float

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11-year-old me would be pretty damn excited to learn that one day he would live downtown, in a condo with two cats and someone who loves him. But he’d actually be the most excited that said condo has a swimming pool. 11-year-old me, although a boy from unquestionably landlocked Colorado, was actually a mermaid. This was confirmed when he saw Splash with Tom Hanks and Darryl Hannah. Hannah’s character Madison, a once cool for mermaids only name that has been appropriated by suburban moms (When will the horror of mermaid appropriation end, honestly?), was immediately identifiable. For those who don’t remember, Madison comes ashore to New York City and is forced to acclimate fast to a weird, harsh world that she didn’t belong in. I mean as a gay child that was literally my experience everywhere I went–from baseball games to camping trips and beyond. The one place this mermaid child felt at home was in water. Pool, beach, river didn’t matter. I came alive when I could just bounce in the water. My favorite was swimming underwater. It was quiet and I could hold my breath for a long time so it was just me and water and not the other things in daily life that seemed hard and alien.  Like Madison, I didn’t stay underwater and I  always returned to an awkward life landlocked.

Some 34 years later, this mermaid-merman has learned how to live among non-merfolk. Sort of. I mean I don’t know if I’ll ever pass as someone who gets this whole life thing but I’ve found some ways to make it feel less painful and less alien. I should stop using alien in a negative way. Misunderstood mystical beings from other places should be cherished. (Oh when will our stigmatizing of aliens ever end?) The point is I’ve accepted and even begun to love merself. Even when hanging out at my condo pool.  On one of those Sweet-Jesus-Is-It-Possible-To-Die-From-Summer-Exhaustion days where the air is stifling and hot, I trotted out to the pool after work. Just a quick dip, a little float to help rinse off my day. Naturally, the bonus for pool situations for nosey people like myself is to spy on other swimmers. What are they wearing? What’s the group dynamic? Which one of those blonde girls in the denim cutoffs and bikini top is named Lauren? Why is that guy fixing his hair obsessively and taking selfies? There’s a lot to unpack at the condo pool and I’m ready for it. On this day, I was grateful that the omnipresent group of drunk people wasn’t there.

The last time my husband and I went out together, we were bombarded by a group of boozy forty somethings (or thirtysomethings who drank enough to look a decade older). They were day drinking, which was always a favorite pastime of mine, and swimming. The longer we hung out at the pool, the faster we could see them deteriorate. A woman in pigtails on a rainbow raft kept barking at us to push her to the other end of the pool. A large, loud man pounded cocktails from big plastic tumblers and stumbled in and out of the water. The other friends who hadn’t drunk as much packed their things and scooted off before they got messy, an ability I myself never possessed. As for the husband and I, we laughed and paddled to other, more sober parts of the pool. We causally looked at the booze fueled train wreck but didn’t make direct eye contact, for fear of more slurry speech interaction. It’s always enlightening to see drunk people in broad daylight.  Like now it feels so weird and out of place. My daytime hours are so dull and on such an autopilot, I forget that I used to live my whole life like those people at the pool. Yet the minute I wanna get super judgey about daytime drunks, I have to remember that I once drank and took ecstasy on a Tuesday afternoon just for something to do. It’s just a different life now and a sort of return to that mermaid existence where I am again a creature not doing what everybody else is doing.

Th large, loud and now certainly most hammered guy in the group soon was organizing where they all would drink and play pool one they left. In no shape whatsoever to drink more but had enough wits about him to get together a plan for more alcohol was a mission I certainly identified with. How can you enjoy a drunken daytime moment when you have to figure out how and where you can keep drinking? Anyway, we shuffled off to the hot tub as they left the pool in a wet huddle of swerving, yelling disarray. It was amusing from a distance. It was deserving of a few one-liners and eye rolls. But it certainly didn’t wreck our moment at the pool.

As we hopped back in the water, shivering from the temperature shock, the now silent area felt more like those waters where this merchild first floated. Just me and the water and my merhusband. When we went to the Caribbean a few years ago, I remember this amazing smile on his face as we jumped in the warm waves. That same smile comes back sometimes even when we’re in the pool. He doesn’t always fit in on this earth either. He doesn’t like what everybody else likes. But he loves the water and me so we can float through all of this together.

POZiversary

30420-birthday-candles1 2.jpgWell, that’ll do it. Nobody will love me ever again.

It was an overly dramatic train of thought to be sure but don’t blame me. I didn’t come up with it. As far back as forever, people have been saying they’d never fall in love again(Dionne Warwick) or that they were unloveable (Morrissey) or that they’d never love this way again (Dionne Warwick redux, just sub Burt Bacharach for Barry Manilow). These poor saps usually made these statements after having a broken heart. But people are whores so I’m sure Dionne, Morrissey and countless others indeed did fall in love again. My problem was different. Nobody would love ever again because I was broken. Love just wasn’t something my life would be full of because nine years ago today I found that I was HIV Positive.

