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.

George

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I would like to take a moment to toot my own horn: I’m really great at remembering names. Irene Cara’s command of “baby remember my name (FAME!)” isn’t much of one for person like me. I mean I remembered Irene Cara. The names of people from 6th grade, people I used to work with in the 90’s, people my friends dated and of course most anyone from the world of pop culture I can usually remember. But in classic alcoholic lack of follow through, I don’t always remember their whole name.

Take for example, my friend Marcia. Now, Marcia was a friend in the sense that we went to nightclubs together at age 19, not like a person I could call if I needed a kidney. I mean maybe I could. I don’t remember her drinking as much as I did but I do remember dancing to “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred with her. Anyway, I don’t need a kidney (remarkably) or more specifically I don’t need Marcia’s kidney. This is a good thing seeing as I don’t know her last name. But did I ever know her last name? That’s kind of the deal with friend you meet in nightclubs: you don’t always get the details. Therefore entering “Marcia from Westminster Colorado who had PM Dawn on cassette” into a Facebook search wouldn’t be successful. Trust me, I’ve tried. Further details like her friend Beverly who worked at a salon and their gay friend Brad are also of no help. I do remember that she could vogue, had an amazing Swing Out Sister style bob and once competed in a junior beauty pageant and performed Debbie Gibson’s “Lost in Your Eyes” for the talent competition. And really who needs a last name when you have those details?

I also remember that she loved George Michael. One night as she was dropping me off after going to an all ages alternative night in Boulder she said, “Are you going to George Michael on Thursday? Everybody’s going!” By everybody I’m sure she meant Beverly, Brad, that one girl who might have been named Kristen and maybe that other gay kid who I would later sleep with randomly in Los Angeles. I told her I wasn’t. I’m sure I wanted to but sometimes details like getting tickets or showing up to places or sleeping slipped through the cracks after several nights spent on the dance floor.  Lots of friends were going to that show and while I would have loved to, seeing as the record he was touring with at the time, “Listen without prejudice Vol 1.” changed my entire life, I didn’t get it together. Mainly because on some level I must have thought, “I’ll probably get the chance to see him again.”

Flash forward to 2008, I’d been in L.A. for 13 years and George Michael came back through town. Again, nearly everyone I knew was going. Having risen from the ashes of scandal and rehab, George was on something of a global victory lap. Gays and their girls of all ages made seeing him at the LA forum a top priority. The teen girls who loved him back in the day were now middle-aged and Michael himself was 45. The timing and the moment were just right for him to be back and should have been right for me too. But honey in the summer of 2008 when Miss George Michael blew into town, I had bigger fish to fry. While my beloved George was on presumably an upswing, yours truly was on a catastrophic slide into alcoholic hell. After patching together five months sober without help of any kind, my life got difficult, so I reached for bottle of wine in May 2008. That bottle of wine made life even more difficult and I found myself scrambling to find a way to make my broken life, broken relationship and broken self work. My journal from that timeframe is filled with sad ass pep talks about how maybe I’ve found a way to manage drinking and that maybe it wasn’t that bad and maybe I wasn’t that bad. But the reality was shit was bad. I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert and the Twilight books. Clearly, I wasn’t okay.

On the night of his show at the Forum, a performance the Times dubbed him a “waggish showman”, I was drunk and on a friend’s patio. Mutual friends had gone and we were prying them for details. It was a conversation I couldn’t really be fully vested in however. I wanted to be happy that my friends got to see George Michael, the gay musical icon who meant so much to so many of us of that era, but I couldn’t. Not because I was jealous, although I’m sure I was but because my life was a shit show. Evicted, couch crashing and trying keep drinking under control, being happy for anybody about anything was at tall order. Over the next 5 months, things would get even worse for me. Another eviction, cocaine induced panic attacks and a relationship in shambles is what it took for my story to change.

