Archive for February, 2011
One of the great upsides to departing New York City is the withdrawing from one’s relationship with The Big Apple’s most pervasive vermin; the cockroach. They are damn near unavoidable. At least I think they are. I suppose it is possible that a select few of the pukingly rich who reside in multi-million dollar brownstones on East 79th street and have staff workers ensconced in maintaining immaculate conditions with the occasional support of high-priced exterminators are able to skirt the all too common critters. But they are a great rarity. For the rest of the country’s most densely populated city, cockroaches are an innate piece of the experience.
In my decade of big city life, I lived in four separate residences. All were fairly maintained buildings and the cleanliness state of each was perhaps something short of pristine- but most definitely decent to good. And all four had cockroaches. Not tons of them. Or at least not tons of them strolling by in full view of the humans. That’s the thing about cockroaches. Where there is one, there are more. Many, many more. Under the foundation, in the walls- laying endless eggs, infinitely increasing the herd. As it happens, cockroaches leave chemical trails in their feces as well as emitting airborne pheromones for swarming and mating. These chemical trails transmit bacteria on surfaces. Other cockroaches will follow these trails to discover sources of food and water, and also discover where other cockroaches are hiding. They are repulsive for most anyone. For an Obsessive-Compulsive cat like myself, they are a living nightmare.
I never got used to them. I would be washing the dishes or making a sandwich and one of them would come gallivanting down the wall sending me into shivery spasms. I’d quickly dash to the coffee table seeking a magazine I might roll up and utilize for a death-blow. My wife is a “provoke them to crawl onto a movable flat surface and release them back into the wild” type of girl. God bless her heart. But that’s not me. I kill bugs. I briskly and happily kill bugs. So, assuming that my rapid-fire dash in search of deadly reading material outpaced the roach’s ability to disappear from sight, I’d flatten the little bastard, clean the leavings, and continue on with the task at hand. But the experience would always linger. On the back-end of the killing, I would find my skin crawling at the notion that dozens more were, even as I stood there, skittering hither and nigh within a few feet of me. Generally, I would, at least for a moment, lose myself in visuals from the final chapter in the 1982 film version of Creepshow where E.G. Marshall, living alone in a wealthy bug-proof penthouse, is overrun and killed during a power outage by thousands and thousands of dastardly roaches.
Therefore, while there were endless reasons why the move from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to the western suburbs of Illinois was sort of like a bad acid trip, leaving the cockroaches behind was not of them. I suppose it is possible that there are some roaches living somewhere in The Land of Lincoln, though I have yet to see one in eight years and don’t know anyone here who has run into any either, so, I don’t know, do the math. Either way, I continue to have gratitude at the prospect of being cockroach free. So that’s what I have to share about that. And, interestingly, this is not a post about cockroaches.
So it’s October of 2004. We have just moved into our house in Wheaton after a year in a condo one town over in Glen Ellyn. The new house is deep in the suburbs at the end of a dead-end, with fairly deep woods a stones throw away and a marsh down the street. Over the course of our first week after moving in, we have seen multiple deer as well as a fox and a whole host of cute bunnies. It’s all very comforting as I most certainly enjoy the visual stimuli of God’s creatures as long as they are not making their way down my kitchen wall.
One night, Lorri and I are snuggled up on the couch enjoying some late night java and an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, when something went bump. Actually, it was less a bump then it was an elongated sprint. Straight above our heads something unmistakably dashed from one side of the attic to the other. And whatever it was, it was a fuck load bigger than a bread basket. It sounded like a husky nine-year old. It was totally surreal. It was so quick, and over so abruptly, it was almost as if I’d imagined it. But I had not imagined it. Especially because I was not the only one that heard it.
Michael: You heard that, right?
Lorri: Uh, yes. Of course I heard it. What was it?
Michael: Beats the shit out of me. Do you think Sydney climbed up into the attic?
Lorri: Honey, she’s fourteen months old and sleeps in a crib. Is that a serious question?
Michael: No, I guess not. But what the hell was that noise? It was terrifying.
And then it happened again. All of a sudden, whatever the hell was up there decided that its original spot had been somehow more satisfying and zipped back with as much noise and alacrity with which it had moved previously.
Lorri: Oh my God!
Michael: I know. What do we do?
Lorri: Well it’s got to be an animal of some kind. There must be a local company that handles this kind of stuff.
Michael: So what? Do I look up “companies who take care of enormous creatures running laps in your attic” on Google?
Lorri: I’ll call Judy in the morning. She’ll know.
Judy is our neighbor. And she did know. Her theory was that it was a raccoon. I had my doubts. If it was a raccoon, it was a raccoon the size of a small bear. Judy gave us the number of Suburban Wildlife Control. The next day, a guy named Dave pulled up in a van bearing the company logo. I figured good old Dave would dispel the ridiculous notion that our gargantuan stowaway could possibly be a raccoon.
Dave: It’s a raccoon.
Michael: Can’t be.
Dave: It is. It’s a raccoon.
Michael: How big do raccoons get?
Dave: Pretty damned big.
Michael: Jesus. How the hell did it get in there?
Dave: Look up there. You see where the aluminum siding is pulled back, at the corner of the roof there?
Michael: How did that happen?
Dave: The raccoon.
Michael: The raccoon pulled back the siding. Are you kidding me? What is it, a black ops raccoon?
Dave: They’re pretty clever animals.
Michael: And could something that big get in that little hole?
Dave: They’re nimble, too.
I accepted Dave’s theories and asked him how we get the thing out of there. He pulled a ladder and a rather huge cage out of the back of the van. He climbed up to where the hole was, set the snap mechanism on the cage and plugged it right up to the opening. Then he climbed back down and guided the ladder back into the truck. As he reached in and started up the ignition, I asked:
Michael: Where are you going?
Dave: I got other appointments.
Michael: But you’re not done here.
Dave: I am.
Michael: No, you’re not.
Michael: Dave, I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but the fact that you don’t have a raccoon in the back of that truck seems to be compelling evidence that you have not completed you’re task here.
Dave: There’s nothing else to do but wait.
Dave: For the coon to come out.
Michael: And when will that be?
Dave: I don’t know.
Michael: Dave (I am now speaking through tightly gritted teeth), are you telling me that you can’t go in and get the thing, you have no idea when it will come out, and basically all you can provide is a big ass cage? What the hell am I paying you for?!
Dave: Look, sooner or later, it’s going to need to come out to look for food. When it does, the cage will automatically lock it in. When that happens, you call me and I will come pick it up. Okay?
Michael (defeated): Okay.
That night there was more running. And let me tell you, knowing what was up there was doing nothing to make the experience of hearing it less unnerving. In addition to the mad sprints from pillar to post, it seemed to be doing more in the way of shifting and scratching. I lay in bed listening to it, fantasizing that it would somehow make its way into the house and I would wake up with it crouching over me with its teeth bared and claws unsheathed. Chilling.
In the morning, I threw on my robe and sneakers and went outside straightaway. I cast my eyes skyward and found my vision enveloped by nothing but clouds visible through the scrim of an entirely empty cage.
Fairly frustrated, I walked back into the house to go about taking on the responsibilities of the day. Lorri was at work. I had just set Sydney up in front of the television with an episode of The Backyardigans when the screaming started. High pitched screaming. It was coming from just above me. It was ear shattering. Until that moment, it seemed unfathomable that I could ever long for the galloping, but this was otherworldly. I immediately called Dave:
Dave: Dave here.
Michael: Dave, it’s Michael from Wheaton.
Dave: Oh, hey. You got a raccoon for me?
Michael: No, Dave. I do not have a raccoon for you. I have ear piercing squeals coming from my ceiling.
Dave: Your raccoon had babies.
Michael: Are you shitting me?!
Dave: Nope. That explains what she’s doing in there. Nesting. Actually, this is good.
Michael: How, Dave? How is this good?
Dave: She’s got to feed those babies. She’s not going to wait much longer to emerge.
Michael: And what about the babies?
Dave: They might come out with her. But probably not.
Michael: So, what then?
Dave: They’ll just die.
Dave: And what?
Michael: And what?! And what do I do about the dead fucking babies in my roof.
Michael: Goodbye Dave.
I couldn’t take the noises and it was clearly upsetting Syd. I decided to take her over to The Children’s Museum in an effort to buy a few hours away from the mama and her newborns.
When we got home, the screaming had not ceased. It was louder. More hysterical. And there was another significant change. The shrieks were no longer coming from above. They were right in front of us. In the wall. And there was more. Every few moments, you could hear the screams rising north. A few inches at a time, but distinctly on the rise. And then they would plunge back down with a sickening thump followed by ever more unearthly howling.
I didn’t need Dave to explain this one. It was horrifyingly obvious. The babies had slipped through the planks in the attic floor down into the walls. And mama was reaching down and attempting to lift them back up. She’d get a hold of one of them and pull them part of the way up before losing her grip and dropping them. And then she’d try again. And then she’d drop them again. It was agony.
This went on for another two days. A long, long two days.
Finally, came the morning. The blessed morning which found me outside in my robe and sneakers staring at an enormous raccoon sitting idly in the locked cage. She looked kind of pitiful sitting there. I felt a little bad for her. Though not so bad that I didn’t race straight for the phone and ring up my old friend Dave.
Forty minutes, give him points for punctuality, rolls up Big Dave in his critter mobile. He hops out, tosses me a casual greeting, opens the back door of his van and pulls out the ladder. Only this time, the back of the van is not empty. It is stacked with nine cages, three high, three deep. Eight are filled with creatures. Of the eight, seven are raccoons and one is a possum (Or an opossum. It’s a bit confusing. Some contend that a possum and an opossum are the same animal. Apparently, this is incorrect. Fact is, we don’t have any true possums here in North America. What we call possums here in the states are actually opossums which many refer to as “possums” as a kind of shorthand. Real possums are found in New Guinea, Australia (including Tasmania), Sulawesi (Indonesia) and a few other small islands in the Pacific region. Either way, they are the most repugnant looking beasts the good lord ever saw fit to create. Yuck!) The ninth cage was clearly reserved for my big fat friend sitting patiently on my roof. Dave shimmied up the ladder, grabbed up mama big ass, descended to ground level, transferred her from roof cage to van cage, threw roof cage into the front passenger seat and began to write-up my bill.
Michael: So, uh, what’s going to happen her now?
Dave: We kill her.
Michael: What? You do not.
Dave: Sure do.
Michael: Kill her how?
Dave: We freeze them.
Michael: What? How?
Dave: We have a system. Sort of a deep freeze machine. We toss them in and they die instantly. It’s painless. Then we dispose of the carcasses.
Michael: But I don’t want you to kill her.
Dave: Not really up to you, friend.
Michael: I don’t understand. Why can’t you just release her back into the woods?
Dave: One, because raccoons are, governmentally, considered rodents or pests, and are therefore to be exterminated when caught. Two, if I released this raccoon back into the wild, she’d be back in your roof, probably with friends, in a matter of days.
Michael: And what about the babies?
Dave: Have you heard them recently?
Michael: Not really.
Dave: They’re probably all dead by now.
Michael: And let me guess, there’s nothing you can do about the dead raccoon babies lying in my walls.
Dave: Well, I can cut holes in your walls and go in and get them. But it’s messy and it’s expensive and I wouldn’t recommend it. They were newborns so, unless they start to smell, which they probably won’t, I’d just leave them there.
Michael: Christ. Okay Dave, what do I owe you?
So that was that. Dave drove off to the gallows and me and my checkbook loped back inside looking very forward to a full night’s sleep to the gentle soundtrack of an empty attic.
The relief, though, was undercut by the notion that the woods were chock full of hundred and hundreds of fellow raccoons, opossums and a whole host of other such creatures just waiting to take up residence in my attic. How long could it possibly be before another one peels back some siding and begins running laps and pumping out screeching infants? The thought was minimally paralyzing.
Maybe those cockroaches were not so bad after all.
