Category Archives: spirituality

More; Revealed

gratitudeThere’s a saying in the recovery community that used to perplex me:

“I’m grateful to be a drug addict,” people will often say.

There was a time when I would hear these words and cringe. Who in their right mind would be grateful for this disease?  Maybe, I thought, poor communication skills was the issue: a sub-par public school education combined with too many hits off the crack pipe.  Perhaps what they meant to say was, “I’m grateful to be a recovering drug addict.” That, at least, would make some sense, even though I still couldn’t understand why anyone would be grateful to be any kind of drug addict.

In my head, I’d have to add words to that sentence so that I could process it:

“I’m grateful to be a drug addict….(and that I didn’t die while I was using.)”

“I’m grateful to be a drug addict…(who finally found a job and is working again.)”

“I’m grateful to be a drug addict..(who isn’t homeless any more.)”

That was the kind of gratitude I could get behind: the specific, the detail-oriented. Gratitude just for being an addict? Insane, I thought. Why the fuck would I be grateful for a disease that took my soul, dipped it in kerosene and set it aflame? I could tolerate a lot of the bumper-sticker-esque slogans of recovery, but that one…I’m grateful to be an addict…just set my jaw on edge.

There’s another saying in the recovery community: “More will be revealed.”

That particular saying didn’t bother me as much, possibly because it smacked of sage mysticism, a sly Harry Potter-ism for the semi-addled.

More has been revealed, it turns out:

Eleven months and five days into my recovery, I am grateful to be a drug addict.

I am grateful to be a drug addict because without this disease I may never have found a new way to live my life. Without the disease of addiction I’m certain I’d never have regained a sense of spirituality and begun my journey towards regaining my faith. Without the disease of addiction, I would have never have met so many beautiful and loving people…most of them damaged in ways similar to myself, and most of them working hard to shed the hard shells of scar tissue the disease of addiction left us covered with…leaving many of us as vulnerable and frightened as tiny, featherless birds. Without the disease, I would probably never had set out on a journey of never-ending steps to right the wrongs I’ve done people, I would never have found the courage to examine myself and my behaviors. Without the disease, I would never have rediscovered one of my true passions in life: writing.

I am even grateful for the occasional pain that recovery brings. Before I became active in my disease, when I thought I was on my way to ruling the world, when status and money were my two primary goals….I lacked empathy for others. I cared about a lot of things a little, but cared about few things a lot. Today, I can feel my feelings without reflexively seeking to obliterate them. Today, I help others, and I do it gratefully.

My world is different now, and it gets better every day.  Recovery didn’t give me my life back, as I’d originally hoped it would.

It gave me a better life than the one I had before I found crystal meth. Such an amazing, unexpected surprise.

Almost as surprising as finding myself saying that I’m grateful to be a drug addict.

I look forward to even more being revealed.

It only takes a sunny day / To find a way / It only takes a little time / To open up your mind

Like a Book I Wouldn’t Read

“I wish that confidence was all you could see in my eyes / Like those interviews in locker rooms with talented sports guys / I wish I had no self-awareness like the guys I know / Float right through their lives without a thought / And that I didn’t give a shit what anybody thought of me / That I was so relaxed you’d think that I was bored” – John Grant, “Silver Platter Club”

confidenceTwo weekends ago, at a recovery-related event, I was sitting outside smoking a cigarette and talking to a recently made friend.

The conversation turned to the topic of social anxiety, and I offered that I suffered from that particular affliction to an inordinate extent.

“Really?” my friend said. “I’d have never known, you seem so confident.”

I was taken aback for a moment, though pleased that I had managed to fool him, somehow.

I’ve been revisiting that conversation in my mind off and on since. If this man saw me as confident, did others?

The truth is, I’ve never had much confidence. Ego, hell yes. Confidence? never. At the far end of my 48th year, I still judge myself more harshly than anyone else ever could, and with astonishing frequency.

I’m not saying that there aren’t moments when I feel good about myself: I am proud of myself when I help other people, I can commend myself when I write something I believe to be worthwhile, and I even like the way I look on those rare days when skin, clothing, hair and body all coalesce to present an appearance I think looks pretty good. Those moments are sadly, few and far between, and they can be erased immediately by one misjudged look from another, a terrible photo of myself popping up on Facebook, or even the tiniest inadvertent criticism.

I’m also not saying that I am shy or retiring: Over the years, I’ve learned how to present the image of an alternate Andy, the Andy that I wish I could be organically. In my previous incarnation as a producer/production manager, it would have been career suicide to let my insecurities show. So I cultivated a brash, get-the-fucking-job-done personality that allowed me to progress without hindrance, job-wise,  until I was body-checked by my addiction in 2002. But it was mostly acting. I was as insecure about my performance…my legitimacy as a boss….as I may have often made the people who worked for me feel.

