Diary of a Teenage Alcoholic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, I stayed and took my lumps.

Today, I am planning my counter-attack.

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

All I have to do is use them.

I’m Alive: Sober Musical Interlude #8

then and nowThe photo on the left was taken a little over a year ago, in the midst of my last methamphetamine relapse. The photo on the right was taken yesterday, ten and a half months into recovery.

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

Meth-Smoking Gun, or War of the Tug (NSFW)

addict

2006:       My addiction had long since chased away what had once been a fairly large circle of friends, even the most tolerant and empathetic among them having run for shelter. There are a finite number of late night, meandering phone calls about phantoms hiding in heating ducts or people living in the trees that a sane person can tolerate, and though their retreat pained me, the lack of interaction with the outside world seriously reduced the amount of acting I had to engage in to simulate sobriety.  The only notable exception was Rebecca, who, four years after meeting in my first rehab, was still sober.   Still, justifiably, even she was forced to maintain a distance that wouldn’t threaten her sobriety, sending an occasional email inquiring about my well-being.

As long as I kept my meth-smoking to a relative minimum, around six times a day rather than the previous 15 to 30 minute intervals, I was able to function fairly well, and would spend the day on the computer or meandering around the house and yard, slightly glassy eyed but otherwise presenting a countenance of relative normalcy.  After years of Patrick discovering my hiding places with the skill of drug-sniffing airline customs canine,  I now kept my pipe, torch and stash cleverly concealed on a small, inner ledge beneath the vanity in our bathroom.  To find it, one would have to open the cabinet doors below the sink and reach a hand up and in to find the hiding place that was just wide enough to hold the paraphernalia.   It was certainly my most clever hiding place to date.  Several times a day, I would lock myself in the bathroom and retrieve them, careful first to turn on the water to mask the sharp, pronounced clicking noise of the butane torch.  As an added precaution, I would set a pair of toenail clippers on the counter.  The sound of toenails being clipped mimicked almost exactly the sound of the torch, and I wanted this decoy ready to point to should Patrick overhear anything.   We had reached a point in our relationship where I fully expected him to have his ear pressed against the door, listening each time I used the bathroom.  I had also reached a point where I knew that there was nothing I could say to him about this, his lack of trust being completely justified by my continuing relapses and the accompanying lies and creative fabrications.

I looked forward to the days when Patrick would have some acting job or other that would get him out of the house, and I would use those times as an opportunity to smoke speed all day long with impunity, enjoying the liberating feeling of being able to lay my glass pipe, torch and little zip loc baggie of crystals on a glass plate next to the bed.  I would spend the day luxuriating in the sensual feelings that the speed engendered, seeking out and devouring the most graphic porn I could find, inhaling amyl nitrate and masturbating with frenzied, futile abandon.

 For the uninitiated, PNP stands for “Party and Play.” Partying, in the meth lexicon, has nothing to do with the mainstream celebratory or cake-and-candle connotation. Rather, it is a euphemism for using speed: one, two or a cluster of jittery, clench-jawed, sweating men who have been reduced by crystal meth to the status of animals, each desperately trying to satisfy his chemically-distorted, darkened, and amped-up sexual desires.

Although I had always been comfortable with sex, and certainly never prudish about the act and its many variations, this sexually compulsive behavior was something of an entirely new order .  It is deeply embarrassing to admit to this particular obsession, and few meth addicts do.  I’ve read account after account written by the users of this drug, and very rarely have I read explicit accounts of this very common, albeit deeply shame-inducing activity.  Wikipedia, in fact, in its entry for Methamphetamine lists  “hypersexuality” first as a side effect of the drug’s use.  Admitting to homelessness, criminal activity in support of the habit, even insanity is far less embarrassing than confessing to behavior that most would consider lurid, at best.   Meth users, particularly gay meth users, often confess to being sexually indiscriminate, but few will cop publicly to the details of their wallowing in the murky shallows of depravity. Yet the proliferation of gay personal ads containing the acronym “PNP” demonstrates the  ubiquity of this phenomena.  For the uninitiated, PNP stands for “Party and Play”.  For the uninitiated, PNP stands for “Party and Play.” Partying, in the meth lexicon, has nothing to do with the mainstream celebratory or cake-and-candle connotation. Rather, it is a euphemism for using speed: one, two or a cluster of jittery, clench-jawed, sweating men who have been reduced by crystal meth to the status of animals, each desperately trying to satisfy his chemically-distorted, darkened, and amped-up sexual desires.  A search of the M4M  (men for men) section of Craigslist, using the term PNP will generally produce hundreds of results for the Los Angeles area alone.  Having participated In many of these “parties” over the past several years, the twisted logic of my  tweaker brain now pathetically rationalized these masturbatory marathons because they allowed me to stay faithful to Patrick.

Often, I would get so lost in the world of self-pleasure that I would lose track of time, jolting sharply back into reality with the realization that Patrick was due home momentarily.  The sense of time’s passage is drastically distorted by meth use, and I often found myself in this situation.  I would then wage a strange battle: attempting to reach climax and still have enough time left over to rid the house of all evidence of how I had spent my day.   Each jerk stole precious time from the forthcoming cleanup regimen, and this anxiety, coupled with the erection-diminishing nature of the speed, ensured that I’d invariably lose what I had come to think of as the War of the Tug.

On really bad days, having run out of personal lubricant options, I would use Vaseline, which required a chemical cleanup rivaling that of the  Exxon Valdez . 

Sweaty, heart pounding, I’d admit defeat and leap from the bed in a panic that would scare all three dogs into a chorus of barking, running about the house cleaning in what I thought was a systematic way, trying to rid  it of any detectable residue of my solitary debauchery.  Most normal people understand that sex sometimes requires a little cleanup afterwards:  a greasy hand print on the headboard, a spot on the sheets that requires laundering.  The cleanup effort required following an extended tweaking session is a very different prospect altogether.