I do not wish to die. Let’s begin there. I am very much interested in staying alive. I am not suicidal. I am not close to suicidal. I am an international flight, two bus transfers, a ferry ride and an extended hike from suicidal. Well, that’s maybe overstating it. My depression has been fairly pervasive as of late. So, okay, scratch the extended hike for now. Either way, no worries friends. The light at the end of the tunnel, while quite dim recently, is still within my view and I remain very interested in how my story will play out.
It’s an enormous chasm from depression to suicide. Far larger than most people realize. Far larger than, I suppose, up until quite recently, I realized. It would seem for most, and when I say most I am hinging on the theory that most people have never experienced clinical depression, there is the theory that depression is this vast netherworld one slips into where they are immediately prone to all the pitfalls within the region. Sort of like how many of us have been taught to experience the idea of hell. That is to say, if, upon mortal expiration, you end up with a ticket south, once you get there, all the consequences overtake you simultaneously. Everything opens up in a moment. The eternal hellfire, the shaming damnation, the abject suffering, the endless screams, the demons, pitchforks, three-headed dogs, whatever- you immediately become subject to all of it. It’s not like when you arrive they tell you, “Settle in. Over to the left there is the lake of fire. No guarantee we’ll drop you in there. Not everyone is submerged. We”ll let you know more in a month or so.” No, your ass is burning upon arrival.
And I sense that this is how many people see depression. They watch someone they love fall into depression and fear that the lack of concentration and the fatigue and the loss of appetite and the insomnia and the anxiety and the fatigue are all essentially innate and will inevitably lead the sufferer to the ultimate symptom- a desire to die. With this desire then leading to a genuine attempt at self-immolation.
It’s really not this way. Depression shows up in an endless array of forms and all who are granted the opportunity to explore the grounds are given an entirely unique tour of the facility.
I am four months or so into my first visit and, so far, I don’t like it here at all. It sucks. I wouldn’t recommend it. Not to anyone. And yet, my referring to the depression as an opportunity in the previous paragraph was not done facetiously. I absolutely believe in the idea that there are no problems- only opportunities. I completely adhere to the notion that everything happens for a reason and that we are rarely meant to understand what that reason is. Even in the worst throes of this illness, I have, on some level, trusted, that there are gifts to be found here.
That’s the nature of my relationship with my higher power. This, I would guess, is why I am never consulted on the syllabus of my existence. Because if I was asked for my input, the one element I would never recommend for myself is pain. Which is pretty fascinating considering I have an endless array of data proving that almost every drop of growth which has occurred in this journey of my humanity has come as a result of that very thing… pain. So it would seem that pain is not only a normal piece of the human experience, it is a critical piece. An absolutely necessary one. Without it, we’d be eternally and irrevocably stuck. For almost all of us, our lives begin with pain and end with pain. And all of our learning in between is undercut and thrust forward by pain. It is the great motivator. And yet, if God shows up at my doorstep on December 31st, 2011 and said,
“Listen, Michael, I am overrun with work here. Laying out the yearly prospectus for nearly seven billion folks is a bitch of a job, and this year I am running way behind. Delegation has never really been my strong suit, but I’m going to take a shot at it in the interest of the greater good. I’ve selected about a billion and a half folks to design their own game plans for 2012. Here’s the form. Be as specific as you can. Get it back to me by the morning and I’ll plug it into the computer. Cool?”
I imagine I might well say yes. And in completing the task at hand, I imagine that I might well include a lottery win, a patch for the ozone layer, a Yankee world series win, homes for the homeless and an album of Tom Waits covers by Bob Dylan. But I don’t think I would write in pain. Regardless of my certainty of its necessity, I am equally certain that I would leave it out. I suspect God, in God’s omniscient way, knows this about me. I further suspect this is why I am not asked for my opinion. My reality just goes the way it’s supposed to go and the pain just shows up willy-nilly and I use whatever tools I have at my disposal to move through it and come away with the gifts it inevitably brings. The depression is the latest pain. I have no doubts that it is somehow serving me and that the way it is serving me will continue to reveal itself and, eventually, lead me back to a place of serenity and gratitude.
What I am unsure of is whether I will still be around when that time comes. I repeat, I do not wish to die. Not yet anyway. What I mean is that there is no way to know that this depression won’t last for years and grow more and more painful until it is so excruciatingly unbearable that ending my life begins to make a certain amount of sense. I seriously doubt it. The trajectory of the depression has actually been going in the opposite direction and between my personal and professional support circles and my higher power, it’s being seriously tended to in a way that I am quite confident will bring be up from beneath its depths. But you never know. So I can’t possibly tell you that I would NEVER attempt to commit suicide.
And commit is the word I am sticking with in spite of the fact that my wife has informed me numerous times that the lion’s share of the helper communities now prefer the term “complete suicide.” Not for me. Sounds like another PC term we have invented which is meant to be more compassionate and yet ends up reading like very much the opposite. “Differently abled,” “physically challenged,” “little people,” “sanitation professionals”- as if people’s ignorance and lack of sensitivity were somehow housed in words like “cripple,” “midget” or “garbage man.” The term “complete” in place of “commit” feels like an attempt at softening something which is incredibly violent. My daughter “completes” her homework. My wife “completes” the taxes. My contractor “completes” the renovation. No one “completes” suicide. It’s not a task. It’s the opposite of a task. It’s the end of tasks. It’s takes true commitment. The most intense level of commitment that could possibly exist. A commitment to the end of hope. A commitment that no other doorway exists. A commitment to finality. People don’t “complete suicide.” They commit it.
So anyway, I’m nowhere near that level of commitment.
Though, I found out yesterday, that my family of origin have some doubts about that.
I awoke yesterday morning thinking about my capacity to give and receive love. I was enjoying my morning coffee and found myself giving specific thought to my most recent blog post about my mom. Allow me to be clear about this. I will not be writing about mom here. I think I have learned this lesson. No good comes of my blogging about mom. Suffices to say, that mom was not at all pleased about the post in question. And that’s the only point I wish to make about this. I was utterly dumbfounded by mom’s displeasure. Really. I could not have been more surprised. I genuinely experienced that post as an act of love. The fact that it was received as unkind, if not antagonistic, blew me away. And I’m not saying that mom was wrong. If we are actually going to use a right/wrong lens on this, the data would suggest it is I that is wrong. Yes, there were a few who read the words as they were intended, but the message I got from the greater majority was something along the lines of, “How did it not occur to you that writing all these personal, painful, details of her past would disturb her?” To which my answer is, “I do not know.” My suspicion is that I suffer from some level of social retardation. At the very least, it got me thinking.
Which brings me back to my morning cup of coffee. As I sipped at the caffeinated goodness, I wondered to myself, “Am I incapable of showing my family love in a manner which does not generate anger, despondency or worry?” And then I asked myself, “What would be the simplest way of expressing love for my mom? How could I express to mom that I love her in a manner so straightforward, so elementary, so transparent- that its warm reception would be all but guaranteed.
So I pulled out my iPhone, brought up moms number and wrote, “I love you.” Then I pressed send. Then I though about my struggles with Dad. I thought about how hard he seems to think I make it sometimes. So I pulled up dad’s number and wrote, “I love you,” and, again, pressed send. Then I thought about Sis and, while our relationship is wonderful without being very complicated, I didn’t want to leave Sis out. So, to Sis too, “I love you.” And that was that.
Three hours later, I emerged from my Al-Anon meeting to find two texts waiting for me. One was from Dad and the other from Sis. They both said, “Please call me now!” The exclamation marks read as potentially urgent so I texted back inquiries about whether everything was alright. I came to find that over the course of the morning, Mom, Dad and Sis, upon the realization that they had all received identical texts, got into their heads that the “I love yous” were potentially some sort of covert suicide note and that I was in peril.
Now, I am not saying that they are collectively nuts for fantasizing such a thing. I kind of get it. They know I have been depressed and, as they tend to read some of my ramblings on this blog, also are aware of a host of the emotional, spiritual and physical relapsing that have accompanied it. Further, I suppose that sometimes a simple message, especially when penned by someone who rarely communicates simplistically, can feel radical, maybe even ominous; especially when three identical messages show up at just about the same time. So I can see why they went where they did. I can see it now. Initially, my head was spouting something closer to:
“For real? I love you? You got your britches in a bunch over I love you?! Can I not do anything right?! Is there no way for me to express adoration in a manner which fails to get you people twisted up like a pretzel?! I GIVE UP!!!!”
So, yeah, that’s the part of me that tends to hear almost any kind of support as criticism. I let go of that fairly quickly. And with a few short phone conversations, any confusion had been dispelled and peace returned to the kingdom. In fact, it was actually the last thing I said to Dad in our conversation which spurred on this particular piece.
I said, “Dad. I promise, if I choose to off myself I will assuredly leave a far more comprehensive note, okay?”
He seemed to take it with the humor with which it was intended.
And then I began to think. Is that true? Would I leave an extensive note? And what would the note say? And who would I send it to? Is there just one note for everyone or are there multiple notes sent to multiple people? And do all the notes contain the same message? And how would I do it? What method am I driven to employ?
These seem like normal questions for any human being, suicidal or not, to ponder and I found myself surprised that, even in the midst of this wickedly depressive episode, I had not asked myself any of these questions. Ultimately, I suppose it speaks further to the idea that I am not, nor have I been, suicidal. Still I am a curious person, especially when it comes to the inner workings of my mind and heart. Plus, it seemed like good fodder a piece. Top notch grist for the blogging mill, as it were.
So how does Michael commit this dirty deed.
Disclaimer: If my propensity to stroll over to the dark side and investigate my own sadistic and homicidal tendencies has historically caused you distress, I highly recommend that now would be a good time to surf back over to Facebook and check your allotment of goat pellets on Farmville.
So here we go.
As to method, that part is simple. Pills. No question. Why does anyone go in any other direction? It’s gotta be pills. Go out in a billowing puff of pharmaceutical serenity. I really don’t know which pills would be most effective, but I’ve got to assume that four or five dozen or so of anything will get the job done. As far as that goes, I’m quite sure I have enough Ambien upstairs in my medicine cabinet to bring about the everlasting sleep. But fuck that. I want something that brings about a teeth rattling high before doing me in. Ambien fails in that regard, so online I go.
Most any addict will tell you that one of the great bummers of getting sober are the beverages and chemicals that science invents after you’ve climbed on the proverbial wagon. For example, I missed out on Tequila flavored beer and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Mind you, these missed opportunities aren’t keeping me up nights- I am simply aware of them. In that vein, My pill of choice has got to be Oxycontin. It showed up prominently a ways after I came to AA, and it sounds like a lot of fun.
Now, if I’m doing this, I’m going to make a day of it. This leaves a lot of hours to fill in as all I’ve really got planned is the denouement. I see that occuring around three in the morning. Considering that I generally get up around 8am (and I ain’t settin’ any bloody alarms on death day), I’ve got about 19 hours to think through.
Here’s how I see it.
First, it will be a Sunday. I imagine Lorri taking the girls out for the day, perhaps to her sisters place, and returning home around 8pm. This way, I can include the girls in the plan but still have the day to do what I want to do.
8am-9am: Coffee and Internet Surfing
I imagine I’ll forgo the Splenda packets and dump a shit load of sugar into the Java. Don’t really need to worry about calories anymore, right? As a matter of fact, you are about to find that shitty food will play a prominent role in my final day.
9am-10:30am: Breakfast at McDonald’s
The order will be composed of one order of hotcakes with butter and syrup, one sausage biscuit, one sausage McGriddle, four hash browns and a large orange juice. I am allotting myself far more time than I probably need. I eat regular, healthy food far too quickly. I eat starchy, greasy food like a starved wolverine. Consequently, even with travel time (I’m not eating at McDonald’s, of course. It’s coming home with me. McDonald’s demands isolation), I am probably done in 45 minutes. With the extra time, perhaps I’ll play a few games of tennis on the Wii.
