Wednesday, March 02, 2011
Blow Your Kiss Hello To Life Eternal, Angel
As crazy as Charlie Sheen comes off -- and as arrogant and hopelessly dilettante as his proclamations of his ability to cure his own addiction in a nano-second sound -- I do think that he makes one point worth at least considering. Contrary to the almost religious zeal with which it promotes the philosophy that it's the one and only way to get clean, Alcoholics Anonymous really isn't for everyone; it simply doesn't work for every addict. I'm certainly not diminishing the good work done by thousands and thousands of counselors and addicts who subscribe to its core principles, and I fully understand that the entire idea of a program to help addicts has to be just that: a program, a formatted road-map to a set destination. But as someone who did drugs for a long time, checked himself into rehab, cleaned up, and yet continues to drink -- despite gladly leaving his truly hard-partying ways far behind him -- I can't say that I've ever bought into the strict AA ethos. I respected it, but found that it simply wasn't for me -- on the contrary, I never took to the idea that the best way to treat every single addict is to tell him or her that he or she is doomed to live life as a slave, someone trapped in a constant state of fear and completely dependent on the elusive salvation of the program.
So in that respect, minus the absurdly misdirected rage, I agree with Sheen that the wisdom of AA deserves to be questioned.
Since I seem to be getting such a great response each time I do this, I'm going to republish another excerpt from my book, Dead Star Twilight -- this one dealing specifically with my addiction to heroin and my resistance to the supposed infallability of AA.
The following takes place in August of 2001.
I've been in a county rehab facility for only a few days.
August 2001: We Interrupt this Program
“Jesus, I’m fat. I thought heroin addicts were supposed to be skinny,” I say. It’s barely a mumble, so I'm not sure if the nurse heard me.
“That’s a common misconception,” she says. I guess she did hear me. “If you’re a functioning addict—that is you try and hold down a job and have a life like anybody else—you keep doing drugs so that nothing else suffers. That includes eating.”
I raise my eyebrows slightly as if she just shared some surprisingly interesting bit of trivia, like telling me that if you cut a leg off a starfish, that limb will grow an entirely new starfish. The truth is I’m well aware of the life of a functioning addict; it’s the ultimate exercise in paradoxical futility. You fuck yourself up to keep your life as consistently normal as possible.
I step down from the scale and immediately get my feet off the cold floor of the examination room and into my cheap slippers. My brain is still clouded with a Depakote-induced haze, but my sense of self is at least present enough to have attempted a little levity a moment ago—namely removing the slippers before stepping onto the scale in an effort to lessen my weight by a few ounces. I gave the nurse my shittiest smile possible as I did this. She already doesn’t like me much anyway, so what the hell’s the difference?
It’s been three days and the churning nightmare that lives under the blanket of sedatives is finally beginning to calm. The heroin I’ve lived on for so long is leaving my system at long last. Although, it’s apparently decided to knock over a few lamps, punch holes in the walls and smash the TV set before checking out.
“How are you coming on your book?” The nurse asks without looking up from the clipboard she’s using to jot down my vital information—like the fact that I’m overweight. I know she’s referring to the AA Blue Book. It’s the addict’s Bible, Koran and Torah all rolled into one, with a little Gibran thrown in for good measure. It was given to me on my first day here.
“It’s a page turner. I can’t put it down,” I deadpan.
The shitty smile I forced a minute ago took everything I’ve got in the facial muscle department. I’m basically expressionless now. Nothing left to see here, folks.
“Look—I could care less if you get better or not,” she says.
Apparently her deadpan’s even better than mine. The matter-of-factness catches me off guard.
“Aren’t you supposed to be compassionate or something?” I return.
“I’m not paid enough to be compassionate.” She’s looking right at me now. “You wanna survive this and get off drugs for good—I’ll help. If you wanna be a smart-ass, there’s the door. No one’s keeping you here.”
She pushes her long black hair back behind her ear as she goes back to writing on her clipboard. Give her credit—I’m at a loss for words. She’s happy to fill the silence.
