As we walked out of one of the many parking lots radiating like pie slices of trivial knowledge from the grounds of the fair, I saw a man leaning up against the hood of his red sports car and said for the first of many times that day “this is the best moment of my life!”
We had come to a county fair that afternoon to see a demolition derby and (I hoped) to find me a hat. Even outside the grounds the spectacle had arrived. This man was the figurehead of some massive cultural vessel, some kind of socio economic icebreaker, with it’s own unstoppable momentum. He had his shirt off, exposing the spare tire from his car, slung around his waist, under the skin. The car itself was a red Saturn (perhaps sports car was a little misleading) and he leaned against it, leering at pregnant teens, sipping a Coors Light.
I was already beside myself by the time we got inside and found our seats. I kept leaning over and whispering, “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday, you pay for the whole seat but you only use the edge” in my best monster truck voice. It really was Sunday, I was standing in a crowd of like-minded people listening to their national anthem, as I looked around me I saw with satisfaction that most of them were singing along, hand over heart.
The derby itself featured car rolling, figure eight racing, a V8 derby where the winner was the last car running and one daredevil who jumped his car into a stack of others, four high. Each event was marked by my reiteration of the fact that I was again baring witness to the best moment of my life. The whole thing lasted about three quarters the length of our tube of kettle corn, I tossed the remainder into a trash receptical on the way out.
The fair itself was not an unfamiliar sight for me. I had grown up going to small town carnivals and as such was well acquainted with the zipper and other hot dog loosening devices. In the interest of full discloser I must point out that when I say “well aquatinted” I really mean from a distance. I am very familiar with the kind of stubborn negotiation required not to be dragged on to any ride at a fair. I was never much of a physicly adventurous child and my horizions have remained narrow as I have grown older. After making it clear that I was still very much a pussy, we made our way around looking at the rest of the sights. The food was basicly the same stuff I knew as a kid from this kind of venue although, as with everything else on this side of the boarder, larger and cheaper. I ordered a corn dog (amazingly called a Krusty Pup) and we took in the rest of the sights.
The rest of the sights included, and were limited to, a massive pavilion that contained everything I have ever seen for sale on infomercials, an oversized barn claiming to showcase livestock (it only seemed to have pigs) and a children’s science exhibit. I opted out of the latter for fear of coming across a booth explaining creationism. As we walked out I saw a sign that brought the rolling crest of my excitement to a sudden stop, while ensuring my attendance to the very next county fair I could find. I had missed the pig races. I could feel the wake of this cultural movement as I stood there, awestruck and too stunned to move. All I could say was “You know this really is a long way from Canada”
The man with the dog faced short shorts
“What are you fucking part timers doing up there?” Our friend yelled, trying to insight the three or four people that had been lounging in the loft for the last hour. It was 10pm and all eleven of my companions had been drinking heavily since noon. The kind of drinking that demands regularly dosed stimulants to maintain; followed by more drinking to level off. Like the balancing act of a fat kid on a teeter totter. An act I was well acquainted with but had managed to avoid for the better part of a year. 327 days to be exact.
I was in a cabin, on a remote ski hill, out of cell range, the lone sober man of twelve. The few of my friends that had seen fit to question my desire to attend, were all now hammered and taking turns punching each other in the face, while wearing some kind of inflatable boxing glove. This water wing for your fist was designed to prevent visible bruising but did nothing for the neck trauma that I was sure they would all feel in the morning. Pain with no lasting marks to explain in the workplace seemed to be the theme of the night; it was only a matter of time before they broke out a sack of oranges. Upon arrival that day we sat down and had a look at some video taken the night before, in it they were dressed in various shades of cross-dress and taking turns shooting one another with a pellet gun. Not a moment of that night went by without my silent thanks ringing out to whatever god had broken that gun the night before.