11:30am-12:30pm: Drive time to U.S. Cellular Field
I’ll be watching The Yankees take on The White Sox. Interestingly, I just checked the schedule and in terms of a Sunday day game taking place in Chicago with The Yanks, that is going to happen exactly once in the coming season. So, if you’re up for something extra sinister, turns out I can actually give you my hypothetical expiration date. June 19, 2011. That particular game time is currently listed on the schedule as TBD (to be decided)- but almost all Sunday day games have a 1pm start time, so we’ll go with that. I’ll be stopping at a 7-11 on the way in to grab three packs of Marlboro Reds with no filters. I’ll listen to XTC’s Oranges and Lemons on the drive.
1pm-4pm: Yankees vs. White Sox
In my fantasy, the pitching match-up will be C.C. Sabathia vs. Mark Buehrle. I bang out a few beers to get mellow and probably pop a few Oxycontin to top them off. I will grab a program on the way in with a tiny pencil so that I can keep score. Over the course of the game, I see myself inhaling a steak sandwich and a large order of fries at South Side Hitmen Grille, two bratwurst at Lollar’s Guard The Plate Restaurant, a plate of nachos at The Triple Play Cafe, a waffle cone at Winning Ugly is Sweet, and a bag of peanuts and a box of cracker jacks in the stands. The entire game is tight and well played. As I exit to find my car, my scorecard shows that C.C. went 7 strong innings and left with the game tied. Rafael Soriano strikes out the side in the eighth, giving way to the great Mariano Rivera who retires the side in the ninth after Derek Jeter drives himself in to put the Yanks in the lead with an inside the park home run. Final score: Yankees 4 White Sox 3.
4pm-4:30: Drive to time to the west side to score
My eating at this point is probably shut down for the day, and I suppose forever, as it is time for speedballing. As I would like to be able to stay high the rest of the day, I am thinking 30 vials of crack cocaine and 6 dime bags of heroin. Considering what I was using at the high point of my addiction and the thirteen plus years that have passed since then, this is, without question, far more than I could possibly need. But better too much than too little, and, hell, what’s the worst thing that could happen… overdose?
4:30pm-5:30pm: Drive time back to the western suburbs
I’ll snort up a bag of dope and hit the stem a few times before I jump on the highway. Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs will play loudly all the way back.
5:30pm-8:00pm: Getting very, very high
Crazy high. Walking the edge of your own sanity high. Rip snorting, skull shattering, rocketed into an alternate dimension high. I foresee me sitting Indian style in the oversized plush chair in my office with the lights turned down low. My goodies spread liberally across the coffee table. Bags of dope, vials of rock, pack of cigarettes, a few lighters, ash tray, crack stem, bent hanger for scraping the pipe, small straw cut at an angle for scooping the dope, and a large glass of water.
Laptop whispering the soundtrack for the next 180 minutes:
- The Mountain Goats- We Shall All Be Healed (42:04)
- Bon Iver- For Emma, Forever Ago (37:19)
- Joni Mitchell- Blue (35:41)
- Jackson C. Frank- Blues Run the Game (32:25)
- Damien Jurado- Saint Bartlett (35:35)
8:00pm-9:30pm: Fun time with the girls
It might seem surprising that I would be available to hang out with my daughters geeked to the gills on lethal narcotics. This is one of the many conundrums of the junkie. The ability to play chemistry set and find just the right balance allowing one to simultaneously numb the senses and exist amongst the humans. Speedballing (the combination of a stimulant and depressant) is especially beneficial in this quest for anesthetic balance as it allows for the subject to avoid getting too jacked up or too doped down. It’s also an incredibly efficient way to make your heart explode. Anyway, the plan would be ninety minutes of my favorite activities with the girls. First we would play games; Old Maid, Go Fish and Uno preferably. Then I would run them a bubble bath, wash them until they squeak, adorn them in their matching polka dot robes and snuggle between them in my bed. Then I would fervently read them some of our favorite books. I think the list would be:
- Pinkalicious by Victoria Kann
- Skippy Jon Jones by Judy Schachner
- Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems
- Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt
- Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss
After reading time, I would get them set up with an episode of Phineas & Ferb and watch the first few minutes holding them both before heading downstairs to Lorri.
9:30pm-11:00pm: Last Moments with Lorri
Lorri and I have a great tradition of snuggling close and watching reruns of our favorite shows. Sometimes it blows me away that she and I can sit and watch an episode of Frasier that we have both seen at least six times and completely enjoy the experience. Since we watch almost everything on the DVR, we can watch an episode in about 20 minutes, so I am going to choose two which, of course, I will have done the legwork to get taped in advance. I am going to go with:
- The King of Queens Season 3, Episode 6 entitled “Strike Too”
Original Air Date—6 November 2000
“It is week two of the IPS strike, and Doug still has not gotten a job. To get back on his feet, his sister Stephanie get him a substitute teacher job at her school. However, it is a high school, and the kids are not so nice. Can Doug survive?”
- Will & Grace Season 6, Episode 2 entitled “Last Ex to Brooklyn”
Original Air Date—2 October 2003
Grace and Leo are having a dinner party to which Grace invites Will, Jack and Karen. And Leo’s just pumped into his ex, Diane, and invited her too. Grace assures Will, Jack and Karen, that there is no drama forthcoming. None whatsoever. Absolutely not. Unless it turns out that Diane is a secret from someone’s past.
After the completion of our sitcom snuggling, Lorri and I will ascend the stairs to our bedroom and make passionate love for the last time.
As Lorri basks in the post-orgasmic glow, I will escape to the bathroom and pop one Ambien and one Trazodone.
I get back into the bed and Lorri finds that perfect spot where my chest meets my armpit and I hold her tightly as we both drift gently off to sleep.
It’s not an exact science with the sleeping pills, but they generally keep me down for 4 to 5 hours, so this is a rough estimate.
I awaken somewhat cloudy and disoriented but quickly recall what has been occurring and what I have yet to finish. My head is banging and my stomach is more than a little upset as four hours of sleep has my body screaming for more narcotics. I lay out a full bag of dope in a single line and inhale it with vigor up my left nostril. I forgo digging back into the crack as I wish to be as calm as possible as I begin this final march into all eternity. I walk to the bathroom to take a piss and before I shake off the final droplets, the dope clears my head and warms my skin. I walk into each of the girls rooms and kneel at their individual bedsides. I smooth the bangs off their foreheads and kiss them both gently on the lips. I whisper the words, “I love you,” followed by the words, “I’m sorry.”
I grab my pills and head back down to the office with a large glass of water, a small dish of vanilla yogurt and a large spoon. I pin the note I have written for Lorri to the arm of the overstuffed chair and drag the chair right up to the foot of the stairs, that she could not possibly make her way down the next set of stairs and find my body without seeing it first.
Then I head down to the sub-basement and snuggle up on the futon with remote in hand.
I have decided that I will end my life watching the film “Dazed & Confused.”
I though about just listening to music, but I feared that it might focus me in too strongly on the gravity of the moment rendering it impossible to enjoy. Television was my next thought (I would undoubtedly have decided to go with episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm), but I wished to avoid the hassle of having to start up a new episode once the previous one has concluded. Obviously, there is no way to know how long it will take for the opiates to take me out or to know what my capacities might be while I am waiting. So a single continuous 100 minute piece seemed like the most efficient choice.
As to the particular movie choice, it was a strangely simple one. If I was to make a “top ten favorite films of all time” list, “Dazed” would not appear. If I extended the list to 25, it probably would. This is hardly the point, though. The majority of my favorite films are rather heavy dramas (Short Cuts, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, All About Eve) and would really not suit the bill. A comedy seems far more appropriate. But not a jokey comedy. Not a chock full of one liners comedy. “The Big Lebowski” and “Caddyshack” are classics but, again, not the tone I am seeking. I need something light and airy. I need something not dependent on plot structure. I need something effortlessly entertaining from the first frame to the last. And most of all, I need something reflective of a simpler time. “Dazed” fits that bill perfectly. “Dazed and Confused” is the equivalent of having an elaborate dinner composed exclusively of teeny, fabulous hors d’oeuvres. The whole meal being just one perfect pop of flavor after another.
As the opening credits reveal themselves to the tune of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” I begin to chop up the pills into a fine powder. As Pink and Simone discuss potentially meeting up at the “first day back to school” party that evening, I carefully brush the dust of what was, just moments ago, sixty pills, into the small dish of yogurt. As Pickford and Slater discuss getting together before the party to conduct a drug deal, I am meticulously stirring the powder into the dish of yogurt. As Tony describes to Mike his dream of fucking a beautiful torso with the head of Abraham Lincoln, I quickly devour the yogurt. As Don delivers the coaches sobriety pledge to Pink, I begin the wait. By the time Darla begins screaming “Air Raid!” at the freshman girls, I am unconscious. And by the time Pickford’s parents shut down the party, I am gone.
The next morning, after calling my out my name numerous times in vain, Lorri makes her way down to the office. Before she reaches the bottom of the stairwell, she sees the note. She opens it curiously and reads.
My one and only love-
Please, I beg of you, read this note to its conclusion before taking any other action. It is my second to last request.
I have taken my life. I am not here anymore. I am not far. And I am in no more pain.
My body lies one floor below and my last request- the last thing I will ever ask of you- is that you do not walk down there.
Call 911 and allow them to come and take what lies downstairs. It is not me. It is a shell. A shell I am done with. You know this to be true. Every bit of training you have and every bit of your spirit knows that there is nothing for you in the sub-basement.
I will keep this short as I do not wish to needlessly detain you from beginning your mourning and assisting the girls in theirs.
I can’t imagine how you will accomplish such a task, but I do believe that if there is a person in the world who can do so, it is you.
I don’t have the words to begin to express my sorrow and regret over this burden I have heaped upon you. It is selfish to an extreme that lives beyond words. I suppose, ultimately, I believed that the burden of my vacancy could not possibly outdo the burden of my residency.
I was too much for this world. Actually, I suppose this world was too much for me.
As you well know by now, the only dreams I ever had as a boy regarding the future, were dreams of being a husband and a father. The very best husband and father.
And in the very wildest, most absurdist versions of those dreams, the woman and children I fantasized were not one millionth of one percent as remarkable as you and Ryan and Sydney.
Every single dream I ever had for myself was eclipsed by our wedding day in 1999- and eclipsed again by the birth of our little Lynski in 2003- and eclipsed again by the emergence of the force of nature that is our J.J. in 2006. And from there…?
I guess from there came the inevitable decline. It was too much for me. You, all of you, were too much for me.
Too much goodness. Too much splendor. Too much light.
I never did live in the light. You know this. I was destined for darkness. My reality was always found in the wee hours. In the cold corners. I suppose, in the end, I just ran out of places to hide.
Please take care of my babies. Help them understand. Tell them I will always be with them; beside them; inside them.
You were the greatest gift of all, my bride. Not just the greatest gift I was given. The greatest gift there is. A gift I was never worthy of- but a gift I will cherish until there is no more time. I always said that you were my angel. That was never meant as a metaphor. I always believed that you were- that you are- an actual angel. Accordingly, I don’t believe your work is done here.
I believe you are destined to save lives and change the world. You already have accomplished this to an extent, but the heights you will now soar to are beyond your current vision. This is know.
When you reach those inevitable heights, I pray that you’ll look back with less anger and torment than you must have just now, and remember one of your earlier projects.
Perhaps not your most important one. But one to whom you provided a love unlike any other mortal has ever known. I only wish my little heart had more room to contain it.
Remember what we’ve shared.
Save a little room for me and I’ll find my in.
I’ll always be with you.
I love you.
I miss you already.
Wow. I can’t believe how powerful that was. Was it powerful for you as well? To read it, I mean. Jesus! I’m caught somewhere between horribly disturbed and abundantly grateful. I must tell you, friends; writing your own ending and then stepping back to a story that promises to continue, barring a catastrophe, for quite a while longer, is a hell of a thing.
I suppose I’ve never spent a whole lot of time thinking about my own mortality. I’ve never really been scared of dying. Quite frankly, up until the late 90’s, I never believed I had much of a chance of making it past thirty. And yet, here I am on the eve of forty with, as earlier stated, more riches than I ever thought someone like me could possibly amass. And, in spite of my mock suicide note, most days I actually believe that I am worthy of it.