“Let me know if you’re leaving. We need the bed space,” she says after a pause.
“Look—I’m sorry,” I say, surprised at my own sincerity.
“Not good enough. Don’t be sorry—get healthy. If you don’t feel like doing it there are a lot of other people out there who do.”
I’m reminded that I’m not in denial. I know how bad it is and what needs to be done. The choice is simple: I give up drugs or I die. I’ve already hurt everyone I love. I’ve already lost just about everything I care about, including the person I once was. Now when I think about it—although heroin is still the most tempting distraction imaginable—I always seem to come down on the side of actually wanting to live to see my next birthday. Whether I deserve to or not is still up for debate.
“Physically you’re doing alright,” the nurse says.
“You sound disappointed.” I can barely get my mouth open to say the words.
She returns the same shitty smile I gave her a few minutes ago.
“Furio wants to see you after dinner,” she says.
“Summoned to the principal’s office again. Story of my life.”
I flashback to an image of a young boy facing the angry discipline of a Catholic school teacher. I probably shouldn’t have written the words “None of your goddamned business” under the tag that said, “Hello My Name Is…” on orientation day, or handed out cough drops to the younger kids on Halloween. Nuns—no fucking sense of humor. You’d think anybody who dresses like that.
The menu at the Florida Addiction Recovery Center leaves a lot to be desired. When my high school lunch lady died, I get the impression they ground her up and now use her as seasoning in the food here. Still, at this point I’m not about to complain. I’m just thankful that I’ve only been hungry enough to down a few bites of the stuff since my arrival. I’m sitting in the quietest corner of the mess hall I could find. The hall itself is basically a large rectangular room with the open serving line at one end, and fake wood paneling about halfway up the walls everywhere else. I think the effect is supposed to be homey, as compared to the rest of the center which is decidedly not. Unfortunately time and changing tastes have taken their toll on the paneling, making it seem instead as if the whole place was decorated by someone who spends his spare time patiently awaiting the triumphant return of the variety show to prime time television. The smell isn’t much better. Despite the medical facilities that surround it, the mess hall has the unmistakable sickly smell of a peep show—like the floor has been mopped with straight Pine-sol, using an ashtray as a bucket. Although there’s no smoking allowed within the confines of the center these days, there must’ve been at one time. The proof is everywhere. In the decayed black pock-marks of cigarette burns in the tables and floors. In the unmistakable scent of the carcinogenic smoke now locked in the walls forever, adding an oppressive weight to the whole room. It’s the weight of every addict who ever passed through here, desperately savoring the one drug he was still allowed to have.
My head is hung low as I practically slump over the table in front of me. I’m pushing the food around my plate with my plastic fork. I do this slowly and cautiously. I think this might be so that my strength is saved and I’m ready to strike at it should the meatloaf try to jump off the plate and attack the person sitting next to me.
“Do you like to suck cock?”
I swing my head up slowly to my left to realize that it is, in fact, the person sitting next to me who’s just uttered these strange words. He’s a wiry middle-aged black man wearing a plaid shirt. My face registers appropriate confusion.
“I said, do you like to suck cock?”
That’s what I thought he said. I’m suddenly sorry I was ready to defend him against my meatloaf.
“Do you love Jesus?”
I can’t even imagine how he’s going to link these two seemingly disparate thoughts, and I’m not sure I want to know. I don’t think I have the strength to be combative, however.
I shrug in submission. “Sure. Why not.”
“Good.” He says. That could very well be the period to the conversation. End of story. All he needed to know. He’s nodding his head in approval.
I’m about to go back to staring at my food when I catch myself turning my glance back fully to him. My confused look is still there.
“Good that I don’t suck cock, or good that I love Jesus?” I have no fucking idea why I’m furthering this conversation.
“Both,” he says, pointing a forkful of food at me before shoveling it into his mouth. He’s chewing loudly with his mouth open.
