Category Archives: drugs

Smoking on the Devil’s Johnson

June 1993, en route to SF Pride.

June 1993, en route to SF Pride.

In June of 1993, my friend Eddie and I made a road trip to San Francisco to attend that city’s Gay Pride festival.

The night before the festivities kicked off, we discovered that a favorite new band of ours, the industrial/alternative  ‘Ethyl Meatplow’ was playing a gig in a small venue in Berkeley (or was it Oakland? doesn’t matter, I suppose.)

During the show, we pushed our way to the front of the crowd, pressing ourselves against the lip of the stage, enjoying the highly sexual, often vulgar antics of co-lead singers John Napier and Carla Bozulich (later of “The Geraldine Fibbers.”)

During the performance of one of my favorite songs of theirs (they only released one album during their short-lived career, the epic “Happy Days, Sweetheart,” so there really weren’t too many to choose from), the extremely handsome Napier climbed down from stage, mic in hand, and began simulating fellatio on me in front of the crowd. Fortunately, this was when I was in my twenties when alcohol was still my drug of choice, so rather than blushing I drunkenly went along with the obscene pantomime, enjoying every second of it.  I have no idea if Napier was gay or bisexual or straight…the whole idea of Ethyl Meatplow seemed to be pansexual hedonism…but it was a fitting kick-off to the debauchery that was to follow that weekend: lots of cocaine, my friend Eddie and I strapped to motorcycles wearing only g-strings as if we were captured ‘trophies’ during the parade lead-off procession of the legendary “dykes on bikes” contingent, and – on my part at least – several raucous sexual encounters.

the closest I've ever come to doing drag: the wild days of Sin-a-Matic & Club Louis

the closest I’ve ever come to doing drag: the wild days of Sin-a-Matic & Club Louis

Since then, my musical tastes have evolved (or devolved, my younger self might say), but “Happy Days, Sweetheart” still remains one of my favorite touchstones of that insane early 90’s era where pretty much everything was a go: dancing beside Madonna and her posse at the semi-underground Club Louis, taking off my clothes and having my ass whipped in public at the dance/fetish club “Sin-a-Matic,” and partying as if there were no such thing as Monday morning.

The track i’ve attached below, the cautionary tale “Devil’s Johnson,” was my favorite Meatplow song, the one to which I received that mock-blowjob so long ago. It details the plight of a drug user…crystal or crack…who devolves into paranoia and insanity.  I had no idea at the time of the album’s release that the scenario in this song would, in fact, be my own life in less than a decade’s time.

Today, I discovered that John Napier died last year of a drug-related cause.  That brief interaction in that tiny club seems strange to me now, like some foreshadowing event. There really isn’t much to read into it, I suppose, most clubs are chock-full of either current or incipient drug addicts…but my narcissistic, terminally-unique, addicted brain keeps trying to tell me that there was some bizarre passing-of-the-mantle going on.

I’m going to go to the gym now, and focus on getting my body back into alignment with my mind and my spirit. Still, I’m going to allow myself to feel sad for the passing of this beautiful man who succumbed to the same fate I am now working my ass off to avoid.

RIP, John Napier.

 

Diary of a Teenage Alcoholic

539857_4029166282634_278339798_n-1I came out of my mother’s womb a shy kid. Even the earliest photos of me as a toddler show me peeking out from behind my mother’s legs, one hand half-covering my face.  If there’s a yet-undiscovered ‘confidence gene,’ mine was certainly missing or at the very least, tragically mutated.

For a long time, I had believed that my pubescent encounter with the man the Central California newspapers dubbed “The Hannibal Lecter of Pedophile Priests” had  ‘turned’ me gay. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I began to understand that I had been born gay, and that feeling of being different was one of the root causes of my shyness. It was that shyness, not my gayness, that had painted a “molest this kid” target on my forehead.

I didn’t have many friends in high school. I knew a lot of people, and a lot of people knew who I was, because I was appointed co-editor of the Turlock High School newspaper, The Clarion, my sophomore year. I didn’t have anyone I could truly confide in, though.  My yearbooks are full of year-end wishes to “have a great summer” or “to a guy who doesn’t talk much but seems nice” kind of sentiments..but not one of them indicates that anyone during those four years knew me on a more than cursory level.

There was one notable exception, however: my girlfriend C____, who from my junior year on I paraded around campus in all her big-breasted, blond beauty like I was the Grand Marshall of my own “See, I love pussy!” parade.  Even C_____, however, didn’t really know me.  In retrospect, I did love her, and we dated for three years. The sex was frequent, but less a product of actual desire than a continued reflexive reaction to any homosexual feelings that might arise. A fantasy about a male classmate would illicit shame and self-disgust, so I’d use C_____ to prove to myself that I could, in fact, have ‘normal’ sex. I cared about her deeply…I’m not a sociopath…but I think I cared even more about protecting myself and my image (I’m sorry to this day for all the women I used in that manner, and where possible, I’ve tried to make amends for that behavior.)

8 copyBack then, on the outside, I tried (probably unsuccessfully) to exude confidence and masculinity – driving a Chevy Stepside pickup truck (replete with roach clip feather dangling from the rear view mirror) and growing a cheesy porno ‘stache – but on the inside I was a seething cauldron of anxiety, self-pity and rage. I hated myself, and every moment of my high school life felt like a charade. My only goal was to get through those years without my secret being discovered. The secret being that I was damaged goods, that I often fantasized about the other boys on campus, and the secret that not a week went by without my fantasizing about  killing myself.

diary 1979I recently found my high school diary. Reading it now, I realize that even though I kept this journal as a way of getting my feelings out (some pages are filled with nothing but raging expletives directed at schoolmates, my parents, pretty much the world), I was lying even to myself.  One typical over-dramatic entry laments the necessity of taking drugs to fit in with my classmates. I had to have known this was bullshit even as I wrote it. True, the small group of people I could have gained acceptance from were the potheads, but it wasn’t my lack of experience smoking weed that kept me ostracized, it was  my own inability to be authentic and to let my guard down.  In this same entry, I also express a desire to change schools.  I also must have known, intellectually at least, that starting over again at a new campus with an entirely new cast of strangers wouldn’t have solved anything, yet there it is, in my stupid loopy 14-year-old handwriting.

This particular diary entry reaffirms, more than anything else, the fact that I was an addict long before I discovered crystal meth in my late thirties. I’m already looking for excuses to escape my feelings, either via chemicals or, as it’s referred to in the recovery community, “pulling a geographic.”

“My parents said I couldn’t run away from everything,” I wrote in 1979.   How wrong they were. I could and did run away from everything, for a long, long, long time. Though I came to terms with my homosexuality in the mid-eighties, I continued to run from everything else for two more decades.  Had my parents said instead, “you CAN run from everything, but eventually your legs are gonna cramp and you’re going to get exhausted and fall down and everything you’re running from is going to catch up to you and beat the holy living shit out of you,” then that would have been completely accurate.

For the longest time, I had difficulty in recovery. I refused to admit I was an alcoholic (crystal meth was my only problem, after all, I’d never crashed and burned and ended up in a psych ward from too many Screwdrivers or Greyhounds, my drinks of choice), and I defiantly told anyone who would listen that I “became” an addict at the age of 37.

Of course, I’d conveniently forget that fact that when i’d work at my parent’s restaurant, as young as 13, I’d sneak into the walk-in refrigerator and chug Gallo Vin Rose straight from the gallon jug because it calmed me down.  I’d forget the time in my mid- twenties when my friend Rich and I got drunk at a party in San Jose and ended up being kidnapped by a gun-toting drug dealer (and subsequently driven, along with a van filled with drag queens in bridesmaids dresses to the End Up in San Francisco, where we were abandoned at 5 AM.) Or the time in my early twenties when two drunk friends and I spun out on the San Mateo bridge, almost crashing through the guardrail and into the  water below. Or the time….actually, there are too many times to recount here. The point being, I’ve always been an addict. I was probably born an addict.  I’m also an alcoholic, I’ve belatedly come to realize.  I know that if my drug of choice didn’t exist, if pills and coke and all other narcotics were not available, I’d be the biggest, swaggering, stumbling, beer-breathing, gin-blossomed alcoholic ever.

On July 7th, I will celebrate one year of sobriety, God willing.

The past eleven months have been about far more than not using drugs or drinking. They’ve been about working on conquering the self-hate. To stop keeping secrets. To stop lying to myself.

This year, I stopped running.  Out of breath, beat-to-shit, I stood still in my tracks, turned around, and faced the oncoming monsters. For eleven months, I’ve stared those fuckers down. They still want to chase me, to get me running – but as long as I stay perfectly still and do battle with each as they attack, I can defend myself (and my sobriety). Without all the running, my energy is returning, and the fighting gets a little easier each time.

Yesterday, the monster that tells me I’m fat and ugly and too old to have any value did a job on me, leaving me bruised and beaten.  I didn’t run, however….not to my dealer, not to self-medication, nor to seek validation through sex.

Instead, I stayed and took my lumps.

Today, I am planning my counter-attack.

I plan on knocking it senseless. With prayer. By helping others. With self-esteem via esteemable action. And though I may never actually kill this demon – I’ll probably battle it the rest of my life – recovery has given me the tools to outsmart it.

All I have to do is use them.

“I USED TO WORK FOR STEVEN SPIELBERG”

Moonlight, Machete & Madness Pt. 3 (conclusion)

read part one

read part two

Walking quickly, I soon reach the perimeter of the hospital.  Huntington Memorial is a fairly large complex, and I am unsure of exactly where I am.  The streets are dark, and very few vehicles are out.  There is a slight chill in the night air, but I barely feel it, my adrenaline-enhanced heartbeat keeping my body temperature slightly raised.

Looking around, I spy a row of single-story office buildings across the street, flanked by overgrown landscaping.  I scour the greenery carefully, looking for signs of tree people, and am relieved that I see none. I dart across the road and approach the building, duck-walking quickly under the low hanging branches of a large shrub, and scuttling back into a small clearing between the building and the bushes that line its brick side. I slide down the cool wall into a sitting position, completely concealed. Safe – at least temporarily.

Pulling the bag of crystal from my pocket, I hold it up to inspect the contents.  I am gratified to see that more than half of the teenager – the ridiculous slang name given a bag containing a 16th of an ounce – remains.  I suddenly remember a comic greeting card I once saw, with a cartoon lady waving a cartoon checkbook and exclaiming, indignantly: “I can’t be overdrawn…I’ve still got checks left!”   And so it is with me: despite my spiritual bankruptcy,  the binge can’t be over if there is still crystal in the bag.

My hand trembling, I reach my thumb and forefinger into the bag, pinching several large shards of the glass-like substance.  For a quick rueful second, I think of the pipe and torch I left behind in my bedroom.  I have always preferred smoking these crystals, which delivers the drug in a slower, more languorous fashion, as compared to the sudden jolt that accompanies snorting, slamming or ingesting it.  Careful not to drop any, I put my fingers into my mouth and deposit the bitter, tangy rocks at the back of my throat and swallow quickly, working my dry mouth in an attempt to build up enough saliva to get them down.

Carefully re-sealing the bag and pushing it back into my pocket, I slump back against the cold wall and wait.

It seems like only a few minutes before the freight train comes rumbling toward me.  My body, accustomed to the more gradual introduction of the drug, is overwhelmed by what is at least the equivalent of two full bowls.  This large quantity, which would normally take me many hours to smoke, is now being absorbed all at once by my long-empty stomach.

There is a roaring of white electricity in my head, and a multi-colored light show begins to dance behind my closed eyelids.  My extremities numb, while at the same time a ribbon of heat slowly unfurls itself through my core, starting in my groin and working its way up through my chest.  The heat engulfs my heart, and I can feel it pounding furiously against my ribs as I open my mouth, gasping for air.  The feeling of sexual euphoria that has played such a large part in my addiction usually builds slowly when smoking, but now it rolls over me in a tidal wave of dopamine-overloaded sensuality.

The heat ribbon continues up, past my chest into my brain, burning its familiar path to my pleasure receptors.  I begin to writhe slowly, twisting my neck and head in rhythm to the pulses of electricity that jolt from my brain back into my body.  Gasping for air, eyes clenched, I roll onto my side on the cold earth as my entire being is engulfed in primal spasms, as my libido is launched into hyper-drive and suddenly, utterly consumes me.  Completely unaware of where I am, who I am, I have been rocketed to a place of absolute, blind ecstasy, where once again I will take up extended residence on that small plateau that precedes orgasm.

After a period of time that feels like several hours, but past experience tells me has probably been closer to thirty minutes, the freight train finally rumbles past, and I begin to sense the cool air moving against my damp, heated body.  I slowly extract my hands from the waistband of my cargo pants, where they have, as always it seem these days, found themselves.  Despite the total sensual immersion, actual orgasm has not been achieved, nor will it anytime soon, part of the Faustian deal the tweaker makes with his drug of choice.  The very same drug that brings one to the height of sexual transcendence also impedes physiologically any release: erections are a thing of the past, orgasm a goal rarely achieved.

I open my eyes, attempting to regain my bearings.  Although the initial rush of the speed has passed, my disorientation continues. It is as if the brightness and contrast settings of the world have been adjusted to high. The dim, filtered glow from the streetlights that permeate the bushes is almost blinding in its intensity, and the shadows have become, deeper, darker, visually impenetrable.

As I lie there, the whispers soon reach my ears, originating somewhere deep within the now almost visually indecipherable tangle of branch and bush.  My peripheral vision detects a rippling of the shadows, and I realize that during my sexual reverie, the tree people have found me.

ishot-1558411Seconds later, I am stumbling my way down Pasadena Avenue, my gait loping and disjointed from the numbness in my legs, my only objective being to stay in the dim glow of the streetlights and away from the shadows beyond them, where I can sense the tree people gathering to watch this awkward, one-man parade.  I have no sense of direction or destination, I simply continue to move, turning left onto a residential street lined with upscale, old-money Pasadena homes.  Trees are everywhere, there is no escaping them, so I continue moving, tripping frequently on the imperfect panels of sidewalk lifted and cantered by the giant roots below. I have no idea what time it is, but the lack of cars on the street tell me it is probably well past midnight. The street curves through the wooded terrain, and eventually the houses on the left give way to a steep, tree and brush covered embankment, falling away to the Arroyo Seco riverbed at the bottom.

I immediately cross to the right side of the street, nearer the streetlights and the comparative safety of the homes that line it, their well-manicured lawns and neatly trimmed landscaping providing fewer hiding places for those who are hunting me.

I pause for a moment to rest, and through my blurred vision, I detect movement above me.  I look up, squinting, into the shadowy, branchy canopy of a huge live oak tree directly to my right.  The great tree sits dead center on the lawn of an elegant brick two-story home, it’ yard dimly but fully illuminated by expensive Malibu lighting.  The branches of the huge, ancient tree span far out over the roadside, joining up with the branches of other huge trees nearby.  Squinting upward, I struggle to decipher what I am seeing.  The whites and blacks of light and shadow, the organic shapes of branch and leaf slowly arrange themselves into sensibility, and suddenly, I see it.  I suck in my breath, and sink to my knees in front of the great tree, as if in prayer, and my wide eyes slowly scanning the terrible, terrible sight less than twenty feet above my head.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Note:   I am not the only person to have seen the Tree People.  Many meth addicts have observed them, and they are a well-documented hallucinatory phenomenon common to users of this drug.  In the past, following previous encounters, I have researched them on the internet and was stunned to discover the similarity of experience from one user to another.  I once saw a one-hour documentary about two Midwestern teenagers who, high on crystal meth, wound up lost in a snowstorm, completely disoriented.  Their ordeal was captured on several rambling, confused cell phone calls the couple made to 911.  The teenage girl, her voice panicked, pleaded with the operator to send help.

“There are lots of Mexicans and African Americans….and they’re all dressed up in these cult outfits!” she wailed.

“They’re taking the cars and hiding them in the trees!”

“Hiding what in the trees?”  asked the confused operator.

“There are hundreds of them! Two hundred!”  the teenage girl shrieked.  The couple, in the throes of the drug, were unable to provide accurate information to pinpoint their location, and soon froze to death after setting out on foot to evade the Tree People.

(listen to the tragic 911 calls)

In the past, having come down from the drug, I have tried to convince myself that I had hallucinated every terrifying thing.  However, I haven’t always been able to shake fully the feeling that what I have seen – these tree people – are real.  A small part of me believes that the drug has lifted some sort of veil between the physical realm and the spiritual one, and that what I am seeing, the same thing so many other meth addicts have seen, is truly and terrifyingly authentic.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Now, what I see above me seems to confirm the truth of this strange conviction.  The canopy above me is alive with the creatures, but what stuns me is something else, something I have never seen before, in all my many encounters with this bizarre race of people.  I am staring at a vast network of bridges and platforms set amongst the branches, spanning out on all sides, connected to adjacent trees, a huge masterpiece of engineering. I am looking up into a virtual city, stunning in its complexity.  I slowly move my gaze from treetop to treetop, realizing each of them harbors its own set of platforms, connected by wooden scaffolding and rope and plank bridges, a multitude of Swiss Family Treehouses of Terror.   It is as if another layer of the veiling between this world and theirs has been peeled back, revealing further, more elaborate details of their existence.

ishot-1625141A vast assembly of Tree People line these arboreal sidewalks, their twig-like fingers grasping conveniently placed, rough-hewn safety rails, looking down upon me.  As ever, their faces are judgmental, angry, yet motionless.  The sheer number of them, coupled with this crystal-clear view of their aerial, sylvan metropolis is so overwhelming that all fear is pushed out of the way by awe and amazement.

“Jesus Christ,” I  say too loudly, studying the incredibly intricate details of construction. “This is amazing.”

A dog begins barking and a just a few moments later, the front door of the house opens.  A woman, one hand at her chest clutching her white bathrobe closed, stands behind a screen door and peers out at me.

“Who are you?” she demands. “What are you doing?”

I look at her for a moment from my kneeling position on her lawn, and use a head gesture to indicate the veritable city in the treetops.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” I ask her.

She is silent for a moment, studying me, and I turn my gaze back to the branches, marveling.

“Go away or I’m calling the police!” she says, as the small dog yaps near her feet.

I turn and look at her again, and she is wearing a mixed expression of concern and confusion.

“Don’t worry ma’am,” I say politely with what I hope is a reassuring smile, struggling for something to say, some piece of information about myself that might soothe her, let her know that I pose no danger.

I used to work for Steven Spielberg,” are the words that finally find their way out of my mouth.

