Dear Hope Nation,
Some of you may remember the letters around Easter—which seems at least a decade ago—where I stole a trope from Black Baptist preachers, and talked about where Jesus and his followers were on Good Friday. Jesus in the grave, darkness in the sky and his followers unfaithful and scattering. That was Friday.
But Sunday was coming.
On Sunday, their fears and faithlessness melted away, the Bible tells us, when they discovered the empty tomb and a risen Lord.
Tomorrow, if I don’t drink or use or die today, will be my 13th anniversary in sobriety. Since May 21, 2007, I have not found it necessary to use a drink, a drug or any other mind-altering substance. That is my personal Easter.
For that rebirth to matter, though, it’s important to me that I never ever ever forget the days before I entered recovery. This letter is about that dark time. Tomorrow’s will be a celebration. Promise.
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In 1978, I was in the Army in Germany, having arrived right after New Year’s Day the year before. From the first day I landed in Germany, I don’t believe a day passed without my drugging or drinking or both.
Brief aside (and regular readers know “brief” is a relative term): While many older alcoholics, or at least folks who have been in recovery longer than I, draw a distinction between drugs and alcohol, that line never existed for me. Simple logic tells us that if two items are equal to a third item, they are also equal to each other. That is, if
3 X 2 = 6 = 7 – 1
3 X 2 = 7-1
Alcohol = an escape from me = Drugs
Quod Erat Demonstrandum
Whenever I put any substance into my body, it was always simply a Keith Escape Vehicle. Because I am who I am I can turn a lot of different things into KEVs—spending, sex, travel, work. For today, for this minute at least, I’m trying to relax into being Keith instead of grabbing the keys and jumping into a KEV.
At first, I was smoking hash—out of bent beer cans with holes made with the pins on my Spec 4 insignia—smoking opium—like hash but without the fog of stoned exhaustion hashish brought—and drinking beer and wine. Within a couple months, though, I had swum far upstream and was snorting crystal meth to stay up for a couple days, smoking hash during that run to keep from losing control and drinking to pass out at the end. This lingered through the summer, until I discovered the efficiency of shooting speed. Snorting meant having that awful-tasting phlegm always in the back of my throat, knowing I was eating my nasal passages away, and not always getting the KA-BOOM rush. Also, bending over a mirror with a rolled bill in my hand was so, I don’t know, tawdry. Injecting meth solved all three problems—now I had delicious phlegm, a healing nose and a guaranteed lift-off—plus it was so much more glamorous to use a needle.
Still, even the biggest proponent of better living through chemistry has to admit being startlingly awake and alert while everyone else sleeps can get tiresome. For example, I can remember spending an entire night bending and breaking metal coat hangers to fashion a sculptured ashtray holder that would keep my omnipresent cigarette at exactly the right height and distance from me. I was proud of my creation until my roommates threw it away the next morning. I knew I needed a break from not ever having to take a break.
Ah-ha, you may be saying, that’s when he quit using drugs. Puh-leeze, there was at least one more Escape Vehicle in the pharmacological garage, and I knew it was time to take a ride with heroin. My friend, Chuck, a corn-fed Indiana farm boy and serious drug experimenter, had already moved on from stimulants to dope, and he hooked me up the first time. As soon as the needle left my arm—and I was done puking—I knew I’d fallen into the arms of heaven. Nothing mattered. Everything was perfect. Time flowed as it would—even if I was supposed to be covering a basketball game for the division newspaper, that was okay. After all, nothing mattered, everything was perfect and time flowed as it would.
The problem with all these vehicles, for me at least, is that each vehicle quickly became as uncomfortable as the reality from which I sought escape. Ground teeth, paranoia and psychosis came with speed; heroin brought escape from that but its own set of cravings, yearnings and emptiness. By April of 1978, I needed escape from escape, and sought help for my heroin addiction. I went through “treatment,” consisting of scream therapy-psychodrama exercises where we punched pillows and screamed about life’s unfairness. When I completed rehab, I was no longer addicted to heroin, having discovered alcohol as my successful escape vehicle. As I moved from the arms of, first, Johnny Walker, then Alex the Stroh’s dog, then boxes of wine bought two at a time, just in case, and finally the joys of stolen generic mouthwash, I recognized booze worked for me.
Up until it didn’t.
When it didn’t, I had no friendly direction, no balm for my inner wounds, no way out.
That was Friday.
But Sunday was coming.
And tomorrow I’ll tell you about that.
You matter. I matter. We matter.
(Painting by Adam)