Some things are true only because you believe them to be. Some things are true whether you want to believe them or not. One of my truths is that I’m an addict. It doesn’t matter what the substance is, if it has the potential for abuse, I will abuse it. I try to tell myself it’s just booze. That since I’ve been sober for so long I’m in the clear, but it’s never just been booze.
It’s obvious some places. Of course I can’t have just a little bit of cocaine. But it gets fuzzier and fuzzier the more socially acceptable the drug is. Prescribed anti-anxiety medications that are known to be habit-forming are out. Anytime my psychiatrist wants to change my medication I have to ask if any of them have known potential for abuse. I can’t have just a cup of coffee, because soon I’ll be drinking coffee all day, pushing my anxiety through the roof while my sleep bottoms out. Unless I want to smoke a pack a day again, I can never take a drag from a cigarette. I can’t even smoke pot without it quickly consuming my whole day. And forget about sugar. There is no such thing as moderation when it comes to substances with me. It’s an off/on switch.
I guess that’s just another personality trait I need to learn to deal with. But the first step to dealing with it is probably recognizing that it’s a personality trait and not a character flaw. That it does not mean I am fundamentally broken or there is something wrong with me. Moderation is just a thing I can’t do and that’s okay.
That’s why they make you say you’re powerless in AA, I guess. I never went to AA precisely because I hated that part. I didn’t want to powerless, I wanted to be powerful. Vibrant. I wanted to feel like I could do anything. Not powerless. Powerless feels so small and weak. But maybe it doesn’t have to be. Maybe it can be liberating.
Maybe by admitting I am powerless over addiction I can stop trying to be something I’m not. I can stop testing the waters of substance abuse and finally walk away.
“You’re running to stand still,” he said as he mimed the motion. “The way you describe it is like the way a junkie describes shooting up just to stay level, you know. You know. Just to keep from getting sick. It sounds exhausting.”
I glanced out the window, then back to him, and pulled one foot underneath me. “I guess I hadn’t thought about it like that. I mean, I guess I just figured I kind of have to do this stuff because…” I trailed off in a light giggle. “This sounds so fucking ridiculous.”
“It sounds dangerous, is what it sounds like. It sounds unachievable. It’s just another way your perfectionism is coming into play.”
He doesn’t usually get preachy. Usually he lets me get there on my own, so I can tell it’s important when he doesn’t. My religious avoidance of things that might be addictive or may cause unhealthy habitual behavior has become just that.
Taking care of myself is getting closer and closer to becoming just another avoidance tactic. Just another thing I do to not deal with what is happening. Focusing on my health slips from being a good idea to a dangerous obsession with just a few additions.
There’s got to be balance somewhere. An understanding of the things I need to do to take care of myself and the way I need to do them. Room for the just sitting, space for doing things just because I like them. There’s has to be a way to have a cup of coffee without thinking, “This is addictive. Caffeine is addictive. Everything is going straight to shit. I’m going to start drinking again.”
Flexibility has never been my strong suit. But I like to think I can learn to stretch. Learn to believe I have the capacity to live somewhere between the perfection that doesn’t exist and passed out drunk in a ditch.
When I was in high school we finally got high-speed internet. I also got my own computer and one of the rooms upstairs. This was before I texted or everyone had a cell phone. So to talk without talking, you got on the internet and used a messaging service. I’d stay up late into the night talking to friends on MSN messenger.
“Can you come over?”
It wasn’t an uncommon question to receive. I’d knitted myself into a group of heartbroken and struggling teenagers. Most with “do whatever you want” parents and many without cars. Even though I lived at least twenty minutes from every one of them, it was rare that I wouldn’t drop everything and come to your doorstep. You just had to ask. Just ask.
Common enough that even at 1 AM I was still clothed, including shoes. My coat hanging on the back of my chair, my purse stocked with cigarettes and within easy reach.
“Of course. On my way. See you in half an hour.”
