And yet, my disease continues to whisper inside my head, trying to shake my confidence and make me throw it all away. My disease is trying to make me believe that I am useless, and since my disease knows me so very well, it knows exactly what words to use to cause despair:
“You are a total fuck-up. You’ve never contributed anything to this world of any value. Why don’t you just give up on this recovery bullshit and go do what you do best…get loaded?”
“You’ll never have a career again. You fucking burned your last one to the ground with a goddamned butane torch, what person in their right mind would ever hire you again as a Producer? The only thing you produce is misery.”
“Jesus Christ, why are you going to all these meetings? Meetings, meetings, meetings. What a colossal waste of time. Those may work for other people, but you and I both know you’re far too fucked up for that recovery shit. It’s too late.”
“Just kill yourself. Do it now and stop prolonging the agony for all those people who love you but who would actually hate you if they really knew what goes on in that sick head of yours. You know you’re just going to end up dying alone with a needle in your arm or a pipe in your hand. Get it over with, you fucking pussy.”
I’ve done a lot of walking the last few days, taking the train out to Pasadena and traveling the five and half-mile return trek to Mount Washington by foot. During this time, I have inadvertently done something that is required of me in the program of recovery I use, but that I’m really, really bad at: meditating.
A little over ten years ago, following my first stint in rehab at Glendale Alcohol and Drug Services (GAADS), I was invited by Cheri Oteri to attend a three-day “mindful meditation retreat” at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, and it was an abysmal failure. Though we arrived at the beautiful compound with the best of intentions, it soon became clear we were in way over our tiny-attention-span heads.
The first day, after eight hours of lying in a solarium doing not much more than breathing and listening to our co-participants stomachs gurgle, Cheri and I were beginning to question the importance of this extremely boring activity in our lives. By the middle of day two, after suffering a bout of the church giggles following another meditator’s accidental flatulence, we were asked by the seminar leader to leave. Of course, he asked us very politely, with a serene long-haired grace that reminded me of a combination of a deadhead hippie and a trappist monk. Still, we were mortified, if only for a few minutes. The rest of the weekend was spent goofing around naked in the hot sulfur water of the cliff-side hot tubs.
So much for meditation, I thought, and washed my hands of it.
But just like with prayer, I’m beginning to understand the need for meditation in my life and in my recovery. I’ve attempted it again, mostly in group settings, like the time on my sober group camping trip when a dozen of my cohorts and I sat silently on a fallen sequoia branch in a beautiful meadow, my friend Jonathan’s gentle voice guiding us along, encouraging us to be still, to breathe, to just be.
It was a lovely moment, but still, I remember focusing not on my breathing, but on the discomfort of the rough bark against my ass, and the fear that the giant bumblebee sniffing at the beautiful wildflowers by my feet might change its trajectory and land on my face. So I sat there, trying to shift my butt covertly and without making any noise, one eye half-open and keeping an eye on that bee, understanding the concept of the meditation but realizing no direct benefit from it.
Several days ago, my Los Angeles recovery community lost another of its own. A dear, gentle man who seemed to have it all. Multiple years of sobriety, what seemed like a successful business, physical beauty, and seemingly surrounded by love and support.
He shot himself.
I’m not sure if his suicide followed a relapse, or if despair overtook him without the aid of drugs and alcohol.
Either way, I do know one thing: that this man, who I’d spent significant amounts of time with at meetings, after meetings, at parties, and one weekend in particular at a recovery-related convention, had found himself in a place beyond hope.
It’s a place I know well, and visited recently.
It’s the place those voices in my head want me to return to, permanently.
The memory of this man, of our interactions, and the knowledge that even with years of sobriety he could find himself in a place so dark truly fucked with my already tenuous state of well-being.
My disease said to me:
“He had five years of sobriety and his disease took him. Why are you even trying to get away from me? You’re mine, you’ll always be mine, so stop fucking running and go get high.”
I was a mess inside: so sad and heartbroken over the passing of this truly beautiful and inspiring man, and so scared that…but for the grace of God…that could have been me just several weeks ago, when suicide seemed like the only way out of the paranoid, psychotic mess I found myself in.
So I did what I’ve trained myself to do: I went to a meeting. It helped, but not much. It was good to be around other alcoholics and addicts, and someone else shared about my friend’s passing. I cried a little, then came home, still feeling out of sorts.
When those feelings jangling around in my head became too much, I knew I had to do something.
So I took a walk.
And without meaning to, I discovered a way of meditating that works for me, a way of de-clouding my brain, allowing positive thoughts and affirmations to fill my head instead of the dark whisper of my addiction. Perhaps it’s just the endorphins, but when I arrived home that day after three hours of hoofing it across town, the angst-y fog in my head had cleared a bit. I could focus.
Today was my third walk in as many days. At one point, I stood on an overpass in a sort of reverie, watching the stream of traffic on the 110 freeway below me, feeling the warm sun baking my forehead, feeling very strange indeed. After a few moments of trying to assess exactly what this feeling was, it came to me:
I felt calm.
It had been at least an hour since the screeching voice of my disease had spoken to me, and the silence was beautiful.
“You are going to make it,” I told myself. “You are a valuable human being. You are kind and caring, and you deserve love and you deserve a beautiful life. A sad ending is not guaranteed, nor is a happy one. It’s up to you.”
And I believed it.
Fuck you, disease.
Even in my darkest moments, even when my disease is screaming at hurricane pitch, I am surrounded by love. I always have been.
This is how I’m feeling now, after my three-hour meditation walk, and it feels great.
There is hope for me still, and when I quiet my mind and open my heart, it becomes almost tangible.
As the lyrics in the following song say (a song I was introduced to by my friend Robb M., yet another sober guardian angel in my life), I may be an addict, I may have caused pain, I may be in pain frequently…but that isn’t everything I am.
And in one little moment
It all implodes
But this isn’t everything you are
Breathe deeply in the silence
No sudden moves
This isn’t everything you are
Just take the hand that’s offered
And hold on tight
This isn’t everything you are
There’s joy not far from here, right
I know there is
This isn’t everything you are
RIP, Max. You were loved by so many. I wish you could have felt it when you most needed it.