I wake up and for two seconds I’m okay and then there’s this sense of impending doom. I can’t quite explain it other than to say that nothing is outwardly wrong. I’m employed, the rent is paid, my girlfriend loves me, I’m not strung out on drugs and my health is fine. There’s nothing stressful scheduled in my immediate future and yesterday was a pretty good day—in fact I was actually very happy—so I can’t really justify why I feel this way. But then there I am in the bathroom brushing my teeth when a mantra starts chanting in my head: “You’re fat. You’re ugly. You’re stupid. You’re a loser. Nobody loves you. ”
In the vernacular of therapists, rehabs and 12-step programs, I’m a quadruple winner. Not only do I have addiction issues, an eating disorder and a learning disability but I also suffer from depression and all those combined make for some pretty serious low self-esteem. But that doesn’t necessarily explain the continued one-sided conversation in my head. Admittedly there’s a very opinionated person up in there. But the reality is it’s only me judging myself very harshly. I wouldn’t let anyone else speak to me the way I allow this internal dialogue to, nor would I ever talk to anyone else in this manner.
As a child I picked up all kinds of skewed judgmental values. My mother was constantly dieting and always talked degradingly of those that were overweight. Yet I was a little chunky as a kid and when my parents brought me to Sears to buy clothes I shopped in the “husky” section—which we all knew, no matter how you spelled it, meant fat. This led to eating being somewhat shameful. It was something I had to be civilized about in public, but when I was in the privacy of my own home my emotions prevailed and it was time to shove gross amounts of snack foods down my throat until I was sick. All of my heroes and role models were skinny rock stars who were strung-out junkies and alcoholics and they were the ones I eventually learned to emulate. Being skinny and doing drugs went hand in hand. Puking up food and starving myself were just precursors before (and after) the storm of drug addiction.
Added to these issues was another—that I couldn’t spell and had trouble reading. While it turns out that I had an undiagnosed learning disability, I felt stupid—especially because my dad’s a university professor and even at the age of 10, I’d compare myself to him. Then, just to put a little more icing on the “stupid” cake, one teacher told my parents in front of me, “You know, he just isn’t that smart.” And that’s when I thought, “Okay, finally I have an answer—I’m a dumbass.”
At about this time, my parents split up. My dad just disappeared. My mom fell deep into a depression—a depression that’s hereditary, the same one I inherited—and she was so self-absorbed and miserable that she had no time for her children, least of all me. All of a sudden, I felt like an unwanted stupid fat kid. Bingo, value system complete.
I understand that since this is the story I’ve been telling myself all my life, it’s no wonder that when the seemingly simple solution of drugs arrived, I jumped on it and stayed on it way past that still working. At first drugs stopped the internal negative dialogue—or at least they made it irrelevant. I wasn’t fat anymore. I had the company of heroin so I wasn’t alone and didn’t need love. I was no longer depressed. I had become my heroes.
Of course eventually it all came crashing down. The inevitable consequences couldn’t be outweighed. My life was a disaster and I quit using. And from that day on, I was back at square one dealing with everything I had sought to escape. Yet now I’d added on years of really bad behavior and a ton of resentments: my negative self body image was kicking the shit out of me, I was depressed, my self esteem was pretty much non-existent and I couldn’t even imagine who could love me because I couldn’t love myself. Hell, I was more of a mess then when I started.
At this point most people would probably say, “There are medications for depression—why don’t you try one?” Actually I was on antidepressants for like um, forever. They helped me immeasurably when I first got off drugs—helped with the body dysmorphia, the depression, the anxiety, the…well, you name it. But then I gained a ton of weight, my sex drive screeched to a halt, my feelings were numb and I isolated, not seeming to care if I was in a relationship or had friends. And really none of that was acceptable collateral damage. In the end I made the decision to stop taking them. I told myself that I didn’t get clean just to be on another drug, even if this one was prescribed. But the reality was I couldn’t deal with the weight gain and no sex.