The woman seems neither pacified nor impressed.  She stares dully at me for a moment before announcing, “I’m calling the cops,” then closing the door, muffling the continued barking of the dog.

I stay on the lawn, gaping up at the strange civilization hanging over me, and I feel defeated.  The complexity of these creatures and their feats of amazing engineering and magical concealment convey, finally, the absolute futility of trying to defeat or evade them.  I simply sit there, completely overwhelmed, waiting for them to engage, for them to slither down the great trunk and take me.  For reasons unknown, the creatures simply continue staring at me, but make no move.  Occasionally, a slight breeze moves the air, rippling their leafy robes and tunics.

Suddenly, I hear the sound of a car coming around the curve of the street, behind me.  I tear my gaze from the treetop and see a black and white police cruiser approaching, a bright beam of light from a side-mounted spotlight bathing the roadside as it approaches.  I jump to my feet and sprint across the street, leaping over a small, foot-high stone wall that runs along the top of the steep embankment.   I land on my feet on the sloping hillside, but they immediately tangle in the thick carpet of undergrowth. I lose a shoe, and go tumbling head over heels down the dark slope, tearing my pants and scraping my arms and face.  I land with a thud, deep in a thicket of wild ferns and ivy, and I lay there, panting, waiting to be discovered.   From my prone position, I can see the beams of flashlights at the top of the hill as they pan the ravine, passing over me without pausing. The voices of two policemen are barely audible over the watery rush of the small river below me, and I hold my breath, waiting for them to descend.   The flashlights work the hillside for long minutes, but finally, they are gone.

police+cruiser+at+nightI lie there, my heart racing, the meth almost completely numbing the sting of the wounds on my arms and face.  I feel trapped, the Tree People are everywhere, and I am again at a complete loss.  They seem to be making no move toward me, and the entire darkened ravine is ominously quiet, save for the sound of the moving water.

Overcome with a sense of hopelessness, I reach my hand into my pocket and find the packet of speed. It is too dark to see it, even with my fully dilated pupils, but I can feel the still fairly substantial contents through the plastic, hard and lumpy.  My mind fogged and my body already filled with the toxic substance, I consider the potential lethality of what I hold in my hands.  Despair, guilt, shame and self-loathing collide all at once, and I unseal it and bring it to my mouth, shaking the contents out and into the back of my throat. I’ve heard many times that suicide is option of the coward, but I don’t believe that’s always true.  Removing pain and suffering from the lives of loved ones by eliminating its source seems like a very practical, perhaps even slightly noble solution. I skim the inside of the bag with my finger, picking up the powdery residue, and lick it clean with my tongue.  Dropping the baggie, I close my eyes and wait for it to hit.

I think of my niece and nephews, of my mother, and of course, Patrick. Having long ago forsaken religion, I still attempt to recite a “Hail Mary”, but the prayer sounds strangely disjointed to me, and I’m certain I’ve left out a line or two.    My last conscious thought is the realization that my body will be probably be eaten by scavenging animals before it is discovered, and then I am sucked back under the wheels of the freight train as it returns.  There is no pleasure this time, only great, racking full-body spasms and the certainty that my heart is about to explode in my chest.

Then, nothingness.

In what I am now certain is a dream, I find myself standing shakily on the embankment, surrounded by a legion of bushes and trees and the strange smallish, tree people inhabiting them.  They stare at me solemnly, watching and observing my attempts to stay upright.  The hillside is gently bathed in the pre-light of approaching dawn. “Have you seen my other shoe?”  I ask a short, squat bush whose resident tree person seems, somehow, less judgmental than the others.   It remains silent, and I move on, the dreamscape shifting in the rapidly increasing golden light.  I begin to move up the hill, but am again suddenly overwhelmed by spasms, my body tightening in a cramp that seems to start at my feet, jerking its way through my entire body. I begin to retch, great hacking waves that produce nothing.  I am overcome by a wall of lightheadedness as the hazy dreamworld around me rocks and rolls in undulating rhythm.

Then, in an almost filmic smash-cut, I am running down a long corridor paved with asphalt, following a white line past tromp l’oeil murals of suburban orderliness lining the long walls on either side of me.  Huge, metallic prehistoric beasts race down the corridor in both directions, blaring terrible trumpet sounds as they zoom past.  Somewhere, a dimmer switch is slowly turned up and the corridor grows brighter with each moment, illuminating a beautifully painted ceiling of bright blue and gray.  As I move forward down this surreal hallway,I pass a man walking a dog on my left, and he calls out to me, his words unintelligible.  I wave to him, smile and keep running, one-shoed, squinting into the ever-increasing light that grows in intensity until I am blinded by the whiteness.

The dream jump-cuts suddenly, and I am now sitting, inexplicably, in the back seat of my mother’s minivan.  Patrick is driving.  My mother is riding shotgun, her hand pressed against her forehead, sobbing softly while Patrick caresses her arm soothingly with his right hand.  On the seat beside me, reinforcing the bizarre, dreamlike nature of my current state, sits our wire-haired terrier mix, Shekel, who looks rapidly from me, to Patrick, and back again.  The bright glare of the morning sun glints sharply off the car window, blinding me again.

I turn to look at Shekel, who is staring at me.

“You fucked up again, didn’t you?” says the dog. Despite his harsh words, I am grateful to see compassion in his watery black eyes.

self pics copyA flash of light and he dream shifts once more to a kaleidoscope of chrome and white and glare. I suddenly become aware of pressure on left arm. In the distance, I hear an agonized, hoarse screaming, echoing as if shouted into a canyon.  A small circle of color in the center of my bright, white field of vision grows wider and then wider still, until it becomes a woman’s face – dark complexion, stern –  hovering over my own.  The field widens even further again to include a strange man, in some sort of uniform.  The man is tying my arm to a silver bar of some sort, and I suddenly recognize the screaming voice as my own, hurling obscenities.   I note that my body is thrashing, bucking and jerking against the hold of four-point restraints.  The woman’s mouth moves, and the words seem strangely out of synch with the movements of her lips.

“Hold his arm still.”

A sharp pricking of my left forearm, and within moments, the dream begins to fall in upon itself, the alternating concentric rings of reality and delusion constricting and expanding, until they eclipse each other fully, and I slide back into darkness.

PLEASE DON’T DIE: sober musical interlude #7

Generally, the sobriety-related songs I post on this blog are ones that I find inspirational, the kind of songs that I listen to as encouragement as I live my life, one day at a time, as a clean and sober man. “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone…” and “ooh child, things are gonna get easier,” are the kind of lyrics that fill me with hope and joy, and give me strength to continue this oftentimes challenging adventure in sobriety.

Sometimes, however, I need to hear a song that reminds me of what it was like when I was using, when I was the anti-Midas:  turning everything I touched into giant piles of shit and sadness.  This song, “Commercial for Levi,” by the alternative band Placebo, perfectly captures the sadness, the darkness, and the indiscriminate hyper-sexuality that I experienced when using crystal meth.

As I’ve written before, I’m a chronic forgetter: in the past, when I’ve managed to put together some clean time, I had a propensity to conveniently forget what it was REALLY like out there, and would find myself continually relapsing because I’d romanticize my relationship with speed. For all it’s dangers, my crystal meth binges felt like some fast-paced, edge-of-my-seat paranoia themed NC-17  thriller movie. In which, of course, I was the star.  Sobriety, however, can sometimes feel less like a sexy action thriller and more like C-Span 2 with its frequent lack of drama and pervasive chaos.

At these times, when I find myself longing to be back in Crazy Town: The Movie, I listen to this song and it’s dark, dirty lyrics. Its cryptic title is a nod to the band’s sound technician, who once saved lead singer Brian Molko’s life when Molko stumbled – drunk and stoned – into the path of an oncoming car.

So, for all my friends (and  all the people I don’t know) who continue to struggle with addiction – and recovery – I echo the song’s simple sentiment: Please don’t die.

(lyrics below video)

You’re the one who’s always choking Trojan
You’re the one who’s always bruised and broken
Sleep may be the enemy
But so’s another line
It’s a remedy
You should take more time
You’re the one who’s always choking trojan
You’re the one whose showers always golden
Spunk & bestiality well it’s an Assisi lie
It’s ahead of me 
You should close your fly
I understand the fascination
The dream that comes alive at night
But if you don’t change your situation
Then you’ll die, you’ll die, don’t die, don’t die
Please don’t die
You’re the one who’s always choking trojan
You’re the one who’s always bruised and broken
Drunk on immorality
Valium and cherry wine
Coke and ecstasy
You’re gonna blow your mind
I understand the fascination
I’ve even been there once or twice or more
But if you don’t change your situation
Then you’ll die, you’ll die, don’t die, don’t die
Please don’t die x 4

I Think I Can Make it Now: Sober Musical Interlude #6

Last night, I dropped acid with my buddy Brett.

Okay, that’s not technically true: we grilled some chicken, drank Italian sodas from Trader Joe’s and watched Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element – but in sobriety, watching that film totally counts as an acid trip.

I can’t speak for Brett, but I know I had a great time.  Great conversation, great company, a mind-trip of a movie. AND I got to bed at a decent hour. AND I remembered the entire evening when I woke up this morning. Even more astounding, I didn’t do or say anything last night that I need to be ashamed of today. I kept my clothes on. I didn’t accidentally or intentionally break anything. I didn’t humiliate myself or offend my guest in any way. And perhaps best of all, it was a one hundred percent vomit-free evening.

I had a good time last night and woke up today without a headache. Before 9 AM.

When I opened the sliding door into our backyard to let the dogs out for their morning pee, this is what greeted me:

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Bright sunshine, the smell of jasmine, and the knowledge that I am blessed beyond comprehension. It truly is springtime: in my backyard, and in my heart.

Tomorrow will mark nine months of complete abstinence from alcohol and drugs, and my world just keeps getting brighter.

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way 
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind 
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) 
Sun-Shiny day. 

I think I can make it now, the pain is gone 
All of the bad feelings have disappeared 
Here is the rainbow I’ve been prayin’ for 
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) 
Sun-Shiny day. 

Look all around, there’s nothin’ but blue skies 
Look straight ahead, nothin’ but blue skies 

I Love You, Jonathan Bierner

The man who helps me stay clean and sober every single day has begun his own blog. Please give it a read, and perhaps a follow: http://jonathanbierner.com

Though I can’t talk specifically about how I’ve stayed clean and sober for nine months, I can say that after ten years of failed attempts, THIS time around, miracles started happening almost immediately even before my sobriety date of July 7, 2012.  It actually began months before, when my lovely friend Maria introduced me to her friend, Phillip. Phillip and I quickly became friends as well, and when just a few months later I found myself drowning – yet again – in a meth-induced ocean of psychosis and despair, Phillip is the person I reached out to for help.

Sequoia Camping Trip, August 2012: Jonathan B. (left), Me, and Mykee B (right)….these guys help keep me clean and sober every single day, and have been there for me without fail when I’ve needed a shoulder, a sounding board, or just a hug. I love them both more than words can express.

Phillip then introduced me to what I call my Tuesday night family, where I found people like myself, people who are facing the same struggles and who will love me until I am able to love myself. (I’m getting there, btw. After nine months, I’m starting to feel the relief of liking myself.  Loving myself is close on its heels, though, I can feel it.)  Not long after meeting this amazing group of people, Phillip needed help moving out of his home in the Hollywood Hills, and one day in late July of this year, I met Jonathan for the first time. We were charged with moving a refrigerator out of the basement of the house and up an incredibly small, rickety wooden outdoor stairway to street level.  The stairs jogged back and forth three times at sharp right angles, making it a nearly impossible task (The 110 degree temperature and 6,000% humidity that day didn’t help a bit either, nor did the fact that I was borderline emaciated and a bit addled, having so recently abandoned the pipe.)

It was the most unpleasant of circumstances, but this guy Jonathan, wiry and handsome, made it tolerable with his sense of humor and hilarious, wry asides.  Later, riding in the U-Haul truck together to a storage facility deep in the San Fernando Valley, boundaries worn away the exhaustion of a day of intense heat and physical labor, we  began to talk.

The commonality of experience was almost mind-blowing, and before the day was over I had asked him to be my guide as I began to navigate the choppy waters of early sobriety.

He’s walked beside me these past nine months every step of the way, and has quickly become more than just a friend. He is my family: taking my phone calls whenever I need his guidance, sharing his wisdom and strength with me, and calling me out on my bullshit when it’s necessary. Also of great importance is his ability to make me laugh, even when crying feels like the more logical option. The truth is that I couldn’t do this sobriety thing if I couldn’t laugh about it on occasion, or find a bit of over-the-shoulder amusement in some of the pitiful and incomprehensible situations my crystal meth addiction placed me in.

Yesterday, Jonathan celebrated eight years of clean and sober living. He marked the occasion with an incredibly honest, brave and intensely personal Facebook post and blog entry of his own. I want all of you to know this amazing man who has played a large part in not only saving my life, but enriching it and opening my eyes to the joys of living a clean and sober existence Please give it a read and leave a comment of encouragement, and follow it if you enjoy reading smart, brave writing.  Also, if you enjoy my blog even a tiny bit, you could also thank him for that, because without him I would never have found my way back to my creativity.

I love you, Jonathan.

http://jonathanbierner.com

Demons Who Drank With Me: Sober Musical Interlude #4

As part of my recovery, I try to find songs that inspire me and provide a sense of hope for the future.  I add them to my “recovery playlist” on my ipod, and occasionally share them here. There are times, though, when I need to hear a song that reminds me of what it was like when I was using. As author/philosophist George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who can not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

I am a chronic forgetter: in the past, when I’ve been clean and sober for a respectable amount of time, I ‘ve tended to  forget how bad it was when I was “out there.”  I’d begin to regain a sense of power over my drug use. I’d stop investing in my recovery, and slowly (or sometimes at the speed of light) slip back into my disease.

With Table for One, the typically provocative singer/songwriter Liz Phair eschews controversial lyrics and viewpoints, crafting instead a first-person account of one man’s life as an active alcoholic. Though crystal meth was my drug of choice, the feelings this song elicits are pretty much the same ones any addict feels when living in their disease: loneliness, shame, hopelessness.

This time, I’m going to remember to not forget.

Give it a listen (lyrics below):

I’m walking down in the basement
I’m leaning on the washing machine
I’m reaching back through a hole in the wall’s insulation
I’m pulling out a bottle of vodka
Replacing that with a pint of Jim Bean
I’m lying down on the floor until I feel better

It’s morning and I pour myself coffee
I drink it til the kitchen stops shaking
I’m backing out of the driveway
And into creation

And the loving spirit that follows me
Watching helplessly, will always forgive me

Oh, I want to die alone
With my sympathy beside me
I want to bring down all those demons who drank with me
Feasting gleefully
On my desperation

I hide all the bottles in places
They find and confront me with pain in their eyes
And I promise that I’ll make some changes

But reaching back it occurs to me
There will always be some kind of crisis for me

Oh, I want to die alone
With my sympathy beside me
I want to bring back all those moments they stole from me
In my reverie
Darkening days end

Oh, I want to die alone
With my memories inside me
I want to live that life
When I could say people had faith in me
I still see that guy in my memory

Oh, I want to die alone
With my sympathy beside me
I want to bring down all those people who drank with me
Watching happily
My humiliation

Life and Death at Three Thirty Three

NOTE: At the end of this month, it will be eighteen years since I lost one of the best friends i’ve ever had. Even though so much time has passed and so many wonderful – and truly awful – things have happened since, I still think of him almost every day. I loved him so much. This story is about the last year of his life.

Two months after we return from Maui, I am sitting in my office on the Universal lot when the phone rings. It is Mike, calling from Rochester, New York, having flown there a few days ago to visit his friend Sharon. His voice, usually boisterous, sounds so small and scared I don’t recognize it at first.

“I need a favor,” he says.

“What is it?”

Mike and me, parasailing on Maui, May 1995

“I need you to go to the Gay and Lesbian Center and get the results of my AIDS test.”

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Last month, Patrick and I had gone with Mike to a fourth of July party at Chris Kattan’s house in the valley. Mike had seemed a little subdued, and I kept asking him if he was okay, my constant insecurity causing me to think that maybe I had offended him somehow. He just wasn’t acting like the gregarious Mike I’d always known.

“My shoulder’s been hurting,” he explained.

I gave him a massage, sitting on the lawn, surrounded by Groundlings, but it only seemed to make it worse. He hadn’t gone to the doctor, he said, because he didn’t have insurance and couldn’t afford the visit. I told him I’d pay for the visit, and that he just needed to go, but he brushed it off and refused to talk about it any more.

I find out later that a few days after the party the pain had grown so intense he had driven down to the county hospital at USC. There, the doctor had asked him if he was part of a “high risk” group. Upon learning that he was, the doctor suggested that he be tested for AIDS before they do any other expensive tests. Mike balked at having the test done “on the record,” so he went to the Gay and Lesbian Center and got tested anonymously. They had given him a number that he was to bring back with him when the results were ready. Before he got the results, though, he had made the already scheduled trip back to New York.

While there, he had collapsed in a restaurant, and an ambulance had taken him to the emergency room.

Now, Mike is calling from his hospital bed.

“I’ve got cancer,” he says matter of factly.

I’m stunned, and for a moment I assume he is joking. But he stays silent, and I start feeling scared.

Cancer? If he has cancer, why do I have to go get his AIDS test results? It makes no sense.

“What?” I ask, confused.

“It’s lymphoma. But they don’t know if it’s AIDS-related or not, and the test they did here will take a few days. My results are already in at the center, so if you could go find out we’ll know sooner.”

He reads a number to me, which I transcribe onto a sheet of legal paper and fold up and put in my wallet.

I don’t know what to say. I never know the right thing to say in these situations, and this time is no exception. I start to say one thing, change direction midsentence, say another thing, and it just makes no sense. I grab onto myself mentally and give a shake, and say firmly:

“I’m on it, Mike. I’m going now.”

He gives me the phone number for Rochester General, I tell him I love him and hang up, needing to get this done, now. My friend is sick and I feel totally helpless. It’s the middle of the workday, but I find my boss Michael and tell him what’s up. Fortunately, Michael is a good man with an enormous heart, and he lets me leave, even though we’re overwhelmed with the enormity of this project. I drive to the Gay and Lesbian Center in Hollywood, where I sit in a waiting room, nervous as fuck before I am called into a small office and a counselor gives me the news that I….or, actually Mike…is HIV negative.

