It was at one of my first NA meetings, when I was newly clean off drugs, feeling really awkward, and all I wanted to do was use. I had just walked down the wheelchair ramp into the large basement meeting room of the church and, recognizing no one, immediately wandered over to the table with the coffee and cookies. There was a large woman setting up the paper cups, stir sticks, little packs of sugar, and that horrible powdered nondairy creamer. I went to grab a cup but before I could, the large woman handed me one.
“Hi I’m Melanie,” she said. “You new?”
“Thanks,” I mumbled as I filled the cup with steaming hot coffee from the metal urn. “Um, yeah, I’m new.”
“Welcome,” said Melanie. “You never have to use drugs again.”
I wanted to tell Melanie to shut the fuck up. I wanted to scream that I loved using drugs, I just didn’t love going to jail, or getting abscesses on my arms, or being homeless, or the million other consequences from using that I couldn’t think of but had lived through too many times over the years. Yet the best snappy retort I could manage was, “Uh huh. Is that so?”
“I know it’s hard right now,” continued Melanie. “But stick around. We’ll love you until you learn to love yourself.”
Her words were so foreign I couldn’t comprehend them. Learn to love myself, I thought, what the hell does that even mean? All I wanted to do was to be left alone, but at the same time I wanted sympathy and understanding. It was the typical conflicting duality of addiction at work in my brain; I need a hug, but don’t touch me.
Still I couldn’t understand why Melanie, a complete stranger, was being so nice. Plus all my relationships with women had been about sex, not love, and any kind of talk about love, self or otherwise, with a member of the opposite sex was really awkward. Feeling incredibly self-conscious, I avoided her attempts at eye contact, grabbed a handful of cookies and ran away without saying another word.
Over the years I would hear about self-love at meetings and my reaction would always be the same: I can love you, I can love the entire universe, my cats, my girlfriend, my family, even my damn car, but when it comes to loving myself…well, that was a deal breaker.
There was something just too foreign about the concept. Like that astral plane one achieves by mediating in an ashram for 20 years, it felt out of my league. I had no idea how to achieve it, and really I didn’t even want to try.
Back when I was a client in rehab, I was required to attend a few sessions with a therapist and when we stumbled onto my lack of self love, she insisted that every morning I do positive affirmations where I was to look in the mirror and tell myself what a great person I was and that I deserved love. The one time I tried it, I balked. It felt so disingenuous that I couldn’t do it. My usual morning mantra consisted of a much different sentiment: “You’re fat, you’re stupid, you’re ugly and nobody loves you.” There was no room in that crowded stanza of negativity for loving myself, so I just gave up and never really dealt with it again.
Yet today, a decade-and-a-half later, I was at a meeting and this scrawny girl who said she was detoxing from Suboxone was reading from Just For Today and there it was again: “We’ll love you until you can learn to love yourself.” Just hearing those words “love yourself” gave me great pause, and after I stopping judging the scrawny girl for not getting herself addicted to a real drug, I thought about what that concept means to me now. Even though listening to it being read out loud is still uncomfortable, it is no longer as confusing or just an ethereal goal that I will possibly obtain at some point in the distant future.
These days, through the principles of recovery, whether I’m conscious of it or not, I actually practice self-love. On a physical level, I take care of my body. I see my doctors and dentist on a regular basis. I work out at a gym and run or ride a bike daily. Twelve years ago, I stopped smoking and became a vegetarian. A few years later I started meditating, and recently I have begun the hard work of addressing my eating disorder and unhealthy obsessions with food.
On a mental level it goes much deeper. When before I was in too much fear to make any internal changes, dismissing them as being wussy or stupid, somewhere in all the step work and meetings, I began to grasp the concepts that made no sense at the time. Practicing small principles such as maintaining boundaries, being of service to others and giving from a place of caring and not ego built up my self-esteem, even when I didn’t realize it. After a while it all became second nature and while I no longer think of myself first and act accordingly, I do take care to not cause more turmoil by grabbing for those meaningless moments of immediate-gratification that two minutes later I’ll be regretting.
Those principals of recovery might seem like small things, but actually they’re huge and it’s what keeps me clean. Of course, I still need to work on my adverse knee-jerk reaction to hearing the words “self love.” When that scrawny girl at the meeting said those two words I actually shuddered, and I know that’s because deep down inside I still do not feel I am worthy. Maybe it’s the negative body image and personal baggage from my eating disorder, or perhaps I’m just not capable of saying that I love myself out loud. But, like taking care of my health and maintaining my self-esteem, I’m working on it.
