Category Archives: God

Brave and Crazy

Today is day 97.

rear-view-mirror If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I’ve struggled with sobriety for a long time. Since 2002, specifically. During that time, I’ve been both a chronic…ie, daily…user, and I’ve also been a binge user (using for short periods of time, then stopping for either years or months).

Therefore, I’ve had many “97 days” in the past, each of them a different experience: some relatively easy, others that were much more difficult.

THIS 97 days has been, without exaggeration, the longest and most difficult 97 days of my life.  Not because of the persistent delusional thinking and paranoia my meth use induced, not because of the fear those symptoms inspired, and not because of the physical side effects of the psychiatric medications I’ve been taking to deal with all of it.

It’s been the most difficult because this time around, I truly value recovery. Remembering the joy I took in simple sober existence before my catastrophic relapse makes this experience of trying to regain my health all the more frustrating. Having  had…just a little over three months ago… the gifts of self-confidence and lightened spirit has made this current fumbling and clawing towards inner peace all the more bitter  and frustrating.

The paranoia lasted a good portion of those 97 days. The irrational feeling that I was being observed at all times, that I was being followed by cars everywhere I went via some tracking device implanted either on my person, on my vehicle…or just via my cellphone’s GPS…is exactly the same each and every time I use crystal meth. In the past, however, this delusion has waned after several days off the drug, several weeks at most. This time, the terror persisted for almost three months.

Initially, I was prescribed the anti-psychotic Risperdal to deal with the psychosis. In the past, this has been my go-to drug for these symptoms: very few side effects, and very fast-acting. This time however, it made barely a dent in the paranoia. I kept taking it, though, praying it would kick in and begin to ease my body out of its constant flight-or-fight state of anxiety and tension.

ishot-0219191The paranoia grew to such a fever pitch that I would stand inside my doorway before leaving the house, saying a prayer of protection, quoting scripture: “There is no fear in (God’s) love. (God’s) perfect love casts aside all fear,” before venturing down the stairs, to the car port and into my Honda CRV. I’d grip the steering wheel and pray my way to a recovery meeting, arriving a nervous wreck, literally shaking with fear.  I did this almost every night, and early on, each and every drive was a new experience in terror. Everything I saw on the road applied to me, somehow. One night, on the way home from a meeting, a car pulled in front of me and began driving slowly…far too slowly to not be trying to annoy me, it seemed. A bumper sticker ran the length of its rear, reading “Slow as Fuck.”  A message to me, obviously, that I had not and could not learn my lesson: that each time I relapse, these cars will be there to torment me.  Cars with one headlight were suddenly everywhere, and there was a stretch of time when I could not drive anywhere at night without being tailed by a truck with its brights on, blinding me until I would finally flip the rear-view mirror up towards the roof liner and continue driving without being able to see behind me. On the day I celebrated 30 days of sobriety, another car pulled in front of me, driven by an older man. The car was red, a nondescript sedan of some sort, with two silver, melted-soldering-material numbers affixed to its trunk: a three, and of course, a zero. 30. Helicopters were suddenly constantly overhead, and fire emergency vehicles seemed to be everywhere as well.  It felt like some secret society had decided that I was an undesirable of some sort and needed to be tormented.

While I knew, intellectually, that I was in psychosis, it felt absolutely as if it were really happening. It still feels as if it really happened, if I’m to be completely honest. And as anyone who has experienced methamphetamine psychosis will tell you, it always will to some degree.

Websites claiming the existence of citizen vigilante/surveillance groups…(like this one)…did not help. Other recovering addicts recounting, almost exactly, the same types of experiences also made it difficult to eschew them as pure delusion.

I felt wracked with shame for a while, for my meth-fueled sexual indulgences, and it seemed as if all of these people in these cars were trying to further shame me. It was debilitating. Emotionally, spiritually, mentally, physically.

In the midst of this insanity, an angel in human form stepped into my life. A friend, who I’d only ever communicated with via text messages and who lived primarily in Las Vegas, came to Los Angeles to deal with some business concerns. Also in recovery, he saw immediately the scared look in my eyes, my tensed body posture. I could barely communicate, being on the verge of tears or rage or an emotional breakdown almost constantly. For almost two weeks, while my brain healed, Rob would drive me to recovery meetings every night. He would check in on me every morning. Initially, in the throes of paranoia, I suspected he might be one of “them,” charged with gathering further intelligence that could be used to torture me psychologically. Like a seasoned delusional stalking victim, however, I played along, occasionally feeding him misinformation in order to confuse my tormentors. What he thought about me during that time, barely two months ago, would probably embarrass me to no end today if he were to be completely honest with me about it. Eventually, of course, we forged a friendship out of this crucible of insanity, recovery meetings and the drives to and from them.

