable breakdown has become a mere shadow, taunting me as I struggle to hold onto it. Where once there was strength, now sorrow and despair have sunk in and have me in a stranglehold that makes it difficult to breathe as I come to terms with it all. How desperately I long to be numb once again, to not have to feel.

The only difference between now and 6 weeks ago is thus: I was haunted by different things 6 weeks ago, only then the terror tended to vanish to the bottom of a glass, becoming more abstract, less threatening. I’ve not used since the day before I had the stroke. It’s not that I don’t want to use. Quite the opposite is true, in fact. As the days continue to slide into one another, I want nothing more than to drown any coherent thoughts I have in absinthe and despair. But I can’t. I will die if I do that.

But how I want to pour a shot. I want to swallow a bottle of Valium and chase it with a bottle of rum. I want to grab the sharpest blade I can find and run it hard against my skin to cause myself physical pain to distract me from the emotional anguish of what is happening around me. But I can’t. I can’t move.

I wrote about memories this morning. And grief. It was more of a yell than a thought, but the process was somewhat cathartic. I expressed my rage and lightning didn’t strike. So there’s that…

The One With 38 Days…

Hi, my name is M. and I’m an alcoholic and an addict.

I haven’t said those words in a long time. About 14 months, actually. That’s when I relapsed. After 7 years of sobriety, some things started going wrong and I fell back into the trap of dealing with life by not dealing with it. It was a habit I formed early in life when it just became too unbearable to deal with certain things. At 8 when I was raped by “J,” that’s when it started. I remember quite vividly the very moment I collapsed within myself and could no longer deal with things in a normal way. I took my first drink at 11, just before the abuse stopped. I smoked my first joint 2 years later, and by 17 it was balls to the wall in terms of substance abuse. I was in it. It almost killed me, but back then it’s what kept me alive. Being numb. If not for that, I’d have surely swallowed the business end of a gun long before I even reached my 20s. I’m now at the tail end of my 30s and though the vast majority of this decade of my life has been spent not only sober, but happy, successful, and productive, I find myself once again on the precipice, thrashing wildly between madness and sanity as I try to escape the grip of this insidious disease.

Truth be told? I’m far more afraid of my addiction than I am of my HIV. And at this point I’m far more likely to die from it. When you’re in it–I mean really in it, that addict head space—it is so dark and hopeless and lonely and scary that it makes it difficult to breathe. Being in that head space creates an indifference, an apathy, so deep within you that fighting for anything, including life, doesn’t seem worth the effort. I’ve been in that head space a lot lately. And it has taken its toll, emotionally, physically, spiritually. But here’s the good news: I’m 38 days sober today. Thirty-eight days doesn’t seem like a lot, but what it means is that I’m 38 days removed from the overwhelming feelings of shame, despair, grief, desperation, sadness, and loss that led me to isolate myself in a long-abandoned cabin in Maine for an extended period of time, contemplating whether or not to just end my life and get it over with. Slowly, over these 38 days, I have scratched and clawed my way out of that blackness that was so suffocating. Slowly, over these 38 days, I have come to once again embrace life and I am more determined now than ever to hold on to it as long as I can.

The cabin. The place that holds my heart hostage. The cabin belonged to my grandparents. It holds many fond memories for me. I felt safe there, a feeling that was all too unfamiliar to me as a child. My grandparents raised me until I was 8, and I spent a lot of time at the cabin with them during vacations and weekend getaways. I was happy there. We all were. When my grandmother died 5 years ago, the cabin became a safe haven for me. I had lost one of the only people who truly loved me in this life. The only person who ever protected me. She was my heart. I was broken. I needed then, more than ever, to feel her love, her nurturing, her protection. I found myself retreating often to the cabin just to feel her presence. I was calm there, and all the love she had for me enveloped me like a warm blanket when I was there. It has become my escape. It’s fallen into a bit of disrepair over the last 5 years. No one had been there for quite some time before my grandmother’s death, and I’m the only one who goes there anymore. Still, it remains my sanctuary.

