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.

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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.

 

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…

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.

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…