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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.”

The Wolf is Getting Married

So, the struggle continues. Paranoia, fear….battling daily…no, hourly…the consequences of my relapse.

I’m fighting them, however, with a sturdy well-stocked arsenal of love, prayer, recovery and fellowship.

I’m also fighting them with songs that uplift my spirit, that keep me in touch with all that is good in the world.

This song, but the amazing Sinéad O’Connor, is one of my favorites at the moment.  The title is a reference to an obscure Arabic expression meaning, loosely translated, “the sun shining through a break in the clouds.”

The lyrics apply, as well, and with little of the twisting and contortion often necessary to fit them to one’s current circumstances.

This song, for me, represents my feelings about my recovery…this journey I’m taking with my Higher Power, and with my trudging buddies, my vast network of friends in the Los Angeles recovery community.

Pre-recovery, before I learned that there’s a better way to live than by numbing myself and my pain with drugs and alcohol:

I used to have no walls around me
I was too free, if that’s possible to be
No safety, is what I mean
No solid foundation to keep me

Now, still in fear, but finding glimpses of light…my Higher Power, my friends, and tiny bit of hope:

But the sun’s peeping out of the sky
Where there used to be only gray
The wolf is getting married
And he’ll never cry again

The gentle lifting of my spirit when I’m embraced by another in a recovery meeting, the hope I have found in those who have found freedom from the bondage of drugs and alcohol:

Your smile makes me smile
Your laugh makes me laugh
Your joy gives me joy
Your hope gives me hope

And, finally, the dark humor I share with other recovering addicts and alcoholics regarding my plight, their plight, their journey, my journey. No darkness of mine goes unmatched in the rooms of recovery, and the laughter we share over things the rest of the non-addicted world would find either humiliating or unsuitable for public discussion:

Even if something terrible is happening
You laugh and that’s the thing I love about you most

The additional fact that this song is sung by Ms. O’Connor, someone who has battled numerous demons of her own, and who was one of the earliest to speak truth to power regarding the Catholic Church and its protection of child molesting priests – makes it all the more poignant for me.  Ms. O’Connor once took a moment to answer an email I sent to her, and it touched me deeply that she would do so.

Today, I am grateful for 27 hard-won days of sobriety, for God, and my programs of recovery that keep me in touch with my better self by providing me an opportunity…even at only 27 days, to be of service to another addict or alcoholic.

Bless you all.

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.

Testing Grace

So, the personal wreckage cleanup begins again. Does anyone have a backhoe I can borrow for a few days…or weeks…perhaps months?

I wonder how my husband tolerates this.  I know there must be those (myself included), who occasionally view him as one of those residents of Tornado Alley, post-devastation,  scrunching their faces against grief on the TV news, vowing to stay right where they are and rebuild, dammit…while the nation watches and wonders just what the fuck is wrong with his logic. Why would you stay and rebuild…haven’t you learned yet that the odds are pretty darned good another twister is gonna come along and fuck up the very foundations of your existence?

Yet, he keeps loving me. He sees something lovable in me that I’m unable to see myself at this moment.

This morning, this man of incredible patience and tolerance accompanied me to the Gay and Lesbian Center here in Los Angeles so that I can be tested for STD’s and for exposure to HIV.  Throughout my 11 years of off and on drug abuse, I’ve put myself at risk numerous times, and somehow my higher power has protected me. I am a rare creature, a hardcore meth and sex addict who has somehow managed to avoid HIV infection. It would be ludicrous to expect that i’d have escaped the virus one more time.

Unfortunately, perhaps because it was the first day of resumed testing after a long, holiday weekend, the waiting room was a mob scene, and I had to reschedule my appointment for this afternoon.  Disappointing and a little nerve-wracking, because I really just wanted to get it over with, but also grateful because it gives me more time to pray. Not for a negative result, though that would be wonderful. But for the strength to handle the news should it be bad.

One of my dearest friends…one of many friends who has loved me unconditionally… the singer/songwriter Maria McKee once sang on her beautiful song My Girlhood Among the Outlaws ( from her album titled You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, appropriately), “I took a leap of faith, and I stumbled…I tried to live outside Grace, and I was humbled.”   That song is what I’m listening to right now…though it’s a romantic love song, I’m listening to it in a different way:  as love song to my Higher Power, to God.

