The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors

I’ve been in the hospital for a few days. I went in for one thing and, of course, ended up being poked and prodded until this morning when I’d had it and was feeling well enough that I decided to leave and get on with things. I didn’t want to go in the first place, but I was feeling pretty crappy and my desire to make it to tomorrow with the ability to breathe relatively unhindered trumped my distaste for medical intervention. And so, here we are. And now I’m just a couple hours away from being able to say that I am officially one year clean. Tomorrow marks a full 365 days without heroin. There’s a lot to say about that, but there’s a lot to say about other stuff as well, so I’m going to start here:

When I checked my messages this morning after having not looked at my phone in over a week, I saw one from my childhood friend, Beeb, telling me that his brother Frank had taken his own life. The weight of the news took me to my knees as a wave of memories came rushing at me all at once. Frank and Beeb were among my closest friends growing up. We lived about a block apart and we, along with a group of 6 or 7 other kids, spent countless hours together, walking the streets of our neighborhood, trying to steer clear of the adults in our lives, hanging onto one another for support and love and fun and any sense of normalcy we could glean amidst the chaos of our respective worlds.

Frank and Beeb lived with their grandmother and an aunt and uncle in an old, rundown colonial right next to a cemetery. Their mother was dead; their father was in jail. There was a correlation between these two facts, but we certainly never discussed it. I knew little about their home life, except that their grandmother was mean. Her way of keeping her young grandsons in line was to smack them around and instill a fair amount of fear in them. Their family was from the Mid East. I actually have no idea if Frank and Beeb were born here or if they came over with their family at some point later. I met them when I was around 6 and they always spoke perfect English with no accent so I assumed they were born here. They spoke Arabic with their family though, and I remember being pretty fascinated by that.

Beeb was my age and Frank was a year younger. Beeb was the stronger of the two, physically and emotionally. Frank was a tiny little thing. He and I bonded quickly over our love of nature and words and later, our shared desire to stay away from our homes as long as we possibly could. He had this adorable crooked, mischievous smile and a mop of curly jet black hair. He was several inches shorter than me until well after high school when I stayed at 5’5″ and he suddenly shot up past 6′. Below is a picture of him when he was 16. He’s the second one in from the left. That’s part the motley crew I affixed myself to throughout my school years.

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I’ve spent a lot of today thinking about the time I spent with Frank. I remember riding quads in the pits behind the cemetery for endless hours and then sitting against the headstones until long after dark just talking and laughing. I remember the town dances we all used to attend. Frank would wear a crisp white shirt and skinny tie and pegged jeans. He was obsessed with Michael Jackson’s music and that kid could break dance like nobody’s business.

When I was a senior and Frank was a junior he asked me to go to his prom with him. Neither of us was looking for a hookup or a relationship; we were friends who loved to dance and talk and so we went to his prom and had a great time together. We went to the after party at a hotel with the rest of his class and at the end of the night I remember Frank leaning in for a kiss. I instinctively pulled back and immediately felt bad. I certainly didn’t mean to offend him. He was surprised by my response and tried again to kiss me. He wasn’t trying to go any further than that, he just wanted a kiss. When I recoiled a second time he asked why I didn’t like to kiss. He’d kissed me on the cheek lots of times and I hadn’t reacted, so I think it just took him back. He didn’t know about the Monster. He didn’t know that our neighbor had been raping me for years. I’d only told one other person at that point but that night I told Frank. I told him a little anyway. I didn’t get into the whole thing, but I told him that the Monster would try to kiss me and that I remembered how it felt and the thought of it made me physically sick. And while it certainly didn’t hurt like the rest of it did, I remembered the kissing and how much I hated it. I told him I still didn’t like to kiss because all tongues feel the same. He sat back and stared at me for a few minutes and then gave me the longest, warmest hug I ever remember getting. He never tried to kiss me after that, but he almost always put his arm around me when we walked together and I remember loving how safe that made me feel.