Now, having been humbled by my precipitous fall from grace, I can rarely muster that other Andy, the Andy of the False Bravado.  I sometimes feel like an actor who can no longer summon the motivations and mannerisms of a character he played a long time ago.  But it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because I no longer want false bravado, I want real courage.

I want to learn how to love myself, to stop judging myself, to stop being my own harshest critic.

I’ve been working hard this year towards that objective. At this point…eleven months clean and sober…the best I can say is that there are moments when I like myself. I still hate my face. I hate my big nose (“you have a Roman nose,” my father used to say. “It’s roamin’ all over your face.”), I hate my thick, short torso, I hate my  giant legs that look like I was bred to pull carts through fields. I hate the long scar on my belly that is a direct result of my drug use.

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I want to go back in time and tell this kid to stop worrying about the paint job and start focusing on the engine..advice i’m trying to follow now.

I’m terrified of aging: in my youth, I was told I was handsome. I didn’t believe it, but empirically I knew it had to be true on some level. Looking back at photos of myself in my twenties, I see a beautiful boy. I wish I could have thought that about myself then.  There’s a big difference between knowing something to be true and feeling that it’s true. So for years, I relied on that perception of others to validate myself. Now, nearing fifty, my skin sagging and it’s tone uneven with age, my crow’s-feet wrapping so far around my head and so deep into my skin that they look like knife wounds if I smile too broadly, I have had to forfeit even the luxury…or curse, perhaps…of false confidence.

So, it’s just me left. Without the smooth shiny skin and clear white eyes of youth, without the superficial  validation of others, I’m unarmed for the most part. Yes, I’m intelligent, though perhaps not as much so as before I addled myself with crystal meth. Yes, I’m compassionate towards others. Yes, I’m regaining the capacity to be honest, another virtue torn to shreds by addiction. I have many good qualities, yet somehow there are times when those don’t seem to be enough.

While I do have a good number of close friends I’m completely comfortable with, my social anxiety is particularly bad in large groups of people: I stand talking to someone I’ve just met, and I’m conversationally crippled by my own thoughts, my own self-absorption. Can it be called narcissism, this thinking of myself when I should be focused on someone else, if the thoughts about myself are entirely negative?  I smile at people a lot, and they smile back. I hug people a lot, and they hug back. From there, however, it’s a difficult road to continue down.

In the gay recovery community, beautiful boys abound. Youth is everywhere, and I can’t help but compare myself to them, to envy the attention they get from others not because they are decent, respectable, admirable human beings (though many of them are, of course), but because they are shiny and lovely and golden.  I often feel left out, relegated to the past-their-prime seats, feeling less-than and, because i’m an addict and it’s what we’re good at, sorry for myself.

I shoot my face full of Botox, get injections of filler to stave off the inevitable collapse of the flesh-girders holding up my face, and I torture my body at the gym, all so I can feel better about my exterior, and perhaps fool one or two people into believing that I have some semblance of confidence, and perhaps, in the right lighting, look a few years younger than I actually am.

I’ve battled an eating disorder (if you read this blog you already know I’m a hundred flavors of fucked-up, so this should hardly be a surprise), I put myself through insanely  awful liposuction surgery (“There will be some pain during the recovery,” my plastic surgeon said, which turned out to be the equivalent of saying “Auschwitz lacks many of the comforts of home”), and I could competently give guided tours of every tanning booth in Southern California….all in a vain attempt to like myself.

I’m writing about this not for reassurance about my appearance. I understand I’m not hideous. I even understand that I am sometimes perceived as handsome. I understand that there are so many unfortunates with deformities and injuries and who are dealing with real problems. I get this. I do NOT want anyone to comment on this blog post to validate me for my physical exterior. I’m writing this because I still often feel ugly, on the inside, and I need to start letting that feeling  out.

I’m writing this because I want people to understand that if I seem stand-offish, it’s not because I don’t want to know you. If I say hello, then seem to drift away before conversation ensues, I want you to know it’s because there’s a fairly good chance I’m feeling incredibly awkward and want to get the fuck out of the situation before you realize it. I don’t want to say something stupid, so often I say nothing at all.

Mostly, however, I’m writing this because I know there are other people who feel this way…this weird social anxiety. Perhaps theirs isn’t based in the same insecurities mine are, but I know for a fact that I share these feelings of occasional self-loathing with many others. I’ve heard others who are far braver than I talk about it publicly in the places I go for recovery, and it usually surprises me because I’ve already assessed these people as being beautiful and confident.

