She walks along the road with dreams of redemption,
she wanders innocent through the night.
She can only hope for divine intervention;
troubles run too deep, too many to mention.
I feel a cold hand making the sign of the cross on my forehead. I hear a familiar voice reciting the Lord’s prayer. He is leaning in close. It’s the former pastor from the church I attended for many years in my youth and young adulthood. He’s giving me last rites. It’s the second time I’ve received them. I try to blink my eyes open and focus on my surroundings, but that requires strength I do not have right now. I’m burning up. I move my hand to try to get his attention. The sudden movement startles him and he jumps. I hadn’t been awake in days. He leans in close as I struggle to say what I need to say. He encourages me not to strain. Still, he leans in to hear me. “Not. Fucking. Yet.” I struggle for breath between each word and then collapse back into the bed. He laughs despite himself. The nurse standing next to him is horrified by my vulgarity before a man of the cloth. I close my eyes again. I will not open them again for 2 more days.
This was several months ago. After another failed attempt at staying sober, I relapsed in an epic way. I had been struggling to stay clean as my fear grew about my declining health. After so many years of self-abuse and going on and off treatment for the HIV, my body was breaking down. My T-cell count was bottoming out, my viral load skyrocketed. I was dealing with several infections, rampant seizures, horrible night sweats. Instead of doing the right thing and checking in to the hospital so the doctors could figure out what the hell to do with me, I sought solace in the warm embrace of my addiction. For days I stayed holed up in some shithole in the city using massive amounts of cocaine and heroin, making myself numb, erasing the fear, the pain, the unknown. At some point it was more than my body could handle. I started convulsing and went into cardiac arrest. I don’t remember it happening, or much about what went on over the next week or so. I know my heart stopped twice and needed to be restarted. I know that my fever was over 104 when I was admitted and that my lungs were near collapse they were so filled with fluid. And I know that the doctors worked their asses off to bring me back.
But the first real, solid memory I have of that first week is waking up to my old minister giving me last rites. I remember feeling his hand on my head; it was cold against my fevered brow. I remember his voice, which was oddly soothing despite the fact that he was preparing me for death. And I remember his laugh when I swore at him. It just kind of came out. I remember feeling angry, not that he was there but rather that I was so close to death and it seemed so beyond my control to do anything about it at that moment. I had put myself there. Again. And I wasn’t ready. Not. Fucking Yet.
When my minister came back after I was more coherent, I apologized for swearing at him and he told me that he laughed because he knew that meant I was fighting. He was right; I was fighting. I didn’t want to die. I just had to figure out how the hell to live.
So I spent some time in the hospital, recovering from the overdose and being treated for various AIDS-related issues and complications. I’m not a good patient. I despise being in the hospital. I feel marked. Disease clings to me. I’m an addict, an AIDS-infected junkie. No matter that there’s no correlation between the two in my particular case; they both define me. And death hangs heavy in the air around me. I am marked. But there was more to me than this once.
In the hospital, this is all I am. Nothing more. I’m a patient. A sick one. A defiant one. A case study. Looking back, I know how tirelessly the doctors and nurses worked to save my sorry life, but being there I feel like they just come in and see my symptoms, they jot things down on their charts, push buttons, stick me with needles. It’s always cold and there’s a sense of sameness. Day in and day out, it’s the same thing. I’m always waiting for my life to end while I’m lying in that bed. It’s terrifying.
I tried to distract myself while I was there. Tried to distract myself with words–my own, other people’s–with music, television, prayer, meditation, anything to escape the physical agony. Sweat would bead on my brow and I had energy to do little more than stay still, afraid to move. My eyes would close despite my struggle to keep them open. I would try to control my breathing. I’d drift off only to wake up moments later to the sound of a primal, guttural scream. The sound came from deep within me, a response to the pain, the fear, the desperation.
I spent several weeks in the hospital. As I started to regain some strength, the old demons started working their way in again. I signed myself out despite the protestations of my doctor. Before long I was back in the city, using again. I ended up back in the hospital with pneumonia not long after. When I got out after treatment for the pneumonia, I was determined to stay sober. And I did just that. For 48 days. Then another relapse at the end of July. This was a short one. A couple of days. Regret and fear immediately set it. I had the sense just a day into it that I would not make it out alive this time if I didn’t stop right then. That probably saved my life since it ended the run quickly.
[Between Then and Now]
Over the past 6 or 7 weeks, I have been fighting as hard as I can to stay clean and to fix some of the damage I’ve done to my body. It’s probably been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done because I know that I don’t have the option of using again if it all gets to be too much. That is no longer a viable escape for me. If I use it will kill me. Simple as that. So I’ve been focusing on restoring my health as much as I can and trying to take things a day at a time.
It’s been frustrating. The medications that I was on started to work. My T-cells started to edge up. But at least one of the meds was destroying my liver, so the doctors had to switch the regimen around. I’m not sure yet whether this new regimen will work and that scares the hell out of me. My heart is enlarged and there’s fluid around it. That makes breathing difficult sometimes. I’ve been having more seizures lately. I still double over several times a day with searing gut pain. I have to go in for a spinal tap, which has been rescheduled several times because I’ve been too sick to have the procedure done.