I think that what was really so enlightening was the fact that what began as a simple curiosity- what I imagined as a sort of fun (albeit morbid) exercise- turned out to be something altogether different. Something entirely unexpected. It turned out to be frightening.
As I continued to write, the project slowly began to take me places I had no intention of wandering toward. It became something of an out-of-body experience. Right up until The Yankee game, the whole piece was feeling sort of blackly frivolous. And then it wasn’t. As I wrote about myself playing with my daughters, high, knowing what was coming, and watching their innocent, naive faces lovingly engage someone they believed would always be a part of their lives… it became sort of terrifying. It was almost as if I was up above myself watching my fingers type away on the keyboard unable to stop what I had originally thought was a farce. As if by writing it, I was dooming it to occur.
Right around the time I was writing about putting the girls to bed and coming downstairs to join Lorri, I was feeling completely overwhelmed by the piece and decided to walk away and take a break. I sat down at the counter and joined Lorri for a cup of coffee and told her about what I had been writing and where I had come to in the piece. Working in hospice for all these years, my wife’s pinky toe knows more about death and dying than I could ever hope to know. So, while she was a bit taken aback by what I was doing, she understood the potentially cathartic nature of such an undertaking. I told her that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back and finish it. She said that maybe I didn’t need to. I said that somehow it felt important to do so. She said she was not sure she would want to read it. I said that I understood.
Funny thing. I began thinking about the composition of this piece early this morning. I began writing it around noon. I gave Ryan some lunch and we played Go Fish and then I wrote some more. We colored oversized pictures of the superfriends and then I wrote a bit more. I went and took the Watson-Glazer exam in advance of starting my Masters Degree in a few months and then I continued writing. I stopped off to pick up Lorri and the girls from The Brownie troop meeting where she was subbing for me so I could take my test, and then we came home and I wrote. It is 12:10 AM and I as I prepare to write these last few words and sign off the computer I am aware of a single, powerful piece of data.
I have felt less depression today than I have on any day in the last four months.
So I’m on the phone with my buddy. My recent postings regarding notions of relapse had triggered some long-held resentments with me which he had, until now, been reluctant to share. My particular relationship with this friend has been multi-faceted as well as multi-layered and the reasons behind his particular activation are far too extensive to attempt to address in this forum and, in terms of this particular piece, are beside the point. The reason I bring up the conversation is because of a particular metaphor he chose to employ in addressing said resentments.
This is my recollection of what he said:
“Over these past few years, as I have been a regular reader of the blog, I have often found myself frustrated by a certain level of authority which I have experienced as an innate part of your authorship. As I have read the many accounts of your conversations with others (family in particular), I sometimes experience you sort of like a sniper in a nest. You seem to be able to make others wrong and frame it in a manner where it is sort of impossible to crack through your stream of logic.”
“I hear you- and I am particularly struck, if not troubled, by the idea of me as a sniper. I’m not sure that I can successfully navigate a conversation with you about my relationship or interaction with others. I’d prefer we keep it on how you experience me in my relationship with you. Is there any history you are aware of where I actually told you, or inferred to you, that you were wrong about something?”
“No. You have never told me that I was wrong about anything.”
This is but a snippet of what was a profound conversation with someone I come to treasure more with each passing day. And I felt relieved that his direct experience of me was not one of rigidity or stridency. Still, there was something in the writing he experienced quite differently.
He experienced me as something of an agitator.
Now, this was not exactly news. While I make every effort to keep the writing on my side of the street and focus specifically on what it looks to live in my skin- I am well aware that the my choice of tone is often quite provocative- if not antagonistic.
The purpose is never to cause harm or hurt feelings, and I stand by the idea that I am not responsible for the feelings of others- still, it would be awfully naive for me to tell myself that I am always entirely free of responsibility in terms if impact. For those who have been willing to process their experience of my writing (like my friend), it seems that the blog has been, for some, a powerful portal toward reaching greater clarity in their relationship with me.
I mean, I’m not Hemingway. Hell, I’m not even sure I’m Grisham. Therefore, my attempts at clear, concise writing often fall short, and the opportunity to speak with someone (like my buddy) often helps me understand the intense power of interpretation. There have been multiple times where I have experienced myself being extremely careful in my written interpretation of an event only to be accused of being reckless- even maniacal. Considering the type of writing I do, this is, most certainly, a part of the deal. And it is a part which I readily, although sometimes less than comfortably, accept.
And yet, the conversation with my friend got me to thinking about the people who love me, but whose predominant experience of the machinations of Michael have been almost solely limited to my writing.
Which, in turn, got me thinking about my mom.
Mom and I… I don’t know. It’s been complicated. Complicated at best. At worst it’s been excruciating.
Not excruciating because I have a bad mother. I don’t have a bad mother.
I have a wonderful mother.
That’s what, at times, has made it so painful.
I adore my mother.
I suppose there were times I wished I didn’t. Or at least times when I though that it might hurt less if my mom was nothing more than an uncaring, unlikable shrew.
She’s not. Not at all. My mother is a remarkable woman. If you met her, I feel entirely confident you’d like her. At least. You’d at least like her. Chances are, you’d love her. Most do. She is the activities director for a large nursing home and if you went to that place and interviewed the residents and the staff, you’d surely come away with the notion that my mother is well on her way to sainthood.
I’m not exaggerating.
In fact, she has often called my attention to the way others receive her. We have had multiple conversations where she has dictated for me how easy those around her find it to love her; and how easy they find it to allow her to love them.
In many of those same conversations I have retorted with much the same. That is, I have told my mom how many people love and respect me and how effortless it seems to be for them to do so.
I suspect that both of us are both failing at trying to relay the same undercurrent message:
“Everybody else is crazy about me… why aren’t you?!”
We struggle with each other. I’m not sure either us really understands exactly why that is. I have my theories. She has hers.
One key difference, though, is that she has never detailed any of hers in a public forum.
I write in memoir form. I write about my life. I write about my experiences, my feelings, my struggles.
And some of my struggles have been with mom.
So I have written about mom.
Not often. But I have. If you have read those posts, fine. If you haven’t, fine too. But I have written about mom. Mom was not happy about it. Actually, that’s a vast understatement. Mom was incredibly hurt and angered by it. What’s more, I suspect she believed me entirely unmoved by her hurt and anger.
Mom, and not just mom, believes that I threw her under the bus.
I don’t think that. Not at all. I believed then, as I do now, that I wrote about my experience and about my feelings. I believed then, as I do now, that the writing was honest without ever veering into the cruel or slanderous.
And yet, I am brought back to this conversation with my buddy. And I am brought back to the question of impact.
I am aware, have always been aware, that I have a rather intense impact on others. I tend to leave my mark (no pun intended). And with the impact, whether I like or not (and often I don’t) comes responsibility.
So, no, I don’t believe I am responsible for mom’s feelings or mom’s experience- but if I have any interest in having any relationship with mom (and I am), I need to be accountable for the impact my words have.
My buddy experienced me as something of an agitator; a provocateur.
I have no intention of figuring out a way to write where I will never be perceived that way by anyone. That would entirely neuter my creative process and that is, in no way, acceptable.
But that does not mean that my words need only detail the painful parts of my life or my relationships.
My buddy asked me that as well.
“Why are you always writing about the pain and the hardships?”
Another good question.
I guess the dark side is more fascinating to me. I mean, the easy parts of life are… well… easy. They don’t tend to inspire a whole lot of art. Art is about struggle. The Beatles were boring as snot when they were writing about holding hands. They were awesome when they wrote about guitars weeping.
So I’m not here to take back anything I’ve written in regard to mom. But I am here to provide a more complete picture.
I want to tell you other things about my experience of my mom. The reasons I love her. Why she is special. The ways in which I am blessed to have had her.
And this is not a difficult task. What is easy about mom far outweighs what is difficult. It’s not even a contest. Clearly, at times, for me, what is difficult has been so difficult, that it has clouded out what is easy. I’m working on that. I’d like to have this not be the case. I’d like to always feel so safe and loved within the easy stuff that the difficult stuff bounces off me like Teflon.
I’m not there yet.
Still, I want to do this. And I want to do it here. In this forum.
And, yes, perhaps it is the continuation of a cowardly, passive-aggressive form of communication.
I don’t think so. I’ve never written anything that I would be unwilling to say to someone’s face. These things I wish to tell you here are not things that I have never said to mom or things I wouldn’t say again.
I’m simply aware that I have written about the difficult parts here and I feel inspired to give voice to some of the easy parts. I have no idea if mom will find this any more appealing than the latter. I’m going to do it anyway.
So here are some things you ought to know.
My mom is strong. I don’t mean physically strong, although she is that.
My mother is resilient. Incredibly so. My mother has an otherworldly level of tenacity. She is, essentially, the heir to the Lithuanian bull who was my grandfather Simon- the patriarch of the clan. She’s not the eldest. That’s my Aunt Enid. My Uncle Bob is the only son. But mom got the strength.
I’m not strong like mom.
I’m a pussy.
I’m not crapping on myself. I just am. I’m a soft, emotional boy. I always was. My grandfather used to say I had no starch. It’s true.
Let’s say you invited my mother and I to sleep over at your house. If you didn’t give me my own room with a clean, comfortable bed and a television with cable- I’m not going to be comfortable. My mom, you could put in the bathtub.
I admire my mom’s strength. Her toughness. Her capacity to overcome. She’s a second generation Holocaust survivor and in 1986 she endured a holocaust all her own.
Her life imploded.
Her junkie husband left her for his mistress.
Left her with two kids and not much money.
That was bad. But then…
Then the Pandora’s Box popped open.
All the secrets being kept in the hidden corners of Wayne N.J., the secrets that everyone in town except my mother, my sister and I seemed to know, began to spill over.
It wasn’t just dad’s mistress. It was others. And not just strangers. It was some of mom’s closest friends.
And I’m not trying to rag on dad here. Dad was an addict. Much like I would eventually do, Dad hit his bottom and found recovery. Dad is a good man. But it doesn’t change what happened.
Mom was decimated. I didn’t know that then. I was fourteen. My life had also been turned upside down and I did not have anywhere near the emotional tools that I needed to navigate such a foundation shift.
But I didn’t have any kids to raise. I didn’t have a mortgage to pay. And I hadn’t been utterly humiliated in the eyes of a town in which I had spent a decade and a half digging roots.
And she made it through. Without drugs, no less. She made it through. She came out the other side. She came the other side like a phoenix.
Mom had nothing but an Associate degree and no discernible skill to draw on in terms of building a career. She had spent four decades set up to be a homemaker and now had to rejigger the whole system. And she did.
Today she has a powerful job, running a critical department of a large corporation. She makes a very comfortable living and lives in a magnificent condo.
She made it through. Some of the tactics she employed to make it through felt less than ideal to me. Some of them have comprised the core of my difficulties with mom. But she made it thorough.
And the thing is…
The thing is that I am quite sure that I could not do the same thing.
I hope I’m wrong. More importantly, I hope that I never have to find out.
I imagine myself in a similar scenario…
Lorri, unbeknownst to me, is sleeping with, and then falls in love with, another man and decides that he is the man she is meant to be with. And she leaves. She goes to be with the man she betrayed me with. The girls stay with me, but on the weekends they go stay over with Lorri… and him. And let’s say he is a good guy. They get to know him. They like him. Maybe they love him.
Even as I wrote that, all I could imagine was me in the corner of my bathroom with a crack pipe. That’s the only scenario I can picture that doesn’t have my body splashed across a sidewalk at the foot of a very large building.
Mom is strong in a way I could not imagine being.
And that’s just the first quality that pops for me. The one I most admire. The one I most envy.
Mom is stylish. She’s got an incredible wardrobe. From the jeans to the furs, she is always immaculate. And without trying to be weird, she is, hands down, the hottest sixty year old woman you’ve ever seen. Mom is the one who taught me it’s better to buy one really good shirt than three cheap ones.
Mom is smart. Really smart. My brain didn’t come from nowhere, you know. Neither did my skills as a counselor. Mom is the go-to person for everyone she knows. Mom will always lend an ear and always has practical advice. Mom is warm and empathic. Most people feel better just by being in her presence.