I’m gonna go ahead and stop you from writing a comment that includes phrases like, “my cousin’s neighbor is positive and he plays on a softball team and is really happy!” or “they have great drugs for that now and so it’s not really a huge deal anymore!” These things are all true and really great but it’s hard not to feel broken in a zillion pieces when you get that kind of news. It’s fucking weird that since HIV still has the “well, you did it to yourself!” stigma attached to it that we don’t let people feel grief around it. We don’t let people have a journey of acceptance around it because it no longer kills millions of people. We do in fact have wonder drugs that keep people alive so let’s not talk about the difficulty those people still might have and just move on, shall we? So yeah I went through it in August 2009 when I got the news. I felt ripped in half. I felt like it was yet another shitty thing I had to “learn to live with.” But mainly I felt like the timing was really bad.

See, I was only 7 months sober at the time and was using everything short of Scotch tape to just hold my shit together at the time. This kind of news was really inconvenient. The same people who would write those comments are the same ones who would tell you when you get this kind of news, “God never gives you more than you can handle!” Well fuck those people because I could barely as handle being sober and I was given another ball to juggle.  Besides, how does God know what I can handle? I think handling things is overrated anyway. I never signed up for this life gig to “handle shit”. Anyway, there we were and it was something I could accept or drink over. How I didn’t drink over it is anyone’s guess seeing as I drank over (and over drank) everything. So I stayed sober and it was people who helped me, not Scotch tape, keep it together. Still, there was a nagging feeling that love was something that might not ever be in the cards.

But as with all the best parts of my life, I was wrong. Completely wrong on every level and ain’t that a wonderful thing? No, seriously.  In boastful, bullshitter times, there’s something wonderfully, punk rock about being totally, fucking wrong. Because once I’ve shut up and stop being convinced that I know what the outcome on every thing is, magic can happen. And magic did happen. I met a guy who didn’t care about me being HIV positive. Beyond this something else happened- love. Love not just from my beautiful husband but love from family members (even the ones who said shit like, “Well you knew this might happen when you decided to be gay” oy fucking vey). Love happened from other addicts and alcoholics who told they were sorry I was going through a tough time. They gave me permission to cry, they brought me burritos, they took me to meetings and they told me not to drink or use no matter what.  Even more amazing, love happened from other people with HIV.

Other people who maybe felt like they’d never feel loved again too, loved me, no questions asked. I shared about it and they showed up for me. They drove me home from meetings and told me it was gonna be okay and I believed them because they were like me. Even more amazingly, the universe put brave beautiful people with HIV in my life without me ever having to say a word. At four years sober, I met somebody days after being in a coma who I got to watch sobriety change his whole world. He turned out to be HIV positive too. We didn’t know this when we met each other but it was just one of a zillion things that latched our hearts together. But it wasn’t just him. Over the years there’s been lots of “him.” People I loved immediately would later share that they were positive too.  Again, we never planned on meeting. Something bigger just put us together and aren’t we lucky? That happened to me just the other day with a new friend who I instantly adored but who got even closer once we knew what we had in common. We exhaled when we shared it with each other. I feel less alone, less damaged, more lovable the more this happens. The thing is we’re able to fill in the blank spaces that the world, society and our broken selves tell us won’t ever be filled with love.

It’s even happened recently at my day job where I get to help other addicts and alcoholics. Again, it’s unplanned and not manipulated but I have certainly come out to my coworkers as HIV positive. In my field, this is an asset. When patients come in with HIV they know that I’ve been there and they can lean on me, no questions asked. Recently, a patient shared his rage that he felt discriminated against at his treatment center when a fellow patient said people like him shouldn’t be allowed in there. I told him that would have pissed me off too. I also offered to come down there and drag this asshole out of the rehab by the hair. We laughed and he said the staff was on his side and the drama subsided. My offer, however, still stands.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that nine years later, the news I got on August 11th 2009, the news that I thought would ruin my existence or make me go out and use again, turned out to be the news that changed my life. Now, when I think about the day and all of the days since, the only thing I can think of is love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seasonal Alcoholism

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The people on the patios. Oh, the people on the patios. All the oh, so many people on oh, so many patios. They drink on the patios. They smoke on the patios. They drink even more on patios. In fact, they drink so much on these quaint little patios that you start to wonder if anybody anywhere does anything else on patios. Oh sure, you might see a half-eaten order of some pedestrian artichoke dip on the table or a few barely picked at hot wings. But these people are really on these patios to drink. They so look comfortable on these patios too. Like the minute it gets warm, the people defrost, as if they’ve been sitting there all winter. Like they live there. Me? I just walk by all these patios. Sure, I can sit with the sober girls and drink our iced coffees but we quickly move on. We’re not meant to linger there. It’s no longer our turf and we know it. The patios already have their people and we are not them. And sometimes, God help me, I’m like fuck those people on those patios.