Still, I am far more afraid at this point of my addiction than I am of AIDS. It’s true my health is in a current state of suck, but the larger problem is that fear and despair have me all in their stabby embrace and I feel stuck in this vicious cycle of poor health, leading to mind-numbing anxiety and depression and anger, leading to a desperate desire to remedy that, and the only solution I’ve ever found easy enough is to get good and dead behind the eyes. When my health is bad I inevitably start thinking about the abuse that resulted in me getting the disease in the first place. It’s a funny thing…and by funny I mean fucked up, not ha-ha: as I lie here contemplating my past, my present, and whether or not I’m even going to get a future, all I can think about is the monster that put me here when he raped me and passed along this virus. The gift that keeps on giving. I had managed for some time now to put those nightmares behind me and now they’re back: the memories, the terror. I close my eyes and all I see is his face. I squeeze my eyes tight against the horror and his face morphs into this horrific beast that tears my flesh and I can almost see in my mind’s eye the very moment he infects me. The moment his abuse becomes my death sentence. He stole my childhood and killed my soul so many years ago and now he’s managing to take the rest of me. I can fight the battles as hard as I’m able: I can stay sober and believe that I deserve a future. I can live well and do good and not let his actions lock me so deep inside myself that I can’t escape. But ultimately, he will win. That’s just the truth. And I am so angry about that I can hardly breathe. Above all, I am sad. I am so devastatingly sad and heartbroken.
God knows there have been times over the last few years when I’ve contemplated my own mortality. I’ve been sick before and got myself so messed up on junk that it’s been a real possibility before. But not like this. This time it seems like it’s all out of my hands. I have never before felt so out of control.
A friend asked me a while back if I was dying. I responded to her thusly: I am dying…we all are, really. Life’s just one giant journey toward the end game. But I don’t know if I’m actively dying. There are days I think I could be. There are days I wish I would be. But I don’t know. I just know how bad I feel a lot of the time and how scared I am that I may have caused damage to my body that can’t be undone. I know my viral load is high and my T-cells are low. I know there’s something wrong that’s causing me tremendous pain more often than not. I know I have trouble eating. Trouble walking. Hearing. Focusing. I also know a lot of this is my fault, because I have polluted my already compromised body with toxins for so long that I don’t know how I can expect it to now come back from all that.
I know that I am frustrated and scared. I wake up not knowing if I’m going to be able to get out of bed that day. On the days I am, I take full advantage and try to do as much as I can. On the days I can’t…well, those days are like I’m watching everything through someone else’s eyes. For as slowly as the hours can drag by while I’m confined to my couch, too nauseous or in too much pain to move, it’s like I’m watching everything at the speed of light. I’m watching the world go by and I want to fucking jump in but I can’t.
Existence is so much bigger than ourselves. Humans are egocentric; we think the universe revolves around us. In reality, we are barely measurable in the grand scheme of things. Life is an amazing thing. We have such little time, relatively speaking, and the time we waste is heartbreaking. It breaks my heart anyway.
I believe in a power far greater than us. I know that some people don’t. But it gives me comfort, to believe that there is something beyond this mere existence. I think there’s a reason for everything. For the suffering, the hurt. I have to believe that because otherwise none of it would make any sense. I believe there’s something after and I believe that we go on in some way. That gives me comfort.
I’ve twice been in the presence of death. At the bedside of someone as they’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. I’ve felt in a very visceral way the end of a life. It’s a most ominous feeling. To be in the presence of one as they take their last breath, their heart beats their last beat. But I found it oddly peaceful. As devastating as it was, I felt like I was witness to the transition between one journey and another and it made me feel less alone and I pray that it made them feel less alone.
Dying is so taboo. It’s not something people want to talk about. I’m afraid of death. Of dying, more specifically. I don’t want to be alone. That scares me. I don’t think I fear what comes next necessarily. And I do believe there is something. But we humans are so attached to this life we know. The thought of life carrying on without us is mind-boggling. But I will take my last breath some day and life will go on. People everywhere will go about their business completely unaffected by my absence. The people who’ve known me may reflect momentarily on my life and if and how I affected them, but then the sun will set and rise again and the daily routines will continue as always. That’s humbling. But that’s OK.
But in the time I have left there are things I want to do. There just are. Little things, big things. Ordinary things, extraordinary things.
When my best friend died a couple of years ago my life changed in ways I can’t describe. His death changed me forever. Talk about someone who’d had an impact. He had no family to speak of and since he’d named me next-of-kin it fell to me to lay him to rest. It was that process that truly gave me pause about how we honor those that die. I didn’t really know what he wanted, so I improvised. I held a memorial service for him that was meant to honor his memory and give those who knew and loved him a chance to come together in community and mourn.
