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I see them every day: rambling, paranoid, desperate Facebook posts from an acquaintance I barely know. He’s being followed, he’s being stalked by secret agencies, even a prominent tech company. His phone is being hacked, members of an alcohol recovery fellowship are enticing him to suicide, going so far as to name these people; people I know for a fact to be decent and caring and concerned primarily for his well-being.
I think about trying to help him, but I know it’s pointless to even extend the most tentative of hands.
He’s deep in psychosis, as I’ve been many times in my life. As ludicrous as it may sound to those on the outside of it, it is absolutely, incontrovertibly, horrifying real to him. There is no argument, no sane presentation of fact that can change this for him. A mere acquaintance reaching out would be perceived as “one of them,” frightening him even more. No, this is something for close friends and family to deal with.
I read the insensitive comments some people post in reply to his ramblings:
“Why do you think you’re so special that (said tech company) would waste their time following you?”
“Get a grip. You sound insane.”
“Um…the government has a lot better things to do than spy on you.”
And the most egregious of all, in my opinion: “Stop using meth and get back to a meeting.”
He swears up and down in his angry responses to this last suggestion that he is not using meth, and that anyone who wants to drug test him can come over and have at it. While it is certainly possible that he is currently in a meth psychosis, as I know him to be a fellow recovering addict, there is an equal possibility that he is not. I would never presume to diagnose anyone’s psychiatric condition, but I can speak from my own experience and say that a psychotic break, while usually triggered by meth use, is something that can occur completely independently of drug abuse, particularly for those who are bipolar and primarily among those of us with type 1 of the disorder.
My first major break occurred back in 2008, when I had been six months clean from crystal meth. It began slowly, a strange feeling of being watched, being followed…nothing that felt concrete, but merely a…I don’t know…suspicion that something wasn’t quite right. A rustling in the bushes at night while sitting on the patio was no longer regarded out of hand as the foraging of nocturnal critter. The thought that maybe, just maybe, it was a person crawling around in there seemed just as logical. A light buzz in my head…a strange frisson of anxiety… began to grow, and along with it the paranoia. It escalated rapidly to what I can only describe in retrospect as an electrical crackling as everyday occurrences suddenly had sinister implications: a man hired to install a water heater had planted an electronic listening device somewhere in the electrical panel, as evidenced by the occasion strange flicker of our thirty-year old house wiring. Helicopters began flying over our house with disturbing regularity, firetrucks with sirens wailing would drive by, sirens blaring, firemen staring into my car with what seemed to be threatening gazes.
That crackling in my brain eventually escalated to a full-blown electrical conflagration as I was consumed with fear and paranoia to the point of almost helplessness: refusing to leave the house unless absolutely necessary, which cost me my job at the time. When I did leave the house, I mounted a video camera in the back of my SUV to record the vehicles I was certain were tailing me. I drove recklessly, trying to snap photos of license plates for later download and comparison, certain that if I could capture two of the same plate on different days, I would have incontrovertible proof of my harassment.
I installed video cameras, trying to capture the people I was sure were crawling on the hillside behind our home, beaming microwave frequencies into my skull, causing that strange aforementioned brain-fire. I spent hours trying to force my husband to watch the surveillance tapes, pointing at any moving shadow as proof that the secret cabal was closing in on me.
I was certain that I was being secretly recorded, had been being recorded for years during my episodes of meth-induced promiscuity, and that these videos were being distributed amongst this group of what I came to believe were “gang stalkers.” (A quick youtube search will explain what this is, the residual terror of this memory still prevents me from describing it in any detail.)
Early on, my husband Patrick accused me of being back on meth. I vigorously denied it, as does my Facebook acquaintance. Of course, he didn’t believe me, even when a drug test confirmed it. Additional tests were administered, all of which were negative. Still, my behaviors were so similar to the times I’d actually been in a meth psychosis that he had a hard time believing the negative results. I was, as stated above, as clean as a whistle, not a trace of meth in my system.
It grew worse, and worse…and when I thought it couldn’t get any more horrific…it got worse still. I took to putting aluminum foil inside my pillow and sleeping with it over my head to reflect the microwaves, a much more practical idea than the laughably stereotypical tinfoil hat. I accosted strangers on the street, accusing them of following me. I once scrambled up a hill to the street above our home and physically threatened a couple having a makeout session in their parked car. I began communicating with Patrick only through handwritten letters, as I was certain I was being electronically eavesdropped upon.
There were other horrifying memories of things I did that are still only now coming back to me, that still make me cringe with shame and guilt.
The psychosis lasted close to six months, the most horrific time of my entire life, ending with a suicide attempt and a stay in a psychiatric facility where I spent most of my time staring out the dayroom window at parked cars, trying to figure out which ones where there to observe me. Their intention all along, I believed, was to drive me to suicide. They knew I was a sick, sad, depraved meth addict and that getting rid of me would be a gift to society. But they wouldn’t dirty their own hands, they had to get me to do the job myself. And, though of course this was all delusion, they came very, very close.
My psychotic break didn’t end suddenly with the administration of powerful antipsychotics, rather, the fire in my head was slowly extinguished over a period of what I recall to be several months.
Just two years ago, I would finally learn the reason for this break. I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder – type 1 since I had already had a psychotic break – and while going over my history with my new (amazing) psychiatrist, remembered that a few months prior to the psychosis I’d been prescribed an antidepressant: Wellbutrin to be specific. For those with bipolar disorder, antidepressants can kick off a manic episode, which can turn to mania. During the entire six months of my psychosis, I was still taking that antidepressant. It almost killed me. I want to blame the idiot psychiatrists who tossed meds at me with careless abandon, not bothering to learn anything about my history other than my crystal meth abuse, but I also have to take responsibility for the fact that my drug use made it difficult to diagnose me with anything, made it almost impossible to get a baseline on my brain chemistry. Still, if one psychiatrist had seen me as more than just a drug addict and had bothered gathering more than a cursory mental health history, he or she would have asked the right questions. The questions that would have determined that i’d been prone to hallucinations my entire life, even before drugs entered the picture. They’d have learned that I’d always had prolonged bursts of inexplicable energy, hyper sexuality, and compulsive behavior followed by long bouts of debilitating depression, long before I put a meth pipe to my lips.
I have also had psychotic breaks triggered by my meth use, but was with many bipolar people, they last longer and are often much more extreme than those experienced by those without pre-existing mental illness.
Fortunately for me, I found that miracle psychiatrist who finally prescribed the correct medication: a mood stabilizer. For a year, it was a miracle. Absolute calm, without any of the constant ups and downs i’d experienced my whole life, though somewhere in the back of my mind was a tiny fear that they would stop working…and eventually that fear came to pass. Mania creeped up on me, that slow fire of excess energy in my head burning brighter and brighter every day. But, caught up in the sheer pleasure that mania induces, I ignored the signs and attributed it to the joy that I’d been feeling since being prescribed the meds. I deserved to feel this good after all those years of tumult, it was summer and the sun and swimming and tanning and vacations were why I felt so amazing, and a hundred other rationalizations. Yet, I knew deep inside something was starting to go very wrong again. And then, it happened: another relapse. Though very brief, less than twelve hours in duration to be specific, it was devastating to me.
I went back to my psychiatrist, and my dosage was upped. Since then, things have leveled off again, though it’s been nowhere near the magic of that first year. I’ve come to understand that i’ll never be cured, that i’ll always have a propensity for depression and mania, and that I have to stay vigilant if I want to stay sober. The signs of impending depression are fairly easy to identify, but the onset of mania is less so. I’ve come to recognize some of the signs, though: tapping my foot frantically, a strange humming sound I find myself making almost as if excess energy is trying to expel itself from my mouth, and a generalized feeling of restlessness. It is at these moments I know to lie down on the couch, try to quiet my mind, take the medication I’ve been prescribed for anxiety, and most importantly…tell my husband so he can keep an eye on me. I’ve only had one instance of severe mania with it’s attendant psychosis in the past six months, and I did all the right things: stayed home, told my husband what I was feeling, and asked friends to watch out for me (Thank you, Ashley Aoki for babysitting me and taking me to a meeting, and Robb Meese for the excruciating ride home from Vegas I put you through) and most important of all, stayed compliant with my psych meds.
I know my sobriety will always be tenuous because of this mental illness, and though I have a hard time taking responsibility for any relapse brought on while in psychosis, I take full responsibility for ignoring any warning signs that send me there in the first place. I shared at a recovery meeting recently that it’s frustrating when so many of my fellows are playing on one fairly level playing field, while those of us with mental illness are playing on a field that often feels like a navy seal training obstacle course. I, and those like me, have to work extra hard to maintain our sobriety, and have to be willing to get back up again and keep trying, recognizing that we’re much more likely to keep falling, and moving past the shame that that entails.
My heart breaks for my Facebook friend, and all I can do is pray that he finds relief, that his psychotic break doesn’t end in a suicide attempt. Or that if it does, it’s unsuccessful and he gets the help he needs. Again, I don’t know if he’s still using, or if he’s suffering a bipolar break. However, telling to stop using without being absolutely certain he is using is not only pointless, it can actually increase his terror and alienation. Telling him all the things he’s experiencing aren’t real is also pointless. It’s real to him, just like it was absolutely real to me. It still feels real sometimes, and there are still times I look over my shoulder for a car with one headlight, or hear a noise outside my window and shudder with reflexive memory.
So, pray for my Facebook friend. Pray that his family and close friends can find a way to get him to accept psychiatric help, and that he survives this.
Today is World Bipolar Day, so whileyou’re at it, perhaps you can say another prayer for all of us living with bipolar disorder; with all mental illnesses. Pray for the eradication of stigma surrounding mental illness, and pray that they get the correct diagnosis and the proper medication when they do.
And she’s wound up shooting off burning out
Tearing up the midnight heart
Stayed alive stayed alive so far
We know what we are
Absolutely barking stars
The bitch is quick I’ve tried to trip her up
She is full of tricks and blends so sticky in my blood
But she can fly and I can only run from everything and after her
I’m wired and tired and full of holes
And she plays Pandora with my soul
I’ll never let her go
It’s so quiet here without her
I don’t wanna feel myself
- – Maria Mckee
“I’d like a single room. Upstairs, if possible.”
The desk clerk, a thin, pale man with shoulder length, scraggly hair rose from the chair behind the counter and moved toward me.
“I’ll need your driver’s license, and also the plate number from your car if you’re parked in our lot,” he said..
I fished my license out of wallet and handed it to him, and he began punching my information into a computer.
“How many nights?”
I was flying pretty high, and my hands had trembled when I had handed him my license, small beads of sweat dotting my forehead and upper lip. I avoided eye contact, and instead pretended I was surveying the small lobby: tiled floor, small rattan couch with flowered padding, two dusty plastic Ficus trees in the corners. Having been here many times before, there really was nothing new to learn from looking around the room. I turned and focused my gaze through the glass front doors, watching traffic stream by on Western avenue.
“Okay, sign here” he said. “And put your license plate number here. That’ll be 145 dollars for the two nights.”
I turned back to face him, scratching my signature onto the small card he was proffering. I added the license plate number of my white Ford Explorer, and handed it back to him along with my credit card.
He punched some more information into the computer, and then produced a small white keycard.
“I put you in room 233,” he said, handing my credit card back to me.
“Great. Thanks,” I said, and offered a smile that my muscles made but my mind didn’t feel, then hoisted my backpack onto my shoulder and turned towards the door on the left. A moment before I reached it, the clerk pressed a button and the door automatically unlatched. I gripped the knob, turned it, and walked through into Tweakerland.
The Coral Sands hotel sits on a long, deep lot situated on busy Western Avenue in Hollywood, just north of Hollywood Boulevard. Its two-story, brick façade has only one notable design feature: the six white columns that support a faux lattice-railed sundeck running the length of the top of the structure. These columns have the look of a design afterthought, giving the Coral Sands the appearance of an institutional building trying, and failing miserably, to look like a plantation house. Sandwiched between two large, bland stucco apartment complexes, it is relatively unknown to the general Los Angeles population, although it has stood here for decades, sixty rooms filled to capacity on any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday night.
Amongst the L.A. gay community, however, the Coral Sands is infamous..
The hotel has long walked a duplicitous line in terms of marketing, advertising itself as a “semi-resort.” Its website describes “sixty spacious rooms surrounding a landscaped private courtyard, swimming pool, Jacuzzi, daily maid service, direct dial telephone and color televisions. All of this is true, and the grounds of the Coral Sands are actually rather lovely, well manicured, with palm trees and blankets of flowering Bougainvillea filling the long, deep courtyard, which is lined on all four sides by two stories of rooms. The pool, though small, is sparking blue, and the Jacuzzi, situated dead center, is large. Everything in this sunny, tropical themed courtyard speaks of diligent maintenance.