This social anxiety, this non-stop judgement of self, is one of the reasons I loved alcohol and crystal meth so much.  When I was high, all this discomfort in my own skin disappeared. I was suddenly funny (or so I thought), and my self-criticism diminished to such a degree that I could actually relax around other people.  Now, clean and sober, I have to begin addressing these character defects in a direct way, and it’s terrifying.  But it has to be done if I’m ever going to find peace living here in this aging body of mine.

I need to escape this overwhelming self-absorption and find peace. I need to address what’s lacking inside so I can start caring less about what’s on the outside. I need to continue helping others so that I can stay out of my own head.

There are probably a good number of people reading this and thinking, “God, what a self-obsessed asshole.” Don’t feel bad, because I’m thinking that myself. But I need to get this out. This is the kind of shit that has been in my head for years and blocks my path to any kind of spiritual advancement. So, i’m getting it out, as obnoxious and narcissistic as it might sound. I do like to think that I might be helping other people with this blog, but the truth is that this blog helps me, and that’s the reason I blurch this confessional shit out onto the internet (and apparently, into NSA storage facilities..oh well.)

The long and short of this post is that I want to love myself with the same sincerity that I love others. When I look in the mirror, I want to see..and feel like…the man my amazing husband says I am: good, decent, worthwhile. I’m done with feeling like a book I would never want to read.

I think I deserve it. I hope I do, anyway.

(Fuck that: I  know I do.  It’s gonna take a lot of work, but I’m up for it. Just please bear with me and these blog entries until I get there.)

The Morning After: sober musical interlude #10

The-Poseidon-Adventure-006There’s got to be a morning after
If we can hold on through the night
We have a chance to find the sunshine
Let’s keep on looking for the light

As a gay man of a certain age (f@ck it, I’m 48) who is feeling rather emotional today, I ask your forgiveness in advance for what promises to be a sappy, overly sentimental  post.

This song, from the 1972 film “The Poseidon Adventure,” has…like so many other songs…taken on new meaning for me in recovery.

The film itself also seems like a metaphor for recovery…a group of people whose lives have literally been turned upside down, struggling against all odds to climb from the wreckage and reach the sunlight again. We extend our hands to those coming up behind us, and we accept the hands held out to us by those above us. Some of us make it, others don’t.  There’s no telling by appearances who will survive. In this film – as in recovery – being a star is no guarantee of making it out alive.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it’s been a rough week for many in the Los Angeles recovery community. One of our own did not survive, a man I didn’t know well but have hugged and spoken to on Monday nights for the last few months. He was a man who had, forgive the expression, star power. A leading-man appearance. And , like Gene Hackman in the film, we were shocked and stunned by his unexpected death.

If you’re reading this and you’re struggling with your addiction, if  your day feels dark with that tidal wave of hopelessness bearing down on you, if the water is rising quickly around your ankles, hang on.  Call someone. There’s no shame in reaching out. If you know me, call me. 

There really is a morning after…so keep climbing.

It’s not too late, we should be giving
Only with love can we climb
It’s not too late, not while we’re living
Let’s put our hands out in time

There’s got to be a morning after
We’re moving closer to the shore
I know we’ll be there by tomorrow
And we’ll escape the darkness
We won’t be searching anymore

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 

You Are The Light: sober musical interlude #5

Rebirth, resurrection, renewal.  As I approach the end of my third trimester of sobriety, I can’t help but note that the timing of this holy day…my first wholehearted celebration of Easter Sunday  since the age of thirteen….seems absolutely perfect.

I too feel reborn.  I’m learning to experience real joy for the first time in years, without drugs or alcohol.

I am so grateful today.

This song should require no explanation.  Ladies and gentlemen of the blogosphere, meet my beautiful friend Maria:

 

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

Dear Kira

Last night my niece sent me a chat message on Facebook, asking how she should respond to a schoolmate who is opposed to gay marriage based on..get this..the belief that allowing gay people to get married poses a threat to the world’s population.  I’m currently on painkillers for a kidney stone the size of a buick, so my response was less than coherent. This is the letter I’m sending her today – before I take my Norco – to expand upon my sad efforts last night: 

a and p equalityDear Kira,

I want to take some time to respond properly to your question, now that I’m wide awake.  But before I do, I just want to let you know that you are one of the brightest, sweetest, prettiest – and even more importantly – compassionate human beings I’ve ever known.