Mom is funny. We don’t necessarily have the same sense of humor, but mom has a sharp wit. She digs on sarcasm and when she’s in a light mood, she can get going with a cackle that I have always loved the sound of and have always been desirous of drawing out of her. I’ve not heard much of it in the last few years.
Mom is generous. She’s not a spendthrift. She’s not loaded and I sense she lives in a lot of fear of not having enough. Still, when it comes to her family, she is quick with the checkbook. Though she doesn’t get to see them nearly as much as she would like, she spoils the crap out of my children. Every birthday, every holiday, and often for no reason at all, we come home to big packages on our doorstep with the return address post marked “Bubbe.”
She cooks well and loves fine cuisine. She revels in crappy television and sees nearly every film released in the theater. She’s a beast of a Scrabble player. She’s fiercely competent in her work. She’s not religious but loves being a Jew. She drives a bitchin’ BMW. She’s cool. She’s loyal. She’s tender. She’s savvy. She’s handy. She’s brash. She’s creative. She’s worldly. She’s affectionate.
The ways in which my life is better for having come from inside of her are endless.
After reading what I had previously written regarding my difficulties in the relationship, mom had made it clear that until I saw my way clear to apologizing, I would not have a mother. I genuinely did not understand that I had wronged her or done anything harmful. I understood that she felt hurt and angry and was very willing to have a conversation with her about that- but she made it pretty clear that there was no room for such a conversation. I couldn’t see how my saying sorry about something for which I did not feel sorry or saying sorry because I had been threatened with consequences could possibly be healthy for me or for our relationship.
So I chose not to.
And she chose not to make herself available to me. And I accepted that.
Then Lorri asked if we could road trip out to New Jersey for Channukah. The girls hadn’t seen her in about a year and they missed her. They love her dearly. And with good reason. She is a dynamite grandmother. I asked Lorri if mom was okay with my being there and she assured me that she was. I acquiesced. I was a bit nervous. A bit curious how we would handle being around each other for four days after months of silence.
It was fine. A little chilly, but perfectly civil.
It was the last day. We had the car warming in the garage, fully packed for the ride home. Lorri and the girls said their goodbyes and mom and I headed toward each other for a hug. There was a time where the physicality came easily for both of us, but it had been a while. We hugged and, as we did, mom whispered something in my ear. I’m still not sure what she said, but I think it was, “You be well.” I don’t know why, but in that moment I felt something that I had not felt from her in a long, long time.
I felt warmth.
It was powerful. Powerful in that it felt good. But more so because it amplified how much fear had long festered in the relationship. I am scared of my mother. And, in some ways, I believe that she is scared of me. We had long approached each other with the kind of caution you might utilize with the neighborhood pit bull.
For a moment, for me, the fear was gone.
Me and my beautiful ladies got in the elevator, waved one more time, and descended down to the first floor. Lorri got Sydney into her car seat and I snapped in Ryan. Lorri put on her belt and as I stepped up into the SUV I was overcome with the certainty that there was something that I needed to do. I told Lorri that I would be a second and raced back to the elevator. I was on my way back up not even sure of what I was doing or why. But I knew that it had to happen.
Mom opened the door and asked if I had forgotten something.
“No mom,” I said, “there’s just something that I need to tell you. You know, I process the way I process. My intention is never to hurt anyone, least of all you. I’m aware that some of my writing a ways back… that you felt deeply hurt. And I want you to know that I am sorry that you were hurt.”
And I was. I was sorry that she was hurt. I didn’t regret the writing. But I don’t want my mom to be hurt. I love my mom.
I had no idea if that would suffice for her. it didn’t matter. I didn’t do it for her. I did it because I knew it was the next right action. It felt organic. It felt real. It felt right.
She cried. I cried. We embraced.
I went back down to the garage.
Lorri, surprisingly, didn’t ask questions about why I had gone back up.
I pulled the car into drive and we headed west.
Now me and mom are…
I guess we’ re better. It’s better.
I don’t really know what we are.
But we are talking. And that is nice.
I don’t know where we go from here. I certainly don’t experience this piece as meant to drive us in a particular direction. I don’t even know if she will ever read it or be aware that it exists.
I just sensed that you folks should know a little bit more about her.
So there you have it.
Literally. Relapse. Not ten minutes ago I completely screwed the pooch.
I was unkind to my wife. I lost my temper. I was mean.
I was wrong. And I was mean.
We had just gotten into bed. She with the Mac on her lap (working on the taxes) and me with the PC on mine (to write this post). Additionally, to my right, on the bedside table, was a green plastic cup filled a quarter of the way up with water that I may take my pills when I was ready for sleep. Lorri looks over and mentions that my iPhone ought be removed from the table as it is quite expensive and would most probably be ruined were the water to spill.
“The water is not going to spill.”
Lorri takes a moment to remind me that the wood coating covering the top is raised and warped in multiple spots as a result of my leaving many glasses of water (many) to be pushed over and spilled by one of our three cats.
“I understand that. This is why I have only put a little water in the glass which I will summarily swallow previous to turning in for the night.”
Lorri tells me that this is not really the point. She attempts to be clear that it takes only a second for one of the cats to jump up and create a genuine problem which could very easily be solved by my removal of the iPhone.
I relent and move the phone, but not without grumbling that I am not a child and am quite capable of seeing to it that an inch of water does not spill over while I sit, very wide awake, not six inches away from it.
She again begins to tell me that I am missing the point, at which point I cut her off:
“I am not missing the fucking point! The point is that I don’t need to be infantilized by your baseless worries. I know I have made some bad choices with water. I got it. I know. Having learned from those mistakes, I have made a point to bring only the little bit of water I will need to take my damn pills, which will not be there to be knocked over. There is not going to be some covert cat sneak attack in the meantime. You wanted me to move the phone, I moved the phone! Get off my ass!”
Selfish. Rageful. Impulsive.
1st step: We accepted we were powerless over [insert addiction here]- that our lives had become unmanageable
I am powerless over impulsivity, rage and selfishness because they most definitely make my life unmanageable.
The reason I avoid drinking alcohol is that I never know where one drink might lead me. It might lead me to a few drinks, a buzz, and my bed- it might lead me to a three-day binge which has me waking up in Winnipeg without any idea of how I got there. It’s always Russian Roulette. It’s a bad bet. So it’s one I try to avoid making.
Similarly, once I make a choice to be selfish and rageful, I don’t really know where they will take me. They might lead me to five minutes of uncomfortability followed by an amend or they might lead me to days of misery with a deep need to harm myself.
Much like my recent dance with painkillers, I came out of this one mostly unscathed.
After my little rant, and a short discomforting silence, I apologized to Lorri. I told her that she was right to be concerned, especially considering my past behavior and that my temper was uncalled for and inappropriate. We kissed and tenderly went on with our respective work.
Here’s the thing. This was not my first relapse today.
I got on the scale this morning. I also got on the scale late this afternoon.
I am powerless over the scale. It makes my life unmanageable.
When I am in scale abstinence, which is the ideal state for me and the scale, the scale is hidden somewhere in the house. Lorri abides that request. She also gets that she is not responsible for my craziness and lets me have the scale back when I ask for it. For me, the scale is no different from a shot of Makers Mark. Once I get on, depending on the data the scale chooses to share with me, I might not get on again for a month or I might get on every other hour.
Further, I began the day with a cup of coffee. I am powerless over caffeine. I’m not entirely sure how unmanageable it makes my life, but it most certainly affects my mood. I am unequivocally addicted to the drug caffeine. Once I have that first cup, I never know how many more there’ll be. Could be just the one. Today it was five. Down time, boredom, tiredness and social custom all participate in dictating the numbers.
Then there are the number of hours I spent on the internet today. Just logging on can be paramount to a vodka martini or a Kit Kat. I might just check my email and jump off. I might end up staring mindlessly at Facebook for two hours waiting for someone to check that they like the new Iron & Wine video I posted.
Those are the relapses I can recall. There were probably more. There were a few yesterday and there will undoubtedly be some tomorrow.
My sponsor has oft stated, “In my active addiction, I had one relapse a day- and it lasted all day long. In recovery, I relapse multiple times a day for far shorter periods.”
I am quite sure his point is that he used to be in denial and now he is not.
He was blind but now he can see.
I tend not to revisit the subjects I introduce via The Approvalholic. Hell, I have an endless array of subjects to address and time is running away.
And yet, there is something about the way the previous two posts appeared to inform each other for some readers which brought me back to the notion of relapse.
This is to say that my last post detailing a genuine dark night of the soul may have mistakenly given the impression that I had come to understand my ideas concerning relapse as ego-fueled or some kind of convenient justification. This is not so. I mean, my ego and my denial are often bed partners and it is always possible that their alliance shows up uninvited and unnoticed. But since I can’t presently be conscious of my subconscious, I’m sticking with what I can overtly feel. My bottom around authority did nothing to shift my feelings concerning relapse. In fact, much to the contrary.
I was especially charged by a conversation I had shared with my father who has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for many years. Dad was very concerned about my use of painkillers. And let me be clear. He had every right to be. I am certainly powerless over painkillers and they clearly make my life unmanageable. And he’s my dad. So his worry certainly seemed entirely appropriate. What is most fascinating to me is that he understands the use of pain pills as relapse, but not the caffeine, the scale, the internet, the rage or the selfishness. Yes, I think we can all agree that the pain pills could probably take me down faster than the others. But is that really how we define addiction? Is there a hierarchy based on what can kill you most efficiently?
Now another factor is that dads 12-step membership is limited to AA whereas mine extends to Overeaters Anonymous (OA) and Al-Anon. Without attempting to take Dad’s inventory, he has copped many times to having “earned a seat” in both those programs but has not frequented either to my understanding. I am not suggesting this to be good or bad- simply pertinent. Because I’ve got to imagine it informs the way a person views notions of addiction and relapse.
If we were to attempt to split all the 12-step programs into two camps, we might do so by designating the “stop doing it” camp (that is the programs where we are told that abstinence is the complete absence of the behavior- such as AA, GA (Gamblers Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous)) and the “do it differently” camp (that is the programs where we are told to define our own notions of abstinence by shifting the way we engage in the behavior such as Al-Anon, OA and SA (Sex Anonymous)).
For the dually addicted, this can become confusing, trying to keep track of what actions or inaction set me up as a success or failure in the eyes of each particular program.
Also, in each program, we have what is referred to as “the singleness of purpose.” This tells us to that in AA we stick to dealing with the booze and in OA we stick to dealing with the food, etc and never the twain shall meet. This is not only practical, but critical for many newcomers who perhaps don’t yet understand that, to a large extent, an addict is an addict is an addict.
Again, this brings us back to how we understand addiction.
I would offer up that addiction is an attempt at finding an “outside answer” to an “inside problem.” A desire to squelch uncomfortable truths with exterior anesthetics. Consequently, whether I am running from my issues via the use of booze, drugs, sex, food or whatever is, to a large extent, beside the point.
The newcomer crack addict might believe that he can only get help from another crack addict. We want him to understand that he is safe among his own, so we create this environment for him. That same crack addict may find himself two years sober with sixty extra pounds on his body as a product of a newly found sugar addiction. He can then seek out the singleness of purpose in Overeaters Anonymous and bond with the foodies. He finds a different sponsor and goes through the steps again. A year later, he has dropped the weight only to find that he has maxed out three credit cards as he charges his way toward debtor’s prison. Well, Debtor’s Anonymous (DA) is a powerful program with step work and sponsors as well. He starts tracking his spending and constructing a budget. He realizes that he spends an enormous amount of money on internet porn. He shifts to using the free sites and quickly finds himself in an SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) meeting and then, upon visiting an Al-Anon meeting with his wife, realizes he needs their help as well.
So by the time this addict wraps his brain around all the substances that make his life unmanageable, he is trying to figure out how to get to the individual meetings of five different programs, manage call times with five different sponsors and finish up several in depth fourth steps.