I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if it weren’t for this man. My suicidal thoughts would come and go back then, appearing suddenly from nowhere and then disappearing again, just as fleetingly, to be replaced by a flicker of hope. The flicker was usually lit by Rob, whose sense of humor is not only ribald but absolutely irrepressible. I’d find myself laughing at something ridiculous he would say, my mind temporarily diverted from the fear and the hopelessness.

I can never repay Rob for the gift he gave me: taking a paranoid psychotic meth addict and friending him almost by force. I believe he saved my life, and he joins the ranks of others who have given of themselves to help me: my husband Patrick, my friends Mykee, Phillip, Le Maire and Maria, my recovery guru Jonathan, my mother, and a small handful of others who have tolerated my insanity and walked with me through the darkest corners of my self-created shadow world.

The paranoia lasted so long this time that I actually began to get used to it. After two months, the fear was mostly gone. I still felt like I was being followed, still noticing things that seemed beyond mere coincidence, but I just didn’t care anymore. Abject fear melted into apprehension. Much of that had to do with the shame beginning to dissipate. Yes, I’d engaged in dark behaviors, but nothing that isn’t going on in a hundred thousand households even as I type these words.

Last week, I switched anti-psychotic medications, and am now on a small dose of a drug called Abilify. It began working almost immediately. With those results, however, came some profound side-effects: dizziness, sleeplessness, and…disappointingly, for someone dealing with sex addiction issues…increased libido.  It also makes writing difficult, and this blog entry has taken me hours to write when before it would have taken twenty minutes. It’s all worth it, of course.

The entire episode, the full three months of terror, has been worth it in some ways.

I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned that even in my most fearful moments, I am brave. I am not the type of person who is prone to self-compliments, I am definitely more of the self-effacement variety. Yet, somehow, during these months of hell, I managed to face my fear each and every day (sometimes with the help of Rob, God bless him) and drive to a meeting. I refused to give in, refused to give up. I still do. I know from past experience that the paranoia will continue to return when least expected, but that doesn’t scare me. This feeling of being hunted, real or imagined, no longer bothers me. I’m a human being, fallible as every other human being. I’m a sexual being, and I no longer feel shame about that fact. God made me the way I am, and God makes no mistakes. I will eventually learn from my fuckups, even if I am a slow learner…(yes, slow as fuck sometimes)…and I will continue to make new mistakes. But I am committed to making them in sobriety, and to dealing with the repercussions promptly.

I have also learned even at my sickest, I am valuable, I am lovable. Thank you, Rob, for all  you have done and continue to do for me. Maintaining sobriety can sometimes feel like a never-ending war, and I am so grateful to you for being at my side for the duration of the first great battle of this..hopefully my last…period of sobriety.

I have 97 days today of honest recovery, and I am proud of each and every fucking one of them.

Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby

sex-addictionFor many years now I have lied to myself.

I loudly proclaimed, “I am a meth addict.”  I proclaimed with equal fervor, “I am an alcoholic.”

Friends would inquire why I was so open about these addictions, and I would faux-nobly claim that “I am only as sick as my secrets, so telling the world that I am and addict/alcoholic helps keep me sober.”  And there was a kernal of truth in that. Actually, more than a kernal…there was a lot of truth in those words.

But I used that truth as camouflage to mask the deeper, darker truth I have always been far too ashamed to reveal: I am a sex addict.

I tried to evade dealing with this fact by using the programs of recovery for my other addictions, hoping that the effects of being free of drugs and alcohol would somehow also carry over and miraculously mute that equally dark and insidious addiction.

For me, admitting that I’m a sex addict is perhaps the hardest thing I’ve had to do in these last twenty-nine days of post-relapse “rigorously honest” introspection.

Saying I’m a meth addict was easy, by comparison: Janis Joplin was a meth addict. Jimi Hendrix was a meth addict. Edie Sedgwick was a meth addict.  Even Frances Farmer, my counter-culture idol was addicted…and driven insane…by her reliance on Benzedrine, the 1940’s incarnation of meth. So, it was easy to admit to that particular darkness.  One need look no further than the Saint of the Underground Charles Bukowski to glean insight into why I felt it easy to identify as an alcoholic.

