The Stupid Shit We Say to Newcomers

When I started out in recovery, I was testing the waters. I came late to meetings so I didn’t have to deal with what I felt was insufferably happy small talk between members. I didn’t want to hold hands, I didn’t want a hug and I sat in the back of the room, glaring at everyone, wondering why no one was reaching out to me. After all didn’t you all say that the most important person in the room was me? At the time I couldn’t correlate that it was my horrible attitude and demeanor that kept everyone from approaching me. But hell, I was there—in a meeting—and I came to get help. Couldn’t everyone see that?

I was a typical self-absorbed addict. I thought the world revolved around me. So why should recovery be any different? Yet sitting in the back of the room afforded me an unobstructed view of all that was going on. I may have been self-centered, but I was also a fast learner and very observant. I quickly sussed out the chips, the sobriety anniversaries and the not using in between deal. I understood that I needed to work the steps, read the literature, and find a sponsor—not that I did any of those immediately. But what I had the most trouble with, what really confused me, was what people shared. From the guest speakers to the secretaries, trusted servants and my fellow members in the audience—people in recovery said the weirdest shit.

I could overlook all the bumper sticker sayings like, “Easy Does It,” “One Day at a Time,” and “Keep It Simple.” While slightly patronizing, these statements made some sense. I needed to slow down, do the next thing on the agenda and not make it complicated. It was the tired and trite clichés that mostly annoyed me, and had me questioning whether or not I could actually stay clean. When I heard some guy with 20-plus years say, “The longer I’m in recovery, the less I know,” I flinched. You’ve been sober for two decades and that’s the best you can come up with? So what you’re saying is recovery makes you dumber—really? This just didn’t make sense, nor did it instill a lot of faith that the 12 steps actually worked.

Then there was the woman that said, “Relapse is a part of recovery.” And I’m all, “Yes!” Because in my mind she’d just given me the green light to go relapse. It was now okay if I go use. Well, as long as I came back and said I was a newcomer again. I thought anyone with more time than me (which was practically everyone) was incredibly amazing, and that if I just hovered in their hemisphere I would get recovery through osmosis. Obviously they had figured this scam out, because up until now everything in my life was a scam of some sort, so why should getting clean be any different?

I also remember the first time I heard, “My worst day sober is still better than my best day using.” At that very moment in my life I couldn’t see it. I had a ton of what I felt were “good times” using drugs and I wanted to get high really badly and relive them again. In all actuality this was the worst my life had ever been. I was homeless, penniless, weak from withdrawal, unhappy, tired and resentful. That all of that was of my own making due to my addiction didn’t matter—of course all of that was someone else’s fault—it’s just that a statement like the best day/worst day didn’t ring true. When it was so causally thrown out and folks around me nodded their heads in agreement, my internal dialogue started pointing out the various reasons this program wouldn’t work for me. Throw in all that talk about the “shitty committee,” the “pity party,” a newcomer’s “pink cloud” and that annoying “Don’t leave before the miracle happens” and I was about ready to scream. I didn’t do cute before I got sober, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to be doing it now.

Perhaps the worst part was all the God talk. I had a really hard time accepting that I needed to have a power greater than myself and that power had to be called God with a capital “G.” My first AA sponsor had me read the “Chapter to the Agnostics” part of the Big Book, which basically said, “You might not believe in God now, but you will.” Which really didn’t help, in fact it had me worried I was in a thinly veiled religious cult. When I jumped ship to the less bible-quoting fellowship of NA I still had a resentment with the literature’s insistent referral to all things “Him” and “God.” And then at an NA meeting I heard, “Let Go and Let God,” I just about lost my shit. There was no escaping it.