Now by no means am I advocating that everyone should toss out their Prozac so they can join me in being a bundle of nerves. But what I have learned in recovery is that it’s a process. And if I am finally getting it together by working on myself, then I need to keep evolving in my own consciousness. Unfortunately this process takes time; it doesn’t all happen instantly. So here I am 13 years later, not so much still craving drugs but rather dealing with my core issues that were my original problems way back before I ever started using.
Luckily I don’t begin every day like this. Some days are just harder then others. But nothing is as bad as being strung out with no hope. Now instead of suppressing my feelings, I’m forced to live with them and that’s made me a stronger person. I no longer avoid uncomfortable situations. I confront my fears. I strive to not create more damage in my life by not cheating, stealing, or manipulating those around me. I have people that I care about and they care about me. I have a sponsor and a support group and when I don’t have solutions for what I’m going through, I call others seeking help.
Standing at the sink, I put down the toothbrush and stare at my reflection in the mirror. I think: You’re not fat. You’re not ugly. You’re not stupid. You’re not a loser. People love you.
Even though I feel incredibly lame doing this. I repeat it over and over. Suddenly I’m reminded of that old Saturday Night Live skit with Stuart Smalley saying, “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me!” And I laugh, embarrassed that I may be imitating him. But right now I’d rather try something that might help than stay in my pain and misery. Even though this feels awkward and a little too touchy feely, I put aside my fears and continue because what I’m telling myself today is the truth.
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Originally published as “The Secret Story An Addict In Recovery Tells Himself” by After Part Chat May 15, 2014
Demetri, a shifty little bastard up on multiple murder charges, was my cellie. Many a night I’d feel the bunks shake as he jacked off and made weird noises. It was common agreement that one should do it quickly and quietly. He was on the top bunk so it shouldn’t have been a problem. But Demetri just wasn’t capable of either. He’d stolen bits and pieces of sleazy porn, torn out when borrowing other guy’s magazines, mixed in with ordinary women’s underwear ads, the kind you find in any newspaper. He’d sort of fashioned them all together into his own whack book. Taking a People magazine he adhered the various purloined photos onto the pages with Bob Barker brand toothpaste. When both sides were entirely adorned with the tattered shots of insatiable looking naked women spreading their legs or shoving their tits together jammed on top of a layer of dried toothpaste they became extra thick, almost like papier-mâché or cardboard. And when he leafed through while pulling his pud the pages would creak and he’d make these whiney comments.
“Ohhh, look her pussy, look at her pussy, oh her pussy.”
It’d be about then that I’d say, “Demetri? Demetri. Demetri! Shut the fuck up.”
Demetri and his gypsy girlfriend had allegedly poisoned several old men to steal their money and property. His girlfriend would make as if she was the old guy’s squeeze, and then Demetri playing the role of her caretaker brother would put toxic plant extracts in the old dude’s food. When the fourth old guy turned up dead and Demetri and the girlfriend were found living in his house, driving his car, and depleting his bank account, the county of San Francisco decided they had a case and charged the both of them. He was constantly in the newspapers, headline front page material for months. Which I liked because it pushed my measly armed robberies to the back pages, below the fold, soon they’d be gone and I’d be forgotten. What my lawyer described as the “wait for the next worse thing to come along” defense – there’s always a more heinous crime waiting to be committed – and then I’d no longer be the DA’s flavor of the month.
Still, it would freak Demetri out when he’d see me reading an article about him.
“All lies,” he’d say. “All lies. Hey Pat, how ’bout a snack?”
And I’d be like, “Demetri, you poison people, ain’t eating shit of yours.”
We were both max-security. Our combined bail in the several millions. In reality we shouldn’t have been in the minimum-security pods, and so the sheriff’s department had made it mandatory we be kept together in one of the lockdown two-man cells. Up on the top tier with the rest of the three strikers fighting for our lives.
“Pat? Think ya ever gettin’ out?”
“How many times I gotta tell you, name’s Patrick. Not Pat. Pat’s what you do to a dog.”
“Don’t know, Pat. Your case is bad.”
“Like yours is a fuckin’ walk in the park.”