I didn’t know Frank well as a man; I knew him mostly as a boy. Still, my heart broke when I learned of his pain and his passing. It brought me back through time and suddenly I could hear his voice and his laugh and the hope he had for the future. And then it stopped. We reconnected about 10 years ago after having not seen each other in well over a decade. I’ve seen Beeb from time to time. He and I had drugs in common. I’d see him on the streets of the city now and then. But Frank, for as troubled as he was, never got into drugs. He traveled to try to escape his past. I’d get postcards or emails from him every once in a while from wherever he happened to be. The last time he wrote he was in Jordan. This is the last picture I have of him. He’s standing on the banks of the Dead Sea.

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It’s funny how we’re drawn to certain people in life. Frank and Beeb and I seemed to have this restless soul thing in common. I escaped through books and words and getting high. Frank took off for adventure and I always admired that about him. We were all perpetually running from that which haunted us, desperately afraid that our pasts would someday catch up to us and finish the job. Our pasts seem to be winning the race right now.

A year sober. To be honest, aside from not actively using every day (hour) and avoiding the inevitable overdose or run-in with my dealer, not a lot has changed for me over the last year. There are times I feel worse now because I’m not using to escape and I haven’t developed a whole lot in terms of coping skills. I haven’t used in a year. But I’m not sure I really consider myself in recovery and sober because aside from abstinence from using, nothing has changed. I haven’t  faced my demons and worked toward some semblance of a life. Basically what it comes down to is this: My stubborn Southie pride has managed to override my desire to use for no other reason than as a BIG Fuck You to those who never thought I’d be able to make it a year. Not great incentive, but it’s kept me from the needle, so there’s that.

I’ve had a year before. In fact on the day I made a year the last time, I had an epic relapse that almost killed me when I overdosed on a speedball. I love heroin, but speedballs are the craziest thing I’ve ever done. It’s like bungee jumping and having the most intense orgasm of your life in the middle of the free fall. The whole point of it is to get as high as possible. But it’s one of the most dangerous things you can do because it speeds up and slows down your heart at the same time. It’s the ultimate game of Russian Roulette. Will the pull of the trigger set off a hollow click or will your heart explode into a million pieces?

It was always an exercise in futility to find the balance between oblivion and lucidity when I used. I’m actually having the same trouble sober if you want to know the truth.

The past few months have been difficult. I hate the holiday season. This is always a difficult time for so many reasons. I miss Paul, I miss my grandparents, and thoughts of family fuel the rage. Thanksgiving, in particular, is difficult because I always spent it with Paul and it marks the lead-in to the anniversary of his death. I struggled most of November and December to keep my head above water. I thought many times about just filling a syringe to capacity and pushing off into a peaceful nod. It was exhausting trying to fight off the sadness and despair. Heroin protected me from anything that could hurt me. It filled me with peace and calm. Until it didn’t. It’s the broken promises of heroin that I need to remember.

The past 12 months have been surreal. The months leading into the holiday season last year were among the most difficult I’ve ever had. Between brief infinitesimal stints of sobriety I was abusing my body with heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. I was, quite literally, living in a closet in some junkie shit hole in the city. A year ago Thanksgiving week I was in such desperate shape that I made a really lame attempt to smite my misery by securing a belt around my neck and hoping it would strangle the last hopeless, wretched breath out of me. I was so sick at that point that I didn’t think I had anything left to fight with. I was on the Cape that week with D and R, who had come from across the country to get me out of where I was and offer me from respite, some love. I think we all thought that I wasn’t going to live a long time and they wanted to be there with me.

I was still using then, but during the first couple of days with them at the little house D had rented I started to feel something I hadn’t expected. I decided that if I was going to die, I didn’t want to be using when I did. So I flushed what I had left and started to go through withdrawals. But I wasn’t alone this time, and the care and love they showed me helped get me through the worst of it. The unfortunate belt incident was most probably a reaction to the confluence of emotions that hit me like a hammer: the fear, despondency, and loneliness were met head on with hope, love, and compassion and I really had no idea what to do with it all.