Heart pounding with the fear of discovery, expecting to hear Patrick’s key in the lock at any moment, the first step was to strip the bed of the lube and sweat stained sheets, and stuff them into the washer along with the clothes I was wearing, if any.  The next was to return the drugs and paraphernalia to their hiding place.  Following that was a frantic, room to room  Windex rub-down.  It is truly astounding the number of household surfaces a tweaker can touch in a five or six-hour period, and Patrick knew from past experience what a smear of lube on a doorknob most likely meant.  During the days spent alone like this, it seemed like every surface in the house became coated with a film of whatever water or oil based lube I had been using.  On really bad days, having run out of personal lubricant options, I would use Vaseline, which required a chemical cleanup rivaling that of the  Exxon Valdez .  Windex in one hand, a wad of paper towels in the other, I’d proceed deliberately from one side of the house to the other, spraying and then wiping down everything my hands might have come in contact with during the day:  the telephone handsets, remote controls, doorknobs, thermostat, light switches.   This task completed, I’d turn on the bedroom ceiling and spray Fabreze to mask any lingering odor of amyl nitrate, then quickly jump into the shower and rinse the sweat, with its tell-tale cat-urine like odor of metabolized meth, from my body.  The final step was to floss and brush my teeth fanatically to remove the similarly rancid mouth odor caused by the drying effect of the speed.

Patrick would arrive home, tired from a long day at whatever he was doing, to find the house smelling perfumed, the washing machine churning away, and me sitting, fresh-scrubbed on the couch in the tv room, pretending to be fascinated by whatever show that happened to be on at the moment.   It is indicative of the level of deception I practiced that I also made sure I was watching a tivo’d show I’d already seen, in case he decided to join me.  That way, I’d be able to answer any questions about characters or plot should they arise. I would feel a wave of guilt for this deception, but that didn’t stop me from rising from the couch to give him a warm welcome, offering to make him dinner, or regaling him with made-up stories about how I had spent my day.

“I cleaned the whole house,”  I’d say, neglecting the part about having done it in a  10 minute, bug-eyed, speed-induced sprint.

“And I’ve got a load of laundry going.”

At night, because sound carried further, I would forego using the butane torch and use a regular Bic lighter instead, although it often resulted in both a burned thumb and a blackened pipe from the black carbon the smaller, less intense flame produced.

One night, after having avoided using for several weeks, making a grand show for Patrick of my desire to once again clean up my act, I slipped into the bathroom just before bedtime. Earlier in the day, I had paid first a quick visit to my dealer on Croft Avenue in West Hollywood, and then to the Smoke Shop at Santa Monica and Vine. Now, I retrieved the teenager of meth and the thin glass pipe from their hiding place on a small ledge inside the cabinet below the sink.  At night, because sound carried further, I would forego using the butane torch and use a regular Bic lighter instead, although it often resulted in both a burned thumb and a blackened pipe from the black carbon the smaller, less intense flame produced. Sitting on the closed toilet, I lit up, inhaling the white vapors.  After several deep tokes, I grabbed a wad of toilet paper, moistened it and rubbed it around the receptacle end of the pipe, or bubble, as it is often called.  This trick cooled the pipe and helped to quickly re-solidify the clear, liquid speed into a solid white mass that could not spill out the top, while also removing the layer of thick black residue the lighter had produced.  I re-hid the pipe, placed the Bic lighter in the pocket of my bathrobe that was hanging on the back of the door, flushed the toilet for effect, turned off the light and joined Patrick in the bedroom.

To the non-addicted, the act of using a drug that revs up energy levels and sends the mind into hyper-drive immediately before bedtime would seem irrational. Rational behavior was already a thing of the past for me, however.

I crawled into bed next to Patrick and turned off the bedside light. Whispering a “good night,” I turned away from him and onto my left side, letting the euphoric effect of the speed wash over me.  My eyes wide open, staring at drapes dimly backlit by an outdoor street lamp I began what promised to be an eight-hour ordeal that had, by now, become tortuously familiar.  One of the side effects of the speed was the tendency of my body to twitch or jerk involuntarily in it’s dopamine-jacked flight-or-fight state, and my solitary focus was to stay still, an almost impossible endeavor.  Too much movement, too much tossing and turning, and Patrick would certainly clue in immediately, blowing my cover of mimicked sobriety.

I laid there for hours, absolutely incapable of sleep, my body tensed and clenched from the physiological flight-or-fight response meth creates.  Fortunately, the speed also creates the ability to hyper-focus, which worked to my advantage in this situation as I studied the drapes in minute detail, refusing to even shift my legs for fear it would alert Patrick to the fact that I was still awake.  Finally, sometime around 1 AM, I was unable to resist the need to move, so I admitted defeat and slipped out of bed slowly, doing my best to keep the mattress still.  Once on my feet, I glanced back at Patrick and noted with relief that he was still sleeping deeply, snoring gently.  Moving stealthily around the bed and out of the bedroom, I closed the door behind me, putting resistance on the doorknob as it twisted closed to it mitigate the deafening sound of it clicking shut.

After a visit to the bathroom to retrieve my stash from its hiding place, I continued – light-headed – into my office, avoiding areas of the hardwood floor that I  knew would produce a groan or squeak.  Sitting down in the black Aeron chair in front of my desk, I gave the mouse of my iMac a shake, and squinted against the sudden flood of light as the monitor awoke from its slumber.  Activating an alarm clock program that would notify me silently at 6 AM and allow me to sneak back to bed before Patrick woke, I proceeded with the focus and single-mindedness of a cat stalking its prey to navigate my bookmarked porn sites, starting as usual with the aptly named Smutnetwork.com.   Once there, my senses began folding in upon themselves as my dopamine-saturated brain absorbed image after image, video after video, with hedonistic abandon.  Everything else, my surroundings, even the sense of my own physical presence, was surrendered to oblivion. Click, click, click, ad infinitum.  Images of sexual acts that, without the influence of the meth would be of absolutely no interest to me, or perhaps even mildly revolting, were scanned, registered and devoured as sustenance for my insatiable meth-propelled libido.

Page-view by page-view, the hours slipped by, my wide, red-rimmed eyes soaking up the porn like a sponge.  Periodically pausing to take a  hit from the pipe and then concealing it again in the top right hand drawer of the desk, my hand trembling and cramped, I worked the mouse around its pad, my synapses firing a hundred miles an hour. Time sped away from me and after what seemed like only twenty minutes, faint gleams of pre-dawn light began seeping through the louvers of the IKEA mini-blinds.

A faint breeze touched the overheated, yet clammy skin on the back of my neck, jolting me from my dark reverie.  Startled, I spun my desk chair around.  Patrick was standing in the darkened doorway, his eyes still thick with the confusion of sleep, watching, assessing.