My girlhood among the outlaws was salty, bittersweet 
The things I did, ah I could just kick myself now 
Through nights of lousy dreams 
As visions gather in my head 
I find it hard to live with the things I did and said 
But for you my friend, I’d live it all again 
And love you in the end 

Anything for you baby anything for you 
If it took those years to get me here 
I’d do it again for you 

Took a leap of faith and I stumbled 
Tried to live outside grace and I was humbled 
But I’d like to bet if I’d lived to fear regret 
Then we never would’ve met 

Anything for you baby anything for you 
If it took those years to get me here 
I’d do it again for you 

So here we are and I don’t know what we call it 
‘Cause love is such a funny promise 
Commitment is impossible and forever is a lie 
But that still leaves you and I 

Anything for you baby anything for you 
If it took those years to get me here 
I’d do it again for you

My appointment is at 4:30, and I am not expecting good news. But I am expecting to handle it with grace, knowing that my God is not a punishing one, and that He will give me the strength to deal with whatever needs dealing with.  He’s kept me alive through these dark years, and He’s even shown me a way to live that is so bright and shining I have to squint in the glare of it.  He’s given my husband the strength to keep loving me, even when I’m unable to love…or even like…myself.

After the appointment, I will go to my primary recovery meeting, in a lovely backyard in Hollywood filled with tiki torches, votive candles, a bonfire and so much recovery and  lovingkindness it is absolutely impossible to let self-loathing surface.  Regardless of the news I get, I know I’ll be surrounded by at least 80 human beings, all struggling themselves one way or another, who really do love me and want only the best for me.

Back inside the arms of Grace. I want to stay there this time.

I know what needs to be done, and I’m going to do it. I’ve learned some things about myself, I’ve admitted some things to myself I already knew but didn’t want to confront.

And if this relapse is what it took for me to finally address these issues…and if being HIV positive like so many of my recovering brothers is part of that lesson, so be it.

If all of my struggling and falling and climbing up and falling again is what it takes to get me to a place of true recovery, a place of brutal honesty with myself and those in my life, so be it too.

If it took those years to get me here….

The Dating Game

meth freeYesterday, I attended Gay Pride in Los Angeles for the first time in over 12 years, and for the very first time completely clean and sober.

It was an interesting day: I spent much of it volunteering for a recovery-oriented organization: setting up and decorating this organization’s booth, stringing twinkle lights, handing out pamphlets. It hardly felt like work, though, being surrounded by so many also-recovering friends and making so many new ones.

It was all going well until around 3 PM, when my husband called from home to ask me a question.

I had to strain to hear him over the din of the crowd and the thumping bass from multiple DJ’s scattered all over West Hollywood Park, but by hunching over behind a tree and cupping both hands around the phone and my ear, I could make out what he was asking:

“Andy, why is there a can of butane on the shelf in the service porch?”

I knew exactly what can he was talking about. It was yellow with red printing, and was about as tall as a thermos but much thinner. I’d purchased it last spring, while I was still using, to refill the torch I used when smoking crystal meth.  I had kept it hidden…though easily accessible…under my desk, in a box of receipts and other paperwork, and I’d forgotten it when I finally got clean and sober on July 7th, 2012. It had remained there, in hiding, until this recent cleaning spree, at which point I discovered it. My initial, reflexive instinct, upon finding this can of butane, was to throw it away before Patrick saw it:  If he sees this can of butane, he’ll think I’m using again.  

That was followed by another thought:  “What if he sees this bright yellow can of butane in the trash? He’ll think I’m hiding something from him.”

Mind you, all of this went through my head in less than ten seconds. Ultimately, realizing that I have nothing to hide, I decided to place the almost-full can of butane on the shelf in the service porch with all the other cans and bottles of cleaners, solvents and miscellaneous toxic chemicals. I continued cleaning my office and didn’t give it another thought.

Until yesterday at 3 PM, when Patrick asked what it was doing there. I could tell from his voice that he was trying to sound light-hearted, like it was just a casual question along the lines of, “did you pick up the bread from supermarket on your way home?”  But having known this man for twenty years, I could also hear the slight note of dismay under the lightness of tone.

I responded in a reassuring voice, explaining how I’d come across the butane while cleaning my office not long ago, and that he didn’t have to worry, I hadn’t relapsed…I’d purchased the can last year when I was using and that it had just been taken out of hiding. Nothing to worry about.

I waited for him to sigh with relief.

Instead, however, he dropped a bombshell:  “Then why does the manufacture date say October 4, 2012?

I was dumbfounded. This had to be a joke. I even asked him if he was joking.

“No, I’m not joking. There’s a stamp on the bottom of the can, and it says “Manufactured on October 4, 2012.”

“But…I got clean in July. That’s not possible. I bought it last year. I swear to God, Patrick.”

Even in the face of seemingly incontrovertible evidence, Patrick held out hope that I wasn’t, yet again, lying: “I’m sure there’s some logical explanation,” he offered. I could actually feel the hope in his voice, the wanting to believe me.

