“You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have free permission to do so, and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps the holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.” Franz Kafka as quoted by Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins
I am powerless
The stories are simple. A body veers off, finds comfort or quiet and at first it seems acceptable. Over time, things begin to spiral, and suddenly you’re left with either the turn toward some solution, or a mountain of guilt and rationalizations just to retain the ability to keep comfort, quiet. I’ve formally quit drinking and using drugs twice in my life, one year apart. I quit younger than most and thus I’ve had constantly to grapple with this question of the heft of my addiction, back then. I didn’t find myself thirty, divorced, strung out with all the earmarks of the ready-to-surrender. I was fifteen, first, and told by a perhaps too-well-versed family of interveners that I ought to quit, I seemed in bad shape.
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. Grant me the courage to change the things I can. Grant me the wisdom to know the difference. Grant me freedom from dull pains at forehead. Grant me medicine to keep the waves of depression at bay. Grant me time to watch the leaves move about. Grant me endings, sweeping tiresome endings and their story, their image, their fantasy. Grant me the ability to see through to death but not beyond.
I’ll tell myself stories about the end: one night I’ll leave with enough money for a motel. I’ll bathe for one day straight drinking in the bath and cutting away at myself. Nicks and slaps and darkness and the television out there loud as light. Standing in line for coffee I’ll think on it. No longer a separation between the thoughts. To drink, take drugs. To kill myself off. They blur into the same rotgut that ups its ears at small difficulties and large maladies. Considerations slowly mutate into spiraling thoughts of shit and endings and swilling vodka hiding. Somewhere in meeting rooms or offices or units awareness began to build. I drank suicidally. I took drugs not in small flights of curiosity but heaps until I’d sleep only to wake annoyed as their effects prodded my thinking and I’d be made to live.
Walking down the stairs in my grandmother’s home in Minnesota you’d come to a wall of portraits. These were her children, my aunts uncles and mother, mostly taken their senior years of high school toward the later 1960s so all their faces seem velvety, quaint, American. I remember that descent of stairs better than perhaps any in my life because of each face. They’ve clipped themselves and jutted up at moments in my life and thus now, now that the home belongs to another family with other portraits and stories, they spread across my memory as I’ve needed them and they’ve given help, hope, perspective.
I need help
Somehow through biology, through culture, through social cues and need, I’ve come to identify as X and Y. X being—to my mind—a loosely-bound signifier we as human animals dub “the alcoholic.” Y being “the addict,” yet both reduce and complicate and liken matters to such degrees as to make their value touchy. What, then, Alcoholics Anonymous? What, then, treatment? What, then, twelve steps? And yes and yes and yes, a sea.
The problem and solutions of this are bound up in naming. I didn’t want to clean up at first and so I went off again, “did research” in the old timer’s parlance. You hear of addiction’s growth, its tendency once prodded to swell and lash back like so many wasps. You hear it and it seems odd. You hear many things seated at meetings and they seem odd, excessive, or reductive and platitudinous. Then it happens. Something happens and it clicks, the rooms call back and there you are. I remember standing in my mother’s dining room. My father gruff and unconvinced, wanting military school. My mother from a line of drunks and such and thus she’s in my corner, wants me back in treatment as soon as possible.
I remember my mother once indicating my grandmother took great comfort in the name. She’d been intervened upon, attended treatment, experienced Family Week and my grandfather’s doting, and left to stay dry and clean until her last, at some point swapping meetings for the Catholic church across their street—Elm, they lived on Elm—and it was my grandmother I first saw as a lighthouse of some otherside to the addicted state, the scrambling. Whatever preceded it, my grandmother put stake into the term, the X, the identifier that made her apart and part of, and I understand this.
I GIVE UP
My first sponsor on cleaning up the first time was a friend of the family. I’d called him from treatment, having spent the requisite twenty-eight days, and asked after his availability. He indicated his disenchantment with the bulk of AA proper, and though I’d only experienced a short stretch of it I thought this openness, this unwillingness to take whole hog, might do well to keep me clean. I also, those days, lied. Treatment centers in Minnesota are so widespread and various that I’d found myself in one for drunks and such under the age of twenty-four. Anytime someone came in just above that precipice they found it unsavory and moved up to Center City, Minnesota, apparently to clean up on better terms. The result was odd. The rooms were full of talkers. What we said was often in response to a mixture of legal pressure, familial pressure, and a desire to return to something approximating normalcy. We had girlfriends, boyfriends. We had lives we’d soaked in drink or mumbled through and wanted to finish school, make good on the promises of youth. I was one of them. I told stories to get myself away from there, back to friends and such who’d want to hear of what I’d seen.