Later I stood with one of my closest friends, a man I have been family-tight with for as long as I can remember, we met at six years old. He was dressed in what looked like a furry set of sumo underwear. Responding to my praise of his outfit he explained that he had made them the night before by tearing the head off a large stuffed dog. He then tore off the ears and removed the stuffing, turning them into a pair of short shorts that left little to the imagination. Standing around the pool table we talked about my decision to come there for the night. I told him that my preparedness owed a lot to a message he had sent me a month earlier. He had written, asking the obvious question “Why in gods name are you coming to a bachelor party when you have spent the last five years of your life losing jobs, personal relationships and self worth as a direct result of drinking?”
It was a valid question and had the important effect of snapping me out of the head space I had fallen into before I came up that mountain, one of problem solving, detailed and systematic planning to make the trip a possibility for me. While all of the panning of contingencies proved to be invaluable, what I had compromised in my zealous preparation was a chance to take a step back and be honest with myself about my motives for going at all. In the end I came to a place I described to him as he swayed suggestively in front of me, doing a little dance to draw attention to his furry pelvis.
“What I realized after you sent me that Facebook message was that I had spent the last four years completely unavailable for these kind of affairs. This kind of closeness that comes from being around my friends as they destroy themselves is something that I lost ever since I admitted to them that I had a problem with alcohol and still continued to drink (they are all so far in my corner that they wanted to be supportive, not knowing how to do so). In the past had I been invited at all to this (I would not have), I would have done one of two things, drank and tried to hide it, resulting in miserable. Or abstained and held on, white knuckled –more miserable. In short, the main reason I had decided to go to this bachelor party was because this was the first time in a very long time that I had felt able to show up as a real person, fully there and able to have a good time.”
This was the crowd that I used to roll with, back before the fallout of my using became undeniable. About seven years ago in a time known to the ones that were there and still talk about as “the rock star years”. Not that any of us were professional, or even pursuing our dreams at that point, but it was a time of drugs and breasts. A time where, as the evening went on, one could count on some nudity, not because things were going to get sexual (that wasn’t the point) but because we were all hot and well aware of the fact. This party on the mountain was signifying the end of an era, one of the last of us was getting married, one of the least eligible of us was getting married for that matter and we were all there with the same sense of urgency. We all knew that we had been getting too old for this for years now.
I walked into the living room of the cabin to see it filled with semi clothed men squewed at odd angles on the furniture. The coffee table was covered in empties, layers of filth and other more incriminating things. Half eaten racks of ribs lay wastefully on plates around the room; things were falling further and further into a scene from Fear and Loathing. I sat, sinking into the conversation at a midway point and realized that all six of the men there were discussing the merits of home birth.
This was too much. My brain was not nearly addled enough to deal with this violent juxtaposition. I stood back up and turned away, being around booze and drugs was one thing but seeing my friends make a seamless transition from Greco Roman wrestling in a pile of pork ribs, spilt beer and cocaine residue, to holding back tears as they shared birthing stories, this was unacceptable. It was time for me to go to bed. As I walked out the front door and down the short deck to the other cabin I heard the sound of the bachelor being thrown off the deck into a snow bank again. Congratulations Pat.
I was having one of those incredible days, the kind where I was taken somewhere that was geographically close to home and yet in every other way, miles from ordinary. It felt like such a jarring violation of context that I found myself staring at everyday objects, seeing their absurdity for the first time. A friend had invited me over to his mother’s apartment for roast beef and at the moment my fascination peaked I was starring at a bowl containing eight carrots, although I was having trouble reconciling the word carrot at that particular moment. They were those little gentrified ones that look like they have been turned on a lathe, or left over night in a rock polisher. What is the deal with those little carrot stubs? How are they made? And more importantly, why had it taken me twenty nine years to ask such a fundamental question?