But sex addiction? Who are the role models of that particular compulsion? David Duchovny? Great actor, but no thanks. Assorted family-values spouting congress people? Sexting Political aspirants? Ugh, no way.

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Yet, there it is: the ugliest of ugly truths: I am addicted to sex. Namely, pornography…unless I’ve combined that with my other drug of choice, crystal meth. At which point my rusty old moral compass…which functions to some degree, though it often requires a little shaking to get it to point due north….begins spinning out of control like a child’s pinwheel on a breezy day.

I’ve lied to myself for years about my consumption of pornography. It doesn’t hurt anyone.  It doesn’t hurt me. It keeps me from acting out with people other than my husband sexually.

All lies. Lies I knew I was telling myself, but chose to believe anyway.

Watching porn, I realize, opens up a chasm in my better nature…one that I am prone to fall headlong into…a spiritual pit that can take me days to climb up and out of.  And it has never kept me from acting out sexually, particularly when combined with the chemicals I am also addicted to.

This last, most brutal relapse of my long and storied relapsing career was triggered by sexual compulsion, as have pretty much all of my returns to active using and drinking.

I can’t pretend any longer that porn hurts no one: I’ve heard too many shares in the rooms of recovery from former or current porn performers who have spoken of the pain, the degradation, and the darkness that enveloped them while working in that medium.  I no longer want to satisfy my own carnal desires by soaking in the pain and poor choices of another lost child of God.

Certainly there are some free spirits who do porn who have no spiritual compunction about doing so, but I doubt any of them are doing this as a first choice. Some have probably felt they have run out of other options, some are desperate, and some see no problem with it until the demons of drug addiction and alcoholism sneak up on them. And some, of course….like me…are sex addicts acting out.  To view even ONE of these people degrading themselves…to derives pleasure from this degradation….no longer sits well with me. I dated a porn “star” prior to my relationship with my husband, and I saw first-hand the exploitation of the spirit that particular career engenders.

I am certainly no anti-porn crusader…many people can view pornography without it being a precursor to sexual and behavioral darkness, but I’ve decided that for me…personally…I can no longer watch any of it.

I know where my sex addiction came from, and I’ve written about some of it on this blog before as a way of explaining the dark, sexual places I’ve ended up in from using meth.

My first introduction to sex, in any form…that I’m aware of, at least….came from a tattered brown grocery bag in a relatives house. In that bag were magazines and small paperback books of intensely hardcore pornography. I’m not talking Hustler Magazine hardcore, I’m talking Nazis. Women being raped. Dogs tearing at the flesh of bound women while their captor leered on.  I was probably ten years old at the time, and it was both horrifying and titillating, this sudden glimpse into the grownup world of erect penises and this thing…all twisted, no beauty…called sex.  I hadn’t gone looking for this bag of darkness, it had been absent-mindedly left next to couch in the house of a relative when I was spending the night on that couch. Or perhaps it had been placed there, intentionally. I won’t ever be sure. Either way, though, it stole my innocence from me with the force of an anvil dropped on my head.  There was no gradual dawning of my sexuality, there was no gentle slide into the awakenings of puberty.  I knew it all, and somehow I knew I had to keep that knowledge to myself. The great shame manifested itself for the first time that night, and has never gone away completely.

When, a couple of years later, the notorious Father Oliver O’Grady took certain liberties with me, I felt that I had asked for it somehow, that the darkness of the images I had seen a few years before (and would feverishly search my relatives house to get yet another look at those books) had marked me as someone who deserved to be touched by him, as if I were marked by sin. There was, God help me, even a part of me that enjoyed it because it was yet another sexual secret that I could re-hash in my mind while masturbating.

And so it went, a lifetime of seeking out the dark side of sexuality…until I met my husband, Patrick, in 1993.  My immediate attraction to him was his sense of humor: watching him perform improv…he’s a genius of the medium, all personal biases aside…I was doubled over with laughter during my first trip to LA’s legendary Groundlings Theatre.  As I got to know him, though, I saw a gentle soul, a patient soul…a good soul.  His soul felt to me like the antidote to my own with its own dark, troubling secrets.

Though for the first seven years of our relationship I continued to battle my sex addiction (though I would never have admitted to that affliction back then, not even with a gun pointed at my head), and engaged in periodic anonymous infidelities, I knew for the first time a feeling of love, of what sex could be without shame and without guilt.  I have never felt more loved, more like a good and decent person, than when I am with my husband, a man who loves me unconditionally, who understands the origins of my shame and my compulsive sexual behavior.