Perhaps for this man, and many like him, the singleness of purpose begins to become less than useful, if not a bit crippling. Perhaps a widening of the net becomes necessary. Perhaps the best bet for this man is to let go of the need to compartmentalize every addiction (and maybe even consistantly restarting four or five different day counts)- and begin to experience himself as an addict. An addict who, when engaging the things that he is powerless over, finds himself edging closer and closer to unmanagability. An addict who is constantly relapsing.
And constantly recovering.
With the backing of Alcoholics Anonymous, I went ahead and started a new fellowship called Shame and Secrets Anonymous (SSA). Yes, beginning a new program didn’t make the authoritative ego challenges any easier. This is why SSA, as an organization, is presently on hiatus. I need it to be for my own well being. And, barring someone else stepping forth and volunteering to start up a new SSA meeting, it will be for a while.
With that said, I believe in the concept more than I believe in almost anything else.
John Bradshaw said that all addictions are essentially addictions to shame. And shame is driven by secrecy. For it would seem that the only reason to keep secrets about anything is because you are telling yourself that whatever you are keeping a secret about is, in some way, bad or wrong.
But, see, that is an illusion. Good and bad and right and wrong and best and worst are simply adjectives that humans put on things. They are judgments about choices.
Choices, though, are, in truth, neutral.
Think of it this way. Can you name a single thing… a single action… a single choice… a single anything that every human being on the planet would agree is bad or wrong? You can’t. It’s impossible. Therefore what we understand as bad or wrong is not about truth, it is about perspective. If you let go of the perspective, just long enough to grasp that it IS a perspective, than you are left with nothing but a choice and it’s consequences.
Because consequences ARE real. Choices are not innately good or bad- but all choices come with consequences. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time, as it were.
If I don’t find the consequences of my choices enjoyable, I am free to make different choices. In the 12-step rooms we are often told that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results. That is denial. The delusion that things will change without our changing our choices. As addicts, we come to see that without help from a power greater than ourselves we are doomed to repeat the same choices until we perish. With the steps, we open up a portal to that power which in turn empowers us to make different choices.
Not all the time. Just more often.
Progress not perfection.
When we make better choices, our lives seem to go more smoothly. We spend more time manageable.
That has been my experience. With Gods help, as a result of my work in The 12 Steps, my life has gotten increasingly better. With each passing year, while my many relapses continue, I become happier more of the time. I spend less time as a prisoner of my addictions and more time walking in the sunlight of the spirit.
When I approach addiction from this vantage point, as an overarching entity (my addict self)- I do not find it useful to keep careful track of how many days it has been since my last drink, my last drug, my last binge, my last spending spree, my last cigarette, my last cup of coffee, my last sexual escapade, or my last tirade.
I stay mindful. I stay aware. I check in. I stay honest. There’s nothing wrong with me getting drunk today. There’s nothing wrong with me gorging myself on McDonalds today. That’s my shame talking. I don’t attempt to refrain from these behaviors because they are naughty. I attempt to refrain from these behaviors because I don’t care for the consequences that they generally seem to come with.
When I yelled at my wife, I didn’t like how I felt afterward. I will ask for God’s help to not do that again. When I got on the scale this morning, I did not like how I felt afterward. I will ask for God’s help to not do that again. When I spent a week on painkillers, I did not like how I felt afterward. I have asked God’s help to not do that again. This does not mean that I will not do all of these things again. I very well may. One thing I can most certainly tell you about me is that I am a painfully slow learner. I generally need to crash fairly hard into the sidewalk before I surrender. it doesn’t serve me. It seems to be how I am built.
But less today than yesterday.
The shaming consequences that have become par for the course in the rooms of recovery (detailed in part one of this post) are not the point. A few have chimed in with the idea that not every person or meeting puts the same price on the concept of “clean time.” Of course they don’t. With that said, the notion that accruing time as a prime measure of wellness is not pervasive in the 12-step world seems, to this author, like the height of naiveté. But it’s beside the point. I am not interested in changing these programs. They are not mine to manage, and I highly doubt they would improve under my leadership.
I simply have found that notions of relapse (as we generally understand them in the world of recovery) hold no weight for me. I haven’t supported someone in counting days in years. And I have no plans to start soon.
In this last phone call with my dad, he closed the conversation by asking:
“So one more thing. Should I call to congratulate you next year on your anniversary?”
I replied, “Which anniversary?”
“What do you mean?”
I said, “Dad, I haven’t drank alcohol or used street drugs in a little over thirteen years. I haven’t binged on fast food in about three years. I think it’s about a year and a half since I smoked a cigarette. I haven’t engaged in infidelity in twelve years. I haven’t maxed out a credit card in maybe seven years. I drank coffee this morning and have been an asshole in the last few hours. Any of those you care to keep track of and call attention to would be fine.”
That’s not exactly what I said. It wasn’t that eloquent. But that was the basic idea.
Oh, one more thing.
After posting part one of this rant, one reader accused me of hubris.
That was a first.
Made me feel very Shakesperian.
I didn’t poop for sixteen days. Sixteen days. More than two weeks with nary a movement from within my bowels.
Yes, I understand that you may well be thinking, “Oh, Michael! Really?! This is all you’ve got left to recount for us? The inner workings of your ass?!”
Fear not, gentle readers. There is a point. I’m going somewhere with this. I can’t promise that my particular skill set will get us there, but I assure you that I speak of my sphincter as a means to an end. Hopefully it will serve as a metaphor for some larger, more overarching issues. That may or may not work out. The metaphor thing, I mean. We’ll see. In the meantime, though, I assure you that the constipation I presently speak of was not metaphorical. It was very real. Very real poop not coming out of my very real backside for sixteen very real days.
Honestly, I didn’t even notice that I wasn’t going for the first four days or so. My mind had been pre-occupied with other things. I had been intensely depressed over the last couple of weeks for reasons beyond my understanding. My back had been killing me. Everything had been feeling immensely difficult. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. Spiritually. I was running on far few cylinders than were required for me to achieve something close to competence in my many relationships. As a practitioner; as a daddy; as a sponsor; as a husband; as a friend- I was falling short. Hanging on by my fingernails. Desperate for a pause button. A safe respite from the deafening expectations. Suffices to say, my bathroom patterns had not been at the forefront of my mind.
But then it was five days.
Then it was six.
Then my stomach began to make curious noises. On day seven, I asked Lorri if she had any recent recollection of my spending more than two or three minutes in the bathroom. Because she has been married to me for twelve years, very few questions ever resonate as odd or unexpected- so she simply offered up that she hadn’t. She asked what was going on.
I said, “I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve pooped in like a week.”
She responded, “What do you mean like a week? You have not had a bowel movement in seven days?”
We didn’t do anything right away, but now there was a genuine day count. On day eight, we both started paying close attention to the hours streaming by without progress. By day nine, she made me call the doctor.
I got a call back from the nurse with some specific instructions. She told me to go to the drugstore and buy a bottle of Magnesium Citrate. I was to take two Dulcolax pills, drink the entire bottle of Magnesium, follow it with a sixteen ounce glass of water, and stay within 10 feet of a bathroom. She sounded quite sure that a veritable volcano of relief would be assured.
She was wrong. Nothing.
The morning of day ten, the nurse and I were chatting once again. She was fairly surprised at my lack of excretion. Her exact words were, “Okay. Now it’s time to bring out the big guns. I’ll fax through the prescription to your pharmacy. Just follow the directions on the bottle.” I had no idea what I was in for and felt a curious mix of fascination and terror pulling up to the drive-through window at Wal-greens. The pharmacy worker called my name up on the computer and said, “I can’t get this through the slot. You’ll have to come in.”
Well, this was a first. What did they prescribe me, a water buffalo?! At the counter I was handed a gallon jug with approximately a cupful of ominous white powder lining the bottom. The directions said to fill the jug to the very top with water, shake well, and then glug down eight ounces every ten minutes until it was finished. Apparently this is what they give patients the night before a colonoscopy to clean out their insides. Go Lightly, they call it. At this point, I was not looking to go lightly; I was looking to go violently.
I sat in my bedroom for two and a half hours, watching the clock and becoming increasingly waterlogged with a beverage that made me pine for the prune juice I was forced down the previous week. It was heinous; repugnant. About three-quarters of the way through, I was no closer to taking a crap- though quite sure I would soon be vomiting.
But I made it. The final eight ounces went down like arsenic but they came with a sweeping sense of relief and a deep feeling of pride. Now it was just a matter of time. The nurse promised that within an hour, I should be prepared to spend several hours dropping the kids off at the pool. An hour later, I hadn’t even passed gas. Two hours later, I finally peed. Three hours later, I was asleep.
On the morning of day eleven, the nurse told me to come in.
The doctor did a quickie examination and told me he could feel that I was full of stool.
It was all I could do to not answer, “Ya think?!”
He asked me if I was in pain. I said that the combination of my bowels going freaking bananas and my back being out were pretty damned challenging. He asked me to rate it on a one to ten scale with ten being the worst pain you have ever felt.
This, by the way, annoys the piss out of me. First, it seems so stupidly remedial for a medical professional. One to ten? Really? What do we do next; play rock paper scissors to pick the course of treatment? Second, compared to the very worst pain I had ever felt, it was probably a four. But I was in a world of discomfort and four makes it sound like I am just being a baby. I went with six. Six was enough for him to offer me up some painkillers. And with the month I had been having, that sounded just fine and dandy.
In addition to the pretty off-white pills, the doctor also told me to put a full bottle of Miralax into a half-gallon of Gatorade every night and drink it within about thirty minutes. In addition, I was to stick two suppositories up my back side per day. He said that if this course of treatment had no impact in about three days, he’d have to admit me to the hospital.
Day twelve, nothing.
Day thirteen, nothing.
On the morning of day fourteen, I was instructed to head for the emergency room to receive a full work up.
Five hours later, after multiple blood draws and a CAT scan, they had ruled out rectal cancer, polyps, twisted intestines and a myriad of other such horrible possibilities. The official diagnosis was that I was really really backed up.
They didn’t know exactly why. Two different surgeries over the past three years which involved being cut down the middle might well have been a factor. My nutrition could have played a part. Age, in general, often brings on a greater propensity for constipation.
And then there were the painkillers.
There was no doubt that the drugs were, at least, complicit in “slowing me down.”
Although the doctor’s concerns didn’t seem to be intense enough to keep him from giving me two more day’s worth.
The rest of day fourteen and all of day fifteen were uneventful. No pooping. A lot of bed rest. A little doped up.
In the early morning of day sixteen, four A.M. or so, I took my last painkiller.
Day sixteen, the bottom fell out.
I can tell you that I cried more tears on day sixteen than I had ever cried in a single day in my thirty-eight years on this planet. The majority of them into my dear wife’s shoulder.
Yes, a part of it was quite certainly coming off the pain pills. But not all of it. Not by a long shot. Remember, I’m a stone cold junkie. I have been through detox. This was something more. Something larger. Something indefinable.
And crying does not properly describe the experience. It was wailing. The noises coming out of me were gutteral; primal; pre-verbal. It sounded, and felt, like I was going to begin coughing up my innards. And it went on and on and on and on and on and on. The liquids just kept pouring from my facial orifices without an end in sight.
In my two and half weeks of constipation, more than a few friends who work in the world of mind/body correlation asked the question, “What are you holding on to?”
Whatever it was seemed to have been jarred loose. Pandora’s box was ajar. And the pain was magnificent; enormous; seemingly untenable. It was well beyond words.
And that’s the place that scares me the most. When it’s beyond words. When I can’t make sense of it. When my ability to process vanishes. When my big old brain, my extensive vocabulary and my writing ability fail pigeonhole the experience. For me, that’s when the walls really start to cave in.
There were no answers.
And from acceptance of that reality came the answer.
The answer was that I always had the answers.
And not just for myself, for everyone. For my clients. For my sponsees. For my friends. For my children. I had answers. I had insights. I had wisdom. And with these assets came authority. Lots of authority.
Much of it appropriate. Appropriate in that the authority was necessary for some of the relationships in question to function properly. I am a practitioner. I need to accept my authority and hold the boundary for my clients. I am a father. I need to understand and utilize my authority to effectively parent my children.
But in recovery… in recovery it is different.