I am thoroughly relieved, but still shaking from the pent-up anxiety of awaiting confirmation of what I had assumed would be bad news. The counselor thinks, of course, that my emotional reaction is about my own health, and I want to tell him that I have never taken an AIDS test, that I’m way too big a pussy to even risk getting that kind of bad news. I want to tell him that these results are actually for my friend who is in New York with cancer, and that I always use rubbers…but of course I don’t and sit almost twitching with impatience has he walks me through a refresher course on safe-sex guidelines and compiles a stack of pamphlets to hand to me.

It is still the pre-cell phone era, and I drive quickly back to Silver Lake to fill Patrick in and to phone Mike with the good news. There is also no internet, no google, none of the research tools that will be commonly available in a year or two, so I can’t be certain, but it seems pretty damned likely to me that regular lymphoma has got to be a whole lot better thing to have, a much more curable thing to have, than AIDS related lymphoma. It is 1994, and the word AIDS still has the smell of certain death about it.

I call Mike, and give him the news. He seems relieved as well. I want to talk to him more, to find out more about how he is feeling, but he is tired, and he mentions a morphine drip, which actually reassures me a little because it explains the listless tone of his voice.

Genhos

Rochester General Hospital

The next day, Patrick and I book a redeye flight to Rochester, and check into a small inn near the hospital. Upon arriving at the hospital, we find Mike in a private room, sleeping. His sister Julia is there, and she looks exhausted. She’s only been back in Los Angeles for a brief time after her run on Saturday Night Live, and she is currently weathering the scathing advance reviews of her movie “It’s Pat.”  Although Julia and I have always been friendly towards each other, we are not close. Patrick, having been in the Groundlings Main Company with her, knows her better than I do.

“Is that woman still out there?” is the first thing she asks.

Patrick and I are perplexed, and I poke my head back into the hall.

“Just some nurses,” I say.

“Oh, good,” she says, sounding relieved, and explains that an ardent fan had recognized her. “She’s very sweet,” Julia explains, “but I’m just not up for it right now.”

I look at Mike, sleeping with his mouth open, snoring. That, at least, is familiar and thus reassuring. He looks pretty good, despite the IV lines and scary-ass medical equipment surrounding him, and my sigh of relief is audible.

“So how is he?,” Patrick and I ask at the same time.  Pinch, poke.

Julia has a slightly nasal, adorable quality to her voice that is common to all the Sweeney children, but even that doesn’t lessen the impact of her next words.

“It’s not good. It’s Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and it’s stage four.”

Hodgkin’s? The shaky-head Katharine Hepburn disease? Wait, no.., that’s Parkinsons. I look to Patrick, hoping to see some recognition of these words in his face. But he seems as perplexed as I am.

“What does Stage Four mean?” we again ask simultaneously. We exchange annoyed looks with each other.

“Well….” Julia struggles to find a way to say what she has to say. “Basically, the doctor said that Stage Five means you’re dead.”

The next day, I’m alone in the room with Mike, who is still drifting in and out of consciousness, and I take on the task of hitting his morphine drip button whenever the machine decides it’s time for him to have some more. He seems happy to see me, but emotional enthusiasm has never been Mike’s thing, acerbic and wry being his two brightest colors.

“You didn’t have to come all the way out here, you know,” he slurs.

“Shut up. Of course I did.”

Mike Sweeney, 1982 yearbook photo. He was class treasurer.

“I really thought I had AIDS, you know.”

“Well, you don’t have AIDS. And thank god, because they can’t fix that. This… they can fix” I say, trying to convince myself as much as I’m trying to convince him.

Mike, never demonstrative, reaches out and grabs my hand, surprising me, and I look away as I feel tears start to well up. We sit there in silence, and I continue to hold his hand long after the next wave of morphine has pulled him back under.

Over the next couple of days, Mike begins to regain some of his strength. I don’t know if it’s simply the rest, or if it’s the chemicals they’re putting into him, but his cantankerous nature begins to reassert itself. The doctors and nurses who are treating him are finally introduced to the real Mike. I suspect they like the weakened version of him better.

It might be because Mike, always a bit of a control freak, has decided to regain some of that control by demanding a business card from every doctor that stops by his bedside to impart information to him.

Before the doctor has barely uttered the words “hello, Mike,” he immediately interrupts them by saying, tersely, “Do I have your card yet?”

“Excuse me?”

“Do I have your business card yet?”

If the answer is no, Mike demands one. He reads the name on it aloud, and asks if he is pronouncing it correctly. Once he has the pronunciation down, He takes a pencil from his nightstand and transcribes basic notes in tiny writing on the back of the card about what the doctor has come to tell him about his condition or treatment, often asking the doctor to pause or slow down so he can get it all down accurately.

If the doctor has already provided a card on a previous visit, Mike pulls the rapidly growing stack from the nightstand drawer, asks the doctor’s name, and then searches for the correct card from the stack he has arranged alphabetically.

“Ah, here you are,” he says, and quickly peruses the notes on the back to refresh his memory before he allows the doctor to continue.

The reactions of the doctors and the multitude of specialists ranges from smirking bemusement to blatant annoyance.

“Michael, I was just here this morning, we spoke for twenty minutes. You remember me.”

Mike doesn’t give a shit, though. This is his illness, these people are working for him, and goddamnit, he’s going to keep it all straight in his head. This flood of information would be confusing enough for someone not being given intravenous morphine. No patronizing medical professional will be playing God in Mike Sweeney’s hospital room, not now, and not ever. I blush red when this scene goes down, and  it does almost hourly, but I’m glad to see Mike’s feistiness manifest itself again.

gsh

CLICK TO WATCH “GOD SAID HA!” .. Mike’s sister Julia’s poignant and hilarious one-woman show about The House of Cancer. Julia nails Mike’s funny but often trenchantly sarcastic personality. I’m so glad this film exists to remind me of my friend.

I begin to suspect that all these doctors have been informed that Mike is the brother of a celebrity, and perhaps this explains why each of them, to a one, bow to this slightly humiliating ritual on a continuing basis. Celebrity is a funny thing, and even in my short time with Patrick I’ve experienced the benefits of being next to it. Being seated at restaurants before others who have been waiting, free drinks at bars, all sorts of odd little unexpected perks, including my own lush, private suite at Cedars Sinai when I was admitted for kidney stone surgery earlier in the summer. I know it’s all bullshit, and I feel a little guilty about it at times, particularly since I’m really only an adjunct, but I still take those free drinks. And now, if being the brother of a celebrity means Mike is going to get more attention paid to him, then I’m grateful for it. I demand that Patrick, who has just begun what would turn out to be a four-year stint on “Ellen,” remove his baseball cap while we’re in Mike’s room, hoping the doctors will recognize him. Double the celebrity, double the attention? I hope so. Or at the very least, double the tolerance for Mike’s irritating card-game.

Patrick and I return to Los Angeles a few days later, and a few days after that Mike comes home to begin chemo and radiation treatments. He has no health insurance, so Julia organizes a benefit screening of “It’s Pat” to help defray some of the costs. Mike is an extra in a party scene in the film, and already I notice the difference between the Mike who was filmed a year before and the Mike sitting next to me in the theater. He’s only been back in town for a couple of weeks and he’s already lost a considerable amount of weight, which he is happy about, but his hair has also begun to fall out, which he is not happy about at all. The photos we take together at the event show him dressed in a sports coat and dress shirt and wearing a baseball cap.

from left: Mike, Patrick, Cheri, Andy at our friend Amy’s wedding, 1994.

Unlike me, Mike’s appearance has never conveyed any foolish preoccupation with vanity, he’s always projected an unconcerned affability that is usually associated more with straight men. In fact, people are usually taken aback when they find out that Mike is gay. He doesn’t hide it, he isn’t closeted, it just isn’t the most obvious part of his often bigger-than-life presentation. Still, I know he does care about his appearance, and the hair loss bothers him until he comes up with a solution. He shaves his head and adopts a pseudo-goth look, trading in his usual baseball shirts and baggy shorts for jeans, rocker t-shirts and leather jacket. His normally pudgy face has new angles suddenly, and I think that for this moment in time he is actually happier with his appearance than he’s ever been. His lack of eyebrows is still bothersome to him, and at one point I convince him to let me try to draw some on with an eyebrow pencil, but it looks ridiculous and the effort is abandoned.

Mike’s treatments leave him incredibly weak, and by October he has moved into Julia’s home in the Larchmont District. He keeps his converted garage apartment on Sierra Bonita in the Fairfax neighborhood, even though this will require Julia to pay the rent on it for him. But he demands this, because being Mike, he’s not comfortable not having a place to retreat to in case he feels a sudden need for solitude. Mike loves his family, but he’s always valued his privacy. As a child, he once installed both a deadbolt and a doorbell on his bedroom door, something his mother once told me and I found absolutely hilarious. I admire Julia for stepping up to the plate and putting her life on hold to care for her brother, who, to put it mildly, can be trying. At one point, Julia makes a business trip back to New York, and while she is gone Mike heats her swimming pool to what I jokingly call “second mortgage” setting, and every night that she is gone great fluffy billows of steam waft out of her backyard and over the neighbor’s fence. He knows she’ll be furious when she gets her gas bill, but, lying on a blue pool raft drinking a beer at midnight…in October, he simply says, “What is she gonna do to me? I’ve already got cancer.”

For the most part, Mike deals with the hand he’s been dealt bravely and with his trademark black humor. When he’s up to it, we go shopping at the Beverly Center, and when he asks the clerk at Nordstrom if the store offers a cancer discount, I can only shake my head and smile. The clerk’s spluttering response is priceless, and Mike enjoys it so much the question becomes part of his standard routine every time he has to pay for something. If the clerk says no, Mike parries back with, “It’s stage FOUR cancer. I’m a stage away from being dead. Maybe you could check with your manager.”

When I’m available to take him to UCLA for his chemo treatments, he insists on stopping at El Coyote for margaritas on the way home. This doesn’t seem wise to me, and I hate the parental tone in my voice when I suggest we take a pass. He angrily insists, and we eat chips and salsa and drink margaritas until we’re shitfaced. He usually has several hours before the waves of nausea hit, and he spends those nights on his knees on the mission tile floor of Julia’s guest bathroom. I know he’s sick, yet he still seems indestructible, somehow, even with the weight loss and the nausea and the irritating thrush he’s developed in his mouth and throat. His humor, his personality is still so manifest that it is able to dull my worries a bit, most of the time.

Six months in, the Spielberg job is also taking up much of my time, and this holocaust project has turned out to be much more complex than a simple documentary. We’re in the midst of opening offices all over the world, training interviewers in multiple languages, translating documents, hiring camera crews, and the days are much longer than they’d been at my 9 to 5 corporate job at ABC. I love the work, however, and it keeps me distracted from Mike’s situation. Unfortunately, it is also keeping me distracted from my relationship with Patrick, and I sense a growing emotional distance between us during those times that we actually do manage to spend together. There is just too much to think about, and in my chaotic mind holocaust survivors and cancer patients are accorded top priority.

Christmas time rolls around, and because my parents are still in the middle of a messy divorce, I opt to stay in Los Angeles, alone. I don’t know Patrick’s family very well at this point, and frankly, don’t feel the desire to be around a functional, intact domestic unit. Mike is flying home to spend the holiday with his family in Spokane, and around two o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, not long after Patrick has departed for Joshua Tree, a yellow cab pulls up in front of our little Silver Lake house.

Through the front window, I see Mike get out of the backseat, and I open the front door.

He has made an extensive detour on the way to the airport to wish me a merry Christmas and to give me a gift, a small white envelope. I feel guilty because I haven’t bought a gift for him, though I make it clear to him I haven’t bought gifts for anyone this shitty holiday season.

He’s running late, so he can’t come in, but we hug each other, and as always I’m grateful for it. Hugs from Mike mean a lot to me, because he has never been very physically demonstrative with anyone.

After he’s gone, I open the envelope and pull out a note that says “Thanks for being such a great friend. Have a Merry Christmas.”  There is a P.S.: “These should help.” At the bottom of the envelope are four Dilaudid tablets.

The sole benefit of Mike’s cancer has been the sheer quantities of painkillers he’s been provided, more than he actually needs at this point, I’m pretty sure. He was thrilled to be prescribed Marinol, a pill version of marijuana, but after trying it we agree that it can’t hold a candle to smoking the real stuff (which we do, often, from his leaky red plastic bong). Soon, Mike realizes that as a stage four cancer patient, his doctors will provide him with pretty much any pain medication he requests, and over the past couple of months, when Mike is up to it, and I’m not working, we’ve been getting messed up on morphine, Demerol, and now this amazing Dilaudid.

I consider taking one of the pills, but decide to save them for tomorrow, already feeling an advance wave of depression creeping over me. I’m pretty sure tomorrow is going to suck. I’m already feeling sorry for myself, what with my being alone (even if it’s by choice,) my cancer-ridden best friend, and my suddenly demented parents and their soap opera crazy bullshit.

I sleep in on Christmas morning, and after lunch I pop two of the tablets. Soon, I am floating on a hazy, happy cloud. I put on an Andrews Sisters Christmas CD and sit cross-legged on the living room floor playing Sonic the Hedgehog for hours. It turns out to be one of my favorite Christmases ever, courtesy of Mike Sweeney.

Upon returning to LA after the holidays, Mike takes a sudden turn for the worse. Now, he is not just thin, but skeletal. The yeast in his throat, a result of the chemo weakening his immune system, makes speaking difficult. He is over-medicating himself, so it’s often hard to tell if it’s the disease that is causing the stupor or if it’s the drugs, which are now being administered intravenously through a port that’s been put in his chest. Then, suddenly, everything goes from bad to really, really bad. Julia is diagnosed with cervical cancer, and must undergo a radical hysterectomy. The absolute unfairness of this, the sheer cruelty of the universe, makes everything seem, suddenly, even more surreal than it had already been. Mike, voice slurred, takes to answering the phone at her house by saying, “Hello, house of cancer, how may I help you?”

Julia’s parents move to Julia’s guestroom to help take care of both their kids. I feel terrible for them, and try to assist as much as possible, as do all of Mike and Julia’s friends. At one point, Mike becomes so frustrated by this sudden influx of the family – which he loves dearly, but that he’s spent his life trying to individuate himself from – that he insists on moving back into his apartment on Sierra Bonita. It’s a bad idea, but Mike, as always, is inflexible.

Cheri, who has left her music business job at A&M and is now pursuing an acting career (she is still six months away from landing “Saturday Night Live”) is temping, so when she’s not working she’s taking care of Mike. I spend as many nights on his couch as I can, and the bond the three of us formed in Hawaii grows even deeper. One night, Mike, in a near stupor, is sitting in the chair in his small living room. Cheri is standing behind him, gently rubbing his shoulders. Mike begins to cough, then to choke, a terrifying rasping rattling sound. Suddenly, a great wad of mucous frees itself from his throat, and lands on Cheri’s right hand. Mike, so far gone, is oblivious. I almost gag at the sight, but Cheri betrays no reaction to the sticky mess on her hand and continues to stroke Mike’s shoulders until the coughing has subsided. Only then does she give him a kiss on the top of his head and move to the kitchen to wash the gunk from her hand. I’ve liked Cheri from the moment we’ve met, but this small act of kindness to my friend, her refusal to cause him any possible embarrassment – even in the state he’s in – endears her to me further. Of course, being naturally hilarious – which Mike and I have long known, and the world will soon discover – she still manages to get Mike to crack a drugged-out smile several times that evening, despite his discomfort.

me and mike

Last photo of Mike and I together, March 1995. The next morning he would enter the hospital for the last time.

This is the last night we all spend in Mike’s apartment together. The next day, he is back in the hospital. He slips away slowly, so slowly that it is almost impossible to detect the line between drugged consciousness and coma. It comes as a surprise to me when his nurse tells me this, and when she tells me he probably won’t wake up again, I don’t know what to feel. I don’t want to lose him, but I don’t want him suffering. I climb into his bed and spend the night sleeping next to him, the sickly sweet smell of the yeast in his mouth and throat hovering in the air around my head.

Mike’s family doesn’t come to visit often now, with the exception of his younger brother Jim, who has always seemed to worship his big brother.  It’s not because they don’t care, because they do – intensely – but because the Sweeney’s are now in triage mode, horrified and stunned by the imminent loss of one child and brother and focusing their energies on saving another child and sister.  I can’t even bring myself to think about what they must be going through.

It’s late March, and Cheri and I are sitting at Mike’s bedside. Though deep in coma, his face bears an expression of concern that is disconcerting to me, and causes me to whisper repeatedly in his ear, “it’s okay, Mike.” Sometimes, his lips will move, and we convince ourselves that he can still hear us. We tell him funny stories, we play music for him on a portable CD player. The Breeders, Dionne Warwick, and his most recent favorite, The Crash Test Dummies. When we begin reminiscing about Hawaii, I get an idea. I drive to a record store in Westwood and buy a nature CD of ocean wave sounds. We play the sounds of the surf, extend his arm so it’s dangling off the bed, and place his hand in a small plastic tub of warm water on the adjacent chair. We then grab onto opposite corners of his mattress and attempt to replicate the rolling motions of the ocean. We talk about our trip to the nude beach, that day he loved so much, the day he floated naked on the inflatable raft in the warm waters of Little Makena Beach while Cheri and I huddled on the shore both fully dressed and totally embarrassed. Perhaps it’s only because we want to see it, but his face seems to relax – not quite a smile – but the strange, agitated look has definitely subsided a bit.

The next day, I talk to one of his nurses and she tells me that Mike’s problem is that while his body has been shutting down, he still has the heart of a 31-year-old, and it is refusing to stop beating. I think it’s more than that. I think it’s because Mike, who has never done anything he didn’t want to do, has never accepted the fact that he is dying. For all the time we’ve spent together, we’ve never discussed it, and now I am ashamed of myself for not having had the courage to broach the subject, even when it had become clear to everyone that the cancer was winning. I explain to the nurse what my suspicions are, and I half expect her to laugh at my theory. Instead, she stands next to mike and starts talking to him.

“Mike, I want to you picture yourself on a trapeze, swinging through the air. Back and forth. You have to let go. Just let go and trust that the next trapeze with be there. Let go, sweetie.”
She continues to whisper that to him for a few minutes while I stand there holding his hand. It is less than an hour later when I notice that the pauses in between his breaths are growing longer and longer. I find the nurse and let her know, and she comes in and examines him. “It’ll be soon,” she says.