It’s not easy to be at the cabin for any length of time. There is no electricity. No indoor plumbing. It’s hard-living, to say the least. But there’s something about being up there, steps from the placid lake, surrounded by silence, that tends to bring me back to life. That’s what I was hoping for this last time when I made my way up there: that single moment of clarity that I could grab onto, that would make me believe that giving up was not the right thing to do, that living was a viable option, that living sober was the only viable option.

So I went to Maine, to the cabin, and I did what I do when I’m there. I let the memories wash over me, I thought of my grandmother, I sat on the porch and stared long and hard at the exact spot where the water meets the sky, I embraced the solitude, the stillness. I read. And I wrote. Always, it comes back to the Words.

I had brought several books with me to the cabin. Two were biographies of women who have dealt on some level with some of the same demons I have and have not only survived, but thrived. These are women I admire, women who inspire me, and by reading their words, their stories, I imagine I was hoping to glean the Jedi fucking secret of how to keep your head above water after you’ve encountered pure evil, drowned yourself in booze and drugs, and are on the razor’s edge of insanity, if not death. I suppose I was hoping on some level that reading their words would infuse me with the courage I needed to continue voicing my own.

Tatum O’Neal and Mackenzie Phillips. Those are the women whose books I brought with me. As I sat with Ms. O’Neal’s book, I was amazed by her courage and her honesty. She spoke beautifully, hauntingly about her struggle. Some of her words could have come directly from my own heart.

“No life, particularly one in which a child is traumatized, is ever perfectly resolved.” God, if that’s not the truth. Life can be ugly sometimes. The scars left on our hearts can be jagged and so painful, but the resiliency of humans is also quite astounding, and I do believe that there are life lessons to be learned from every experience; we just have to be willing to see them and accept them.

She talks about her inability to bond with people, keeping them at arm’s length, trying to process everything alone because that was “the only way [she] knew to endure the grief and anguish [she] was suffering.” She speaks about the challenge that intimacy presents for her, and the difficulty she has trusting people. She speaks candidly about suicide attempts and, failing that, having to rely on drugs to endure. Her words moved me to tears, as words so often do. I wanted to hug her through the pages and thank her for fighting as hard as she does. Her continued determination to fight this disease is what lights my own path right now. It gives me hope.

In reading “Found: A Daughter’s Journey Home,” I discovered that Ms. O’Neal had been sexually abused as a child. I hadn’t known that about her. She writes: “In forgiving even my worst victimizers, I was deciding not just to survive but to move forward.” That sentence struck me. Forgiving your worst victimizers. Surviving. Moving forward. Things I have not been able to do. I remain haunted by the things that happened to me as a child. And then as an adult, the final assault left me infected with this virus that threatens to cut my life short. How do I forgive the people who stole so much from me, who took who I was meant to be and created this shell in her stead? But how can I not and expect to move forward? I don’t know. It’s still a question I’m working on. It’s a work in progress. I know only that there needs to be a confrontation at some point. I need to confront the man who ended my childhood at 8. Perhaps then I’ll find some closure. But that can’t happen yet. The fragile structure of sobriety that I’m building for myself would surely implode if I took on that monster right now. Some day though. Some day.

Ms. O’Neal has been sober since June 29, 2010. I have been sober since June 19, 2011. May God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change; courage to change the things we can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

I haven’t yet finished Ms. Phillips’ book. I left the cabin before I got a chance. I’m making time now to read it though, because the little I’ve read so far, has been equally inspirational.

Ms. Phillips talks about being a person who starts things and can’t finish them. “As a junkie, as an actress and musician, as a mother—it’s been hard for me to complete even the simplest cycles of action,” she writes. I understand that all too well. My understanding of that sentiment is in part what this blog is all about. More on that in later posts.

She also speaks of demons that haunt parts of her life and herself that are painful and scary. “Facing them, revealing them, makes them too real,” she says. I get it. In our mind’s eye, they are as horrifying to us as adults as they were as children. But I’ve come to realize that being paralyzed by fear is letting the bad guys win, and it’s also as sure a way as drowning in absinthe and despair to bring our lives to a screeching halt.