Surely the answer to that last question rested, at least partially, in the venue that night. My friend’s mother was an interesting lady, very nice, let’s get that out of the way right at the get go. She was a very warm, sweet woman who clearly loves her son to the ends of the earth. She also possessed a peculiar way of looking at me; she had a wide eyed stare where one eye seemed to grow gradually bigger then the other. Along with her disarming gaze, her voice would change volume while she spoke, actually when I think about it now, it was more like someone had bumped the dial in between songs. She would be talking and her candor would lead to a break in the conversation. Then when she started back up again it was as if the person she was trying to reach had moved into a different room. Her place was very orderly and cluttered if those two words can be used in the same sentence. Family portraits covered the walls and when wall space had come to and end she started to stand them on the end tables so that one might leaf through them like a vinyl collection. Soft pastels ruled the walls behind the framed photos and all accompanying decorations were in corresponding shades of Easter mauves and dusty pinks. On her coffee table were fanned a stack of the two religious magazines that are popular among Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Watchtower and Awake.
I sat there at this doily clad dinner table, a table unaccustomed to a second guest, helping myself to seconds and fending off threats of store bought desert. It was an evening to give thanks for the only method of self discovery I have ever known, the kind brought about by contextual beatings. In my life I have been loath to question things that I consider to be true about myself or the world at large and more often than not I have needed to be dunked into an environment so far from my own landscape as to be considered fanciful before I am willing to examine my mental topography. I will cling to what I hold to be true so tightly that enhanced interrogation is required before I will call into question the beliefs I have constructed to make sense of the world around me and my place in it. I remember that I considered myself not to be a judgmental person, who surrounded himself with equally open minded people, until the day came when I dated a girl who was prudent enough to point out that we were all lobbing criticism at anyone we thought to be closed minded. I took many useful things from that relationship and among them was the realization that I was walking around with a whole set of hippy ideals that no more reflected the way I was walking through the world than a funhouse mirror.
Discomfort is the only harbinger of change in my life. I will never look at those carrots in a new light unless I am slapped out of my delusion that my upbringing is normal. In much the same way, I am unlikely to be the figurehead for reform in my life unless I have exhausted all avenues of suffering and discomfort. I did not find myself in treatment four times in four years because I had a bunch of opportunities elsewhere.
Oh sure, I sober up and all of a sudden it becomes the thing to do. Get your own shtick Mr. Mathers
I have had a bit of a rough week in some ways. For two of the four days that I worked I managed to bend myself well out of shape, hating my job and preaching an internal monologue from a rickety stack of soapboxes. Luckily, I have built into my weekly schedule, a guaranteed dollop of good feelings. Nothing forces gratitude on me more effectively than walking out of the three metal gates that pen in the prison I go to every Sunday night. The time spent with the inmates is hugely rewarding in and of itself but, the cherry on that every Sunday is definitely hearing the magnetic locks clang behind me on the way out. I never had much of a run in with the law –one night in the drunk tank—but that is only because I never got caught doing one of the many things that could have landed me there. It is also very reasonable to assume that I could have ended up there in time if it wasn’t for the consistent (to the point of being unhealthy) second chances from my family and loved ones. When I first went, I remember sitting outside my old treatment center waiting for a ride. I was getting pretty nervous and had the chance to say as much to a counselor that happened to be walking by. I wondered out load what I really had to offer to a bunch of inmates considering that I had never been one myself. Counselor Jeff looked at me with his usual twisted sardonic smile and said “They know how to be in prison, talk to them about how you get by in life”. There’s this guy in there called well, lets say Dan. Dan is up for parole this month and hearing him share about it really brought home the reality of what these guys are living with every day. At some point in November, he will be told if he is going home to his fiancé and newborn baby, or staying in for the rest of his term something like six more months, double what he has done already. One of the major tenants of recovery is, of course, learning to distinguish between the things one can and can not control. With