But the date was there, stamped onto a can, screaming “he’s lying again!”

I started shaking, standing there in West Hollywood Park, surrounded by people celebrating.

butaneThe rest of the conversation is already a blur in my memory. There was panic, there was a feeling akin to having relapsed, there was the old self-loathing and shame of having been caught in a lie. I’d lied to Patrick so many times about being clean when I was actually back on the pipe, and now it was happening again.  I felt nauseated, I wanted to cry.  I began to get angry the way I used to when I’d been caught out and knew the jig was up. But there was a difference:

This time, I knew I hadn’t relapsed.

Which made it worse, because no matter how loudly or angrily or tearily I proclaimed my innocence…the fact remained: The can of butane I’d retrieved from under my desk had not even been manufactured until four months AFTER i’d stopped using all drugs and alcohol.  It was my word versus some factory date-stamping machine, and I already knew which of us had the most credibility on this particular issue.  It was like Gay Pride and The Twilight Zone had converged suddenly, and I was wracking my brain for some explanation.

The idea of Patrick at home, listening to me rambling on asking ridiculous questions like, “maybe they post-dated the can? do they do that?” made me so sad I could barely stand it. I knew I hadn’t lied to him, yet I knew that as long as that fucking can with that fucking date existed, he would never be able to believe me.

And that is when things got really strange.

As I’ve written about in previous entries, my drug use brought me to some dark places: hallucinations, paranoia, delusions….not to mention great swaths of memory that seem to have been completely erased.  Which means that even though I’ve been (mostly) in my right mind for many, many months now, I still have trouble trusting my own perceptions. Confronted with that “manufactured date,” I began to doubt myself and my own memory:  Had I relapsed on meth and forgotten about it?  Was that possible? Is my  brain that fucked up?”

The only thing I knew for certain was that I had to get home and try to figure out how the fuck a can of butane I purchased in the spring of 2012 had a manufacturing date of October, 2012 stamped on its bottom.  I made some hasty goodbyes to my friends, fought my way through the crowds and back to my car.

Driving home down Melrose Avenue, I burst into tears.  I knew in my heart I hadn’t relapsed. And even though I have a brain that deceives me sometimes, I started to realize intellectually as well that I hadn’t relapsed, and here’s how I knew: I am not capable of using meth “just once.” Or even just a few times. If I had relapsed at some point, I could not have forgotten it, because that one relapse would have stretched on for weeks or months, or until I crashed and burned in a fiery cloud of secrets and psychosis. I have never used meth just once or just a few times and then stopped.  I’d proven that to myself and everyone who knows me time and time and time again for ten years straight. I am a meth addict, and a hardcore one.

Just as confidence in my own recollection and in the integrity of my sobriety was slowly returning, my cellphone rang. I saw Patrick’s face staring up at me from my iPhone, and I momentarily considered not answering.  But that’s called avoidance and that’s old behavior.  So I picked up.

“Yes?” I said, expecting more accusations, in the manner that they would seem to pile on in the past.  First he finds the butane, then he goes looking for something else to back up his theory that I’m using again. I’m half expecting to hear him demand I take a drug test when I get home, and I’m ready to tell him to go buy one and I’ll take a drug test any damned time he wants me to, when I hear his words:

“Honey, I made a mistake.”

Excuse me?

photo“This butane was manufactured in Asia…they do their dates differently, like in Europe. It wasn’t manufactured on October 4, it was manufactured on April 10.  The date on the can is 10.4.2012, but in China that means it was made in April. Not October. I’m so, so sorry.”  I hear the pain in his voice, his sadness at having freaked me out so badly.

The Twilight Zone episode ends so suddenly my breath is almost taken away. I burst into tears, and start blubbering a bunch of stuff I can’t remember. Stuff about being mad at Patrick, but not being mad at Patrick, because Patrick was reacting the way anyone who’s been lied to consistently about this kind of thing would react.  Stuff about being angry with myself for doubting my own brain…my own memory…my own sobriety.  Then, came relief that this bizarre mystery was solved. Relief that even though it had felt akin to a relapse, my sobriety was still solid.

I told Patrick I’d talk to him later, and called my friend Jonathan, who helps guide me through this recovery.  I explained what had happened, and his calm approach to the situation calmed me further. As I always do when I get off the phone with this man, I felt much more centered.