I remember just wanting to talk. I had been alone for so long. Silence had broken me down and I just wanted to talk. About ordinary things, about extraordinary things. I wanted to hear them talk. I wanted to just listen to their voices as I lay there shaking and exhausted. Mostly, though, they seemed to know that what I needed most was just some human contact. They held my hand often that week, wiped my brow with a cool cloth when I had a seizure or my fever spiked. My discomfort with opening myself up like that diminished over the course of the week and eventually I embraced the connection. That week they seemed driven to get at the deeper places inside me, knocking on doors I had long ago locked. They were urging something else, but demanding nothing.

While I believe they were prepared to be there for the end of my life, I know that they hoped to ignite in me a spark of life, of hope. D asked me, I believed sincerely, if I would return with him to the west coast. I had begun to fight and he wanted me to continue. I couldn’t commit to that then, but a couple of months later I came to believe that my best shot at staying sober and of living was to leave Boston. So in February I flew to R in Florida and then we flew together to California a couple of weeks later.

“You never forget the face of the person who was your last hope.”

Except sometimes you have to.

This is not where I pictured myself being right now. In this place, in this head space, in this anything. But it’s funny because for so much of my life, I never did the “I wonder where I’ll be in a year” type thinking. I lived day by day, for better or worse. Ok, usually worse given my proclivity toward recklessness and self-destruction, but my point is I never really thought too far into the future. That changed a year ago. It changed on the Cape. I guess gradually it had started a little before that, but though I relapsed soon after the Cape trip, that week was really the impetus for my current state of sobriety. Though it’s not exactly the journey I would have expected. I was moving ahead with such vigor and promise and then I landed back here and hit a wall. Today I’m back to living day by day.

I’m just not doing a lot of forward-thinking these days. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I don’t think. The thing that sucks about it is that I don’t get to experience the joy and peace that I felt when I allowed myself to be open to possibility and to love. Conversely, I don’t feel the pain I felt when I allowed myself to be vulnerable and open. So, while C.S. Lewis would most certainly disagree with me, I’m willing to forgo the former to avoid the heartache of the latter.

“Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man.” -Nietzsche

The room I’m currently renting has a small couch by the window and a little alcove off the living area. I live, eat, and sleep mostly on the floor in the reading nook. I have couch cushions laid out on the floor and a sheet on top of them. Arranged around the perimeter are dozens of books in various stages of being read and not being read, a fortress with me walled off inside. My safe place. A portable safe place I can take with me wherever I go.

I’m no longer taking my AIDS meds. I came off them months ago. I suppose I’m being very passive aggressive about both life and death, holding onto neither particularly tightly. One consequence of not taking the meds is that I have been having a lot of seizures lately and night sweats many nights. I have a lot of trouble sleeping. I wake with great urgency, ripped from any peace that sleep had rendered, and writing is the only way to calm the thoughts. I keep a notebook next to me and without turning on the light I scribble faintly in the night’s small hours, often trailing away and off the page as I struggle against my body’s desire to fall back into unconsciousness.

Right now I’m just filling my days with books and some writing. I’ve been thinking lately about the themes in my life: sexual abnormalady, family division, abandonment, loss. It feels like there’s a Herzogovinian revolt brewing in my soul.

The silence is getting to me again.

The moments between the sounds of life feel like chasms of emptiness. I hardly have the words to describe the absence of sound. Each heart beat is like an explosion. I feel like a Dharma bum of the northeast these days. Completely unsettled, without a home, waiting for the silence to overtake me.

“Without a family, man, alone in the world, trembles with the cold” -Andre Maurois

I fell asleep this afternoon and woke up angry, enraged really. I had a nightmare about the Monster. It’s been happening more and more lately. I always thought I’d have the chance some day to confront the man who stole my childhood, my innocence, my life. But he died last summer from the same fucking disease he infected me with and I lost that chance forever, and that has only fueled my rage more. I have such a desperate need to confront the people who’ve hurt me. And lately I’ve felt an intense need to look back at my life and excavate something from the depths and memorialize it in words so it won’t be forgotten or denied. So I won’t be forgotten or denied. To leave my mark somewhere on the world. I wasn’t born broken. That happened later. I was a child once, full of innocence and hope. I laughed and loved. And then I didn’t.

