a job well done

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Blink and you probably missed International Firefighter’s Day on May 4th. Likewise, you might have missed Secretary’s Day on April 26 or Teacher’s Day this past Tuesday, May 9. But don’t worry. There’s always Labor Day which sort of celebrates all kinds of workers in a big lump. Being a festive alcoholic by nature, I like this idea of celebrating people who just show up and work. Like yay. You contributed something and hopefully it didn’t corrode your soul in the process. Have a cupcake! For those of us who do the work taking care of our various mental illnesses, the work of staying sober and the work of generally fighting against of the demons inside our brains, I think we could use a holiday too.

“International Day of People Working Hard Not to Kill Themselves” doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue but it could all be shortened and worked out through a series of focus groups, I’m sure. Also, I don’t know what kinds of cards are out there in the gift universe applicable to such a holiday but I’m positive the fine folks at Hallmark could come up with something. And we probably wouldn’t get a day off since stopping taking our meds or going to meetings or therapy even for one day is a terrible idea. Okay, so there’s a lot of logistics to work out for such a holiday. But staying healthy, sober and sane is a ton of work and it should be recognized as such. After all, every meeting ends with “Works if you work it” and the general scope of things to do to stay sane and sober is always referred to as “doing the work.” Conversely, we hear when people have come back from a relapse. they usually admit they “stopped doing the work” before they went out. We call it work because that’s what it is. Changing our thoughts, getting better and making an effort all require work and lots of it. It’s the kind of work, unlike the aforementioned highly esteemed professions, that has no time clock and that we need to do forever.

Personally, there are times when it really feels like work. Like a slog. Like another, “Fuck. not again” task. Not to whine like the worst sober person ever but I have to constantly talk myself into doing these things, this work that I know will make me feel better. The fact I need to talk myself out of feeling uncomfortable is sign enough that I really, really need to continue doing this work. Intellectually I know all of this but y’all. I’m an entitled alcoholic. Don’t think I’d continue “doing the work” if there was a magical pill I could take once a day which would have the exact same effects. But even then I’d probably complain about taking the pill too, as my routine with my other medications has proven. I am, at the very core of my being, resistant to anything that makes me less miserable. Hence why the word work feels appropriate.

One day in early recovery after I had gotten my HIV diagnosis, I was complaining to a beloved sober friend who said to me very nonchalantly, “Meh. You take your pills, you got to meetings. What’s the big fucking deal?” He was right. It isn’t a big fucking deal but certainly becomes one if I don’t do all of the things that make this mental health miracle sparkle. This morning as I forced myself out the door to a meeting wherein I again forced myself to share all the crazy bullshit on my mind, it felt like work and work I did not want to do. But I did it anyway and one hour later I felt lighter, happier and okay with hanging out with me for the rest of the day. The people in the halls of recovery pounded into my brain this idea of contrary action, of doing stuff that I really didn’t want to do but just doing them anyway. Therefore, I do the work I need to stay sober not because I’m some sobriety olympian but because I’m a still sort of a hot mess that needs all the help he can get.

The more I think about it, we don’t need no stinking holiday to celebrate our work. Let those other hard-working folks have their days. We get to have complicated, beautiful, big, amazing, pain in the ass lives instead. And as Miss America as that sounds, that’s the real reward for doing the work. Plus, when you’re the boss of your recovery and doing the work all the time, you can have a damn cupcake whenever you want.

 

 

 

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the despair & depression disco dance party playlist

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The road map of my “journey” with drugs and alcohol can be done by venue. Journey is a hilarious word as if it required some old-timey scroll map and a brass telescope. Anyway, the progression for me is easy to chart. What started at teen goth and alternative clubs moved into raves and warehouse parties which moved to gay bars followed by all kinds of clubs and bars in Los Angeles which landed me at dive bars and soon enough drinking seven nights at home on my couch.  All of those locales naturally came with a soundtrack and as a lifelong music freak, one-time record store employee and DJ, I really thought the reason why I went out was because of the music. Knowing what I know now, I can see it was about the music but it was also about getting fucked up. And towards the end, it was just easier to get drunk and listen to music at home on my couch.

2009, the year I got sober, also had a soundtrack. I was riding the bus an hour each way everyday from Echo Park to Santa Monica for college which gave me lots of time in my headphones. Most days, I’d find a spot on the bus and hide in the back to listen to Jenny Lewis on repeat so I could cry my face off. When you’ve recently been evicted, watched you relationship of 11 years implode and quit drinking and using drugs, you kind of don’t give a shit about what people think so crying on the bus came with zero shame. Plus, its Los Angeles. People are so self-involved you’d practically have to be naked and on fire to get people to notice and even then they probably wouldn’t unless they recognized you from a reality show. In addition to my boo-hoo playlist, I was oddly drawn back into the electro music that I loved and played in my drinking days. But this time it happened in my headphones while waiting at downtown LA bus stops.