In the book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, the second tradition reads, “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.”
Yes, God is the “ultimate authority.” What’s tricky, though, is that there are other kinds of authority offered in the 12-step world. Being someone’s sponsor is a position of authority. Speaking at a meeting is a role of authority. Leading a group is a role of authority. Those who frequent the rooms are given myriad opportunities to hold authority. We pick it up and we put it down. We take up authority in the group for ourselves and we grant it to others. But some are granted more authority than others. Much like in society at large- the group members who are more confident, more talkative, more involved, more well-spoken, more attractive, more charismatic, more charming, more powerful, more endearing, more likable, tend to be granted more authority.
As the years of my recovery have passed, the amount of authority placed in me had steadily risen. The frequency with which I was asked to speak at meetings and sponsor others increased. Authority. Then I began to start meetings up myself. More authority. Then I got heavily involved in a movement within the 12-step world called Back to Basics (a recreation of the original beginner’s meetings started by Dr. Bob Smith in the 1930’s). Scads of authority.
The insidiousness of it all is that I never overtly felt like any of it was about ego. I wanted to serve. I wanted to help my fellow man. My life had been saved by the selflessness of others and I truly believed I had a debt to pay.
Allow me to share a story:
It was November of 1997 in New York City. I had been sober about three weeks. It had been a confusing and magical time. With no alcohol or controlled chemicals to cloud my view, the world was new. Scary, but new. Each day felt like a year unto itself. I would slip between suicidal and reborn multiple times an hour. And I wasn’t doing it alone. I had this incredible army of strangers who, seemingly, had been waiting to love me primarily for what was wrong with me.
And I had God
And I had a sponso.
My sherpa for this spiritual overhauling was a simple, quiet man named Tom. Tom was a brilliant though unassuming middle aged gentleman from Pittsburgh. He had been the prototypical suburban husband and father working a nice corporate job who had been undone by alcoholism; landing him a three-year bid in prison for a crime he had not committed. When I met him, Tom was living in a men’s shelter, six months out of the slammer, having lost everything. He was on probation, had no money, no home, and was still fighting to be free of a crime whose mounting legal fees were sure to put him in a financial hole deep enough that three lifetimes would be insufficient to climb out of.
But Tom was not bitter. Tom was not angry. Tom was sober and Tom was serene. Tom was Obi Won Kenobi. I trusted him and had every intention of following him to the light.
I wasn’t working. I was broke and nearly unemployable. Tom, also without a job, spent hours with me every day- sitting next to me in meetings and taking me to coffee shops and on long walks where we would talk about life and God and The 12 Steps. The day in question had us strolling slowly along the water near Gracie Mansion on the upper east side of Manhattan. It was a gloomy day and the rain was falling with a benign spray. We had covered a few miles and sat down on a park bench for a rest. We shared a few moments of silence which I then broke:
Tom: Yes Michael?
Me: I need to do something for you.
Tom: I’m sorry. You need to what?
Me: I need to do something for you. I need to. Something. What can I do for you?
Tom: Why exactly do you sense that you need to do something for me?
Me: Tom, no one has ever done anything like this for me. You have changed my life. You have saved my life. In a million years, I could not repay your kindness. But I have to do something. Please. Tell me what I can do.
Tom: Okay Michael. You can do something for me. Here’s what you can do for me. You can complete your step work and spiritually awaken. Once you have done that, you can find others who suffer as you have and carry to them the same message I have carried to you.
And that is exactly what I had have spent the last thirteen years trying to accomplish. I have given my all to trying to carry this message of hope with every drop of passion and commitment that I could muster to as many people who would listen.
Turned out that there were a lot of them. Lots of people who wanted to not only to listen to the message- but wanted to listen to ME carry the message. See, the thing is, I’m quite good at it. That is, I am a powerful public speaker. I have always had a rather magnetic quality which makes people want to speak to me, confide in me, trust me. These are skills I have used mostly for the good. But it’s a slippery slope.
There was this Episcopal priest I used to play racquetball with. He had been a member of the cloth for a quarter century or so. One day, we were enjoying a cup of coffee and some nice conversation after a few games.
He asked, “What do you think is the most difficult part of my job?”
“I’m quite sure I don’t know,” I answered.
“Ego,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I queried.
“When hundreds of people continually tell you how fabulous you are, how powerful you are, how they’re lives have changed as a product of knowing you, it is quite difficult to keep perspective. One can quickly go from understanding themselves as a conduit for God and start to think they are God.”
I got lost. In the midst of all the service, all the helping- I got lost. I spent so much time assisting others in shaping their recovery that I forgot to tend to my own. And I didn’t see it happening. Oh, the signs were there. Sponsees would call in throughout the day and I would often feel burdened and put upon. I would sometimes fail to call back and then resent them when they mentioned feeling let down. I became less and less inclined to go to meetings and even the ones I led, I would find myself wanting others to cover for me. But I somehow felt incapable of extracting myself form under the weight of all it all.
And so came the painkillers. I can see now that there was a very real call for help in my use of the pills. I think it was a covert way of accomplishing what I unconsciously had begun to fantasize.
“Burn it all down. That’s how I’ll get them to leave me alone. That’s how I’ll escape all the desires and needs and expectations.”
My wife will tell you that a few days before the pills were put down I began to talk about wanting to drink some wine. It never happened. Thank goodness. I didn’t need to drink to find these truths. I didn’t need to wander out to the west side of Chicago and buy some crack to break the denial. God raised the bottom.
And when the bottom came, you know who I called? I called Tom.
We had never really lost touch completely, but it had been nearly ten years since we had shared anything close to regular contact- with no more than three or four “How ya doin ‘/Merry Christmas” type messages left in the last half a decade. But his number hadn’t changed. And, thank God, neither had Tom.
He said he would be happy to become my sponsor once again and that he understood well what I was wrestling with. He asked that I call him that evening and we would get to work. Get back to the basics, as it were. About an hour later, I found the following message waiting for me in my email inbox:
The first step in the process of healing is to accept that there has been no failure on your part. Your own example of AA working combined with your natural charisma and good looks made you a prime example of what AA means by attraction to the program.
You have dealt with many, many people- with their problems and pain. As part of dealing with all of these people you have at times carried their burdens and absorbed their pain. I suspect as part of your service you have done many 5th Steps and experienced many spontaneous mini 5th Steps by people you barely have known. What I believe you have experienced is spiritual and emotional exhaustion.
AA is an experiment in recovery based on suggestions and personal experience. While helping another person by listening and being there always seems like the next right thing (and it usually is) it requires different types of intellectual, emotional and spiritual energy. The intellectual part of this is easy for you and has been for years. You know how to listen, what to listen for and what to say. What you have not been keeping track of is whether you have the emotional and spiritual energy to do the task.
From my own experience with this- accept the exhaustion for what it is. You have done God’s work and are tired. Priests every few years take long retreats. You have helped many people and need a rest. Therapists take several weeks off a year. What has been the longest time that you have gone not dealing with 12th Step work these past many years? You need to sit under a metaphorical shade tree on you spiritual path of recovery. When you are rested, you will start again. How long will it take? How tired are you?
Recovery is not for pussies. No joke. This is a warrior business. This is a “knee-deep in the muck and mire, scraping leeches off your elbows while bullets whiz past your head” business. Not everyday, of course. Yes, it is the way to happy, joyous and free. Yes, it is the path to serenity and peace. Yes, it is the road to salvation. It’s just that many parts of the road are strewn with potholes, blown tires and jagged shards of glass.
Within twenty-four hours, I had let go of every 12 step commitment and planned commitment on my agenda.
I then sent the following message to all of my sponsees:
I’ve been going through an intense emotional bottom in my own recovery and have come, through no small amount of intense pain, to see that perhaps my most intense addiction of all is helping others- often as a smokescreen to ignore my own needs and desires. I have spoken with my sponsor and have come to the conclusion that, for the time being, I need to let go of any positions of authority in the recovery community. I would very much like the opportunity to continue to be in each others lives and share friendship and mutual support. Quite simply, I am aware that I am not presently capable of holding the role of sponsor in the way that I wish to.
I turned over every ounce of authority I had.
Now I work on finding my way back to anonymous. Reaching out to others for help, sitting in the back of meetings and keeping my mouth shut. You know what? I fucking hate it. I also find it a relief. And I feel quite sure it is the road back to myself.
The bible tells us, “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Oh, by the way: day seventeen?
I shit three times.
I do not have this worked out. I sense we ought to start there. I have a working theory. It is unfinished and, most probably, somewhat slipshod. But it feels important and I have an interest in openly processing my line of thought. Luckily, I have a public forum in which I get to do just that; and so I shall. Whether or not anybody actually wants to take the time to read it is an entirely different story. Therefore, as you make the decision on whether or not you’d like to participate in this particular corner of my insanity; be warned. I do not have this worked out.
So here the theory: I no longer believe in relapse. Relapse for addicts, that is. That is to say, I have come to foster some serious doubts about the use of the word relapse, or the assorted punishments that accompany a relapse, in the wide world of 12 step programs. I should also tell you, and I don’t suppose this necessarily makes me more of an authority on the subject, that this theory is not coming from an observer; it is coming from a participant. For nearly twenty years, I have retained membership in a whole cadre of these programs. Among them, ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics), NA (Narcotics Anonymous), SA (Sex Anonymous), CA (Cocaine Anonymous), DA (Debtors Anonymous), CODA (Codependents Anonymous), AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), OA (Overeaters Anonymous), Al-Anon (Family and Friends of Alcoholics) and SSA (Secrets & Shame Anonymous). It is in those last four that I understand myself as a current member.
So as an insider who has engaged in the process of recovery in AA, OA and Al-Anon for many years, and as someone who has watched literally thousands of people experience what is generally understood as relapse- I have begun to think that the notion that one has relapsed is shaming and almost entirely useless to an addict desperately attempting to find a life of recovery.
The two programs which have dominated my recovery are AA and OA. To lay down the framework of my hypothesis, let’s use Alcoholics Anonymous. This choice has mainly to do with the price of admission in AA being far more simplistic than that of OA. That is to say, sobriety in AA comes by stopping. That’s the price of admission. No more. No more booze (and for most of the members in today’s AA, no more drugs). In OA, it is quite a bit more complex. You can’t just tell someone to stop eating. It has often been said that what makes eating disorders so damn challenging is the fact that, “you have to let the tiger out of the cage at least three times a day.” In OA, each individual, hopefully with the help of a sponsor and a higher power (and perhaps a nutritionist and/or personal trainer) defines what abstinence is for them. Suffices to say, this is no small task and tends to make for a complicated road of recovery. Quite frankly, it has been ny experiences in the OA program which began my “relapse is useless” theory. And we will surely speak about that. But, again, let’s begin in the grandaddy of the 12 step programs, where notions of relapse appear more easily defined.
So, let’s take a hypothetical alcoholic; we’ll call him Bernie. After years of chronic alcohol and drug abuse, Bernie finds his way into an AA meeting. He listens to the story of a fellow drunk, is embraced by the members of the group, drinks a free cup of hot coffee, and wholeheartedly drinks the Kool-Aid. He gets a sponsor and buys The Big Book (the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous.) He works the steps and begins to carry the message to the still sick and suffering. He has a home group where he attends business meetings. He prays and meditates every morning and reviews his behavior every evening. Bernie changes. First his actions, and eventually his very instincts. For five years he is, by all accounts, a model member of AA. And then one night, he is out at a bar with colleagues enjoying a favorite band, and he is asked if he would like to join the others in a shot of Jack Daniels. And he does.
He does the shot. It feels vaguely naughty and he is quite sure it is not the most prudent decision in terms of taking care of and loving himself. But he does it anyway. It washes over him like a warm bath. He enjoys the feeling and immediately wants another. And he has another. And then another. And another. The choice to imbibe leaves Bernie sweating on the linoleum of his bathroom floor alternately unconscious and voraciously vomiting whiskey in the vague direction of the toilet bowl. The next day, he blows off work and spends the afternoon hating himself and wondering why he would make the choice that he made. It is Thursday and, as it happens, Bernie’s home group meets at 7pm on Thursday evenings. He staggers in just as the meeting begins, and when the floor is opened for sharing, Bernie raises his hand and shares his experience from the night before. Chances are, Bernie will receive love and support from some and judgment and scorn from others. But in terms of his AA membership, Bernie can almost definitely expect some form of punishment including, but not limited to, the following:
- His “clean time” will be summarily revoked. Bernie no longer has five years. Bernie has one day.