For Patrick, it had deeply sinister implications.  A meth-smoking gun, if you will. 

Although almost imperceptible, I clocked the changes in his face as he registered the situation, the almost undetectable change in his expression still clearly conveying shock, sadness, anger, and most worst of all: disappointment.  Catching one’s partner in the act of pre-dawn masturbation is, for most couples, simply an awkward moment, if that.  For Patrick, it had deeply sinister implications.  A meth-smoking gun, if you will.  His eyes moved from my hand, still in my crotch, to the pornographic image glaring out obscenely from the computer monitor.

“I couldn’t sleep,”  I stammered.

“Apparently,” he said simply, his voice devoid of feeling.  He maintained uncomfortable, accusatory eye contact for a long, sad moment, before abruptly turning and walking back down the hall.

Life Giver, Life Saver

6818_1233541953773_7394085_nWhen 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.

“Hit him!” she yelled. “Hurt him!”
Her son, unfortunately, lost the fight, and came running back to his mother, sniffling and snotting into the cold air.
The boy’s mother walked a few yards and picked up a large stick from the ground, maybe a tree branch..perhaps a broomstick or part of a discarded child’s toy. With a  snarl on her face, she handed it to her son.
“Hit him,” she yelled. “Hit him or I’ll tell your father that you’re a sissy.”
“I don’t want to,” the boy whined. “I just want to go home!”
“Do it!” the woman yelled into his face. “Hit him!”
The boy reluctantly turned back toward the boy who had bested him, brandishing the stick, tears and snot still covering his face.
“Beat the shit out of him, Danny,” the woman…who somehow managed to look both flabby and scrawny at the same time….yelled.
Danny approached the other boy, stick held over his  head, menacingly.
I felt my mother’s hand release mine, and looked up to see her taking off her distinctive cat-eye glasses.
“Hold these honey,” my mother said, handing the delicate eyeglasses to my sister.
My lovely bug-eyed baby sister nodded, closing her hands around them.
And it was on.
My sister and I took several steps back as my twenty-five-year-old mother, her long auburn ponytail bouncing, strode quickly to  little Danny and yanked the stick from his grasp.
“Hey,” began Danny’s mother, “What do you think….”
My mother was on her before she could complete her question.
652_1088080997340_1361_nI could graphically describe what happened next, including the wrestling of the woman to the ground, the threatening to beat her with the stick, the “what kind of mother tells her son…” admonition. I could also describe in great detail the memory of the woman being dragged from the playground by her hair and maybe I could share some of the swear words that were used. But I won’t, because I don’t think it’s necessary.
But suffice it to say, my 5 foot 4 inch tall mother showed that other mother that it’s not wise to bully and force your child to hit another child…with a stick no less….when another mother is watching.  Particularly when that other mother is my mother: Supermom. Raised tough and Italian-Irish in Brooklyn, the descendent of a long line of lovely, loving, tough and funny women.
Flash forward almost thirty years.
I am being dragged by security guards into the emergency room of Glendale Adventist Hospital. It’s early dawn, and my husband Patrick and my mother have spent the last several  hours driving around South Pasadena trying to find me.  I’ve been on a colossal meth binge, and I’m completely out of my mind. I’d called home sometime during the night, and having gleaned my general whereabouts from my incoherent ramblings, they had set out in search of me.  Now, they are trying to get me admitted to the psych ward.  Having suddenly realized that I am about to be put in lock-down (not again!) I’ve tried to flee. The guards, roughly gripping my arms on either side, are trying to keep me from doing so.
They’re no match for me, the master of duplicity: I go limp, as if resigning myself to my fate. Their grips loosen slightly, just enough for me to suddenly yank free and go running down the sloped lawn of the hospital towards Chevy Chase Drive.  The guards, now pissed off in the very non-professional manner of the budget security professional, are in pursuit.  With a significant lead, I bend down quickly to yank off my one remaining shoe (don’t ask) and turn to throw it at the advancing men, their chubby faces contorted with the effort of chasing this crazed tweaker.
And that’s when I hear my mother scream.
“Andy!” she wails. “Oh my God, ANDY!” It’s more than a call to stop running. There’s a weird tone, like she’s being mugged or something.
“ANDY!” she yells again, and I look up at the top of the hill.
My mother, zaftig and in her late fifties, is clutching at her chest.
“I’M HAVING A HEART ATTACK!” she screams, and falls to her knees, face contorted in pain.
Holy fuck. This stops me in my tracks. I pause, watching her sink to the ground. The security guards run back towards my mother, and I stand there, frozen, forgotten.
my mother, circa 1951

my mother, circa 1951

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.