A newly sober friend and I were talking at the tail end of winter about what a trap the allure of patio drinking is once the weather warms up. We mainly laughed about how a quick trip to have a few drinks on a poor unsuspecting patio turned into a real life drunker version of Sondheim’s “Ladies Who Lunch.” Perhaps not just drunker but gayer. Like “Ladies who Lunch” at a leather bar. Shots, cheap beers and a restroom handjob–and one for Mahler! Something about patio drinking just seems like it’s something we’re supposed to do though. I mean every episode of House Hunters has at least one scene of a lady with bad hair saying, “I could just picture drinking wine out here, couldn’t you, Chad?” As if entire pieces of property were sold strictly on how cocktail friendly their patios were. Maybe they were and it actually doesn’t sound that insane. I’ve bought a lot crazy shit to further facilitate my drinking so buying a house with the perfect outdoor space to get loaded in isn’t too much of a stretch. The pull of patio drinking is just that strong, y’all.

One day at like 6 years sober, I called my sponsor in Denver and blurted out, “I walked by a patio and people were drinking margaritas and it looked like a really good idea!” I was freaked out that momentarily my brain was so easily romanced back into the pull of patio drinking. He laughed and reminded me it was summer and I was an alcoholic. But it isn’t just the patios of summer that are a trap. It’s also the weather. When I lived in Los Angeles in a series of apartments with no air conditioning, something I would not recommended, I convinced myself for several summers that I drank more during that season so I could pass out at night. Surely, I could have gotten a swamp cooler without the amount of tequila I drank but who had time for logic when it was SO HOT! Summer also brought about outdoor festival season in Los Angeles which was really just a great excuse to drink outside. The same goes for backyard barbecues, Fourth of July and outdoor sporting events which I of course do not attend but don’t get it twisted I definitely found myself at more than one Dodgers game based solely on the allure of beer and hot dogs alone. Summer and drinking just went hand in hand yet for a dedicated drunk like myself self, couldn’t that be said of all seasons?

I remember an episode of Oprah (how every great story in literature starts, by the way) with Kirstie Alley. The Cheers actress and Scientology devotee is something of a mental health barometer. Ask yourself is this something Kirstie Alley would do say or think? If you answered yes, please pause and rethink whatever it is your about to do. However, in this particular interview the star of Look Who’s Talking and Look Who’s Talking Too said something I’ll never forget. She was spending an entire hour with La Winfrey discussing her weight which is such an odd thing that we ask actresses to do. This entire genre of interviews and books that are basically “Former Hot Star Became A Pig But Then Became Hot Again!” is just fucking bizarre to me. But I digress.

Anyway, she had become hot again and she was telling Oprah that for her, binge eating really started around Halloween with the trick or treat candy her kids brought home then it went right into all the delicious food for Thanksgiving which lead to candy and cookies at  Christmas which lead to a big dinner on New Year’s which lead to Valentine’s chocolates which lead to, well you get the picture. What the beloved star of Veronica’s Closet was trying to illustrate was her pigging out really didn’t get a break and the mere idea that Halloween was a trigger was laughable. My drinking, much like Kirstie’s eating, was all-season and her story was immediately identifiable. Stars–they’re just like us! I didn’t actually need it to be summer or Halloween or Easter to get drunk. Sure, those things made it easier for me to hide behind the guise of being “festive.” But I was just as happy to drink alone on a bland Wednesday in August and that was the truth. The allure of summertime drinking wears off quickly when I remember it usually lead to summertime vomiting or summertime screaming matches in parking lots. Oddly enough those things usually came along with springtime drinking and holiday drinking too. Getting to that place, snaps me back to the reality that it isn’t the patios who are the problem. It’s me.

I guess with now nearly a decade sober, I should have some bravado about reclaiming patios. I should start a movement so formerly drunk people can now sit on patios for as long as they want, dammit! But that sounds like a lot of work and sort of dumb. Like maybe people sit on a patios for so long because they’re hammered and can’t stand up? Or maybe it’s too damn hot to sit outside for my delicate ass anyway? But maybe me and my sober girls have our iced coffees and bounce off of summer patios because we have shit to do, honey.