I went home, then to the gym, and later….the stress gone from my system, I returned to pride and resumed my shift at the booth i’d volunteered to work. From that vantage point, I got to witness the full drug and alcohol spectrum: sober people, people who can drink but aren’t alcoholics, and the severely alcoholic or drug addicted…the latter group stumbling sloppy and slurring along the path in front of our booth, looking both sad and ridiculous and presenting a better argument for sobriety than any pamphlet could ever hope to do.

When I got home late last night, my husband had posted a mea culpa via his Facebook status:

“I earned a gold medal in conclusion jumping today. To be fair, I got thrown by the different Gregorian dating systems used in the world today. (mm/dd/yyy vs dd/mm/yyyy). Learn from my error and never assume foreign dates follow our system.”

I am so blessed to have this man in my life. When I told some people about the incident last night, there were a couple who responded by saying, “um, you have eleven months clean and sober..he should trust you by now.”  I disagree. After so many years of constant, bold-face lies, the fact that he is still here and he still loves me and that he still hopes for the best for me and  has provided me with support and love when I’ve most needed it gives him a pass in the ‘absolute trust’ department.

I’m the recovering addict, I’m the recovering liar. The burden of proof, the responsibility of mounting a defense, even when it comes to stupid fucking Chinese butane can manufacturing dates, is on me.  And just like that long-forgotten butane can, I’m sure there are other buried secrets I’ve forgotten about that may rear their ugly heads unexpectedly. But I’ll deal with them as they arise, and hopefully I won’t let them freak me out as badly as this one did.

I’m just happy to have been acquitted, and so quickly.

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

Me & The Be

Me & The Be

Me & The Be

Yesterday was a day of mourning for so many of my friends in the recovery community in Los Angeles.  Another beautiful light snuffed out by a disease that can lie dormant for days, months, even years before rearing its ugly head and…more virulent than ever…killing its victim without the slightest compunction.

Late last night, after the gathering of the Tuesday evening group of men and women who have become my second family – where the loss of this bright light hung quite tangibly over the proceedings – I came home full of feelings:  There was sadness for this man and his family and friends.  There was also fear, that this might someday be my own fate, and there was anger that so many beautiful men and women suffer from the disease of alcoholism.

Sitting down at my computer, I found my friend Mykee B. online, and reached out. Within moments I was LOL’ing over our private chat conversation. In the program of recovery I’ve chosen, there is a saying about traveling a road to a place of future happiness, and Mykee B. has been my walking partner on this road since almost the very beginning of this journey.

I met Mykee on a camping trip I took with a group of men (and one woman) from the aforementioned Tuesday night second family. At the time, I was barely six weeks off the pipe, and the idea of traveling to the Sequoia National Park with twenty-nine almost-strangers was terrifying to me. However, I followed direction given by the person who guides me through this program of recovery, and agreed to go along for the three day event. I’m glad I did…though I barely spoke the entire time (except for the nightly gatherings around the campfire, where I inarticulately…and through tears….tried to convey my sense of not belonging, of feeling too damaged to ever feel human again. It wasn’t pretty.)

My now-dear friend Stephen B. noticed my discomfort, and on a group hike to a waterfall…during which I was walking with my head down, feeling ugly and old and damaged in comparison to all the beautiful younger boys in our group….began to engage me in conversation, putting his arm around me, and did his best to make me feel a part of.  I will always owe this man a debt of gratitude for that simple action.  It’s taken almost a year, but that simple gesture was the beginning of my evolution from reticent recovery bystander to active participant in my own salvation.

On the morning we were to return to Los Angeles…I had caught a ride with my friend Jonathan (my also aforementioned recovery program ‘guide’)…we were packing up his Scion when someone asked if we had room for Mykee B. in our car. I’d noticed him around the campfire, and had been moved by one of his tearful shares, however we’d only spoken cursorily over the previous few days. Despite the sleeping bags, tents and luggage, we did have some extra room in Jonathan’s car, and so the three of us set out to make the drive home together.

But first, there was a surprise in store for me.

The previous evening, the majority of our group of campers had made a sunset field trip to the majestic Moro Rock, a giant granite dome formation from which spectacular views of the California’s Central Valley can be seen. I had stayed behind, however, having volunteered to help with dinner preparation.  So, on the drive home, Jonathan and Mykee had colluded to make sure I got to see Moro Rock before we left.  I was touched deeply, and the three of us climbed to the top of this rock mountain together. It was a profoundly spiritual experience, and I will always treasure that memory as one of the more profound ones of my early sobriety.

When we returned to the base, it was decided we’d stay in the park a little longer, and we hiked around a gorgeous meadow, just the three of us: my guru, my new friend and myself…all at different stages of recovery but so very similar in many other ways.