I panic, because Mike’s brother Jim had arrived earlier and I told him there had been no real change in Mike’s condition, so he had decided to head down to the cafeteria before settling in for his visit. I’m freaking out, asking the nurse to please page Jim Sweeney, when our friend Mary Jo walks in the door. “He’s going,” I almost shriek. “Stay with him, I have to find Jim!”

I finally locate him exiting the elevator on Mike’s floor, and we hurry back to the bedside. I call Cheri at Disney, where she is temping today, and tell her to get here as soon as possible.

The three of us line Mike’s bedside, holding his hands, his feet, silent, as his breathing slows, then seems to stop. We look at each other. Is it over? Another ragged breath answers the question. It goes on for almost fifteen minutes before he slips away, and I swear to god, this God I swear I don’t believe in, that I can feel his soul leaving his body. The nurse checks his vitals, and confirms that he is gone.

I look at the clock on his bedside table, and the digital numbers read 3:33.

Three thirty three.

3:33 PM is the time on my birth certificate, and 3:33 PM will be the time on the death certificate of one of the few truly close friends I have ever had.  I bend over, tears dripping from my cheeks, and place a kiss on his already-cooling forehead. “I love you,” I try to whisper, but the “you” ends in a ragged gasp as my throat clenches tight.

Cheri arrives about ten minutes later, and when she discovers Mike has already passed, she lets out a low keening moan,  and I move to put my arms around her. We stand there holding each other for a long time, until our friend is covered with a sheet and wheeled from the room. After a few phone calls are made,  those of us present hug and console each other for a bit, and finally Cheri follows me in her car back to the little cottage in Silver Lake.  There, we lay in silence, holding hands, on top of the comforter in my bed. Soon, the sunlight begins to drain from the room, and we fall asleep.

Sober Musical Interlude #3

“My life, it don’t count for nothing /  When I look at this world, I feel so small / My life, it’s only a season / A passing September that no one will recall”

In just a few short years, I went from working for the great Steven Spielberg and touring with The Red  Hot Chili Peppers to sleeping in public parks.  Now, as I begin rebuilding my life, I have a tendency to judge what the future might hold for me by comparing it to the accomplishments of my past.  Though I’ve mostly reconciled myself to the fact that I may never live that kind of heady life again (and perhaps that’s for the better), there are still days when I look back with intense regret about the career I singlehandedly destroyed.  There are also days when I wistfully ponder where life’s travels would have taken me if I hadn’t hijacked myself and set a course straight for the gutter.   On those days, today being one of them, I listen to this song.  Her gorgeous warble sounding like some strange breed of angel, Iris Dement brings me back to reality, and keeps me focused on the one thing that truly matters in this frequently troubling world: love.

My life, it’s half the way travelled,
And still I have not found my way out of this night.
An’ my life, it’s tangled in wishes,
And so many things that just never turned out right.

But I gave joy to my mother.
And I made my lover smile.
And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting.
And I can make it seem better,
I can make it seem better,
I can make it seem better for a while.

My Jesus Looks Like Jean-Paul Belmondo

jesus-wallpapers-0114A long time ago, when I was very young, Jesus was my closest friend. I went to church every Sunday: first at Christ the King in Commack, New York, and later, after moving to California at the age of 10, Sacred Heart Church in dusty, then-rather-backwoods Turlock in the Central Valley.

I can’t say I ever sat patiently through mass, or that I ever fully involved myself with what the priests were saying up there on those altars. I do, however, remember being in awe of the bright, stained glass windows, the pungent smell of incense, and the trinkle, trinkle sound of the bells during the presentation of the eucharist. Of particular fascination was Jesus himself, hanging on the giant cross behind the Sacred Heart altar: sinew-taut swimmers body, head on stretched-ligament neck lifted as if searching for something in the dark recesses of the giant, steeped ceiling. There was something about that Jesus that stirred fantasies that I couldn’t quite give a narrative to at that innocent age, before I understood that I was one of those children who were, as I would eventually be told ad nauseam, damned to hell for all eternity.

nanandandyMy Irish-Catholic grandmother, my favorite person in my entire world aside from my mother, was the keeper of the family bible, a humongous leather-clad edition with hand-written dates of birth and sacraments received. The pages were tissue-paper thin, save the florid illustrations that were bordered in gold leaf.  I remember the pages always felt cool to the touch, and smelled vaguely of mothball and some spice I still can’t identify.  I’d sit in the leather chair next to my grandmother’s credenza (there really was a piece of furniture called a ‘credenza’ back then) and thumb through the pictures, fascinated.  Handsome Jesus always looked so sad, save for the one illustration of that big moneychanger/temple brouhaha, where he looked downright peeved.

After my first communion, while still in my little man sport suit, my grandmother gave me a scapularBrownScapular.S2, which had illustrations of St. Joseph on either end of the black cord. The way my grandmother pronounced it, with her heavy Brooklyn accent, made it sound like “scapuluh.”  (Which, of course, was easy to remember since it rhymed with  spatula, which was a word I heard quite a bit, since my grandfather was a chef and always seemed to be searching for one. )  As she presented it to me, and then placed it over my head so that one St. Joseph rested on my chest and the other St. Joseph was lying against my back, she told me, solemnly: “Honey, if you die and you are wearing your scapuluh, you will go straight to heaven.”  This puzzled me for a moment. Why all the talk in church about Heaven, and Hell, and Purgatory and that silly sounding Limbo place I never quite understood if all I actually had to worry about was keeping these scratchy sharp-edge pieces of plastic hanging around my neck? I didn’t question it, I just counted my good fortune at receiving this amazing, magical, straight-past-Saint Peter- pass.

That scapuluh..er, scapular…stayed on my body for the next two years. The only time I would take it off was when I’d shower. Until, of course, the time i’d taken a nasty spill on the slippery tub bottom, at which point I began wearing it even while bathing (how horrible would it be to crack my head open on the porcelain, and as I lie there, the life ebbing from my ten-year-old, sin sodden body, seeing the scapular hanging just out of reach on the towel hook?)

That scapular made me feel somewhat invincible, sin-wise. I could make my confession and leave out as much as I wanted to. I could even lie outright, knowing my Heaven Direct pass was sandwiching my body. I felt like I could talk freely, even conversationally, to Jesus. Before Scapular, I would only talk to him if I needed something…sometimes trivial things like “please let my school catch on fire tomorrow so I don’t have to go”, and “please make my dad stop giving me those boring yellow Tonka construction trucks and Erector sets for Christmas.”

After scapular, I kind of felt that I could talk to him about anything, that I could even make requests that were probably inappropriate, if not downright unsavory. I was certain Jesus wasn’t thrilled with these kind of requests, but the fact was, I had a scapular.  So I’d talk to him about the kids at school I hated, the ones who picked on me – who called me ‘faggot’ and ‘fatty’ – and I’d ask him to please kill them – preferably in a gory accident of some kind, or at the very least some painful terminal illness that would require them to leave Sacred Heart immediately.

Before scapular, I’d never have been so bold as to ask Jesus to break one of the commandments he brought down from the mountain (yes, I went to Catholic school, but I never did well in the religious studies part). Now, the cool plastic square pressed against my back as I lay in bed, staring up at the giant, lacquered and framed jigsaw puzzle of The Last Supper my grandmother had given me, I felt like I could pretty much do as I pleased. I guessed my boldness probably irked Jesus a little, but hey…I’m wearing a scapular.  Jesus was awesome, because he was everywhere. I liked that I had an invisible friend who would protect me, sometimes do what I asked him do.  The “everywhere” thing got to be a little much, though, so when I’d sit down to relieve myself in the bathroom I took to running the water in the sink to mask sound, and folding a bath towel over my lap for a tiny semblance of privacy.

About a year into my scapular addiction, when I discovered masturbation, I would finish every furtive hiding-from-Jesus-under-the-covers jerkoff with a whispered, “sorry, Jesus.”  Still, I considered him my friend, even though I sensed he was repulsed by this disgusting thing I was doing with my babymaker.  Again, though, I was wearing my scapular, so…free pass to Heaven regardless of how many cotton tube socks I violated, right?

ImageA couple of years later, I had an unfortunate encounter with Father Oliver O’Grady (often referred to as “The Hannibal Lecter of Pedophile Priests) that finally rendered my scapular absolutely useless to me. Jesus, my everywhere friend, had been right there when it went down, and to add insult to injury he was also hanging right there on a cross on the wall of the room it happened in. Granted, his head was looking away, more toward the ceiling than towards the event taking place below, but still.  Afterwards, I tried making a few excuses for him, but eventually it dawned on me there were only two options as regards my friend Jesus. The first option was that Jesus was a total dick. This supposed friend could pretty much do anything, I mean, he was curing fucking cancer left and right and making statues cry blood in South American countries but he couldn’t step in and bitch-slap Father Feeley-Grabby’s hands away from my privates?   The other option was that he just wasn’t real, that it was all just a bunch of bullshit, that everyone had lied to me just like they had about Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny, and that cheap bitch The Tooth Fairy.

I never wore my scapular again, and cursed myself for putting up with those sharp plastic edges for as long as I had.  I went to church still, because my parents made me, but I made clear that I was attending under duress and never sang along with another hymn again.

Once I knew it was all a bunch of lies, that Father Holier-than-thou up there on that hideous, modern, red-carpeted altar preaching about sins of the flesh was actually a living, breathing cocksucker, I figured out that people were no more than a bunch of not-to-be-trusted hypocrites, and people in positions of authority were the most hypocritical of all.  I went from being a shy, introverted, but somewhat happy child to an angry, sullen adolescent.  I began trying desperately to sublimate my homosexuality…not because of anyone in “heaven” looking down on me and judging, but because I did not want to be the thing that O’Grady was, and I thought, mistakenly, that he had planted this seed (no pun intended) in me. I had forgotten, somehow, that before that incident I would masturbate and think about other boys, and it took a long time for me to understand that he didn’t make me gay, he saw that I was already gay. Also friendless and shy to the point of being almost non-verbal. in other words, a fairly safe choice.

My anger grew as the years went by, and I became not only an atheist, but a defiant, challenging, in-your-face atheist. If you had a God, well, then you were a fucking moron sheep being herded around by superstition and fear of dying.  Eventually, this almost unbearable anger found the only relief that worked for me: drugs.  The first time I smoked marijuana, it was like my heart had been punctured and all the bitterness had drained out of me for the time that I was high. I smiled. I laughed. I made friends.

Unfortunately, to maintain the happiness required more and more – then, harder and harder – drugs. And those hard drug eventually led to…well, everything you read on this blog, I suppose.

It was only recently, just this past year in fact, that I started talking to Jesus again. A few friends of mine re-introduced me, and it’s kind of funny that I had no idea that these three people i’d known for a while were such good friends of my ex-friend. They just seemed full of life, free of judgment, and funny as hell.  Starting to talk to Jesus was weird at first, just like talking to any friend you left on bad terms thirty-five years ago would be. I’ll be honest…I cried a little and called him a few names early on, but we eventually agreed to give friendship another tentative go.

Almost immediately, the floating, gauzy, phantom monsters that would invade my field of vision at night…or in any darkened room…and the horrible nightmares that followed, began to subside. I began to sleep fully and deeply for the first time in years. His doing? Or my brain just healing itself from years of drug abuse? I don’t really care.

breathless8This time, I got to set a few of the parameters of our relationship: There would be NO RELIGION INVOLVED, not in any way, shape or form.  This time, if I begin thinking that he’s some kind of magical wizard who fixes shit upon request or spends his days constantly righting human being’s fuckups, he’s gonna let me know that i’m giving him too much credit. This time, I can masturbate and watch porn all I want (though he’s agreed to let me know if it ever gets too excessive.) I can have sex with my husband any way I want and he’s just going to have to be okay with it (Jesus, I mean, not my husband.)  He’s also given me his permission to imagine that he looks  like Jean-Paul Belmondo in “Breathless,” because he thinks it means i will pray more (he’s absolutely right.)

MY Jesus is encouraging of my homosexuality, since he made me this way  and would hate to see his special modifications not put to good use. The fact that I found my amazing partner of almost twenty  years – and that we’ve remained firmly committed, even during the tumultuous years of my meth addiction, is proof enough for me that he smiles upon our union.

MY Jesus doesn’t give a shit about swearing, as long as it’s not used to hurt or demean someone. Which is a big, fucking relief, because i’m an inveterate swearer.  I do feel uncomfortable when I reflexively growl out a “Jesus F_____ Christ,” and I’m working to curb that completely.  MY Jesus thinks “Jesus H. Christ” is hilarious, though, which also shows you that my  Jesus has a sense of humor.

MY Jesus has no issues with his theological counterparts…The Buddha, Mohammed, or the others…he assures me there’s no competition going on, despite what a bunch of loudmouth miscreants might claim. MY Jesus has no problem when those who don’t know him call him by other names…like Love, or The Universe, or even Positive Energy.

MY Jesus despises hypocrites, and rolls his (big-sleepy-Belmondo) eyes at pompously religious (ugh) people who make a grand public show of knowing him.

MY Jesus, as the Irish band In Tua Nua so eloquently put it, is in the innocent and the honest ones.

MY Jesus loves me no matter what mistakes I’ve made, or will make. And I will make many, many more.  I have no problem calling myself a sinner, because My Jesus doesn’t think of sin as some horrible act of dark transgression. My Jesus believes sinning merely  means missing the mark…basically, falling short of my own expectations of what a moral, compassionate, honest, spiritual life should  look like.

My Jesus promised me that if I keep talking to him, keep asking him for guidance, and basically, just let him love me, he’ll help keep me clean and sober and make clear the path upon which I should be traveling.  I’m counting on it.

And finally,  MY Jesus speaks to me the way John Grant writes songs:

This pain it is a glacier moving through you
And carving out deep valleys
And creating spectacular landscapes
And nourishing the ground
With precious minerals and other stuff
So don’t you become paralyzed with fear
When things seem particularly rough

Don’t you pay them f*ckers as they say no never mind
They don’t give two sh*ts about you, it’s the blind leading the blind
What they want is commonly referred to as theocracy
And what that boils down to is referred as hypocrisy

Don’t listen to anyone, get answers on your own
Even if it means that sometimes you feel quite alone
No one on this planet can tell you what to believe
People like to talk a lot and they like to deceive

‘The Advocate’ of Total Bullshit

me and pThis is something that has been bothering my conscience for a long, long time. For eight  years and one month, to be precise.

Late in 2004, my then-partner (now husband) Patrick – a minor celebrity of sorts in the gay community – and I were asked to write an article for the gay publication “The Advocate.”  The angle of the article was to be parallel stories: mine would be about my struggles with addiction, and Patrick’s would detail what it had been like – as someone who had never used hard drugs –  to love and live with a meth addict.

Since I had been off the pipe for several months and felt “cured” of my addiction, I agreed to the proposal, and Patrick also acquiesced. We both knew how crystal meth was devastating not just our own home, but the community at large. We  felt  that perhaps by sharing honestly the struggles we had faced  thus far with my addiction, we might potentially help someone, somewhere, feel less alone.

page 1

Unfortunately, I had failed to take into consideration the serious toll my recently-ended, months-long meth run had taken on my ability to remember words, let alone put together sentences. Paragraphs seemed too gargantuan an undertaking, so this article, on my part, is so poorly written it makes me cringe when I read it now. I’d pulled some nice florid passages from my journals, tried to tie that together with a basic narrative, and failed miserably in my estimation. That, however, is not what I need to apologize for..though I do.

What I’ve shared with only very few people is that by the time our story hit the newsstands (and the internet, which I’d completely forgotten to consider, and which has since made employment very, very difficult – *slaps own face*), I’d already relapsed big-time.  I end the article by telling the world of my Miraculous Deliverance From Addiction!  Like it was just that easy, anyone should be able to do it.

Then and now, I felt like I was lying to the world, and every letter we received thanking us for telling our story was like being stabbed in the heart with a shame-spike.

ishot-2132151

In fact, by the time the photographer for the magazine showed up at our home to take the photos to accompany the article, I’d already been back on the pipe for two or more weeks.

Years later, when I finally reached the point of desperation…the point where I knew I would die if I used even one more time…. it took real work to get clean and sober. It took surrender, it took humility, it took some mighty fear-conquering. It meant forcing myself to talk to people like myself, and it took being willing to admit to them that I knew very little about staying clean, and then…the hardest part of all…it took asking them for help. In other words, it took some serious fucking work. And it still does, every single day. And it will for the rest of my life. I know that now.

page 2

So I want to offer this long-delayed apology to anyone I might have hurt or misinformed (or kept in their disease for even a minute longer than they should have stayed there) by implying that salvation is something that just, you know, happens. Maybe it does, on occasion…but as regards meth addiction, or any addiction I suppose, please believe me now when I recommend that you not sit around and wait for it to show up, as I put it, “miraculously, and out of nowhere.”  That ending was total bullshit. That wasn’t deliverance, it was a momentary  break between binges. If you’re struggling with addiction, ask for help. Please.

I am really, truly sorry.

(CLICK HERE to read the embarrassing original Advocate article)

 

Sober Musical Interlude #1

Sinéad_O'Connor_-_How_About_I_Be_Me_(And_You_Be_You)

“The Wolf is Getting Married” can be found on Sinead O’Connor’s 2012 release “How About I Be Me and You be You?”

If you follow this blog (and thank you SO much if you do)  you know that I write dark, depressing stuff full of angst and anger and, well, as my husband puts it: “meth, death and bated breath.” The reason for this is because it’s the way I process feelings like guilt and shame for all the wreckage i’ve caused in my life and the lives of those who care about me. And believe me, there’s been so much wreckage I could tattoo “brought to you by Irwin Allen” on my forehead.  But here’s the thing: I don’t want anyone getting the impression that I am a depressed, miserable person. Even in the midst of the melodrama I write about were many, many moments of joy. My dogs, my husband, long walks, time spent with family and friends.

I also want to let you know that the last eight months have been the happiest of my existence. I’m restricted by tradition, so I can’t provide specifics as to why or how, but let me say this: I am learning, at the bruised-fruit age of 48, to like myself. I’m not talking about my looks, or my career, or my belongings…all the things I have mistakenly thought were me and which caused great despair as one by one, they began to disappear.  I’ve learned to let myself be loved even on the days when I feel utterly hideous and unloveable. I’ve learned that being kind to others is a far more uplifting and productive pursuit than sitting around hoping others are going to be kind to me. There are still days when the thorn-bush has roses, but overall, I’m feeling extremely optimistic.