I ask the void
After days of embarrassing weeping at the phone—loud childlike whines—my parents agreed that I could return, should I meet with this sponsor and pursue strict recovery. The treatment center wanted me in Montana, for months on a sort of work-farm-recovery system that apparently worked for those in my station. I’d convinced my parents both of my dire sadness at the prospect, and the likelihood of the treatment centers being in cahoots financially, and this proved enough to get me home.
That stretch of abstinence lasted around one month, and my relationship with my first sponsor dwindled into missed calls and assurances I’d been, would be, working my program assiduously.
People talk about these moments. There are quotes. A common anecdote follows: while I’m in here my addiction is out in the parking lot doing pushups, on steroids, waiting for me to slip up. People talk about rock bottom, about going back out there because you’re not ready to accept recovery. I don’t know about the science, but the first time I used again I wound up drugged, pacing through an empty house and drinking, talking to myself and pets about the fireplace.
I am wrong
In short order the drugs became more severe, the drink more readily available. I missed north of forty days of school that year and on each of them I’d either sit in an elder’s apartment drinking, taking lines of amphetamines or downers—whatever, whatever—or walking through the mall having purchased cheap cough syrup and Benadryl, taking the box and bottle to enact an odd, paranoiac sleepstate that must’ve made me a sight for all the senior citizens drifting through a shopping mall at 10 AM on a working weekday.
I shout it out, my wrongdoing
On entering these spaces you’re handed materials, printed literature to orient yourself to the sway and diction of a particular mode to recovery. This, hence, has made me curious. The addiction memoir, the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, telling stories and conveying language and articulating as a means of what, exactly? Understanding, calm. We encounter crises, impasses in life that lead to something: for us often negative. Do this enough you become dependent on the something, the aftermath of emergency, to such an extent that the emergency dwindles in severity until finally—great taileating snake you are—your something, your X, your Y, becomes an emergency all its own.
You rationalize, make explanations and write notes, send emails, texts to explain away the negative and allow yourself to live in that space of no language. To wash one’s mind out in glut and spree, stand in chemical death howling barbarisms, this is the lure of the addict, perhaps. A language-free existence. A perpetual stupor needing no interior explanation and every outward qualifier is so much window dressing to keep concerned families and friends and bosses at bay.
So what, then, happens in its absence? A sea of language, so ambling and smeary as to border on nonsense and thus ninety meetings in ninety days, counseling sessions and chanted platitudes, reading, writing, saying to put outside the skull what can no longer be doused or burnt.
I keep myself in check
What stands out in memory are circles, their constancy, their effect in pulling words from mouths that otherwise go unsaid in life. The talking cure, a thing at once so simple that humans were bound to turn it against itself and doom it. It starts where? Vienna? Settled battlefields in Greece and conversations biding time? Its origin matters less than how we’ve worked it, shaped its clay to establish manifestos. Bill W. and Dr. Bob in Akron poring over lives postwar and turning rooms from simple spaces to dens of epiphany. They, however, left room for change, wanted openness and questions built into the works. Met with Carl Jung at some point to explore blurrier spiritual tie-ins and widen their acceptance.
I walk the earth
There is that, sure, and then the basements emanating from their spark. A man, seated, suddenly leans across a large table beneath a church to scold a room full of apparent strangers about their unwillingness to accept God into the framework. Why ask questions? Why mess with a good thing? Statistics are quoted, questions are asked and suddenly a calm is stabbed with animus. After cleaning up the second time I’d made it around ten months before losing my mind. I’d taken work as a telemarketer after testing out of high school and having no interest in college. My job was to pander for the National Rifle Association and Republican party. We were paid well for this and most who worked there seemed happy at the arrangement. I thought on it and overthought. I worried. I found myself considering pills. I found myself opening medicine chests at home and staring a bit too long at the orangey coat of plastic on my father’s anxiety medicine. I couldn’t sleep. Days went by and I remembered an offer for short term reacquaintance programs that existed at my parent treatment center in Center City, Minnesota.
With some finagling I’d arranged a week to reinvigorate my work. I’d become addicted to reading to some degree and brought a pile of Hunter Thompson, others who’d brought me comfort. In there an old fellow told me I’d do well to watch my addictive tendency toward anything, reading included. It threw me off immensely.
