Please come now, I think I’m falling
I’m holding on to all I think is safe
It seems I found the road to nowhere
and I’m trying to escape.
One Last Breath
I just spent thirty hours with an addict, a man who’s demons make him one of the cruelest and most self-centered assholes I know; a man whose heart shines through him like the eyes of a boy who would spend his last dime to bring you happiness; a man of unyielding truthfulness who sees into me in ways no other human being ever has; but an addict all the same. I am not an addict, I haven’t been an addict, but I regularly do things others find wildly foolish. Things I brazenly embrace, though they have the power to harm me. Things that cause others to fear for me. It’s what I choose. I am a sojourner in the belly of the beast, here to learn the forbidden from the inside out. When the consequences arrive, and they do, I simply suffer through them. The thing is, between the moment in which I make my choice and the consequences that follow, I find pieces of myself I didn't even realize were missing. And I make myself more whole.
Z, which is short for *Ezekiel, arrived at my doorstep a dozen hours later than he said he would. 2 AM. After grabbing some lengua tacos from our favorite drive thru, a hole-in-the-wall with food and prices like you’d find on the streets of Mexico, we came back to my place, ate, and fell into bed. Our first twelve hours together we spent sleeping, a deep, sweet, restful sleep the likes of which I have known only in his arms. When we woke he took me out to eat a good meal and I took him on a walk through the neighborhood. Our walk took us past the oldest local watering hole and we stopped in to see the walnut bar, massive, imposing, a thing from times gone by. Z ordered some smokey scotch, enjoying the opportunity to treat me to something I’d never had, and I remembered the first time he told me alcohol was his gateway drug. “Alcohol and heroin work on the same receptors in the brain,” he said, and I thought no wonder my mother loves alcohol. Scotch, actually. That was when Z was first in recovery. That was when we were in love. That was awhile ago.
This is the place where most stories cue the violins as the sad saga of one man’s downward spiral unfolds, but this is not that story. I’m not here to feel sorry for my friend or to pity him or be angry about the effect his life has had on mine, nor am I here to wax righteous. Z’s life is what it is: a desperate struggle for normal. He fakes normal as best he can. On the outside he keeps up appearances, keeps up the pace at work, and on the inside he lives in a private hell. He’s not the only man to live such a life. He’s not even the only one I know.
During the eighteen hours Z and I were together, together and awake, I watched my friend go from having an enjoyable afternoon with me to needing a drink to feel normal to wanting coke for a bit of that better-than-normal feeling in order to take the edge off the crazy he feels in every situation involving people. Eventually he was driven to using a needle until he needed liquor to encourage sleep, a sleep that never came. Satisfaction never came either. It would touch down and then fly off again, like a plastic bag whipped about in the wind. During that last night together, sleepless in the dark, in a quiet voice that might have been choosing from a lunch menu, Z said, “I want to die.” The sentence was effortless, slightly emphasizing the verb, like a child making a choice he realizes he may not get. “It would be a relief to have the struggle be over,” he said.
My life has also been a struggle, as anyone who reads this blog knows. I have fought lifelong, over and over, to recover and maintain physical and mental health. If anyone could find a high horse to stand on and lecture about addiction, it would certainly be me. But we are the same, my friend and I, except that his drugs are illegal and mine are paid for by insurance. Moreover, his drugs offer a transitory satisfaction. Not only are the drugs I take not an experience of mind-expansion-while-the-universe-vibrates-in-the-key-of-G, in my dark days the side effects of the drugs I was given were positively Medieval. The very best that could be said of them: they offered a wardrobe of undesired options, like wearing wet cotton or wet wool, living with your mouth covered over in cellophane or rubber, choosing whether your mind is to be bound in rope or leg irons.
I know that from the outside it appears addicts are creating their own struggle; you get addicted to drugs, your life gets hard. Duh. Stop the drugs, idiot. And while it’s true that addiction is a black-hole system of existence, the ultimate state of being out of control, what’s more interesting is that addiction is the end result of desperate efforts to control a bad state of mind. Let me say this another way. I see this struggle from the inside. First of all, I have had a doctor say to me that I could a) take the drug that made me so anxious I wanted to tear my skin off, or b) be in constant, unyielding, thought-obliterating pain. Furthermore she was mightily annoyed that I thought this side effect worth reporting to her after hours. From my perspective, Z is addicted to drugs because drugs are addictive. His attraction to drugs? That’s a result of his desire to find normal, his struggle to learn how to approximate the very simple dance steps that comprise normal, a struggle he has been losing his entire life.