I notice that Patrick seems fairly unconcerned about my mother, and it rankles me for a moment. Then, I notice Patrick silently indicating something to the security guards, who instead of tending to my mother, grab me by the arms and drag me forcefully inside. I’m absolutely confused.
As I’m being pulled into the hospital, I glimpse my mother standing up and brushing grass from her knees, picking up her purse, and hand in hand with Patrick, following me inside.
She’s crying, but it’s not from physical pain.
Now she’s talking, but it’s not about a heart attack.
“I’m sorry, honey!” she’s calling to me, “I knew you’d come back if you thought I was in trouble!”
That BITCH, I thought, as I was being put into four-point restraints. She fucking faked a heart attack.
And it worked.
301464_2247635465477_5301969_nFlash forward ten more years. I’m writing this with almost one year of solid recovery under my belt. Not just sobriety, but recovery. There’s a difference.  Today is mother’s day, and I can look back at that incident at Memorial Hospital and laugh. Of course she knew I’d come back if I thought she was in trouble.  Even at my craziest, my most self-involved, my most self-destructive moments, I’ve loved this woman more than anyone in my life. Even when I was swearing at her, debasing her with meth-fueled insults and making her life a living hell, I loved her.  I honestly believe there were times I hated her simply because I loved her so much. I hated myself, I hated everyone, I hated everything. Yet she just kept loving me. She just stayed.  She made it impossible for me to say “I don’t have anyone.” When everyone else had abandoned me….wisely, I’d say….this woman stubbornly continued to hold out hope that I’d get better, that I’d stop using, that I’d become the son she knew before I had  found crystal meth.
My mother gave birth to me when she was sixteen, her marriage to my physically and mentally abusive biological father annulled before I was even born. We’d survived intense violence together while I was still in her womb. She protected me then, jumping six-months pregnant from a moving car and hiding in a roadside snowbank while my raging “father” tried to run us over . We were threatened with a shotgun, and we survived. We formed a bond, similar to the typical overly protective Italian-American mother and her firstborn son, but more so.  We grew up together, a child raising a child.
She has loved me fiercely since the day I was conceived, and I have never, ever been in doubt of that fact.
When I came out to my parents in 1986, she was taken aback, perhaps because I’d spent so many years cultivating smokescreen…and highly sexually active… relationships with girls. However, it only took a couple of weeks for her to come around fully, and even during those two weeks she was nothing less than loving and concerned about what my future would hold for me as a gay man. In those years of the deadly plague, it was a very legitimate concern. After those two weeks, however, she became a fierce ally. Within a  year she was voting democrat instead of republican, and even accompanied me and some friends as we marched on Sacramento for some gay rights concern (my sister Theresa also followed suit, and I count her among some the finest mothers..and human beings…i’ve ever known.)
I know I made her life a living hell for the ten plus years I was hooked on speed. I remember too much of the shabby treatment I gave her. I remember making her cry, seeing her mouth tighten and her forehead crinkle as she’d hear the horrible words I’d say to her.
I remember the night, convinced the house was surrounded by armed intruders, that i’d made her lie on the hardwood floor beside my bed with me, keeping her awake with my incessant “look, see that shadow? that’s one of them” comments. She knew I was insane, but she stayed with me anyway, frightened that if she left I’d do something stupid, perhaps hurt myself.
14991_1428298988430_1744323_nI remember standing on the back porch, screaming into her face while she stood there in her bathing suit, trying not to cry. I can almost hear her thoughts, even now: “this is not my son. this is the meth. this is not my son” as I threw expletive after expletive at her.
I am a forty-eight year old man who is crying as I type these words. Some of the tears are of regret, of the pain I caused this wonderful woman. Most, however, are of gratitude.
I’m so grateful that i’ve never gone a day in my life without knowing that I’m loved. I’m grateful that my mother never let me go, even when she had every right to….even when she would have been commended by others for doing so.
I’m grateful that I have someone I can call when I need advice, and I’m grateful that my husband has forged a close relationship with this woman who thinks of him as one of her sons.
I’m grateful for my recovery. I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue making amends to my mother. I’m grateful that with this new clarity I can appreciate the joy and happiness she brings to other’s lives…not to mention the fierce loyalty she displays for every person she loves, family or otherwise. I’m grateful for a mother who will speak out about injustice and unfairness, even if she’s past the age of beating those lessons into other mothers on playgrounds.
I’m grateful that I am now able to be present in her life again, to be of assistance, to be there for her when she needs support. Grateful it’s once again a two-way street.
I’m grateful for all the strong women in my life….the ones who have passed, and the women who continue to inspire me today with their fierce love and emotional strength: my sister Theresa, my Aunts, my nieces Taylor and Alexa and Kira,  all my cousins (particularly Amber and Kristi and Lisa and Gail and Denise and Denise and Nadine and Beth and Barbara and Cassandra and Brooke).
I’m grateful most of all today…Mother’s Day…for Ann Vacante Nicastro, who first saved my life, then gave me life, then saved my life again.  
Mom, you are the most amazing human being I have ever known. I love you.  I always have and I always will.

“I USED TO WORK FOR STEVEN SPIELBERG”

Moonlight, Machete & Madness Pt. 3 (conclusion)

read part one

read part two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(listen to the tragic 911 calls)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t it beautiful?” I ask her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, nothingness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hold his arm still.”

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

Two Anniversaries

6818_1221765939380_7562331_n

Patrick at the Groundlings, around the time I met him. From Left: Lisa Kudrow, Tim Bagley, Kathy Griffin, Patrick, Cathy Shambley.

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.”

Halcyon Days: Patrick's role on the sitcom "Ellen" launched his career into late-90's hyperdrive. For a while, we wanted for nothing. Wanting for nothing, it turns out, is not always a good thing.

Halcyon Days: Patrick’s role on the sitcom “Ellen” launched his career into late-90’s hyperdrive. For a while, we wanted for nothing. Wanting for nothing, it turns out, is not always a good thing.

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.

One of the earliest photos I have of Patrick and I together. Taken at our first home in Silver Lake.

One of the earliest photos I have of Patrick and I together. Taken at our first home in Silver Lake.

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 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.

me and p

Advocate article, 2005

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.”

222583_4570657699581_1279233810_n

Oahu, 1995.

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.

149997_1653537773406_901587_n

PLEASE DON’T DIE: sober musical interlude #7

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

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

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

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

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

(lyrics below video)

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

Ghosts of Los Angeles: The Hillside Stranglers

“I have never experienced another human being. I have experienced my impressions of them.” – Author Robert Anton Wilson.

7d_4It 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.

chevy chase

our former home in the Chevy Chase Estates

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.

12957507_113705187289-1

Lissa Kastin, widely-circulated victim photo

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.777c331ea62badd02a7ea16fcd1a16ff

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

Lissa Kastin (center) with fellow “L.A. Knockers” dance troupe members.

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.

ishot-1345231I 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.

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

Last night, I dropped acid with my buddy Brett.

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

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

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

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

IMG_1417

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

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

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

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

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

Beware the Deviant Heterosexual

I am in crisis.

Not only am I apprehensive about the future of our society, I am downright sickened and revolted by what has been going on right under my nose my entire life.

Heterosexuals are NOT the innocuous, wholesome people they pretend to be.  I’ve not really been a champion OR an opponent of the cause of Heterosexual Marriage –  the truth is I never really gave it much thought.  Until now, that is.

All of my life I believed that heterosexuals…who i’ve tolerated rather patiently, I must say…were a little odd. Maybe “odd” is the wrong word. Let’s say, boring. Yes, boring is a better word. All that nine-to-five, 2.5 kids and a picket fence stuff just never interested me. Probably because it all just seemed so exhausting. But who was I to take a stand against them? Even my parents were heterosexuals, so I just accepted the status quo, believed them when they told me what they were all about, and never really investigated.