It is however, what goes unsaid on the website that makes the Coral Sands notable. This establishment may call itself a “semi-resort,” but almost every gay man in Los Angeles knows that this place is, crude as it may sound, is a drug and fuck den, the establishment equivalent of a skid-row crack whore masquerading as a librarian.
I walked into the sun-filled courtyard, taking in the lushness of my surroundings. A few men lay on the chaise lounges that flanked the pool, wearing either towels or small.. too-small… speedos. As part of the attempt to make the hotel appear respectable, small signs expressly forbade nudity in the courtyard. This made little difference, however, since a quick scan of the rows of rooms lining it revealed men standing just inside their rooms, fully naked, peering out and shooting glances of invitation to those outside or standing in other doorways. A small parade of men, some dressed, some with towels around their waists, slowly made their way around the walkways on both levels, occasionally stopping at an open door, sometimes entering, sometimes stopping to watch whatever spectacle was taking place inside, and sometimes moving on.
I found my room on the second floor, entered and closed the door behind me, securing the safety latch. Tossing my backpack on the bed, I went into the small bathroom and splashed some cold water on my face, then filled one of the small plastic cups with tap water and drank it down, knowing that hydration is an oft-neglected requirement of extended meth-use sessions. I returned to the room.
For all the implied luxury evident in the courtyard, the rooms of the Coral Sands were decidedly Spartan. Grey, industrial grade carpet, mismatched wall hangings, and garish, blue-grey swirled patterned bed covering. Stiff, bland curtains covered the large window overlooking the courtyard, a small mini-fridge in the corner, an ancient wall-unit air conditioner. A chipped veneer table and two chairs with worn orange padding in front of the window. An equally distressed night table sporting cigarette burns next to the bed. A smallish TV mounted to the wall near the ceiling, a long mirror mounted at on the wall at bed level. The air was redolent with stale cigarette smoke and some disinfectant cleaning product. There were no non-smoking rooms at the Coral Sands Hotel.
There had been a time in my life, not so long ago, when I had regarded this place with disdain. “Coral Sands” had existed in my lexicon as a punch line, synonymous with losers and the truly pathetic. “He probably lives at the Coral Sands,” I’d say in regards to a particularly lecherous person hitting on me at a bar, and my friends would laugh. We all knew what it meant, though none of us, as far I as knew, had actually been there.
Now, here I was, and rather than disgust, I felt a strange form of comfort. In the way that derelicts gather and form community on the downtown streets of skid row, so did we, this band of tweakers and sex-addicted gay men. The only difference is that we could still afford to shell out money to stay here, this ersatz sex-clubhouse. Having lived with guilt and shame and self-loathing for so long now, being in a place with others just like myself provided a sense of peace, a judgement-free zone. Here, I could indulge my addiction with impunity, I could lock the world outside, and I could do what I did best: get high.
Opening my backpack, I pulled out my swimsuit, then quickly stripped my clothes off. I studied my body in the mirror, liking what I saw. The speed had meticulously chiseled away all the excess fat from my body, which tended towards stockiness, and the muscles underneath were revealed, chiseled in a way that only speed, steroids or starvation were capable of. A few speed bumps – angry red welts – dotted my thighs and my forearms, but I wasn’t too concerned about these, since most committed tweakers got them and there was little judgement from others about these blemishes. Also, I had taken to packing a cover-up stick with me wherever I went. It is a by-product of heavy meth use, and the euphoric, disjointed, distortion of perception, that I could look in that mirror and not be horrified by what was truly reflected back at me. Years later, I would look at photos of myself from that time, shocked to see how I really appeared. I weighed no more than 155 lbs (I had weighed 165 in high school), the skin of my face hollow and sagging from the precipitous weight loss, my eyes bloodshot and filled with some indefinable emptiness, as if they were looking not at the camera, but through it and past it. At the time, though, I honestly thought I looked good.
Sitting cross-legged on the bed, I pulled my stash from the side pocket of the back pack, laying out the almost complete 8-ball, the thick stemmed glass pipe and the butane torch on the night stand. I fished around and found the refill canister of butane and placed it in the drawer.
After several deep, thick hits from the pipe, I got up, grabbed a stiff, scratchy towel from the bathroom, and exited the room to join the slow parade of the undead.
It is dark now, a day later, and I have spent the previous hours hooking up with numerous men of all description. When I’m using, I don’t have a “type”….the two requirements being that they are not physically repulsive and that they are also tweaking. Another preference is that they have their own stash of drugs, as sharing allows my own party to continue for a longer period of time. At the Coral Sands, there are enough candidates who match these fairly low standards to keep me busy for days on end.
I am sitting, nude and cross-legged, on the bed. A man, close to my own age, also unclothed, sits across from me. He is thin, though not as thin as I, his muscles almost comically defined. His fairly handsome head is shaved, and tattoos litter his body. I am leaning forward, holding the torch to the glass bowl he is inhaling from. I don’t know his name, and frankly, don’t care.
“Roll it,” I say.
He gently rolls the bowl back and forth, the liquefied meth sloshing gently inside the glass bubble.
When I’m sure he his lungs are full, I pull the torch back, and turn it off, set it down at my side. I lean in towards him, and he immediately recognized the gesture and obliges me by putting his mouth and against mine and exhaling the vapor into my mouth, which I suck down into my lungs. Our faces stay pressed together, and when I can no longer hold it, I release it back into his mouth, his lungs. This ritual, called shotgunning, continues for a few more inhale/exhales until there is no more to share.
The pipe carefully set aside….god knows the number of glass pipes I’ve broken by stepping or rolling onto them…we move towards each other and begin giving in to the sexual firestorm that the speed has ignited. Our bodies writhe against one another, gripping, stroking, humping, our skin wet with speed sweat and hot to the touch. It is all-consuming, this kind of sex, so much different from the act that normal people call “lovemaking,” so much different from the kind of sex I remember once having. There is no love here, obviously, only two men reduced to the status of rutting animals, each aware only of his own twisted desires, yet chemically duped into feeling as if we’d known each other forever.
His hand slides down my back, and he asks, his voice guttural, “do you get fucked?”
“No,” I reply, reaching back and moving his hand away from my ass.
“No,” in this instance, means “not by you, not now.”
Although I had been almost ludicrously hell-bent on self-destruction for several years now, three suicide attempts and numerous overdoses to my credit, I still retained a primal fear of AIDS. Yes, it was true that there were many times I wanted to die, to end this fucking nightmare that seemed to go on and on. But I certainly didn’t want to die THAT way. I’d watched too many friends in the eighties and nineties succumb to the horrible plague, and even in moments of the most clouded judgement, I’d tried to exercise some basic precautions against infection. The fact that even minus the HIV virus I was currently emaciated, spotted with sores and addled by recurring drug-induced psychosis didn’t occur to me. I wasn’t going to die of AIDS, period.
“Come on, let me fuck you” he cajoled. “I’m negative, I promise.” There were no rubbers available, and this stranger was not going to fuck me in the ass.
“I’m negative too,” I say, “and it’s because I don’t get fucked without a condom. Sorry.”
He didn’t persist, and I was grateful that it didn’t seem to be a deal-breaker for him. We continued for a while, until the rush from our last hits from the pipe began to subside, at which point we disengaged and pulled back from each other, complete strangers once more.
“Want another hit?” I asked.
“I’ve got a better idea,” he said, wiping beads of sweat from his shaved head.
“Yeah?” I asked, anticipating that he was going to find an excuse to depart, having been denied his request to fuck me.
“I’ve got some G in my room,” he said instead, and grinned at me. “You want to do some?”
I’d done G – short for Gamma Hydroxybutric acid – many times before, and loved the way it made me feel.. A compound that has been used in medical settings as an anasthetic, it worked as a perfect compliment to the heady, speedy rush of the meth. It took the already amped-up sensation of raw carnality and brought it to an altogether new level, turning the acute, frenetic hyper-awareness of tweaking into a warm, fireball of intense sensuality.
“Sure” I said. “Would you mind bringing it back here?”
“No problem,” he said.
“And would you grab some orange juice for us to take it with?”
The Coral Sands had a small table set up near the courtyard entrance, free stale donuts and a large urn filled with orange juice. This served the dual purpose of appearing at once as a complimentary amenity and at the same time allowing the tweaking residents of the hotel to keep their blood sugar up. I’m sure the management of the hotel had dealt far too often with the results of meth users forgetting to eat for several days.
“Sure,” he said, wrapping his towel around his waist and slipping out the door, closing it behind him.
Alone in the room, I took the opportunity straighten out the bedcovers, which had become dislodged and disheveled. I rinsed off quickly in the shower, soaping my body clean of the rank smell of metabolized meth, dried off quickly and went back to the bedroom to wait, half expecting the stranger to not return, knowing how easily distracted tweakers can be.
Using a remote, I flicked on the tv and perused the only channels that were offered: three closed-circuit hardcore gay porn flicks. Unlike Los Angeles bathhouses, the hotel, by presenting itself as a legitimate “semi-resort,” seemed unconcerned about presenting even the illusion of mandating safe sex practices. At bathhouses: Flex, The Melrose Spa, The Hollywood Spa, signs hung on walls throughout lecturing patrons to engage in safe sex practices only. Those engaging in unsafe practices, these signs warned, would be ejected from the premises. Large bowls of condoms were available everywhere, each room supplied with several upon check-in. These rules, of course, were never enforced, but at least a pretense was made. At the Coral Sands, there were no such warnings. The porn that played on all sixty televisions in all sixty rooms were, for the most part, the hardest of the hardcore, what is known as bareback porn in gay parlance. No rubbers, no protection of any kind.
Two sharp knocks on the door, and the guy is back.
He is carrying a large, clear plastic Dixie cup of orange juice, and has his own backpack slung over his shoulder.
I take the juice from him, and re-distribute it evenly using the plastic cup from the bathroom.
As I stand next to the bed holding the cups, He fishes through his backpack and finds a clear plastic vial that is about the size of a small can of Red Bull, and half-filled with a clear liquid. I’ve never seen such a large amount of G before, and make the fairly safe assumption that this guy is dealing the stuff here at the hotel.
“It’s not too strong,” he says, and I watch him measure out a dose using the bottle’s cap, dropping it into one cup of orange juice, refilling, and dropping another dose into the second cup.
I hand him his his, and use a finger to stir the juice in my own, knowing from experience how unpleasantly bitter GHB can taste.
“Cheers,” I say, and we click our plastic cups together, then down the contents in one long draught.
I climb onto the bed with him, and we hold on to each other, and wait for the ride to begin.
I am eight years old. I walk out into the sunshine of a beautiful Long Island summer, my eight-year old legs jumping off the side porch and carrying me around to the back of the house, my playground of trees and shrubs and frogs and caterpillars and all things loved by eight year old boys everywhere. I spend a lot of time alone, being painfully shy, and in this yard, filled with trees and shrubs and damp, dark places, I create whole fantasy worlds in which to get lost for hours on end. I collect caterpillars, I throw bullfrogs into the swimming pool to watch them swim. I am eight years old.
It takes about twenty minutes for the G to take effect, and I am suddenly engulfed in wave after wave of incredible warmth, my body literally writhing with pleasure. The room grows smaller, my sense of space diminishing until my entire world is limited to what I can feel, what I can touch, what is touching me. My eyes close, and I hang onto this stranger beside me and ride the electric current pulsing through my body, fireworks of red and orange exploding behind my closed lids. I force my eyes open, hold them open through sheer force of will, trying to cling to consciousness. The intial rollercoaster drop gives way for a moment, and I manage to croak:
“Not too strong…are you kidding me?”
And then the next wave hits and all I can do is groan and undulate uncontrollably.
The room, lit only by the flickering porn on the tv, suddenly begins to darken even further, and I realize that I am beginning to go under. I panic, my body’s undulations turn into spastic jerking, trying to find purchase as I slip headlong into the darkness of the g-hole. It is futile, and I capitulate, my small world twirling in upon itself until all is black, all is silent, and I am gone. Absolutely gone.
I am eight years old. The back wall of our small house in Smithtown is lined with thick hedges, and because the house overhangs the basement by a few feet, a natural tunnel exists…a long, fairly dark crawlspace, basement windows on one side and thick hedge on the other, on two feet high. This is my secret hiding place, sixty long feet of dark, east-coast humid earth through which I can crawl, exploring, fantasizing. I am Gilligan, leading the other castaways from the headhunters to safety through a volcanic tunnel. I am Captain Kirk, buried alive and with only a few minutes of oxygen remaining. I crawl, hunched over, the knees of my tough skins blackened by the moist earth and rotting leaves. I feel safe here, in this, my first dark place. I am eight years old.
I return to consciousness slowly, pulling myself out of the g-hole with much effort. My body is rocking, though I don’t know why, can’t see or hear clearly enough to fully comprehend my surroundings.