Which brings me to a favorite of what I call my “sobriety songs,” The Wolf is Getting Married by the amazing Sinéad O’Connor, who became one of my personal heroes the moment she tore up that photo of the pope on Saturday Night Live (I have my issues, as does she, with the roman catholic church).  The title is an obscure Arabic expression meaning, loosely translated, “a break in the clouds.”  The song seems to have been written for, perhaps, a love interest. When I listen to it, I think of a collective of people: my family and old friends who have always loved and supported me (even when I was stumbling around like an early Walking Dead prototype.) I also think of all the new people in my life: the sober ones – particularly my new Tuesday night family – friends who are guiding me and helping me and crying with me and rooting for me and loving me, until I can transition from mostly liking myself to actually full-on loving myself.  I also think of my trio of spiritual advisors who brought me home to my higher power.

Their smiles make me smile. Their joy gives me joy. Their hope gives me hope. I am so absolutely surrounded by love these days. Maybe I always have been. But I’m actually able to register it now, and it’s powerful. There’s been a break in the clouds, and the sun feels fucking amazing.

I used to have no wolves around me
I was too free, if that’s possible to be
No safety, is what I mean
No solid foundation to keep me

But the sun’s peeping out of the sky
Where there used to be only gray
The wolf is getting married
and he’ll never cry again

Your smile makes me smile
Your laugh makes me laugh
Your joy gives me joy
your hope gives me hope

 

VIDEO: Room 233

A piece about one of the darkest days of my meth addiction, as read to a hundred friends and total strangers at the storytelling show “Taboo Tales,” 8/30/2011 at the Zephyr Theatre, Los Angeles.

Just one of my many Adventures with “Pitiful and Incomprehensible Demoralization”…Unfortunately, the incident described in this essay turned out to not be quite enough to keep me away from meth forever. That, I suppose, is the difference between a true addict and a recreational drug user.  This go-round with sobriety has been different for me, namely because I am no longer an atheist…as I so proudly declare in the hubris-filled coda of this video.

I’m frequently asked why I share this kind of stuff so publicly….and the answer is that the adage “we are only as sick as our secrets” holds absolutely true for me.  I learned from the great Heather Morgan, my writing teacher who has supported me since I began taking her classes years ago, that  the act of reviewing the situation, composing a narrative and, occasionally, trying to find the humor in even the blackest of moments is an act of self-healing for me.  Once I’ve written it and shared it, it stops weighing me down with shame and the fear that if anyone knew this or that dark secret about me, they would recoil in disgust.  I’m certain many people have recoiled, and think less of me. But I’ve learned that the people who truly love me still love me.

Now, if anything horrible…say, hidden camera sex videos (one of my huge personal fears) or naked photos pop up on the internet at anytime in my future, not a single one of my loved ones are going to be shocked by my drug-fueled indiscretions.

Please forgive the graphic nature of this video, and more importantly, please forgive the crazy hair. Note to self: don’t do that nervous ‘run fingers through hair’ thing while waiting to take the stage.

We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it…….

Machete, Moonlight, Madness: part one

IMG_4296_Tree_People_3I drop the curtain, and reflexively retrieve the pipe and torch from the bedside drawer and take another deep hit.  I replace it, and quickly move to the window on the north side of the house, yanking it open, no longer cautious about being seen, knowing I’ve already been located, knowing they are already on to the scent and are closing ranks around the small house.  As expected, one regiment stands flanking the carport roof directly in front of the house. This time, they have cleverly intertwined themselves in the branches of the huge cypress trees that line the driveway, their bodies contorted as they seek to disguise themselves within the twisting branches.  I meet the menacing gaze of one of them for a brief moment, drop the curtain and begin pacing the room, beginning to sweat even as cold fear sweeps across me.

Adrenaline courses through my body and my thoughts switch to survival mode.  Though no direct communication has been established, somehow, telepathically perhaps, the people in the trees have made it known that their intent, this time, is not simply to frighten me back to a psych ward. This time, they intend to finish this game of cat and mouse once and for all.   My anxiety level is already elevator-ing up, up, up, when I remember Patrick and my visiting mother and sister in the other room, on the other side of this locked door, completely oblivious to the danger that now surrounds all of us.  Another message arrives, fully formed, in my brain:  They intend to kill everyone in the house except me, knowing that by leaving me alive, and high on meth, I will surely be held accountable for their murders.  Having this much of the drug in my system would render fully incredible any claims of innocence.  This new information hits me hard and quick, cutting through the thick tweaker haze and eradicating any indecisiveness.

There is a small, heavily wooded canyon opposite our house, and several months ago I had discovered a small, secluded area that was perfect for smoking my pipe whenever Patrick was home and I did not want my current binge to be discovered.  The last time I walked there, about a week ago, I had stumbled upon an ancient, rusted machete that had been left behind, perhaps by one of the city park workers who periodically move through the canyon doing brush clearance.  I had taken it home, feeling certain that some unseen force had guided me to it, for reasons that at the time were unclear.

I now retrieve the machete from under the bed where I had hidden it, it’s purpose now rendered obvious, and open the bedroom door, moving quickly into the living room, brandishing the rusty blade.

sink-0191 It is less dark in the living room than in the bedroom, and as conversation suddenly stops and all three faces turn to meet my wild-eyed gaze, I can see their eyes and mouths comically pop wide as they register the 18-inch blade I’m waving above my head.

“They’re out there,” I say, trying to keep my voice steady, trying not to panic them, but desperately praying they will, this time..for once... cooperate.

Patrick rises to his feet.  His initial angry reaction is quickly replaced by concern, and he tries to coax me into putting the machete down, but I ignore him and move quickly past him, yanking closed the drapes in the living room, and then those in the dining room.

My mother and sister have no experience with the Tree People, nor have they witnessed any of my epic panic attacks they’ve brought on. They have been safely four hundred miles away during previous encounters, and they sit, mouths slightly agape, stunned.  Patrick, however, has been through this before, and his concern is rapidly shifting back again to anger.

“Put the machete down,” he says, adopting his “let’s reason” voice.

“Who’s out there?” my sister asks, and she sounds nervous.

No one is out there,” Patrick says to her, perhaps a little too sharply.

We’ve been through this before, of course, and it has become clear to me over time that Patrick is utterly incapable of seeing the People in the Trees.  Clearly they are hiding from him, keeping their existence known only to me, in an attempt to discredit my sanity.  If only he would look a little harder he would see, I am certain of this.  His anger and frustration at my inability to stay clean have stripped him of any vestige of his former, super-patient self.

Theresa, my sister, looks from Patrick’s tense face to my sweaty one, and rises from the couch and strides to the living room window, pulls the curtain open and stares outside, making absolutely no attempt to hide herself from the eyes of the tree people, who have now quietly congregated in the small garden adjacent to the front window.

tree window“There’s no one there”, she says decisively, turning her gaze to me, still standing, vulnerable, in front of the window.  Over her shoulder, through the glass, a tall, menacing figure that was once merely a pine tree glares directly at me.   I rush the window, grabbing her by the shoulder and pushing her aside roughly, simultaneously yanking the curtains closed.

Get down, you fucking dumbass!” I screech at her, and her face registers shock more than offense.  I have never yelled at my sister like this, and she is first stunned, then angry.

“Hey!” she retorts, barely achieving the tone of indignation she  must have been trying to convey.

“They’re everywhere,” I screech, waving my arms and the machete and feeling like a demented Gladys Kravitz dealing with a trio of obtuse Abners.

“Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there!” I continue, and though I hear how illogical the words sound, I’m utterly convinced of their truth.

I am terrified, and I do not know what to do next.  I cannot let them hurt my family, cannot let them hurt my dear, sweet Patrick.  I am frustrated, knowing that we are doomed, knowing that my family will be killed, that I will be sent to prison, decimated by grief,  and certain that every single person who has witnessed my steady decline into addiction will hold me responsible.

Patrick continues trying to reason with me, adopting a softer tone.  My mother joins him, and I retreat to the hallway, sink to the floor, still holding the machete.  I tune them out, trying to think of a way out of this.

The idea crystallizes suddenly, and I am certain I have found a way to save my family.  I must sacrifice myself.  There is no time to ponder the logic of this decision, or even fully consider it’s potential effectiveness.  I bolt to my feet and stride quickly and purposefully across the house, past Patrick, Theresa and my mother who sit huddled together, still looking stunned and nervous.

I reach the sliding glass door, unlock it and stride out into the rapidly darkening yard, waving the rusty blade in the air.

“Where are you going?” I hear my mother call, her voice wildly uneven.

I ignore her, and move forward towards the swimming pool, stopping at its edge and slowly turning around in a slow circle.   The yard is a veritable jungle of vegetation, lined with thick hedges, fruit trees and overgrown brush.  The tree people line the yard, resplendent in their green finery, surrounding me on three sides, glaring, judging, mocking, hating.

“Come on! Take me!” I yell, a methed-up version of Father Karras from The Exorcist, glaring back into their eyes, daring them.  My fright has turned fully to anger now.

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“Cowards!”

They make no move, and I continue to gesture at them with the big knife, sharp-pointed jabs as I turn slowly, making deliberate eye contact.

I single out three females, cleverly disguised as tall, wild sunflowers growing above the gazebo, and head in their direction.  The wind shifts slightly, and they begin to dance, almost mockingly, undulating back and forth slowly, their eyes fixed on mine.

Suddenly, anger overwhelms me, and I rush to the side of the house and drag out a small aluminum folding ladder.  I pull it to the gazebo, open it and clamber up on to its roof.  The structure is very old, and it sways slightly as I move towards the phantom sunflowers, swinging the machete and swearing loudly.  They are out of reach, too far up the hillside for me to attack, and I eventually give up, turning around and surveying the yard once again from my perch.

My sister and my mother have come out onto the patio, and begin asking me to come down.  I refuse, and demand that they get back into the house for their own protection. Finally, tears running down both of their faces, they do.

After half an hour of pacing on the roof, I hear a commotion inside the house: dogs barking wildly mixed with the voices of strangers.  I freeze momentarily, fearing that the invasion has begun. I swing myself down from the gazebo like an insane gymnast, almost impaling myself with the giant knife, and head toward the sliding glass door.

I open it, step inside, and see that the police have arrived.

(continue to part two)

Trojan Choker

Night of the Vesuvian Pussy

ishot-1147551I’ve heard it said that idleness is the Devil’s Playground, and if that was true I was about to make a mad dash for the swingset.

I had been working at least 40 hours a week since I was thirteen years old – first at my parent’s deli, then seven years selling lawnmowers and large appliances, a short stint at the Gap, followed by 5 years at ABC, another 5 at the Shoah Foundation, two producing videos for the internet, and finally the past year directing the AIDS marathon.  Each of these jobs followed the other in quick succession, with little or no down time in-between.   That added up to over 25 years of non-stop employment, and I was ready to relax and live off the fruits of my – and Patrick’s – success.

Thanks to Patrick’s years on the “Ellen” sitcom, for which he earned per episode what I had sometimes managed to earn in an entire year – we had enough bank to be able to relax a little, to take things as they came, to avoid panic at the prospect of unemployment.  This, for me, was a luxury I had never known before, and I embraced it with open arms.

Throwing a duffel bag into the trunk of my car one early spring morning, I kissed Patrick goodbye and headed down and out of the leafy canopy of the Chevy Chase Estates, a few left turns, onto the 2 freeway north, to interstate 5 and up and out of Los Angeles.

Ostensibly, I was making a trip up north to see my grandmother, who was dealing with emphysema and had recently begun a steady decline.  It was hard to think of my grandmother, that tall, strong second-mother figure of my youth as anything but invincible.  We had a special relationship – I was her first grandchild, but having been born to a mother who was only 15 at the time, my grandmother had assumed responsibility for most of my early parenting while my mother finished high school.  She referred to me as “her oldest and dearest,” and although it was always said jokingly, it annoyed the hell out of my brother, sister and cousins.   I was looking forward to visiting with her in her small suite in her new retirement community.  But first, I had decided, a detour.

I was looking forward to seeing David, it had been over a year since our last meeting.  He and his boyfriend James had purchased a house in Fremont, and were hosting a housewarming party to celebrate the acquisition.  It promised to be, as any party David threw or even attended, a blast.  Sunroof open, the warm southern California air rippling my hair, I blasted the stereo, Maria McKee forgetting what it was in him that put the need in her, Johnette of Concrete Blonde wailing about walking in London, talking Italian, singing in Sydney.

Of all my friends from the old Modesto crowd, I missed David the most.  We had bonded years ago, one rainy day when a mutual friend brought him over and five of us had ‘shroomed together in my then-boyfriends rented bedroom, the heaving, pulsing walls covered with Depeche Mode posters and the Technicolor air vibrating with the sounds of Yaz.  David was my first male friend of any real significance, and I loved him more than I’d ever loved a friend before. Kindhearted, hilarious, a wonderful mix of smart and occasional goofiness, my handsome friend was desired by both men and women, yet he never seemed to be fully aware of the mesmerizing affect he had on people.

At that time, David was using every ounce of mental determination he possessed to be heterosexual.  His girlfriend back then, his high-school sweetheart Rhonda, loathed me. Perhaps this was because I was proudly gay and she felt I was a threat to her boyfriend’s heterosexuality, or perhaps it was because I had once called her a cunt – ungallantly, yes, but deservedly – at the Burger King drive-through window where she worked before I learned she was David’s girl.

David had tried everything to please his fundamentalist parents, going to church, singing in the choir, dating Rhonda, marrying Rhonda, even having a child, an amazingly adorable little boy he named Scott.  I always suspected David was gay, but as his friend I respected the path he was on, his difficult journey towards acceptance, and never brought the subject up to him. This was a measure of how much I treasured his friendship, as at that point in my life a studied lack of respect for all things deserving of it was one of my calling cards. David was the good boy everyone loved, I was the bad boy who pretended not to give a shit who liked me or not.

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David’s struggle with his orientation ended abruptly when, after confessing his feelings to a pastor at his church, he was subjected to what may be history’s least successful exorcism.  He was tied to a chair and prayed over by the male members of his congregation, who implored the gay demon to leave their brother’s body and free his soul of its toxic, sinful influence.  Refusing to untie him to allow him to relieve himself, he passed out after ten or so hours and pissed himself.  This experience so humiliated and degraded him that it had the opposite effect:  the rainbow-colored demon took full command of David’s mind and body, cruelly forcing him to divorce his wife, indulge in acts of sodomy, and relegating him to a life of happiness, self-acceptance and honesty.   When he phoned me and told me of these developments, I had jokingly shouted a hearty “Hail satan!” into the handset.

The drive up the 5 between Los Angeles and the Bay Area must certainly be one of the most monotonous routes anywhere in the contiguous United States, over 5 hours of nothingness stretching away on either side, punctuated only by the occasional rest stop or gas station.  By the time I pulled up to David’s house in Fremont, my legs were cramped and my right butt cheek ached from sitting on my wallet.

I gathered up a stack of CD’s (David and I never saw eye-to-eye on music, he preferred the gay-oriented dance shit that I loathed, and I cottoned to alternative or rock), retrieved my duffel from the trunk and climbed the raked driveway to the front door.  The house, though small, was adorable, perched on the side of a hill in a sweet middle class development probably dating back to the forties. Reaching the front porch, I turned around and was rewarded with a view that stretched out to the bay on one side and across the Castro Valley on the other.  Some hideous audio of the techno variety throbbed and thumped its way through the front door.

I gave the door two sharp knocks, and knowing it couldn’t be heard over the music, entered without waiting for a response.   I found David in the kitchen, pulling beer cans from their cardboard case and loading them into the fridge.  He looked up, and an enormous, boyish grin filled his face.

“My brother!” he exclaimed, embracing me.

“My brother.” I replied, hugging back.

“I missed you, dickhead.” I said, employing my favorite nickname for him.

“Show it to me.” he said.

I didn’t have to ask him what he was referring to.  Years of road trips, clubbing, smoking pot together in rooms both familiar and strange had provided us with the ability to communicate using a kind of psychic shorthand, interpreting this kind of non-sequitur with the ease of a master linguist.

“Come on.” I said, and we walked back out to the front yard.

“Oh my God, it’s beautiful!” he said approaching my car and slowly circling it.

I’d had the car for only a few months, a Mercedes C-Class that I had just leased, and I got a small thrill that David, an avid fan of luxury cars, appreciated it as much as I did, was happy for me.

This was one of the things I loved about David.  Long ago, I had learned that most of my old friends from Modesto did not want to hear about any good fortune I may have experienced since moving to Los Angeles.   This was often hugely disappointing, as I still often had difficulty believing the circumstances in which I sometimes found myself.  By Los Angeles standards, the things I had done and the people I had met perhaps were fairly unremarkable, but for someone like me, someone who just a few short years ago was selling extended warranties on riding mowers to grizzled, over-alled farmers, they seemed remarkable, sometimes unbelievable.  It was such a disappointment to not be able to share these experiences without being made to feel as if I were somehow bragging or worse, exaggerating. Even writing these words I feel a slight cringe.

So I learned, when it came to my small-town friends, to downplay anything that might be construed as either boasting or name-dropping.

“We spent New Years at Lisa Kudrow’s house” became “We just hung out with some friends.”   “I’m on tour with the Chili Peppers” became “I’m traveling for business,”  and something like attending the Emmys was best left entirely unmentioned.  Though I felt like I was sometimes selling myself short, since I had worked my ass off to get where I was, it just made things easier when dealing with most people from my Modesto years. .  Eventually, most of these old friendships fell by the wayside anyway, replaced by Los Angeles friends who understood that these events, though interesting, were nothing more than the by-product of working in the entertainment industry and being partnered with a working actor.

David, however, was different.  Just as I was thrilled for all his successes, his escape from fundamentalism, his graduation from IT school, the purchase of his home, he was equally thrilled for me, and rather than feel threatened by or jealous of the circumstances of my life, he got a kick out of them.   I loved surprising him, inviting him to premieres and bringing him backstage at concerts and introducing him to the bands  My favorite example of this was when he had come down to Los Angeles the previous year for a visit.  Knowing when he’d be arriving, I had invited some friends over, and then gone grocery shopping, asking my friends to greet him when he arrived and entertain him until I returned.   When I arrived back at my house, I found David’s car parked out on the street and entered the house to find him in the living room, looking slightly pale and stunned and having a conversation with Cheri Oteri and Paula Abdul.

He was in heaven the entire weekend, and it made me happy to see him so excited.  And of course, as everyone instantly does, the two famous ladies adored him.