I’ve talked to Jesus about it over the years, because..and this has always been hard for me to admit….I am the only one in my family who is a normal, red-blooded homosexual. There, I said it. It feels good to be honest about that, finally. My brothers and sisters, who I love dearly in spite of their affliction, all reproduce at an alarming rate.  Jesus never really answered me directly, so I listened to the pastor at my church who told me that I had to keep loving them because they can’t help who they are. So, I’ve done my best to love them and respect them as human beings and have avoided even thinking about what it is they do with each other’s body parts at night (just typing that made me heave a little.)

Last night, however, while in the midst of writing a highly technical spec article for the Journal of Animal Husbandry, I innocently typed into the Bing Images search engine the innocuous search string ‘woman + sucks + horse + completion.”

The images that presented themselves upon hitting the return key are now forever burned into my consciousness.

vintage-wedding-cake-toppers-1 copyShocked, reeling, and thoroughly nauseated, I wanted to turn away. I wanted to scour my eye sockets with Ajax. I wanted to beat myself about the head and neck with the ornamental dildo/ashtray my partner and I received for our traditional wedding last year.

Regaining my breath as my spinning world began to right itself again, I found myself questioning everything I’ve ever taken for granted about the Lifestyle of the Heterosexual. THIS is what heterosexual women do when left to their own devices? when allowed to sexually express themselves? I recalled my late Aunt Becky who lived on a farm in upstate New York and how, when I was little,  she’d put me on one of the ponies and let it trot me around the corral. I now suddenly remembered (with the clarity only the distance of 40 years mixed with the recent viewing of bestiality search engine photo results can provide) the way Aunt Becky had stroked the pony’s mane and lovingly said it’s name before heading back over to the chicken enclosure to do God only knows what.

My suspicions grew. Suddenly, I had more  questions that needed answering (except the one about the popularity of dude ranches as vacation destinations, that one has finally been put to bed.)

All these seemingly wholesome heteros walking hand and hand in the mall, aggressively smiling out from tv greeting card Valentine’s Day commercials, positively FLAUNTING their genial milquetoast relationships, bouncing little smiling white-toothed progeny on their shoulders….surely they couldn’t ALL be perverts, could they?

I had to know. I’d avoided this for far too long.

Bracing myself, I pulled my desk chair back up to the computer, and after steadying myself with a deep breath, began to compose in my brain the search string that would answer the question for me. I had to come up with just the right words if I was going to find the key to this shadow existence of the socially upright, so-called “respectable heterosexual,” so after about four seconds of deep and careful thought, typed in the phrase that magically presented itself to me, almost fully formed:

‘Tupperware + party + gang bang.’

And there it was: a hidden world of deviance revealed in all it’s burped and sealed-tight glory. Was nothing sacred to these filthy animals?

Suddenly, on a mission, I began what turned out to be a three-hour search frenzy that culminated at 5 am with the search string  ‘Two + Girls + One + Cup.’

The sun is coming up now, illuminating a world that looks so different to me today (part of that, I suppose, is due to several hours of non-stop projectile vomiting.) I see now the danger of allowing Heterosexuals to marry, to celebrate their sickness in some depraved mockery of our own sacred same-sex rites. If I allow straight marriage to happen without taking a stand, then I am, by my silence, advocating the practice of tentacle sex (that’s something they do, I swear to God. I saw it on the internet.) And tentacle sex  is something I will NOT allow.

ishot-1205441So, I implore you, my homosexual brothers and sisters, take a stand against Heterosexual Marriage. Let these deviants know that you’re on to their “normal by day, sex fiends by night” ruse. Do your own research, don’t trust me (if you need some good search strings, let me know.)  Write your representatives in Congress. Post on Facebook. The world has to know what these sick bastards are doing in the privacy of their bedrooms and on public transportation really late at night. 

But first you must take the most important step: look your straight friends in the eye and say loudly and with great conviction, “I’m on to you. I know what you do in your bedroom. I SAW IT ON THE INTERNET.”

Then, immediately inform them that you will no longer be asking them to ‘care’ for your dogs the next time you have to go out of town.

THEY MUST BE STOPPED. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for their children. And if you can’t do it for their children, do it for the horses or the tupperware.

Thank you.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  when searching for images, do not be fooled by the copious amount of anal sex these heterosexuals are having. It’s the only normal thing they seem to do, and even THAT they’ve taken to excess. So don’t start feeling sympathetic or thinking of them as human like us just because they have SO MUCH ANAL SEX.  Ignore the TONS AND TONS AND TONS AND TONS of anal sex these sick heterosexuals have and the photos they love taking of it, it’s only an attempt to look normal like us. And we’ve been fooled for far too long.

final note: this, of course, is SATIRE, a response to conservative idiots spewing this kind of bullshit for far too long:

Follow Jesus or Go to Hell

 

BillboardJesusNOVEMBER 2006:

The Ford Explorer glides down the Grapevine, the nickname given the last giant slope of the mountain range that separates Southern California from the state’s Central Valley.  We dive  headlong down through the perennial blanket of grey clouds that hang, depressingly, over this place in the winter months.  It is late November, and I am headed back into  a cultural and emotional wasteland of vineyards, orchards, endless pastures and bland, uninspiring towns with bland, uninspiring names like Earlimart and Goshen.  I am heading into the valley of my youth, the place I struggled for years to escape.  I am heading into this place that evinces only feelings of hopelessness, despair and floundering restlessness.  But perhaps most agitating of all: my mother is driving the car that is taking me there, against my will.

My head resting against the passenger window, my tired eyes half-register the still-familiar scenery as it passes by: the angled furrows of plowed fields creating a strobe-like visual effect: grain silos, occasional clusters of cattle, and an abundance of weathered Christian and Pro-Life billboards, one of which proclaims block-letter loudly:  “Follow Jesus or Go to Hell.”  With its wealth of agriculture – endless expanses of orchards, cattle ranches and vineyards – a stranger might find this part of the Golden State charming, at the very least.  There is nothing remotely charming about it to me, though, having grown up gay and closeted in this dust-bowl-migration-settled, ultra conservative, west coast buckle of the bible belt. To me, living here had always felt like being involuntarily enrolled in an intensive, years-long study of The Art of Not Belonging.