Approval Anonymous

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I don’t think I could ever be Kylie Minogue. This is, I can imagine, a relief to the actual Kylie Minogue as it means she won’t be out of a job nor will she have to partake in some weird body switching thing and then become a 45-year-old gay alcoholic. A little background information on where this thought comes from: On a recent sunny, Sunday afternoon, I was randomly thinking about Kylie, as one does. Mainly, I was thinking how fickle her widespread love and approval has been throughout her career, at least here in America anyway. It’s like every 15-20 years we as a country decide that we remember that Miss Minogue is, in fact, a legend. There were no shorter than 14 years in between when she charted on these shores with a cover of “The Loco-Motion” and her 2002 hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” This doesn’t mean Kylie wasn’t out there doing her thing and making delicious pop confections. It just means our dumb American asses were too stupid to notice. I obviously have a lot of strong feelings about this major pop culture travesty. Nevertheless, this neglect from an entire nation, this utter denial of approval is precisely the thing that would knock me out of the running for becoming Kylie’s replacement. The very idea of being ignored at the drop of a hat crushes me because at the end of the day I am an approval addict, through and through.

My first drug and my worst drug, approval is something I’ve chased long before I ever picked up a beer bottle or crammed a straw up my nose. Who knows where it started but in my mind I think I probably made somebody laugh when I was infant, saw how it made them happy and in turn made me happy and then we were off to the races. From applause garnered for impromptu lip sync performances to scratch and sniff “Grape Job!” stickers on spelling tests, I itched for validation. I ached for any sign that I was okay, that I wasn’t a misfit but I was as good as everyone else. All of this sounds pretty normal for  normal kids but when you have a brain like mine, the brain of an addict, there was never enough. There was never enough love, there was never enough approval and therefore I was never enough. This is some sad, sad business for a little kid but downright pathetic for a grown up person who should have gotten over that shit.

During active addiction, a phrase I love because it makes it sound like you snort cocaine while wearing track suits and terry cloth headbands, the hunt for approval worked in tandem with the hunt for booze or drugs quite nicely. People who I wanted to be my friends also did drugs and drank so I could relate with them on that level, take them hostage as friends and then ditch them when they wanted anything real, crazy shit like accountability or honesty, from me. We all spoke the language of more so that meant we all wanted more. More love, more drugs, more drinks, more cigarettes, more conflict. The approval I got from them was hollow and toxic. Each of us wanted to vampire hours and days off of one another and if you couldn’t meet the supply and demand, I’m sorry my dear, you’re up for elimination. We also gave each other approval for behavior and attitudes that the rest of the world wouldn’t put up with. Wanna have a three-way on a week night with people you met from Craigslist? We approve. Wanna verbally assassinate one of our other friends? We approve and we’ll you help you out with that. Wanna drink on a Wednesday afternoon? Not only do we approve but we’ll also meet you at the bar.

Outside of my drinking and using friends, I scored approval where I could, by telling jokes to customers at the restaurant where I used to work, by writing little articles that maybe people would read and pat me on the back for and by puffing up my meager accomplishments to family members or anybody who would listen. Obviously, we all sort of exist on this planet and hope that people will love and approve of us and I hear there are normal, healthy ways of seeking that out. It’s like Stonehenge. Like I know it exists but until I see it for myself, it’s just a thing people talk about. Without any real self-esteem, the never-ending quest for approval is fucking exhausting. Making people laugh, quick sexual encounters and-God it pains me to say this- likes and comments on social media posts all fill up that void inside of me. But without an internal approval supply, there won’t actually ever be enough.

This was abundantly clear when I got sober. More than a few times, I resorted to having quick hookups to make me feel better. I wasn’t looking for Mister Right. I was looking for Mister Make Me Not Feel My Life. Approval through sex is the fastest way for me to recognize that I do in fact treat this whole thing like I would any drug. The rush of having people, familiar, anonymous, in person or online, say we like you is one I’ve chased through sex clubs, bath houses, MySpace and Twitter alike. Once I got hip to the fact that I was using people and their approval just like I did substances even though I was physically sober, the jig was up. By the way, is the jig ever down? I guess we don’t talk about that because when it’s down it must mean everything is cool.

Anyway, I was gifted with a buttload of self-awareness in sobriety and that sucked. All of my addict ways of looking to, ahem, fill holes, as it were, became crystal clear. This meant I knew EXACTLY what my motivation was every time I obsessively checked Twitter to see if someone liked my tweets. This also meant I TOTALLY knew what I was doing when I flirted with random people. But mainly it meant the other places in my life where I acted like an addict were exposed and sooner or later would have to be looked at.I say “looked at” and not “dealt with” because the real deal here is that I have a lot of addictive behaviors still that don’t involve substances but are ones that quite frankly I don’t want to give up. They’re crutches to be sure. But if this need for approval and the rush get from it go away, then what?