What is normal? Just a word, people say; a concept, an average of highs and lows, a social construct, and maybe it is. But I can also tell you that normal is a shiny desired thing -- just out of reach -- a kind of forbidden fruit for those of us who live our lives off balance. We don’t simply idealize this thing called “normal” and wish we had it. We know we don’t have it. How do we know this? How do you know when you have a broken bone? You just know. Having broken my share of bones, two of which showed no outward signs, I can tell you that it is a pain distinguishable from all others. And so while it hurts to watch my friend, to watch this man I was once crazy in love with, spiral out of control as he swings high and low aiming for normal, I have no judgment about the fact that this is his life. Right now, it’s the best he can do.
* * * * *
I lay myself down, back to earth and the cool of the grass, eyes to heaven. Night is all in the trees, and coloring the sky; clear, dark, punctured by stars; vibrating so subtly. I take off my glasses and look deeply into the only jewels I will ever own; search for landmarks, a Dipper, the broad belt of Orion, the dance of the Pleiades; find only diamonds scattered across the night sky. Behind me, in a tiny stand-alone garage inhabited by college boys and dirty dishes, a sagging couch and a sink full of last night’s vomit, Z is slamming cocaine. The inside of his arm is still bloody and bruised from the afternoon he spent stabbing his way into himself.
A thin boy in black stumbles out, pukes into the bushes next to the house that belongs to the young couple who rent out the garage. “It’s a nice night,” I say, “if you’re not upchucking.” He turns as he wipes his sleeve across his mouth, sees me on the ground, walks over to reach out a hand. Any boy man enough to puke into the bushes and then have the presence of mind to introduce himself to a woman twice his age is okay by me. Later, when I say this to Z his only words will be, “He’s an addict.” And even later, when the birds are chirruping like the world is new and the sky has dropped its daily veil over the stars, I will watch as Z calls the boy in black and makes arrangements for them to go where I will not.
* * * * *
After eighteen wakeful hours of Z’s world, I found myself too tired to do anything but breathe. So I laid myself down on the floor cushions and watched Grey’s Anatomy reruns. I am not a doctor or paramedic, nor a nurse or self-appointed super hero. All the same, I resonate with stories where the main character stares down death as she tells the person in front of her that everything will be fine. It won’t, of course, but her job -- my job -- is to give that person courage, to walk them through the one thing they don’t want to do, whether that be living or dying. Year after year, life places me close to the ones I love when they gaze into the captivating eyes of death. Perhaps this is because I rest easy being in the same room, because I have danced the two-step that death and disease do. Some have judged that I foolishly run toward pain, but as I lay on my floor yesterday, sleep-deprived and sleepless, blinds drawn against the day and the shrill birds, I began to see that what I’ve run toward is intimacy. It just happens that the deepest intimacy in my life, thus far, has been with pain and the swan dive of death.
On the second night, after the stars and the college boys and the skinny kid puking, Z and I retired to his bed, a disheveled pad in a disheveled room where all things lay equal upon a carpeted floor, everything but sleep. So, after some hours of taking comfort in each other’s arms, I kissed him and rose to go. He begged me to drive with him to the other side of town, two maybe three hours away. When I said no it was a complete sentence, but since my apartment lay halfway between where we were and where Z planned to go, I drove him that far. On the freeway, I watched as he pulled out his used syringe and a small bottle of liquid morphine. My response was calm. Final. When his buddy reached for the needle, Z said simply, “She’s not down with it.”
At home on my own pillowed floor and still unable to court sleep, I sent a text to Z and asked how he was doing. His response: “A little tore up.” His remedy for the consequences: “Drink fiercely.” I found that a couple antihistamines and twelve hours of sleep was mine. It left me with bags under my eyes and a dream about maple bars. I love donuts, I really do, but I’m gluten intolerant. Celiac disease. Anything made with wheat is essentially poison for me. I know this. I knew it in the dream. But I went straight to that maple bar, picked it up, ate it, and went back for another without any regard for my condition. I woke in a state of wonder. As I recorded the dream, I found myself adding another sentence: I will always go back to what is forbidden if it makes itself available.