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My cousin and I (on the right) in our favorite place in the world: our grandparent’s backyard.

 

It’s just after 3:00 in the morning on the 23rd of January. I am officially a year sober. I’ll stay here a few more days, then perhaps make my way back to the cabin for a bit. Ultimately I imagine I will end up back in Boston if for no other reason than to fulfill my need to confront part of my past.

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Ghosts That We Knew

I’ve been thinking about family lately. My friend D is in New York visiting his mom, who’s been in the hospital for a week or so. Over the past several years, D, and more recently his fiancée, R, have become the closest thing I have to family. I long ago lost faith that unconditional love actually exists. Certainly I’ve been so fucked up for so long that I stopped believing I deserved it. Tirelessly, they have been peeling back the layers of my defenses and forcing me to see my own humanity once again. They have been loving me, and though I’ve struggled with it at times, I’m desperate to embrace it. They’re not afraid to know me at my core, the damaged me, the vulnerable me, the me that I don’t show anyone, ever, because the pain of rejection, of betrayal, long ago became too much to bear.

One hundred and eleven days ago I was pretty strung out on dope. I’d been living in a closet in some shithole in Boston, terrified that the cops, or worse yet the dealer I owed money to, would be coming through the door any day. I was sick and freezing and didn’t want to live to see another sunrise. One hundred and ten days ago, D and R opened their lives wide open to me. They took me into their home, they cleaned me up, they cared for me, they brought me back from the hell that I’d been in for so long. They’ve become my family in every way that matters. Far more so than those with whom I share DNA.

Anyway. That’s a story for another post to be sure. For now, suffice to say that D’s visit with his mom has tapped a deep well of emotion in me as I think of him at his mom’s bedside, visiting with her, caring for her, loving her.

I’m tired tonight. I haven’t been sleeping. The vague punchiness I experience with fatigue began as I closed my eyes and recalled one of the last conversations I had with my cousin several years ago. I held the phone listening to my cousin talk. I was happy she had called. After 45 minutes of animated chat, she said she had to get going, and promised we’d talk again soon. I was a little sad when we hung up. That wasn’t unusual. There was always a lot of noise when we were on the phone together. A lot of laughing and sharing of stories. When we hung up, the silence was deafening.

That memory hit me hard tonight. Alone in this hotel, curled up on the chair with only my computer screen illuminating the room, I suddenly had the feeling of being in a Stanley Kubrick movie.

How to put this. In his movies, I think there’s a kind of vast silence underneath everything. It’s an expression of detachment and alienation. So I guess now’s as good a time as any to write about family.

For the first 8 years of my life, I was raised primarily by my grandmother and grandfather. I cherish the memories I have of that time with my grandparents. Their house was always warm and safe and full of love. I remember sitting quietly with my grandmother on the sofa, snuggled under her arm for hours as she sewed. And I remember the wondrous aromas that came from her tiny kitchen on a daily basis. At night she would read to me and kiss me on the forehead as she tucked me in under a quilt that she had made herself.

Besides my grandparents, the one thing I could always count on when I was growing up was my relationship with my cousins. Until I was 10 I was the only child in the family living in Boston. I had cousins—on my father’s side—in Ireland, and I had cousins in Maine, but I was it in Boston. I had three cousins in Maine. I was close with all of them, but the oldest and I shared a special bond. From the beginning she was more like a sister to me than anything. Though we lived in different states, we saw each other fairly frequently and often talked on the phone and wrote each other letters (this was long before email…when we actually used pen and paper). When I knew she was coming to visit I would talk about it for days before she arrived. I could hardly sleep the day before she came, and I was a complete nut case on the expected day of arrival. My aunt was always running late and I would sit and stare out the window watching for their car to drive up the street.

I saw them mostly on holidays and school vacations. Those were undoubtedly the best days of my childhood. The four of us spent hours together playing and talking.  We took long walks around the neighborhood and my oldest cousin would lead us on countless adventures. She could talk us into anything, and we usually ended up in trouble, but I for one would never have questioned her. We walked through the field in the back of our grandparent’s house and sat on the hammock, swinging back and forth lazily as she held our attention with countless stories. We climbed on the roof and hid out from the rest of the world, basking in the late-summer sun. Nothing else existed. I was happy.