It was on the ride home that I really fell in love with Mykee. He was brilliant but not obnoxious about it, he was one of the funniest men I’d ever met (and I’ve met some funny people, trust me), and he was politically astute and passionate about social justice issues.  His small frame (if you know Mykee, then you know he has the highest personality to body mass index of anyone on this planet) gave him an impish quality that could make me convulse with laughter, even back then when the slightest chuckle felt hard-won.

Since that weekend last August, I’ve counted this man among my closest friends. Though recently he’s been extremely busy (the man is a true entrepreneur, and I have no doubt fabulous wealth and success are imminent for my little friend/dynamo) with a number of startup businesses (see www.hprlcl.com), I know he will alway be there for me when I need him. And vice/versa.

Like he was last night, when I needed to laugh more than I’ve needed to in a long time.

If you read this blog, you know that I’ve gone from rabid atheist to praying man in a very short period of time. And every night, when I say those prayers, I thank God for bringing Mykee B…friend, little brother, partner in (healthy) crime…. into my life.  As the Russ Meyer fantasy band The Carrie Nations sang in “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”…. “In the long run, you’ll need someone to trust and count on…come a rainy day.”

Yesterday, it was drizzling, and Mykee was there for me.

Journal of a Lying Filthy Drug Addict

This was written almost a year ago, while on meth, two weeks before I began my recovery.  It’s probably the most brutally honest thing I’ve ever written about my addiction, and I’m sharing this very personal journal entry because it shows so clearly the desperate state of my mind and soul at the time. In this, I ask myself a lot of questions that, at the time, I had no answer for. I feel so sad for this guy and his clueless self-pity, but because I know that two weeks after he wrote this he’s going to start finding the answers he’s so desperately looking for, I also feel great happiness reading this again for the first time since it was written.  Today, I have the answers for most of the questions I asked myself when I wrote this..or at least, some insight into my addict behaviors. I’ll soon be marking the one-year anniversary of the beginning of what has been the most amazing year of my life, and I’m incredibly grateful for everyone and everything that has been a part of my recovery.

If you’re still struggling, just STOP. Breathe. You don’t have to drink or use or punish yourself in other ways ever again. Surrender to recovery. I wish I’d done it years ago.  The view from here is breathtaking.  Trust me. I have a long way to go still, but it’s been an amazing journey thus far.

______________________________________

ishot-0010321Well, here I am again.  Five months of continued use, and I’m already beginning to feel that strange disconnect from reality.  Strange things that probably aren’t even that strange…that sub-current of paranoia that indicates the effect this drug is having on my brain. The voices are just starting to whisper again in the damned shower and sinks. Cars following me.  Not to mention the damage that I’m doing to myself and to my relationship. And to my  new “career.”   I’m finally at the very beginning of the path to regaining financial stability..the very beginning, I should emphasize…and i’m jeopardizing it as carelessly as if my past experiences have taught me nothing.  Lying to everyone, acting like the sage, wise recovered person when, in fact, I’m living the life of a failure and a fucking liar.

It’s not just the drugs, it’s the sexual compulsions I’ve been battling all my life. I don’t know why sexual gratification, even in its ugliest forms, acts as some weird kind of sedative of sorts for me. Maybe there isn’t anything complex about it at all, perhaps I’m just completely id-driven, a person who enjoys the control of my lower self.

I do know that being thin is part of it, and again, I don’t completely  understand what that’s all about. I’ve got a partner (that he’s still here is a miracle of sort) who truly couldn’t care less if I’m thin or fat.  So why do I care so much?  Sometimes I think it’s because that lonely teenager I used to be is still fighting for attention or popularity or just to NOT be the chubby  kid with the braces and those awful Buddy Holly glasses (back when Buddy Holly glasses weren’t cool at ALL.)  Other times I have to admit it’s probably just rampant narcissism , as all the naked photos and videos of myself on my hard drive would seem to indicate.  How narcissism and  horrible self-esteem manage to co-exist in this fucked up head eludes me completely.

The thing about meth…okay, one thing among many things, is that it erodes my estimation of what is simply pleasure…the kind of pleasure everyone seeks and needs…and what is profoundly dark, compulsive and damaging to the psyche.  There’s been too much of that in my life, and I know that it all stays in my brain whether i remember it or not.  The way a song lyric I haven’t heard for years suddenly reappears. That dark callback of memory is part of my ritual of relapse: The memory is most  strongly associated with feelings of pleasure and sensuality, NOT with the ramifications of disease or hurt or insanity I’ve had.  If I could have those meth memories appear and have them trigger the self-loathing I feel today, then I suspect my relapsing would be much more infrequent.  I suspect, anyway.  But no, when I think of meth I think of wild, intense pleasure.