“What color is that, exactly?” he asked now, squinting at the vehicle.

“I don’t know.  I thought it was blue when I got it, but apparently it’s green.” I said, and we both guffawed at the ridiculousness of my abject color blindness, something he had teased and playfully tormented me about for years.

“I’m so happy for you.” he said, and embraced me again.

“Thanks, Dave…I love you,” I said, squeezing him back.

“I can’t believe you’re driving a Mercedes, you fucker.” he laughed.

“I can’t believe you’re a homeowner, you dickhead,” I countered.

“You wanna drive it?”

“Fuck yeah!” he said, and I tossed him the keys.

We drove through the winding hills of Fremont, horrible dance music from the station David selected bouncing out of the twelve bose speakers and escaping through the opened sunroof like audio vapor, joined soon by vapor from the joint David produced from his shirt pocket.   We drove for about twenty minutes, David loving the experience and me loving David’s loving it.

driving-high-whenistoohighStoned as fuck, we returned to the house, and after making him give me a tour of his new home, began getting the house ready for the party.  Three hours until guests would begin arriving, and we set to work moving furniture back against the walls, stringing speaker wire out into the backyard, filling the kitchen table with bottles of booze and setting up strobe lights in the living room and bedrooms.   At some point, David’s partner James, a shy, handsome former navy officer who had lived for months at a time on a submarine and was some kind of high-tech genius and a genuinely lovely man –  who clearly adored my friend –  arrived home.  I gave him a hug and dragged him out into the backyard to share the rest of the joint.

Dusk came, and the guests followed.   The crowd was, as it always was at one of David’s parties, pleasantly egalitarian.  Well-groomed gays, grunge gays, straight preppies, gay preppies, straight tattooed punks, gay tattooed punks, motherly older women, fatherly older men, both femme and butch lesbians, artists, and the occasional silicon valley type.

The house was soon packed with this cross-section of Bay Area humanity, and soon I was doing a couple fat lines of coke in the garage with Roger, a sweet and very sexy gargantuan-mohawked, tattooed punk I’d met on an embarrassingly sexually-uncontained-on-my-part trip with David and James to the Russian River a few years back.  After reminiscing about my incredible lack of discretion (drug-fueled, of course) and the hearty applause I’d received from those in neighboring tents when I emerged in the morning, I began working the crowded party, mellowing the cocaine rush with shots of Jaegermeister, and the hours ticked by. Plastic cups piled up in corners, crepe paper streamers detached and hung sloppily from the walls.  A thin, blond-haired twink latched onto me at some point, obviously stoned, even more so than me.  I don’t think I even asked his name, but when he began asking me to fuck him, I snagged a condom from David’s night table drawer and lead him down to the front yard and into a cramped storage area under the house and obliged his request.  I thought briefly of Patrick at home and was momentarily flooded by a wave of guilt. Even though we had a sort of semi-fluid, unspoken  “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding indiscretions, we could certainly not be classified as swingers and both valued monogamy.  He just happened to be a whole lot better at it than I was.3491484147_4ebe747716

The fuck took less than ten minutes, and when we were finished I left him there in his drunken stupor and stumbled out, up the stairs and back through the front door, and noticed that the room was thinning slightly, all of the more responsible types having departed, leaving only the hardcore partiers to continue.

I found David in the kitchen.

“I have a surprise for you.” I said.  “Come with me.”

He followed me into his bedroom and I went to my duffel bag in the closet and retrieved a plastic bag containing an eight ball of crystal from one of its pockets, along with a thin-glassed bubble pipe and a small, yellow butane torch lighter.

“Oh my god.” said Dave. “Is that coke?”

“Nope, it’s Tina.” I said, using the gay slang for the drug.

I see a look of concern pass over his face, but it quickly dissipates.

“Shit, that’s a lot.”

“Yup.”

“Can we share it with some of my friends? Would that be okay?” David asked.

“Sure.  You go get them and I’ll get the pipe ready.”

David stopped and turned back around to face me.

“We’re going to smoke it?  I’ve never smoked it before.”

David, who was usually as game as I was to experiment with new experiences, seemed a little hesitant. Pot was David’s mainstay, and I suspect the idea of smoking a meth pipe was pushing the boundaries of experimentation for him.

“It’s great.” I said.   “You’ll love it.  Go get your friends.”

Soon, there were about twelve of us in the small room, gathered around the edges of the bed, people David selected who he knew would want to be included.  It was surprising to me then, and embarrassing for me now to remember that I was the only one of that select group who knew…or admitted to knowing… how to smoke speed from a pipe, and I had to demonstrate for them, how to slowly roll the bowl while the white crystals vaporized, how not to burn the contents, and emphasizing with the solemn firmness of a college professor the importance of not rolling it so far that the boiling liquid could spill out the small hole in the top, a common, and sometimes painful, first-time speed-smoking faux pas, particularly for those who are already high on weed.image130

I saw in  a few of the faces ringing the bed a trace of disgust, the similarity of the ritual being so close to that of the crack head, but everyone partook despite whatever misgivings they might have, any revulsion being tempered by the communal nature of the act. Images of Halle Berry in Jungle Fever imploring “I suck your dick good for five dollars, honey” were pushed aside by the illusion of camaraderie, the certainty that this bedroom-bound posse were safely insulated from that kind of fall from grace.  This was a party in a lovely suburban home, not a drug den in South Central.

The pipe circulated, with a few intermissions to reload it, until it had made the full rounds several times, at which point people began to slip back out of the room to rejoin the main party.

“Wow, that’s intense,” David said, smiling at me.

“I know,” I replied.

“When did you start smoking it?” he asked

“ A few months ago…I like it so much better than snorting it.”

“I can see why,” he said through a smile that would stay on his face for the next 12 hours.

In the intervening years, I’ve done much for which I feel guilt and shame.  Introducing a roomful of people, of David’s friends, to the act of smoking meth ranks among the most spiritually punishing of my memories.  If I’d known at that time the path that smoking crystal would soon lead me down, I wouldn’t have done it.  But I did.  And I still agonize, wondering how many of those twelve people also became addicted.  The odds are pretty good that at least one of them did.

David’s parties generally lasted until the early morning hours.  This one, however, newly charged by the crystal rocket fuel, went on until the following afternoon.

When my cell phone had begun buzzing earlier, I had simply shut it off.  I knew my mother had been expecting me to arrive in the morning, as did Patrick.  I knew that we had planned to spend today with my grandmother, and that she was waiting for me.  But I also knew that my grandmother spent most days alone, and that whether our visit happened today or tomorrow would hardly matter to her. A small wave of guilt coursed over me, but I brushed it aside, promising myself I’d give her extra attention, that I’d even take her to Starbucks, oxygen tanks and all,  for one of her most recently acquired passions, a venti mocha Frappucino. I knew that I should call, but I also knew that if I spoke to either of them they’d be able to tell immediately that I was using, and I didn’t want to revisit the “go to a twelve step meeting or get out” ordeal of last month.  I would just tell them that there had been a miscommunication, and that my cell phone battery had died. I’ll promise I’ll work on being more responsible, I’d say, expertly feigning humility and regret.

Once the speed had been introduced, the gathering had taken on a decidedly sexual nature, the disinhibiting libido-enhancing effect of the drug clearly in evidence.  By four AM of the second night, the crowd consisted tumblr_lamsi3PUNM1qcvdh0o1_500primarily twelve or so of us that had shared the pipe and some others who were tweaking on their own or still flying high on coke. A small orgy spontaneously erupted in the spare bedroom, participants coming and going and trying to come for hours, the entire affair taking on a decidedly late-career Pier Paolo Pasolini flavor.

At one point, I discovered David and two other gay men sitting indian-style in a row facing the fireplace.

On the hearth, a butch dyke named Angela (with whom I had earlier discussed computer software marketing) was kneeling next to her femme girlfriend, also named Angela, who was naked from the waist down with her legs splayed far apart.  Butch Angela had three fingers in femme Angela’s vagina, and was rocketing them in and out with the speed and precision of an industrial power tool.  The femme Angela’s head lolled back on her shoulders, seemingly oblivious to the small audience in front of her.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“She’s trying to prove to us that women can ejaculate.” explained David, turning his head toward me and taking a drag off his cigarette.

“Oh,” I said, and never one to pass on an educational opportunity, took my place in the row of spectators.

It was only moments later that the prone Angela began to moan, her legs tensing and her bare feet grasping for purchase on the reddish carpeting.  Butch Angela’s hand sped up even further, a whirring blur between the other girl’s thighs. An avid consumer of straight porn, I sensed what was coming, so to speak, and moved back a few feet.   The others, possibly too high to sense danger, remained in position like oblivious tourists on the blue front row bench at Sea World.

Great jets of clear liquid pulsed out of the girl, arcing up and forward, landing on the carpet between her legs, and quite tragically, on the forearms of the gay guy directly in front of her.

“Fuck!” he screamed, lurching backward and falling over in his attempt to escape the Vesuvian pussy in front of him.

David looked back over his shoulder at me and remarked, in the droll way that only David could, “fuck is right.  I just had this carpet cleaned.”

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When daylight finally arrived, I awoke from a fitful half-sleep in a giant tangled heap of sleeping, nude gay men, comforters and pillows on the floor of the small second bedroom.    Rubbing my eyes, trying to get my gummy contacts lenses to free themselves from my corneas, I stumbled around the destroyed house gathering my belongings, and then snuck into David and James’s room to say goodbye.

After stopping at McDonalds for coffee, I finally turned my cell phone back on.  Many, many text messages were waiting for me, from both Patrick and my mother.  Sighing, I decided not to read any of them, and dialed my mother directly instead.

She answered on the first ring.

“Mom” I said, “I had my phone turned off, I just saw that you sent me a bunch of texts.  Is everything okay?”

Expecting her to start raging at me, I was surprised to find silence on the other end of the line.

“Mom?”

“Andy, where are you?”

She doesn’t sound angry at all.  I begin to feel relief.

“I’m on my way, I’ll be there in about an hour. Sorry I forgot to call and tell you I wasn’t going to be there, I was just too tired to drive and decided to wait until this morning.”

Okay, she says, calmly.  It’s so out of character for her, this almost tranquilized delivery, that I begin to get concerned.

“What’s going on, Mom?

“Nothing.  Just drive carefully.

Clearly, she’s not mad at me, because my mother has never been one to hide her anger.  But there’s something else going on, but I can’t make sense of it.

Because my head still isn’t completely clear, I decide not to press it, and after hanging up drive to Turlock as quickly as possible, trying to come up with a story that would appease both Patrick and my mother, just in case I need one, and decide keeping it simple is best, that’ll I’ll stick with the “just forgot, phone turned off, Sorry to worry you,” plan.

When I arrive at my mother’s house, I see that there are quite a few cars parked in front, only two of which I recognize, my sister’s and my brother’s.

Entering the house, I hear conversation in the kitchen stop completely as the front door closes behind me.  Rounding the corner, I find my entire family, including some cousins, seated around the kitchen table, all of them silent, all of them staring at me with blank expressions I can’t decipher.

An Intervention? Already?

Then, my mother is moving towards me, putting her arms around me, and suddenly, intuitively, instinctively, I know. I already know.

I’ve identified as an atheist for years, but deep down, I still believe in God.  I believe that he is cruel, and vicious, and vengeful. He is a God who tricks, and taunts, who allows six million jews to be murdered on the whim of a single lunatic, who invents things like polio and who puts child-molesting priests into the direct path of young children. Knowing all this, I also know how God has written the next line of the ridiculous screenplay that is my life.

“Honey,” my mom says, squeezing me tightly with her big, soft arms, “your grandmother died last night.”

MUSIC SWELLS, FADE TO BLACK.

WHITE BOY ON TOP OF THE WORLD

I’m hunched up on the hillside next to our house, fully enclosed by the long, thorny vines of the giant Bougainvillea, their purplish flowers dotting my field of vision.  The morning sunlight backlights them, so to my tired, red-rimmed eyes each one appears as a glowing, translucent orb. In my hand is a prescription bottle.  I open it, peering inside at the four Ambien tablets resting at the bottom.  I lift the bottle and take them all, working my dry mouth to summon enough saliva to swallow them.

smokeMy pulse, quickened by the fight with Patrick and subsequent dash out the bedroom door and jump over the retaining wall into the giant bramble, is finally beginning to slow when I hear the first siren.  There is no shortage of sirens in my neighborhood, as the Highland Park Fire Department is not far away.  This one, however, grows steadily louder as it climbs Mount Washington, until it is wailing not twenty feet below me on the street.  It ceases suddenly, and I hear other vehicles pulling up and stopping sharply, doors slamming, voices rising unintelligibly over the crackle of two-way radios.  When I hear the herd of footsteps tramping up the cement stairway leading to our front door, I climb to my knees and part the branches.  I see a small fire department truck, not the kind to fight fires, but rather the kind that is summoned for medical emergencies.  More ominously, two black and white police cruisers are also parked down there, one in front of the fire vehicle and one in back.

I retreat back into the safety of the bushes, and try to think.  I have three options, as I see it.  I can go back into the house and try to play this off as a misunderstanding, as another overreaction of Patrick to some minor domestic disturbance.  This has worked before, with varying degrees of success, but I know how bad I look after several days with no sleep, and it’s unlikely I can pull off the indignant, wronged and totally sane domestic partner defense.  My second option is to make a run for it, up the hill and into the wild, undeveloped hills above our home.  This idea has it’s advantages, namely the complete avoidance of police officers.  However, I’m wearing only a wife-beater and a pair of tight bikini brief underwear, and even in my exhausted state I decide that this is probably not a practical choice.  I have just decided to go with option three, to stay silent and hidden in the giant thorny bush, when the French door from our bedroom swings open and I hear Patrick saying:

“He’s in there.”

I hear grunting as someone, or a couple of someones, hoists him or themselves up onto the waist-high retaining wall, and start parting branches.

I’m terrified of cops, primarily because I’m pretty much always in possession of a fair amount of illegal substances, but also because of the clubbing I received from one of them at a protest rally when I was in my early twenties.  I know how some of them can turn ugly and mean in a heartbeat, and after that clubbing I carried around on my skull a lemon-sized reminder of that instant capacity for violence for more than a week.

1_90023582757_1I immediately offer myself up, crawling towards the hands.  I emerge from the brush to find two uniformed officers staring at me. I feel like a textbook case of meth addiction, a male version of Margot Kidder, who was pulled from her own set of bushes not far from here. I know these cops have  probably seen everything insane there is to see, but I still detect the glance they give each other as they instantaneously recognize what I am. Not who I am, or who I used to be, but what I am: a wide-eyed, jaw-grinding specimen of Tweakus Americanus.

I drop down off the retaining wall and into the garden outside our bedroom. Standing there in my underwear, I give them a half-hearted, “hey there” wave and a “shit happens” look I hope they’ll find disarming. I’m not sure who’s supposed to make the first move, so I just stand there with my hands protectively covering my crotch area, while they stand there looking back, almost bemused.

“Are you going to give us a problem, or are you going to come inside?” one of them asks.

Probably both, I think, but I quietly agree, and all three of us fumble our way down the hill, over the retaining wall, and into my bedroom. They are giving me that look I’ve seen before, from other cops, from emergency room doctors, from mental hospital workers…but can never quite define.  Disgust?

curiosity?  Amusement?  I’m not sure, but I know that it makes me feel very small.

And a little angry. Which isn’t surprising, since meth always makes me quick to rage.

I can hear Patrick out in the living room, talking loudly to someone.  His voice is measured, but I can detect a hint of hysteria in the words that spill out just a little too loud and a little too fast.  He is recounting the events of this morning, and I want to get out there, fast, to counter his accusations, to present my side of the story.  The problem, however, is that the Ambien are starting to take effect, and the room begins to sway and canter crazily, my vision blurring.

Can I get dressed?  I ask the cops in the room with me.  They look at each other, then one tells me to go ahead, but do it quickly.  Trying to maintain balance, I pull on the pair of jeans I wore yesterday, and the day before that, and quite possibly the day before that, followed by my favorite blue t-shirt that is wadded up on the chair in the corner.  Breathing slowly and trying not to pass out, I get down on my knees and retrieve a pair of sandals from under the bed.

Once dressed, the two police officers motion me out of the bedroom, and I carefully, keeping one hand on the wall and the other outstretched for balance, shuffle my way out to the living room where Patrick has just ended a sentence with the words “I’m scared for him.”

Patrick, along with three Fire department emergency medical workers, turn to look at me.  He looks as stunned as I feel.

I immediately launch into my standard “this is all a big misunderstanding” speech, the one that has worked so many times in the past, but my voice comes out slurred, my tongue thick in my mouth.  There is a noise in my head, a great white whir that grows louder, like the whomp, whomp, whomp of an approaching helicopter, that makes it almost impossible to hear my own words, so I stop mid sentence and start again, from the beginning, but am interrupted by one of the EMT’s, who motions for me to sit down.

I do so, and he sits next to me and begins asking me questions, which are almost impossible for me to understand with the whirring noise in my brain.  He is fading in and out of my vision, as if he were on a television screen and someone was rapidly rotating the brightness/contrast dial.

I feel a blood pressure cuff being velcro’d onto my right arm, but I don’t even look, reserving all my focus to stay upright, to hear the questions I’m being asked, and god willing, give the right answers to this pop quiz that will decide if I’m staying, or if I’m going.

I must nod off for a moment, because the next thing I’m aware of I’m standing by the front door with my hands behind my back, and I’m being ushered out into the bright morning sun.  I’m being supported on either side by the firemen, and they are slowly guiding me down the long stairway towards the street.  It is then that I realize my hands are not just behind my back, but are actually cuffed.  I struggle through the brain haze that wafts across my consciousness like giant billowing drifts of fog, and voice protest.

defaul2“Calm down,”  one of the men says sharply, and his grip on my arm tightens painfully. I give up trying to speak, but twist my head around to see Patrick standing in the doorway, stone-faced as an Easter Island statue.

I feel the angry hatred rise up through the fog, and shout back to him “See what you did? You did this! I fucking hate you!”

They walk me to the back of the ambulance-like emergency vehicle, and I am dimly aware of a small crowd of neighbors up the street, watching The Meth Freak of Mount Washington in yet another bravura engagement of his long-running one-man surrealist play.

I want to scream “ What the fuck are you looking at?” but the tight grip on each of my biceps reigns me in, and instead I hang my head as the door swings open and I am roughly, and awkwardly, hoisted into the back of the vehicle, where I am deposited on to a padded bench that runs the length of the inside.  My ass lands on my cuffed hands, and I yelp with pain as the metal cuts into my wrists.

