Ugly inside of me
Taught me of beauty
I wouldn’t trade that work of art
for all the silk of perfect skin…
i’m a scarlover too
and I’m full of scars like you
– Maria Mckee, “Scarlover”
I stare at it in the bathroom mirror, using the back of my hand to clear the fog from the glass. It stares back at me: a slight, pink vertical line starting just below my navel and disappearing into the unruly thatch of pubic hair, where it continues for another inch or so, invisible save for periods when I’ve been a little over-enthusiastic with my manscaping chores.
Or, more accurately, one of my scars.
I have several, each one a pockmarked or discolored reminder that I was once a daily user of crystal methamphetamine. There’s the small depression near my chin, nearly invisible now thanks to regular injections of Juvaderm to plump up the crater. I can still see it, though, and each time I shave I am reminding of the weekend I spent holed up in my bedroom, smoking crystal meth and trying to ignore the gradually increasing chin-itch that seemed to come out of nowhere. Within hours it had blossomed into an inflamed lump resembling an engorged and angry zit. The next twenty-four hours were spent squeezing it, compressing it, scratching at it – trying to express the contents – to no avail. The lower right side of my face burned and swelled so large there was no longer any definition between my jaw line and my neck. I pressed bag after bag of frozen peas against the hot skin, seeking relief. I continued to smoke my meth pipe, though, and by the time I sought medical help and learned it was a MRSA (staph) infection, the damage had been done.
There are also several dime-shaped patches on my left thigh that refuse all attempts at tanning, also the result of a staph infection I left untreated for far too long, picked up repeatedly from my drug dealer’s sheets, those times I traded sex for drugs in his filthy, worst-episode-of-hoarders-ever apartment. Repeated hospitalizations and IV Vancomycin treatments (the “antibiotic of last resort,” my doctor called it) were required to bring the MRSA super-bug into submission. Yet, each time the infection would be vanquished, while the abscess would still be healing, I’d score more meth and continue my marathon of self-destruction.
The Juvaderm and time have faded these scars perceptibly, and though they are reminders of a past that I do not, as we say in recovery “wish to shut the door on,” they are my lesser scars that are very rarely commented on by others.
It’s the stomach scar that remains the greatest reminder of my life of addiction, the most profound physical memento of a life lived selfishly, a life not worth living at all, a life that were it not for the grace of God and the love of those who were still able to love me when I most needed it, would have been extinguished long ago.
When I was still relatively new to using meth, just before entering my second stint at rehab at Glendale Adventist Alcohol and Drug Services, my appendix ruptured. Being high on meth constantly, however, dulled any warning pain I should have felt. Instead, I entered rehab filled with shit not only metaphorically, but literally. As the toxins from my intestines seeped into my bloodstream, I developed headaches of increasing intensity, reaching a point where any source of light would bring me to near blindness and induce excruciating, head-crushing pain. My inability to focus, my temper exacerbated by physical agony, I was eventually asked to leave due to a pain-induced verbal outburst I directed at the head of the facility.
It took several more days after leaving to be diagnosed, and incorrectly at that. I was given a spinal tap, and meningitis was discovered. I was hospitalized, antibiotic treatments were begun. Late at night, my first night at Huntington Memorial in Pasadena, I began to feel feverish. My stomach, which oddly had not given me much pain at all until this point, began to swell, harden, and turn a deep shade of blue. Peritonitis had set in, the ruptured appendix having gone completely unnoticed until this point. I was rushed into surgery with a 104 degree fever, and my family was told there was a chance I would not survive.
I did survive, obviously. I remember the surgeon standing over me in the recovery room, telling Patrick that after removing my internal organs from my abdominal cavity, it had taken six liters of fluid to clean the toxic sludge from them. I discerned a look of disgust on his face as he said this, and to this day am not sure if he was disgusted by the procedure, or by me, this filthy meth addict whose filthy insides he had just been forced to root around in for several hours.
I came to suspect the latter, as the wound began to heal. He had done a piss-poor job at sewing me up, though in more charitable moments I’m willing to forgive him since the surgery was unplanned, and of course, because it saved my life. In less spiritually evolved moments, I hate him for his brutal handiwork: an incision that looked like it had been done with a bottle opener, and rough stitching that appeared to have been done using packing twine, creating the appearance of a dress shirt with one of the lower buttons in the wrong hole.
It’s faded somewhat over the last ten years, of course, but it still troubles me. Sometimes I shudder, it appears so grotesque to me. When I point it out to people, usually when I catch them noticing it, they invariably tell me it’s not nearly as bad as I think it is, yet I rarely believe them.