Forbidden fruit, the sins of the flesh, these fascinate me. I take sin very seriously, and by sin I mean the things we all do to cope with this amazing dream of reality. That’s what the Buddhists tell us: reality is just a dream we make up as we idly play in the sandbox of time, lost in our own heads. My sin, one of them, is that I prefer being a student of sin to being a judge. It can be dangerous, this point of view. And so illuminating.
Consider the Oracle at Delphi, which is inscribed with the one true goal, "Know thyself." Consider Eve, the so-called original sinner, who taught us that self-knowledge follows closely behind knowledge of God and, of course, that self-knowledge means knowledge of sin. Now imagine, just for a moment, that sin is not the source of our downfall but rather the source of all insight, a master teacher. Imagine that sin offers to show us the parts of ourselves that we fear, the parts that we hide or deny. In the I Ching the sixty-first hexagram is entitled Insight, and it declares that to gain insight we must yield to the object of our inquiry. Just think of it as giving into sin. Becoming “totally open and unprejudiced toward its true nature.”
Go beyond objectivity into pure observation and acceptance... fully influenced by what you’ve observed and experienced. Now stop. Pull back . . . taking with you [both] a penetrating understanding and INSIGHT based upon actual experience. . . . You will not lose your perspective or jeopardize your principles in this empathetic voyage. Instead you gain a valuable INSIGHT into something that may be, in fact, controlling a part of your life.
I know that to choose poison is self-destructive; I was raised by a drunk. And I know that choosing self-destructive behaviors is tantamount to sin. Just check the list of the Seven Deadlies: pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, sloth. Pride starts the whole thing off, and I confess that I know the sin of being certain of my capacity to do what I set out to do regardless of the consequences. For some, the consequences of desire are addiction, which brings us to greed (aka, avarice), lust, gluttony, and sloth, each one an element of addiction. Throw in a little obsession, which covers envy and anger, and you’ve got them all; seven deadly sins inside a sunny afternoon. All you need is the lying that tags along behind sin like a pestering little sister and you have the icing on the poisonous cake. I prefer chocolate, but my mother would have made apple or carrot cake. More nutritious.
My sometimes loving, sometimes raging, always self-medicated mother, who has since been reduced from scotch to boxed wine and cheap vodka, was the reason for my suicidal childhood. Another sin. Of course I didn’t let this defect show. It was my baby sister who ended up hospitalized with an overdose. My own nearly successful attempt wasn’t until long after I left home, after depression had invaded my body like an army of worms sliding through a barrel of abandoned fruit. That’s when it became impossible to disguise the fact that my mother’s voice was the trigger for my desire for death, for expulsion from the garden of hellish delights, and so I quit my mother with the same swift motion that friends might now advise me to quit Ezekiel. I held onto that “No” as tightly as I held onto the tincture of morphine I found in the medicine cabinet after a friend died of AIDS. It could have worked, too, the morphine. It was working; I could feel it. But then I realized what I wanted was not so much to die as to have the pain taken away. Dying was overkill. Go figure.
“No matter who she is,” my therapist said, “time with our mothers is essential.” And so when I was better, well, at least not as bad, I reestablished contact in small carefully measured doses. When my mother fell to the concrete floor of her garage, I didn’t ask my sisters what they wanted to do, I just drove. At our mother’s hospital bed on the other side of the state, I learned she fell because she was having a seizure and that she was having seizures because her liver was shot and her liver was shot because... well you know the rest. Maybe it was her kidneys, I don’t remember. What does it matter which organ is the rotten apple when all the rest follow suit? The doctors put my mother on detox. If her body was to heal, it had to be free of the poison in her veins. However, it wasn’t much more than a week between when I arrived to take charge of my mother’s care and when I made arrangements for her transfer to hospice. Somewhere in the middle was 27 consecutive hours.
Detoxed and fully lucid, my mother regarded me with eyes from which the veil had been lifted. For the first time in my life, I knew the caring person my aunt grew up with, the charming woman my father fell in love with, the woman who loved me, her first born. I can’t recall a word she said, not one, but I do remember when my mother surfaced; a sensation that couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. I remember promising myself I would be present, expecting nothing, open to anything. And I remember the feeling, the summer-sun-on-my-skin feeling, of being loved by my mother. For 27 hours I knew exactly what is meant by that clinical phrase unconditional positive regard, and I imagine it is this feeling that Z is chasing when he sticks a needle in his arm. I know it.