Demetri was a Christian Palestinian. He told me I didn’t know persecution until I’d experienced life as a Christian Arab. I said I didn’t even know there were any. Demetri said that was okay, he’d never met a junkie bank robber either.
But it annoyed the piss out of me when he’d jack off late at night. The only time the cellblock was even vaguely quiet was 1 to 4am. And I’d take that time to read. Lying on my bunk, my head hanging off staring up at the book I’d be holding in the shaft of light coming into the cell from the main overheads above the tier, I’d read all night with plans to sleep all day. Only people I’d see were guards as they passed by the cell every hour and shined a light in our faces, making sure we were still there – as if we could somehow escape all that steel and concrete.
“Pat, how much you pay lawyer?”
“Go to sleep Demetri.”
“Mine want ‘nother forty thou. Bloodsucker.”
“Go to sleep Demetri.”
I sat in county jail for eighteen months fighting my case. A year of which I spent locked down with Demetri. When the DA finally offered me a deal that wasn’t twenty-five years to life I took it and got transferred to finish out my time. Periodically I’d read of Demetri. The prosecution was having trouble proving he’d actually committed murder. When it looked like their case was going to completely unravel they opted to go with multiple convictions of elder abuse – Demetri was going to do five years, a little over a year for each murder. With time served he’d be out a year or two after me.
When I got out on parole it was a whole different world for me. I tried to get my shit somewhat together, clean up, not shoot dope, and stay out of jail. So, I checked myself into a residential rehab. Actually, I had nowhere else to go. And with parole breathing down my neck, and the DA’s promise of a life behind bars if I fucked up again, it wasn’t really that hard a decision. After three and half years I was off parole, out on my own, had a job and life wasn’t great, but it wasn’t the hell it had been.
One day, feeling cooped up in my county subsidized single occupancy sober living environment, I decide to go out. Walking along Third Street out of my soon to be gentrified SoMa neighborhood in the general direction of downtown I passed the W Hotel and there was Demetri leaning against the hood of a cab.
“Hey man,” I said to him. “When’d you get out?”
“Hey Pat. Get out of what?”
“Get out of prison, dude.”
Demetri leaned in close to my ear and said, “Pat, don’t know what you’re talking ’bout. Never been to prison. Please don’t speak of such things again.”
I gave him the once over. He looked bad. He had aged a lot in there.
“Okay, buddy.” I said, and walked away.
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Originally published in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Volume 5, Issue 19, 2013
It’s three in the afternoon on a weekday. I’m jogging on Santa Monica Boulevard doing my usual four miles: out Santa Monica to Fairfax and back along Sunset. Oddly, there are a lot of other folks jogging at this time of day. I’m wondering: does anyone in Hollywood have a regular nine-to-five job? Or are we all out here in the sunshine getting exercise after another long shift working at home?
As a writer, I sit in front of my computer for most of the day and if I’m lucky and things are really going well, sometimes well into the night. Which of course leaves me being stationary for long stretches of time. And if I don’t get out and run or go to the gym, I’ll just sit typing. Every few hours I do get up, but it’s usually to make something to eat or drink. Then I sit in front of the computer consuming said refreshment and reading what I just typed. When I’m not working, I’ll sit some more while on Facebook, Twitter or reading the New York Times online. And if I’m stressed or I have a deadline to make, the entire time I’m sitting, even when I’m eating, I’m obsessing about some really gross sugary snack that I know I shouldn’t even be thinking of. Only somewhere in there, if I’m not careful, after a few hours I’ll say, “Fuck it” and wander all zombie-like the one-and-a-half blocks to 7/11 (where all bad things to eat wait for me). Once there, I’ll beeline right past the bananas, protein bars and yogurt and grab a really unhealthy processed sugar-infused bleached wheat flour conglomeration—as a matter of fact I’ll grab two, because hell, I hiked all the way over here. I can’t just come to 7/11 for one little pack of snickerdoodles, now, can I?