My vision slowly coalesces, and mere inches from my face is the face of the stranger, this man who minutes (or was it hours?) before had been laying next to me. Now he is on top of me. He is IN me.
I am eight years old. I shuffle, hunching thorugh the tunnel, approaching the sunlight at the end. “Almost there!” I say to myself, or perhaps to Ginger, to the Professor, or to Mr. Spock. I emerge from the overhang of the house, stand up, squinting as my eyes adjust to the sunlight. Suddenly, I notice movenmnet on my chest. I look down, and see, clinging to the fabric of my white hanes t-shirt, a monster. A praying mantis, a prying mantis of a size that only someone who grew up in the moist environs of the east coast, could appreciate. Fully six inches long, The gargantuan creature stares up at me, waving giant pincers, its long, mottled gray body perfectly still. I try to scream, but I am too scared. I want to run, but I know it will go with me. I want to flick it off, but I’m terrified to touch it. I am eight years old, and there is a monster on my chest. I close my eyes, waving my arms about , until my mother notices, and comes out the side door and knocks the giant insect from my chest with the bristle end of a kitchen broom. I am eight years old, and I have just met my first monster in my first dark place.
I wrench myself out from under him, confused, terrified, panicked. It is not until I am crouched, pressed back against the headboard, pillow clutched defensively and pathetically in front of my bent knees, that I realize there are others in the room.
Two other men, naked, stand next to the bed, watching, touching themselves. Another sits in the shabby chair by the window, smoking a cigarette.
I want to scream “I told you NO!!,” but even before it I know how ridiculous it would sound coming from a tweaker like me, how very Meredith Baxter-Birney Lifetime Movie ridiculous.
Instead, keeping my voice measured and trying not to betray panic or distress, I simply say, avoiding any eye contact, “I think I’m done….would you mind leaving?”
Two of the men dress, pulling on their clothes from where they had discarded them on the floor. The other two simply wrap towels around their waists and depart, the sun from the open door pouring into the room, blinding my drug-sensitized eyes momentarily.
It is not until they have all left, until I am alone in room 233, that I let the panic overtake me.
I scramble from the bed and into the bathroom, turn on the shower and jump in without waiting to adjust the temperature. I use the small bar of soap to scrub furiously between my legs, my head still pounding from the G. I scrub myself until the small bar of disinfectant hope is fully dissolved, until dizziness overtakes me, and I slide down against the plastic wall of the small shower. My body shaking with sobs, my mind filled with visions of Kaposi sarcoma lesions and hollow faces wasted away by disease. My fear escalates as I wonder how many of those men had used me while I was unconsciousness. And though I pray to a God I don’t yet believe in that it was only the one, I know one is enough: I’ve absorbed the letter if not the spirit during my multiple rehab stints and am keenly aware of the grim statistics regarding HIV infection in methamphetamine users.
When the water has begun to run cold, and there are no more tears, I dry off zombie-like and go back to the room.
Kneeling next to the bed, I retrieve my backpack and find my cellphone and turn it on. There are over 20 messages from Patrick. I don’t listen to them, don’t want to hear the panic or disappointment in his voice. I’ve had many messages from him of this sort, his voice trembling with either fear or anger. “Andy, where ARE you?”
I dial our home number, and he answers on the second ring.
At first, I can not speak, my crying beginning anew. I can’t get words past the sobs.
“Andy?” I hear Partick’s voice, sounding simultaneously relieved and angry. Still, his voice reminds me of what I have lost, what used to be. It reminds me of goodness and kindness, clean sheets, honesty and morality. It reminds me that I am 39 years old, and still crawling into dark, God-less places and emerging with monsters on my chest.
My crying intensifies.
He listens, says nothing, and finally I’m able to get the words out:
“Patrick, I’m in trouble.”
How do I even begin to write about Patrick, my amazing husband?
For twenty years he’s stayed by my side, fulfilling our vows to stay together for better or worse, long before we actually spoke those words at our wedding ceremony in 2010.
He’s seen me at my best during the ten years before I found crystal meth, and he’s seen me at my worst during the second decade of our relationship when my addiction took me to places darker than I’d previously imagined even existed.
As a former television producer, I’d once sworn I’d never date an actor. I’d had too many dealings with that particular combination of low self-esteem and extreme ego. Yet, here I am married to a man who has proven himself over the years to be an exception to that generalization. Patrick has shown himself to be one of the most spiritually evolved people I’ve ever known. He has remained steadfast in his loyalty to me despite circumstances that would have driven lesser, more selfish men away. He continues to make me laugh even when I only feel like crying. He is my biggest fan and most ardent cheerleader, and I am his. He has saved my life countless times, both literally and figuratively.
When I am berating myself, beating myself up emotionally for all the havoc I’ve caused in our lives, I can look into his beautiful blue eyes and see myself as a person of value. The fact that this amazing man still loves me after all the drama i’ve instigated is often the only evidence I can find that i am worthy of love and a good and decent life.
I am so proud of my husband, both for who he is and what he does. A comic actor with an incredibly sharp yet profoundly silly wit, he is rarely credited with his contributions to the gay community over the years. He has never been celebrated for “coming out of the closet” because he was never IN the closet in the first place. His character Peter on the now-historically significant sitcom “Ellen” was a litmus test for Ellen’s own emergence as the pre-eminent out gay celebrity of our time. He was fearless then, as a young man, and he is fearless now. He always spoke proudly of our relationship in interviews, and it was never a case of “do I mention this or not?” He has always spoken his truth, and that is something that he also does in our relationship. That same courage carries over into our lives together.
He has protected me, he has encouraged me, he has stayed by my side. Yet he has never been a doormat, and learned early on in my addiction to set boundaries. He has changed locks on our doors, has sent me away to live with my mother when things became too crazy. Yet, anytime I’ve been willing to work on my sobriety, he has made it clear that he is rooting for me. That he continues to have faith in me after my chronic relapsing is a testament to his courage, his faith, his strength, and the love we share.
It is also testament to the fact that I am still a man who remains lovable despite my forays into the darkness of drug addiction and insanity.
Friends, understandably worried about him, frequently urged him to leave me, to move on with his life without me and my hurricane of drama. Yet he refused. His commitment has remained steadfast, and because of that I am still alive and able to write these words:
I love you, Patrick Bristow. I only need look at you to know I am the luckiest man alive.
Red lights are flashing on the highway
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight
Everywhere the water’s getting rough
Your best intentions may not be enough
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight
But if you break down
I’ll drive out and find you
If you forget my love
I’ll try to remind you
And stay by you
When it don’t come easy
I don’t know nothing except change will come
Year after year what we do is undone
Time keeps moving from a crawl to a run
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home
You’re out there walking down a highway
And all of the signs got blown away
Sometimes you wonder if you’re walking in the wrong direction
But if you break down
I’ll drive out and find you
If you forget my love
I’ll try to remind you
And stay by you
When it don’t come easy
Today is day 97.
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.
The 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.
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.
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,
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.
I 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
So, the personal wreckage cleanup begins again. Does anyone have a backhoe I can borrow for a few days…or weeks…perhaps months?
I wonder how my husband tolerates this. I know there must be those (myself included), who occasionally view him as one of those residents of Tornado Alley, post-devastation, scrunching their faces against grief on the TV news, vowing to stay right where they are and rebuild, dammit…while the nation watches and wonders just what the fuck is wrong with his logic. Why would you stay and rebuild…haven’t you learned yet that the odds are pretty darned good another twister is gonna come along and fuck up the very foundations of your existence?
Yet, he keeps loving me. He sees something lovable in me that I’m unable to see myself at this moment.
This morning, this man of incredible patience and tolerance accompanied me to the Gay and Lesbian Center here in Los Angeles so that I can be tested for STD’s and for exposure to HIV. Throughout my 11 years of off and on drug abuse, I’ve put myself at risk numerous times, and somehow my higher power has protected me. I am a rare creature, a hardcore meth and sex addict who has somehow managed to avoid HIV infection. It would be ludicrous to expect that i’d have escaped the virus one more time.
Unfortunately, perhaps because it was the first day of resumed testing after a long, holiday weekend, the waiting room was a mob scene, and I had to reschedule my appointment for this afternoon. Disappointing and a little nerve-wracking, because I really just wanted to get it over with, but also grateful because it gives me more time to pray. Not for a negative result, though that would be wonderful. But for the strength to handle the news should it be bad.
One of my dearest friends…one of many friends who has loved me unconditionally… the singer/songwriter Maria McKee once sang on her beautiful song My Girlhood Among the Outlaws ( from her album titled You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, appropriately), “I took a leap of faith, and I stumbled…I tried to live outside Grace, and I was humbled.” That song is what I’m listening to right now…though it’s a romantic love song, I’m listening to it in a different way: as love song to my Higher Power, to God.
My girlhood among the outlaws was salty, bittersweet
The things I did, ah I could just kick myself now
Through nights of lousy dreams
As visions gather in my head
I find it hard to live with the things I did and said
But for you my friend, I’d live it all again
And love you in the end
Anything for you baby anything for you
If it took those years to get me here
I’d do it again for you
Took a leap of faith and I stumbled
Tried to live outside grace and I was humbled
But I’d like to bet if I’d lived to fear regret
Then we never would’ve met
Anything for you baby anything for you
If it took those years to get me here
I’d do it again for you
So here we are and I don’t know what we call it
‘Cause love is such a funny promise
Commitment is impossible and forever is a lie
But that still leaves you and I
Anything for you baby anything for you
If it took those years to get me here
I’d do it again for you
My appointment is at 4:30, and I am not expecting good news. But I am expecting to handle it with grace, knowing that my God is not a punishing one, and that He will give me the strength to deal with whatever needs dealing with. He’s kept me alive through these dark years, and He’s even shown me a way to live that is so bright and shining I have to squint in the glare of it. He’s given my husband the strength to keep loving me, even when I’m unable to love…or even like…myself.
After the appointment, I will go to my primary recovery meeting, in a lovely backyard in Hollywood filled with tiki torches, votive candles, a bonfire and so much recovery and lovingkindness it is absolutely impossible to let self-loathing surface. Regardless of the news I get, I know I’ll be surrounded by at least 80 human beings, all struggling themselves one way or another, who really do love me and want only the best for me.
Back inside the arms of Grace. I want to stay there this time.
I know what needs to be done, and I’m going to do it. I’ve learned some things about myself, I’ve admitted some things to myself I already knew but didn’t want to confront.
And if this relapse is what it took for me to finally address these issues…and if being HIV positive like so many of my recovering brothers is part of that lesson, so be it.
If all of my struggling and falling and climbing up and falling again is what it takes to get me to a place of true recovery, a place of brutal honesty with myself and those in my life, so be it too.
If it took those years to get me here….
I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who has sent me private messages of concern following my relapse.
I don’t have the time to write a full blog entry today, since relapses have the weird side effect of making one’s house very, very messy….and my husband returns home on Friday. He has been very supportive regarding my relapse, but coming home after a month to a six-foot deep pile of dirty…very dirty…laundry might finally send him right over the fucking edge.
In the short amount of time I have to write this, I think I want to share one of the main things I’ve learned from this relapse:
If you’ve done meth in the past and it ended really badly, if you do it again it will end even worse for you.
This was really surprising to me, which is why I’m sharing that information with you so you can share it with others. It’s the least I can do to atone for my stupidity and the pain and worry i’ve caused so many people who love me. I like to think of myself as an intelligent man, but I’m still learning things every day. I’m going to quickly share some other things I’ve learned recently so you can avoid the consequences I’ve endured from engaging in these seemingly harmless activities:
1. Some floor cleaners smell a lot like a Lemon Drop cocktail, but taste really fucking bad and will give you a sore throat.
2. Certain glass items are really shiny like hard candy but – strangely – they will make your mouth bleed if you eat them. Weird, right?
3. You will cut yourself approximately 65% of the time if you use scissors to open tuna cans.
4. Rattlesnakes may look all cuddly and snuggly and shit, but they hate being kissed on the mouth.
5. Those bug fogger things will only make your head cold worse if you try to use them as a vaporizer.
6. It’s really awesome that God made so many metal items that will fit into power outlets, but if you stick a cocktail fork into one it will be super painful.
7. Pomegranate juice is a really great anti-oxidant, but you should only use water with a neti-pot.
I hope you find all of this helpful, especially the don’t do meth one. I’ll continue to report to you as I discover additional things that aren’t good or safe activities.
Have a lovely day….off to get the garden hose so I can clean the hardwood floors for my husband. He’s going to be so happy with how shiny I’m going to get them!
And again, thank you ALL for your concern. I’m struggling, but at least I’m still moving. Have a beautiful day.
