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?
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.
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.