Of course all of this had more to do with being a newcomer than what people were actually saying. Back then I wasn’t capable of putting “principles before personalities.” I judged everyone harshly, including myself. As I gained more clean time, what people said annoyed me less and less. Today I rigorously practice the spiritual principles of honesty, open-mindedness and willingness. I am more accepting of others, but I have never forgotten how it felt to be a newcomer and my initial reaction to what I heard in meetings. You will never hear me utter “It was a God shot,” or “Fake it till you make it,” or even “Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.” Instead when I share what I am going through, I stay away from the cute, and talk about how my solution is always in the 12 steps. I may not be the most sterling example for the newcomer, but I try. After all, “We only keep what we have by giving it away.”
Originally published as “The Stupid Stuff We Say to Newcomers” by AfterPartyMagazine September 26th, 2016

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 1st, 2017 at 12:31 pm. Leave a comment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

Gratitude, 2017

2016, what can I say? You were a dog from hell, you were the best thing that ever happened, you were a combo of both that had me stressed out and hopeful. So much upheaval and change occurred that I barely had time to contemplate a reaction and instead I just went into autopilot. More than once I found myself heading toward some “unknown” destiny repeating the mantra, “there’s nothing I can’t handle, there’s nothing I can’t handle, there’s nothing I can’t handle…” And you know it turns out that there’s nothing that I can’t handle. Which is much better then in the past when I just avoided everything (although I admit I still haven’t been able to read an entire newspaper, or watched any political summary of our upcoming administration’s deplorable self aggrandizing and inhuman political atrocities). But the harsh reality is that the universe in a constant state of flux and nothing stays the same, no matter how hard we wish it to. So here’s to you 2016 as I once again share a little gratitude for all that has transpired.

After seven years of trudging away in the educational trenches my part time (in salary), but really a full time teaching position (in how much time I put in) abruptly ended and I was left scrambling to figure out how I was going to make a living. Really I’d been wanting to do something different for a long time. I was burned out and slightly disillusioned with teaching at a community college. But I was pulling in a paycheck and probably would have just stayed, too fearful to make the change. Luckily I still had an even more “part time” second job facilitating groups at an inpatient rehab—and you know what they say, when one door closes another opens—and a part time position opened up and I was given the opportunity to combine writing with recovery while utilizing my teaching skills and my former drug and alcohol counselors chops. I’m now a clinician/writing therapist/group facilitator and I conduct one on one writing sessions with individual clients and facilitate educational recovery groups. It has been ten years since I worked in the recovery field and I have to admit that I really missed working with addicts and alcoholics—well, at least the ones that are trying to get better—half my damn students at LAVC were stoned out of their minds, but that’s another story.

I turned 60 this year, something I thought would never happen – yet here I am. No other birthday was this hard. I’m not talking about the shallowness of vanity or worrying about being youthful physically. At 60 you cannot escape the fact that you are old, no matter what stage of denial you are in: 60 is the new 50’s; you’re as young as you feel; it’s just a number; blah, blah, blah. You’re not middle aged, or having a mid life crisis – because there’s no “mid” involved here. I am not mid way to 120. Nope. So yeah, I’m that much closer to my death, which sucks as I have so much to do before that happens—but all that really means is I don’t just get to sit on my ass and relax.

Last year, due to the hard work of Natashia Deon, I was granted a “Certificate of Rehabilitation” by the State of California – which automatically made me eligible for a Governor’s Pardon, only “automatically” means, a mountain of paperwork, letters of recommendation (thank you, you know who you are), and a year of waiting with fingers crossed. The Friday before Christmas Governor Jerry Brown pardoned me—which is like winning the lotto—I actually broke down a cried.

Jenn and I have been living together now for over a year. It was a really big move for the both of us. But oddly it seems like we were just deciding where the couch was going to go in our living room and then we were signing the next year’s lease… Which obviously means that the year went by so easily that us being together was meant to be, and somewhere in the middle of it all, I proposed—uh huh, yup, we’re engaged, with a wedding date yet to be set. Best decision I ever made.

I finished the first draft of my novel. My car died several deaths. Jenn’s car was totaled. Jobs were lost. Debts were incurred. There were several trips to the ER. A big vet emergency to the tune of a few thousand—but a really sick cat we almost lost is healthy and busy ignoring us as usual. A ton of friends and family stayed with us. I read at numerous events, guest lectured at several universities, and was asked to coordinate the Los Angeles chapter of the Why There Are Words reading series. I taught several online courses at AULA’s I2P (and still do), and the good folks at PEN USA allowed me the opportunity to mentor a really amazing new writer, Jian Huang, for the Emerging Voices Fellowship, whose talent and energy were so contagious that I was forced to look at my own writing practice and up my game (hence the first draft of my novel).