George Michael’s story however, if we are to believe all reports, got sadder. Like myself, Michael had a lifelong battle with addiction, one he lost on Christmas Day 2016. A person I love who loved George Michael as much I do broke the news to me via text. We were devastated but also? I was the happiest I’d ever been. About to turn 8 years sober and to embark on a new adventure moving to Portland, life was really fucking good. And primarily because I had gotten sober. Reading reports of how dear sweet generous George Michael died alone were almost too much to bear. The thought that this icon that people like me and Marcia whats-her-name and millions of others loved died alone and addicted was a heartbreak of another level. Millions of articles, tweets and blog posts spilled onto the internet all of them proclaiming how George Michael changed their lives, just like he did mine.

Still destroyed by the losses of Bowie and Prince, this one felt extremely personal. A gay addict who I looked up to since my teen years was gone and that was it. While I couldn’t change that, I could stay sober, I could still dance to his  music and I could remember his name.

For more of my thoughts on George Michael listen to episode 1 of The Seanologues, now available on Anchor! 

 

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.

 

 

The Seanologues Podcast Coming April 13!

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At long last a return to the microphone! That’s right, kids. I’m coming back to podcasting my own show after a far, far too long sabbatical! Creatively entitled The Seanologues will launch  Friday, April 13th and every Friday after that for 9 weeks! But why this show, why now?

I LOVED doing my old show Sloshed Cinema so very much and adored working with Chris at Since Right Now. But after moving from Denver to Portland last year, I ran out of steam. I felt like I couldn’t get it together creatively and then too much time had passed. Flash forward to about a month ago and this idea came to me: why not do a show that’s just a monologue followed by a stream of consciousness rattle about one topic every week? No guest, no highfalutin concept. Just me blathering for a half an hour. I couldn’t a good reason why not to and in fact, the idea really inspired me! It inspired me so much that within a few hours I had roughly sketched out the episodes along with theme songs for each episode.

The monologue performed by at the top of each will also appear on these pages every Friday and I’m calling it “The First Six Minutes.” But what happens after that and a little musical interlude will be anyone’s guess! In the days to come, links to where to hear it and how to listen, will be posted all over the place so don’t worry. Just consider this your official invitation and we’ll talk more on April 13th!

 

 

the heart asks for pleasure first

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I guess the idea shows up in your brain when you’re watching an Emily Dickinson movie on Amazon.

The film being A Quiet Passion starring Cynthia Nixon as the elusive poetess. The title doesn’t lie as it’s a quiet little church mouse of a movie but honestly it’s worth the watch for the poetry alone. Long a poetry nerd since childhood, the movie reminded me the Emily Dickinson is overused, over-quoted and maybe even overrated for a reason. The woman was a genius. Her sensitive soul and deep affection for her family mixed with a famously reclusive nature have always spoke to me. Therefore, the film’s choice to have Nixon read her work in voiceover is a brilliant one. In one scene in particular, my jaw fell open when I heard her speak these words:

The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;

And then, to go to sleep; 
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.

Well, that was it. Ms. Dickinson, as portrayed by Miranda from Sex and the City, nailed it. The “it” I’ve been thinking about for the better part of a month: the journey of the heart. Of my heart, specifically. See, without me even trying or setting an intention or making vision board or visiting a witch (all things I approve of, just things I didn’t do) my heart changed. Love changed. Listen, this might sound like a bunch of nonsense so feel free to close your laptop or go read a really important article about the best episodes of The Barefoot Contessa.  But the best way I can describe it is it all got bigger. My heart could suddenly handle more. More love, more heartbreak and more change. And love, dear sweet love whom I’ve tried to push around and control my whole life, proved to me it was the boss. In the world of recovery, we often say “life on life’s terms” but I think we should say love on love’s terms, too.

Maybe it also shows when you hear a Savage Garden song in a Lyft.