I’m no kid in a kid’s game
I did what I did, I’ve got no one to blame
But I don’t give up, no, I don’t ever give up
It’s all I’ve got, it’s my claim to fame
I’m no fighter but I’m fighting
This whole world seems uninviting
But I don’t give up, no, I don’t ever give up
I fall down sometimes, sometimes I come back flying
My stomach is flatter than it’s been in a long, long time. If the lighting is just right, I believe there’s an actual six-pack happening there.
Unfortunately, that’s about the best I can muster on the positive-thinking front.
There, it’s been said. Or rather, typed, for the pedantic among you.
I’m not sure how to begin writing about this. So much shame, so much sadness. My head is still clouded from a week-long crystal meth binge, so maybe I’ll start with more recent events and work backward.
I spent Sunday alone in my bedroom (my husband is in Scotland doing his show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival), smoking meth and watching porn. Pretty much par for the course, except that I wasn’t getting quite as high as I wanted to. Something wasn’t working. I added poppers (amyl nitrate inhalant) to the mix. That helped, but only a little. I smoked more, and tried exhaling into a plastic bag and sucking the vapor back into my lungs…out again, in again, the bag inflating and deflating like some strange medical device. That did it. My head was now swimming in a sea of meth fog, and it felt amazing. My dick, however, was not feeling it. Shriveled and cold, it refused to respond to the lurid images on the television screen.
More poppers. Nothing.
I retrieved a packet of those over-the-counter male “enhancement” pills, and popped them both.
I sat back and waited.
Nothing again. Dammit.
Then, I recalled a trick that someone had told me about, long ago during a previous relapse.
I pulled out the baggie of meth and retrieved a small sliver of the glass-like crystal. Grimacing with disgust and apprehension, I gently inserted the tiny shard into a very, very small orifice that should NEVER have anything described as a shard inserted into it. I’m far too embarrassed to say where I put that piece of crystal, but I’ll help you figure it out by telling you it was not a nostril, it was not my ass, it was not my ears, eyes nor mouth.
I’ll give you moment.
Okay, good. You’ve got it.
Now, I’ll give you a moment so you can blanch like I am right now, maybe even puke if you are of a sensitive disposition.
Back with me? okay.
I lay back in my bed, and waited to see what would happen.
I didn’t have long to wait: almost immediately, a feeling of cold washed over my body, and I shuddered. Next, a uniform sheen of sweat covered my skin from head to toe. I got out of bed and put a heavy bathrobe on, pulling it closed around myself. I got back into bed and waited for this weird feeling to pass.
It didn’t. Instead, it escalated until I was shaking so hard from chills that I had to clench my teeth closed to keep from biting my tongue.
My body went from cold to hot, back to cold and then back to hot again like a fucking thermostat with faulty wiring. My head was filled with the sound of my heart beating: Whoosh….Whoosh….Whoosh.
At this point, I suspected I was dying. I should have used my remaining strength to dial my cell phone, call 911, call a friend, ask for help.
But I didn’t want help. I wanted to die. I hadn’t intended for this to happen, but this seemed a very fitting way for someone like me to go out. Obvious, yes. Predictable, yes. But fitting. The thought of looking into yet another pair of disappointed eyes was completely unbearable to me.
I thought of my husband in Scotland, and of all I’ve put him through in our years together. I scrawled a barely intelligible goodbye note to him, pathetic as all the other ones in the past, and then somehow managed to put down a large bowl of water and another of food for my dogs, who seemed very stressed out watching their daddy stumble around the house trying to take breaths that were increasingly harder to muster. I was nervous it would take a couple of days for my body to be found, and I didn’t want my dogs going hungry during that time. I also didn’t want them snacking on my toxic corpse, to be completely honest.
That’s pretty much the last thing I remember, until waking up a couple of hours later on the daybed under the giant tree in our garden, still shivering, my hands and feet cold and numb, the rosary that usually hung over our bed inexplicably around my neck. I’m not sure why I went outside, but if past experience is any indication, I probably didn’t want to die inside the house Patrick would be living in when he returned from Europe. Kinda funny how I can muster tiny bits of respect when necessary, but completely disregard the big-picture respect that would have kept me from doing meth in the home we share. Funny, but absolutely not funny at the same time. Kinda like a Benny Hill episode, I suppose.
I lay there for another hour or so, waiting to see which way this was gonna go. Still shaking uncontrollably, still covered in goose-flesh despite the warm night air. Forcing myself to slow down my breathing, crying from the guilt and the shame and that feeling of complete despair.
Finally, I texted my friend Mykee: Mykee, I’m in trouble. I need your help.
He was by my side in under an hour, despite not having a driver’s license or a vehicle, his arm around me and comforting me in soothing tones that began to steady my breathing. Two hours later, around midnight, my friend Phillip showed up, enveloping me with even more love that I felt completely undeserving of. As I lobbed comments filled with self-hate in their direction, they would each bat them away with the expertise of a Billie Jean King or a John McEnroe.
“I’m so ashamed.” (“there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing has changed except a date.”)
“I’m so sorry I lied to you.” (“that’s what we addicts do…we lie. It’s normal.”)
I love these men so much. I still can’t believe what they did for me Sunday night: calming me down, reassuring me that I was not going to die. One of the benefits of sobriety, besides sobriety itself, is the close friendship I’ve formed with these men. It pains me so much to know I’ve lied to their faces, not to mention my beautiful husband, my mentor Jonathan, and the two beautiful young people I was helping with their own sobriety.
Right now, two days later, I feel sick. Physically and mentally. Crystal meth use creates a brain fog that allows entire days…weeks, even…to roll by without solidly imprinting on the brain memories of the events that occurred. It is only when one stops using, and the drug fades from the bloodstream, that these shameful memories begin to emerge, flickering into my consciousness like a horror movie footage spliced randomly into a sitcom.
I’m scared. I’m disappointed in myself. I feel hopeless.
I’ve already made the initial round of painful phone calls: my sobriety mentor, my husband, my mother, and my two dear friends I mentored until this relapse. Now, I’m doing the other thing I’m ready to do at this point: write about it.
The coming weeks are going to be filled with much rebuilding, much introspection and a lot of humility. I’m still too foggy to place my finger with any certainty on the reasons for this relapse, though I can say with some certainty that sex probably had a lot to do with it. The specifics, the underlying feelings that triggered it, are going to take some time and some clarity to ascertain. But I will ascertain them, and I will use that information to make sure this never happens again.
I’m not sure what benefit this post offers anyone aside from myself. But right now, writing about this is going to take a huge weight of guilt and shame and secrets off of my shoulders. Maybe, perhaps, someone who is thinking of relapsing….or who has relapsed but things haven’t gotten too ugly yet….will read this and recommit to sobriety.
Part of me wants to give up, throw in the towel…but I know I need to get back on the recovery horse. That the horse seems to be staring at me with contempt, disgust and judgement is only a figment of my imagination. I’ve been here before, many times. And I’m tired of it. I hate this fucking place, and that fucking horse is the only way out of here.
I’m sorry. Yup, that’s me, saying “sorry” again. I’m sorry for lying to my husband. I’m sorry for lying to my friends. I’m sorry for bailing on commitments with lame or zero explanations. I’m sorry for ignoring my higher power, and I’m sorry I stopped praying. Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.
This public mea culpa is my first boot in the stirrup.
I have a lot of work to do now. Please keep me in your prayers. I’ll need as many as I can get.
The phone rang after midnight, just a couple of hours ago, a rare occurrence in our home – and I ran to answer it, wondering who the hell would be calling at that hour, irritated but worried that something unfortunate had befallen a family member.
I recognized the name on my iPhone immediately. It was the name of a friend of mine I’d met in recovery, someone who had more clean time that I did when I began my own getting-sober process. When I met this man, he scared me a little, but not in a bad way. Rather, his energy and enthusiasm made me nervous, mostly that he’d notice me and I’d be forced to actually speak at my recovery meetings. Early on, staying silent in the back of the room was my modus operandi.
This man, quite a bit younger than myself, eventually became my friend. As I gained confidence in myself, I began to participate more at meetings, I’d eventually introduced myself to him and confessed that I had been put off by his wide smile and almost frenetic friendliness. We became friends fairly quickly, and I started to get to know this man in the way that only people getting honest in the rooms of recovery can.
Then, suddenly, he disappeared.
I’d heard he’d “gone out,” the recovery parlance for relapse, and I worried about him.
But he returned soon after the holidays, a little worse for the wear, skinnier by far, but still as friendly as always.
It didn’t last. A month later, he was gone again.
He’d come back, go back out, come back. Each time looking more emaciated, his eyes sad but still trying to cover up his personal wreckage with jokes and smiles, even while he’d relate sad tales of suicide attempts, conflicts with the police, or other drug-fueled behaviors that I just couldn’t bring myself to join him in laughter over.
At one point, he stopped his goof-ball routine and looked me in the eyes, perplexed.
“Are you crying?”
“Yes, I’m crying,” I said, probably too harshly.
“Why?” he asked, his too-thin face looking puzzled.
“Because I’m afraid you’re going to die,” I snapped at him. “I’m afraid you’re going to die and all you want to do is laugh and make jokes about it. I love you, and It’s not fucking funny.”
He seemed touched by my concern, but per usual, tried to put me at ease with more jokes about his fucked-up behaviors outside of recovery.
After having disappeared once again, after more legal run-ins and another suicide attempt, he showed up at a meeting last week, and I was happy to see him, but approached him tentatively, having finally decided that I needed to protect myself from his instability and the way it was making me feel.
Selfish? probably. What I have to do to take care of myself and my sobriety? Abso-fucking-lutely.
Yet, I answered the phone tonight, despite it being after midnight and despite the almost certain knowledge that what I’d hear on the line was going to be crazy talk. And of course, it was.
He sounded scared, told me he was at his boyfriend’s house, told me that he was hiding. I asked to speak to the boyfriend…who I also know… but he told me he couldn’t do that right now.
“Things went wrong,” he said, “really bad things happened.” I immediately imagined a horrible Sid and Nancy scenario, the boyfriend dead in another room and my tweaked-out friend talking to me with one hand on his iPhone and the other with a gun to his own head.
My stomach knotted up, I started to sweat.
“Put _______ on the phone,” I asked gently. “Please.”
“I can’t,” he replied, his voice going from frantic to flat calm in a heartbeat. That calm was actually more terrifying than the panic, for some reason.
“Things went really, really wrong,” he said, with a note of sadness creeping into his steady inflection. “I need you to call the police, or an ambulance.”
Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.
“Give me the address,” I said, and he gave it to me.
Before I could say another word, we were disconnected.
I called 911, only to learn that an ambulance had already been dispatched to the address. I hung up, my heart racing and sweat beading on my brow.
I called a mutual friend, who reassured me that I did the right thing, and that there is only so much I can do for this person. I told him that I was feeling shaken up, how hearing our friend’s voice had scared the shit out of me and left my stomach knotted..
My friend, who is extremely wise, and has many more years of recovery than myself, replied “You know why that is, don’t you?”
“Because I’m afraid he’s going to die?” I answered, tentatively.
“It’s because that’s what YOU used to sound like, Andy.”
And, of course, he was right. It IS what I used to sound like on the telephone when I was delusional and paranoid for so many years. The way Patrick heard me when I’d call from some dark place, scared out of my wits about some imaginary monster. The way my very dear (and at the time very pregnant) friend Cynthia heard me when I called her at 4 AM, holed up in the West Hollywood Ramada and convinced people were scaling the outside wall and trying to break into my room. When I made those phone calls, I didn’t give a shit about the terror and confusion I was causing others..I was out of my mind, too caught up in my own meth-induced terror to even think about things like other people’s nerves or the possibility of causing a miscarriage (there was no miscarriage, thank Jesus.)
The part of me that still wants to punish myself for my years of horrible behavior wants to label this incident as payback. But the part of me that is desperately seeking to heal myself is choosing to view it as a window into the damage I caused others, and as a tool to measure and finally understand the depth of despair and heartache all my freaked-out, drug-induced late night calls caused them.
I can’t help my friend, just as no one could really help me until I decided to get serious about my recovery. I’m still scared he’s going to die. I’m not even sure if he’ll still be alive when I post this.
But just as I’m powerless over alcohol and crystal meth, I’m powerless to save this beautiful boy who, like myself not too long ago, is caught in the quicksand of addiction, turning this way and that, fighting recovery, causing himself to be sucked deeper still into the muck.
I’m going to pray now for this man. I’m going to pray that he finds the strength to get serious about rooting out his demons and getting them to submit to recovery, to sobriety, to sanity.
I can’t save him, but I can pray for him.
And I can cry for him, too.
I want my friend back.
Oh we never know where life will take us
I know it’s just a ride on the wheel
And we never know when death will shake us
And we wonder how it will feel
Saturday night, over 75 beautiful sober men and women gathered in my backyard to help me usher in my one year birthday in sobriety.