Holidays with the family were always interesting. The only time my whole family got together was Thanksgiving. We would gather at my grandmother’s house and hold our breath hoping this year would be different. My family never could gather in one place without a war breaking out. To escape the insanity, my oldest cousin would lead her sisters and me down to the basement. We ruled our own little world down there and it served as our refuge from the madness of the adults. It was in that basement at the tender age of 11 that I shared my first bottle of rum with my cousin. Stumbling upstairs a few hours later, I was sure we were doomed. But the family seemed to think it was amusing.

The last great childhood adventure I had with my cousin was when I was 12 and she was 13. My grandparents took us on a 3-week road trip to meet our relatives down south. We rode in the back of my grandfather’s Buick and amused ourselves during the long hours of driving between stops. The trip was a coming-of-age for us both, and it was the last time we shared in such an adventure. I was Sal Paradise to her Dean Moriarty and we were “On the Road.” I had a sister for those 3 weeks, and all was right with the world.

My cousin is dead now. My family has been decimated by addiction and she too fell victim to it at an early age. One night several years ago during one of my short-lived attempts at sobriety I was asked by her sister to look for her and bring her in for help. Her sister knew I’d be able to find her, and I did. But instead of bringing her in, instead of keeping a level head when I saw how much trouble she was in, I succumbed to her pleas and my own demons. We both ended up using that night. I woke up from the nod. She did not.

More memories tonight. This time of one of the last times I saw my grandfather. I had left Boston around 2 and took the train into the town in which he lived. It just sort of happened. That’s not close to where I lived. But it’s where my grandfather lived and I needed to go there first. I took a cab from the train to his house and felt only a bit of hesitation as I ascended the steps. I was praying my uncle wouldn’t be there, and he wasn’t. My grandfather shuffled over to the door, carrying the tank of oxygen that had become a permanent fixture for him and greeted me with a warm smile. I spent the next hour or so catching up with him. I told him about my garden. He was proud. I knew he would be. He told me he was looking forward to bowling and poker starting up again in the fall. I kind of sat there unblinking, saddened by the thought that he was clearly fooling himself if he ever thought he’d be well enough to leave the house to play poker…forget bowl. He’d been an avid bowler for as long as I could remember. Poker player, too. I inherited neither of those proclivities. Addiction though, that one I got.

He looked old, my grandfather. Older than I remembered him. He was gaunt, his face drawn tightly and sunken around his skull. He was pale and worked hard for each breath he took. It broke my heart. Still, the first thing he did when I sat was ask me to have a cold one with him as he cracked open a Miller High Life. I’m good, I assured him, and poured myself a glass of lemonade. We talked for a few minutes about the Red Sox and the weather. Inevitably he brought up my grandmother. My heart sank as my eyes filled. I looked around the house that was for so long my home. It was still warm, but different, less familiar.

When he excused himself to use the restroom – an activity I was confident would take a while – I took the opportunity to roam around the house a bit, taking in the memories, and letting them wash over me. I started in the kitchen and was transported back instantly to the Thanksgivings and Easters past when my grandmother would be slaving away in this room, cooking and baking, filling the small house with the most amazing, mouth-watering aromas. Suddenly she was standing at the stove, stirring something on the range, asking me to turn up the radio, which was playing some Glenn Miller song or other. I turned it up and we danced – as much as one can dance to Glenn Miller – as she stirred and I taste-tested her latest concoction. Her hearty laugh filled the kitchen, bouncing off the faux-brick walls, filling me with joy and comfort. She pulled me close as the last notes played and I got a nose full of the scent that defined her: Estee Lauder dusting powder. God, how I loved that smell. She held tight for a moment, then kissed the top of my head and told me that she loved me more than the stars in the sky. “I love you infinity,” I replied.