I crept down the stairs and kneeled next to my mom’s side of my parent’s bed, pushing soft on her shoulder. “Mom. Mom. I’m going to go into town. I’ll be back later.”
Still asleep, she’d answer me with a, “Okay. Be safe. I love you.”
“Love you, too.” I leaned in, kissed her temple, and headed out the door into the empty night. One of the joys of living in a small town was the lack of light pollution. The nights are always dark and you rarely have to share them.
Half an hour later I was knocking on Sheldon’s door. A room straight off the front patio; you could enter it without walking through the house or putting down your cigarette. He joined me outside, handing over a Busch Light and asking for a smoke. We settled into the chairs arranged around the glass-top table that was covered in ashtrays and beer cans.
He didn’t say much. Pupils like pin-pricks, like far-off blackbirds soaring deep into the sky of his eyes. He flopped his head back and forth like a rag doll. Sometimes it’s not that you want company, but that you know it’s not safe to be alone.
With our smokes done, we headed into his room. He mumbled he wanted to play me something, turning his back to me and sifting through the music on his computer. His room was always a mess, so at first I didn’t notice what he’d done. A painter, among many things, he’d been experimenting with acrylics on panes of glass. He’d paint them individually, then layer them together two or three deep. Gorgeous from both sides and like nothing any of us had ever seen. Stunning.
Now they were all in pieces. Smashed to bits among his belongings. Paint and shattered glass on the floor. On the bed. Across his desk. Settling into the creases of the dirty clothes piled up in every corner.
“What the fuck did you do, dude?”
“It’s been a bad night.”
I sat down on the edge of his bed, pieces of it digging into my palms. “I can help you clean this up tomorrow. I’ll bring my dad’s Shop-Vac® in.”
“Sure. Listen to this.”
He put on the new Alias album he’d been listening to and laid down on the bed. Shards of glass sliding in toward him as his weight depressed the mattress. Cutting into this elbows, his triceps, sticking to his clothes, and creeping down the collar of his shirt.
At first I thought I’d try to clear off the bed, but it so insignificant. When your feet are soaking wet you don’t bother avoiding puddles. We were already covered in it and what did it matter anyway? Tiny glass slices mean nothing in comparison to everything we were living with.
I crawled up the side of the mattress and laid my head on the pillow next to his. Alias playing loud and both of us bleeding into the mattress. We fell asleep with the light on.
The next day I drove home, picked up my dad’s vacuum like I said I would, and drove back to Sheldon’s. While he sat on the patio and smoked my cigarettes I cleaned his room. It was the one thing I knew I could fix for him. Something tangible I could protect him from.
After I loaded the vacuum into the back of my Corolla I sat down at the table with him. Both of us still picking pieces of glass out of the creases in our fingers, out of the cuffs of our jeans. He pushed his chair back, the harsh squeal of metal against concrete. Stood up and went into his room.
A few minutes later he came back with a stack of paper in huge brown portfolio. “This is every piece of art I’ve made since… Since high school. Well, you know, that I have still. I need you to hold on to it for me.” He put it into the trunk of my car and sat back down.
When I got back home I asked my mom to stash the portfolio somewhere, put my dad’s Shop-Vac® back into the garage, and took a shower. Clean and dressed in fresh clothes, I sat down at the table in our kitchen.
My mom came in through the back door and caught me staring blankly out the window. Motionless. She asked the set of questions she always felt comfortable asking. “Are you hungry? Can I make something for you?”
“Yeah, that’d be great. Do we have any lasagna left?”
“If you wanna reheat some of that, that’d be awesome. Thanks, mom.”
She rustled through the fridge and pulled out a selection of food to go along with the lasagna, of course. Her ability to create a feast in minutes shining. Setting the plate in front of me she said, “You sure do give a lot to your friends, munchkin. Make sure you keep some for yourself.”
I looked over at her and smiled. “Yeah, I know. I do. I will.” The words came out confident, but then I looked down at my scabbed hands as I picked up my fork. My teeth clenched. The truth is, if you want to keep something you care about safe, you give it to someone else.