I stared at it again this morning, this twelve-year old scar, reaching down and pulling the bisected sides of my lower belly taut, re-creating the flat, smooth stomach of my pre-addiction years, the sliced-in-two abdomen that no amount of dieting or sit-ups will ever be able to fully flatten and smooth again. Many times, I’ve contemplated cosmetic surgery to enhance its appearance. I have always discarded the idea, eventually.
Because underneath the revulsion, another feeling usually surfaces, pushing the revulsion aside, at least temporarily. It’s a feeling instigated by my program of recovery, a feeling I rarely had regarding much in my life, even with the multitude of blessings that have always surrounded me, even in my darkest hours: gratitude.
I’m grateful I survived.
I’m grateful to understand that I have never been perfect, I never will be perfect, and that perfect is no longer an ideal I need to strive for.
I grateful I’m alive.
I’m grateful to be surrounded by love and friends and family. My days are spent helping others dealing with far more pressing issues than the vanity of looking good in a swimsuit. I have God in my life, I wield love with the same passion I once wielded a glass pipe, and I am so very grateful for every bleak moment of my addiction, because having lived in darkness for so long, I am uniquely qualified to help others find their way out of it, too.
I can point to my scar, this souvenir from my trip to hell, and I can talk to others about where addiction took me. I can then speak to how recovery saved me.
At this moment, as I write this, I am grateful even for my scar.
Take me with all of my beautiful scars
I love you the way that you are
I come to you with all my flaws
With all my beautiful scars
With all my beautiful scars
Love me with all of my flaws
My beautiful scars
So, the personal wreckage cleanup begins again. Does anyone have a backhoe I can borrow for a few days…or weeks…perhaps months?
I wonder how my husband tolerates this. I know there must be those (myself included), who occasionally view him as one of those residents of Tornado Alley, post-devastation, scrunching their faces against grief on the TV news, vowing to stay right where they are and rebuild, dammit…while the nation watches and wonders just what the fuck is wrong with his logic. Why would you stay and rebuild…haven’t you learned yet that the odds are pretty darned good another twister is gonna come along and fuck up the very foundations of your existence?
Yet, he keeps loving me. He sees something lovable in me that I’m unable to see myself at this moment.
This morning, this man of incredible patience and tolerance accompanied me to the Gay and Lesbian Center here in Los Angeles so that I can be tested for STD’s and for exposure to HIV. Throughout my 11 years of off and on drug abuse, I’ve put myself at risk numerous times, and somehow my higher power has protected me. I am a rare creature, a hardcore meth and sex addict who has somehow managed to avoid HIV infection. It would be ludicrous to expect that i’d have escaped the virus one more time.
Unfortunately, perhaps because it was the first day of resumed testing after a long, holiday weekend, the waiting room was a mob scene, and I had to reschedule my appointment for this afternoon. Disappointing and a little nerve-wracking, because I really just wanted to get it over with, but also grateful because it gives me more time to pray. Not for a negative result, though that would be wonderful. But for the strength to handle the news should it be bad.
One of my dearest friends…one of many friends who has loved me unconditionally… the singer/songwriter Maria McKee once sang on her beautiful song My Girlhood Among the Outlaws ( from her album titled You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, appropriately), “I took a leap of faith, and I stumbled…I tried to live outside Grace, and I was humbled.” That song is what I’m listening to right now…though it’s a romantic love song, I’m listening to it in a different way: as love song to my Higher Power, to God.
My girlhood among the outlaws was salty, bittersweet
The things I did, ah I could just kick myself now
Through nights of lousy dreams
As visions gather in my head
I find it hard to live with the things I did and said
But for you my friend, I’d live it all again
And love you in the end
Anything for you baby anything for you
If it took those years to get me here
I’d do it again for you
Took a leap of faith and I stumbled
Tried to live outside grace and I was humbled
But I’d like to bet if I’d lived to fear regret
Then we never would’ve met
Anything for you baby anything for you
If it took those years to get me here
I’d do it again for you
So here we are and I don’t know what we call it
‘Cause love is such a funny promise
Commitment is impossible and forever is a lie
But that still leaves you and I
Anything for you baby anything for you
If it took those years to get me here
I’d do it again for you
My appointment is at 4:30, and I am not expecting good news. But I am expecting to handle it with grace, knowing that my God is not a punishing one, and that He will give me the strength to deal with whatever needs dealing with. He’s kept me alive through these dark years, and He’s even shown me a way to live that is so bright and shining I have to squint in the glare of it. He’s given my husband the strength to keep loving me, even when I’m unable to love…or even like…myself.
After the appointment, I will go to my primary recovery meeting, in a lovely backyard in Hollywood filled with tiki torches, votive candles, a bonfire and so much recovery and lovingkindness it is absolutely impossible to let self-loathing surface. Regardless of the news I get, I know I’ll be surrounded by at least 80 human beings, all struggling themselves one way or another, who really do love me and want only the best for me.
Back inside the arms of Grace. I want to stay there this time.
I know what needs to be done, and I’m going to do it. I’ve learned some things about myself, I’ve admitted some things to myself I already knew but didn’t want to confront.
And if this relapse is what it took for me to finally address these issues…and if being HIV positive like so many of my recovering brothers is part of that lesson, so be it.
If all of my struggling and falling and climbing up and falling again is what it takes to get me to a place of true recovery, a place of brutal honesty with myself and those in my life, so be it too.
If it took those years to get me here….
I’ve always been someone who easily veers into depression, and over the years i’ve had to cultivate strategies to avoid tumbling into the abyss. One of my first coping mechanisms was discovered back in 1973, when I realized that repeated listenings on my portable phonograph of my 45 rpm single of The Carpenter’s “Sing” could literally change my mood from morose to joyful. I could escape that persistent, underlying feeling of being different from other kids my age: painfully shy and far more interested in my sister’s barbie dolls than the phalanx of Tonka trucks my father had foisted on me Christmas after Christmas, birthday after birthday.
I’d close my eyes, lying on the shag carpet of our home on Long Island, my head next to the speaker on the boxy, plastic-handled contraption. Three minutes and twenty seconds of lyrical happiness would wash over me, followed by ten seconds of the record player’s arm lifting, clicking, and moving back into position to begin all over again. Happy images would fill my head, pushing out the fears and anxieties that usually took up all the space in there. With my music, I was at peace.
The answer could be twenty, or thirty, or a dozen times. I would process each and every lyric, gauging the applicability of each and every one of my small collection of 45’s to my own existence. I never tired of a song I loved.
When I reached my turbulent teens, when the fears and anxieties had multiplied exponentially, I turned to Linda Ronstadt for comfort. Though she rarely wrote any of her own lyrics, the river of her voice carried so much nuance, so much emotion, that I could easily start crying when listening to her songs of pain and loss. This is about the time that I discovered that songs of sadness, plaintive lyrics that spoke directly to the kind of pain I was feeling, could also have a soothing effect on my soul. As Bernie Taupin famously wrote for Elton John:
“Guess there are times when we all need to share a little pain
And ironing out the rough spots
Is the hardest part when memories remain
And it’s times like these when we all need to hear the radio
`cause from the lips of some old singer
We can share the troubles we already know”
So i’d share my troubles with Linda, the soulful ballads on her “Hasten Down the Wind” album speaking directly to me, particularly the gorgeous, aching cover of Karla Bonoff‘s “Lose Again.”
The lyrics of that song spoke directly to me: a confused fourteen year old, struggling with his sexuality, hating who he was and hating that girlfriend after girlfriend could not change those very wrong feelings inside, feelings he was certain had been planted there by a certain priest years before. Knowing that each crush I had on male classmate after male classmate could never be reciprocated, and that I was doomed to live a life devoid of love.
“Nothing can save me / from this ball and chain / I’ll love you and lose again.” Right on the money.
I still listened to upbeat songs, those of ABBA were a particular favorite, as were ELO, Blondie, The Ramones…though I generally did so when I was already feeling happy and needed to maintain it, functioning as a sort of aural mood stabilizer. But I always got out the Ronstadt albums when I needed to feel like I wasn’t alone.
When I reached my early twenties, around the time I was beginning to accept my homosexuality – and dealing with all the emotional upheaval that provided me – came Maria Mckee, first with her band Lone Justice, then as a solo artist. Maria’s lyrics and her incredible, flexible, can-sing-the-shit-out-of-anything vocals resonated with me the same way Linda’s had. This beautiful girl had something simultaneously earthy and angelic about her, her big, soulful eyes gazing out from her first solo album’s cover, she resembled – to my Fine Arts Major eyes – a modern-day Botticelli painting. And that voice.…I would close my eyes, walkman headphones firmly clamping my head between them, and listen. And feel less scared, less hopeless, less…less.
“Turning around I see someone / That I thought I used to know / You wide eyed in the crowd / How does it feel to see the world / And not turn cold / I wanna hold you / And protect you from the change / Though I know it’s gonna happen anyway / Take this veil, I’ll dry your eyes / In a world like ours you’re nobody’s child”
And when I finally was living life as an openly gay man, and going through the tumult of constant breakups ( the high number being attributable to my own habit of seeking validation through the physical appearance of my partners) Maria also provided the perfect face-down-pillow-sobbing breakup song, the classic “Don’t Toss Us Away,” (penned by her brother, Bryan MacLean of the seminal LA band Love.)
Back then, I was devoid of any semblance of spirituality whatsoever, having, as I like to say now, chucked the Baby Jesus out with the dirty Catholic bathwater. I am learning to love her canon of brilliant songwriting all over again, having finally, in utter desperation, been reunited with my Higher Power that was taken from me by force when I was still a pre-teen. Her classic song, the inspirational “You Are The Light” is no longer, for me, a paean to a lover, but a song of deep spiritual meaning and a provider of spiritual invigoration. Many of her songs that once spoke to the physical now seem to address the spiritual, with equal, if not more beauty.
Maria’s later solo work continued to provide comfort, as new releases seemed to be eerily timed – content wise – with the continued upheavals in my life. Her composition “High Dive,” detailing a fall from grace and the work required to regain said grace, became my theme song of encouragement while I struggled to rebuild my personal and professional reputation after burning out – catastrophically – from my addiction to crystal meth.
“Blowing my trumpet / Believin’ in something / Courageous and crazy / Nothing could faze me / ‘Till I hit the pavement / And now it’s back to school / Ready to play the fool / Cause I took a high dive into an empty pool”
And when my husband had finally had enough of my drug-fueled escapades and demanded I move out of our home, the plaintive “Turn Away” consoled me for months when I was living in my old bedroom in my mother’s house, a five-hour drive from the man I loved, who refused to speak to me.
“Why am I the one to wear the pain?
I guess I do it with panache
To talk it over now would only be a strain
With our hearts lost in all this trash”
It’s taken me years to find actual happiness, and I’m working hard to maintain it, feasting on gratitude for all the beautiful things in my life that still remain, namely my husband and my physical health. I also work hard to cultivate, to regrow, the things I did lose: my spirituality, my optimism, my mental stability. And again, Maria Mckee has provided the soundtrack to this chapter of my existence. “Power On Little Star” is the song that gets me through my moments of self-doubt, the times when faith feels like it might once again be slipping from my grip.
“Power on with your dying breath,
Power on, no regret.
With the fuse that was lit,
By the breaking of your spirit,
Power on, don’t quit.
And the things that made you
Want to trade in your heart,
Are the very things that
Made you who you are.
Power on, little star.
Power on til you know yourself,
From the voices in your head,
From the bruises and welts,
Power on, like hell.
And if you only make it one more day,
Well it’s one more day,
Than you threw away.
Power on, anyway.
And though you may never make a mark
Or live your dream,
Well at least you may live
To make peace with the memories and defeat.
With a heart that will be slashed,
And your dreams that will be dashed,
Like a weather stain,
Like a sad refrain,
Power on, my little babe.”
All my life, despite my difficulties, I have been blessed to have personally known some of my heroes. Miep Gies, who hid Anne Frank and her family. Mamie Till-Mobley, whose insistence on an open-casket funeral for her murdered boy Emmett, was a dear friend of mine until her death several years back. Having worked in the entertainment industry for many years, and by virtue of being married to a working actor for almost twenty, I’ve also had occasion to meet many people whose talent I have stood in awe of. Sometimes meeting these people is disillusioning, sometimes not.
When a chance meeting with Maria Mckee unexpectedly spawned a friendship, it was a great relief to discover that this woman who had unknowingly guided me through so much pain and sorrow is even lovelier a human being than I had imagined. And the fact that my new friend inadvertently set off the chain reaction of introductions, namely to her (and now also my) dear friends Phillip and Le Maire – that would lead to my discovery of a way of life (one that I had once belittled relentlessly) seems almost pre-ordained. This trio of beautiful, funny, creative people, whom I collectively refer to as my personal Ghostbusters (in recognition of the number of personal and spiritual demons they’ve helped me exorcise) have brought me so much joy, and have…pardon the pun…shown me heaven.
I continue to find artists who, through the courage of their songwriting, seem to speak directly to me. The phenomenal John Grant (whose lyrics suggest is also no stranger to emotional upheaval) has provided much comfort in recent years. His debut solo album, the critically adored (and rightfully so) “Queen of Denmark,” is filled with songs I could have written myself, had I the talent to do so. “Silver Platter Club” is one I listen to on those days when I feel like I’m just not enough, that i’m missing some as-yet-undiscovered “social acceptance” gene.
“I wish I had the genes of Edwardo Verastegui
That I was effortlessly masculine as well
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”
And the title song, whatever it’s actual lyrical intent as an overall composition, includes words that bring me to tears every time I hear them, for they so perfectly describe the hopelessness of being mired in addiction:
Who’s gonna be the one to save me from myself?
You better bring your stun gun and perhaps a crowbar
You better pack a lunch and get up really early
And you should probably get down on your knees and pray
I could blather on for hours about artists who have moved me in one way or another, but I’ve rambled long enough.