I was thrust back to reality when I stole a glance around the room and noticed the two items that reminded me roughly that this was a scene that would never again play out. On the baker’s rack next to the refrigerator lay the folder that held the paperwork from Hospice, the folks that had been entrusted with her care in the final days. It was a blue folder and it contained everything from a list of her medications to notes on how she was feeling on a given day. The folder was thin because my grandmother died mere days after hospice was called in. The last nurse to see her left the folder there and it had never been moved. I wondered quietly to myself what the hell my family was thinking by leaving it there. The second item was just as devastating. My grandmother had this old block calendar hanging on the wall behind the back door in the kitchen. You’d have to move and turn the blocks to the appropriate number each day. It was tedious, but she loved it. I looked at the calendar and sure enough the date it reflected was thus: Wednesday, April 12, 2006. The day she died. Are you fucking kidding me? They erased her voice from the answering machine, but this they kept? It brought me back immediately to that horrible day.

I left the kitchen and made my way to her bedroom. Her pillow was still in its rightful place on the bed, covered in her pink silk pillow slip, her favorite. I lifted it and inhaled deeply. Then I lay down for just a minute and imagined her arms around me, singing me to sleep, protecting me from anything and everything that could hurt me. I started to cry just as I heard my grandfather emerge from the bathroom.

We sat for a while longer. I made him a sandwich: ham and cheese on wheat smothered with mayo, with a single leaf of lettuce and a slice of tomato. He ate heartily, which I was pleased to see. At least he still enjoyed something. We made our way to the family room. He took his seat and I sank deeply into my grandmother’s recliner. How I wish she was there. I folded my legs up under me and rocked, imagining our last days together when she was in this chair and I was next to her, holding her hand, comforting her as she had so often done for me. I closed my eyes and let my mind wander as my grandfather provided commentary on each news story that came across CNN’s screen.

I spent the better part of the afternoon with my grandfather. Neither of us mentioned the cancer that was ravaging his body. He didn’t comment on how shitty I looked either, which was a relief. I left around 6, hugging him longer than I normally would before I walked back down the stairs to the waiting cab.

It’s amazing how memories like that can steal the breath from your lungs without warning. The memories have settled in around me tonight. As I type this I’m sitting on the little balcony of the hotel that has served as my home since shortly after I returned from California nearly 2 months ago. The oppressive warmth of this day has been replaced tonight by a crisp breeze that makes me shiver each time it blows. A few minutes ago I went inside to retrieve a sweater to wrap around my shoulders. I picked up my grandfather’s cardigan from the dresser and pulled it tightly around me. I keep my grandfather’s sweater and my grandmother’s apron with me because they are physical connections I have to people I loved so deeply that their absence made me less than whole.

As I enveloped myself in my grandfather’s sweater, I bent my head down to see if I could still detect his scent on it. I couldn’t, of course; it’s been 3 years since he passed. Still, I inhaled deeply as an image flashed in my mind’s eye of him wearing this sweater and his tweed fedora, whistling a Sinatra song as he walked out the front door to go play poker with his buddies, winking and smiling at me on the way out.

I wonder why when someone dear to us dies do we smell their clothing. I suppose anything that stimulates a visceral memory for us provides some desperately sought-after comfort. I wonder what, if anything, someone will keep to remember me by. Is there anyone in this vast and cold world that will sit as I am now shrouded in a piece of my clothing and smile at the memory of the person I had such possibility of being?

I’m ready now to close my eyes against these past few days and try to figure out what comes next. That was a fun trip down memory lane. And to think that it all started with some exploration of the Kubrickian sense of isolation that resulted from the memory of a conversation with my cousin, leaving my anxieties to grow large via the magnifying effects of solitude.

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

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

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

Part I: In response to Dylan Farrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

You think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part II: In response to Philip Seymour Hoffman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest in peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Peace to you, Dylan Farrow.

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.

Having the Guts to Live

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

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

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

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

A brief non sequitur:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death Be Not Proud

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

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

What’s been going on? First this happened:

[Written in early February]

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

And then this happened:

[Written two days later]

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

———

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tired…

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