For a moment something happens. I may have been wrong about the whole combative thing. I feel my hand squeeze around my fork. My other hand tightens into a fist under the table. My biceps are shaking as I do this. I’m going to hit him. Hit him and if I think it’s necessary, jam my fucking plastic fork into his face. Over and over again until his blood is everywhere—all over me—and there’s nothing left of his face but raw red meat. I’ll grab him by the hair and slam his head into the hard cement floor. The floor that has the same ugly tile pattern I remember from the grocery store my grandmother used to drag me to when I was a kid. The one with all the wilted and sickened produce. The kind of floor that never looks clean no matter how hard you scrub it. I’m going to slam his head into it until I hear his skull crack and see the blood spread out across the tile into a giant crimson bloom. Flecks of gray brain matter will be scattered onto the faces of the people around us. I will not stop until he’s dead.
I will fucking kill you, you fucking piece of shit.
“Jesus is the only way you’re gonna get out of this mess. Believe me,” he says with a full mouth, breaking the reverie of my violent fantasy.
I want this conversation over, but once again I find my mouth opening and speaking the words before my brain even understands what’s happening. “What does sucking cock have to do with it?”
His face registers appreciation, as if to say, “Sonny-boy, I’m glad you asked!”
“Jesus don’t much like queers,” he says.
“And you’ve discussed this with him?”
My mind is still reeling with potential ways to put this guy out of my misery.
“That’s what the Bible says,” he says, then adds, almost as an afterthought, “I really don’t have a problem with them myself. Live and let live and all—but the word’s the word.”
“Yeah—I imagine it’s pretty specific about that kind of thing,” I say—expressionless. I’m trying not to look at him anymore.
He twists in his seat and faces me, thankfully wiping his hands and mouth with his napkin as he does this. He extends his left hand and for a moment I remember something I once heard about the correlation between being left-handed and having a high IQ. Oh well—there are anomalies in every study. A few stragglers are bound to get left behind.
“Carl,” he states with authority.
I’m too sedated to argue.
“Chez.” I offer my right hand back. We exchange the awkward shake of opposite hands. I have a feeling Carl’s read the same study I have and has set out to make sure everyone knows that they’re dealing with an advanced life form right from the outset. Jesus has blessed him with a concrete physical manifestation of his brilliance—why do the New York Times crossword puzzle in ten minutes or explain the theory of cold fusion when you can just hold out your left hand? The right people will understand.
Carl turns back to his plate and continues cramming food down his throat. I’m still trying not to look. That’s when a thought materializes through the fog behind my eyes and places itself front and center. I immediately wish it hadn’t.
Right now my wife is back home, living her life as best she can. Whatever she’s doing, she’s not in a stale room lined with wood paneling, pushing something that looks like Alpo around a plate and sitting next to a guy who smells like he hasn’t showered in a month and wants to know if she sucks cock and loves Jesus.
The next thought is obvious—the obvious counterpoint.
She doesn’t have a heroin habit. She didn’t do this to herself.
The ugly institutional-green walls of Furio’s office are particularly punishing tonight. There’s a loud scraping sound as I drag the heavy steel chair across the concrete floor, stopping directly in front of his desk and dumping myself in it with such force that I almost tumble over backward.
“And what can I do for you on this fine evening?” I say.
There’s a pause as he looks me over with what I guess passes for a smirk. He’s sizing me up, and either my general condition or my sarcasm is amusing to him. I want to reach across the desk and smack that fucking look off his face.
“How are you feeling?” He says.
It’s a simple enough question.
“Me? Oh I’m great.”
“Absolutely.” I’m forcing a pronounced grin that would certainly piss me off if I were on the other side of this desk. “Never been better.”
“Oh really?” He leans back in his chair and folds his arms over his chest—the amused smirk growing.
Enough time has passed that the sedatives are beginning to wear off and the furious detoxification beneath them is finally subsiding. I’m getting a small amount of fight back. All logic tells me that Furio isn’t my enemy, and yet I’m so angry right now—at the situation, at myself, at everything—that if Mother Teresa was sitting behind Furio’s desk I’d probably want to fucking kick her in the throat too.
My words come out quickly. Staccato.