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Originally published as “How Does a 50-Something Rocker Guy Learn to Love Himself?” by AfterPartyMagazine March 25, 2016
Monday morning, 7:30 am, my phone was incessantly dinging with text alerts. I groaned, stuffed the damn thing into the nightstand drawer, rolled over and went back to sleep. My friends know I am not awake at 7:30 am and there is no way in hell I am going to respond to their texts.
At 8:30 I’m woken again, this time by a muffled ringing. Whoever is calling got the voicemail, hangs up and calls again. Now I’m pissed. It’s one thing to be annoying. It’s another to be relentlessly annoying.
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and retrieved the phone. There were four texts, two missed calls and a voicemail. All of them from the 415 area code, which is San Francisco, my hometown. I recognized all the numbers as belonging to friends in the fellowship, but the lone voicemail is from an ex-girlfriend who I haven’t talked to in years. This is not good news. It’s not like folks in recovery call en-masse to say that someone has graduated college, gotten a better job or is just doing really well and not using drugs. No, this kind of drama is always about tragedy. I didn’t even want to know who and what its about, but in the end I couldn’t help myself. I read the texts.
7:26 am, John: “Curtis died. I’m in shock.”
7:32 am, Anita: “Thought you’d want to know. Curtis killed himself.”
7:33 am, Carlos: “Curtis is gone. I’m so fucking angry.”
7:47 am, Tammi: “Call me, it’s important.”
I didn’t even bother listening to the voicemail. I already know what’s up and hearing my ex’s voice wasn’t going to make this situation any better. What I didn’t know was why the hell Curtis killed himself.
I got up and brushed my teeth and all I could think about was Curtis. I’ve known the man a long time. We met when I was a counselor in rehab and he was a client, and over the years since then we became friends. I watched him get off drugs and slowly put his life in order and the last I’d heard he was a drug and alcohol counselor. As I made coffee in the kitchen I seemed to remember him recently posting on Facebook that he was all crazy about scuba diving now. There were photos of him in the tropics. He was underwater in a diving mask, tanks on his back, surrounded by schools of brightly colored fish and coral reefs in the background. He got married a few years ago and I couldn’t make it back to SF for the wedding. Now I was hit hard with regret. Seems like I never have time for old friends. We always say we’re going to get together, make plans and then never do. Now Curtis was gone. Gone forever, and I’m having trouble actually believing it.
I looked though the address book on my phone. Searching for a mutual friend who was Curtis’ best friend. I didn’t have a number for him, so instead I logged onto Facebook and sent him a message asking what happened. Not the most personal way to inquire how a friend died. But it was all I had.
He almost immediately got back to me.
“He was depressed! But this was not expected. He left his house dogs and cars got his ass to the Golden Gate Bridge and fucking jumped…no note. When I speak to his wife later I may get more details. Just Gutted…”
I didn’t even know how to respond to this. Curtis made it through the hard years of early recovery, or so I thought. The last I checked he had over 10 years clean and sober. How the hell did this happen? What about all the seemingly happy photos and posts on social media? Him and his dog, him and his wife and kid, him in shorts smiling from a sandy beach paradise.
Curtis is not the first friend I have lost in recovery. Sadly he probably won’t be the last. But he is the first loss that I didn’t see coming. There have been others that just couldn’t get it. Relapsing and going out. Getting stuck out there, then when it got really bad—as it always does—they would come back and raise their hands at a meeting as a newcomer, again. But those addicts and alcoholics—you sort of always know they’re here on borrowed time, and the news of their deaths is never that shocking.
Judging by outward appearances, it looked like Curtis had his life together. He’d gotten off drugs, he worked in treatment, he got married. He even had pets. It just proves you never really know what’s happening when it comes to someone’s mental health. Still, I’d like to think he would have gotten in touch before things went south. But that’s probably just my ego talking. What the hell could I have done? With both our lives so busy, I can’t remember the last time we just hung out together outside of an event or a meeting, or even talked on the phone.
I can’t imagine the pain his wife and child are in. His family and close friends. I feel for them all, and I feel for Curtis. When the shock from loss calms down we can all start the grieving process. But for now it’s too soon, and so confusing.
I took my cup of coffee out onto the balcony. It was a bright sunny day in downtown Los Angeles. El Niño was supposed to be flooding the streets with rain, but all we’ve had are a few days of thundershowers. Then back to more of SoCal’s notoriously perfect weather. I raised my coffee in a toast to Curtis’ spirit in the sky. Why the sky? I have no idea. I don’t believe in heaven, but I have to believe Curtis is in a better place than the darkness that drove him to take his life.