IMG_1241

Me, one year ago: thirty pounds lighter and a hundred pounds more miserable.

I still have a bag of meth I bought yesterday, and smoked far too much of last evening, to the point where Patrick even inquired as to whether or not I was using.  I so badly want to tell him that I’ve relapsed, but I don’t feel ready. Not because I want to  keep using (I do, believe me I DO), but because he will freak out and it will cause chaos in his life again because he’ll be dealing not only with his shows and the financial distress (another guilt item), but also with being preoccupied about my losing control again.

I’m going to try to get off the stuff again. I’m so sick of being a lying, filthy, fucking drug addict.

I’m going to start walking again, this afternoon, and hopefully I won’t pass out from exertion since I haven’t really exercised rigorously in six months.   I think back to when I was happiest, last year, during those long stretches of time between my short infrequent relapses.  I was getting my body healthy, I looked okay without purging, and Patrick and I were just beginning to reestablish trust. I’ve fucked that up yet again, and he deserves so much better.  I say that all the time, yet I never seem to live as if I believe it.  That has to change.  I either have to clean up for good, or I have to leave him.  This is completely unfair and, to be honest, absolutely evil behavior on my part.

I have to find a way to get beyond hating myself and punishing myself through sexual situations, which of course, is impossible with a drug that seems as if it were designed specifically to cause those types of behaviors. I used to use sex to make myself feel good about myself, and now it feels like i’m using it to punish myself.  I think I need to focus on things that I am good at, and exercise those muscles.  I need to think of myself as a good person, because somewhere under all this self-caused scar tissue, I know I’m a decent human being. I do care about others, even as I lie to them and cause them misery.  Yet I have such a problem with accepting that it’s okay to just be me, average and mediocre Andy from the boring fucking Central Valley. I don’t know where this need to be perceived as interesting…or sexually desirable…or hip or cool or whatever….comes from.   Truly, I’m not fooling anyone who really knows me, and i’ll never fucking believe it myself, so what’s the big imperative???

I’m lost right now, but I’m going to write in this journal every day.  I think I need to write for  ME, not as a showing off mechanism, a “look at me, I’m a battle-scarred survivor and these are my lurid, graphic stories that hopefully make me seem a little more Charles Bukowski and a little less average dork.”  I need to work towards being in the middle of the road…where I actually DO reside…and feeling okay with it.  I need to find ME again, if that’s even possible after all of this chaos and lying and alternate realities I’ve been manufacturing and then wallowing in for so fucking long.  Even before I met Patrick. Even before I moved to Los Angeles, quite frankly.  Who AM I? WHY do I do these terrible things to myself and to those around me?  I want the answer to be, “because I was  molested and because I was raised in a chaotic, unstable environment with occasional violence, and this is how I deal with it.”  But I fear that may be a complete cop-out.  In fact, I suspect it is. The more probable answer is the one that terrifies me the most, and that would be “because you are a conscienceless narcissist who is beyond redemption.”

I want to say, “Time will tell,” but I also fear that time has already spoken, and it didn’t fucking say what I wanted it to say.

Ghosts of Los Angeles: The Hillside Stranglers

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

7d_4It is one of the many sad by-products of human nature: the more brutal and prolific a killer is, the more likely he or she is to be enshrined in infamy, bestowed with awe/fear-inspiring nicknames, and garner legions of morbid, gore-crazy disciples. The names Charles Manson, The Night Stalker, Jack the Ripper and The Green River Killer are forever enshrined in our lexicon.  Conversely, only a few victim’s names are easily recalled (Sharon Tate, for example), while those of Kristina Weckler, Elizabeth Stride, Kelly Ware and countless others are remembered only by grieving family members, police officers intimately involved with the case, or hardcore true-crime buffs with particularly muscular memories.

chevy chase

our former home in the Chevy Chase Estates

In 1998, my partner and I had just purchased a home in the Chevy Chase Estates in Glendale.  I had recently become interested in the true crime genre, and was voraciously devouring Darcy O’Brien’s “The Hillside Stranglers,” a compelling account of the brutal, late-70’s murder rampage by Los Angeles cousins Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi that terrorized the city and held the world in its thrall.  It was extremely disconcerting, some thirty-odd pages into the book, to read that the third victim of the depraved pair had been discovered only yards from the house into which we’d just moved.