Although that little iPod I used to clutch onto like Linus does his blanket has long flown off to the electronics heaven in the sky, some of those songs still remain. Thanks to the Cloud and Apple’s inability to let anything go, I still own a lot of what I listened to the year I got sober. I recently looked at some of those songs again as they now follow me on my phone as if it’s still 2009 and was surprised at the soundtrack that pulled me through the hardest year of my life.

Basically everything off M83’s excellent Saturdays=Youth record tells the story of my 2009. Moody, teenage in spirit but adult in loss, the album was the perfect soundtrack for someone whose life was being rebuilt. I specifically remember listening to this beautiful track walking around downtown LA and waiting for the bus.

This is the song that pushed me down the rabbit hole of playlists past. I heard it on Pandora a few days ago and was immediately transported to that year and all of those feelings. Undeniably dancey and catchy, I’m sure I identified on some level with the dark as hell lyrics like:

In the darkness, A killer awaits
To kill a life, And the lies you make
You do another, So this death can live
Just keep on dancing.

Tapping into my 1980’s soul who loved bands Human League and New Order, “Lights and Music” was one of those songs I could just blast and not think about anything. Sure, I was a million miles away from the party atmosphere they talk about in the song but the dance party in my mind was lit, y’all.

Speaking of the 80’s, Cyndi Lauper is so ingrained in who I am as gay man that it would require another post and a box of tissue to really scrape the surface of how much she changed my life as a child. So of course she was there again in 2009 with this track from the tragically unappreciated Bring Ya To The Brink.

Turned up loud enough, this song by Everything But the Girl frontwoman Tracey Thorn was best enjoyed in 2009 while walking at night and participating in text fights with my ex. Like I said, everything has a soundtrack.

Seeing Karen O live on stage is like watching a hurricane turn into a person. I had totally forgotten until I scanned my library how much I played the hell out of this song. Maybe in my weakened state I was hoping to summon Karen’s fierce magic would rub off on me.

The epitome of #Underrated, this rollicking jam sums up every ripped open, pissed off desperate emotion I was going through at the time. Lyrics like, “Oh my god. You think I’m in control” and “Find a cure for my life” still punch me in the gut today and take me back to that place where the world felt like it was ending.

To listen to these songs now is like watching a movie about another person. They vividly compose a picture of a life in peril, a life in progress, a life with no certainty. But it’s a life so alien to the cozy and relatively sane one I have today. I can hear these tracks and sing and dance along to them but the picture of this guy in utter despair is still crystal clear. Nobody told me as I schlepped myself on the bus to school and AA meetings that the chances I’d come out the other end and stay sober weren’t good. Nobody told me that I was walking a thin line between life and death. Nobody told me that the numbers and statistics of a person like me staying sober weren’t exactly in my favor.

Or maybe they did and I just turned the music up and kept walking.

 

a hot mess, now at room temperature

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You really need to get your shit together, they told me.

“They” were friends and family. “They” were coworkers. But “they” didn’t exactly say it in so many words as so much gently imply that perhaps maybe there were better ways to conduct my life that didn’t make me feel like a walking, smoking human dumpster. No, I was the one who said it to myself over and over again. “You really need to get your shit together” is pretty much the through line of mental thought I had for the last 5 years of my drinking and using. Let me tell you, that’s a bummer of a message to play on repeat.  Thankfully, drugs and alcohol make it go away very quickly. “You really need to get your shit together.” Oh yeah? Lemme pour tequila and cocaine on you until you shut up.

See, nobody ever wants to hear that their shit isn’t together. Nobody wants to be told, even by themselves, that they are a disaster. We all live a delusion on some level that we are absolutely nailing this whole life thing. Besides, compared to, like, a serial killer or somebody living with kittens under a bridge, my shit was together. So I couldn’t pay my bills and was hung over 7 days a week. At least, I wasn’t wanted by the law or trying to hide a body. These are admittedly low bars to set for the whole “getting your shit together” thing. Alas, with that message playing for so long and things getting progressively worse, I had to “get my shit together.” 8 and a half years later, my shit is together. But is it really?

By telling my story and writing about being an addict and alcoholic, I’ve landed in a magical yet bizarre place. I am incredibly lucky to get to write about my past and my recovery. Each time I do, I feel the burden of my old life loosen and it all gets more progressively ridiculous and more funny as time goes on. It is indisputably a gift and I cherish being connected online to so many other writers in recovery who day after day share their story of getting better. For me, writing about this stuff is therapeutic and if somebody else happens to get something out of it, fantastic. I think of it as a way of being of service so I try not to get fucked up about comments and page views and collective digital approval, which is a drug in its own right. We who write about this sort of stuff are part of a community online which is truly amazing. This community has spilled into my real life and lifted me up in the most unexpected ways.