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Originally published by AfterPartyMagazine March 3, 2016
If you’re new to recovery, just starting out in a 12-step fellowship, or fresh out of rehab, please stop reading this right now.
Okay, now that they’re gone, let me just say one thing. The recovery phone call sucks. It doesn’t matter if you’re a newcomer or a seasoned veteran with 20-plus years. Making that call is so awkward and uncomfortable that most of us would rather just wallow in our own misery.
You know the phone call I’m talking about. It’s the one where you ask for help. Like when you’re new to the fellowship and you’re told to get numbers from folks you don’t even know and to call them every day. Those are the worst phone calls ever. They are worse then the most self-conscious first date phone calls when you were a teenager—and you don’t even want to have sex with the person on the other end of the line.
But let’s face it. The reality is that you really don’t want to drink or do drugs and some grumpy old guy at the meeting told you that you’re going to die from your disease if you don’t follow direction. Right then and there the only thing you may have been really frightened of was turning into that grumpy old guy. But you listened to him because that’s what they tell you to do and you nervously asked a couple people for their numbers. Usually it’s the few folks that don’t scare you, like the guy making coffee. He actually said “hi” to you, although you are pretty sure that’s part of his commitment.
Really you wanted to ask the cute girl who does literature for her phone number. But there’s the heinous rule where it’s the men with the men, the women with the women. Besides, you really didn’t know what to say to cute girls anymore. Used to be that you’d meet them in a bar, get hammered, take them home and bang their brains out and then move in with them the next day. But apparently that’s out. That was the old you, the drunk you, the dope fiend you. The you that used people and had no conscience. That guy didn’t really have friends, he had drinking and drugging buddies. His relationships were a mess, his life was in ruins.
That’s why you have to make these recovery phone calls. You have to start forming relationships that are built on trust and empathy. You have to learn to care about those around you and be of service. Although you really have no idea what “being of service” means. That grumpy old guy just told you it meant to put away the chairs, but that can’t be all it means since the cute literature girl said her commitment was almost up, and that maybe you (being a newcomer) would like to “be of service” and take it. That’s who you should’ve asked for their number, but all you could do was picture her naked in bed and she got pissed and told you to stop staring at her.
Here’s the real deal. Forget the literature girl. She’s a psycho and will marry that biker dude in the back of the room. Less than a year from now she’ll be knocked up and they’ll be living with his mother in her double-wide trailer. Sometime before biker junior pops out and biker senior runs off to be a deadbeat dad, cute literature girl will be hating life and contemplating relapse. But those phone calls? They are really what is going to save your life.
You’re going to go through some really hard times in sobriety and you are going to want to pick up a drink or do some drugs. When your entire life seems to be hitting the skids and your future looks dark, you’ll find the strength to lift up that thousand pound phone and call a fellow addict or alcoholic. They’ll talk you down, tell you to go to a meeting, call your sponsor or to help a newcomer.
Those phone calls suck worse then the newcomer cold calls. They’re like calling up your dentist and telling him your tooth hurts again for the twentieth time. And he’ll ask, “are you flossing? Do you brush on a regular basis? When is the last time you had a cleaning?” And when you tell him “no, no, and you don’t know” he’ll give you an earful, yelling “do you want to lose your teeth?” It’s the same thing with recovery calls. Your friends from the fellowship will say, “have you been going to meetings? Have you worked a tenth step around it? Did you call your sponsor?” While the truth hurts, it’s better than relapsing into a world of incomprehensible demoralization. Or waking up pregnant and alone in your mother-in-law’s double-wide trailer.
I know that none of you newcomers stopped reading when I told you. In fact, I know my warning just made you want to read this even more. There is nothing worse then the word “no” to an alcoholic or addict. But what I’m trying to convey here is that no one is comfortable making those phone calls—yet we all have to. It is what we learn to do in recovery. By picking up that phone, we save are own lives.
So if you’re new and stressing about making those calls. Go ahead and just do it. Don’t worry about being cool. Just be nerdy, wait out the awkward silences, engage in that horrible small talk, hell, even mention the weather—it’s all good. Do it because once you’ve gotten over the fear of those little phone calls, the big ones that really matter will be easier. When you find yourself in that depressingly horrific place that we all eventually find ourselves in, you’ll know what to do. Make the recovery phone call a regular part of your program, just like you do with meetings and step work.
Oh, and one more thing. Remember when you asked me for my number and I said, “no problem, call me anytime”? I didn’t mean for that to sound like you could call me at 2 am. So “anytime” doesn’t really mean anytime. It means after 10 am and I’ve had my coffee, and before midnight when I’m still semi-coherent. Thanks.
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Originally published by AfterPartyMagazine January 29, 2016