Back in 2008, I was sober for a hot minute of five months. It was a real delight too. I was dry and not getting any help and still trying to blend in with my old drunk life. Gee, I wonder why that didn’t take? I kept trying to do things for myself and talk myself into feeling better but without any real self-esteem or support it was all sort of a lost cause. One day, I treated myself and went to a taping of the Craig Ferguson show. Since the universe has no chill when it comes to irony, it’s now hilarious to me that Ferguson is a longtime openly sober person. But I wasn’t headed there to hear him crack jokes about getting sober. I was there to see Kylie Minogue. In a super-rare stateside appearance, Kylie was performing a song from the criminally underrated effort X. The track “All I See” is an R&B tinged should’ve-been banger and one that lended itself to a great live performance.  In a packed studio audience filled with gays and girls, I felt one of the few moments of joy in that excruciatingly, uncomfortable five months. I relapsed not long after seeing Kylie, not that I blame her or anything. I hated myself and didn’t think I was worth getting better. No amount of imported Aussie glamour could change that.

While history will be the judge if Kylie pursuing a country tinted disco record was a good idea, I know for a fact that looking at my own addiction to approval is. With years sober under my belt at this point, I know that cracking open other parts of my life won’t kill me and I might even make me feel better. Sure, the mere idea of seeing how I’ve sought out approval like I used to drugs isn’t pretty.  People who know how to work on these, primarily my therapist have pointed out that if I’m validating my damn self and taking care of me, I might not obsessively seek out approval from everyone else. It’s an odd thing to ween myself of off though. Something in my mind tells me that this is one addiction I can keep. After all, nobody ever died or wound up in jail seeking out approval. Yet it’s something I’m looking at and hoping to let go because that’s what Kylie would do. I mean Kylie doesn’t give a crap if America likes her all the time. She’s a worldwide icon. She moves thru this world in her diminutive, sparkle-covered body with confidence and a badass survival spirit. She doesn’t need to troll for the approval of randoms. She’s Kylie Muthafucking Minogue. And at the end of the day, neither do I.

 

 

 

 

A Little Respect

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Part wood nymph, part rock star, the mere sight of Andy Bell in short shorts and wearing a flower crown undoubtedly changed me. Throughout the concert, he was flanked by two fierce black backup signers also covered in glitter and flowers. It was like a Renaissance painting did ecstasy while watching Little Shop of Horrors and decided to put on a show. And what a show it was. I was 16 years old and here was this rare, gay man out and proud and having a huge musical career in 1990 while I was a closeted, burgeoning drug addict who didn’t even know who I was. Bell was almost too much to look at. So in-your-face, so sweet, so charming and so out of fucks to give, it seemed like the me that could be but a me that was totally out of reach.  I mean Andy Bell was the lead singer of Erasure and I was just some effeminate teenager in Golden, Colorado.

Bullied, beaten up and black and blue, I ran towards anything that looked shinier and more beautiful than the existence I had as a teenager. It wasn’t just music like Erasure’s but Bowie, Sinead O’Connor, Deee-Lite, Madonna and anything else I could dance to and forget who I was. Drugs fit fabulously into this plan too. When I was high, I didn’t have to feel the pains of growing up gay and from an alcoholic home. When I was with the kids I used with I was cool, not just some kid that got routinely called faggot as he walked down the hall. I wasn’t the kid you pushed in the cafeteria because he wouldn’t push back, I was a smart ass drunk and drug addict and who could drink you under the table. I was cool or at the very least cool adjacent. I knew who to hang out with to at least give the appearance of being cool. I was also a kid with an incredible taste in music.

Drinking, drugs and listening to cassette tapes or going to teen alternative clubs was basically my whole life. Smoking cloves dancing to “Personal Jesus”, drinking Big Gulps spiked with whiskey and watching Book of Love in concert, taking drugs and seeing Love and Rockets, smoking weed and singing Madonna at Burger King instead of being in class. I had no use for traditional school, a place where I was regularly fucked with for being who I was. Instead, I sought out personal enrichment through drugs, pop culture and music. Like why go to biology when you can take acid, listen to New Order and go to the mall? Perpetually in peril and in over my head with a life out of control, most anybody who knew me who didn’t do drugs with me was probably concerned about me. People of all kinds tried to help or tried to figure out what was wrong but to no avail. After all, I was a nice kid, a creative kid and a kid who couldn’t if fit with everybody else no matter who hard he tried. I couldn’t even be invisible which was a real bitch. Okay, fine. I’ll be the gayest child that Colorado ever saw in 1989 but can I at least camouflage into the background?

Yet that was not my story. I was extra before we even started saying extra. Therefore the “extra” artists of that era– Erasure, Cyndi Lauper, Pete Burns, Boy George– forged the path for me to walk down. But what did I do when I wasn’t listening to music or dancing or going to concerts? It’s not like Andy Bell could magically appear like the fairy from Pinocchio and perform Blue Savannah every time I felt horrible. Likewise, giving myself platinum blonde hair like Madonna wasn’t a real substitution for self-esteem although it didn’t stop me from trying. Drugs and alcohol, thank god, gave me the ability to not give a fuck, like Mr.Bell himself. After spending my junior year harassed and pushed around, I emerged my senior year of high school as some kind of faux phoenix. The kids who fucked with me the most had graduated and now I could smoke cigarettes, talk shit, get high and listen to music in my friends cars without caring who hated me. Sure, I was still teased but after a summer of going to gay clubs, doing acid and dancing all night long, as directed by Miss Cathy Dennis, I had developed a swagger that sort of looked like self-esteem. I tried my best to own who I was but without actually being out of the closet or actually liking myself, it was just a performance.