Overcome by morbid curiosity, paperback in hand, I walked down the front pathway of our hilltop home and made my way up Chevy Chase Drive, until I located the spot described in the book.  Referring to the paperback in my hand, I read O’Brien’s words:

Between the golf course fence and the road lay a deep drainage ditch, then a steep embankment, then a metal guard rail about three feet high.  They swung the body out over the guard rail, trying to heave it into the ditch. But she landed heavily and rolled with a rustling of leaves down the embankment about fifteen feet and came to rest against an invisible guy wire.”

There was the guard rail. And there was the wire with the steel guard at its base, some twenty years later, still rising out of the leaf-covered ravine.  This was, beyond a doubt, the right place.  Having once visited Auschwitz, and having stood on the same platform that so many unfortunates – including several of my friends – had poured onto from countless railroad cars, I recognized the feeling I was experiencing now: the almost tangible sense of sadness associated with being in a place where something horrible had once happened.

I stared at the spot for several minutes before heading back to my house to continue reading, where I soon learned that the Los Angeles girl who had lived 21 years of hopes, frustrations and dreams – before that night she was kidnapped, tortured, killed and dropped on this hillside – had been named Lissa Kastin.

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Lissa Kastin, widely-circulated victim photo

The book offered a grainy, black and white photo of Lissa and it was, to be blunt, unflattering. A three-quarter view of a face that looked too round and too large-nosed to ever be called pretty was the only image presented of this young woman.  Somehow, the homeliness of the photo made her tragic ending seem even more pathetic.  The description of her final hours…both horrific and nauseating…saddened me deeply.  Reading of her final torment while less than a mile away from where she had been tortured and strangled, and only yards from her interim resting place, removed the comforting filter of distance usually present when reading about the ugliness of murder.

“From time to time as they drove towards Glendale, Lissa Kastin continued to protest, and when at last Bianchi pulled into Angelo’s driveway and cut the motor, she refused to get out of the car. But Bianchi coaxed her into the house, suggesting that she had no choice, which she did not.” – excerpt from The Hillside Stranglers, by Darcy O’Brien

The book offered little detail on her life: she worked at a restaurant called The Healthfaire on Vine near Hollywood Blvd., she lived in an apartment on Argyle near Dix street; she was health-conscious and wanted, like so many other 21 year-old Angelenos, to break into show business.   I barely knew this girl, yet I felt strangely connected to her. Perhaps it was because we had both ended up, through quirks of circumstance, in the hills of Chevy Chase Estates, where my burgeoning meth addiction had already, even in its infancy, brought me into contact numerous times with the dark underbelly of Los Angeles.  Or perhaps it was just a vague sympathy I felt for the girl in that unattractive photo. Whatever the reason, I found myself on the internet, researching everything I could find out about her.  Aside from a few stories in the LA Times that noted that she and several other victims had lived in or near Hollywood, there was very little information.  I also noted that in almost all of what little did exist, her name had been spelled incorrectly, as Lisa Kastin. In fact, even in the written indictment of Angelo Buono for the murders of ten young women her name had been spelled wrong, adding for posterity yet another layer of indignity to the brutal conclusion of Lissa’s life.777c331ea62badd02a7ea16fcd1a16ff

Years later, long after we had sold the big house on the hill and moved away from the conservative surroundings of Glendale and into our current home in the more bohemian climes of Mount Washington near downtown LA, I continued to think occasionally of the pudgy, moon-faced, and sadly doomed Lissa Kastin. Once, having told another true-crime aficionado about having lived at the place where the third victim had been discovered, she screwed up her face, thought for a moment, and then replied: “Wasn’t that the ugly girl?”  That sickened me a bit, and I bizarrely began to argue in defense of this person I’d never met.  However, with little evidence to counter my friend’s assessment, I realized that Lissa Kastin would always be regarded by true crime fans as the Unattractive Victim of The Hillside Stranglers. This was the girl, according to  O’Brien’s book, with the unshaven legs, the girl whose killers had deemed too unattractive for their usual modus operandi and so had devised more horrific means of violation. To me, it seemed like the ultimate heaping of insult upon the ultimate injury. Perhaps it was this, the continued degradation of this young woman even after death and my sympathy for her,  that kept her in my thoughts long after I’d forgotten details of other crime victims from the pages of other true crime books.

“From that point on the procedure was the same as with Judy Miller, except that Angelo worried that this girl might fight, so he kept her handcuffed and cut off her clothes with a big pair of upholstery scissors. Naked, she appealed to neither cousin. Angelo especially was put off by her unshaven legs and derided her as ‘some kind of health nut.'”  – excerpt, The Hillside Stranglers by Darcy O’Brien

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

Not long ago, having watched an abysmal film version of the Strangler story, I googled her name for the first time in years and discovered that a second photo of Lissa Kastin had been introduced to the internet.  The difference between the grainy, black and white photo circulated after the crime and this one was enormous. This had been no ugly girl. While perhaps not a great beauty,  the photo that I found showed her in full, crisp, color: standing by a brick storefront on Melrose Avenue flanked by two friends, and it would be no great stretch to describe her as “cute.”  They are all wearing t-shirts that read “L.A. Knockers,” the name of the modern pop-dance troupe she had belonged to.  She looks off into the distance, a cascade of dark curls falling over her shoulders.  There was so much life in this photo, and for the first time, I felt like I was seeing the real Lissa Kastin.