And last but not least, yesterday, January 8th was my clean date (sober date for you AA’ers) and I got to celebrate it with Jenn and our two lumpy Maine Coons, Jagger and Shepard. I know I’m writing about 2016. But I couldn’t have done any of this, or gotten through any of the hard times, without being in recovery for the last 16 years. A big THANK YOU to all of you for being in my life. Just knowing you all has been amazing and supportive.

Here’s to 2017. Believe it or not, I’m looking forward to what the future holds.
Art Work by Joel Landmine

This entry was posted on Monday, January 9th, 2017 at 11:59 am. Leave a comment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Back when I was using heroin, robbing banks and going to jail on a regular basis, I kept to myself, avoiding family and what few friends I had left. Of course the rest of the world went about their business as usual and no matter what I did to ignore them, I was still forced to deal with reality every now and then. But nothing was as bad as having to deal with the Christmas holidays: the schmaltzy decorations, the endless commercial bombardment for materialistic crap, the incredibly bad winter weather that froze my ass off and the false holiday cheer from folks that hated my guts. All that was hideous enough to just want to hide out until New Years was over. But what I really dreaded was having to go to my family’s for Christmas Eve dinner.

Most holidays I could get away with saying I was busy or sometimes I would just not show up. Who really celebrates shit like the 4th of July and Easter? But, for some reason, my mom always considered Christmas Eve sacred and staying home in a warm opiated euphoria was just not permitted. So, I’d bundle up and take two buses over to her house, first stopping at my dealer’s to make sure I had enough drugs in case I got dope sick and had to shoot up in my mom’s bathroom. Well, to be honest, I would always shoot up in her bathroom at Christmas. It was the only way I could make it through the evening.

Now it would have been a much less dreadful dinner had it just been my mom and myself. But it wasn’t. There was my stepfather, a tough guy with hair-trigger anger who would drink too much and boss everyone around. My stepbrother, a meth addict with serious mental health issues, my other stepbrother, a recovering alcoholic, and his wife—neither of whom wanted to be there either. Then there was my little sister, her boyfriend and some stray friend of my mom’s that had nowhere else to go—and oddly enough the three of them wanted to be there. In fact they were the only people besides my mom that actually enjoyed the event.

Having to buy drugs on the way always made me late, like an hour or so, and the rest of the family would use that time to drink a bunch of alcohol. I never really knew what I was walking into when I got there. It could be a celebration, or it could be a huge argument about god knows what. Trying to go unnoticed I would slip into the living room like I’d been there all night. “Nice of you to show up!” my stepfather would yell. This would of course rankle my nerves, I’d consider doing more drugs just to calm down, but knew I had to pace myself, so I’d make a drink and join in with the liquor consuming festivities. My mother would fuss over me and my sister would say hi, and then the bombardment of questions would fly. “Where have you been?” “Are you working?” “What are you doing with your life?” A ton of inquires I had no answers for and resented being asked.

One particularly awful Christmas, my stepbrother was actually living in my parents’ spare bedroom. He’d lost his job, apartment and girlfriend (I know, a speed-freak losing shit, go figure right?), so he moved in to get his life back together. Unfortunately he hadn’t stopped doing meth and was out of his mind. My folk’s flat was on the third floor and his room was in the back of the building, He didn’t want to have to deal with his father every time he came and went, so he erected a 30-foot extension ladder up to his bedroom window. Imagine what the neighbors thought when a deranged man slid by their bedroom window on a ladder at 3am. My family just sort of ignored this, only I couldn’t.

“How’s that backdoor working for ya, bro?”