The swimming pool was heated to 110 degrees, and the evening was filled with fun, love, friendship and so much emotional and spiritual support it was almost overwhelming. At midnight I was presented with a beautiful birthday cake by Jonathan, my amazing “guru” on this journey of recovery, and Mykee, my dearest friend who is also in recovery. It was almost too much to bear, and I cried like a baby as each of those two men spoke about me, using words that a year ago would never have been associated with me: generous. loving. spiritual. kind. A year ago, the adjectives that best described me would have been: selfish. irresponsible. godless.
This morning, however, the waterfall of joy dried up quite suddenly: Patrick and I had to make the decision to euthanize one of our dogs. He hadn’t been feeling well for a couple of months, his back legs weak and his mind beginning to cloud. In the mornings, on the way out to the backyard to relieve himself, he’d often circle the coffee table and end up facing the wall, seeming to have forgotten that he had to go around the couch to get to the door.
Steve was a slightly overweight, black and white Tibetan Terrier. Our friend Heather had rescued him from a yard where he was chained to a pole and had wrapped himself around it to the point of near-choking. Since, at the time, we were one of the few in our group of friends who had a house with a yard, we agreed to foster him until a home could be found for him. The problem was, however, that Steve didn’t seem to want another home. And as we came to understand over the years, what Steve wanted, Steve got. He was, to be blunt, a very strange…and rather dull… dog. Often mistaken for a very old dog even as a puppy, what he lacked in energy and personality he made up for with stubbornness. We learned quickly that calling Steve into the house from the far end of the yard was pure futility, unless Steve actually wanted to come inside. Believe me, we tried training him. We tried hard, for a long time. Useless. Steve called his own shots, and eventually we learned to live by his rules, for the most part. Patrick and I were never quite able to decide whether Steve had some form of brain damage inflicted before we met him, or if he was actually smarter than we were.
But we loved him, despite the difficulties he often presented (chewing on his own tail was a favorite pastime of his for a couple of years, forcing us to put a giant plastic cone around his head for the duration of that particular hobby of his, earning him the nickname “King Cone.”) And when he felt like showing us some love, we appreciated it even more because it was so unlike him.
I’m ashamed to say that I did not treat Steve…or any of our dogs, for that matter…very well when I was using drugs. While there were probably several instances where I probably kicked him out of my way or screamed at him (and this, to be honest, is often harder for me to live with than the horrible things I did to the people in my life), most of the abuse was in the form of just not paying attention to him. He was a barker, and could be set off by any number of innocuous things: a raccoon scuttling across the car port roof, the too-loud closing of a door or drawer, or…most annoyingly, the ring of a doorbell on the television (which was a little weird, considering we’ve never had a doorbell in any of the homes we’ve lived in.) I have many memories of having to interrupt my bad behavior while smoking meth in our home of having to stop and scream, “SHUT THE FUCK UP, STEVE!”
If at this point you’re thinking, “Jesus, what a horrible person,” you’re absolutely correct. I was a horrible person. I’m a meth addict. Horrible is what I was good at.
And today, remembering all those years of being thwacked out on speed and screaming at that poor dog, I feel terrible guilt and shame, coupled with deep grief at his passing.
But that’s the thing that’s important here: I’m feeling those feelings. Right now. As I type these words. And it’s fucking awful.
A year ago, this would have been the perfect excuse to visit my dealer, score some crystal and set about ‘making myself feel better’ by obliterating those feelings. And because I chose to stay present, I also get to remember this past year of sobriety, when I had the opportunity to make some amends to Steve. I got to tell him I love him, I got the chance to periodically let him sleep next to me in bed (despite his HIDEOUS breath), I got to rub his belly until he’d make those almost obscene grunting noises of pleasure, and I got the chance to tell him he was a good boy, a very good boy (even though he often wasn’t.)
I got the chance to say goodbye to him this morning, unlike our other pets who passed while I was in the throes of addiction, having been too fucked up to even consider dealing with the concept of goodbye, forever, leaving Patrick to face the vet’s office and that great, final needle-stick all by himself.
Today, I will feel all those feelings, good and bad. I won’t wallow in them, because that helps no one. But I will honor them and begin to process them, and when I’ve got a grip on them I’ll get back to helping other people, I’ll go to a recovery meeting and I’ll share about those feelings. And for every shameful memory of how I treated old Steve, I will show kindness to someone. Because that’s how I live life today, and it’s how I heal myself: by helping others. Just by writing these words, I can feel the joy-water start to trickle again.
Goodbye, Steve. You will be missed, but you will never be forgotten.
It was an interesting day: I spent much of it volunteering for a recovery-oriented organization: setting up and decorating this organization’s booth, stringing twinkle lights, handing out pamphlets. It hardly felt like work, though, being surrounded by so many also-recovering friends and making so many new ones.
It was all going well until around 3 PM, when my husband called from home to ask me a question.
I had to strain to hear him over the din of the crowd and the thumping bass from multiple DJ’s scattered all over West Hollywood Park, but by hunching over behind a tree and cupping both hands around the phone and my ear, I could make out what he was asking:
“Andy, why is there a can of butane on the shelf in the service porch?”
I knew exactly what can he was talking about. It was yellow with red printing, and was about as tall as a thermos but much thinner. I’d purchased it last spring, while I was still using, to refill the torch I used when smoking crystal meth. I had kept it hidden…though easily accessible…under my desk, in a box of receipts and other paperwork, and I’d forgotten it when I finally got clean and sober on July 7th, 2012. It had remained there, in hiding, until this recent cleaning spree, at which point I discovered it. My initial, reflexive instinct, upon finding this can of butane, was to throw it away before Patrick saw it: If he sees this can of butane, he’ll think I’m using again.
That was followed by another thought: “What if he sees this bright yellow can of butane in the trash? He’ll think I’m hiding something from him.”
Mind you, all of this went through my head in less than ten seconds. Ultimately, realizing that I have nothing to hide, I decided to place the almost-full can of butane on the shelf in the service porch with all the other cans and bottles of cleaners, solvents and miscellaneous toxic chemicals. I continued cleaning my office and didn’t give it another thought.
Until yesterday at 3 PM, when Patrick asked what it was doing there. I could tell from his voice that he was trying to sound light-hearted, like it was just a casual question along the lines of, “did you pick up the bread from supermarket on your way home?” But having known this man for twenty years, I could also hear the slight note of dismay under the lightness of tone.
I responded in a reassuring voice, explaining how I’d come across the butane while cleaning my office not long ago, and that he didn’t have to worry, I hadn’t relapsed…I’d purchased the can last year when I was using and that it had just been taken out of hiding. Nothing to worry about.
I waited for him to sigh with relief.
Instead, however, he dropped a bombshell: “Then why does the manufacture date say October 4, 2012?“
I was dumbfounded. This had to be a joke. I even asked him if he was joking.
“No, I’m not joking. There’s a stamp on the bottom of the can, and it says “Manufactured on October 4, 2012.”
“But…I got clean in July. That’s not possible. I bought it last year. I swear to God, Patrick.”
Even in the face of seemingly incontrovertible evidence, Patrick held out hope that I wasn’t, yet again, lying: “I’m sure there’s some logical explanation,” he offered. I could actually feel the hope in his voice, the wanting to believe me.
But the date was there, stamped onto a can, screaming “he’s lying again!”
I started shaking, standing there in West Hollywood Park, surrounded by people celebrating.
The rest of the conversation is already a blur in my memory. There was panic, there was a feeling akin to having relapsed, there was the old self-loathing and shame of having been caught in a lie. I’d lied to Patrick so many times about being clean when I was actually back on the pipe, and now it was happening again. I felt nauseated, I wanted to cry. I began to get angry the way I used to when I’d been caught out and knew the jig was up. But there was a difference:
This time, I knew I hadn’t relapsed.
Which made it worse, because no matter how loudly or angrily or tearily I proclaimed my innocence…the fact remained: The can of butane I’d retrieved from under my desk had not even been manufactured until four months AFTER i’d stopped using all drugs and alcohol. It was my word versus some factory date-stamping machine, and I already knew which of us had the most credibility on this particular issue. It was like Gay Pride and The Twilight Zone had converged suddenly, and I was wracking my brain for some explanation.
The idea of Patrick at home, listening to me rambling on asking ridiculous questions like, “maybe they post-dated the can? do they do that?” made me so sad I could barely stand it. I knew I hadn’t lied to him, yet I knew that as long as that fucking can with that fucking date existed, he would never be able to believe me.
And that is when things got really strange.
As I’ve written about in previous entries, my drug use brought me to some dark places: hallucinations, paranoia, delusions….not to mention great swaths of memory that seem to have been completely erased. Which means that even though I’ve been (mostly) in my right mind for many, many months now, I still have trouble trusting my own perceptions. Confronted with that “manufactured date,” I began to doubt myself and my own memory: Had I relapsed on meth and forgotten about it? Was that possible? Is my brain that fucked up?”
The only thing I knew for certain was that I had to get home and try to figure out how the fuck a can of butane I purchased in the spring of 2012 had a manufacturing date of October, 2012 stamped on its bottom. I made some hasty goodbyes to my friends, fought my way through the crowds and back to my car.
Driving home down Melrose Avenue, I burst into tears. I knew in my heart I hadn’t relapsed. And even though I have a brain that deceives me sometimes, I started to realize intellectually as well that I hadn’t relapsed, and here’s how I knew: I am not capable of using meth “just once.” Or even just a few times. If I had relapsed at some point, I could not have forgotten it, because that one relapse would have stretched on for weeks or months, or until I crashed and burned in a fiery cloud of secrets and psychosis. I have never used meth just once or just a few times and then stopped. I’d proven that to myself and everyone who knows me time and time and time again for ten years straight. I am a meth addict, and a hardcore one.
Just as confidence in my own recollection and in the integrity of my sobriety was slowly returning, my cellphone rang. I saw Patrick’s face staring up at me from my iPhone, and I momentarily considered not answering. But that’s called avoidance and that’s old behavior. So I picked up.
“Yes?” I said, expecting more accusations, in the manner that they would seem to pile on in the past. First he finds the butane, then he goes looking for something else to back up his theory that I’m using again. I’m half expecting to hear him demand I take a drug test when I get home, and I’m ready to tell him to go buy one and I’ll take a drug test any damned time he wants me to, when I hear his words:
“Honey, I made a mistake.”
“This butane was manufactured in Asia…they do their dates differently, like in Europe. It wasn’t manufactured on October 4, it was manufactured on April 10. The date on the can is 10.4.2012, but in China that means it was made in April. Not October. I’m so, so sorry.” I hear the pain in his voice, his sadness at having freaked me out so badly.
The Twilight Zone episode ends so suddenly my breath is almost taken away. I burst into tears, and start blubbering a bunch of stuff I can’t remember. Stuff about being mad at Patrick, but not being mad at Patrick, because Patrick was reacting the way anyone who’s been lied to consistently about this kind of thing would react. Stuff about being angry with myself for doubting my own brain…my own memory…my own sobriety. Then, came relief that this bizarre mystery was solved. Relief that even though it had felt akin to a relapse, my sobriety was still solid.
I told Patrick I’d talk to him later, and called my friend Jonathan, who helps guide me through this recovery. I explained what had happened, and his calm approach to the situation calmed me further. As I always do when I get off the phone with this man, I felt much more centered.
I went home, then to the gym, and later….the stress gone from my system, I returned to pride and resumed my shift at the booth i’d volunteered to work. From that vantage point, I got to witness the full drug and alcohol spectrum: sober people, people who can drink but aren’t alcoholics, and the severely alcoholic or drug addicted…the latter group stumbling sloppy and slurring along the path in front of our booth, looking both sad and ridiculous and presenting a better argument for sobriety than any pamphlet could ever hope to do.
When I got home late last night, my husband had posted a mea culpa via his Facebook status:
“I earned a gold medal in conclusion jumping today. To be fair, I got thrown by the different Gregorian dating systems used in the world today. (mm/dd/yyy vs dd/mm/yyyy). Learn from my error and never assume foreign dates follow our system.”
I am so blessed to have this man in my life. When I told some people about the incident last night, there were a couple who responded by saying, “um, you have eleven months clean and sober..he should trust you by now.” I disagree. After so many years of constant, bold-face lies, the fact that he is still here and he still loves me and that he still hopes for the best for me and has provided me with support and love when I’ve most needed it gives him a pass in the ‘absolute trust’ department.
I’m the recovering addict, I’m the recovering liar. The burden of proof, the responsibility of mounting a defense, even when it comes to stupid fucking Chinese butane can manufacturing dates, is on me. And just like that long-forgotten butane can, I’m sure there are other buried secrets I’ve forgotten about that may rear their ugly heads unexpectedly. But I’ll deal with them as they arise, and hopefully I won’t let them freak me out as badly as this one did.