I love that man and he is lost, and so for thirty hours I sojourned in the world in which he wanders alone stabbing at connection and comfort. The ties that bind us are sometimes impossible to explain, often connecting us long after it seems the tie should be broken. Some bonds defy time, distance, and all common sense, but then so does love. There is nothing scarier than real love, breath-taking as it is in its straightforward simplicity. Inexplicable in its beauty. As crystalline and clear as the insights Z has given me. Refracting. Fiery. Winking. Joyful. The closest thing to stars I will ever have.
As for my mother’s story, the rest is all but Biblical. With less than twenty-four hours before death was sure to claim her, family filing past her bedside, my mother did the miraculous. She lived. Despite the strokes, the seizures, the organ failure, she made a complete and speedy recovery. She went home. And, as her middle daughter said, you’d think she would have learned something from almost dying, but noooo. My assessment: my mother has cockroach DNA. It’s what all three of us girls say now. Then we laugh. We love our mother. We know longevity is a positive attribute. We also know that longevity is not so positive when the person living forever is as mean as a snake and twice as deadly. But one thing is for certain. Snakes make powerful medicine. It either kills you or cures you.
What is snake medicine? It’s the cure created from the poison, the original hair-of-the-dog remedy. After surviving many venomous attacks, not only do we conquer our fear, we are opened up to the world of the snake's medicine, which is alchemy. With snake medicine, that which holds us back or weights us down is transmuted into that which propels us forward, upward. Snake medicine demands that we let go of what we do not want in order to make space for what we truly desire, like letting go of wrath to make room for love. It takes courage to accept the lessons of the snake, the lessons of insight, and being a student of sin is part and parcel of that. At least it is for me.
Now comes the question and answer part, just like in Sunday school. You want to know if I really think sin is a good thing. You want to know if I understand that my apparent need to love an addict means I’m co-dependent -- I believe that’s still the current term -- and you want to know if I understand that co-dependency is, itself, a kind of addiction. Maybe you doubt my ability to see that by spending time with Ezekiel, I am potentially putting myself in harm’s way. Forget snake medicine, what you really want to know is whether I did any of those drugs I watched Z do to himself. Maybe you’re scared for me. Maybe you’re scared of me.
Here’s what I know about fear. It has everything to do with desiring the stasis of normal. When my friend who diffuses bombs in Afghanistan is walking the dark neighborhood streets stateside, he knows there is a one-hundred percent chance that no one will jump out and try to kill him, but still he finds himself wishing he carried a gun. “I never carry my gun,” he says. “If I carried it here, I’d kill someone.” The last time I saw him, he drew on a cigarette, considered his body’s permanent state of high alert, and said “I’m afraid I’ll be like this the rest of my life.” He said it like he was describing a favorite shirt that was now worn beyond repair. For some of us, normal can be lost forever. Back when I fell into a black-hole existence, one doctor paused to consider the cumulative effects of the chronic pain I carried. “I don’t know how you’ve managed to stay human,” she said. For the first time in my life, I felt seen. Normal can be as simple as having the obvious acknowledged. When my mother was still the most poisonous presence in my life, an addict who loved me, a man who grasps at normal like his last breath, observed the insidious roots of my mother’s madness in me. He held me fast in this reflection and would not release me but that I looked that fearsome blessing full in the face. Sometimes normal comes in ugly wrapping paper.
So you can keep your questions and your fears, all of them. I am immune.
Is that pride? Probably. Is it hubris? Maybe. But I know that self-knowledge doesn’t come without sin, mine or someone else’s.
In that last night together, me and my sweet, loving, hopeful, hateful, helpless, hollow of a man; a man in whom I still experience that longed for sensation I call home, if only for moments at a time; in that night, I scuttled suddenly across the floor, ragged, bare, and in drawing me back to him, Ezekiel clothed me in the gift of something once lost and now returned. For he is held fast in the grasp of fear and such beings know, without a word, when fear holds you, too.
*Ezekiel - You didn’t think I’d really use his name, did you?
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