“Can you loosen these?” I ask the two EMT’s who have climbed in with me and closed the door behind them.

They ignore me, and begin discussing their lunch plans as they take their seats.

I squirm a little, trying to find some relief from the cuffs, and finally, dazed, turn my head to look out the back window as the small parade of vehicles begins to descend Mount Washington.

I close my eyes, and try to make sense of it all through the thickening  haze in my head.  How many days had I been up?  Three, I think.  Maybe four? No, three…because  I know I started partying after work on Friday, my plan having been to stop on Saturday night so I could spend Sunday recovering and make it to work this morning in a relatively functional state.  I remember that Saturday night came, and the little plastic bag still had some crystal in it.  There, of course, was the primary flaw in my plan.  I have never been able to stop when there was still some product left in my possession.  I should have planned better, should have smoked more of it, so that the binge would have had a clear, delineated ending.  Instead, I had kept going, and it had culminated in a huge fight with Patrick, running to the bedroom, grabbing the Ambien, and dashing out the side door and up the hill and under the bush.  I had only taken the Ambien in a desperate attempt at sleep, to gain entrance into the only sanctuary from Patrick’s anger and the impending hallucinations.  Patrick, not knowing there were only four pills left in the bottle, had called 911.  Weary, I let the fog roll in again, aware only of the disembodied voices of the EMT’s and the stinging pinch of the handcuffs.

When I next open my eyes, I see that the verdant greenery of my neighborhood has been replaced by the concrete and steel of an industrial area, and once again the fog clears just long enough to permit a sudden realization.

We’re heading towards downtown.  The County Jail is downtown.  Even in my ambient-induced, dream-like state, I know there is nothing good waiting for me in that part of Los Angeles.  All the other times I’ve been escorted out of my home, either by Patrick or the police, the vehicle I was put into has always headed north, towards Pasadena or Glendale.  Memorial Hospital, Huntington Hospital, lockups of a more upscale persuasion, and as I have proven on multiple occasions, extremely easy to escape from.

My eyes close again, and do not open until I feel the vehicle stop.  It isn’t until the back door swings open and I see that we have arrived at a hospital emergency room entrance that I feel a sense of relief.

Not Jail.

I don’t recognize this hospital, and squint my tired eyes against the bright light to find something to identify my exact location.  And there it is:

USC Medical Center.

As I am led, still cuffed, to the admissions desk, I look around me.  This place is crowded, and has an air of general disrepair about it.  The waiting room is filled with people, almost all of whom are black or latino, sitting on hard plastic chairs.  This is a world away from the comparatively posh, upholstered and carpeted emergencies rooms of other hospitals I’ve been taken to.  Almost every pair of eyes in the waiting room is fixed on me, and I wonder if it’s because I’m the only white person in the room or if it’s because of the handcuffs, or the combination of the two.Los_Angeles_County-USC_Medical_Center_(Emergency_Entrance)-1

I can barely speak now, can barely hold my head up, but I fight to stay upright.  Fortunately, one of the police officers I dimly recognize from our earlier encounter on the hillside is speaking to the clerk behind the big, busy desk, so nothing is required of me besides being upright.  And even this is probably voluntary, I assume.  I could easily give in and collapse, but even with the Ambien distorting my thoughts and vision, I understand that this is my last chance to argue my way out of this, to prevent being put on a 5150 hold, which will guarantee, at the very least, a three-day stay in the psych ward.  I’ve heard stories of the USC psych ward at AA and NA meetings, and none of them have been pleasant.  “Snake Pit” is the descriptor most frequently used.

Still, even when I’m escorted to a partitioned area, and given a seat in a molded plastic chair, I immediately fall asleep despite the continued burning pinch of the handcuffs and my desire to work out a plausible, possibly exonerating explanation.

When I come to, I am surprised to find that I am now lying down on and bed, on my back with my now-numb hands still secured behind me.  Have they admitted me?  My eyes pop open and I scan my surroundings.

I am lying on a hospital gurney and I am surrounded on every side by other people on others.  Some are handcuffed, some are not.  The large, bright room holds at least twenty of these rolling beds, and they have all been neatly lined up in rows, one against the other, like some bizarre hospital version of a crowded valet parking lot.  I am near the center of the room, surrounded by the rolling beds and their human cargo.  There is no space between the gurneys, which means that in order to reach a patient in the back the orderlies must first roll out the beds in the closest rows, extract the gurney with the correct patient, and th en fill the space again with the beds that were removed, creating a new space in the front of this parking lot of damaged, fucked up, freaked out paranoids, psychotics, drug addicts and weirdos.

Straining my neck to look around, I see that once again, I am the only white person in this slider-puzzle of human suffering.  Some of the others, like me, are handcuffed or have their wrists tied with plastic tie-straps to the low chrome rails of their rolling beds, while the luckier ones are unrestrained, and these I envy for that tiny freedom of being able to clasp their hands to their foreheads or cover their eyes and pretend they’re somewhere else.

There room is filled with a  cacophony of moaning, crying and swearing.  I turn my head to the right, and look into the face of an elderly black man, who lies with his head thrown back, his mouth wide open.  He looks like he might be dead.  I swivel my head to the left, and meet the gaze of another black man who seems to be staring at me.

He looks angry.I experience a momentary flashback to 1986, when I was 21 years old, and walking up the steps to my zoology class at California State University Stanislaus.  It was a beautiful spring day, and I was feeling good, which was unusual for those pre-coming out, quiet-simmering-anger living-a-lie days.  A black man, who I had noticed around campus primarily because he was one of the very few students of color among the almost all-white student population, was sitting on the concrete bench outside the doors of the Science Building.

I was about to say hello to him, something I rarely did because of my almost crippling shyness, when he spoke to me first.

He said, in a tone that sounded half-sarcastic and half-contemptuous:

Hey white boy.  You look like you’re on top of the world. I bet you think you got it made.”

Even though he was making direct eye contact with me, I looked around to see if he could possibly be talking to someone else, but I was the only one in the vicinity. Shocked by the aggression in his tone, I simply put my head down and continued on to class.  However, I couldn’t pay attention to the Zoology lecture because all I could think was, “What did he mean?”

In time, I came to understand that with my blonde, preppy appearance, I was a walking embodiment of our society’s racial inequities.  But when it happened, it confused me, because I rarely, if ever, felt like I was on top of the world, or that I had it made.  I worked at Sears, I sold lawnmowers, I was struggling with my sexuality, and I had to wage a constant battle to not give in to the self-loathing that always seemed on the verge of overtaking me. Though I didn’t know it, I was only two years away from my first serious suicide attempt.

The man’s assessment of me puzzled me for years, wondering if I should feel guilty for being white and for the advantages in life that simple fact provided me with. I wondered, if this man saw a sense of privilege in me, someone so terminally insecure, did the rest of the world see me as confident? Was it that easy to fool people?

I wonder now, staring into the eyes of this different black man, if he too thinks I’ve got it made, even with my four-day beard stubble, sunken cheeks and red puffy eyes, speed-bump riddled arms handcuffed painfully under my back, stacked like so much kindling in the psych ward of a county welfare hospital.

Without warning, I feel laughter rising up from my chest.  I can’t stop it, and I turn my eyes away from the man on my left and focus on the fluorescent light panels of the ceiling, trying to repress the building tide of church giggles that are starting to overtake me.  The ludicrousness of this entire situation, the animal grunts and screeches, the swearing, the screaming and the crying filling the room is suddenly too much, and the dam breaks.  I start laughing hysterically, unable to stop myself, half-frightened of calling attention to myself and half-unable to give a shit.

I can hear the man to my left screaming obscenities at me, but I just close my eyes and keep laughing, tears rolling down my cheeks and dropping down to be sopped up by the thin cotton sheet covering the gurney.

“I’m on top of the world!” I yell between snorts of laughter, to the ceiling, to no one, to everyone.  “I got it made!”

“Shut up, faggot!” snarls the black man.

leo_titanic_king_of_world-jpgI steal a glance at him, wondering if he can actually tell I’m gay or if this is just his insult of choice, and our eyes catch briefly before he lunges for me, but with his hands and ankles restrained he is unable to do anything but rock and bounce his own gurney as he arches and lurches for mine, his face snarling with rage. He looks ludicrous, like a great, enraged flopping fish.  He also looks dangerous, but I am so tired, so caught up in my own hysteria that I only laugh harder at his futile attempt to reach me.  Suddenly exhausted, my laughter subsides, yet the obscenities being shouted at me from less than two feet away continues.

A pair of orderlies, noting the commotion, begin frantically pulling gurney after gurney out of the jigsaw puzzle, trying to reach us before someone gets hurt…most likely me….and the whole incident seems so suddenly hilarious and insane and comedic and bizarre that I continue laughing until it feels like I might choke on my own tongue.  The flopping angry fish man continues his struggle to reach me, but I’m not worried at all, even with those giant, nicotine-yellowed teeth snapping only inches from my left elbow.

I’m on top of the world, I think. I’m safe. I got it made. No need to worry, here come my white-coated minions to do away with this barbarian presenting a clear and present danger to my super-lucky ‘really got it made’ white-boy self.

Then suddenly, from nowhere, the sleep deprivation overtakes me, and I’m unconscious before the orderlies even reach me.

My First Monster

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Turlock California, 1978: Sacred Heart School eighth grade class photo, awkward me on left, O’Grady on the right.

 “I’m writing a letter to each person that I have offended sexually in the past.  I do want to apologize to them.  But I don’t want that to be just a simple statement. I think that they…basically, what I want to say to them is that it should not have happened. It should not have happened.  If I could invite these people to come and meet with me, one on one, and give them the opportunity to talk to me, tell me what I did to them, I need to hear that and I think that they need to say that. I can’t say that it’s hard to do this, and I’m happy that I am doing this.  It’s going to be an interesting reunion, and I really, really, really hope they come.”  I won’t be quoting scripture, I won’t open with a prayer, I don’t expect people to hug me when they leave.  I hope they might shake hands with me, and say, ‘yeah, it’s over right now.’ And I’ll let them get on with their lives, and I’m sure they’ll be happy to let me get on with mine. And I’ll say Godspeed, and I hope I’ll see you all again real soon.”

                                                      Convicted child rapist, Father Oliver O’Grady

May, 1978

Turlock, located in California’s Central Valley can be a hot bastard of a town, even before the official arrival of summer.

My eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Shive, stalks back and forth in the front of the classroom, waving a piece of chalk and droning on about something history-related. She is completely oblivious to the fact that her twenty or so students slouch half-asleep at their desks, rendered lethargic by the high-carb cafeteria lunch we’ve all recently finished choking down.

There is a sharp knock on the door, and every head in the class pops suddenly upright, straining to see through the rectangle of wired glass above the doorknob.  Mrs. Shive looks momentarily annoyed, then strides to the door, chalk still held out to her side, and opens it a crack.  After a moment’s private conversation, the door open swings wide, and her somber face has gone suddenly sunny.

Father Oliver O’Grady strides – no, bounces – into the room, and every twelve and thirteen year old is suddenly wide awake, smiling wide at the unexpected appearance of this small-framed, hyper-white skinned priest.

Father O’Grady had arrived suddenly at Sacred Heart School last year, and his presence had revitalized a school atmosphere that until then had been informed primarily by the stodgy, semi-alcoholic rein of Monsignor Alvernaz,  a tall gaunt Portuguese priest with a  humorless, Jacob Marley-esque visage inspired near-terror amongst the student and faculty when he was sober and severe embarrassment when he not.  Father O’Grady, or Father Ollie, as he insisted the children of Sacred Heart call him, was a small, wiry man with a heavy Irish brogue and an incessantly jovial demeanor that reminded me, absolutely, of the Lucky Charms leprechaun.  Black Irish, my half-Irish grandmother called him, although with his whiter than white skin I wasn’t quite sure what that meant.  Perhaps it was his black hair, which was slightly receding from his wide, pale forehead, save for one kewpie-doll like curl that hung forward, sticking to the white skin and giving him an almost cherubic appearance.  He had brought joy to Sacred Heart, a youthful enthusiasm that had won everyone over, students, parents and most of all, the nuns.  Even Sister Rose, our school principal and perhaps the most-hardboiled of the teaching nuns, was not immune to his boyish charms.  “oh father,” she would reply, blushing and nearly giggling in response to one the playful ribbings he would give her.  No one else dared joke with Sister Rose, but Father Ollie seemed supremely confident in his ability to engage and delight everyone, even this often cranky old woman.

“Hello, Children,” Father O’Grady says, waving his arms to quiet us down.  Being called “children,” when we were so close to starting high school, would normally rankle. Coming from Father O’Grady, however, it didn’t sound demeaning at all.  Even the toughest boys in our class worshipped Father Ollie, as evidenced by the increased number of boys volunteering for Altar Boy duty in the previous months.  Father Ollie was fun, Father Ollie was a priest, yes, but Father Ollie was also our friend.

“I am here to ask if any of you would like to help me out with CCD this summer,” he began, with his oddly over-pronounced way of speaking.  “I’ll need a couple of you for just a few hours on Saturday mornings.”   CCD, short for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, is basically Sunday School for the catholic students who attended public schools, except it is taught on Saturday mornings here at Sacred Heart.  The public school kids, who do not study religion as part of their daily coursework, are required to attend CCD in order to be eligible for the sacrament of confirmation at the end of the eighth grade.

Despite his popularity, this request is met with a stony silence.  Not a single hand is raised, the thought of waking up early and spending Saturday mornings in a classroom during summer vacation keeping every arm glued firmly to every side.

Father Ollie seems momentarily disappointed, and turns to Mrs. Shive as if seeking support.  She gives us a “come on, help Father out” look, but that’s it.

“Okay, well promise me you’ll think about it, and come see me if you’d decide you’d like to help me out.”, he trills, a little disappointment evident in his lilting leprechaun voice.

When I hear his voice, I can help visualizing the Lucky Charms leprechaun: “Blue Moons! Pink Diamonds!”

Later, after the 3:30 bell has rung and I’m heading down the long beige hallway towards the parking lot and my mother’s waiting Cadillac, Father Ollie steps suddenly into my path.  I tend to walk with my head down, staring at the terrazzo tiles, so I almost bump into him before I realize he is there.

I lift my head to look into his smiling eyes.

(Yellow moons! Pink stars!)

“Andrew” he says, and I like the way it sounds when he says it, all Irish-ey.

“I’d really be pleased if you would help me out this summer. Do you think you could?”

(Magically delicious!)

I’m trapped.  Of course I like Father Ollie, and of course I have nothing planned for any Saturday morning this summer, or for the rest of my life for that matter.  I’m completely anti-social, one of the shyest kids in the entire school.  I have only recently begun to make a concerted effort to speak in front of my classmates, having remained pretty much silent since I’d been ridiculed for my heavy long island accent upon arrival at Sacred Heart late in the fourth grade.  For several years, I’d only spoken when called upon in class, and even then I had done so with a conscious flattening of my vowel sounds, swearing to God himself that I’d never, ever again open myself up to attack for accidentally saying “Dawg” instead of “Dog” or “Jawwz” instead of “Jaws.”  Father Ollie has always seemed keenly aware of my lack of peer interaction, and has gone out of his way to demonstrate both his affection for me and his empathy for my social plight. That his hands have wandered seemingly absent-mindedly across the front of my school uniform pants during one of the hugs he would frequently give me would leave me feeling slightly confused, and strangely aroused in a confused way, I’ve chalked up more to my own confusion about my burgeoning homosexuality than to any malfeasance on his part.

I want to tell Father Ollie that I’d love to help him, but that I’m too shy around other kids, especially public school kids that I don’t know.  I want to tell him that I’m afraid they’ll laugh at me, that the taunting and name-calling had finally subsided a bit amongst my classmates, and that the idea  of it starting anew with a bunch of strange kids absolutely terrifies me.

But instead, wanting to please this funny little man, I find myself saying,

“Okay, Father.  I’ll ask my mother if I can.”

Good, he says, and gives my shoulder a squeeze.  He smiles at me, and maintains eye contact until I smile back.   The smile is genuine.  I put my head back down and head out to the long maroon colored Cadillac, my mother smoking her cigarette behind the wheel and my sister Theresa already in the backseat with her friend Mary, who lives around the corner from us.  I climb into the passenger seat, shove my book bag down by my legs.  I push a Linda Ronstadt cassette into the tape player, trying to drown out the chattering and squealing of the two third-grade girls in the backseat.  My mother seems to have a lot on her mind, which is pretty common these days.  Our family restaurant isn’t doing so well, and it’s affected the dynamic of our family in a hundred depressing ways.  The only good thing is that it’s curtailed my mother’s annoying daily habit of cheerily inquiring, “How was your day?” on the ride home from school.  When she asks me this, every fiber in my being wants to yell, “Well, I almost got beat up twice, I only got called faggot three times so that’s good, no one called me fat ass today, and I only intentionally fucked up one test to avoid being called a a nerd. And how was yours?”207708_1058054606699_6567_n

As Linda sings of going back one day, come what may to Blue Bayou, my thoughts return to Father Ollie.  He sought me out, I think.  There were tons of kids in that hallway, and he picked me.  I think of the smile he gave me, the twinkle in his dark eyes as he squeezed my shoulder.  He likes me, I think.  I’m not used to people liking me, not because I’m unlikeable, but mostly because I work so hard at being invisible.  Even my teachers, except perhaps Mr. Jackson in the sixth grade, seem to look right through me.  I like it this way, usually.  The fact that Father O’Grady thinks I’d be a good assistant, which sounds important, and that he singled me out from all the popular, athletic boys, makes me feel good..  He sees me.

“Mom,” I venture, when we’re halfway home. “Father O’Grady asked me to help out with CCD on Saturday mornings”

My mother is thrilled.  Anything that will give me something to do besides working in our restaurant this summer is a welcome idea to her.  Over the years, she has made many futile attempts at socializing her shy oldest son.  Judo lessons (three uncoordinated classes before stopping, no argument from my parents), art classes (not too bad), and worst of all, a disco-dancing class at the YMCA, where I hung at the back, doing a halting, chubby-kid version of the bus stop while secretly hating Ricky,  a lithe, gymnastic fellow future homosexual whose expert moves in the front row and confident kick-ball-changes made me cringe in shame at my own stumbling efforts.