“Yeah. I just had a really great conversation over dinner—dinner I didn’t eat because, well, I don’t eat anymore. Anyway, back to the conversation. Uh—it was with this really nice guy who wanted to know if I sucked cock and loved Jesus.”
I notice the volume of my voice steadily increasing as I speak. It’s the first time it’s risen above a whispered mumble in days.
Furio pauses, smiling at me from behind his cheap desk. His next question is so obvious that I almost want to give him credit for not taking the bait and getting into the fight I’m obviously trying to pick with him.
“So what was your answer?” he says.
I just stare at him for a moment—disarmed.
“What was your answer?” He says, deliberately slower, as if he’s talking to a child.
I pause for a moment, still stunned, before finally answering.
“No on cock, yes on Jesus.”
He nods approval. “Good.”
Now that that’s out of the way he can apparently get back to the issue at hand. He leans forward and shuffles through a file on his desk—my file. He speaks without looking up at me.
“Did Carl threaten you?”
“Carl—the guy who I assume asked you this question—did he threaten you?”
“No,” I say, then add, “I take it he’s done this before.”
Furio smiles. “Yeah. This isn’t his first time around in here. I’m pretty sure he’s harmless, but you can never tell. Let me know if he starts acting dangerous.”
He pulls a sheet of paper out of the file.
“We’ve started to cut back on your meds. How are you feeling?”
Actually I’m fucking miserable and I know it, but being that my sorrow is nothing medication or a county employee like Furio can fix, I see no reason to share it right now.
He looks directly into my eyes and apparently reads my mind.
“Look—just for the record, you can talk as little or as much as you’d like. No one’s going to force you to share your problems. It might help, though.”
“It won’t right now.”
“How do you know?”
There’s an anger building inside me again. Tackling the drug use itself is one thing, but right now the thought of anyone here trying to help tackle the problems caused by the drug use is both laughable and offensive to me. Furio doesn’t know my wife. Neither do the nurses. Neither does Carl. And as far as I’m concerned neither does fucking Jesus. The old boy may not be in short supply in a place as overwhelmingly depressing as this, but I’m almost positive he gave up and moved out of sunny, self-obsessed L.A. years ago.
The woman I married is half a world away. I’m here. End of story. The ultimate irony is that right now I know she’s furious—believing that by coming here, I abandoned her. I know one day soon I’ll have to actually argue the decision I made to get clean. It’s an argument that will almost certainly end at the beginning—with her insisting that if I hadn’t done drugs in the first place, none of this would have happened. That’s the kind of circular logic you just can’t defend against.
I stand up now. The chair screams as it slides back across the floor. I’m not sure what else to do, but standing seems to be the most obvious show of defiance.
“Look, Furio—I’m taking my meds. I’m going to the meetings. I’m playing nice. Your job is to fix my drug addiction. Let me worry about the shit that the rest my life has turned into, please.”
“Sit down,” he says calmly.
“You can’t help, Mark.” The obstinacy in my voice is turning to pathetic desperation right before my eyes.
“Sit down,” he repeats.
I acquiesce, pulling the chair back under me and plopping down with force—resigned.
“Thank you,” he says. There’s a long pause. “I’m only going to say this once, so I want you to listen to me carefully. What I’m about to say is gospel.”
I’m looking for a sarcastic response in my head, but even if I found one I’m not sure I’d use it.
“Forget your wife. Forget your job. Forget your former life. Forget trying to put the pieces back together right now. You have to concentrate on only one thing over the next few weeks: you. You have to get healthy and get clean or nothing else will matter. If you get back on heroin you’ll die.” He pauses, then—“You know—it’s funny—not only is addiction a selfish act, but to some extent, so is recovery. But make no mistake—that recovery is the most important thing in your life right now. It’s all that matters, and it’s hard enough without having to worry about the things you can’t control.”
“Please resist the urge to recite the Serenity Prayer.”
It’s the final punctuation of every meeting I’ve been to so far here. Addicts and alcoholics standing in a circle—hands clasped, holding on for dear life—chanting a tragic resignation that their lives are shit and at this point only a new reliance on the almighty can save them. Trading one addiction for another.
Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can and the wisdom to know the difference. Oh yeah, and while you’re at it, big guy—how about granting my fucking wife a thimble-full of empathy and human compassion?
“There’s a reason for it—and a lesson in it. There are some things you can’t change. When you leave here there will be some things you can’t fix. I’m sorry,” Furio says.
The words of the prophet written on the rehab wall. It’s obvious this is coming from someone who’s watched this kind of thing happen before—a thousand times—and is already well aware of the almost inevitable outcome. I close my eyes and picture my wife’s face. Right now it’s all I have.
“If I don’t make things right with her, it’s gonna make it almost impossible to get better. The two are not mutually exclusive,” I say.
“Not true. You’ll go on—no matter what happens. It’s better to mourn the dead than to be one of them.”
“She’s not dead.”
“No, but the marriage may be. Regardless—worry about that later. Right now worry about your recovery.”
I’m sinking into the seat, I can feel its steel frame pulling the back of my t-shirt up as I slide lower into the chair. I rub the leftover fog out of my eyes.
“Do you really buy into all this religious crap, Furio?” I say, trying to change the subject.
It dawns on me that this man has probably not only heard this question before—but also just about any other question I could think to ask. He’s my one counselor. I’m one of his ten-thousand addicts. I don’t doubt that he’s seen and heard it all.
He leans back again, locking his fingers behind his head. As he does this his shirt pulls tight across the slight bulge in his belly. It’s tucked into his jeans but it’s straining to break free. I’m hoping it doesn’t.
He smiles. His answer isn’t really an answer at all. It feels like he’s skipping over about five minutes worth of back and forth to just get right to the point he would eventually make anyway.
“You don’t need to believe in God for the program to work.”
“Then why push him so hard?”
“We don’t say ‘Ask God for help.’ We say, ‘Call on your higher power.’”
“Not necessarily. Your higher power can be anything. Anything greater than yourself. Anything you can rely on.”
“There’s not much I can rely on right now. That’s why I’m here.”
“Then maybe your higher power is the program.”
“Not quite—not yet anyway.”
I reach up and scratch my head, pleased that I’m no longer so numb that I can’t even itch.
“Because,” I say through a yawn, “Most of it seems like bullshit.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I don’t believe that everyone needs to be torn down and convinced that the only way back up is through Jesus and AA—that you have no fucking control over your life and you may as well just surrender yourself. That’s not a program, that’s a cult.
“Do you ever stop thinking?”
“No—and I don’t like people who ask me to.”
“I’m not asking you to. All I’m saying is you’ve stumbled onto something you can’t think or talk your way out of. I don’t care whether you like being told that you’ve lost control, because you have lost control.”
“Can’t argue with you there. But replacing a dependence on drugs with a dependence on something else doesn’t make much sense.”
“Not everything has to make sense.”
“I’m just thinking about what you said when I first walked in here—about how my attitude makes you think that I’m not gonna stay clean.”
“Those weren’t my exact words—but what’s your point?”
I lean forward now, I’m lucidly arguing for the first time in weeks if not months and it feels good.
“Well, since now I’m really questioning all of this—you must really be sure I’m gonna fail. It’s not fair to say ‘If you question the program it proves you’re not getting better.’ Religion works the same way, Furio.” I pause. “Which brings me back to my initial question—do you buy into all this crap?”
“You trying to shake my faith?”
“Nope. Just asking a question.”
He smiles disarmingly now.
“Look, I’ve seen the program work too many times to argue with it. For a lot of people it’s the best shot they have. If you don’t believe in a god that’s your business—but you’d better find something to believe in.”
“How about myself, or maybe my marriage?”
“That didn’t work the first time around.”
He’s absolutely right, and the truth of his words stings like hell. My concern for my wife wasn’t enough to keep me off drugs. I already know this is the foundation of every argument she’s ever had with me about it, or ever will have.
“Maybe I’m here for a second chance.”
“You’d better be right, because there won’t be a third chance. With a habit like yours—you fuck up again, you’re gonna be dead.”
Once again, the truth hurts.