The service was lovely and I think served its intended purpose. But then I was left with the question of what to do with his remains. I had him cremated. To this day his ashes remain on my mantle piece because it took me a long time to decide what to do with them. The decision weighed heavily on me. The weight of responsibility I felt (and feel) was tremendous. Eventually I decided that I would spread his ashes at Yankee Stadium because he was a huge Yanks fan and I knew that he would love the idea. But that wasn’t enough. It was then that I started writing the screenplay based on his life and I decided that once I was finished with it, I would invite a group of people who loved him and we would take a trip, a pilgrimage, to Yankee Stadium and we would lay him to rest together, in a final act of love for this wonderful man.
Then I relapsed. And I got sick. And the ashes remained on my mantle. And they remain there still. It’s one of the things I’m desperate to do before it’s too late.
So in thinking of all that, I’ve come to contemplate what will happen when I die. Whether it’s in a week, a month, a year…what will happen when I die. I know this: I want to be cremated. I’d like a small memorial service. I’ve been working on the logistics of the service recently. Having planned my friend’s, I know the intricacies involved, from the music that’s played to the words that are spoken. It feels like the final expression of my humanity and I want to get it right. As to what happens after, I don’t know. I struggled for a long time with what to do with my friend’s ashes. I have no idea what I want done with mine. I want them spread out in the word somewhere, but I’ve no idea where. The world has always scared me. I lived in it as much as I could, but my experience with it resulted in a great deal of fear. I don’t want to feel that in death. I want to be free.
I’m in the habit of typing out quotes that I like, those that inspire or move or scare me, those that speak to me on some level. Some of the quotes are from famous people: writers, politicians, artists, philosophers. Others are from friends or even random people, said during conversations I overhear in a store or on the street. I type out the quotes on index cards and either file them away for future use (because you never know when a simple quote will be the catalyst for a marathon writing session) or I pin them to the bulletin board beside my desk.
Some of the quotes I currently have pinned up include the following:
“Monsters are real. Ghosts are real too. They live inside us. And sometimes, they win.” –Stephen King
“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” –Carl Jung
“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” –Ray Bradbury
“If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” –Ernest Hemingway
“Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it.” –J. K. Rowling
“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” –Maya Angelou
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” –Oscar Wilde
“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.'” –Mary Anne Radmacher
One quote that I’ve been tossing around my head lately, and which prompted this manic, agitated writing frenzy, is this:
“It’s like I have a loaded gun in my mouth and my finger is on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gunmetal.” –Robert Downey, Jr.
I’m 50 days clean and sober as of this writing. Considering I awoke at 5:00 this morning with the crushing weight of anxiety stealing the air from my lungs, sober is a major coup right now. I’ve been sitting at my computer for hours, writing furiously, sweating out some cravings, some fear, and some rage. Fifty days and I still shake and feel the yearning. But here’s the thing. I have been drowning in a sea of absinthe and despair for 30 years. But at least it gave me a fair shot of survival. Without the absinthe? Jesus. I shudder to think. It offered me the promise of relief. Even if, as for the last 50 days, I didn’t pick up, I knew it was there if I needed it.
I have no idea, no earthly idea how to live sober. Coping is not exactly among my few marketable skills. Talk about arrested development. My development was arrested before I even entered puberty. At 8, in the squalid basement of my neighbor’s house. Even before that, I suppose, as I experienced the insanity that lie within my own family. Or maybe when I took my first drink at 11? Smoked my first joint at 13? Did my first bump a couple of years later? Tied off for the first time? My point is, it was far earlier than would have been necessary for me to develop any real coping skills. Picking up IS my coping skill.
“It’s like I have a loaded gun in my mouth and my finger is on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gunmetal.”
I used to like the taste of the gunmetal. I used to LOVE the taste, quite frankly. I remember well the relief I felt the first time I drank, the first time I used. Whether it was the burn and the warmth as the liquid slid down my throat, or the immediate relief as I snorted a line, or the cold needle against my warm skin and the sting as I pushed it into my vein…it all promised relief. But over 30 years I’ve needed more and more, bigger and badder to even come close. And now I have an overwhelming sense of doom about it all. I know I can’t pick up again. It will kill me, of that I am certain.
The circumstances of my very existence have made me afraid of the world and everything in it. Is staying sober going to help that? Is it sobriety or life itself that is my Kobayashi Maru? My no-win scenario? I’m afraid to look too deeply for fear of finding the answer.
What’s it going to take?
It’s nearly fall now. Between being in the hospital and being high, I missed the spring and summer. I guess that’s something I would normally just take for granted, that time. But I’ve had too many close calls, and I know my health is precarious at best. I don’t want to miss any more time. I want to be outside and feel the sun. I want to walk in the rain as the sun sets gently around me. I want to sit by the lake at my grandfather’s cabin, staring out to where the water meets the sky, fishing pole in hand, surrounded by the majestic beauty and serenity of that place. I want to get back to Fenway to see my beloved Sox, to Gillette to see the Pats. I want to read and get lost in the words on the page. I want write, to create, to collaborate, to work, to do all the things I was doing before I wasn’t. Before I fell headlong back in to the abyss of addiction and despair. To live, to dance, and most of all to not be afraid. I want to close my eyes and not dream of shooting up to stop the pain in my body and the noise in my head. I want to live.
Above all, I want to live.