I’m just happy to have been acquitted, and so quickly.
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
I came out of my mother’s womb a shy kid. Even the earliest photos of me as a toddler show me peeking out from behind my mother’s legs, one hand half-covering my face. If there’s a yet-undiscovered ‘confidence gene,’ mine was certainly missing or at the very least, tragically mutated.
For a long time, I had believed that my pubescent encounter with the man the Central California newspapers dubbed “The Hannibal Lecter of Pedophile Priests” had ‘turned’ me gay. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I began to understand that I had been born gay, and that feeling of being different was one of the root causes of my shyness. It was that shyness, not my gayness, that had painted a “molest this kid” target on my forehead.
I didn’t have many friends in high school. I knew a lot of people, and a lot of people knew who I was, because I was appointed co-editor of the Turlock High School newspaper, The Clarion, my sophomore year. I didn’t have anyone I could truly confide in, though. My yearbooks are full of year-end wishes to “have a great summer” or “to a guy who doesn’t talk much but seems nice” kind of sentiments..but not one of them indicates that anyone during those four years knew me on a more than cursory level.
There was one notable exception, however: my girlfriend C____, who from my junior year on I paraded around campus in all her big-breasted, blond beauty like I was the Grand Marshall of my own “See, I love pussy!” parade. Even C_____, however, didn’t really know me. In retrospect, I did love her, and we dated for three years. The sex was frequent, but less a product of actual desire than a continued reflexive reaction to any homosexual feelings that might arise. A fantasy about a male classmate would illicit shame and self-disgust, so I’d use C_____ to prove to myself that I could, in fact, have ‘normal’ sex. I cared about her deeply…I’m not a sociopath…but I think I cared even more about protecting myself and my image (I’m sorry to this day for all the women I used in that manner, and where possible, I’ve tried to make amends for that behavior.)
Back then, on the outside, I tried (probably unsuccessfully) to exude confidence and masculinity – driving a Chevy Stepside pickup truck (replete with roach clip feather dangling from the rear view mirror) and growing a cheesy porno ‘stache – but on the inside I was a seething cauldron of anxiety, self-pity and rage. I hated myself, and every moment of my high school life felt like a charade. My only goal was to get through those years without my secret being discovered. The secret being that I was damaged goods, that I often fantasized about the other boys on campus, and the secret that not a week went by without my fantasizing about killing myself.
I recently found my high school diary. Reading it now, I realize that even though I kept this journal as a way of getting my feelings out (some pages are filled with nothing but raging expletives directed at schoolmates, my parents, pretty much the world), I was lying even to myself. One typical over-dramatic entry laments the necessity of taking drugs to fit in with my classmates. I had to have known this was bullshit even as I wrote it. True, the small group of people I could have gained acceptance from were the potheads, but it wasn’t my lack of experience smoking weed that kept me ostracized, it was my own inability to be authentic and to let my guard down. In this same entry, I also express a desire to change schools. I also must have known, intellectually at least, that starting over again at a new campus with an entirely new cast of strangers wouldn’t have solved anything, yet there it is, in my stupid loopy 14-year-old handwriting.
This particular diary entry reaffirms, more than anything else, the fact that I was an addict long before I discovered crystal meth in my late thirties. I’m already looking for excuses to escape my feelings, either via chemicals or, as it’s referred to in the recovery community, “pulling a geographic.”
“My parents said I couldn’t run away from everything,” I wrote in 1979. How wrong they were. I could and did run away from everything, for a long, long, long time. Though I came to terms with my homosexuality in the mid-eighties, I continued to run from everything else for two more decades. Had my parents said instead, “you CAN run from everything, but eventually your legs are gonna cramp and you’re going to get exhausted and fall down and everything you’re running from is going to catch up to you and beat the holy living shit out of you,” then that would have been completely accurate.
For the longest time, I had difficulty in recovery. I refused to admit I was an alcoholic (crystal meth was my only problem, after all, I’d never crashed and burned and ended up in a psych ward from too many Screwdrivers or Greyhounds, my drinks of choice), and I defiantly told anyone who would listen that I “became” an addict at the age of 37.
Of course, I’d conveniently forget that fact that when i’d work at my parent’s restaurant, as young as 13, I’d sneak into the walk-in refrigerator and chug Gallo Vin Rose straight from the gallon jug because it calmed me down. I’d forget the time in my mid- twenties when my friend Rich and I got drunk at a party in San Jose and ended up being kidnapped by a gun-toting drug dealer (and subsequently driven, along with a van filled with drag queens in bridesmaids dresses to the End Up in San Francisco, where we were abandoned at 5 AM.) Or the time in my early twenties when two drunk friends and I spun out on the San Mateo bridge, almost crashing through the guardrail and into the water below. Or the time….actually, there are too many times to recount here. The point being, I’ve always been an addict. I was probably born an addict. I’m also an alcoholic, I’ve belatedly come to realize. I know that if my drug of choice didn’t exist, if pills and coke and all other narcotics were not available, I’d be the biggest, swaggering, stumbling, beer-breathing, gin-blossomed alcoholic ever.
On July 7th, I will celebrate one year of sobriety, God willing.
The past eleven months have been about far more than not using drugs or drinking. They’ve been about working on conquering the self-hate. To stop keeping secrets. To stop lying to myself.
This year, I stopped running. Out of breath, beat-to-shit, I stood still in my tracks, turned around, and faced the oncoming monsters. For eleven months, I’ve stared those fuckers down. They still want to chase me, to get me running – but as long as I stay perfectly still and do battle with each as they attack, I can defend myself (and my sobriety). Without all the running, my energy is returning, and the fighting gets a little easier each time.
Yesterday, the monster that tells me I’m fat and ugly and too old to have any value did a job on me, leaving me bruised and beaten. I didn’t run, however….not to my dealer, not to self-medication, nor to seek validation through sex.
Instead, I stayed and took my lumps.
Today, I am planning my counter-attack.
I plan on knocking it senseless. With prayer. By helping others. With self-esteem via esteemable action. And though I may never actually kill this demon – I’ll probably battle it the rest of my life – recovery has given me the tools to outsmart it.
All I have to do is use them.
A year ago, I thought I looked great. I was thin. My face had some angles. I could wear the same size pants I wore in high school. Sure, I was covered in tiny red speed bumps, and yeah, I’d shaved my head because I was convinced the CIA or the FBI or some other nefarious shadow organization was tracking me with tiny wire transmitters attached to my scalp, but who cared about that when all my jeans hung from my hipbones in that cool, sexy way?
Now, looking at that photo on the left makes me cringe. That guy looks like Nosferatu with stage 4 cancer.
Though I’m not thrilled with the way I look in the photo today – i’m far too self-critical, still – the difference is amazing. The guy on the left looks dead. The guy on the right is ALIVE.
The guy on the left lived in a world of darkness, deception, paranoia, anger, sadness, sexual depravity and absolute, overwhelming sadness. The guy on the right wakes up to hope, lives in the sunlight, is healthy, is optimistic, and lives in a world filled with God, recovery, love, good friends, purpose, optimism and – on most days – joy.
I’ll be turning 49 soon, and though the thought of creeping so close to 50 years old is nerve-wracking, there’s also much gratitude. After more than a decade of off-and-on abuse of my body, spirit and mind, I am looking forward to celebrating a miracle: I’m Alive.
I’m alive – and the world shines for me today
I’m alive – suddenly I am here today
Seems like forever (and a day), thought I could never (feel this way)
Is this really me? I’m alive, I’m alive
When I was ten, my mother walked me and my sister down to the small playground of the apartment complex we were living in. There, we witnessed two young boys…maybe five or six years old…. fighting, clumsily tugging at each other’s clothing and trying to land punches from the odd angles they were contorted into.
A woman in her late twenties stood nearby, yelling as if at a prize-fight.
The meth haze clears for a moment, and tears form in my eyes. SHIT. Then, I’m running back up the hill to the emergency room entrance. I pass the security guards and get to my mother first.
Moonlight, Machete & Madness Pt. 3 (conclusion)
Walking quickly, I soon reach the perimeter of the hospital. Huntington Memorial is a fairly large complex, and I am unsure of exactly where I am. The streets are dark, and very few vehicles are out. There is a slight chill in the night air, but I barely feel it, my adrenaline-enhanced heartbeat keeping my body temperature slightly raised.
Looking around, I spy a row of single-story office buildings across the street, flanked by overgrown landscaping. I scour the greenery carefully, looking for signs of tree people, and am relieved that I see none. I dart across the road and approach the building, duck-walking quickly under the low hanging branches of a large shrub, and scuttling back into a small clearing between the building and the bushes that line its brick side. I slide down the cool wall into a sitting position, completely concealed. Safe – at least temporarily.
Pulling the bag of crystal from my pocket, I hold it up to inspect the contents. I am gratified to see that more than half of the teenager – the ridiculous slang name given a bag containing a 16th of an ounce – remains. I suddenly remember a comic greeting card I once saw, with a cartoon lady waving a cartoon checkbook and exclaiming, indignantly: “I can’t be overdrawn…I’ve still got checks left!” And so it is with me: despite my spiritual bankruptcy, the binge can’t be over if there is still crystal in the bag.
My hand trembling, I reach my thumb and forefinger into the bag, pinching several large shards of the glass-like substance. For a quick rueful second, I think of the pipe and torch I left behind in my bedroom. I have always preferred smoking these crystals, which delivers the drug in a slower, more languorous fashion, as compared to the sudden jolt that accompanies snorting, slamming or ingesting it. Careful not to drop any, I put my fingers into my mouth and deposit the bitter, tangy rocks at the back of my throat and swallow quickly, working my dry mouth in an attempt to build up enough saliva to get them down.
Carefully re-sealing the bag and pushing it back into my pocket, I slump back against the cold wall and wait.
It seems like only a few minutes before the freight train comes rumbling toward me. My body, accustomed to the more gradual introduction of the drug, is overwhelmed by what is at least the equivalent of two full bowls. This large quantity, which would normally take me many hours to smoke, is now being absorbed all at once by my long-empty stomach.
There is a roaring of white electricity in my head, and a multi-colored light show begins to dance behind my closed eyelids. My extremities numb, while at the same time a ribbon of heat slowly unfurls itself through my core, starting in my groin and working its way up through my chest. The heat engulfs my heart, and I can feel it pounding furiously against my ribs as I open my mouth, gasping for air. The feeling of sexual euphoria that has played such a large part in my addiction usually builds slowly when smoking, but now it rolls over me in a tidal wave of dopamine-overloaded sensuality.
The heat ribbon continues up, past my chest into my brain, burning its familiar path to my pleasure receptors. I begin to writhe slowly, twisting my neck and head in rhythm to the pulses of electricity that jolt from my brain back into my body. Gasping for air, eyes clenched, I roll onto my side on the cold earth as my entire being is engulfed in primal spasms, as my libido is launched into hyper-drive and suddenly, utterly consumes me. Completely unaware of where I am, who I am, I have been rocketed to a place of absolute, blind ecstasy, where once again I will take up extended residence on that small plateau that precedes orgasm.
After a period of time that feels like several hours, but past experience tells me has probably been closer to thirty minutes, the freight train finally rumbles past, and I begin to sense the cool air moving against my damp, heated body. I slowly extract my hands from the waistband of my cargo pants, where they have, as always it seem these days, found themselves. Despite the total sensual immersion, actual orgasm has not been achieved, nor will it anytime soon, part of the Faustian deal the tweaker makes with his drug of choice. The very same drug that brings one to the height of sexual transcendence also impedes physiologically any release: erections are a thing of the past, orgasm a goal rarely achieved.
I open my eyes, attempting to regain my bearings. Although the initial rush of the speed has passed, my disorientation continues. It is as if the brightness and contrast settings of the world have been adjusted to high. The dim, filtered glow from the streetlights that permeate the bushes is almost blinding in its intensity, and the shadows have become, deeper, darker, visually impenetrable.
As I lie there, the whispers soon reach my ears, originating somewhere deep within the now almost visually indecipherable tangle of branch and bush. My peripheral vision detects a rippling of the shadows, and I realize that during my sexual reverie, the tree people have found me.
Seconds later, I am stumbling my way down Pasadena Avenue, my gait loping and disjointed from the numbness in my legs, my only objective being to stay in the dim glow of the streetlights and away from the shadows beyond them, where I can sense the tree people gathering to watch this awkward, one-man parade. I have no sense of direction or destination, I simply continue to move, turning left onto a residential street lined with upscale, old-money Pasadena homes. Trees are everywhere, there is no escaping them, so I continue moving, tripping frequently on the imperfect panels of sidewalk lifted and cantered by the giant roots below. I have no idea what time it is, but the lack of cars on the street tell me it is probably well past midnight. The street curves through the wooded terrain, and eventually the houses on the left give way to a steep, tree and brush covered embankment, falling away to the Arroyo Seco riverbed at the bottom.