A long running performance, at that. A tough exterior of joke cracking gay best friend who knew all the cool kids served me well and even well into my thirties. But the thing about that kid who knows all the good bands and has gossipy stories about celebrities and bitchy take downs of coworkers is that’s all there is to him. My inability to get real about the hurt, sadness, shame and self-hate that I felt inside 24 hours a day was killing me. Towards the end, drugs and alcohol didn’t just loosen up the act and make life more comfortable, they were vital for even leaving the house. I hated myself and no amount of  male pop stars in hot pants could make that go away.

At age 45 and counting, I am now unable to suppress a deep sigh or at the bare minimum a low-key eye roll when people flippantly say, “Love yourself.” Undoubtedly catchy for some other generation to enjoy in a Justin Bieber song, the idea of loving yourself to a person like me sounds downright puzzling. “Love yourself!” and while you’re at it solve world hunger. Love yourself. Please. As if someone merely telling us to love ourselves is enough. In fact, a lot of times when people say “They need to love themselves” it’s a way to comment on the perceived low self-esteem of others. Love yourself, you pathetic mess. Even Rupaul’s well-intended and much quoted,”If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”is a loaded shortcut to something that I’ve found very hard to do. Trying to love myself sounds a little easier while liking myself more than I did before is sometimes really the best I can muster.

In 2010, a good 20 years after I had the magical gay epiphany of seeing Andy Bell and Erasure on stage, the band once again entered my conscience. A year and a half sober, I was visiting my sister and her kids in Colorado. The place I had grew up in had changed too– thanks marijuana! It was no longer the deep red state steeped in homophobia and hatred. It had come around a little and so had I. My niece and nephew, who possess not just great sets of eyelashes but incredible senses of humor, were obsessed with the video game “Robot Unicorn Attack.” The ridiculous game had its moment in the sun as sort of viral obsession and along with it came an Erasure reemergence. The band’s song “Always” is winkingly featured as game’s theme song. Quick to pick up on anything amazing, my niece and nephew loved the song too. They’d giggle uncontrollably when Bell would dramatically sing, “Open your eyes. Your eyes are open.”  It seemed all too perfect that this band and this song would show back up at a point where I was starting to like myself.

Now aged 50-something with his hot pants days behind him,  Andy Bell is sober too. He’s talked openly, like we would expect anything less, about his battle with drugs and alcohol. There’s something comforting about knowing that this gay icon who was utterly 100% himself maybe hated himself too and that makes his role in who I grew up to be even more profound. It makes the beautiful angel I whose music I loved in on friends cassette tapes relatable and real, Perhaps Andy Bell, like the rest of us, faked loving himself, until he could get close to the real thing.

Maybe that’s the best any of us can do? Maybe we should take this ultimatum of “love yourself or fail at life” off the table completely. Because what I know is all of this–this feeling better, this trying to stop killing myself, this path to even tolerating myself, much less loving myself– is that it’s a lot of fucking work. No amount of Bieber songs or stickers or mugs or even Drag Race episodes can make me love myself. It’s a long road I have to walk (and occasionally fall of) everyday. Being the good drug addict that I am it’s unfortunate to discover I can’t snort self-esteem like I used to snort cocaine. Instead, it self-esteem and yeah even loving myself comes in little doses through small efforts. Just not being a dick to people at the grocery store. Holding the door open for someone and not expecting a round of applause. And not using drugs or alcohol one day at a goddamn time get me closer. Closer to a little more happiness, a little more self-esteem and a little respect.

you & me & PTSD

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I guess I should have seen it coming. After all, I’d joked about having post traumatic stress disorder for years. Sure, Britney’s 2007 VMA caused me PTSD and so did looking for customer service at any Home Depot. And who on Earth wasn’t still reeling from a light mist of PTSD caused by the political events of 2016? Deeper still, I always knew on some level that the violent and hard to process events from childhood and my years drinking and using left some lasting impression. Nevertheless, I was still shocked when I saw it in black and white from my insurance company: PTSD.

In an email too mundane and too boring to be explained, I was checking my billing from my therapist. There was a discretion on my copay. (See? I told you this was snoozeville.) In a rare moment of adulthood, I decided to get to the bottom things, because mysteries of confusing copays are the kind of thing everybody is dying to see how they turn out. As I can sense that you are deeply concerned and invested, I will say what I thought was a my higher copay turned out to be lower, working in my favor and causing me to get four free therapy sessions. Score one for the crazy people. But an odd little line in my detective work stood out to me. It simply read, “Treatment for: PTSD.”