Yet it ain’t perfect. I don’t share many of the popular recovery stories out there. I’m not a high bottom drunk. I don’t hate calling myself an addict (please do not get me started on that). I don’t do inspirational memes or go on yoga retreats. All of those things are fine but that’s not my sobriety. I’m also not straight (spoiler alert lol) so I’m kind of the lone gay, pink wolf in this pack which is actually fantastic as lord knows miss thing likes being unique. The other thing? I’m not a sobriety expert or sober coach or life coach or life fixer. God no. I’d be terrible at that. I am simply an experience sharer which all brings me back to the top of the post. Sometimes, most of the time, the experience is that I’m still a mess and far from being some sort of mental health icon.8 years in, I really wish I could tell you I never acted like an addict ever again and all of my character defects disappeared in a poof of lavender glitter. Likewise, I wish I could tell you my self-esteem is rock solid and I’m just insanely in love with myself. Sadly, I cannot.

Two days ago, after shopping for new clothes, eating a delicious meal and having time with friends, I still felt empty. That old hole in myself that needs to be filled but given its endless nature can never be, popped back up.  I wanted something, anything to fix me. But today I know the truth about that hole. No amount of Netflix or chocolate or dick or drugs or alcohol can fill it. I should have laid down or reached out or went to a meeting but instead I just drove myself nuts for while until I got tired and went to bed. Yesterday, when I woke up I had an emotional hangover. I prayed. I meditated. I ate a great breakfast and I vowed to be nicer to myself. Lo and behold, I was nicer to myself and I felt better. I woke up today happy and well rested. Yet I realize that this is all a moment-by-moment proposition all contingent on how I take care of myself.

It’s also why I can’t be a sobriety or mental health guru. I’m just some idiot who was fortunate to get help from other addicts and alcoholics and managed to stay sober, one muthafucking day at a time. I no longer drink when life gets hard or annoying (and it does frequently). I have tools I can use and will begrudgingly do so when I’m in enough pain. That being said, there’s a recipe to a happier, more Sean that even if I follow to the letter doesn’t ensure total daily bliss. Even with money in my bank account, a roof over my head and years of sobriety under my belt, my shit isn’t necessarily together. I am still a hot mess but now I’m served at room temperature.

crawl out or stay buried.

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By now, crawling my way out, is second nature. I’ve crawled out of addiction, physical illness, toxic work situations, bad relationships. Likewise, I’ve crawled out of mental states like depression, self-pity, despair and delusion. With all of this crawling, my life is sort of like that scene from Die Hard where Bruce Willis crawls through broken glass. Yes, I just referenced Die Hard. And that concludes the entire macho contents of this blog for 2017. While all of this crawling and pulling myself up from my bootstraps (which I’ve never had but I’m open to if they come in style) sounds heroic and worthy of that Willis reference, the truth of the matter is I don’t always crawl out, I get pulled.

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I think I should start by saying I think feeling depressed about the world is valid. Toughening up and pretending that it’s all good in the global hood is some fucking crazy bullshit thinking. Last night, the combination of late night coffee and fear of more mothers of all bombs kept me tossing and turning. I mean we went from zero to holy shit in the war department in a matter of days and the world feels pretty fucked. Therefore, tossing and turning at night concerned about humanity is progress for me. After all, I spent 20 years thinking only about myself and not feeling anything.

Yet as a person who also struggles with depression, I have to keep it real. I need to be careful I don’t let legitimate sadness be the door to debilitating despair where my chemical imbalance ends up driving the neurological bus. So how do I crawl out? Moreover, can I even crawl out if things feel really bad?

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While becoming the ruler of CatAndBlanket Kingdom and never leaving my bed feels like a great option, especially when shits getting blown up, it isn’t realistic. Therefore I have to do the opposite of what I want to do. When I want to sleep all day, I force myself to take a walk. When my life feels overwhelming, I tackle one small project like cleaning the bathroom or answering emails. When I feel really useless, I start writing. And when I just want to soak and simmer in sadness all by myself, I reach out to people. If you’re like me all of this sounds like work and it is. It’s “taking action” as they call it 12 step programs. Taking action. What a drag of a phrase. It makes tired just typing it. Mainly because it implies that I’ll have to do actually something and can’t rely on magic to make it all better. Damn you, magic.  But I now have tools and after the requisite griping and feeling really terrible, I do finally take action. Doing things that make me feel good and just being nice to myself go a long way in helping me crawl out. I know I have options today, which given the alternative, is a real blessing.