the idea in mind to work on the thing we can and make peace with the rest. This man is in the most tangible black and white opportunity for learning about this that I have come across and the truly incredible thing about it is, he is actually trying to apply that philosophy to his circumstance. Now, by comparison, I started to feel like a fair weather spiritually principled kind of guy. If this man can maintain any semblance of gratitude while wearing an orange jumpsuit and looking out through a chain link fence, I think it is time for me to have a look at my weekly routine in a different light. Something he said in there really cracked me up and stayed with me all the way home. He was talking about how is old lady was meant to come and visit him this week end. He went out to the gate, and picked the last of the flowers on the grounds that hadn’t been damaged by frost, then he sat, staring out the window for hours but she didn’t come. Later, he called her really angry. “And when I called her up she answered the phone just cryin’. And then, shit, all of a sudden it was really hard to be all pissed off and be a prick to her… I mean, I still tried for a while, but it was hard.” It turns out her ride never showed up for what ever reason. But I guess the comparison I was going for is, at work I have been clinging to a state of resentment and frustration. I know that I have the choice to stop at any moment in the day but, fucked if I want to. There is some kind of payoff in it for me. I don’t know, in my vocational history, this is right about the time I would start showing up loaded. I am really starting to understand in a different light why I have lost every job I had in the last seven years from being falling down drunk at work; turns out I hate being employed. I applaud Dan for being able to quickly drop the shitty state of mind he wanted to be in for the sake of the relationship he has with his loved one. If it had been my job on the phone I would still be yelling at her for sure.
I remember kindergarten clearly. That is, I remember one moment in kindergarten, formatively. I was sitting on the stiff, short cut, bluish carpet with a chalk board in my hand. The kind that is about the size of a normal piece of paper, eight and a half by eleven. The kind that is designed to rein in one over sized child drawn letter. It had two faint green on green lines, put there to show me where the curve of some lower case character ought to start. I wish I could remember what letter we were learning but I don’t. What ever it was though, I did it wrong and my teacher freaked out. That’s it, that’s the whole memory. My mom tells the story of me coming home from my first day of school in tears, when she managed to get it out of me, my explanation was “it’s such a waste of my time!” leave it to six year old me to treat my mom as an equal in moments of duress. I don’t think the chalk board incident was that same day but that statement summed up how I felt for most of elementary school. Back to the carpet. One of the first things that interested me about trauma is the way in which it is subjective in nature. A traumatic experience has very little to do with the reality of a situation and everything to do with the way the person viewing it interprets the event. If I really think that someone is going to kill me it has the same psychological effects whether that person is likely to do it or not. The reality of my teacher’s reaction could have ranged from, a reprimand at the worst, to (quite possibly) a raised brow. And we shall never know because of the some fifteen people in the room at the time, I am sure to be the only one that remembers the occasion. What we can talk about however, is my interpretation of that fateful day. Now, calling it traumatic is exaggerating, I do that sometimes. I don’t mean to take away from where I was going with this. So, where was I going with this; let me read over it again, it’s been a couple days since I started.
Right, that moment in my school history was formative, it and many others like it (real or imagined) shaped the person I am today. It left me with beliefs about the world that greatly alter the way I relate to myself and the people that come across me. In the case of the carpet ordeal, what I took away was a certainty that it was a very bad thing to have the wrong answer –something that haunts me still, although not nearly so much as it did for the rest of my school life. From the tenth to twelfth grade I would miss large segments of the class as I rehearsed an answer to some long ago asked question. This was a situation where the truth that I held about the world –formed in some long lost emotional experience—was no longer congruent with the reality of my life. Really, there are times when it is important for me to have the right answer, and times when taking the risk of looking like a jackass is a much surer road to fulfillment. More often than not this kind of extracurricular (unnecessary) suffering that I drum up for myself is a direct product of a disjointed world view, one bred of painful experience and the clockwork reaction that follows it, designed to keep me safe.