It was in 2001 that I first began using meth. And from the beginning, the hypersexuality caused by the drug…coupled with the temporary obliteration of shame and conscience…made me fall in love with it.

And so I began my true descent into darkness: God-less hours spent smoking my meth pipe and watching increasingly hardcore and spirit-demeaning pornography, random animal-like assignations with other meth users, sordid sexual risk-taking of epic proportions.

Last year, before I entered recovery following another bout of psychosis…the kind I am currently experiencing….I had a moment of addled honesty, and wrote in my journal:

Friday, July 6, 2012

This has been going on for years.  There was never a lot of guilt about it until it involved cheating on Patrick to get my fix, even back when absolute fidelity was expected.  AND THATS WHEN THE METH ADDICTION BEGAN.  Because with the addition of the meth, not only was the sex more intense and more….enduring? ….it also erased..temporarily, of course, any feelings of shame or regret.  And i could indulge in that fantasy of being sexually desirable for hours and hours and HOURS.  SO yes… I think i’m addicted to meth, obviously.  But I don’t think treatment for it will ever work if I don’t address the Sex Addiction part.  Because frankly, that’s what’s always led to a relapse…the desire to be bad sexually.  

I found a ___ meeting in Pasadena next tuesday.  I’ll be finished with the meth i currently have tonight, most likely…so i’ll be clean for almost three days when I attend. I hope I have the nerve to actually walk through those doors, because it seems so much more shameful to me than admitting I’m a drug addict, which bad as THAT is, at least carries with it an air of artistic decadence or..I don’t know, I’m not articulating this well….it’s just that so many great artists and cool people are also drug addicts.  Admitting I’m a sex addict puts me in the same league as…i don’t know, date rapists? Ugh.  But I have to do it.   The whole Higher Fucking Power thing makes my skin crawl.  Maybe it will be different in this kind of group. Or, maybe I’ll be different in this kind of group.   Who fucking knows.  We’ll see, i guess. I just hope I have the courage to walk into that room and say those words.

Yet, I never found the courage to walk into that room. I started attending a recovery group for my drug and alcohol addiction, and left it at that.  And leaving it at that, I now understand with absolute clarity (and with the guidance of a loving Higher Power, which for the record, no longer freaks me the fuck out) that I will never get better unless I address this core issue that I can no longer pretend is only a by-product of my meth addiction.  It’s a real problem, all on it’s own, with it’s own mental zip code,  and it needs real solutions.

I feel God with me now, who has always been with me even when I didn’t understand that,  and I am following his lead.  And tonight, he is leading me to a recovery meeting for sex addicts.

I want a healthy relationship with sex, with my husband, with myself.  I’ve been blessed, once again, with the grace of negative STD and HIV results that frankly, I don’t feel I deserve considering my actions. The sunlight of the spirit is far too easily damped out by the shame of sexual compulsion, and I will have no more of it.  I am tired of blaming the past for my mistakes of today.  Time to get out the courage fan and blow away the storm clouds of shame, once and for all.

As always, please keep me in your prayers.

Love and recovery to all seeking it,

Andy

God’s Perfect Love

love-fear-1-john-4-18-red-bible-lock-screens-christian-iphone-wallpaper-background-home-screen-158753_260x315So…here I am again.

Twenty-five days clean and sober, yet still neck-deep in paranoia, shame and remorse.

I’ve been avoiding writing about this, praying it will begin to fade as it has in the past. However, there seems to be no end in sight to the consequences of this past relapse and the drug-fueled plummet into the darkness of mind and spirit it entailed.

I am writing about it, in case God answers my prayers and begins to filter out the insanity from my obviously damaged brain. I don’t ever want to forget these past weeks…though every fiber of my being would prefer doing just that.

I need to remember it all: the sense of being followed by vehicles everywhere I go, the blackened feeling of my soul when I first emerged from the deep pit of meth use, the pain i’ve caused my husband and those around me. I need to remember how, once again, I felt that God could never love me…this sick, fucked up human being who chose to convert my output of positive energy into an intake fan that pulled in only the choking fumes of the negative.

I need to remember this so it doesn’t happen again, should God see fit to make the fear go away.

A few days ago, I was in suicidal despair, and pocketed a handful of my psych meds and sleeping pills and prepared to walk to West Hollywood Park and end it all, just make the fear and the shame and the despair go away once and for all.

