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SCARLOVER

Already using meth again, while carrying around my anti-biotic dispenser. Addiction: Cunning, baffling, powerful.

Already using meth again, while carrying around my anti-biotic dispenser. Addiction: Cunning, baffling, powerful.

Ugly inside of me
Taught me of beauty
I wouldn’t trade that work of art
for all the silk of perfect skin…
i’m a scarlover too
and I’m full of scars like you
– Maria Mckee, “Scarlover”

I stare at it in the bathroom mirror, using the back of my hand to clear the fog from the glass. It stares back at me: a slight, pink vertical line starting just below my navel and disappearing into the unruly thatch of pubic hair, where it continues for another inch or so, invisible save for periods when I’ve been a little over-enthusiastic with my manscaping chores.

My scar.

Or, more accurately, one of my scars.

I have several, each one a pockmarked or discolored reminder that I was once a daily user of crystal methamphetamine. There’s the small depression near my chin, nearly invisible now thanks to regular injections of Juvaderm to plump up the crater. I can still see it, though, and each time I shave I am reminding of the weekend I spent holed up in my bedroom, smoking crystal meth and trying to ignore the gradually increasing chin-itch that seemed to come out of nowhere. Within hours it had blossomed into an inflamed lump resembling an engorged and angry zit. The next twenty-four hours were spent squeezing it, compressing it, scratching at it – trying to express the contents – to no avail. The lower right side of my face burned and swelled so large there was no longer any definition between my jaw line and my neck. I pressed bag after bag of frozen peas against the hot skin, seeking relief. I continued to smoke my meth pipe, though, and by the time I sought medical help and learned it was a MRSA (staph) infection, the damage had been done.

There are also several dime-shaped patches on my left thigh that refuse all attempts at tanning, also the result of a staph infection I left untreated for far too long, picked up repeatedly from my drug dealer’s sheets, those times I traded sex for drugs in his filthy, worst-episode-of-hoarders-ever apartment. Repeated hospitalizations and IV Vancomycin treatments (the “antibiotic of last resort,” my doctor called it) were required to bring the MRSA super-bug into submission. Yet, each time the infection would be vanquished, while the abscess would still be healing, I’d score more meth and continue my marathon of self-destruction.

The Juvaderm and time have faded these scars perceptibly, and though they are reminders of a past that I do not, as we say in recovery “wish to shut the door on,” they are my lesser scars that are very rarely commented on by others.

It’s the stomach scar that remains the greatest reminder of my life of addiction, the most profound physical memento of a life lived selfishly, a life not worth living at all, a life that were it not for the grace of God and the love of those who were still able to love me when I most needed it, would have been extinguished long ago.

When I was still relatively new to using meth, just before entering my second stint at rehab at Glendale Adventist Alcohol and Drug Services, my appendix ruptured. Being high on meth constantly, however, dulled any warning pain I should have felt. Instead, I entered rehab filled with shit not only metaphorically, but literally. As the toxins from my intestines seeped into my bloodstream, I developed headaches of increasing intensity, reaching a point where any source of light would bring me to near blindness and induce excruciating, head-crushing pain. My inability to focus, my temper exacerbated by physical agony, I was eventually asked to leave due to a pain-induced verbal outburst I directed at the head of the facility.

It took several more days after leaving to be diagnosed, and incorrectly at that. I was given a spinal tap, and meningitis was discovered. I was hospitalized, antibiotic treatments were begun. Late at night, my first night at Huntington Memorial in Pasadena, I began to feel feverish. My stomach, which oddly had not given me much pain at all until this point, began to swell, harden, and turn a deep shade of blue. Peritonitis had set in, the ruptured appendix having gone completely unnoticed until this point. I was rushed into surgery with a 104 degree fever, and my family was told there was a chance I would not survive.

I did survive, obviously.  I remember the surgeon standing over me in the recovery room, telling Patrick that after removing my internal organs from my abdominal cavity, it had taken six liters of fluid to clean the toxic sludge from them. I discerned a look of disgust on his face as he said this, and to this day am not sure if he was disgusted by the procedure, or by me, this filthy meth addict whose filthy insides he had just been forced to root around in for several hours.

I came to suspect the latter, as the wound began to heal. He had done a piss-poor job at sewing me up, though in more charitable moments I’m willing to forgive him since the surgery was unplanned, and of course, because it saved my life. In less spiritually evolved moments,  I hate him for his brutal handiwork: an incision that looked like it had been done with a bottle opener, and rough stitching that appeared to have been done using packing twine, creating the appearance of a dress shirt with one of the lower buttons in the wrong hole.

It’s faded somewhat over the last ten years, of course, but it still troubles me. Sometimes I shudder, it appears so grotesque to me. When I point it out to people, usually when I catch them noticing it, they invariably tell me it’s not nearly as bad as I think it is, yet I rarely believe them.

I stared at it again this morning, this twelve-year old scar, reaching down and pulling the bisected sides of my lower belly taut, re-creating the flat, smooth stomach of my  pre-addiction years, the sliced-in-two abdomen that no amount of dieting or sit-ups will ever be able to fully flatten and smooth again. Many times, I’ve contemplated cosmetic surgery to enhance its appearance. I have always discarded the idea, eventually.

Because underneath the revulsion, another feeling usually surfaces, pushing the revulsion aside, at least temporarily. It’s a feeling instigated by my program of recovery, a feeling I rarely had regarding much in my life, even with the multitude of blessings that have always surrounded me, even in my darkest hours: gratitude.

I’m grateful I survived.

I’m grateful to understand that I have never been perfect, I never will be perfect, and that perfect is no longer an ideal I need to strive for.

I grateful I’m alive.

I’m grateful to be surrounded by love and friends and family. My days are spent helping others dealing with far more pressing issues than the vanity of looking good in a swimsuit. I have God in my life, I wield love with the same passion I once wielded a glass pipe, and I am so very grateful for every bleak moment of my addiction, because having lived in darkness for so long, I am uniquely qualified to help others find their way out of it, too.

I can point to my scar, this souvenir from my trip to hell, and I can talk to others about where addiction took me. I can then speak to how recovery saved me.

At this moment, as I write this, I am grateful even for my scar.

Take me with all of my beautiful scars
I love you the way that you are
I come to you with all my flaws
With all my beautiful scars
With all my beautiful scars
Love me with all of my flaws
My beautiful scars 

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That Thing Called Hope

40491_galThe first time I attempted suicide I was eleven years old.

I took a swig from a bottle of Mr. Clean, scrambled under my bed with my mother in pursuit, and refused to come out despite the intense burning in my throat.  My uncle, who lived next door, was called over and forcibly pulled me out, kicking and screaming. Obviously, I did not die, only scorched my esophagus a bit.

The last time I attempted suicide was in 2009. I swallowed every pill in our house, ate a large quantity of crystal meth, and washed it down with a bottle of some kind of alcohol. My husband returned home, found me in our bed covered in blood and vomit, and called the paramedics who arrived in time to get me to a hospital, where I awakened hours later with a tube down my throat and my thighs coated with shit and the charcoal that had been pumped into my stomach to absorb the poisons.

There were, between these two attempts, quite a few others…some closer to successful than others. Bags over my head, GHB or crystal meth ingested in mass quantities, and one lame attempt involving a wooden gazebo beam and a cheap extension cord completely ill-suited to the task.

The truth, however, is that I never really wanted to die, exactly. I just didn’t want to go on living. 

“Suicide is such a selfish act,” say callous cunts all over the internet, completely unaware of the pain living in such unrelenting darkness engenders.  What they  don’t understand is that often, suicide feels more like a selfless act to those who are contemplating it. We who have witnessed the constant stress and anguish our depression has foisted onto the lives of our loved ones often believe, whilst in the deepest of our despair, that removing ourselves from this thing called life could only benefit those who suffer because of us.  A couple of years of grief, I would think, and then my loved ones could move on with life without the constant worry, anxiety and grief I was causing them. They’d be sad for a while, of course, but could then finally begin to get on with their own lives. Suicide often felt like the kindest thing I could do for them.

During most of my 13 year battle with addiction, I felt hopeless far more than I ever felt hopeful. I would do what was suggested in my program of recovery, following direction to the letter: being of service, going to meetings, working the program that was prescribed and that was said to set me on what was referred to as a road to happy destiny. It would work, for a while. I’d feel something like hope, if not hope exactly. Perhaps it was hope that I might eventually feel hope. No matter how hard I threw myself into recovery, no matter how hard I worked (particularly during the last two years, when I attacked my program with a fierce determination), I could not sustain any kind of joy.  One day, I’d be feeling that thing close to hope, I’d be working with other addicts, I’d be praying my ass off, and I’d go to bed thinking that tomorrow would be even better if I continued doing what I was doing.