I immediately cross to the right side of the street, nearer the streetlights and the comparative safety of the homes that line it, their well-manicured lawns and neatly trimmed landscaping providing fewer hiding places for those who are hunting me.
I pause for a moment to rest, and through my blurred vision, I detect movement above me. I look up, squinting, into the shadowy, branchy canopy of a huge live oak tree directly to my right. The great tree sits dead center on the lawn of an elegant brick two-story home, it’ yard dimly but fully illuminated by expensive Malibu lighting. The branches of the huge, ancient tree span far out over the roadside, joining up with the branches of other huge trees nearby. Squinting upward, I struggle to decipher what I am seeing. The whites and blacks of light and shadow, the organic shapes of branch and leaf slowly arrange themselves into sensibility, and suddenly, I see it. I suck in my breath, and sink to my knees in front of the great tree, as if in prayer, and my wide eyes slowly scanning the terrible, terrible sight less than twenty feet above my head.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Note: I am not the only person to have seen the Tree People. Many meth addicts have observed them, and they are a well-documented hallucinatory phenomenon common to users of this drug. In the past, following previous encounters, I have researched them on the internet and was stunned to discover the similarity of experience from one user to another. I once saw a one-hour documentary about two Midwestern teenagers who, high on crystal meth, wound up lost in a snowstorm, completely disoriented. Their ordeal was captured on several rambling, confused cell phone calls the couple made to 911. The teenage girl, her voice panicked, pleaded with the operator to send help.
“There are lots of Mexicans and African Americans….and they’re all dressed up in these cult outfits!” she wailed.
“They’re taking the cars and hiding them in the trees!”
“Hiding what in the trees?” asked the confused operator.
“There are hundreds of them! Two hundred!” the teenage girl shrieked. The couple, in the throes of the drug, were unable to provide accurate information to pinpoint their location, and soon froze to death after setting out on foot to evade the Tree People.
In the past, having come down from the drug, I have tried to convince myself that I had hallucinated every terrifying thing. However, I haven’t always been able to shake fully the feeling that what I have seen – these tree people – are real. A small part of me believes that the drug has lifted some sort of veil between the physical realm and the spiritual one, and that what I am seeing, the same thing so many other meth addicts have seen, is truly and terrifyingly authentic.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Now, what I see above me seems to confirm the truth of this strange conviction. The canopy above me is alive with the creatures, but what stuns me is something else, something I have never seen before, in all my many encounters with this bizarre race of people. I am staring at a vast network of bridges and platforms set amongst the branches, spanning out on all sides, connected to adjacent trees, a huge masterpiece of engineering. I am looking up into a virtual city, stunning in its complexity. I slowly move my gaze from treetop to treetop, realizing each of them harbors its own set of platforms, connected by wooden scaffolding and rope and plank bridges, a multitude of Swiss Family Treehouses of Terror. It is as if another layer of the veiling between this world and theirs has been peeled back, revealing further, more elaborate details of their existence.
A vast assembly of Tree People line these arboreal sidewalks, their twig-like fingers grasping conveniently placed, rough-hewn safety rails, looking down upon me. As ever, their faces are judgmental, angry, yet motionless. The sheer number of them, coupled with this crystal-clear view of their aerial, sylvan metropolis is so overwhelming that all fear is pushed out of the way by awe and amazement.
“Jesus Christ,” I say too loudly, studying the incredibly intricate details of construction. “This is amazing.”
A dog begins barking and a just a few moments later, the front door of the house opens. A woman, one hand at her chest clutching her white bathrobe closed, stands behind a screen door and peers out at me.
“Who are you?” she demands. “What are you doing?”
I look at her for a moment from my kneeling position on her lawn, and use a head gesture to indicate the veritable city in the treetops.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” I ask her.
She is silent for a moment, studying me, and I turn my gaze back to the branches, marveling.
“Go away or I’m calling the police!” she says, as the small dog yaps near her feet.
I turn and look at her again, and she is wearing a mixed expression of concern and confusion.
“Don’t worry ma’am,” I say politely with what I hope is a reassuring smile, struggling for something to say, some piece of information about myself that might soothe her, let her know that I pose no danger.
“I used to work for Steven Spielberg,” are the words that finally find their way out of my mouth.
The woman seems neither pacified nor impressed. She stares dully at me for a moment before announcing, “I’m calling the cops,” then closing the door, muffling the continued barking of the dog.
I stay on the lawn, gaping up at the strange civilization hanging over me, and I feel defeated. The complexity of these creatures and their feats of amazing engineering and magical concealment convey, finally, the absolute futility of trying to defeat or evade them. I simply sit there, completely overwhelmed, waiting for them to engage, for them to slither down the great trunk and take me. For reasons unknown, the creatures simply continue staring at me, but make no move. Occasionally, a slight breeze moves the air, rippling their leafy robes and tunics.
Suddenly, I hear the sound of a car coming around the curve of the street, behind me. I tear my gaze from the treetop and see a black and white police cruiser approaching, a bright beam of light from a side-mounted spotlight bathing the roadside as it approaches. I jump to my feet and sprint across the street, leaping over a small, foot-high stone wall that runs along the top of the steep embankment. I land on my feet on the sloping hillside, but they immediately tangle in the thick carpet of undergrowth. I lose a shoe, and go tumbling head over heels down the dark slope, tearing my pants and scraping my arms and face. I land with a thud, deep in a thicket of wild ferns and ivy, and I lay there, panting, waiting to be discovered. From my prone position, I can see the beams of flashlights at the top of the hill as they pan the ravine, passing over me without pausing. The voices of two policemen are barely audible over the watery rush of the small river below me, and I hold my breath, waiting for them to descend. The flashlights work the hillside for long minutes, but finally, they are gone.
I lie there, my heart racing, the meth almost completely numbing the sting of the wounds on my arms and face. I feel trapped, the Tree People are everywhere, and I am again at a complete loss. They seem to be making no move toward me, and the entire darkened ravine is ominously quiet, save for the sound of the moving water.
Overcome with a sense of hopelessness, I reach my hand into my pocket and find the packet of speed. It is too dark to see it, even with my fully dilated pupils, but I can feel the still fairly substantial contents through the plastic, hard and lumpy. My mind fogged and my body already filled with the toxic substance, I consider the potential lethality of what I hold in my hands. Despair, guilt, shame and self-loathing collide all at once, and I unseal it and bring it to my mouth, shaking the contents out and into the back of my throat. I’ve heard many times that suicide is option of the coward, but I don’t believe that’s always true. Removing pain and suffering from the lives of loved ones by eliminating its source seems like a very practical, perhaps even slightly noble solution. I skim the inside of the bag with my finger, picking up the powdery residue, and lick it clean with my tongue. Dropping the baggie, I close my eyes and wait for it to hit.
I think of my niece and nephews, of my mother, and of course, Patrick. Having long ago forsaken religion, I still attempt to recite a “Hail Mary”, but the prayer sounds strangely disjointed to me, and I’m certain I’ve left out a line or two. My last conscious thought is the realization that my body will be probably be eaten by scavenging animals before it is discovered, and then I am sucked back under the wheels of the freight train as it returns. There is no pleasure this time, only great, racking full-body spasms and the certainty that my heart is about to explode in my chest.
In what I am now certain is a dream, I find myself standing shakily on the embankment, surrounded by a legion of bushes and trees and the strange smallish, tree people inhabiting them. They stare at me solemnly, watching and observing my attempts to stay upright. The hillside is gently bathed in the pre-light of approaching dawn. “Have you seen my other shoe?” I ask a short, squat bush whose resident tree person seems, somehow, less judgmental than the others. It remains silent, and I move on, the dreamscape shifting in the rapidly increasing golden light. I begin to move up the hill, but am again suddenly overwhelmed by spasms, my body tightening in a cramp that seems to start at my feet, jerking its way through my entire body. I begin to retch, great hacking waves that produce nothing. I am overcome by a wall of lightheadedness as the hazy dreamworld around me rocks and rolls in undulating rhythm.
Then, in an almost filmic smash-cut, I am running down a long corridor paved with asphalt, following a white line past tromp l’oeil murals of suburban orderliness lining the long walls on either side of me. Huge, metallic prehistoric beasts race down the corridor in both directions, blaring terrible trumpet sounds as they zoom past. Somewhere, a dimmer switch is slowly turned up and the corridor grows brighter with each moment, illuminating a beautifully painted ceiling of bright blue and gray. As I move forward down this surreal hallway,I pass a man walking a dog on my left, and he calls out to me, his words unintelligible. I wave to him, smile and keep running, one-shoed, squinting into the ever-increasing light that grows in intensity until I am blinded by the whiteness.
The dream jump-cuts suddenly, and I am now sitting, inexplicably, in the back seat of my mother’s minivan. Patrick is driving. My mother is riding shotgun, her hand pressed against her forehead, sobbing softly while Patrick caresses her arm soothingly with his right hand. On the seat beside me, reinforcing the bizarre, dreamlike nature of my current state, sits our wire-haired terrier mix, Shekel, who looks rapidly from me, to Patrick, and back again. The bright glare of the morning sun glints sharply off the car window, blinding me again.
I turn to look at Shekel, who is staring at me.
“You fucked up again, didn’t you?” says the dog. Despite his harsh words, I am grateful to see compassion in his watery black eyes.
A flash of light and he dream shifts once more to a kaleidoscope of chrome and white and glare. I suddenly become aware of pressure on left arm. In the distance, I hear an agonized, hoarse screaming, echoing as if shouted into a canyon. A small circle of color in the center of my bright, white field of vision grows wider and then wider still, until it becomes a woman’s face – dark complexion, stern – hovering over my own. The field widens even further again to include a strange man, in some sort of uniform. The man is tying my arm to a silver bar of some sort, and I suddenly recognize the screaming voice as my own, hurling obscenities. I note that my body is thrashing, bucking and jerking against the hold of four-point restraints. The woman’s mouth moves, and the words seem strangely out of synch with the movements of her lips.
“Hold his arm still.”
A sharp pricking of my left forearm, and within moments, the dream begins to fall in upon itself, the alternating concentric rings of reality and delusion constricting and expanding, until they eclipse each other fully, and I slide back into darkness.
Last week my husband and I celebrated the third anniversary of our wedding on April 12, 2010, in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Attended by friends and family and filled with laughter and tears, April 12 will always be our legal wedding anniversary.
Today, however, is a much more important anniversary. April 19, 1994 is exactly 19 years to the day since my husband and I went on our first date. It’s this date I prefer to celebrate. April 12, though filled with great memories and marked by papers filed and all the legal mumbo-jumbo, is essentially the day that we were finally able to get married, having stupidly waited too long and being blindsided by Prop 8. Like most gay couples who have been together for a long time, it feels like short shrift to say our wedding date is in 2010, because if we’d been “allowed” to get married like straight people, I suspect our wedding would have taken place sometime around 1998, and i’d be telling people that i’ve been married for fifteen years rather than three.
I first saw Patrick Bristow on my first visit to The Groundlings theatre sometime in 1993, and was BLOWN AWAY…like, draw-droppingly blown away…by his improvisational comedy skills. Like, genius x 100. Plus, he was adorable in sweet, quirky way. At the time, I was dating a gay porn star and – ludicrously – wondering why I never seemed to be able to hang on to a relationship. When I saw Patrick in his first improvised scene that night (some lake-side tryst with fellow Groundling Jennifer Coolidge that involved knitting) and when he’d made me laugh harder than I ever remembered having laughed before, I thought to myself, “THAT’S what I want in my life.”
Our mutual friend Kim Everett-Martin (Thanks, Kim!) introduced us when we joined the cast for dinner after the show (where I also met the guy who’d become one of my dearest friends, box office manager Mike Sweeney) and the rest was, well…a long, frustrating, drawn out ordeal of me pretty much stalking Patrick for nigh on a year, up to and including taking a job I didn’t need as house manager at The Groundlings just to have more opportunities to make him fucking notice me.
Nothing seemed to work. He was pleasant, but barely paid me any attention at all. Which, of course, only made me more determined.
Finally, one Sunday night at the Groundlings Mike and I got a little drunk in the box office and I finally worked up the nerve to actually ask Patrick out. I think Mike was as surprised as I was that Patrick agreed to the date, and walking home together down Sierra Bonita on our way home from work that night, Mike…who had known Patrick for several years, told me: ‘Patrick’s a good one. Hang on to him.”
He is. And I have.
Since falling in actual love on that first date at Farfalla Restaurant in Los Feliz, this man and I have shared some amazing times…we’ve traveled the world, we’ve both had career highs that neither of us could have anticipated, we’ve been blessed with wealth and with nice cars, AMAZING friends, and our lives are rich with the love of two families who have never made us feel like a “gay couple,” always just A couple…not to mention four nieces and nephews who have never known a life without Uncle Patrick in it.