I was promoted to write this today, from a bakery that’s testing my serenity by playing Enya and Norah Jones, because my heart is breaking for all the people who don’t feel like they have options. I heard from my AA BFF the other day that many people I loved from early sobriety have gone out recently. This sort of news never stops being terrible. People you loved who gave you hope are now suddenly out of hope and gone. Elsewhere, I have friends and family members also trying to crawl out their own mental illnesses and addictions. Some are fighting and crawling as fast as they can. Others have paused but are hoping the strength will come while others still are stuck and might never come out. So many beautiful people who deserve more are all feeling like they’ll have to stay buried. Like I said, heartbreaking.

I guess my point in writing all of this, other than posting pictures of animals crawling out of holes, is to let you know that today I’m okay. Today, I’m better than okay. I’m sober. I’m safe. I’m loved. And I’m strong enough to pull you out if you need a hand.

newcomerish

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It was an epic showdown between two individuals and I saw it all go down.

These two sets of eyes, one to my right, the other directly in front on me, casually met at first. Then something switched, like they realized what the other one was made of. Before you knew it, both opponents were giving each other the stare down. Each of them transfixed by the other and me and the people next to me were soon invested in this showdown too. This eye-lock for the ages last a few moments until the staring ninja in front of me let out a loud giggle. Or was it a coo? Whatever you’d call it, it was one of those sounds so brain explodingly cute that it could only come from a baby. His opponent, an 11-year-old female corgi, apparently loved it too and wagged her tail wildly. In response, myself and the man seated next to me both made our own unique noise that was something between a laugh and an “awww” sound. This Olympics of Adorableness happened yesterday. At an AA meeting.

If you wait long enough, everything comes around again. Or at least this is what I have been told by countless sentimental movies, thoughtful commercials and wise folks. While I would like to think that every experience I have is unique and one of a kind, it’s hard to not feel like a lot of my current existence isn’t mirroring the past. For example, when the husband and I started dating seven years ago, we lived in different cities. We are currently doing that once again for the next six weeks. Likewise, we lived in a near empty apartment while we waited for furniture some four years ago and  here we are once again doing the same thing yet this time in Portland. But the biggest redo from the past is starting over again with my recovery.

While I didn’t relapse, moving to a new town in recovery means basically starting from scratch. Having gotten sober in Los Angeles and then moving to Denver at 2 years sober, I’m familiar with what it takes to submerge oneself. And it’s a whole lot of work. I sigh just typing those words because I am inherently entitled, self-obsessed and lazy. Therefore, “doing the work” of recovery isn’t always my favorite. Like it’s fine and I know it’s necessary but really can’t I have someone do it for me? Isn’t there a temp agency I can call, a hologram I can use or a pill I can take that will have the same effect? Since the answers to those questions are an emphatic no, no and hell no, I realize that I have to just throw myself in. I have to go to many as meetings as possible. I have to talk to other people who have what I have. I have to show up. In my early days of recovery back in 2009, there were some meetings where I’d just listen and I need to do that now, in a new town. And that’s how I wound up witnessing Baby Versus Corgi staring contest yesterday.

I went just to get out of my head, a crazy place I’ve hung out in entirely too much lately. I don’t seek from meetings anymore. I don’t go to judge or to get anything. I go because I need a reminder of what I have and need to see miraculous transformations in person. Watching people turning into butterflies is the most amazing thing about 12 step meetings. Hang around long enough and you’ll see people on death’s door suddenly become someone beautiful, happy and productive. What can say? I love Cinderella and I’m a sucker for makeovers. I am lucky to have seen it several times in others and even in myself. Sure, sure, sure there’s a lot of a stuff to bitch about with meetings. While the internet has about 600 billion posts doing as much, I’m not really in that game anymore. Bitching and whining instead of actually evolving is so 2008. I currently go to meetings save my own life and watch others do the same and that’s about it. So every so often you get treated to something extra at a meeting and yesterday it was this corgi/baby lovefest.

Watching those two was like a living, breathing meditation. So sweet, funny, real and genuine, the interaction universally confirmed that the world is amazing and I have a lot to be thankful for. Their Disney movie interaction was a stunning contrast to what the poor adult humans in the room were sharing. On a seemingly average Wednesday, so many open hearts shared about relapsing over the weekend, about wanting to drink, about not wanting to live. Each person who shared needed to open their mouths and by doing so helped everybody else in the room, myself included. By choosing to shut up (for once) instead of sharing about my cats, I opened my heart too. I felt connected to a room of people in a new town but who were now anything but strangers.