And herein lies my problem. I’ve got an eating disorder. Growing up as an unwanted fat kid lost in a divorce with two narcissistic parents, I found solace in food. Eating until I felt ill led me to discover the joys of bulimia all on my own and without even knowing that there was a name for what I was doing. But you know, even a dumb 12-year-old fat boy figures out that if you eat too much, you get fatter. So at 14, I switched teams and headed into anorexia. Because that’s where the real control freaks go. Luckily, or maybe not, a few years later I discovered drugs—more specifically heroin—and I was off on that wonderful pink cloud of junkie chic thin. I could eat all the crap, fast food and candy bars I wanted and not gain an ounce. Woo hoo, this shit’s a miracle, right? Except that I did the inevitable crash-and-burn and this skinny punk rock art school graduate was soon running with decidedly non-artistic strippers and thugs. Fast forward 20 years and arrests, jails and felonies had all been entered into my resume. I woke up one day on the exercise yard of a correctional facility wondering just how in the hell I got there. Not how did I literarily get there—that part was pretty obvious. But what had happened and why did I get there? Only I was 125 pounds. I was rock star thin. At least I looked good.
Parole and a couple of long-term residential rehabs later and I was in recovery. I was going to meetings. I had a sponsor. I was working the steps. I had a coffee commitment. And I was eating everything in sight. It’s like I couldn’t get enough sugar. I could easily down a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, an entire pack of Oreos, three glazed donuts and a “fun size” bag of Fritos in one sitting and still want more. And then one day I was staring at myself in the mirror and I had a gut and I heard “fat boy.” Sadly, no one else said it. No one else was there. I said it.
The next day, after my regular ice cream and cookies, I was standing over the toilet getting rid of it. Two weeks later, I was living on black coffee and three saltine crackers a day. It was just like they say about your addictive behaviors: You start again and it comes back full force worse than when you left it because it’s been doing push-ups in the parking lot waiting for you to slip. Your eating disorder is apparently at the gym training for the triathlon of kicking your ass as soon as you let your guard down.
That was 13 years ago and I’ve been going back and forth with anorexia/bulimia the whole time I’ve been clean off drugs. There will be periods when I’m okay. Then when I get ambitious and take a chance, like moving to Los Angeles five years ago with less than a $1000 in my pocket to change careers, it’ll erupt in my brain, anxiety will take over and I’ll go back to binge eating and throwing everything up. Because not only does wolfing down a half dozen snickerdoodles make me feel sick but it also brings up a ton of guilt and shame and even more self-loathing. Then the vicious cycle begins where I want to stop but I feel horrible about myself and my appearance or really how I think I look to other people. And just like with drugs, I use more food to try to fill that gaping hole in my soul. Which of course doesn’t work. In fact, it makes me even more insecure and depressed.
And then, as if all that wasn’t enough, here’s the coup de grâce of this entire complicated mess: Not only am I a punk rock/ex-junkie/musician turned writer but I’m also in my 50s and not exactly your typical eating disorder type of guy. Plus, I am a guy. And I know things have changed dramatically since I was a kid doing what I thought only I did. But still, the stigma of this behavior isn’t that well accepted among straight males. I don’t know a lot of men like me that I can talk to about this, though there are tons of folks that get why I don’t drink at dinner parties. Many consider me thin and maybe I am. I just don’t see it. No matter what I weigh, I look in the mirror and see fat boy.
So yeah, I’m over 50 years old and still wondering just when does this go away. Only I know that, just like with my drug addiction, it never does and I have to vigilantly work a program. I have to exercise and eat right and continue to go to meetings and work with my sponsor. Because just like with my other “problem,” being vigorously honest about it and working the 12 steps are the only things that help.
A red light stops me at Highland and Sunset and I jog in place at the curb. Across the intersection, there’s a pizza by the slice joint, frozen yogurt stand, steam table Chinese buffet, Fatburger and Southern fast food chicken franchise that religiously endorses hate. I’d never eat at any of these places yet they all call to me. “Good workout today, Patrick!” they yell. “You deserve a special treat. Eat something that’ll make you sick!” Instead I turn down Highland and keep running.
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Originally published by After Part Chat March 25, 2014