This passage, especially, resonates with me: “I think of all that happened before, between, and after. The rest of the story. It is time to sort out a life that too often I left blurry, unprocessed, unreal, hoping that in doing so I would be leaving it behind me forever.”

It is time. These women, their words, will be with me on this journey I’m on. Their stories have emboldened me to do the unthinkable: believe in myself. I will don their determination and courage like armor as I wind my way through this chaos I’ve created.  And I’m thankful as hell for it. I will come out the other side.

So here’s the deal. I’ve been back a couple of weeks. It’s a slow process. And by slow, I mean fucking torturous. But it’s a process, nonetheless, and I’m working it and I’m committed to it. I have to change the way I do things. Clearly what I’ve been doing isn’t working. Obviously I need to start working the program again; that did right by me for 7 years, and there’s no reason to think this time will be any different. But there’s a lot of fallout to clean up, and I need to deal with it.

My life has been very strange for the past 14 months. A little surreal. Soon after I relapsed I was introduced via the wonder of the *Interweb to a man who I probably would otherwise never have met. He’s become a good friend over the past year. He’s been sober over 2 decades, and though our lives now could not be more different, we share a similar painful background that quickly bonded us as we navigated the early stages of our friendship. Since writing is how I’m most comfortable communicating, our friendship has been mainly an email one. We’ve shared hundred and thousands of words. He and his wife have been a great source of support and encouragement for me. They are busy folks and I don’t hear from them much anymore, but we still check in with each other, make sure each of us is still standing and breathing….such has not always been the case over the last year, for either one of us.

Some of the words I write in this blog are taken from emails I’ve written to my friends. At times, I will sit and look over the emails and put them together in blog form so I have a timeline in front of me of where I’ve been and what’s been going on. It’s interesting to go back to that, especially during moments of clarity, and see just what the hell has been going on this past year. It’s been a scary ride, one with too many close calls. I’m ready for the ride to end. I’m ready to say Fuck You to the demons and thumb my nose at all that haunts me by once again becoming the fun, passionate, active, strong woman I was for 7 years when I was sober and able to deal with my life. I want that back now. And more. I want more. There are things I want to do, things I can only do if I’m sober and healthy. It’s time for me to take the power back.

Last month, I met another new friend, D, through social media. He, too, is sober. And he, too, is someone I would likely never have met if not for the wonder of technology. But in talking with him over the last few weeks, I realize he is someone I can totally see myself sitting next to in any meeting in any city across this great nation. He has a number of years of sobriety under his belt. He met me at what probably has been one of my lowest points since my sobriety came to a crashing halt last spring: just before my self-imposed isolation in Maine. The details of our introduction are actually a bit fuzzy, but I know I spoke with him on the phone a few times while I was so out of it I had slept on the streets for 2 nights.

Last week, after my return from Maine and during a very transitional stage for me, I spoke with D at length about the future. It wasn’t a concept I had been considering much lately. But something clicked with me during that talk. He spoke of taking this opportunity to reinvent myself, to grab life with both hands and not let go. I deserve that. I think I do, anyway.

That conversation led me here, back to this blog. Writing isn’t just what I do, it’s who I am. It’s how I express myself. Writing is cathartic. It’s invigorating. And it’s where I feel safest being completely open and honest and vulnerable. The thing is, I’m at a critical point in my sobriety right now. I know that a strong wind could blow me to one side of the street or the other. It’s crucial that I make all the right moves right now, because anything else will be my ultimate undoing, of that I am quite certain. I’ve done a lot of damage to myself this year. It’s time to repair it and move on. But I can’t do it alone. I need to be held accountable. For everything. I need to stay the course, and the only way for me to do that is to be accountable for the things I do. I’m going to be writing on this blog as often as I can, talking about where I am, what I’m doing. I’ll be writing a lot about my sobriety, my health, my work. This will keep me focused. I need that right now more than anything. The journey begins…

At Play in the Fields of the Bored…

I’m not entirely unproductive when I’m using. I’m probably far more open and honest than at any other time, less guarded. This is the perennial excuse of writers, isn’t it? I can’t write, can’t fully express myself or be creative without being high. I do realize that this is just so much bullshit. I’ve written plenty while I was sober. It’s how I make my living and if I needed to get loaded before I ever took pen to paper, well, I probably wouldn’t have much of a career. Plus, writing for me is the breath in my lungs. I can’t not write. It’s just not an option. I write whether I use or not; I just give more of myself when I’m using. I lay bare my soul and bleed with each word I offer, and to hell with the consequences.