My stepbrother, mumbling incoherently, ignored me and went about his usual weirdness, which was this strange obsessive tapping of everything he passed. It looked like he was deciphering an odd combination that only he knew; first touching a lamp, then the table, a chair, then sitting down, only to jump up and do it all again in reverse. I just stared, wondering if anyone else thought his behavior a bit weird. When my mom announced that dinner was served we all stumbled into the dining room, but my stepbrother had rearranged the chairs facing outward from the table, and he was walking around tapping stuff in a tweeker frenzy.

“Knock it off!” yelled my stepfather. And that was all that was said. No, “what the hell is the matter with you?” No, “are you on drugs?” Just “knock it off” as if this was semi-acceptable behavior.

Once the holiday meal was on the table everyone began ladling food onto their plates. Some small talk erupted and if you had just joined us you may have thought we were a normal family. That is until the discussion strayed into dangerous territory, which was basically anything besides the weather. Then my stepfather would scream some sexist/racist slur and tell everyone to “shut the fuck up!” and that would put an end to that. It was safer to drink more booze and stare at your plate of food than to actually say anything.

About this time, I’d excuse myself and go to the bathroom, cook up a shot of dope and attempt to get it inside of me before someone came knocking needing to use the facilities. This was never easy and nerve wracking as the hall bathroom had those louvered doors that never quite closed correctly—but that never stopped me. Decidedly well medicated I’d return to the table and pretend to eat. It was only then that I was able to ignore all the drama. Sitting next to my other stepbrother and his wife, the only family members not drinking, I’d slur my words trying to converse with them. I can only imagine what they thought.

When dinner was over, everyone would go into the living room again, to sit around the tree and open presents. However, due to my stepfather’s dictatorship only one person could open a present at a time, making it an excruciatingly long drawn out ordeal. Half way through I needed a cigarette. It was cold out on the back stairs, and I was hurriedly smoking when my stepbrother came out. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked.

“Hey fuck you!” He screamed, and then we were fighting each other. I punched him in the stomach, he tried to hit me and I kicked him down a flight of stairs. Unfortunately this made a ton of noise and the whole family was at the backdoor to find out what all the commotion was about. My stepbrother, nursing a bruised face, mumbled that he’d slipped. I tossed my cigarette and went back inside.

Now that the meal was eaten and the gift giving over, all pretense of civility was abandoned. My stepbrother screamed he didn’t get the gifts he deserved, my stepfather yelled at him demanding he apologize, my little sister continued her conversation with the non-family member as if nothing odd was happening and my other stepbrother and his wife quietly explained they should be leaving, yet never got up to go.

“Merry Christmas,” said my mom. Slipping me an envelope with cash in it. I quickly glanced at the clock, it’s still early, if I left now I could use this money to score more dope on the way home. Grabbing my coat I said my goodbyes.

“Leaving fashionably early, I see,” said my stepfather.

“Whatever,” I responded.

Out in front of their building I felt sick and threw up in the street. I didn’t usually mix heroin with alcohol and I sure as hell didn’t need to eat that food on top of it. But really, it was just the tension of being there and I was happy to have survived another holiday.

Years later my stepfather will die of cancer in that same house, surrounded by copious amounts of narcotics that don’t begin to touch his pain. My stepbrother, his schizophrenia fully aggravated from years of methamphetamine abuse, will have moved to the great white north to live in a trailer in the middle of nowhere and hide from society. My mother, after an extremely painful knee operation, will have become a Vicodin addict. My little sister and her boyfriend will have gotten married and bought a condo in the suburbs. My other stepbrother and his wife, still clean and sober, will have a son and be happy.

Myself? I will have continued the downward cycle of the junkie drug addict, doing time in prison. I got out on parole, entered recovery and slowly pieced my life back together. It is hard to even fathom that this was how we all spent Christmas Eve. But seriously, I am so grateful I no longer live like that or continue that tradition. My Christmases are much more sedate. There’s no drama, no fighting, and no sadness, guilt, or regrets. I wish it could have been like that back then.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Happy Holidays.
Originally published as “Copping Drugs on My Way to Christmas Dinner” by AfterPartyMagazine December 24th, 2015

This entry was posted on Monday, December 5th, 2016 at 9:17 am. Leave a comment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.