I steal a surreptitious glance at my mother, studying her through a thick haze of lingering antipsychotic medication and simple exhaustion.  I see a nearly sixty-year old woman who I love dearly, and my heart breaks for a moment as I think of the pain and worry I have caused her.  The sadness is immediately replaced by a bitter resentment, and I realize that I blame her, on some level, for this journey I do not want to be taking.

If she hadn’t been so willing to agree…no, collude with Patrick’s demand that I go directly to live with her instead of coming home with him, I might have been able to convince him, once again, that I would change. I’d get clean, I’d go back to program, I’d do anything. I promise. I promiseI mean it this time, I’ve learned my lesson!  Instead, upon being released from the Psych ward at Glendale Memorial just a little over an hour ago, walking through the parking garage with Patrick and trying to tear the plastic ID band from my wrist, I noticed my mother up ahead, standing next to our Explorer.

Which, strangely, was parked next to our CRV. Why were both of our cars here? Confused at first, happy in that moment to see her, I started to speak.

“Mom? What are…”  Then, I noticed that the back of the Explorer was packed to the roof liner with my  belongings. I saw, among the hastily stuffed-in piles of clothing pressed against the back window, the grey power cord of my iMac snaked along the glass like some bizarre modern art meets herpetology exhibit.

So, it was done. After 13 years together, our home was no longer going to be my home.

I had thought about resisting, about gathering some of my clothes and belongings that were within arms reach (why, thank you – so convenient!) stuffing them into a bag and heading out on foot to Sycamore Park near our Mount Washington home. I’d slept on occasion in a small gully at the back of the park that backed up to the 110 freeway a few of the times when Patrick had grown frightened of my behavior and changed the locks.   Even in the summer, though, it was a noisy, sad, uncomfortable existence, and I had little desire to seek refuge there on a cold winter night.

I turned and faced Patrick, and said icily, “Fuck you.”

I waited for the pain to show on his face, the usual sharp flinch, the heart-breaking “please, I love you, don’t talk to me that way” crinkle of his eyes. By now we were both fairly  used to this routine. But this time, all I saw was steely resolve in his eyes, in the angry set of his jaw.

Shit, I thought. He’s serious this time.

Then his eyes had suddenly welled up, and as he opened his arms and took a step forward,  I had my words ready: another “fuck you,” for certain, and  maybe a “don’t you fucking touch me, you bastard.”

Then, I realized he was moving to hug my mother, not me. Then suddenly they were  both crying, holding each other tight, shaking and sobbing and annoying the living hell out of me.

They’re crying?  I’m basically being kidnapped…yes, kidnapped – freshly freed from a weeklong lunatic pajama party – and  forced to move back to fucking shithole Turlock with my mother and they’re crying? What kind of bullshit was this?

I wanted to punch them both, grab them each by the hair and clank their heads together hard, three stooges-style. Instead, I climbed angrily into the passenger seat, started to pull the door closed, then stopped to yell hoarsely, “you’d better have all my stuff in here or I will drive back and fucking steal every fucking thing you own, you stupid motherfucker!” 

______________________________________

Now, as the Explorer forges north into the valley, I feel another surge of anger at this woman who has been interfering for so long in my private life.  Every relapse, every hospitalization lately has ended with a visit from my mother. Her visits are so frequent that I’ve become jealous of the close relationship she has formed with my partner, even as my relationship with him has deteriorated. Huddled at the kitchen table, talking in whispers, a clearing of throats and sudden silence when I’d enter the room. Conspiracy, it felt like. Still feels like.

Fortunately, in this moment, I am  too numb to lash out at her.  The last three weeks – the meth binge, the psychosis, the police, the involuntary commitment and the inundation with sedatives and antipsychotics have been so completely enervating, so absolutely soul-destroying, that there is no fight left in me. Finally, I am out of options, I have burned every bridge, and I am too depleted even for tears.

I redirect my gaze to the two lanes of Highway 99 as they fly by under the hood, and my hazy consciousness drifts,  fighting off the panic and despair that threaten to overwhelm me completely.  I can’t beat back the feeling that I am heading in the wrong direction, in every sense.  Literally,  figuratively, metaphorically, emotionally, physically.  The sense of failure, the sense of loss, grows with every mile that we place between this vehicle and Los Angeles…and Patrick.  But I can’t think about Patrick right now, because I know that what he is feeling at this very moment is not despair.  I am as certain as I am of anything right now that what he is experiencing is a feeling of relief.  Relief that I am now someone else’s problem, relief that he can focus on putting the building blocks of his life back together – without fear that the giant, ham-fisted toddler I’ve become will knock them over again.

Turlock gets closer with every minute and it is almost too much to comprehend that I am going back there, involuntarily, to live with my mother.  I am returning in disgrace to a place I’ve regarded with resentment and distaste for as long as I can remember.  I am broke, I am sick, and I feel like I will never be right again.  Too much has happened, too many people have been hurt, and I have disgraced and debased myself far beyond the human spirit’s capacity to heal.  It feels as if I am being driven to my own death, and the greatest sadness I feel is the knowing that death probably won’t come, that I might actually have to live through whatever it waiting for me at the end of this drive.

I’ve learned over the last few years that even death doesn’t take me seriously: I’ve courted it, pleaded for it, smoked, slammed, fucked and sucked my way  towards it.  I’ve fallen into comas on it’s doorstep, but have always been pulled back at the last minute by some intervention, some quirk of circumstance: Patrick arrive home a moment before the flatline, a crack team of paramedics, a skilled surgeon, or the simple genetic factor of a former runner’s horse-strong heart.

I startle as I see a face in the reflection of the sunlight in the windshield, glaring at me, gently shimmering along with the light.  I close my eyes, open them again, and it is gone.  The faces have been with me for years now, watching, judging, condemning.  Always silent and vaguely malevolent, they have stared back at me from mirrors and other reflective surfaces.  Gradually, over the years of my methamphetamine use, these faces have grown more threatening, and have slowly become more three-dimensional, more solid in form, often half-human, half-animal.  Recently, I have begun to hear them whispering to me. Urging me to suicide, reaffirming my worthlessness, heartily concurring that I have no good reason for which to live.  The antipsychotics dished out in the mental ward over the past couple of weeks – the Seroquel, the Risperdal – successfully diminish these apparitions and their voices, but have not eradicated them completely. 

The drive continues in silence, and at some point I fall asleep, lulled into slumber by the continued monotony of the landscape.