Further googling lead me to a Youtube video of a late 70’s performance by the L.A. Knockers.  They were a campy, not overly polished but highly enthusiastic and clearly committed troupe of young women having a balls-out good time. It was strange – almost shocking considering the impressions I had gleaned of Lissa Kastin over the years –  to imagine her strutting onstage with them.  Yet, clearly, not only had she danced with them, but the L.A. Knocker’s blog states that she was among the founding members. This girl, who has been in and out of my thoughts for years, had just undergone a radical image transformation in the space of five minutes.  This girl, who was already dead for more than ten years before I even moved to Los Angeles, and who I have been fascinated by despite knowing so little about, was suddenly, if only momentarily, alive again, smiling and dancing to 70’s disco music.  All former impressions of this girl whose body had ended up near my front lawn were wiped away.

ishot-1345231I found myself annoyed that so much detail regarding the lives and personalities of her killers was part of the public record, while so little effort had been taken to accurately convey even a portion of the joyful personality I was seeing in this one new photo. I was able to imagine her now not as the black-and-white, tragic sad girl, but as a flesh and blood, full-color human being. Even if this new perception was based only on a single photo and therefore possibly a false perception, It mattered only to me that it was a better, and probably more accurate fiction than the one the media had led me to believe about this girl I’d never met, yet somehow cared about.

It continues to dismay me that the mention of the names “Hillside Strangler” or even Bianchi and Buono will elicit recognition from anyone who is old enough to remember those years.  The name Lissa Kastin, however, will usually draw a blank stare.   And although I suspect few will really care, if the subject ever comes up again I will be sure to say that she was cute, in a unique way. I’ll tell them that she was a dancer, and I’ll do whatever small part I can to humanize this young woman – who had family and friends who loved and cared about her – and who has been reduced by news accounts to a statistic and by true crime literature to an unattractive girl who had the misfortune to not be aesthetically pleasing to the monsters who raped and killed her.

As someone who spent years saddened by – yet, blindly and stupidly believing – the unflattering characterizations of this young woman, it’s the very least I can do.  And I when I look at new photographs of victims that are found on the pages of the LA Times on an almost daily basis – like little newsprint ghosts – I will remind myself that any impression I glean from them is only a captured split-second of a full and hopefully rich life that has been wiped away forever.

Forward to the 4:27 mark to watch Lissa Kastin performing with Los Angeles-based avant-garde dance troupe “L.A. Knockers.”  She’s the girl on the far left.

VIDEO: Room 233

A piece about one of the darkest days of my meth addiction, as read to a hundred friends and total strangers at the storytelling show “Taboo Tales,” 8/30/2011 at the Zephyr Theatre, Los Angeles.

Just one of my many Adventures with “Pitiful and Incomprehensible Demoralization”…Unfortunately, the incident described in this essay turned out to not be quite enough to keep me away from meth forever. That, I suppose, is the difference between a true addict and a recreational drug user.  This go-round with sobriety has been different for me, namely because I am no longer an atheist…as I so proudly declare in the hubris-filled coda of this video.

I’m frequently asked why I share this kind of stuff so publicly….and the answer is that the adage “we are only as sick as our secrets” holds absolutely true for me.  I learned from the great Heather Morgan, my writing teacher who has supported me since I began taking her classes years ago, that  the act of reviewing the situation, composing a narrative and, occasionally, trying to find the humor in even the blackest of moments is an act of self-healing for me.  Once I’ve written it and shared it, it stops weighing me down with shame and the fear that if anyone knew this or that dark secret about me, they would recoil in disgust.  I’m certain many people have recoiled, and think less of me. But I’ve learned that the people who truly love me still love me.

Now, if anything horrible…say, hidden camera sex videos (one of my huge personal fears) or naked photos pop up on the internet at anytime in my future, not a single one of my loved ones are going to be shocked by my drug-fueled indiscretions.

Please forgive the graphic nature of this video, and more importantly, please forgive the crazy hair. Note to self: don’t do that nervous ‘run fingers through hair’ thing while waiting to take the stage.

We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it…….

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