There have also been some truly terrible times: the deaths of his parents, the suicide of a nephew. Financial hardship, the forfeiting of said nice cars. Medical crises, and of course, my years-long addiction to crystal meth, during which he was never a doormat: if I was willing to work on myself, he was always there for me. Even when he was protecting himself by changing the locks on our home, I never doubted his love for me. And when I was screaming at him in a meth-fueled rage, telling him how much I hated him, I have no doubt he knew I loved him.
So even though we were only “allowed” to get married three years ago, and still aren’t recognized in our own state as a married couple, this wonderful, evolved, spiritual, and plain damned FUNNY man – the only person who can make me laugh when all I want to do is cry – has been my husband for a long, long time, despite what it says on our Connecticut marriage license.
Sometimes, when I tell people my husband and I have been together for 19 years, the response is one of astonishment. Frequently, I’m asked how we’ve managed to stay together. First, I usually advise them, put aside your bullshit “requirements” for a spouse: Handsome. Blonde. Dark and swarthy. Successful. Swimmer’s body. Nice car. Whatever you think is your ideal is probably not ideal. For years I’d chased the archetypical, masculine, GQ magazine ideal of a mate. Sometimes I got them. Sometimes they were wonderful, like an early boyfriend of mine, Kevin. Most of the time, however, the person inside the archetype couldn’t live up to their own hype (and I’m sure a few felt that way about me as well.) If you’d told me in my early dating years that i’d find true happiness with a quirky looking, wiry red-headed guy, I would have scoffed. What I saw in Patrick that first time at the Groundlings was something I didn’t even realize I wanted. No, needed: gentleness, humor, intelligence. Something instinctively told me that this was someone I wanted to be around. I went with my heart and not my preconceptions. Patrick too had to push away his expectations of a partner: the reason he barely talked to me that first year before our date is because he assumed I was a shallow, West Hollywood pretty boy (don’t laugh, in 1993 it wasn’t as ludicrous an assumption as it sounds now). He was in search of an intellectual type, a more sophisticated and less obviously insecure type. We both listened to that quiet voice coming from our hearts.
Staying together is the hard part, of course. I’m not sure how we’ve done it, to be honest. I do know that we make allowances for each other’s humanity, that we worked hard early on to communicate honestly. We’re patient with each other regarding our differences (he loves classical music, I tolerate it. I freak out about getting older, he couldn’t care less, etc, etc, etc.), and we celebrate our similarities. We understand that we have a richer life together when we each have our own, and then come together to share our adventures. But most of all, we honor our commitment. Whatever happens. And I mean, whatever. There have been a lot of ‘whatevers,‘ believe me. But we process them knowing that we have to solve the current problem with the end result being “staying together.” Breaking up is never an option. As Patrick once said about our relationship in an interview with The Advocate, “Commitment only counts when you need it…and that’s when it’s the most difficult to maintain.”
My husband just got home tonight from being on tour for three weeks with the adult improv puppet show he co-created with our friend Brian Henson of The Jim Henson company, and it was a long and lonely three weeks. Even though he’s jet-lagged crashed in our bed already and we haven’t had much time to catch up, it’s not really necessary. Knowing that he’s curled up in a near coma in the other room, snoring away loudly while being snuggled by our three dogs who have also missed him terribly (he’s the nice daddy, i’m the disciplinary daddy), once again, our house feels like a home. OUR home.
There is so much love under this roof . And you know what, any of you who feel icky just reading about gay couples? There’s far more love and friendship here than there is sex, not that you should be thinking about that anyway. I don’t immediately picture straight couples banging uglies, and you shouldn’t be thinking that about us. Unless you enjoy it, of course, in which case feel free, hypocrite. We’re just two people committed to taking care of each other, supporting each other, and being there through..well…richer or poorer, better or worse.
I love you, Patrick. Until death do us part.
Screw Prop 8: Happy actual anniversary, my husband, my best friend, the most amazing human being I’ve ever known.
It’s your turn to do the laundry, btw. So glad you’re home.
“I have never experienced another human being. I have experienced my impressions of them.” – Author Robert Anton Wilson.
It is one of the many sad by-products of human nature: the more brutal and prolific a killer is, the more likely he or she is to be enshrined in infamy, bestowed with awe/fear-inspiring nicknames, and garner legions of morbid, gore-crazy disciples. The names Charles Manson, The Night Stalker, Jack the Ripper and The Green River Killer are forever enshrined in our lexicon. Conversely, only a few victim’s names are easily recalled (Sharon Tate, for example), while those of Kristina Weckler, Elizabeth Stride, Kelly Ware and countless others are remembered only by grieving family members, police officers intimately involved with the case, or hardcore true-crime buffs with particularly muscular memories.
In 1998, my partner and I had just purchased a home in the Chevy Chase Estates in Glendale. I had recently become interested in the true crime genre, and was voraciously devouring Darcy O’Brien’s “The Hillside Stranglers,” a compelling account of the brutal, late-70’s murder rampage by Los Angeles cousins Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi that terrorized the city and held the world in its thrall. It was extremely disconcerting, some thirty-odd pages into the book, to read that the third victim of the depraved pair had been discovered only yards from the house into which we’d just moved.
Overcome by morbid curiosity, paperback in hand, I walked down the front pathway of our hilltop home and made my way up Chevy Chase Drive, until I located the spot described in the book. Referring to the paperback in my hand, I read O’Brien’s words:
“Between the golf course fence and the road lay a deep drainage ditch, then a steep embankment, then a metal guard rail about three feet high. They swung the body out over the guard rail, trying to heave it into the ditch. But she landed heavily and rolled with a rustling of leaves down the embankment about fifteen feet and came to rest against an invisible guy wire.”
There was the guard rail. And there was the wire with the steel guard at its base, some twenty years later, still rising out of the leaf-covered ravine. This was, beyond a doubt, the right place. Having once visited Auschwitz, and having stood on the same platform that so many unfortunates – including several of my friends – had poured onto from countless railroad cars, I recognized the feeling I was experiencing now: the almost tangible sense of sadness associated with being in a place where something horrible had once happened.
I stared at the spot for several minutes before heading back to my house to continue reading, where I soon learned that the Los Angeles girl who had lived 21 years of hopes, frustrations and dreams – before that night she was kidnapped, tortured, killed and dropped on this hillside – had been named Lissa Kastin.
The book offered a grainy, black and white photo of Lissa and it was, to be blunt, unflattering. A three-quarter view of a face that looked too round and too large-nosed to ever be called pretty was the only image presented of this young woman. Somehow, the homeliness of the photo made her tragic ending seem even more pathetic. The description of her final hours…both horrific and nauseating…saddened me deeply. Reading of her final torment while less than a mile away from where she had been tortured and strangled, and only yards from her interim resting place, removed the comforting filter of distance usually present when reading about the ugliness of murder.
“From time to time as they drove towards Glendale, Lissa Kastin continued to protest, and when at last Bianchi pulled into Angelo’s driveway and cut the motor, she refused to get out of the car. But Bianchi coaxed her into the house, suggesting that she had no choice, which she did not.” – excerpt from The Hillside Stranglers, by Darcy O’Brien
The book offered little detail on her life: she worked at a restaurant called The Healthfaire on Vine near Hollywood Blvd., she lived in an apartment on Argyle near Dix street; she was health-conscious and wanted, like so many other 21 year-old Angelenos, to break into show business. I barely knew this girl, yet I felt strangely connected to her. Perhaps it was because we had both ended up, through quirks of circumstance, in the hills of Chevy Chase Estates, where my burgeoning meth addiction had already, even in its infancy, brought me into contact numerous times with the dark underbelly of Los Angeles. Or perhaps it was just a vague sympathy I felt for the girl in that unattractive photo. Whatever the reason, I found myself on the internet, researching everything I could find out about her. Aside from a few stories in the LA Times that noted that she and several other victims had lived in or near Hollywood, there was very little information. I also noted that in almost all of what little did exist, her name had been spelled incorrectly, as Lisa Kastin. In fact, even in the written indictment of Angelo Buono for the murders of ten young women her name had been spelled wrong, adding for posterity yet another layer of indignity to the brutal conclusion of Lissa’s life.
Years later, long after we had sold the big house on the hill and moved away from the conservative surroundings of Glendale and into our current home in the more bohemian climes of Mount Washington near downtown LA, I continued to think occasionally of the pudgy, moon-faced, and sadly doomed Lissa Kastin. Once, having told another true-crime aficionado about having lived at the place where the third victim had been discovered, she screwed up her face, thought for a moment, and then replied: “Wasn’t that the ugly girl?” That sickened me a bit, and I bizarrely began to argue in defense of this person I’d never met. However, with little evidence to counter my friend’s assessment, I realized that Lissa Kastin would always be regarded by true crime fans as the Unattractive Victim of The Hillside Stranglers. This was the girl, according to O’Brien’s book, with the unshaven legs, the girl whose killers had deemed too unattractive for their usual modus operandi and so had devised more horrific means of violation. To me, it seemed like the ultimate heaping of insult upon the ultimate injury. Perhaps it was this, the continued degradation of this young woman even after death and my sympathy for her, that kept her in my thoughts long after I’d forgotten details of other crime victims from the pages of other true crime books.
“From that point on the procedure was the same as with Judy Miller, except that Angelo worried that this girl might fight, so he kept her handcuffed and cut off her clothes with a big pair of upholstery scissors. Naked, she appealed to neither cousin. Angelo especially was put off by her unshaven legs and derided her as ‘some kind of health nut.'” – excerpt, The Hillside Stranglers by Darcy O’Brien
Not long ago, having watched an abysmal film version of the Strangler story, I googled her name for the first time in years and discovered that a second photo of Lissa Kastin had been introduced to the internet. The difference between the grainy, black and white photo circulated after the crime and this one was enormous. This had been no ugly girl. While perhaps not a great beauty, the photo that I found showed her in full, crisp, color: standing by a brick storefront on Melrose Avenue flanked by two friends, and it would be no great stretch to describe her as “cute.” They are all wearing t-shirts that read “L.A. Knockers,” the name of the modern pop-dance troupe she had belonged to. She looks off into the distance, a cascade of dark curls falling over her shoulders. There was so much life in this photo, and for the first time, I felt like I was seeing the real Lissa Kastin.
Further googling lead me to a Youtube video of a late 70’s performance by the L.A. Knockers. They were a campy, not overly polished but highly enthusiastic and clearly committed troupe of young women having a balls-out good time. It was strange – almost shocking considering the impressions I had gleaned of Lissa Kastin over the years – to imagine her strutting onstage with them. Yet, clearly, not only had she danced with them, but the L.A. Knocker’s blog states that she was among the founding members. This girl, who has been in and out of my thoughts for years, had just undergone a radical image transformation in the space of five minutes. This girl, who was already dead for more than ten years before I even moved to Los Angeles, and who I have been fascinated by despite knowing so little about, was suddenly, if only momentarily, alive again, smiling and dancing to 70’s disco music. All former impressions of this girl whose body had ended up near my front lawn were wiped away.
I found myself annoyed that so much detail regarding the lives and personalities of her killers was part of the public record, while so little effort had been taken to accurately convey even a portion of the joyful personality I was seeing in this one new photo. I was able to imagine her now not as the black-and-white, tragic sad girl, but as a flesh and blood, full-color human being. Even if this new perception was based only on a single photo and therefore possibly a false perception, It mattered only to me that it was a better, and probably more accurate fiction than the one the media had led me to believe about this girl I’d never met, yet somehow cared about.
It continues to dismay me that the mention of the names “Hillside Strangler” or even Bianchi and Buono will elicit recognition from anyone who is old enough to remember those years. The name Lissa Kastin, however, will usually draw a blank stare. And although I suspect few will really care, if the subject ever comes up again I will be sure to say that she was cute, in a unique way. I’ll tell them that she was a dancer, and I’ll do whatever small part I can to humanize this young woman – who had family and friends who loved and cared about her – and who has been reduced by news accounts to a statistic and by true crime literature to an unattractive girl who had the misfortune to not be aesthetically pleasing to the monsters who raped and killed her.
As someone who spent years saddened by – yet, blindly and stupidly believing – the unflattering characterizations of this young woman, it’s the very least I can do. And I when I look at new photographs of victims that are found on the pages of the LA Times on an almost daily basis – like little newsprint ghosts – I will remind myself that any impression I glean from them is only a captured split-second of a full and hopefully rich life that has been wiped away forever.
Forward to the 4:27 mark to watch Lissa Kastin performing with Los Angeles-based avant-garde dance troupe “L.A. Knockers.” She’s the girl on the far left.