One night a group of us attended the meeting in the basement of the church wherein the fellow scolded our secular natures. On leaving that meeting we smoked on the steps and decided to go for ice cream. While standing in line for Dairy Queen we’d spoken about our lives, our families, what we’d do on returning home. This, oddly, brought the calm I think we’d sought within the meeting.
I apologize, always apologizing
With time, I moved away from AA proper. I saw counselors and met fellow uncomfortable souls and discussed things beyond the pale of strict recovery. I stomached artists. I looked to figures of great glut and fire like Patti Smith, William Styron, Kay Redfield Jamison. I read of Arthur Janov and Primal Therapy. I walked around neighborhoods late at night and spoke aloud with myself. I stared at the images of Robert Mapplethorpe or Nan Goldin or Larry Clark and felt a kinship with lives amiss. I read Rational Recovery and accounts on the Orange Papers or in magazines with great invective toward recovery proper.
After roughly a year of devout relapse, I found myself unable to maintain as a human being the slew of lies told while drinking, using drugs. Legal complications led to a decision between time served in a small cell on a thin bed with other youths who’d made mistakes, or returning to treatment while insurance covered it and staying for the duration.
I ask for light, lightness
Those final weeks before returning I’d occasionally use at night, in quiet, what handfuls of pills I could steal, but all told I entered rehab again in Minnesota having quit cold turkey. This was more typically the case among the age treated there: mainly turning toward it via legal discord and thus being monitored or sent to secure facilities prior to rehab. I only saw a handful of individuals strung out, but in my weeks at home a constant darkness shot through days.
This might be an anomaly amid users cleaning up, I don’t know. Alcoholics as a rule tend to drink severely later in life and thus longer, replacing barmates at some point with recovery groups. I’d dealt with depressive bouts longer than addictive ones, so once the drugs and drink were plucked it quickly dawned on me that large factors in my use had more to do with misery than hedonism.
I admit dark, darkness
I’ve said this, I know. I consumed suicidally. And yet what I’d shut my head off with were the very same things keeping AA’s pamphlets printed, so returning felt apt, even tinged in light—these were my people.
Everything seems minor when you’ve stared at it too long. I can remember early afternoon meetings in Eau Claire, Wisconsin at Club 12 where the room had spread wide, tables lining the outskirts of a concrete floor around which chairs were filled. You sit, and you listen, and you wait. You try to think of exactly the right thing to say to set your mind aright, but once it’s your turn wind up mumbling some quick note about appreciation and smelling the roses, a lifetime’s thoughts having exhausted themselves across your brow.
I remember the first time I told a sponsor I’d no longer be attending meetings with them. I remember an exhilaration and a sense of freedom, a sense of owning my recovery. I remember so much driving and being along and thinking too much thinking about my state. I remember one night returning to my treatment center, hidden. I walked up having parked far away and lay out on the lawn in darkness, knowing the place was functioning and all the newly-clean were inside sleeping, or masturbating, or hiding, or cutting themselves, or making calls and crying in offices. I took off my clothes and lay there on the grass connected, having convinced myself of something. I hadn’t returned to AA after a year or more but I was sober and I was in school near to where I’d quit. I felt frantic, a mess, lost, depressed. I lay there in the dark and laughed at my idiocy and no cars passed. I’d convinced myself of my need to abstain, to be well in certain terms. I’d rejected, though, many tenets of what they’d said would keep me clean.
Tired, I persist
My sponsor after treatment the second time, while living for forty-five days in a halfway house in Wayzata, Minnesota, was a bald fellow who worked days painting houses. I think perhaps I misunderstood the parameters he’d set between us, as I tended to call him multiple times on the house’s phone with gripes large and small, assuming the flood in my thinking bore strong meaning, every morsel of thought worth interrogating until the deeds were done to death and all left were pressed-out cigarettes and sleep.
We lived well in there, perhaps too well.
I’ve managed to assemble a messy nine years of sobriety behind me. I worry still about its viability, its veracity if held under the scrutiny of diehard counselors and such. I occupy the mess I guess and wear it, stitching day and day together occasionally stopping to stare at their wonderments, their heaving breaths.
Outside I am powerless. Outside I need help. Outside I give up. Outside I ask the void. Outside I am wrong. Outside I shout it out, my wrongdoing. Outside I keep myself in check. Outside I walk the earth. Outside I apologize, always apologizing. Outside I ask for light, lightness. Outside I admit dark, darkness. Outside, tired, I persist.