It saddens me that your incredibly evolved spiritual and humanistic views put you in direct conflict with many of your schoolmates who have been taught by their parents that being gay is either a sin, an illness or some form of depravity.  When you listen to these other kids blathering on with their incredibly stupid viewpoints (like the one you asked me about, regarding the threat to ‘future population’ if gays are allowed to marry), I need you to remember this:

Do you see those signs with the words “nigger” and “God demands Segregation?”  Those signs were created by the past’s equivalent of your misguided friends.  Do you see those white people standing up for the civil rights of the black people? That’s the past’s equivalent of YOU.   What your ignorant friends are doing is called “taking a stand on the wrong side of history.”   You, on the other hand, are firmly planted on the right side.  And the reason it’s the right side is not just because you’re on MY side, it’s because you have facts, research, empathy and compassion to back your position up.

What your friend said was so completely devoid of critical thought that I’m almost embarrassed at having to respond to it, but I will.  Allowing gay people to marry will have no impact on the future population of the world.  Allowing gays to marry does not make more gay people. It just allows those of us who are gay and in committed relationships – like your Uncle Patrick and me – to celebrate our commitment to each other (it will also allow us a whole bunch of rights and financial benefits gay couples have long been denied, but we’ll save that for another message.) People who are not gay won’t suddenly TURN gay just so they can get gay-married. The idea itself is, well, idiotic.  The very fact that your friend is concerned with population dwindling in a world that’s already severely overcrowded shows that she either has no grasp on reality, or perhaps was dropped on her head by her (straight) parents when she was but a wee homophobe.

Arguing with these kinds of people serves no purpose. It certainly feels good at times, for me anyway, to call neanderthals on their idiocy. It rarely changes their minds, however. It just makes them take a firmer stand and cling even more tightly to their antiquated and indefensible beliefs.  You can point out facts all day long, quote study after study that shows that children of gay parents are just as well-adjusted – sometimes even more so – than those with straight parents (though let’s be clear, ANYONE can be a terrible parent or enter into an ill-advised union…being an idiot or an a-hole is not the exclusive bailiwick of the heterosexual, I’ve known MANY gay people I wouldn’t trust to care for a chia pet).  You can go on and on and on with facts, and while some might be receptive to them, many will just ignore them. Because they’re not dealing with facts, they’re dealing with feelings. And feelings, fortunately, are not even distantly related to facts.

It can be frustrating to know that you are on the side of right when you are surrounded by ignorance and bigotry. But take some satisfaction that you stand not only on the right side of history, but with some amazing people who were persecuted for beliefs that challenged the status quo:  Martin Luther King, JFK and perhaps the most radical progressive liberal of all time, Jesus Christ.  To name just a few.

Do me a favor: write about the experiences you’re having right now. Write about the stupid things people are saying, and how you feel about it. I want you to be able to look back in, say, twenty years and see how absolutely right you are, and how absolutely disgusting the viewpoints of your contemporaries are.  When I was very little, black people could not marry white people.  And that was just fine with a whole lot of the US population. Now, however, only the most rabid of racists still espouse that view.  I guarantee you that in 20  years, very little will have changed: the fabric of society will not have been torn apart by gay marriage, Heterosexual marriage will still exist, and the world will not have been destroyed by some cataclysmic hellfire act of God (well, those things might happen, but not because of gay marriage. I think global warming would be a more likely culprit. Which is semi-ironic because that’s another thing many stupid people don’t believe in.) The one thing that will be different is that two men or two women getting married will just seem, well, normal. In twenty years, mark my word, the country will be looking back at today and saying, “I can’t believe gay people weren’t allowed to get married!”

I guess that’s all I have to say, except hang tight and just try to surf right over the stupidity, because wading through it can get EXHAUSTING. Trust me.  Stay on the right side of history – with this issue and ANY other civil rights issue – and you’ll be just fine. It’s not always the safest place to be, but it’s where most of the good people hang out. And the good people always prevail..though it can take a lot of work, a lot of fighting, and a lot of sticking to your guns even when it seems hopeless. So glad you’re fighting alongside us. To quote your sign-off last night on our FB chat, “I’ve got your back, Jack.”

Love,

Uncle Andy

PS:  Oh, and the next time one of your schoolmates tells you something as (I’m trying really hard not to use the ‘R’ word) dumb as “gay marriage will destroy the population,” I want you to recite…word for word…the following:

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.

Sober Musical Interlude #2

Ooh-oo child, things are gonna get easier
Ooh-oo child, things’ll get brighter
Ooh-oo child, things are gonna get easier
Ooh-oo child, things’ll be brighter
Some day, yeah
We’ll put it together and we’ll get it all done
Some day
When your head is much lighter
Some day, yeah
We’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun
Some day
When the world is much brighter

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.

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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.

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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

 

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