And that is when God intervened, by way of a phone call from my friend Le Maire.

Lovely Le Maire, along with my equally lovely friends Maria and Phillip, have been telling me for over a year now that God loves me no matter what I’ve done, that he loves me even though I turned my back on him for over thirty years, refusing to acknowledge gifts and blessings that were so obviously given to me: Love. Shelter. Food. Friends.

My friend picked me up and drove me to Plummer Park…also in West Hollywood…and in a quiet-ish corner of the park she reassured me…once again…that everything would be okay, that God does love me. We read from the Bible, and it was the first comfort I’d felt in weeks.  We then attended a prayer seminar at a church in the Korea Town section of our city,  where I once again cried like a baby…not from shame, but from the sensation of much of the shame I’ve been carrying being flushed from my body.  It was a surreal experience, to say the least, for someone who was so anti-church, anti-religion, and for a long, long time, also anti-God.

Yet, it helped.

It didn’t fix the paranoia, it didn’t completely wash away the shame and guilt. But it helped because for the first time in ages I felt like God was listening to me. I felt a connection, and it was beautiful.

As much as I’m still suffering, I’ve come to appreciate that without this suffering I might never have found firm footing in my relationship with Him again. Yes, I am prone to doubt His existence….thirty-something years of the self-programming of an ex-Catholic turned semi-atheist do not make for a wrinkle-free transition to Believer…but something has changed. I can feel God with me, and the solace is comforting. That connection waxes and wanes, but when I feel that I’m losing touch with Him, I pray, and I feel renewed. The shame and self-hatred rise up in giant waves still with alarming regularity, but I can pray and push them back before they inundate me completely.

12354_10201789142865376_999522833_nI still loathe myself frequently and deeply, but I no longer feel God is disgusted by me. I know now that I’m his Child, not just the sick, sad person I feel like when I’m out of touch with Him.  He loves me as much now as he did when I was a young boy, before I was introduced to darkness via hardcore porn and ill-intentioned hands.

I’m still battling fear and paranoia, but I’m not doing it alone.

I have my family, who never give up on me.

I have my friends in recovery supporting me, checking in on me, letting me know that I am loved.

I have my amazing husband, who despite my checkered history of incomprehensible and demoralizing relapsing, still loves me fiercely.

I have my friends Le Maire, Phillip and Maria, who continue to help me strengthen my connection to God.

And, most of all, I have God himself, who may not be working as quickly as I’d like Him to, but has kept me safe from harm thus far.

Even in my diminished state, my God wants me to help others, and I’m doing so wherever I can with my limited resources.  I’m also reaching out for help…asking for rides to meetings, prayer requests…which for me is among the most difficult things to do.

I have little idea of who the 1,500 people are who read this blog, but if any one of you is considering using crystal meth…or using it again if you have already…hear my plea: do not do it. Not even once. The repercussions, the damage, the despair and the soul-sickness it causes can never be justified, not even once.  Once is all it takes to get hooked on that insidious bitch of a chemical.

You trust me on this, just as I’m trusting God with my continued recovery.

(God’s) Perfect love casts out fear.

Please keep me in your prayers.

Peanut Butter & Angels

Last week, in an attempt to pull myself out of the spiritual stupor I once again found myself in following my relapse, I posted what was an attempt at a light-hearted Facebook status update:

My husband is finally back in the states, in Chicago shooting his Transformers 4 scenes…he’ll be back home on Friday. Not a moment too soon, as I apparently require constant adult supervision. Until then, can someone nearby come over and help me make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Oh, and don’t stick metal stuff into power outlets, it really hurts.

In addition to a flurry of sweet responses from people who were quick to point out that they were glad I seemed to be resurfacing from my drug-induced isolation, I also received an instant message from my friend Chaim, who I haven’t seen in person since we both worked on the Spielberg Holocaust survivor project The Shoah Foundation back in the 90’s.  We engaged in a lighthearted exchange, one in which…per usual…I thought I managed to hide how truly dispirited I still was:

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That, I thought, was the end of that.

Except that half an hour later, there was a knock on my front door. My heart jumped into my throat…who was it? I scanned the house in a panic, looking for any residue of my relapse that might be lying around. Eventually, I couldn’t avoid it any longer and opened the front door.  There, on the porch, was Chaim, proffering a bag from which the end of a loaf of white bread protruded.

Deeply touched, very much surprised, I invited him in and took the bag he gave me, which also contained a jar of strawberry preserves and the aforementioned, preferred Skippy brand peanut butter.