Being free of the fear of being judged or abandoned or hated or hurt does lend itself to a deeper exploration of one’s soul, and allows me to tap into the thoughts too deep for tears that I can’t bring myself to express without the mind-numbing effects of this substance or that. That, of course, is not a good reason to go where I went and to be where I’m at right now. I’ve struggled with my sobriety this past year. After 7 years of being sober, I’ve been hanging on by a thread since last spring.  

I relapsed recently. And I’m currently in the middle of a bit of a bender. After several days of using pretty heavily, this is the first time I’m clear-headed enough to express what’s going on. As evening approaches, it’s time for me to choose my path, to figure it out. An unexpected ally made himself known to me last night, and as we spoke on the phone at 2:00 in the morning, I felt safer than I have in a while. Soon after our conversation ended, I suddenly needed to write some things out. It’s how I make sense of things.

This is what I wrote last time I was in this head space. Truer words were never written than those expressed in the throes of such fear and despair. Enjoy:

It’s all a big bloody nightmare, isn’t it really? An endless fucking nightmare. Apparently from which there’s no escape. I’ve tried. It’s like those nightmares from which you wake with such terror that you’re not really sure you ARE awake. You THINK you are, but then He starts chasing you again, or worse, catches you, and you realize, Fuck, I’m not awake. Wake UP! And you struggle and fight and beg and scream as loud as you can only it’s all in your head because you’re not actually conscious and you’re fighting against something that’s not real, which makes it impossible to win against really but still. you. try. And you plead and you bargain and you try anything to wake up, anything; you slap yourself and gouge at your eyes but you can’t wake up and you’re choking on your fear, gasping, retching. And then. BOOM. Your eyes fly open and you’re surrounded by silence and all that is familiar and you stare and listen intently, waiting, holding your breath just a beat longer than is comfortable. Then you swallow hard. You pinch yourself just to make sure. And then you curse your life. And you thank God for it. The only thing that’s real in that moment, than nano-second of realization between your death and your life is the salty taste of the warm tears flowing down your cheeks and over your lips and onto the sheets. The tears, they’re real. But no matter what, you sure as HELL don’t want to close your eyes again anytime soon, and so that’s how you float through the rest of your day, in a fog, a haze, the breath of fear still hot on your neck. You can’t shake it. And the whole day you’re dreading the approaching darkness, because you know in your heart that your quiet thoughts will once again be haunted this night.

Well then. There you have it.  I just had to take a breath ’cause I said that all out loud as I wrote it. More I think about it, maybe we went down with Oceanic 815 and this is our own private “Lost” episode. That’s it. We’re on an island with smoke monsters and sideways time travel and pools of Light that threaten to go out and end us at any time in the most violent of manners. Our lives are the great unwritten script lingering, festering in the minds of JJ Abrams, Carlton Cuse, and Damon Lindelof. Heh. Sure. Why not. Makes about as much sense as this reality. I really hope any Readers out there watched that show. Otherwise, that last part will be Lost on you. Ha.

Oh boy. This is just one long free association. I’m sorry. I can’t connect anything right now. I feel like the synapses in my brain are just firing at will, wildly, madly, with no regard for sense or logic. The more I write, the more manic I’m becoming. Not sure if that’s good or bad. It’s waking me up, which will save me from the Terror for a while but it’s also making me dizzy and nauseous and fidgety and restless and anxious and stupid, apparently. How many grammatical errors can I make in one sentence? Let me count the ways. As much as I fear sleep right now, I crave it because I don’t have to deal with the thoughts and decisions and reality. And the pain. I need to put the emotional pain to rest. I could to without the physical pain right now as well. It hurts to breathe. And blink. And swallow.

 I’m going to take a nap while the sun is still up.