“That’s great”, my mother says, beaming.  She, like everyone else in the Sacred Heart community, adores Father Ollie.  In devout Catholic families, having a priest over to the family home is tantamount to hosting a foreign dignitary, and Father Ollie has spent a good amount of time in our dining room.  Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, or just a regular old Sunday after mass, the priest has held court in our little green tract home, my grinning Grandmother at his side, clasping his arm in response to one of his just slightly off-color jokes, hand to her heart, “Oh Fathering” all over the place.  We serve him lasagna, and eggplant parmigiano, and homemade cannoli.  Though I’m generally not allowed at the table with the grownups, and we’ve never actually had a real conversation until today’s exchange in the hallway, he has always given me a smile and a warm, “Hello, Andrew!”  No one calls me Andrew except Father Ollie and my grandmother, and I like it.

I find myself actually looking forward to helping out with the CCD classes, and am relieved when Father Ollie tells me the next day that before we actually begin the classes, he will need to meet with me privately for the next few Saturday mornings so that he can go over what will be expected of me.  It reassures me that I’ll have a chance to learn what I’ll be doing before CCD actually starts, knowing that I’m less likely to look foolish in front of a roomful of seventh-grade strangers.

That Saturday morning, my mother takes me to the school adjoining Sacred Heart Church, and finding the doors locked, I wait on the brick steps, my mother standing by in the car until I get inside safely. At 9 am sharp, Father Ollie emerges from the adjacent rectory, wearing his black shirt, black pants, white-collared getup.  He is one of the few priests at Sacred Heart who seem to wear their priest uniform constantly.  Monsignor Alvernaz can often be seen shuffling/stumbling around in a cardigan, polyester leisure pants and white golf shoes, but not Father Ollie.  He always looks like a priest.  He waves to my mother, who waves back before backing out of her parking space and driving away.

Father pulls a ring of keys from his pants pocket, unlocks the door, drapes an arm around my shoulder and guides me in front of him and inside the building. It is unusually cool and quiet inside, and we proceed down the hallway, his arm still around my shoulders. The heavy doors swing shut behind us with a reverberating clank, and the shadowed hallway swallows us up.

Bathtub Angels

Years of  experience have taught me that my crystal binges can be paused only by one or more of the following reasons: running out of product, a spiral into full psychosis due to sleep deprivation, or as in this instance, a feeble, fought-for orgasm that temporarily shuts down my meth-propelled libido.

In my dark home office, I collapse back into my big, black leather desk chair, and tear my burning eyes away from the flat screen monitor.  The strangers fucking on the screen now elicit feelings of revulsion, despite the fascination they provided for countless pay-per-view hours. I quickly command-w the window away, and survey the tableau before me: lube thickly coats the mouse, carbon-black fingerprints transferred from the burned bowl of the pipe spot the glossy pine surface of the desk and white apple keyboard, making it look like a crime scene, post CSI-visit. I have no idea what time it is, or to be honest, even what day it is.  I started this run on Monday so – this must be what – Wednesday? Thursday?  I try to count the sunsets and sunrises that I was barely aware of, and can’t find a number. I’m so addled I don’t even think to check the date and time in the upper right corner of my computer screen.

I pull my naked body from the sweat-sticky chair, and finally leave this stinking office that has begun to feel more like an amyl nitrate-scented tomb.

Locking the bathroom door behind me, lights on but dimmed, I run a bath, making sure the water is good and hot. As the tub fills, I look in the mirror and startle at what is reflected back at me.  My face is gaunt, a reddish lawn of stubble covering the lower half of its pallid surface.  A blood vessel has burst in my left eye, a dark red blotch in a field of bright pink. I light a small votive candle before turning off the overhead light and step into the tub.

The hot water burns my ankles, and I gather into a crouch, lowering myself slowly.  As I slowly extend my legs, the hot water touches the MRSA sores on the tops of my thighs.  The sting is momentarily unbearable, and I clench my jaw and squeeze my eyes shut against the pain.  As my body fully submerges, the pain overloads my senses, shorts itself out and is suddenly reduced to a tolerable sting.  With a grateful exhalation, my body, stiff from days of speed-induced fight-or-flight muscle clenching, begin to relax.  I help it along by tensing and releasing first my toes, then my feet, legs, fingers, and finally my arms.  The crackling of joints is accompanied by a muffled, rippling sound that resembles Velcro strips being pulled apart, as too-long compressed tendons suddenly stretch taut.   Finally, I arch my back slowly, feeling the individual vertebrae sharply popping free from each other like the giant plastic linking beads of a Playskool child’s toy.

My hands wander absent-mindedly to my thighs, my nails scraping at the thin scabs that have formed over the abscesses.  The one on my right leg is the size of a quarter, and it sits alone on its canvas of white skin. The sore on my left thigh is smaller, perhaps dime-sized, but is far more sinister, as it is connected to an even smaller eruption near my knee via a thin, varicose-like vein of infection that snakes between them. Scraping away the healing scab of any wound once seemed counterproductive, but in this life I have been living, the scab only traps the infection, and necessitates yet another trip to urgent care and a nauseating lance and drain procedure.  In my current bizarre reality, it is better to keep the wounds open. Once they are fully saturated and softened by the bathwater, I use my thumb to rub the scabs away.

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I grab the bottle of betadyne from its perch on the rim of the tub and squeeze a good amount of the brown disinfectant into the water, not as an attempt to heal the sores, which I know is hopeless without yet another trip to the hospital and a days-long regimen of intravenous Vancomycin (aka, “the antibiotic of last resort”)but to potentially ward off any new infections just waiting to invade any microscopic opening in my skin. I apply some of the disinfectant to my face, remembering last month and the giant, lemon-sized abscess on my right cheek. I am certain that I contracted this MRSA (“The Superbug,” I’ve also heard it called) from the filthy bed sheets of my dealer, the last time it had been necessary to trade sex for crystal meth.

Raising my eyes, I do not see any faces coalescing in the fog of steam between the tub and the ceiling.  Floating faces, strange, brooding ones I do not recognize, have been my constant companion in any darkened room, having made their first appearance approximately a year into my addiction. I am grateful for this rare respite, and my eyes move from scouring the candlelit mist over the tub and down to my body, its speed-chiseled planes and angles distorted by the water. Even now, even with the sores glowing red and ragged like bullet wounds, I admire the absence of fat, noting the tautness of my belly and the way my abdominals ridge my belly and the way my groin muscles stand out, angling towards the tops of my hips with geometric precision.

Leaning my head back against the rim of the tub and closing my eyes, I try to slow my still-speeding mind, fighting the reflexive urge to move, forcing myself towards calm, willing the hot water to suck the careening energy impulses from my body.  Hours of watching pornographic movies has so thoroughly saturated my brain that I can not completely remove the images of rutting strangers from my thoughts, and I must consciously restrain my hands from wandering back to my dick, which could potentially start the cycle all over again.

A cool draft wafts over me, and my eyes shoot open.  I look to my right at the louvered windows over the vanity, squinting into the darkness outside, looking for the eyes I am certain are staring back.  As I try to focus my eyes into the distance outside the window, I sense movement above me, a sudden swirling of the mist hanging over tub.

The first being materializes slowly, a small, gauzy, slow-spinning tornado that descends from the steam and alights on the side of the tub.  Diaphanous, yet still possessing a hint of sculptural solidity, a pale semi-opaque hologram, it is perfectly proportioned, but less than a quarter of the size of a full-grown human. There is no question about the nature of this creature, as the stereotypical feathered wings sprouting from its shoulder blades twitch and quiver as if moved by an unseen breeze.

So many hallucinations over the past several years have rendered such apparitions fairly mundane, and I am not remotely shocked as three more identical creatures waft down in similar fashion from above, also alighting on the tub rim so that there are now two on either side of my prone body.

My initial reaction is one of gratitude: that these are not the usual grimacing gargoyles that both haunt and hunt me when I am using. I take a moment to study their faces. Displaying none of the scowling disdain and judgment I’ve come to expect from my drug apparitions, they remain impassive, unreadable.

My favorite game to play with the creatures that visit me, before my bravado wilts and I slip into hysterical, hiding-under-the-bed panic, has been to try to make them laugh, and on very rare occasions I have been able to illicit a restrained, reluctant smile from some of these faces that glare at me, inches from my own. Though these angel-like beings bear no signs of malevolence, I still attempt a joke.

Using my very limited knowledge of sports, I crack wise with, “just so you know, I’m a Mariners fan.”

They react to this, but instead of smiles, I detect great sadness in their eyes.  What is this? Compassion in my hallucinations? Where is the hatred? The silent ridicule? The unspoken, panic-inducing psychic messages telling me there is a gunman standing outside my window? That death is imminent? That it is time to kill myself and rid the world of my sickness? This sadness they seem to be experiencing makes no sense to me, and I instantly feel completely ridiculous for having made such a weak joke.

I notice a translucent tear rolling down the misty cheek of the one closest to me, on my right.

I am moved, a little embarrassed by this display of concern.

“Don’t cry”, I say, and turn to look at the apparition nearest my left shoulder.  Completely silent, it simply lowers its head, slowly moving it back and forth in an expression of great sadness as it seems to regard the open sores on my legs. Their concern makes me want to reassure them.

“It’s not that bad,”  I say, “They’ll heal, eventually.”

As if in response, their heads pivot slowly until they are all looking up and away from me, toward the shower head protruding from the wall.  I follow their gaze, and realize that the shower head is gone, and in its place is the glowing, also Obi-Wan-as-hologram-like face of my grandmother.  My grandmother, who died before I could see her one last time because I decided to keep partying one extra night instead of visiting her. A spasm of guilt and shame passes through me, mixed with a feeling of strange comfort that she is here, if only in hallucinatory form.

Her face is stern, though stopping short of anger.  This is the expression my grandmother used when she didn’t know how to express pain, pursed lips and set jaw of a her stoic Irish approach to life and its difficulties. I also detect great sadness in her eyes, magnified by the giant, coke-bottle eyeglasses that cataract surgery back in the mid-seventies had necessitated. I immediately move my hands to cover my privates, and red-hot shame courses through my being.

“I love you, Nan,” I say, and I am filled with sorrow, grateful to see her but horrified that she is seeing me like this. Had she been watching me these past days, soaking up porn, pulling toxic smoke into my lungs and masturbating like a fiend?  The thought makes my stomach churn queasily.

Before I can say anything else, before I am able to make any sense out of this situation, the creature furthest from me on the right suddenly extends its ghostly arm and grips the curved, chrome waterspout – just inches from my toes – and with a deft twisting motion, yanks it from the wall, leaving behind a dark, jagged hole in the cream-colored tile. Its removal is achieved in complete silence, and I wonder again, momentarily, why sound is always absent from my hallucinations.  The creature hands the dismembered waterspout to the apparition closest to me on right, my who holds it just inches from my eyes, rotating it slowly, giving me time to examine its chrome surface as it reflects the candlelight.

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As the spout slowly gyrates closer to my face, I immediately intuit that things are about to turn ugly.  I’ve been tricked.  I look back at the sad faces surrounding me, expecting them to have mutated into horrible, grimacing monsters while I’ve been distracted, but they have not changed. Still, sadness.

The spinning waterspout demands my gaze once again, but it is difficult to focus on it because it is so close to my eyes, a silver blur.  It moves away from my face, and I see with shock that it is no longer a waterspout.  It is an object I haven’t seen in ages, but remember well from my days of owning a beat-up 1982 Chevy Cavalier.  It is now a steel motor oil spout, the kind I used almost weekly to feed cans of 40 weight oil into my car’s ulcered engine. The puncturing spike is clearly visible, in fact, its shining sharpness is exaggerated in size.

I sit upright in the tub, panicked, water sloshing. I try to climb from the tub to throw on the overhead lighting – which almost always stops my hallucinations – but my legs seem paralyzed.  The oil spout stops rotating, the spike level with and pointing at my chest.

“Patrick!” I scream, before realizing that he is out of town, being funny on some movie set somewhere.  His absence, of course, is what made this at-home meth binge possible.

I look to my grandmother, wanting her to stop whatever is about to happen, but she avoids eye contact. I want to ask her to intercede, but the words won’t come. I know that I deserve whatever is about to happen, because I am a disgusting, horrible, deviant, terrible person. I know it, she knows it. Though my moral compass was dropped, stepped on and crushed beyond recognition years ago, I still retain a small understanding of the concept of justice. Whatever is about to happen to me will be just that, and I, the condemned man, must confess my guilt.  Still, I stare at my grandmother’s sad eyes with my own, hoping for reprieve. Instead, my grandmother nods her head at the apparitions, a silent assent.

This thing is about to go down.

Terrified, I look to the ceiling and begin reciting Hail Mary’s rapidly, in the same machine-gun way I did as a boy trying to get my penance out of the way as quickly as possible.

“Hailmaryfullofgracethelordiswiththeeblessedartthouamongstwomenandblessedisthe…..”

A proud, almost defiant atheist in times of clarity, I have learned that just as with a foxhole, there is no room for godlessness in the midst of a meth freakout.

An odd…though not painful… feeling in my ribcage stops my praying, and I look down to see the oil spout is now being pushed into my chest. There is no pain, it sinks into my body like a spoon into jello. I wait for blood, but there is none.  Instead, I sit and watch as a slow trickle of thin, brownish, foamy liquid begins to trickle from the spout and into the bath water, slowly picking up speed until it is a veritable geyser splashing the water below. There is a gurgling, and then it suddenly stops.  I feel pressure in my chest, getting stronger by the moment.  There is no actual pain, just an uncomfortable feeling that is akin to a balloon being inflated slowly beneath my ribcage. Then, with equal suddenness, the spout explodes, as the pressure forces a clog through.  Great clots of shit-brown muck stream forth, and in them I can see, clearly, paramecium-like organisms squirming alongside humongous bacterial creatures which hit the water swimming, then dart, feathery, beneath the Betadyne- clouded surface of the bath water.

I can feel my body emptying, can feel the upward rush of toxins and  drug residue being sucked from my extremities, into my chest cavity, out the spout and into the water.  I bend my knees and stare, dumbfounded, watching as the sores on my thighs slowly shrink, their bacterial epicenters being sucked dry from within.  When the skin is completely smooth, I begin to cry.

“Thank you,” I whisper.

After what feels like several minutes, the spout gives one last gurgle and then runs dry.

I lay in the tub, and as my breathing returns to normal, I realize that I feel something I haven’t felt in ages: clean. I also feel great calm, the 78 rpm of my thought patterns are now spinning at a leisurely 33 1/2, the constant, behind-my-eyes film-loop of pornographic images has been paused.

I look back to my grandmother, to tell her again that I love her, that I miss her, and that I’m sorry. I want to thank her for this purification. She is no longer there.  The shower head is, again,just a shower head.

Still surrounded by the winged quartet, silver spout jutting from my chest, I close my eyes, and say another Hail Mary – this time slow, measured, the chirps of early-waking birds accompanying my recitation as I slip into the finally-welcome oblivion of sleep.

The People in The Trees

NOTE: INSANITY AHEAD: A short, totally CRAZYPANTS story I wrote in 2003 – in the midst of my addiction – about The Tree People.  If you don’t know what Tree People are, consider yourself very, very lucky.  This is so badly written it makes me cringe, but it definitely shows the delusional/psychotic state of mind of a meth addict in active addiction. Yup, crazy time.

danutreeThe trees rustle with their movements, and only on rare occasions can I see them fully. They move in my peripheral vision, jumping from tree to tree, or standing stock-still, fading in and out of their bark-and-leaf camouflage. The wind carries their voices, but I can not decipher the words. It is via some strange form of telepathy that they convey the daily orders I must follow…. or suffer some horrible, indeterminate consequence. Most often they require atonement, and I kneel on the hillside, eyes closed, under the giant Bougainvillea, silently asking their forgiveness for my dark-sex-drug behavior, for the shameful atrocities I commit on their sacred soil.

My partner, who does not use methamphetamine, can not hear them, and as much as I argue with him, refuses to concede their existence.  I try every form of rationale to get him to understand: the arrowheads we’ve found in the dirt in our yard, the centuries of American Indian settlements that the small enclave of Mount Washington was  built upon.  When I attempt to point a Tree Person out to him, he says he doesn’t see, and grows angry at my insistence.  Meth, it seems, has opened some strange doorway that allows me to peer into their world, and it saddens me that the People in the Trees are not yet comfortable enough with this man I love to make their presence known to him.

I’ve divined, somehow, that austerity and simplicity are the hallmarks of this hidden race of people, forced by the encroachment of modern civilization to move underground, and they have learned to live, unnoticed, among us. This is not to say that they do not appreciate a Winchell’s Old Fashioned Chocolate doughnut now and again. It is a fact that I have shared with no one that they regularly devour the five or six I leave for them on a tray each evening behind the pool shed, my own version of a peace-offering. Though I have never witnessed the devouring of these offerings,the scattered crumbs and overturned tray that I discover each morning is testament enough to their gleeful orgy of consumption. Occasionally, I will  test the breadth of their palates and purchase a cinnamon roll or an apple fritter. These too have proved very popular with The People in the Trees. It is this generosity on my part, I believe, that has facilitated my recent ability to understand many of their whispers and ability to psychically  divine their needs, intents and moods.

shedThis pool shed, at the far end of our yard, away from my partner’s suspicious eyes,  has become a chapel of sorts, the place where I can most clearly hear their words. They have made it known to me that this is where we will most safely begin the process of communing. Inside the shadowy structure, lying prone in an inflatable pool raft, I  catch quick glimpses of them peering in at me, quickly, deftly, with a stealthy skill that they have honed from centuries of hiding. They have learned, somehow, to make their whispers resemble the swishhh-sound of wind through branch, and I have learned to tell the difference.

Still, as clever as they may be, they are not immune to some trickery on my part. Though they are masters of camouflage, they are not a deceitful people at heart and therefore  susceptible to the manipulation I am a master of. In the shed, lying back in the purple pool raft, I pretend to speak on a cellphone, telling elaborate stories with great, fanciful detail to the imaginary person on the other end. Gradually, I lower my voice, until the Tree People outside the shed must move in closer to understand my words. I am extremely proud of turning the tables this way: it’s about time THEY strain to

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hear MY words! This trick yields no clear view of any member of the tribe, yet I can clearly hear them scuttling across the roof and sliding oh-so-slippery quiet down the side of the hill behind the shed. I can see them in my mind: brown-skinned, angular faces pressed up against the flimsy plywood walls, eager to hear the latest exploits of the The Bringer of The Doughnuts.

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