- Bernie’s step work will be rendered meaningless. Bernie will be demoted back to step one.
- Bernie cannot lead or speak at a meeting until he has once again accumulated a year of clean time.
- Bernie, who for our purposes is single, will be told that he can’t date or sleep with women (or men) until that same twelve months is accumulated.
So my question is this: why? Why the chastening? What are we telling ourselves is the efficacy of such castigation? I am a firm believer that the fundamental goal of AA (and all its sister programs) is to get as many people well as is possible. Accordingly, are the penalties for what we commonly call “a slip” useful in terms of accomplishing that task?
Allow me to offer an alternative outcome.
Same situation. Bernie strays. Bernie returns. Bernie shares. Only now, upon the revelation that Bernie did some further field work- Bernie is understood as an alcoholic who has spent the last five years engaging in a the process of recovering from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body who ventured out, drank some, and returned with the data that it still doesn’t work. And that’s that. Clearly, Bernie took an enormous risk. The chances were very good that it could have gone differently. Bernie could have died or simply continued on with the drinking and thrown his entire life away. But that didn’t happen. Call it luck. Call it God’s grace. That just isn’t what happened. Do we really understand that all the work and learning and healing of the last five years have been erased? That they didn’t happen by virtue of Bernie drinking for an evening? Is the moral inventory Bernie did with his sponsor and the amends he made to friends and family undone in that they now need to be redone like some spiritual make-up test?
Sure, it would seem that the choice to drink was probably set in motion by patterns which predated the concert- and that there may well be some fears, resentments or harms that now need some attending to. That’s why we have the steps, yes? These spiritual tools ought to be at Bernie’s disposal to utilize when his recovery becomes clogged with, if not ensconced by, character liabilities (what we sometimes call “old behavior.”) Our tenth step tells us to stay on watch for “selfishness, dishonesty, resentment and fear.” It then tells us, “…when these crop up” (not ‘IF these crop up’); we are to pray, get honest with another person, make amends if we’ve hurt anyone, and try to help another. I would guess that by drowning himself in Jack Daniels for the evening, Bernie was quite possibly being selfish, if not dishonest, and quite possibly is feeling fear and resentment as the result of his choice. I don’t think that the tenth step says, “If by any chance the way in which you are selfish, dishonest, resentful or fearful includes alcohol or drug use, please abandon the tenth step directions and proceed immediately back to step one.”
Further, looking back at the punishment list, you’ll notice that all the items on the list are somewhat dependent on the notion of time. This, I believe, is at the heart of the problem. AA fetishizes time in a manner which completely warps the elements that make for a successful life in recovery. Page 77 in The Big Book reads, “Our real purpose is to be of maximum service to God and the people about us.” So, when we become aware that our choices are failing to set us up to better accomplish that goal, recovery demands that we attempt to do something about it. Isn’t that what Bernie is doing by getting honest about his behavior? Is the message we wish to send that he has failed in his real purpose or that he has accumulated some further data in accomplishing his real purpose? Why is our first instinct to take time away from him as if it was time which gave him credibility in the first place? Five years in AA is not what made Bernie a power of example. The step work, spiritual practice and service were what, hopefully, made him a power of example. Further, I would imagine that his choice to drink and then come to the group and turn over his imperfections would add to the power of his example, not detract from it. Why do we tell ourselves that the drinking is evidence that the steps didn’t work as opposed to seeing that Bernie’s disclosure is evidence that they did?
As an additional example, let’s take a look at Bernie’s fellow group member, Sal. Sal entered AA within a few weeks of Bernie and has also accrued five years of clean time. Sal has never worked the twelve steps. Sal has had sponsors, but mainly as lay therapists, not as conduits to a higher power. Sal doesn’t really carry the message to anyone. He has a few guys who call him sponsor, but for the most part, it’s Sal’s egotistical desire to play higher power for other men. Sal continues to be very angry and engages character assassination at the slightest prompting. Sal also continues to be patently dishonest, continually disowning and inventing parts of himself. But Sal is not in the bar with Bernie that night. Sal’s “clean time” continues on.
What’s fascinating is, if two weeks later, a brand new guy walks into the meeting, the group will be far more inclined to pass him along to Sal rather than Bernie. Because Sal has five years. Sal probably even has a shiny coin with a big roman numeral “V” in the center. Sal takes, and is granted, authority based solely on the amount of time that has passed since he has put alcohol in his system.
Think about it this way: which is the more powerful message for a newcomer:
A) Hi. I’m Sal. I haven’t drank in five years. I am basically the same miserable bastard I was when I showed up half a decade ago, but now I go to AA meetings and go to coffee shops for fellowship. Want to be my sponsee and hang out with us?
B) Hi. I’m Bernie. I’ve been in recovery for five years. I have fundamentally changed my life as a product of the steps in this book. It hasn’t always been easy. I still struggle with the wreckage of my past. In fact, a few weeks back I went out and got loaded. But this stuff works when you work it. If you’d like, I’ll show you to how to work it.
You see, the notion of time, and the way we use it today, has all to do with the advent of the treatment centers in the mid to late sixties. Initially, when the paradigm of the 12 steps first came into practice, they were designed to be worked in a single day. The AA program (not yet called AA) was being worked for five years before The Big Book was published. In those five years, when people wanted to work this program that they had heard about (through word of mouth), they would come to Akron to do the step work with Dr. Bob Smith (one of AA’s co-founders along with Bill Wilson). They would arrive at Dr. Bob’s house early in the morning and by the time they left (around sundown) they would begin making their ninth step amends and implementing steps ten, eleven and twelve, including doing this work with others. That’s a fact. That’s how our co-founders and pioneers set it up. The only reason that changed, is because when the Big Book was published, the outpouring of suffering individuals wanting help far exceeded what the founders ever could have imagined. As a result, Dr. Bob and his crew quickly realized that they could not possibly handle the number of individuals seeking the message. In response to this issue, they set up what were then called Beginner’s Meetings. The Beginner’s meetings were four classroom-like meetings which would take place over the course of four weeks where you would learn about, and work, the twelve steps along with an advocate who would be assigned to assist you with them. This advocate was called a “sharing partner” as they had not yet implemented the word “sponsor.” And that’s the way it was for the next quarter century or so. The alcoholic would walk in the doors of AA, get their sharing partner, work the steps quickly, spiritually awaken, and then move into the general fellowship where they would work toward strengthening their relationship with a higher power.
Then came the rise of the treatment centers. The centers were, initially, sort of like way stations for AA. They would detox the drunk in question and then send them along to the program. Then somebody realized that there might be some real money to be made with these centers. Then the insurance companies came on board. And all of a sudden, the simplicity of working the steps immediately, and with a rapid cadence, began to slowly fall out of favor. In its place, came notions of working a step per week, and eventually working a step a month if not staying on the first step for a full year. This led to the arbitrary boundary of “a year” holding all kinds of cache in the twelve step world. You can’t lead a meeting for a year. You can’t speak at a meeting for a year. You can’t sponsor anyone for a year. No sex or dating for a year. And, quite frankly, if you are going to take a year to work the steps, these suggestions probably make a lot of sense. But the steps were never meant to take that long. Therefore, the year obstacle is a faulty concept built on another faulty concept.
This has led to a society where the power of your recovery is determined by the accumulation of time; and your punishment for using is the group absconding what you have accumulated.
In OA and SA this problem becomes ever more intense where the ambiguity regarding what qualifies as abstinence creates scads of church rooms full of addicts living in an almost constant state of shameful relapse. For the individual who comes from a toxic family awash in judgment and rigidity, the demand to continually revert back to day one and step one can provide a most tragic impediment to recovery. If John Bradshaw is right (and I truly believe that he is) that all addictions are ultimately addictions to shame, why do we so encourage people attempting to recover to keep understanding themselves as failures?
In the world of recovery, I attend, and generally lead, what are called Back to Basics meetings. They exist in both AA and OA and are, essentially, recreations of Dr. Bob’s beginners meetings. We teach the big book and take people through the 12 steps over the course of four one hour sessions. Consequently, in the eyes of many, I am afforded a fair amount of authority in the recovery world. I have had the remarkable opportunity to carry the message and teach the steps to literally thousands of people. And here’s the thing. Using the relapse model described above, I am patently unqualified to do so. If we are to believe that strong recovery means never straying from the path, no one in any of the 12 step rooms ought be listening to me. Because according to these notions of relapse, I am a relapser. A category one, hopeless relapser.
And worse than that, I am a pathological liar. I regularly tell people that I have been in recovery, encompassing abstinence and sobriety, for nearly twenty years. But is that the truth? Depends on how you look at it. How can I call myself abstinent if I occasionally eat sugar and grease? Hell, forget sugar and grease, I put on over one hundred pounds as an abstinent member of OA. How do I resolve that? Well, I define my abstinence as “No secrets. No shame. No hiding.” I understand binging and keeping secrets about it to be a whole different animal from binging and getting honest about it. And, yes, there are many OA members who are not only bothered by this, but, in fact, quite angry about it. How do I call myself sober if I have had multiple experiences with sleeping pills and painkillers that could be, at best, described as precarious? I don’t keep secrets. My goodness, I am quite sure I experience emotional relapse in Al-Anon three or four times a week. I don’t keep secrets. At the bottom of the whole mess, I understand myself as a shame addict. I also understand that my shame is driven by secrecy. Without the secrets, none of the addictions are nearly as interesting as they might otherwise be. Which is why whenever I decide to do some field work and re-engage one of them I am brought back to the same piece of truth. It is better for me to abstain.
Why do I take these chances with my mental and physical health? Now that’s a good question. I really don’t know. I just know that my process is not fostered by signing up to be shamed. I do what I do. I did what I did. There are choices and there are consequences. And when the consequences of my choices are unpalatable, I can go ahead and make different choices. And the program is incredibly useful in learning how to make different choices. That doesn’t mean that I make better choices all the time. It just means that I do it more often. Further, eating junk food and popping pain pills are not the only ways I take chances. I speed. I cross against the light. I exercise without stretching. I allow crappy television and mindless internet surfing keep me from getting a full nights sleep. This is how I understand being an addict. It’s insanity. Mankind’s most basic instinct is self-preservation and for thirty-eight years I have been bent on self-destruction. I believe that a power greater than I can relieve me of this insanity. I also believe the restoration of my sanity comes in stages. And it has. My methods of hurting myself are far more benign than they were two decades ago. And I already spend far more time serene and joyful than I ever thought possible for someone like me.
I have heard many folks say, “But if you do away with the notion of relapse, doesn’t that just give addicts an excuse to use?” Think about that for a minute. Are we really under the belief that the only reason addicts stay away from their substance of choice is so that they may continue accumulating days and months and years and the corresponding bronze and silver coins (a woman I used to attend meetings with in New York always called the coins and the jewelry and the bumper stickers “drunk junk.” I love that) How about not dying as a reason to abstain? If we remove the notion of mounting up time (or losing it), does avoiding death stop being a decent reason to stay abstinent?
Like I said, I really don’t have it worked out. And, in the interest of transparency, my father (a longtime member of recovery) just recently decided to angrily accuse me of not being sober. So, is this whole blog post one long justification for my behavior? Could be. I don’t think that it is. I was certainly planning to write it long before dad decided to take my inventory. But, heck, I suppose it is entirely possible that what I am is simply a charismatic, well-spoken fraud living under a mountain of denial. And if that is true, than a public forum in which I can defend my offensive behaviors and ridiculous notions would certainly prove useful. Maybe I have spent thirty-eight years becoming a manipulative, maniacal narcissist.
Perhaps someone should take my human time away. Perhaps I should be placed back on day one.