I am six months sober yesterday. This is four months longer then I have ever gone since I first smoked pot at thirteen. In those sixteen years lies a swath of emotional wreckage, countless firings, fights, and crushing defeats, as formative as it gets, despite my best efforts to retard the learning process with depressants and sedatives. The kind of shit that makes you believe stuff about yourself and the world. So here I am sober, working, loving people and myself again, but I have trouble getting a clear picture of what is going on around me. I work, waiting for the other shoe to drop even though I haven’t done anything wrong. I worry about how the people I care about will react to things that I haven’t done. And I keep getting my usual twisting of the guts when I go to look at my account balance, only to find slightly less money there then the last time I looked. It never ceases to amaze me how affordable life is when I’m not spending my rent on booze and eighty dollar hats.
It sounds funny to say it but, I actually remember the first bad thing I ever did. I don’t know how old I was, young though, before kinder garden. I took a cookie from the drawer where my mom kept them. The reason I remember this is the feeling of surprise I had when I got away with it. I guess I must have thought that she counted them or something. This was the first dishonest thing I ever did and by and large I went on to be a reasonably straight shooting youth. Needless to say in my many years of addiction honesty hasn’t been a major tenant for me, more of an irregular subletting guest, passing through on a schedule dictated by circumstance.
One of the moments from treatment that I hope will stick with me forever is a line from a morning lecture. The speaker was one of the counselors there, a short round woman with the look of an affluent hippy. She was a great lecturer, for one, her history included stories about things like, after years and years of stealing expensive coats from department stores, she went to make amends and ended up helping the loss prevention team reform mall security. Or, how her (or it might have been a friend of her’s) had painted on the ceiling of her bedroom “Relax, your in your own bed” to help with the mornings following black outs. The line I’m thinking of though, was this. She was talking about how true recovery comes with what we do when no one else is around; with out this kind of self honesty in place the addict has little chance of long term success with sobriety. “I’ll just do it because no body will know.” She would stop here, scanning the audience, “when the fuck did I become no nobody?!” She very well might have sworn too, she liked to do that kind of thing; it goes over well in a lecture hall full of junkies. It struck me though, that self degradation was implicit in being the only witness to my crimes and somehow I had become unimportant enough that I no longer had to behave in front of myself.
For me (and many other people I have heard speak about it) using is fraught with a delusional contradiction. Every time I drank I was shooting for a very certain experience, a kind of jovial ease, a sense of fundamental well being that smoothed the abrasive quality of the world. Inevitably what I received looked very different from that. The search for that perfect amount of inebriation would leave me emotionally, physically, and socially crippled. Last Saturday I was listening to a man speak about this and he told the story about his first two times getting drunk. The first time was euphoric; it came with all of the qualities that he pursued into the face of total calamity in later life. The second time, he told us, ended with him covering his parent’s kitchen with rye, rum and instant noodles that, only moments earlier, had been the contents of his stomach. This was my story as well, my first time getting drunk involved a beach, just the right amount of tequila, and my brother’s older friends. The only frustrating piece of it (in retrospect, the saving grace) was that the booze belonged to other people and thus I had no control over how much I had. My second time was geared entirely to prevent that problem. It involved two of my friends, a park bench, and a gallon of Vodka with something like a thimble full of root beer for a chaser. What fascinates me about my second time getting drunk is the marked similarity it bares to the drinking late in my carrier, some sixteen years later. That night, I blacked out very quickly, woke up alone in a ditch, was left with a few puzzle piece memories, and spent the following days making up outrageous lies about my many injuries (really, you hurt your knee playing football Casey, really?). Although that one evening did put me off drinking hard alcohol for many years, I did make it back around in time. What I love about hearing my story told by someone else a couple days ago was that he made a cognitive leap that I never had, that those first two evenings of drinking exemplify the massive dis-congruent nature of my addled mind. Every time I drank while looking into the face of calamity, there was a part of me that believed I would end up back on that camp fire lit beach, feeling jovial and in love with life but, with out fail, for many years now, the only place I ended up is very ill in a ditch.
Brendon McLeod again, this is a great example of some of the spoken work he has carved out a name for himself with.