I wake up when the vehicle stops, three hours later, and I realize we are home.  More precisely, we are at my mother’s house, the house I grew up in and which I still reflexively refer to as home even though I’ve not lived there for over 20 years. I silently vow that I will never, ever make the mistake of calling this place home. Home is the house in Mount Washington, home is the house where my dogs Jane and Steve and Sherman live.

As she turns off the ignition, my mother looks over at me, and she makes an obvious attempt to mask her concern with an overenthusiastic smile.

“We’re here,” she says, a little too brightly.

“Yup,” I reply grimly, looking away from her and back at the green, nondescript tract house.

“I know your brother is looking forward to seeing you,” she almost chirps, a cartoon Disney bluebird terribly out-of-place in this sordid pulp fiction reality.

structurally, the house is exactly as it has always been, since it was built in 1976.  The contents have changed over the years, walls repainted, floors re-laid, but the essence of this house and the people, situations and emotions it held are still stunningly intact.  The presence of my father, who was divorced from my mother years ago and has since moved to Louisiana, is still apparent in the some of the disturbingly bad Do It Yourself work.  Small things – crooked bookshelves, an unevenly tiled bathroom floor – still provide stark evidence of his apparent inability to wield a level or read a tape measure correctly.

My younger brother, Rob, greets me in the living room.  He and his fiancé have temporarily moved back in with my mother while they save money to buy a house, converting the two-car garage into a large living space.  His welcome is almost too cheerful, as if he’s been practicing it in the mirror to make it sound convincing. I study his eyes, and I discern immediately that the figurative “Golden Boy” sash I’d worn for so many years is no longer just stained and frayed, but has vanished completely.  I have always been the one in the family who tried everything, and succeeded at most of it. I was the individualist, the non-conformist, the sexual adventurer, the one who shared  exciting stories of a life lived without fear or provincial, prudish limitations.

Now, I am the sick one, the jobless one; the one who makes our mother cry.

My almost-two-decades parole from this place – my own personal hell –  has been rescinded , and it is time to begin paying for my sins.

You Are The Light: sober musical interlude #5

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

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

I am so grateful today.

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

 

I Love You, Jonathan Bierner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, Jonathan.

http://jonathanbierner.com

Dear Kira

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

a and p equalityDear Kira,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Uncle Andy

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

Demons Who Drank With Me: Sober Musical Interlude #4

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

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

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

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

Give it a listen (lyrics below):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life and Death at Three Thirty Three

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

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

“I need a favor,” he says.

“What is it?”

Mike and me, parasailing on Maui, May 1995

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

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

Now, Mike is calling from his hospital bed.

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

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

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

“What?” I ask, confused.

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

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

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

“I’m on it, Mike. I’m going now.”

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

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

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

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

Genhos

Rochester General Hospital

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

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

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

“Just some nurses,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up. Of course I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

“Do I have your business card yet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

gsh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

me and mike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three thirty three.

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

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

Sober Musical Interlude #3

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

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

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

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

Machete, Moonlight, Madness: part two

methface

(Continued from part one.)

The two uniformed cops are engaged in conversation with Patrick, and before I enter the house I discard the machete in the flower bed beside the door, vaguely recalling a news story about an LAPD officer who had shot and killed a homeless man who had approached him wielding what turned out to be a cell phone. Even in this state of mental disorganization, I’m certain that entering the room carrying a two-foot long machete would be ill-advised.

All eyes turn and fix on me, and I immediately realize what has happened.  Patrick has summoned them while I was ranting on the gazebo roof, and the brief flash of hope – that they have been called to help repel the invasion of the tree people – is dispelled as soon as I read the expression on their faces. Caution and wariness.  They’re here to take me away, I brilliantly intuit, and though I’m starting to panic, I work hard to prevent it from showing.   I’ve practiced for years the art of appearing normal when high, and have become very good at it, able to fool Patrick, friends and even employers with relative ease. Well, for short periods of time, anyway.

Surprisingly, the officers, both men, one Caucasian and the other Hispanic, seem kind.

They motion me over calmly, and I move into the living room, shooting a look of angry betrayal at Patrick, who looks away, his face stony.

“Listen, Andrew,” the Hispanic one begins. “I understand you’re using meth,” and his voice surprisingly devoid of judgment. “Is that true?”

I nod, understanding somehow that this is not the time to discuss the tree people and their threats.  I’ve tried many times to convince others of their existence, to no avail, and there is a part of me that understands that this would certainly be yet another futile attempt.  The objective at the moment is to keep them from taking me away, and I work hard at appearing calm and reasonable.

“Your partner believes you’re a danger to yourself at the moment,” he continues, and out of the corner of my eye I observe a leafy, shadowy creature through the front window, slithering closer to the glass for a better view. I sense that the army outside the house is reveling in my predicament.  I am trapped: to say something, to implore them to take a closer look at the trees and bushes, will cement the certainty that I will be leaving with these policemen.

“I’m not a danger to…” I begin, but the officer interrupts me.

“You have two choices,” he says.  “Either we take you and bring you to County, or you agree to go to the hospital with your partner.”  His tone makes it clear that argument or negotiation are not options.

“And believe me, you don’t want to go to County,” he finishes.

My jaw, already speed-clenched, tightens even further as I struggle to maintain composure.  I look angrily, in turn, at Patrick, my mother, and finally my sister, trying to convey with my eyes the betrayal I am now feeling.

I agree to allow Patrick to take me to a hospital.

“Good. Make sure we don’t have to come back here again, because next time I won’t give you a choice”.  His voice is surprisingly gentle, but it is clear he means what he says.

badge_LAPDThe cop turns to Patrick and says simply, “good luck.”   Patrick thanks them, and they leave.  I watch them, illuminated by the front porch light, as they descend the front stairway. They are completely oblivious to the stock-still creatures staring down at them from the trees and from behind bushes only a few feet away.  Though far from happy, I am relieved that the cops have left without major incident.  The many episodes of “Cops” that I have watched, juxtaposed with the relative mercy they have shown me,  causes me to wonder momentarily if they recognized Patrick, and whether his minor celebrity status has just saved me a trip to the county jail.  This kind of thing has happened before, but in more genial circumstances: wink, wink, here’s an upgrade to first class, wink wink, these drinks are on the house.  As vile as the concept may be, and as embarrassing as I usually find this kind of treatment, i’m grateful if this, in fact, is what has just happened.