We sat on my back patio and caught up for a bit. He told me about his wife and his daughter (he was single when we last spoke in person, let alone the father of a now ten-year old), how he was studying to be a Rabbi, and I told him how overwhelmed I was by this incredible gesture he had made. The man lives across town, it’s not like he just drove a few blocks. I mean, this is Los Angeles, and he took an actual freeway…at a time approaching rush hour…. to bring me this gift of his company and of course, the PB&J fixings.

Still deep in self-loathing, still shell-shocked from the enormous repercussions of my relapse, I can’t remember exactly what I said to him about my current situation.

What I remember clearly is something he said to me when I thanked him for coming.

“You helped my father when the (Shoah) Foundation recorded his testimony. He was very, very nervous and you went to extra lengths to make sure it all went okay for him. I can’t thank you enough for that.” (I paraphrase).

“I did?” I said, trying to single out that particular testimony recording session from the almost 50,000 that we ultimately gathered.

“Yes, you did. And I’ve never forgotten that.”

I choked up. Because even though my memory is shot and I can’t remember that particular interview, I have to trust that Chaim is telling me the truth.

Eventually, we hugged goodbye, and I thanked him. Not just for coming by and for the food, but for reminding me that I’ve done good in my life.

Those who follow this blog (and thank you if you do) are most likely of the belief that my entire life has been one of addiction, failure, psychosis, and trauma.  That’s understandable, because I often feel that way myself. But just like so many of the other lies I tell myself (I’m unlovable…i’m a failure….I’m weak) this just isn’t true.

Before my addiction kicked in full-throttle at the age of 37, I accomplished many things, had many beautiful experiences, achieved career goals I hadn’t even dared to dream for myself when I was a young man growing up in the agricultural wastelands of Central California (no offense to my friends who still live there…I’m sure you agree that in the 70’s..well, it was a very different place than it is now.) Even during my addiction, during the sometimes long stretches between binges, I still managed to do things that weren’t self-centered, that helped others.

So now, I’m going to take a moment and remember a few of them:

I was the Director of Production….at a minimum salary…on the world’s largest oral/visual history project, the previously mentioned Shoah Foundation. I was instrumental in the collection and preservation of those almost 50,000 full-length interviews with Holocaust survivors all over the world, and I, along with everyone else at that amazing project, worked my ass off for five years to accomplish it.  This will always..no matter what else I do with my life…be one of the things I am most proud of.

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with Miep Gies, who sheltered Anne Frank and her family from the Nazis

I traveled with my amazing friends Bettina and Jill to New Orleans as an animal rescue volunteer after Hurricane Katrina, slept on a cot in a giant tent with hundreds of other rescue workers, and helped pull trapped animals out of houses filled with toxic, poisonous sludge.

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Post-Katrina: sludge, rescue dog, and with Jill H. and Bettina R., most awesome animal rescue team ever.

I spent weeks in Joshua Tree, bored out of my mind and listening to a non-stop, extra loud Bill O’Reilly marathon while caring for my husband’s mother when her congestive heart failure was taking its final toll on her health.

I took care of my best friend when he was dying from cancer.

And a more general one: In sobriety, at least, I am always kind and respectful to people: friends, acquaintances, and strangers (well, at least once I was past the arrogance and hubris of my teens and early twenties, and with a few exceptions where I lost my temper with employees due to stress. Even then, I always apologized.)

There’s more, of course, but I’m going to focus on those things right now. Because even those five things are not the hallmarks of an innately selfish, self-centered person. If I had the capacity to do those things, to be that kind of person, I still do.  

I still have worth. 

I am not useless.

I have failed at things, but I am not a failure.

And I will stop now, before this turns into an Alanis Morissette song. The trick, now, is remembering those things.

Thank you Chaim, you are going to make an excellent Rabbi. Thank you for the gift you brought me last week, and I’m not referring to the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Thank you for reminding me that I am a child of God, that God does not make worthless things, and that I am, in fact, a good person battling a terrible disease.

I truly DO live in the City of Angels.

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

JESUS FACEPALM #1

I think i’ve waited long enough…I’m gonna get my shit together and finally submit my “Punch-a-Priest” game proposal to Milton Bradley.

If these idiots weren’t actually damaging children all over the world, their obtuseness would be HILARIOUS. But they are, so it isn’t.

For the entire depraved interview, click HERE.

*thanks to my dear friend Mary Jo for bringing this to my attention.

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