Then, out of the blue, I’d wake up with those feelings of despair washing over me, almost unable to get out of bed. I’d lie there, trying to figure out what had changed during the brief eight hours i’d been sleeping, and couldn’t find anything that could account for this sudden re-immersion in misery. And the suicidal ideation would return, stronger than ever. I’d plan out my demise, carefully: a trip to Target to purchase a helium container in their party section, then a trip to Home Depot for plastic bags, zip ties and rubber tubing.   Then, thoughts of my mother, of my husband, and the pain my death would cause them would force me to push those feelings aside, at least temporarily. I’d get a better idea: crystal meth. And it almost always worked, at least in the short term, before the insanity of that drug would send me spinning into the abyss of paranoia and delusion. So, as ludicrous as this statement might sound, I honestly believed crystal meth saved my life countless times. Of course, it progressively diminished the quality of my life in the process, but it did short-circuit the “kill myself now ” impulse rather effectively.

Six months ago, I finally found a therapist and a psychiatrist who actually listened to me, which can be a rare thing in this age of candy-dispensing, throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks brain pharmacology.  After a full hour of listening to my personal history, my psychiatrist announced, “you are clearly bi-polar, type one. Sometimes it’s difficult to diagnose, but in your case, it’s pretty obvious.”  I suppose that non-bipolar people don’t attempt suicide at age 11, and at least once every five years for the next 39 years.  Non-bipolar people don’t, i’ve learned, hallucinate even without the assistance of drugs. Non-bipolar folk don’t necessarily work for three days straight without sleeping (I just thought I had an amazing work ethic.)

Lamictal200mgTabletI was put on a medication called Lamictal, a mood stabilizer, and within a week my life began to change. I could think clearly. I slept deeply, my brain’s chronic mania reduced to a tolerable level. I no longer flew into rages over perceived slights or minor inconveniences. Best of all, I no longer saw the shadow people who had been a part of my life since childhood, and became omnipresent and terrifying when crystal meth entered my bloodstream. Calm. I have moments of pure calm, and I have not woken up to debilitating despair once in the past six months. I still feel sadness, when appropriate, and great joy when also appropriate. But the constant back-and-forth, up-and-down patterns i’d been dealing with for as long as I can remember seem to be a thing of the past, and for the first time in my entire life I know what hope feels like.

Because I’m not constantly battling mania or depression, I’ve been able to work a consistent program of recovery. And it’s been stunningly easy. I used to look at other alcoholics and addicts who had acquired significant sober time and think, “how the fuck do you do that?”  Now I understand how. “When someone is happy ” says my therapist Larry, “they don’t feel the need to use drugs.”  Yes, it was that simple.

Today, I read that Robin Williams committed suicide by asphyxiation, the method I held in reserve for my next attempt should it become necessary. I am heartbroken.

A man who has brought so much light, love and laughter into the world is gone, a victim of mental illness. That he was also in recovery, and that I have frequently been mistaken for this comedy legend (I don’t see a resemblance, personally) only makes this news so much harder to bear.

It also resurrects a feeling of anger I’ve been harboring regarding the rooms of recovery.

For years, I’ve heard recovered addicts and alcoholics (primarily old-timers, or members of more regimented groups), state from podiums that psychiatric medications should be considered a relapse. “I don’t take ANYTHING that affects me from the neck up,” they pontificate with cocksure pride in their ability to live a perfectly happy life, any psychological problems they may be facing cured miraculously by the wonders of their program.

Fuck you, I say. Fuck you hard, you fucking fucker.

This kind of talk is not only dangerous, it can be construed as attempted murder in my book.  Too many people…in recovery and out….already fear the stigma of mental illness, and resist diagnosis.

Magnifying that stigma by advising impressionable newcomers not to take psychiatric medication is deadly hubris, and I don’t doubt that these arrogant – if well-meaning – program purists have been the cause of innumerable suicides during the course of the many years the recovery program I use has existed.

Anyone who advocates against psychiatric medication in recovery has clearly never experienced the utter black hopelessness of real depression. I’m sure they’ve felt deep sadness at times, but that is a very different experience.

I don’t know if Robin Williams relapsed before deciding to end his life, I don’t know if it was depression alone that caused him to act, and I don’t know if….as a long-time member of the recovery community – he subscribed to the “no psych meds” bullshit edict.

But if this hilarious, troubled, talented human being WAS told that psych meds constituted a relapse, someone, somewhere…perhaps multiple someones…have blood on their hands.

My program is one that emphasizes compassion, love and tolerance of others.  I try to be kind to everyone, I see myself in every other struggling alcoholic and addict, and I help to the best of my ability.  However, the next time I hear someone share the anti-psych med position from a podium, I will not remain silent. My  share that will follow will be direct, it will be blistering, and it will contain the phrase “attempted murder.” I’ve lost too many friends to suicide in the last few years to tolerate this bullshit anymore.  If you’re reading this, and you disagree with me, at least consider yourself warned. Unless you’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness, you have no right to tell others to avoid life-saving medications, just as anyone without a uterus has no right to an opinion on the use of birth control pills.

My psychiatric medications do not supplant my program of recovery, they simply make it possible for me to work that program that also saves my life on a daily basis. It levels the playing field for me.

Because I still see so much shame regarding mental illness of any kind, I wear my dual-diagnosis (addiction and mental illness) status with pride in the rooms of recovery. Stigma kills. Psychiatric medication saves lives.

Happier than I’ve ever been in my entire life, I’m living proof of that.

 

Dark Days and Coral Sands

“I’d like a single room.  Upstairs, if possible.”

The desk clerk, a thin, pale man with shoulder length, scraggly hair rose from the chair behind the counter and moved toward me.

“I’ll need your driver’s license,  and also the plate number from your car if you’re parked in our lot,” he said..

I fished my license out of wallet and handed it to him, and he began punching my information into a computer.

“How many nights?”

“Two.”

I was flying pretty high, and my hands had trembled when I had handed him my license, small beads of sweat dotting my forehead and upper lip.  I avoided eye contact, and instead pretended I was surveying the small lobby: tiled floor, small rattan couch with flowered padding, two dusty plastic Ficus trees in the corners.  Having been here many times before, there really was nothing new to learn from looking around the room.  I turned and focused my gaze through the glass front doors, watching traffic stream by on Western avenue.

“Okay, sign here” he said. “And put your license plate number here.  That’ll be 145 dollars for the two nights.”

I turned back to face him, scratching my signature onto the small card he was proffering.  I added the license plate number of my white Ford Explorer, and handed it back to him along with my credit card.

He punched some more information into the computer, and then produced a small white keycard.

“I put you in room 233,” he said, handing my credit card back to me.

“Great. Thanks,” I said, and offered a smile that my muscles made but my mind didn’t feel, then hoisted my backpack onto my shoulder and turned towards the door on the left.  A moment before I reached it, the clerk pressed a button and the door automatically unlatched. I gripped the knob, turned it, and walked through into Tweakerland.

223449_130214153725943_STDThe Coral Sands hotel sits on a long, deep lot situated on busy Western Avenue in Hollywood, just north of Hollywood Boulevard.  Its two-story, brick façade has only one notable design feature: the  six white columns that support a faux lattice-railed sundeck running the length of the top of the structure.  These columns have the look of a design afterthought, giving the Coral Sands the appearance of an institutional building trying, and failing miserably, to look like a plantation house.   Sandwiched between two large, bland stucco apartment complexes, it is relatively unknown to the general Los Angeles population, although it has stood here for decades,  sixty rooms filled to capacity on any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday night.

Amongst the L.A. gay community, however, the Coral Sands is infamous..

The hotel has long walked a duplicitous line in terms of marketing, advertising itself as a “semi-resort.”  Its website describes  “sixty spacious rooms surrounding a landscaped private courtyard, swimming pool, Jacuzzi, daily maid service, direct dial telephone and color televisions.  All of this is true, and the grounds of the Coral Sands are actually rather lovely, well manicured, with palm trees and blankets of flowering Bougainvillea filling the long, deep courtyard, which is lined on all four sides by two stories of rooms.  The pool, though small, is sparking blue, and the Jacuzzi, situated dead center, is large.  Everything in this sunny, tropical themed courtyard  speaks of diligent maintenance.

It is however, what goes unsaid on the website that makes the Coral Sands notable.  This establishment may call itself a “semi-resort,” but almost every gay man in Los Angeles knows that this place is, crude as it may sound, is a drug and fuck den, the establishment equivalent of a skid-row crack whore masquerading as a librarian.

771I walked into the sun-filled courtyard, taking in the lushness of my surroundings.  A few men lay on the chaise lounges that flanked the pool, wearing either towels or small.. too-small… speedos. As part of the attempt to make the hotel appear respectable, small signs expressly forbade nudity in the courtyard.  This made little difference, however, since a quick scan of the rows of rooms lining it revealed men standing just inside their rooms, fully naked, peering out and shooting glances of invitation to those outside or standing in other doorways. A small parade of men, some dressed, some with towels around their waists,  slowly made their way around the walkways on both levels, occasionally stopping at an open door, sometimes entering, sometimes stopping to watch whatever spectacle was taking place inside, and sometimes moving on.

I found my room on the second floor, entered and closed the door behind me, securing the safety latch.  Tossing my backpack on the bed, I went into the small bathroom and splashed some cold water on my face, then filled one of the small plastic cups with tap water and drank it down, knowing that hydration is an oft-neglected requirement of extended meth-use sessions. I returned to the room.

2462331For all the implied luxury evident in the courtyard, the rooms of the Coral Sands were decidedly Spartan.  Grey, industrial grade carpet, mismatched wall hangings, and  garish, blue-grey swirled patterned bed covering.  Stiff, bland curtains covered the large window overlooking the courtyard, a small mini-fridge in the corner, an ancient wall-unit air conditioner.  A chipped veneer table and two chairs with worn orange padding in front of the window.  An equally distressed night table sporting cigarette burns next to the bed. A smallish TV mounted to the wall near the ceiling, a long mirror mounted at on the wall at bed level.  The air was redolent with stale cigarette smoke and  some disinfectant cleaning product.  There were no non-smoking rooms at the Coral Sands Hotel.

There had been a time in my life, not so long ago, when I had regarded this place with disdain.  “Coral Sands” had existed in my lexicon as a punch line, synonymous with losers and the truly pathetic.  “He probably lives at the Coral Sands,” I’d say in regards to a particularly lecherous person hitting on me at a bar, and my friends would laugh.  We all knew what it meant, though none of us, as far I as knew, had actually been there.

Now, here I was, and rather than disgust, I felt a strange form of comfort.  In the way that derelicts gather and form community on the downtown streets of skid row, so did we, this band of tweakers and sex-addicted gay men.  The only difference is that we could still afford to shell out money to stay here, this ersatz sex-clubhouse.   Having lived with guilt and shame and self-loathing for so long now,  being in a place with others just like myself provided a sense of peace, a judgement-free zone.  Here, I could indulge my addiction with impunity, I could lock the world outside, and I could do what I did best: get high.

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Tweaker

Opening my backpack, I pulled out my swimsuit, then quickly stripped my clothes off.  I studied my body in the mirror, liking what I saw.  The speed had meticulously chiseled away all the excess fat from my body, which tended towards stockiness, and the muscles underneath were revealed, chiseled in a way that only speed, steroids or starvation were capable of.   A few speed bumps – angry red welts – dotted my thighs and my forearms, but I wasn’t too concerned about these, since most committed tweakers got them and there was little judgement from others about these blemishes.  Also, I had taken to packing a cover-up stick with me wherever I went.  It is a by-product of heavy meth use, and the euphoric, disjointed, distortion of perception, that I could look in that mirror and not be horrified by what was truly reflected back at me.  Years later, I would look at photos of myself from that time, shocked to see how I really appeared.  I weighed no more than 155 lbs (I had weighed 165 in high school), the skin of my face hollow and sagging from the precipitous weight loss, my eyes bloodshot and filled with some indefinable emptiness, as if they were looking not at the camera, but through it and past it.  At the time, though, I honestly thought I looked good.

Sitting cross-legged on the bed, I pulled my stash from the side pocket of the back pack, laying out the almost complete 8-ball, the thick stemmed glass pipe and the butane torch on the night stand.  I fished around and found the refill canister of butane and placed it in the drawer.

After several deep, thick hits from the pipe, I got up, grabbed a stiff, scratchy towel from the bathroom, and exited the room to join the slow parade of the undead.

———————

It is dark now, a day later,  and I have spent the previous hours hooking up with numerous men of all description.  When I’m using, I don’t have a “type”….the two requirements being that they are not physically repulsive and that they are also tweaking.   Another preference is that they have their own stash of drugs, as sharing allows my own party to continue for a longer period of time.  At the Coral Sands, there are enough candidates who match these fairly low standards to keep me busy for days on end.

I am sitting, nude and cross-legged, on the bed.   A man, close to my own age, also unclothed, sits across from me.   He is thin, though not as thin as I, his muscles almost comically defined.  His fairly handsome head is shaved, and tattoos litter his body.  I am leaning forward, holding the torch to the glass bowl he is inhaling from.  I don’t know his name, and frankly, don’t care.

“Roll it,” I say.

He gently rolls the bowl back and forth, the liquefied meth sloshing gently inside the glass bubble.

When I’m sure he his lungs are full, I pull the torch back, and turn it off, set it down at my side.   I lean in towards him, and he immediately recognized the gesture and obliges me by putting his mouth and against mine and exhaling the vapor into my mouth, which I suck down into my lungs.  Our faces stay pressed together, and when I can no longer hold it, I release it back into his mouth, his lungs.  This ritual, called shotgunning, continues for a few more inhale/exhales until there is no more to share.

torchwood-gay-scene-3 copyThe pipe carefully set aside….god knows the number of glass pipes I’ve broken by stepping or rolling onto them…we move towards each other and begin giving in to the sexual firestorm that the speed has ignited.  Our bodies writhe against one another, gripping, stroking, humping, our skin wet with speed sweat and hot to the touch.  It is all-consuming, this kind of sex, so much different from the act that normal people call “lovemaking,” so much different from the kind of sex I remember once having.  There is no love here, obviously, only two men reduced to the status of rutting animals, each aware only of his own twisted desires, yet chemically duped into feeling as if we’d known each other forever.

His hand slides down my back, and he asks, his voice guttural, “do you get fucked?”

“No,” I reply, reaching back and moving his hand away from my ass.

“No,” in this instance, means “not by you, not now.”

Although I had been almost ludicrously hell-bent on self-destruction for several years now, three suicide attempts and numerous overdoses to my credit, I still retained a primal fear of AIDS.  Yes, it was true that there were many times I wanted to die, to end this fucking nightmare that seemed to go on and on.  But I certainly didn’t want to die THAT way.  I’d watched too many friends in the eighties and nineties succumb to the horrible plague, and even in moments of the most clouded judgement, I’d tried to exercise some basic precautions against infection. The fact that even minus the HIV virus I was currently emaciated, spotted with sores and addled by recurring drug-induced psychosis didn’t occur to me.  I wasn’t going to die of AIDS, period.

Come on, let me fuck you”  he cajoled. “I’m negative, I promise.” There were no rubbers available, and this stranger was not going to fuck me in the ass.

“I’m negative too,” I say, “and it’s because I don’t get fucked without a condom. Sorry.”

He didn’t persist,  and I was grateful that it didn’t seem to be a deal-breaker for him.  We continued for a while, until the rush from our last hits from the pipe began to subside, at which point we disengaged and pulled back from each other, complete strangers once more.

“Want another hit?” I asked.

“I’ve got a better idea,” he said, wiping beads of sweat from his shaved head.

“Yeah?” I asked, anticipating that he was going to find an excuse to depart, having been denied his request to fuck me.

“I’ve got some G in my room,” he said instead, and grinned at me. “You want to do some?”

I’d done G – short for Gamma Hydroxybutric acid – many times before, and loved the way it made me feel.. A compound that has been used in medical settings as an anasthetic, it worked as a perfect compliment to the heady, speedy rush of the meth.  It took the already amped-up sensation of raw carnality and brought it to an altogether new level, turning the acute, frenetic hyper-awareness of tweaking into a warm, fireball of intense sensuality.

“Sure” I said.  “Would you mind bringing it back here?”

“No problem,” he said.

“And would you grab some orange juice for us to take it with?”

The Coral Sands had a small table set up near the courtyard entrance, free stale donuts and a large urn filled with orange juice.  This served the dual purpose of appearing at once as a complimentary amenity and at the same time allowing the tweaking residents of the hotel to keep their blood sugar up.  I’m sure the management of the hotel had dealt far too often with the results of meth users forgetting to eat for several days.

“Sure,” he said, wrapping his towel around his waist and slipping out the door, closing it behind him.

Alone in the room, I took the opportunity straighten out the bedcovers, which had become dislodged and disheveled.  I rinsed off quickly in the shower, soaping my body clean of the rank smell of metabolized meth, dried off quickly and went back to the bedroom to wait, half expecting the stranger to not return, knowing how easily distracted tweakers can be.

Using a remote, I flicked on the tv and perused the only channels that were offered:  three closed-circuit hardcore gay porn flicks.  Unlike Los Angeles bathhouses, the hotel, by presenting itself as a legitimate “semi-resort,” seemed unconcerned about presenting even the illusion of mandating safe sex practices.  At bathhouses: Flex, The Melrose Spa, The Hollywood Spa, signs hung on walls throughout lecturing patrons to engage in safe sex practices only.  Those engaging in unsafe practices, these signs warned, would be ejected from the premises.  Large bowls of condoms were available everywhere, each room supplied with several upon check-in.  These rules, of course, were never enforced, but at least a pretense was made.  At the Coral Sands, there were no such warnings.  The porn that played on all sixty televisions in all sixty rooms were, for the most part, the hardest of the hardcore, what is known as bareback porn in gay parlance.  No rubbers, no protection of any kind.

Two sharp knocks on the door, and the guy is back.

He is carrying a large, clear plastic Dixie cup of orange juice, and has his own backpack slung over his shoulder.

I take the juice from him, and re-distribute it evenly using the plastic cup from the bathroom.

As I stand next to the bed holding the cups, He fishes through his backpack and finds a clear plastic vial that is about the size of a small can of Red Bull, and half-filled with a clear liquid.  I’ve never seen such a large amount of G before, and make the fairly safe assumption that this guy is dealing the stuff here at the hotel.

“It’s not too strong,” he says, and I watch him measure out a dose using the bottle’s cap, dropping it into one cup of orange juice, refilling, and dropping another dose into the second cup.

I hand him his his, and use a finger to stir the juice in my own, knowing from experience how unpleasantly bitter GHB can taste.

“Cheers,” I say, and we click our plastic cups together, then down the contents in one long draught.

I climb onto the bed with him, and we hold on to each other, and wait for the ride to begin.

I am eight years old.  I walk out into the sunshine of a beautiful Long Island summer, my eight-year old legs jumping off the side porch and carrying me around to the back of the house, my playground of trees and shrubs and frogs and caterpillars and all things loved by eight year old boys everywhere.   I spend a lot of time alone, being painfully shy, and in this yard, filled with trees and shrubs and damp, dark places, I create whole fantasy worlds in which to get lost for hours on end.   I collect caterpillars, I throw bullfrogs into the swimming pool to watch them swim.  I am eight years old.

It takes about twenty minutes for the G to take effect, and I am suddenly engulfed in wave after wave of incredible warmth,  my body literally writhing with pleasure. The room grows smaller, my sense of space diminishing until my entire world is limited to what I can feel, what I can touch, what is touching me.  My eyes close, and I hang onto this stranger beside me and ride the electric current pulsing through my body, fireworks of red and orange exploding behind my closed lids.  I force my eyes open, hold them open through sheer force of will, trying to cling to consciousness.   The intial rollercoaster drop gives way for a moment, and I manage to croak:

“Not too strong…are you kidding me?”

And then the next wave hits and all I can do is groan and undulate uncontrollably.

The room, lit only by the flickering porn on the tv, suddenly begins to darken even further, and I realize that I am beginning to go under.  I panic, my body’s undulations turn into spastic jerking, trying to find purchase as I slip headlong into the darkness of the g-hole.  It is futile, and I capitulate, my small world twirling in upon itself until all is black, all is silent, and I am gone.  Absolutely gone.

praying-mantis_1886764iI am eight years old.  The back wall of our small house in Smithtown is lined with thick hedges, and because the house overhangs the basement by a few feet, a natural tunnel exists…a long, fairly dark crawlspace, basement windows on one side and thick hedge on the other, on two feet high.  This is my secret hiding place, sixty long feet of dark, east-coast humid earth through which I can crawl, exploring, fantasizing.  I am Gilligan, leading the other castaways  from the headhunters to safety through a volcanic tunnel.  I am Captain Kirk, buried alive and with only a few minutes of oxygen remaining.  I crawl, hunched over, the knees of my tough skins blackened by the moist earth and rotting leaves.  I feel safe here, in this, my first dark place.   I am eight years old.

I return to consciousness slowly, pulling myself out of the g-hole with much effort.  My body is rocking, though I don’t know why, can’t see or hear clearly enough to fully comprehend my surroundings.

My vision slowly coalesces, and mere inches from my face is the face of the stranger, this man who minutes (or was it hours?) before had been laying next to me.  Now he is on top of me.  He is IN me.

I am eight years old.  I shuffle, hunching thorugh the tunnel, approaching the sunlight at the end.  “Almost there!” I say to myself, or perhaps to Ginger, to the Professor, or to Mr. Spock.   I emerge from the overhang of the house, stand up, squinting as my eyes adjust to the sunlight.  Suddenly, I notice movenmnet on my chest.  I look down,  and see, clinging to the fabric of my white hanes t-shirt, a monster.  A praying mantis, a prying mantis of a size that only someone who grew up in the moist environs of the east coast, could appreciate.  Fully six inches long, The gargantuan creature stares up at me, waving giant pincers, its long, mottled gray body perfectly still. I try to scream, but I am too scared.  I want to run, but I know it will go with me.  I want to flick it off, but I’m terrified to touch it.  I am eight years old, and there is a monster on my chest.  I close my eyes, waving my arms about , until my mother notices, and comes out the side door and  knocks the giant insect from my chest with the bristle end of a kitchen broom. I am eight years old, and I have just met my first monster in my first dark place.

I wrench myself out from under him, confused, terrified, panicked.  It is not until I am crouched, pressed back against the headboard, pillow clutched defensively and pathetically in front of my bent knees, that I realize there are others in the room.

Two other men, naked, stand next to the bed, watching, touching themselves.  Another sits in the shabby chair by the window, smoking a cigarette.

I want to scream “I told you NO!!,” but even before it I know how ridiculous it would sound coming from a tweaker like me,  how very Meredith Baxter-Birney Lifetime Movie ridiculous.

Instead, keeping my voice measured and trying not to betray panic or distress, I simply say, avoiding any eye contact,  “I think I’m done….would you mind leaving?”

Two of the men dress, pulling on their clothes from where they had discarded them on the floor.  The other two simply wrap towels around their waists and depart, the sun from the open door pouring  into the room, blinding my drug-sensitized eyes momentarily.

It is not until they have all left, until  I am alone in room 233, that I let the panic overtake me.

I scramble from the bed and into the bathroom, turn on the shower and jump in without waiting to adjust the temperature.   I use the small bar of soap to scrub furiously between my legs, my head still pounding from the G.  I scrub myself until the small bar of disinfectant hope is fully dissolved, until dizziness overtakes me, and I slide down against the plastic wall of the small shower.  My body shaking with sobs, my mind filled with visions of Kaposi sarcoma lesions and  hollow faces wasted away by  disease.  My fear escalates as I wonder how many of those men had used me while I was unconsciousness.  And though I pray to a God I don’t yet believe in that it was only the one, I know one is enough:  I’ve absorbed the letter if not the spirit during my multiple rehab stints and am keenly aware of the grim statistics regarding HIV infection in methamphetamine users.

When the water has begun to run cold, and there are no more tears, I dry off zombie-like and go back to the room.

Kneeling next to the bed, I retrieve my backpack and find my cellphone and turn it on.   There are over 20 messages from Patrick.  I don’t listen to them, don’t want to hear the panic or disappointment in his voice.  I’ve had many messages from him of this sort, his voice trembling with either fear or anger. “Andy, where ARE you?”

I dial our home number, and he answers on the second ring.

At first, I can not speak, my crying beginning anew.  I can’t get words past the sobs.

“Andy?”  I hear Partick’s voice, sounding simultaneously relieved and angry.  Still, his voice reminds me of what I have lost, what used to be.  It reminds me of goodness and kindness, clean sheets, honesty and morality.  It reminds me that I am 39 years old, and still crawling into dark, God-less places and emerging with monsters on my chest.

My crying intensifies.

He listens, says nothing, and finally I’m able to get the words out:

“Patrick, I’m in trouble.”

Happy Birthday, Tina

I need other addicts and alcoholics.

That’s it, plain and simple.  My recovery would be nothing without the friends I’ve made in recovery; so many people who are dealing with their own struggle with sobriety, yet still take the time to counsel, care about, or simply  hug another who needs it.

Tina, on her first day of sobriety and the day our friendship began.

Tina, on her first day of sobriety and the day our friendship began.

There are people in my life who have gone to extraordinary lengths to help save my life, and I’ve spoken about them frequently on this blog: Mykee, Phillip, Rob, Jonathan, and others.

And, there is Tina.

I met Tina when she was on her very first day of recovery, and when my own sober days numbered less than thirty following a brutal relapse. I had made a rare excursion over the hill to the San Fernando valley to attend a recovery meeting I’d never been to before, and following that meeting we smoked a cigarette together and talked a bit. In an act that was completely unlike myself, particularly in that state of paranoia, I invited her to come back to my house and sit by the pool. We talked for hours, fraintically and anxiously chain-smoking in the manner of newly sober addicts and alcoholics. There was a connection, and for the first time since I’d stopped using meth I felt comfortable talking about my relapse.  In the days following that time spent by the pool, while I struggled with suicidal ideations caused by paranoid psychosis, and she battled the depression of very early sobriety, I would reach out to Tina via texts or phone calls.

sober buddies out on Melrose Ave.

sober buddies out on Melrose Ave.

She would always take those calls or return those texts, and we forged a relationship based on our common goal: sobriety. Our friendship has continued to grow with each passing day, and we’ve helped each other through a couple of very rough patches. Still, each time I see her lovely face, my heart fills with joy. This woman helped save my life, and I’ve told her this. Yet I’m not sure if she fully understands how non-hyperbolic that statement is. During those early days of texting and phone calls, I was teetering…almost hourly…between wanting to die and wanting to know how to live.  The love this young woman showed me would always push me back toward the side of hope, even when things seemed darkest. On the days when I lived in fear that this state of paranoid psychosis would never abate, I could reach out to Tina and it would calm me. She says that I helped her too, and I believe her. I only know that now, when I see her, I can not hug her or thank her enough.

Happy One Year of Recovery

Happy One Year of Recovery

11800451_10205738112986556_951461337159970238_n (2)Just a few days ago, at a sober retreat in Palm Springs, Tina celebrated 365 days of continuous sobriety. Holding that birthday cake in front of her while she blew out the candle was an honor like no other. She cried, and I cried, of course. Because in sobriety, I cry a lot. But it’s good crying. Crying because I’ve never felt the love I feel in the rooms in recovery, crying because I get to give that love back to others who are struggling. Crying because I get to watch amazing men and women like Tina rebuild their lives, watch the light come back into their eyes. I’ve watched Tina transform from an always-lovely but sometimes barely-there-at-times girl to a vibrant, strong, honest, absolutely incredible young woman who has spent the last year not only helping herself, but helping others without compunction and with the rigorous honesty that is a vital component of sobriety. I am so proud to be her friend and to be walking the road of happy destiny with her.

Tina, you may know, is also one of the common street names for my drug of choice, crystal meth.  To have been brought to my knees by one Tina – and then helped back to my feet by another – seems to be irony in it’s most delicious form.

I am so grateful for Tina and for all my friends in recovery. I am grateful for the love, the support, the hugs, the encouragement. Because (as my brilliant, dear and also incredibly supportive friend Maria sings in the following song) I can’t make it alone.

This Isn’t Everything I Am

despairToday, I have fifty days of recovery: 1,191 hours of hard-won, rigorously honest, Higher-Power driven recovery.

And yet, my disease continues to whisper inside my head, trying to shake my confidence and make me throw it all away. My disease is trying to make me believe that I am useless, and since my disease knows me so very well, it knows exactly what words to use to cause despair:

“You are a total fuck-up. You’ve never contributed anything to this world of any value. Why don’t you just give up on this recovery bullshit and go do what you do best…get loaded?”

“You’ll never have a career again. You fucking burned your last one to the ground with a goddamned butane torch, what person in their right mind would ever hire you again as a Producer? The only thing you produce is misery.”

“Jesus Christ, why are you going to all these meetings? Meetings, meetings, meetings. What a colossal waste of time. Those may work for other people, but you and I both know you’re far too fucked up for that recovery shit. It’s too late.”

“Just kill yourself. Do it now and stop prolonging the agony for all those people who love you but who would actually hate you if they really knew what goes on in that sick head of yours. You know you’re just going to end up dying alone with a needle in your arm or a pipe in your hand. Get it over with, you fucking pussy.”

I’ve done a lot of walking the last few days, taking the train out to Pasadena and traveling the five and half-mile return trek to Mount Washington by foot.  During this time, I have inadvertently done something that is required of me in the program of recovery I use, but that I’m really, really bad at: meditating.

esalen-institute A little over ten years ago, following my first stint in rehab at Glendale Alcohol and Drug Services (GAADS), I was invited by a friend to attend a three-day “mindful meditation retreat” at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, and it was an abysmal failure.  Though we arrived at the beautiful compound with the best of intentions, it soon became clear we were in way over our tiny-attention-span heads.

The first day, after eight hours of lying in a solarium doing not much more than breathing and listening to our co-participants stomachs gurgle, we were beginning to question the importance of this extremely boring activity in our lives. By the middle of day two, after suffering a bout of the church giggles following another meditator’s accidental flatulence, we were asked by the seminar leader to leave. Of course, he asked us very politely, with a serene long-haired grace that reminded me of a combination of a deadhead hippie and a trappist monk.  Still, we were mortified, if only for a few minutes. The rest of the weekend was spent goofing around naked in the hot sulfur water of the cliff side hot tubs.

So much for meditation, I thought, and washed my hands of it.

But just like with prayer, I’m beginning to understand the need for meditation in my life and in my recovery.  I’ve attempted it again, mostly in group settings, like the time on my sober group camping trip when a dozen of my cohorts and I sat silently on a fallen sequoia branch in a beautiful meadow, my friend Jonathan’s gentle voice guiding us along, encouraging us to be still, to breathe, to just be.

It was a lovely moment, but still, I remember focusing not on my breathing, but on the discomfort of the rough bark against my ass, and the fear that the giant bumblebee sniffing at the beautiful wildflowers by my feet might change its trajectory and land on my face. So I sat there, trying to shift my butt covertly and without making any noise, one eye half-open and keeping an eye on that bee, understanding the concept of the meditation but realizing no direct benefit from it.

Several days ago, my Los Angeles recovery community lost another of its own. A dear, gentle man who seemed to have it all. Multiple years of sobriety, what seemed like a successful business, physical beauty, and seemingly surrounded by love and support.

He shot himself.

I’m not sure if his suicide followed a relapse, or if despair overtook him without the aid of drugs and alcohol.

Either way, I do know one thing: that this man, who I’d spent significant amounts of time with at meetings, after meetings, at parties, and one weekend in particular at a recovery-related convention, had found himself in a place beyond hope.

It’s a place I know well, and visited recently.

It’s the place those voices in my head want me to return to, permanently.

The memory of this man, of our interactions, and the knowledge that even with years of sobriety he could find himself in a place so dark truly fucked with my already tenuous state of well-being.

My disease said to me:

“He had five years of sobriety and his disease took him. Why are you even trying to get away from me? You’re mine, you’ll always be mine, so stop fucking running and go get high.”

I was a mess inside: so sad and heartbroken over the passing of this truly beautiful and inspiring man, and so scared that…but for the grace of God…that could have been me just several weeks ago, when suicide seemed like the only way out of the paranoid, psychotic mess I found myself in.

So I did what I’ve trained myself to do: I went to a meeting.  It helped, but not much. It was good to be around other alcoholics and addicts, and someone else shared about my friend’s passing. I cried a little, then came home, still feeling out of sorts.

When those feelings jangling around in my head became too much, I knew I had to do something.

So I took a walk.

And without meaning to, I discovered a way of meditating that works for me, a way of de-clouding my brain, allowing positive thoughts and affirmations to fill my head instead of the dark whisper of my addiction.  Perhaps it’s just the endorphins, but when I arrived home that day after three hours of hoofing it across town, the angst-y fog in my head had cleared a bit.  I could focus.

pulga1952_01935 Today was my third walk in as many days. At one point, I stood on an overpass in a sort of reverie, watching the stream of traffic on the 110 freeway below me, feeling the warm sun baking my forehead, feeling very strange indeed.  After a few moments of trying to assess exactly what this feeling was, it came to me:

I felt calm.

It had been at least an hour since the screeching voice of my disease had spoken to me, and the silence was beautiful.

You are going to make it,” I told myself. “You are a valuable human being. You are kind and caring, and you deserve love and you deserve a beautiful life. A sad ending is not guaranteed, nor is a happy one. It’s up to you.”

And I believed it.

Fuck you, disease.

Even in my darkest moments, even when my disease is screaming at hurricane pitch, I am surrounded by love.  I always have been.

This is how I’m feeling now, after my three-hour meditation walk, and it feels great.

There is hope for me still, and when I quiet my mind and open my heart, it becomes almost tangible.

As the lyrics in the following song say (a song I was introduced to by my friend Rob M., yet another sober guardian angel in my life), I may be an addict, I may have caused pain, I may be in pain frequently…but that isn’t everything I am.

And in one little moment
It all implodes
But this isn’t everything you are

Breathe deeply in the silence
No sudden moves
This isn’t everything you are

Just take the hand that’s offered
And hold on tight
This isn’t everything you are

There’s joy not far from here, right
I know there is
This isn’t everything you are 

RIP, Max. You were loved by so many. I wish you could have felt it when you most needed it.

God’s Perfect Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, it helped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(God’s) Perfect love casts out fear.

Please keep me in your prayers.

The Innocent and Honest Ones

In the eighties, when I was still a rabid atheist, there was a song I used to listen to when I was feeling lost.

It was a beautiful ballad by the Irish band In Tua Nua called “The Innocent and Honest Ones.”  I’d listen to this song, often after a night of raucous, drunken debauchery (this was when alcohol was still my primary drug of choice), whatever random coupling that had just occurred only serving to intensify the constant ache of loneliness. My raging hatred towards God, dulled by countless screwdrivers, would subside for a while, and I would take in the lyrics:

“I wanna believe in you, If I can find a way

I see signs of you each and every day

You’re in the Innocent and the Honest ones

The liberators and the selfless ones

In the forests and the air they give

the few oceans where life still lives

I wanna believe in You, not corrupt institutions

You’re a feeling inside, not rules or regulations

You gave us sexuality, desire is no sin

You gave us common sense, but not in a catechism

You’re in the Innocent and the Honest Ones

In retrospect, I was a terrible atheist. One can not be angry with something one doesn’t actually believe in. So perhaps I was never truly an atheist, rather, I was just someone who was so angry at God that I chose to ignore Him, the way a fifth-grader will suddenly cold-shoulder a classmate they’ve been friends with for years over some schoolyard slight.

Yet, drunk and lonely, I found myself wanting to believe. The song encapsulated everything that I felt about religion: anger, frustration, and a belief that God…if he existed…was – to quote the song – in the innocent and the honest ones.

The problem was, I stopped feeling “innocent” around the age of eleven, thanks to the Catholic church and its policy of protecting child molesters. I certainly didn’t feel “honest,” either…by that time in my twenties I already had a closet full of secrets I’d been holding on to for years. Lies kept me safe. Lies kept me from being judged. Lies allowed me to walk around safely in a time when an admission of homosexuality could be extremely dangerous. Lies kept me from having to let anyone know how dirty, how damaged, how very sick and tainted and dark I felt inside, thanks to early exposure to hardcore pornography and the truly evil Father Oliver O’Grady.  Lying…outright or by omission…was my defense mechanism, almost reflexive at times. Every word, before it left my mouth, had to be weighed and assessed before it could be spoken to make sure it wouldn’t accidentally betray the bright, shiny, wholesome, blond and tan golden boy image I had so carefully cultivated.

And so it went, into my thirties, and into my forties. As I matured, I did learn how to be honest about things I’d lied about in the past. And when I began seeking recovery for the first time in earnest 14 months ago, I began talking honestly about my feelings and my secrets on this blog…and it was liberating.

Honesty, however, still doesn’t always come to me as quickly or as reflexively as lying does. It’s ingrained. And that lack of honesty is what aids and abets my disease of addiction.  Not just lying to you, but the lying I do to myself.  

rush_poppersLast night, I attended a recovery meeting with about 60 other recovering crystal meth addicts. These are people I have come to care about deeply over the past fourteen months, people who have supported me, loved me, even celebrated my one-year milestone of “recovery” in my backyard swimming pool.  The gentleman who shared his story last night could have been reciting my own.  He shared openly and honestly about having lied during his initial experience in recovery – how he had used amyl nitrate (a sex-enhancing inhalant, aka poppers) during the period he had claimed to be sober.  He actually made eye contact with me…and held it…while he related this information. It was disturbing, it was like he was looking into my eyes and seeing my own lies swimming inside them.

I felt horrible. I felt ashamed. I understood in that moment that I can not keep lying to myself, to others, to anyone…if I want to live. And I want to live. I want to beat this disease. I want to kick it, strangle it, wrestle it to the ground and choke it into submission, tear out its fangs and humiliate it the way it’s humiliated me.

So, I stood up and told the truth.

I told the room that during the 13 months I had claimed to be sober, I had actually used inhalants as well, despite the fact that doing so clearly constitutes a relapse in this recovery program. I had justified using them: they weren’t really a mind-altering substance (the truth: they are), they kept me from using meth, so what’s the problem? (the truth: they didn’t keep me from using meth, obviously), and I’d been using them since my early twenties and they weren’t a problem then, so why should I consider them a problem now? (the truth: then, I hadn’t found crystal meth, now meth and poppers are both inextricably tied in to the twisted relationship I have with sex).

It was, perhaps, the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. I felt dirty, I felt like I’d disappointed every person in that room, I felt exposed for the liar that I am. The liar I don’t want to be any more.

After I shared that information, I fled the room: partially because I needed to call my sobriety “guru” (euphemism required) and tell him before anyone else in that room had a chance to text or call him, and partially because I felt humiliated.

Since that admission, just last evening, I’ve received a flood of emails and texts from recovery friends telling me how “brave” I was to stand up and be honest.  I so deeply appreciate each and every one of those messages, but the truth is, I don’t consider what I did brave. What I consider brave is the ability to live honestly each and every day…being honest with myself, and with others. What I did last night was an act of desperation, not an act of bravery. Because I AM desperate.

I’ve received some messages from friends in recovery, basically saying that I don’t have to tell everyone, that when it comes to poppers there’s some wiggle room as to whether it constitutes a relapse. For me, though, there is no wiggle room. That wiggle turns to writhing, the writhing ultimately turns to relapse on crystal meth. No wiggling allowed, at least not for me.

My friend DC has a saying he uses frequently: “Some people are too busy trying to save face that they forget to save their ass.”

I want to save my ass, not my face.

Because the next relapse will kill me. I’m absolutely certain of it.

I’ve always cared too  much about what people think about me. I want people to like me. But I’m done with that. If my telling the truth about the fact that I lied about my sobriety makes you hate me, so be it.

I’m done beating myself up. I’m no longer going to aid and abet the world’s…and my disease’s…propensity to do that on its own.

Because I want to live far more than I want to be liked.

I’m done with shame. I’m done with the lying. I’m done caring what anyone thinks of me, unless it’s because I’ve transgressed against them in some way that requires amends.

I have twelve HONEST days of sobriety today, and I’m grateful for each and every one of them.

I’m grateful for my friends who have shown me so much love, even in the face of this recent admission.

I’m grateful for my sobriety guru Jonathan, who told me last night, “I’ve never been more proud of you.”

I am grateful for my husband Patrick, who loves me unconditionally, even when he’s had to lay down appropriate boundaries to protect himself.

I’m grateful for the presence of God in my life today.

If you read this, and you see me in person after, please don’t tell me that I’m brave. You can tell me that you’re proud of me, and that you love me, if in fact you feel those things. But direct the bravery comments to those who have earned them by maintaining an honest recovery in the face of trying circumstances.

I will never again be innocent, but today – thus far – i’ve been honest.

A Phone Call From Who I Used to Be

photoshop-iphoneThe phone rang after midnight, just a couple of hours ago, a rare occurrence in our home – and I ran to answer it, wondering who the  hell would be calling at that hour, irritated but worried that something unfortunate had befallen a family member.

I recognized the name on my iPhone immediately. It was the name of a friend of mine I’d met in recovery, someone who had more clean time that I did when I began my own getting-sober process.  When I met this man, he scared me a little, but not in a bad way. Rather, his energy and enthusiasm made me nervous, mostly that he’d notice me and I’d be forced to actually speak at my recovery meetings. Early on, staying silent in the back of the room was my modus operandi.

This man, quite a bit younger than myself, eventually became my friend. As I gained confidence in myself, I began to participate more at meetings, I’d eventually introduced myself to him and confessed that I had been put off by his wide smile and almost frenetic friendliness. We became friends fairly quickly, and I started to get to know this man in the way that only people getting honest in the rooms of recovery can.

Then, suddenly, he disappeared.

I’d heard he’d “gone out,” the recovery parlance for relapse, and I worried about him.

But he returned soon after the holidays, a little worse for the wear, skinnier by far, but still as friendly as always.

It didn’t last.  A month later, he was gone again.

He’d come back, go back out, come back. Each time looking more emaciated, his eyes sad but still trying to cover up his personal wreckage with jokes and smiles, even while  he’d relate sad tales of suicide attempts, conflicts with the police, or other drug-fueled behaviors that I just couldn’t bring myself to join him in laughter over.

At one point, he stopped his goof-ball routine and looked me in the eyes, perplexed.

“Are you crying?”

“Yes, I’m crying,” I said, probably too harshly.

“Why?” he asked, his too-thin face looking puzzled.

“Because I’m afraid you’re going to die,” I snapped at him.  “I’m afraid you’re going to die and all you want to do is laugh and make jokes about it. I love you, and It’s not fucking funny.”

He seemed touched by my concern, but per usual, tried to put me at ease with more jokes about his fucked-up behaviors outside of recovery.

After having disappeared once again, after more legal run-ins and another suicide attempt, he showed up at a meeting last week, and I was happy to see him, but approached him tentatively, having finally decided that I needed to protect myself from his instability and the way it was making me feel.

Selfish? probably. What I have to do to take care of myself and my sobriety? Abso-fucking-lutely.

Yet, I answered the phone tonight, despite it being after midnight and despite the almost certain knowledge that what I’d hear on the line was going to be crazy talk. And of course, it was.

He sounded scared, told me he was at his boyfriend’s house, told me that he was hiding. I asked to speak to the boyfriend…who I also know… but he told me he couldn’t do that right now.

“Things went wrong,” he said, “really bad things  happened.”  I immediately imagined a horrible Sid and Nancy scenario, the boyfriend dead in another room and my tweaked-out friend talking to me with one hand on his iPhone and the other with a gun to his own head.

My stomach knotted up, I started to sweat.

“Put _______ on the phone,” I asked gently. “Please.”

“I can’t,” he replied, his voice going from frantic to flat calm in a heartbeat. That calm was actually more terrifying than the panic, for some reason.

“Things went really, really wrong,” he said, with a note of sadness creeping into his steady inflection. “I need you to call the police, or an ambulance.”

Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.

“Give  me the address,” I said, and he gave it to me.

Before I could say another word, we were disconnected.

I called 911, only to learn that an ambulance had already been dispatched to the address. I hung up, my heart racing and sweat beading on my brow.

I called a mutual friend, who reassured me that I did the right thing, and that there is only so much I can do for this person. I told him that I was feeling shaken up, how hearing our friend’s voice had scared the shit out of me and left my stomach knotted..

My friend, who is extremely wise, and has many more years of recovery than myself, replied “You know why that is, don’t you?”

“Because I’m afraid he’s going to die?” I answered, tentatively.

“It’s because that’s what YOU used to sound like, Andy.”

And, of course, he was right. It IS what I used to sound like on the telephone when I was delusional and paranoid for so many years. The way Patrick heard me when I’d call from some dark place, scared out of my wits about some imaginary monster. The way my very dear (and at the time very pregnant) friend Cynthia heard me when I called her at 4 AM, holed up in the West Hollywood Ramada and convinced people were scaling the outside wall and trying to break into my room.  When I made those phone calls, I didn’t give a shit about the terror and confusion I was causing others..I was out of my mind, too caught up in my own meth-induced terror to even think about things like other people’s nerves or the possibility of causing a miscarriage (there was no miscarriage, thank Jesus.)

The part of me that still wants to punish myself for my years of horrible behavior wants to label this incident as payback.  But the part of me that is desperately seeking to heal myself is choosing to view it as a window into the damage I caused others, and as a tool to measure and finally understand the depth of despair and heartache all my freaked-out, drug-induced late night calls caused them.

I can’t help my friend, just as no one could really help me until I decided to get serious about my recovery.  I’m still scared he’s going to die. I’m not even sure if he’ll still be alive when I post this.

But just as I’m powerless over alcohol and crystal meth, I’m powerless to save this beautiful boy who, like myself not too long ago, is caught in the quicksand of addiction, turning this way and that, fighting recovery, causing himself to be sucked deeper still into the muck.

I’m going to pray now for this man. I’m going to pray that he finds the strength to get serious about rooting out his demons and getting them to submit to recovery, to sobriety, to sanity.

I can’t save him, but I can pray for him.

And I can cry for him, too.

I want my friend back.

Goodbye, King Cone

Oh we never know where life will take us

I know it’s just a ride on the wheel

And we never know when death will shake us

And we wonder how it will feel

Saturday night, over 75 beautiful sober men and women gathered in my backyard to help me usher in my one year birthday in sobriety.

The swimming pool was heated to 110 degrees, and the evening was filled with fun, love, friendship and so much emotional and spiritual support it was almost overwhelming. At midnight I was presented with a beautiful birthday cake by Jonathan, my amazing “guru” on this journey of recovery, and Mykee, my dearest friend who is also in recovery.  It was almost too much to bear, and I cried like a baby as each of those two men spoke about me, using words that a year ago would never have been associated with me: generous. loving. spiritual. kind.  A year ago, the adjectives that best described me would have been: selfish. irresponsible. godless. 

andysteve

Me and Steve, Christmas 1998.

This morning, however, the waterfall of joy dried up quite suddenly: Patrick and I had to make the decision to euthanize one of our dogs.  He hadn’t been feeling well for a couple of months, his back legs weak and his mind beginning to cloud. In the mornings, on the way out to the backyard to relieve himself, he’d often circle the coffee table and end up facing the wall, seeming to have forgotten that he  had to go around the couch to get to the door.

Steve was a slightly overweight, black and white Tibetan Terrier. Our friend Heather had rescued him from a yard where he was chained to a pole and had wrapped himself around it to the point of near-choking.  Since, at the time, we were one of the few in our group of friends who had a house with a yard, we agreed to foster him until a home could be found for him.  The problem was, however, that Steve didn’t seem to want another home. And as we came to understand over the years, what Steve wanted, Steve got. He was, to be blunt, a very strange…and rather dull… dog. Often mistaken for a very old dog even as a puppy, what he lacked in energy and personality he made up for with stubbornness.  We learned quickly that calling Steve into the house from the far end of the yard was pure futility, unless Steve actually wanted to come inside. Believe me, we tried training him. We tried hard, for a long time. Useless. Steve called his own shots, and eventually we learned to live by his rules, for the most part. Patrick and I were never quite able to decide whether Steve had some form of brain damage inflicted before we met him, or if he was actually smarter than we were.

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Welcome to Coney Island: Ingrid and Steve, tail-chewers both.

But we loved him, despite the difficulties he often presented (chewing on his own tail was a favorite pastime of his for a couple of years, forcing us to put a giant plastic cone around his head for the duration of that particular hobby of his, earning him the nickname “King Cone.”)  And when he felt like showing us some love, we appreciated it even more because it was so unlike him.

I’m ashamed to say that I did not treat Steve…or any of our dogs, for that matter…very well when I was using drugs. While there were probably several instances where I probably kicked him out of my way or screamed at him (and this, to be honest, is often harder for me to live with than the horrible things I did to the people in my life), most of the abuse was in the form of just not paying attention to him.  He was a barker,  and could be set off by any number of innocuous things: a raccoon scuttling across the car port roof, the too-loud closing of a door or drawer, or…most annoyingly, the ring of a doorbell on the television (which was a little weird, considering  we’ve never had a doorbell in any of the homes we’ve lived in.) I have many memories of having to interrupt my bad behavior while smoking meth in our home of having to stop and scream, “SHUT THE FUCK UP, STEVE!”

 If at this point you’re thinking, “Jesus, what a horrible person,”  you’re absolutely correct. I was a horrible person. I’m a meth addict. Horrible is what I was good at.

And today, remembering all those years of being thwacked out on speed and screaming at that poor dog, I feel terrible guilt and shame, coupled with deep grief at his passing.

But that’s the thing that’s important here:  I’m feeling those feelings. Right now. As I type these words. And it’s fucking awful.

A year ago, this would have been the perfect excuse to visit my dealer, score some crystal and set about ‘making myself feel better’ by obliterating those feelings. And because I chose to stay present, I also get to remember this past year of sobriety, when I had the opportunity to make some amends to Steve. I got to tell him I love him, I got the chance to periodically let him sleep next to me in bed (despite his HIDEOUS breath), I got to rub his belly until he’d make those almost obscene grunting  noises of pleasure, and I got the chance to tell him he was a good boy, a very good boy (even though he often wasn’t.)

I got the chance to say goodbye to him this morning, unlike our other pets who passed while I was in the throes of addiction, having been too fucked up to even consider dealing with the concept of goodbye, forever, leaving Patrick to face the vet’s office and that great, final needle-stick all by himself.

Today, I will feel all those feelings, good and bad. I won’t wallow in them, because that helps no one. But I will honor them and begin to process them, and when I’ve got a grip on them I’ll get back to helping other people, I’ll go to a recovery  meeting and I’ll share about those feelings.  And for every shameful memory of how I treated old Steve, I will show kindness to someone. Because that’s how I live life today, and it’s how I heal myself: by helping others. Just by writing these words, I can feel the joy-water start to trickle again.

Goodbye, Steve. You will be missed, but you will never be forgotten.

Sick F@ck

DSC01596

2006:

I’m sitting at the kitchen table, a plate with a few remnants of toasted bread in front of me.  This is one of my props, because as usual I have no appetite. One of my more clever tricks: toast the bread, butter it, break it into pieces – biting some for authenticity – and placing a few pieces in the garbage disposal. The remainder, arranged haphazardly on the plate, creates the illusion that I have eaten breakfast.  If Patrick believes I’ve eaten, he’s less likely to suspect I’m using.

(No appetite: one of the warning signs that I’m using meth again.)

I hear the bedroom door open. Shuffling into the living room on his way to the bathroom, he pauses briefly in the hallway to survey me.  I can tell he hasn’t even clocked the crumb-littered plate in front of me.  I’m not sure if he’s even slept since catching me masturbating at the computer at 5 AM. My bloodstream still full of speed, I certainly haven’t.

(Late night/ early morning masturbation…another sign that I’m smoking speed again.)

He doesn’t waste time with preliminaries: “I’m giving you a drug test.”

Well, there it is.

“Okay”, I say briskly, “not a problem,” trying not to betray myself with a dry-throated croak or fear-induced waver in my voice.  Objecting to a drug test is a tacit admission of guilt. Of course, taking the drug test will be solid proof of it.

So I try to buy time, and add – with forced cheerfulness:

“I just peed, so next time I have to go I’ll let you know.”

He stands in the hallway, continuing to regard me for a moment, his eyes too puffy with sleep…or maybe lack of it… for me to discern his thoughts, before heading into the bathroom.  I hear the door close with a loud click. The early morning is so silent I can hear him peeing through the heavy wooden door. Flush, the door opens, and Patrick returns to the bedroom, which means he’ll be getting back into bed and, if I’m lucky, falling asleep again for at least an hour, and if I’m lucky, maybe three or four. He’s been known to sleep past noon on some days, and I can only hope he’ll do so this morning.

thc-drug-test-marijuanaImmediately, a light surge of panic courses through me, and I rack my brain to figure out a way around this.  I feel trapped. How the fuck am I going to get out of this one? I’m certain he’s going to kick me out again if I test positive. My mind goes to the cardboard box in Patrick’s desk, full of mail-order, white cellophane wrapped drug testing kits.  Sabotage?  Maybe I can carefully open the test kit at the top and figure out a way to make those two lines representing a negative test appear.  Food dye? No, too difficult.  Magic marker?  That could work, provided Patrick doesn’t first look at the test strip before dipping it in the plastic cup of urine.   And how to seal the cellophane wrapper up again in a way that won’t be noticed?  Glue?  Maybe. Perhaps glue with a hot clothes iron applied to it would simulate a factory seal?  Too many risks, too many variables, I finally decide, and my mind moves on to other options.

Our three dogs, Jane, Steve and Sherman, are circling the table. Jane is yapping sharply. They want to be let outside to pee.  As I get up from the table to release them into the back yard, the idea arrives fully formed, stunning in it’s simplicity.

“Hang on, you guys” I say to them, opening a cupboard above the microwave and retrieving a medium-sized Tupperware bowl.  I peel the lid off, take the bowl and move to the sliding glass door that opens to the backyard.

I let Jane out first, using my leg to impede Steve and Sherman, slide the door closed trapping them inside, faces pressed against the glass in their eagerness to expel the contents of their bladders. I follow Jane, a small rust colored spaniel into the yard, my red-rimmed eyes squinting against the assault of the bright morning light.  Jane bolts for the lawn to the right of the pool, and I hurry after her.

I stay just a few feet behind her as she sniffs the lawn, circling, stopping, changing her mind, moving to a new spot.  After several false starts, she assumes a crouching posture, her chin tilted up, eyes squinted shut, her standard peeing posture.

Quickly, I squat beside her and try to leverage the edge of the plastic bowl under her hindquarters.  She startles at the intrusion, however, looking back at me with an expression of obvious irritation, scuttling away before releasing a single drop.

We repeat this awkward routine several times before Jane makes mad dash for the other side of the pool, where she squats, face twitching, and with panicked backward-looking eyes staring at me…relieves herself before I can reach her. “Dammit, Jane! Bad dog!” I snap at her, before heading back to the sliding door for attempt number two, leaving Jane in the yard to decipher this sudden episode of inconsistent discipline.

I choose Sherman next, cursing my drug-fogged mind for not realizing earlier that – obviously, duh – catching the urine of a large, male dog in a Tupperware bowl would be far less complicated than catching the urine of a small, female one.

Sherman the Akita, wangly and twitchy from holding his bladder, barrels out of the house and past me the minute I slide the door open, and Steve, a fat, low slung black and white terrier mix, manages to bulldoze his way between Sherman’s legs and makes it outside too.

Cursing silently…knowing that two options for pee collection have been reduced to one, I watch as Steve heads to one side of the pool, and Sherman to the other.  I make a quick decision and take off after Sherman, trying to hold my  bathrobe closed with one hand, clutching the plastic bowl in the other. I stub my bare foot on the uneven brick of the patio, and unleash a torrent of hissed “fuck, fuck, fucks“.

I catch up to Sherman, who is sniffing around the overgrown tangle of vines lining the lawn, but for all his enthusiasm for getting out here, he is annoyingly slow at getting to the point.  I’m stalking him from behind, trying appear as  casual and uninterested as possible, when I spy Steve, across the yard, begin to lift his leg at the base of a large wild rose-bush.  Quickly calculating the distance, I make a decision and race towards him, bowl held out in front of me like a relay racer preparing to hand off his baton.

I’ve miscalculated, however, and by the time I’ve traversed the length of the yard, the rose-bush is dripping urine, and Steve has begun toddling off back toward the house, blissfully unaware that he has just totally fucked me.

I do an about-face and begin sprinting back to Sherman, who is now watering the lawn with his own steady stream of precious, meth-free urine.

I’m almost at him, bowl outstretched, bathrobe flopping open behind me like giant plaid wings, when I noticed two people on the road above our hillside home, out for an early morning walk silently surveying the Fellini-esque spectacle below them, four eyes and two mouths all wide open.

I do a another quick about-face, pull my robe closed around my nakedness, and trot quickly to the visual cover of our gazebo.

I wait several minutes until I’m sure the walkers have moved on, then screech out another guttural “fuck,” hurling the Tupperware bowl into the yard.

As I head back to the house to begin formulating plan b, words I’ve heard in my half-assed visits to places of recovery run through my head, the way such words often show up at the most inopportune times, totally killing a buzz or inspiring sudden guilt over being so absolutely incapable of grasping even the simplest mechanics of recovery.

The words that  come to me now are the same ones that have been floating into my consciousness with the annoying regularity of all those ignored jury duty summons piling up on my desk:

Pitiful.

Incomprehensible.

Demoralization.

Those word sting me with their truth, and stay in my thoughts the entire day: ten minutes later, while I’m composing a Craigslist ad, offering to buy clean urine for $50.

They will still be with me an hour after that, when I’m deep in the San Fernando Valley at a stranger’s home – Patrick still asleep in our bed –  standing in a shag-carpeted living room scattered with children’s toys, walls adorned with several Jesus portraits, watching a bearded man piss into a mason jar while verbally belittling me.

“What kind of sick fuck,” he says, “pays someone for their piss?”

(pitiful)

“Are you a sick fuck?” he asks, sneering at me, over the sound of bubbling urine.

(incomprehensible)

He’s enjoying this. I hang my head, clenching and unclenching the cash in my hand, wanting to run, but knowing I can’t leave without that jar and it’s disgusting yet incredibly valuable contents.

“Well, are you?”

(demoralization)

I don’t answer the question, because it’s clearly rhetorical.

God help me.  I am.

I am a very, very sick fuck.

More; Revealed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More has been revealed, it turns out:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look forward to even more being revealed.

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

The Morning After: sober musical interlude #10

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

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

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

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

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

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

There really is a morning after…so keep climbing.

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

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

But For The Grace of God

I’m in a sad place today.

I was going to write about this last night, but changed my mind. This morning, still sad, I changed my mind again:  I’m going to write about this because I need to write about this.

I learned last night that a man I knew in recovery died after relapsing this past weekend.

I’m not going to pretend I knew him well:  Several hugs, some shared smiles, and things I learned about him from when he’d share with our Monday night group. That’s all, really. He was around my age, handsome, very physically fit, and had a 100-megawatt smile.  If I had been forced at gunpoint to choose the next person amongst our group to relapse…let alone die….he would not have been anywhere near the top of the list.

So, I’m shaken. I know others who have been in recovery longer than I have dealt with this frequently…that’s just the nature of being part of a large fellowship of people with an insidious, cunning, baffling and powerful disease…so it might not hold the same level of shock for others that the passing of this man does to me. Or perhaps it does. I don’t know. I can’t imagine these things get any easier, regardless of how long one has been clean and sober.

I’ve always known that my next relapse could be the end of me, and this brutal reminder, this “there but for the grace of God” tragedy drives that fact home.  I’m so, so saddened for his family, and for our mutual friend who shared the news of his passing last night. So much senseless pain. Such a waste of a glorious human being.

As our mutual friend said last night while imparting this horrible news to all of us, it is sadder than sad that this gentlemen did not reach out to someone before he relapsed. I hope and I pray that if I ever find myself on shaky ground, that I will do just that. Call my friend Jonathan, call my friend Mykee, call my friend Phillip. Call anyone.

I have to remember at all times that the foundation of my sobriety, while strong at the moment, is built upon a fault line.  As someone who lives in earthquake territory, I know how to prepare for a temblor of the literal kind. I also need to focus on being prepared for an upheaval of the other kind, remaining ever-vigilant.

I hope my friends in recovery know that I’m always here for them, and that there is no shame in reaching out for help. Please, just do it BEFORE you pick up that pipe, that needle, that bottle. Can we just make that deal now? I’ll call you, and you can call me?

I plan on honoring the memory of this man by stepping up my program of recovery and making sure I never, ever become complacent….and by picking up the damned phone and calling people, even when it’s the last thing I want to do.

RIP, Todd. You were beautiful.

Red lights are flashing on the highway
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight
Everywhere the waters getting rough
Your best intentions may not be enough
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home tonight

But if you break down
I’ll drive out and find you
If you forget my love
I’ll try to remind you
And stay by you when it don’t come easy

I don’t know nothing except change will come
Year after year what we do is undone
Time keeps moving from a crawl to a run
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home

You’re out there walking down a highway
And all of the signs got blown away
Sometimes you wonder if you’re walking in the wrong direction

But if you break down
I’ll drive out and find you
If you forget my love
I’ll try to remind you
And stay by you when it don’t come easy

Power On Little Star: sober musical interlude #9

“And if you only make it one more day
Well it’s one more day than you threw away
Power on, anyway “

This song, by the prodigiously talented Maria Mckee, is one of my go-to recovery songs. I listen to this on repeat on those particular days when it all seems like it might be too much, on those days when self-doubt creeps in. Those days when I wonder if I’ll be able to do this sobriety thing forever. If I’m worth the work. If there’s too much darkness imprinted on my cerebral cortex to ever really live fully in the light again. The days when the demons of self loathing swarm all over me, laughing at my crows feet and the beginnings of middle-age paunch.

This song gives me the strength to, well…power on.

Also, the fact that it’s the words and voice of Maria, a friend who inadvertently helped me find recovery after so many years of trying…makes it all the more sweet.

Power on with your dying breath,
Power on, no regret.
With the fuse that was lit,
By the breaking of your spirit,
Power on, don’t quit.

And the things that made you
Want to trade in your heart,
Are the very things that
Made you who you are.
Power on, little star.

Power on til you know yourself,
From the voices in your head,
From the bruises and welts,
Power on, like hell.

And if you only make it one more day,
Well it’s one more day,
Than you threw away.
Power on, anyway.

And though you may never make a mark
Or live your dream,
Well at least you may live
To make peace with the memories and defeat.

With a heart that will be slashed,
And your dreams that will be dashed,
Like a weather stain,
Like a sad refrain,
Power on, my little babe.

 

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.

“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.

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

Last night, I dropped acid with my buddy Brett.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!” 

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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.

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

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