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Peanut Butter & Angels

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

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

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

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That, I thought, was the end of that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still have worth. 

I am not useless.

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

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

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

I truly DO live in the City of Angels.

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Like a Book I Wouldn’t Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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