Like I said, you don’t go through the things that a person like me has gone through and not anticipate some collateral damage. Drunken fights, being robbed at gunpoint, being evicted, being bullied and the daily chaos of growing up in an alcoholic home all qualify me for some gold level PTSD membership so I don’t know why I was surprised. When relaying my diagnosis to a friend their response was a kinder version of, “Well, duh.” Duh, indeed but seeing it in print (and by print I mean on my computer. There was no mid-nineties faxing going on to make the PTSD even worse.) made it more real. Much like when I sat down in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and “My name is Sean and I’m an alcoholic” just blurted out of my mouth this was at once a surprise and a total relief. Yet it was undoubtedly the truth and therefore could not be taken back. This throw away labeling from an insurance company felt much the same way.

The thing about knowing what you have is you can’t un-know it. Of course, you can ignore it or deny it or soak it tequila for 20 years and hope it goes away but you still know that have it, whatever your “it” may be. In a roundabout way, like I said, I’ve always known that PTSD was just a mere thread of rich tapestry that is my mental health. Likewise, when a flood of traumatic feelings showed up on doorstep last summer I knew something had to be done and that’s how I wound up at my therapist’s office in December. Yeah something had to be done but I’m alcoholic and a middle child so I can sit uncomfortably until I turn into a Jello mold of unprocessed emotions. Thus it took me a few months of crying in the shower before I did anything about it.

My therapist’s office is in the top floor of a charming old blue Victorian house, down the street from a taxi dispatch, near downtown Portland. The inside looks a little like Mork and Mindy’s apartment, if that reference means anything to anyone. The point is it’s comfy and cozy and a perfect setting to hand over my lower pay and cry to a virtual stranger for an hour. while treating this thing that is officially called PTSD but I just knew fucked me up, we’ve done a lot of work. Work like talking, revisiting and decoding old terrifying incidents. It isn’t work in the sense of working in a coal mine but I can’t say that wouldn’t be preferable. Heartbreaking, exhausting and ultimately liberating, this work we do is mainly just me struggling to tell the truth instead of trying to say witty things to get my therapist to be my best friend. See, in addition to PTSD, we’re working on my whole obsessed with approval issue. He doesn’t offer me pat solutions. He just asks questions and hopefully leads me to a place of clarity around these traumatic events. He’s so good at his job though, I hardly realize he’s doing it.  We just have engaging conversations and even laugh and it isn’t until I’m walking home that I realize what we’ve uncovered, what we’ve solved and what we’ve conquered. I told you he was good.

Another thing that catapulted me into his office was my job. As a mental health and addictions peer support specialist, I often see new traumatic events and walk into high stress situations on a daily basis.  New to the field, I figured out fast that I could in no way process what I see at work all by myself. One thing pounded into my head as a sober alcoholic is to not be afraid to ask for help. A late night Google session and several referrals later, I found my therapist and fought against my instincts to stay miserable. Just like my first AA meeting, I resisted. I drug my feet making the appointment and had to give myself daily pep talks the week leading up to my first visit. But without being dramatic I can say, it’s changed my whole life.

Addressing my PTSD head on has flipped on a power switch inside of me that I didn’t even knew I had, much less knew it could be activated. According to medical types, PTSD sufferers like myself have a baseline of agitation, irritability, hostility, self-destructive behavior, or social isolation paired with other mental health delights like flashbacks, severe anxiety, mistrust and good old fear.  People like me and millions of others found drugs and alcohol to be an excellent solvent to numb out these shitty symptoms and it worked– until it didn’t. Now, however, I’m able to look at these events and things not feel haunted or devastated by them. Armed with a ton of support, there’s no story too scary, no memory too hard to process that I can’t look at. I will say that it took me nine years sober to really feel stable enough to dig deeper into my past. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you really feel ready.

Days after that “exciting” email, the label sat there and I eventually slid into it. Like being a gay man with addiction, alcoholism and HIV, PTSD is another I have and another I get to overcome. What’s more is maybe having the official diagnosis of PTSD will help me help others like me while helping me feel connected? Which brings me to this: if you have PTSD and you’re being treated for it, I love you.  If you are living with someone suffering from it, I love you. If you have PTSD but can’t bear to look at it yet, I get it and I love you too. I will say with all sincerity, it really isn’t the worst label I’ve ever had, even if  it did show up in a lame insurance email.