Less than fifteen minutes later, I am in the back of our Honda CRV.   The walk to the car was torturous, as the tree people watched from the shadows and gloated at my situation.  “Got you again!” was their unspoken message.  As the car backs out of the driveway, my irritation at being forced into this unwelcome journey is overshadowed by the relief of escaping, if temporarily, the terrible monsters, who have congregated on the front embankment of the hillside for a clear view of the departing vehicle.

The ride to Huntington Hospital in Pasadena takes less than 15 minutes, the traffic on the 110 freeway surprisingly light.  I am fairly composed, all things considered, and my gaze is directed out the window into the darkness of the arroyo as it rushes by on my right.  I am fidgety from the speed, but remain silent for the duration of the ride.

We arrive, pulling into the concrete parking structure adjacent to the emergency room entrance.  Patrick pulls the car into the first available space and removes the keys from the ignition.  After everyone is out of the car, and before Patrick can lock it, I jump back inside and use the automatic door locks to seal myself in.. Patrick hits the unlock button on his keychain, and I push the lock button. Lock, unlock, lock, unlock, lock, unlock…this goes on for quite a while, and like a horrible child I just smile as his face grows more red by the moment. I can almost see cartoon steam emanating from his ears. Eventually, my timing is thrown off and he wins, the door is open, and we are yelling at each other.  Afraid to go home, where the tree people and the police wait for me, I loudly, and quite ludicrously, demand to be driven to a hotel.

It only takes a moment for our yelling, and the intermingled semi-hysterical shouting of my sister and mother, to attract the attention of two security guards, who run towards us.

“hey! Hey! What’s going on?”  they demand angrily, their faces scanning each of ours, trying to make sense of the situation.

Without preamble, Patrick points to me and says, “He’s on crystal meth.”

20090213_062940_SV14-CITRUSLAYOFFS3I offer no resistance as I am escorted through the garage, up a walkway and through the automatic emergency room doors, flanked by guards who grip my biceps roughly. The guards stay by me as Patrick informs the intake nurse of the situation and provides them with my insurance information.  She looks over at me, and as with the police, I expect judgment, but her thoughts are inscrutable.  This is not true of the guards who continue to glare at me with blatant mistrust and a fair amount of “go ahead, try something” bravado.  Although I’ve become accustomed to being looked at this way, a small shimmer of shame flows through me as I realize every pair of eyes in this comically crowded waiting room is fixed on me.

I steal a glance at Patrick, and he looks exhausted.  Our eyes meet for a moment, and then he looks away.  I flash back to previous emergency room visits, long before this nightmare began.  I think of our second date, 9 years ago, when I suffered an unfortunately-timed kidney stone attack (which I first thought was horrible gas pains, and I was completely humiliated), and he escorted me to the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai.During that visit, he held my hand as I endured wave after wave of excruciating pain, telling me to hang on, coaching me to breathe through it, and finally, hilariously, resorting to improvising a short song about kidney stones in a somewhat successful attempt to distract me. I had fallen in love with him then. Part of it was the humor – I’d never dated anyone so quick-witted and funny before (well, okay…there WAS Kevin, but I’d predictably torpedoed that with my infidelity, after which he’d done the right thing and excised himself from my life years before), and so…empathetic? His big green-blue eyes and quirky bright red hair made it seem like I had my own magical, guardian angel/ leprechaun watching over me and keeping me safe.

“Nicastro?” a voice calls out, and I look up to see a nurse with a clipboard scanning the room.

“Nicastro?” a voice calls out, and I look up to see a nurse with a clipboard scanning the room.

“Right here!” Patrick responds..too loudly…in my stead, getting to his feet more quickly than I do.

The security guards scrutinize me as I follow the nurse through a set of double doors, and to my great relief, they do not follow. Perhaps grateful to pass the torch of my guardianship off to professionals, Patrick also remains in the waiting room.  The emergency ward itself is a long, wide corridor of frenzied activity, and it is clear that there has been a lot of misfortune this evening.  An unseen baby screams out in angry pain, and nurses and orderlies hustle in all directions, trying to avoid collision.  I am led to and deposited in a small, sterile room to the right.  It contains only two plastic chairs and a compact countertop with medical supplies stacked neatly on it – swabs, cotton pads, a stack of green, kidney-shaped plastic bowls.

Before she leaves, the nurse affixes a small, opaque plastic bracelet to my left wrist.  I don’t bother to read the words written on it.

“Someone will be in shortly,” she says, and departs.

Amazingly, I am alone.

rite aid parking lot night magical-1

I sit slumped in the chair, my jaw working itself, teeth grinding slightly from the speed, and try to figure out what my next move will be.  What will I tell the doctor when he arrives?  Will I go to jail?  This is my first encounter with real authority while using, and I am absolutely unsure of the consequences of admitting that I have been smoking the drug.

Half an hour crawls by, and I’m still alone. Sitting still is hard for me under the best of circumstances, doing so in full tweak mode is next to impossible.  I pace the room, occasionally stealing a glance into the hallway through the door’s small glass window.  I shove my hands into the pockets of my cargo pants and my right hand brushes something at the bottom.  I retrieve it: it is the packet of crystal I had placed there earlier in the afternoon.  I have completely forgotten about it, and my initial joy upon discovering it is quickly replaced by concern.  Being high in a hospital examination room may not earn one a trip to the county jail, but being high AND in the possession of illegal drugs certainly would.
My immediate thought is to hide the bag, to secrete it in the room somewhere before the doctor arrives, but before I can act on this, my addict instincts kick in and I decide that I want to use some. Now.  I come to a decision quickly, and I move decisively, opening the door to the small room and stepping out into the hallway.  I try my best to look relaxed, and walk left, in the opposite direction of the waiting room, where I assume Patrick, my mother and my sister are still waiting.

I turn corner after corner, trying to assume the confident step of someone who belongs, who might actually even work there.  It takes a few minutes, but after pushing through several sets of double doors at the end of several different hallways, I walk outside onto a deserted loading dock.

I’m free.

end part two (of three)

Sober Musical Interlude #2

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

My Jesus Looks Like Jean-Paul Belmondo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

%d bloggers like this: