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Sometimes it’s a Bitch

600px-US_83.svgHello, all.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a blog entry, and because of that I’ve received quite a few messages of concern from readers wondering how I’m doing .

The answer is “I’m doing as well as can be expected.”

I have 83 days of recovery under my belt this (and God willing, my last) go-round.

It’s not been easy this time: I did so much damage to my mental health that it’s been a long, slow slog back to sanity. I have some great days, I have some good days, I have some bad days, and I have some truly awful and terrifying days.  Fortunately, the great and good days are growing in number as I slowly regain my traction in the world of the living, in the sunlight of the spirit.

I’m still on a strong dose of anti-psychotic medication, which is working…though not as quickly as I’d hoped.  This medication has helped alleviate much of the paranoia, though not all of it. The downside is that it makes me feel a little slow, a little mind-muddled. Writing, one of the things I do to maintain sobriety and process my thoughts, is supremely difficult.

The good news is that I’ve been rigorously honest with myself these past 83 days, laying the foundation for a new kind of sobriety, one that will hopefully withstand the seismic force of my newly admitted triggers and compulsions.

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photo by Rob M.

Also promising: my newfound reliance on prayer, and the keen awareness that I am surrounded by love and support. There have been many days when I’ve been so tightly gripped by fear that it was difficult to walk through my front door and out into the world.  Even this, it seems, has provided a benefit for me: I’ve learned that I am a man of courage.  There have been so many days when I’ve wanted nothing more than to just curl up in bed and pull the covers over my head, yet for these past 83 days I’ve forced myself to attend recovery meetings almost every day, sometimes more than once.  The drive to and from them has frequently been filled with paranoid terror, yet I’ve gripped that steering wheel and prayed my way to the safety of the meeting and then home again.  That may not seem like much to anyone who hasn’t experienced post-meth paranoia, but for me it has been like climbing Everest every single day. Yet, I’ve done it…and on the bad days, I continue to do it.

Today, I am grateful for the hard lessons learned from the consequences of my relapse, and grateful for everyone who has made me feel safe with their love and their friendship.

Today, unlike a month ago, I no longer feel suicidal. Today, I have hope that my mental health will return.

Today, I feel confident that I can maintain my sobriety…a stronger, deeper sobriety than my previous attempts: one forged in the crucible of honesty and sheer terror.

Today, I feel worthy of love. Today, I have put aside my shame. Today, I feel brave even when I feel scared.

Today, I feel God working in my life.

Eighty-three days and counting.

Sometimes it’s a bitch, sometimes it’s a breeze.

Well I’ve run through rainbows and castles of candy
I cried a river of tears from the pain
I try to dance with what life has to hand me
My partner’s been pleasure…my partner’s been pain

There are days when I swear I could fly like an eagle
And dark desperate hours that nobody sees
My arms stretched triumphant on top of the mountain
My head in my hands…down on my knees

Sometimes it’s a bitch…sometimes it’s a breeze
Sometimes love’s blind…and sometimes it sees
Sometimes it’s roses…and, sometimes it’s weeds
Sometimes it’s a bitch…sometimes it’s a breeze

I’ve reached in darkness and come out with treasure
I’ve laid down with love and I woke up with lies
What’s it all worth only the heart can measure
It’s not what’s in the mirror…but what’s left inside

Like a Book I Wouldn’t Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Jesus or Go to Hell

 

BillboardJesusNOVEMBER 2006:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The People in The Trees

NOTE: INSANITY AHEAD: A short, totally CRAZYPANTS story I wrote in 2003 – in the midst of my addiction – about The Tree People.  If you don’t know what Tree People are, consider yourself very, very lucky.  This is so badly written it makes me cringe, but it definitely shows the delusional/psychotic state of mind of a meth addict in active addiction. Yup, crazy time.

danutreeThe trees rustle with their movements, and only on rare occasions can I see them fully. They move in my peripheral vision, jumping from tree to tree, or standing stock-still, fading in and out of their bark-and-leaf camouflage. The wind carries their voices, but I can not decipher the words. It is via some strange form of telepathy that they convey the daily orders I must follow…. or suffer some horrible, indeterminate consequence. Most often they require atonement, and I kneel on the hillside, eyes closed, under the giant Bougainvillea, silently asking their forgiveness for my dark-sex-drug behavior, for the shameful atrocities I commit on their sacred soil.

My partner, who does not use methamphetamine, can not hear them, and as much as I argue with him, refuses to concede their existence.  I try every form of rationale to get him to understand: the arrowheads we’ve found in the dirt in our yard, the centuries of American Indian settlements that the small enclave of Mount Washington was  built upon.  When I attempt to point a Tree Person out to him, he says he doesn’t see, and grows angry at my insistence.  Meth, it seems, has opened some strange doorway that allows me to peer into their world, and it saddens me that the People in the Trees are not yet comfortable enough with this man I love to make their presence known to him.

I’ve divined, somehow, that austerity and simplicity are the hallmarks of this hidden race of people, forced by the encroachment of modern civilization to move underground, and they have learned to live, unnoticed, among us. This is not to say that they do not appreciate a Winchell’s Old Fashioned Chocolate doughnut now and again. It is a fact that I have shared with no one that they regularly devour the five or six I leave for them on a tray each evening behind the pool shed, my own version of a peace-offering. Though I have never witnessed the devouring of these offerings,the scattered crumbs and overturned tray that I discover each morning is testament enough to their gleeful orgy of consumption. Occasionally, I will  test the breadth of their palates and purchase a cinnamon roll or an apple fritter. These too have proved very popular with The People in the Trees. It is this generosity on my part, I believe, that has facilitated my recent ability to understand many of their whispers and ability to psychically  divine their needs, intents and moods.

shedThis pool shed, at the far end of our yard, away from my partner’s suspicious eyes,  has become a chapel of sorts, the place where I can most clearly hear their words. They have made it known to me that this is where we will most safely begin the process of communing. Inside the shadowy structure, lying prone in an inflatable pool raft, I  catch quick glimpses of them peering in at me, quickly, deftly, with a stealthy skill that they have honed from centuries of hiding. They have learned, somehow, to make their whispers resemble the swishhh-sound of wind through branch, and I have learned to tell the difference.

Still, as clever as they may be, they are not immune to some trickery on my part. Though they are masters of camouflage, they are not a deceitful people at heart and therefore  susceptible to the manipulation I am a master of. In the shed, lying back in the purple pool raft, I pretend to speak on a cellphone, telling elaborate stories with great, fanciful detail to the imaginary person on the other end. Gradually, I lower my voice, until the Tree People outside the shed must move in closer to understand my words. I am extremely proud of turning the tables this way: it’s about time THEY strain to

raccoon

hear MY words! This trick yields no clear view of any member of the tribe, yet I can clearly hear them scuttling across the roof and sliding oh-so-slippery quiet down the side of the hill behind the shed. I can see them in my mind: brown-skinned, angular faces pressed up against the flimsy plywood walls, eager to hear the latest exploits of the The Bringer of The Doughnuts.

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