 

 

every second of the night, I live another life

C9QqL74All I know was I was with people I work with and we had to jump off a bridge onto a moving train. It was all very dramatic in an early 1990’s way. Like Sandra Bullock could have sped by in an out of control bus at any moment. Anyway, I jumped and completely missed the platform I was supposed to land on. For a split second (which when we talk about really dramatic near plummets to our deaths, are the only kind of seconds allowed. Take your normal second elsewhere, pal.) I thought well I’m screwed. Guess I should have been nicer to people but now I’m fucked because my brain is going to splatter all over the pavement. Meanwhile, my coworkers had landed successfully and ran off to the next dramatic challenge, I’m assuming. But instead of my brain splattering, I floated. I just kind of hovered like one of those dumb looking seagulls that flies in place during an ocean breeze. I was out of breath and terrified and then I woke up. I rolled back over and fell asleep and started dreaming again quickly. I was immediately greeted by a creature who was part bear and part armadillo. And not greeted like he was gonna give me a hug. But in the way the he was standing in the path I was walking down and looked like he didn’t want to move nor did he want to be fucked with.  I woke up again with my heart pounding and decided that maybe my subconscious was telling mine it was time to get up.

I’ve had pretty intense dreams my entire life. Granted, this sounds like one of those conversations your  dramatic friend in college would have right before she launched into a confession that she might be psychic or at the very least an empath. But it’s true. This imagination runs on overdrive when I close my eyes.  I used to have awful nightmares as a child, primarily dealing with getting attacked by wild animals thus why I knew better than to tangle with bearmadillo. No more than 10 years old, I would wake up screaming and drenched in sweat. Once after a really terrible nightmare, my two brothers stood above my bed with worried faces. While I don’t remember the dream, I remember it was freaky enough to startle me and everyone in my house. I was even given a dream journal at a young age hoping that would help. I can’t say for sure that it did but it certainly helped me start exploring dreams as a gateway to something else and a window into possibilities, regardless of how ridiculous they were.

Through some of the things I read, I learned tricks and ways to wake from nightmares or to shift the narrative if shit got too real, too fast. I learned if I floated above myself, like I recently did as I was falling, I was actually having an out-of-body experience. I learned if I scribbled three words down when I first woke up, I had a better chance of remembering the entire dream later.  It was very much in line with the psychology of the 1980’s and even pop culture. The hot garbage 1984 classic Dreamscape with Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid explored the idea of being able to project yourself into the dreams of others. With the aid of shifty scientists and terrible government officials, as was the case in all of these films. I must have watched that stupid movie 178 times on HBO but the idea really appealed to me: leave my own thoughts and go somewhere else. The last scary “attacked by an animal dream” as a child I really remember was a large bird trying to rip my arm off as I floated alone on a raft in the middle of a calm lake. No wonder my mind wanted to be somewhere else. One of my dream books from that era said that my dreams of being attacked by animals meant that something was eating me on a subconscious level. As a gay kid not out of the closet or even in the remotest sense sexually awakened, this analysis was a little too on the nose.

With a recent death in my family and about 6 days of the worst sleep ever, let’s just say my current dreams have been off the chain. Non-linear, dramatic snippets of life crammed together with nonsensical narratives of political, sexual and psychological nature. The Heart song quoted in the title of this essay isn’t just to remind you that I’m old and that the 1980’s is my only point of reference. It also sums up what I like about dreams: to live another life, to be someone else. That’s what I liked about drugs too. Dreams, however, are even harder to control and more unpredictable than substances. Especially dreams about substances. My last cocaine dream was about three weeks ago. I snorted cocaine at a party and then spent the remainder of the dream trying to come up with an elaborate lie so that no one in my  life would ever find out I relapsed. Even asleep, I’m a scheming bitch. When I wake from using and drinking dreams, I always travel from being panicked that it actually happened, to disappointed in myself to ultimately relieved that it was just a dream. It’s quite a journey to take when you just open your eyes, honey.

This morning when I woke up, after a dream I don’t really remember, I forced myself to stay in bed as long as I could. I am the lucky owner of a bladder and two cats all of whom want me to get up around 5am. I try my damnedest on my days off to fight the urge to sit in the pre-sunrise stillness of my living room. I try to roll over and go back to sleep, back to dreaming. But this morning it was a no go. There was coffee to be had and internet to be read, cats to pet and so on. I told my therapist I’d been having fucked up dreams and sleeping horribly and he said, “Let’s monitor those and check in next week.” Seems like a solid plan. Treat my subconscious like a recently repaired air conditioning unit.

While there’s no bridges to jump off or wild creatures to battle in my waking life, there’s this brain I get to walk around with. It’s the brain of an addict. It’s the brain of a person with depression. It’s the brain with a whole goody bag of mental health challenges. But mainly, it’s a brain that likes to dream. And dream a lot! Lately, I have a slew of dreams suddenly taking shape and morphing into a real world things, all by themselves. When I think about the people I’ve lost recently and think about their dreams that got interrupted and cut short, I know it’s a brain I’m lucky to have.