“Is the music okay?” my sweet 50-something year-old driver asked me. “Perfect,” I said. Sometimes you just need to lip synch, “I’ll be your dream. I’ll be your wish. I’ll be your fantasy” in the back of a stranger’s SUV. Last week, was one of those times. For that 10 minute ride, I was happy to listen to Savage Garden and give my brain a breather. It was an emotional rollercoaster of a weekend. From a joyous evening to celebrate with new friends to watching a loved one suffer, it was clear early on that my role was to just be wherever you invited me. The fact that I’m even able to do that still blows my mind after 9 years sober. Had you known me before when sending me a text message was akin to tossing a folded letter down a dark well, you’d be impressed too. Sure, I wasn’t doing as directed by Savage Garden and standing with you on a mountain or bathing with you in the sea,  but I was showing up for you last weekend and it felt good.

What happened by just showing up, is it availed me to some amazing experiences. One of which was sitting in a room with fellow addicts where someone I love was sharing their story. I scanned the building and noticed that 95% of the crowd was gay men. Gay men of all ages and varying lengths of sobriety. This is special for me because I never in a million years would have ever thought I’d have groups of gay men across several states that I felt  loved and accepted by. But here I am, gifted with male friends who are more than just fucks, adversaries or exes. We are connected to one another by the heart and by a common journey. What these people do, with varying degrees of success, is just show up and support each other and hopefully get better. The fact I get to be a part of something spectacular like that isn’t lost on me. By the end of the night, I soon didn’t feel like I needed my retreat into Savage Garden nor was my act of showing up all that remarkable. I felt honored just to be there.

It’s probably present too every time a friend picks up the phone.

The pursuit of being the cool bitch with a whole gang of friends has taken me to dark places. In the name of “cool” and on the never-ending quest for approval, I’ve done everything from shoplifting to trying heroin to snorting Special K with drag queens. Now at age 45, I am finding myself again seeking, finding and cultivating new friendships. It’s humbling to put myself out there, call people and be open. On some entitled level, I feel like I should just get a group of new friends each time I move to a new town without having to do any work. Like can’t we just have a casting agent take care of it? Can’t we hold auditions? Sadly, no. However, I have somehow found cool, funny, brilliant people to hang out with who I want to get to know better. I’ve rallied and pushed aside my shitty attitude to make friends. What’s more, and this is that expansion of love at work here, is I am open to be vulnerable and real with people I barely know, cool kid status be damned. I don’t take people hostage anymore and force them to get wasted with me. I’m just letting friendship happen. Already, I’ve been gifted with more than one phone call to a friend who somehow always gets what I’m going through, despite us not knowing each other for that long. This person speaks my language, lets me be myself and I try to do the same. It’s an incredible gift especially for someone newly back in the friendship game. Yet my heart is also grown up enough now to know that I can love these people in this moment, without expectation and somehow that feels like enough.

Maybe it’s always there.

Coming home the other night after being out with friends, my husband was already tucked in bed. A sleepy, funny random conversation that only couples who really like talking to each other followed, despite it probably not making a hell of a lot of sense. My heart and the rest of me wanted to go to sleep but it was later when I thought about those snuggly seconds before passing out that I realized that my pursuit of love and friendship begins and ends here, at home. The beings who live here: my cats Maeby and Larry and mainly, my husband Michael are the ones who teach me how to love all day long and who remind me that no journey my heart wants to take is too dangerous or too scary. No friendship too risky, no act of kindness without reason. Because every road leads back here–home. As Emily herself once wrote, I dwell in possibility and where I live is filled with precisely that.

 

what to say when someone next to you is OD’ing

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Like most reasonable people at some point in their lives, the other day I wondered, “What would Carol Hathaway do?” What would the nurse played by Julianna Margulies on six seasons of the television drama ER do if she, in her pink scrubs, wound up where I was the other day? How would Carol handle a person dying from a drug overdose right next to her? Well, Carol is a nurse, granted a pretend nurse on a cancelled tv show but a nurse nonetheless which still makes her more of a medical professional than me. So Carol would do nursey things, things that were helpful and life saving. And the other day I couldn’t do those things. I still can’t do those things and what’s more I could barely figure out what to say when all of this was unfolding right before me at a crazy pace.  I’m sure good old Carol would say something comforting as well. But the best I could come up with the other day as a man was overdosing right next to me was, “Call 911.”

When I think about moments like this potentially happening my obvious point of reference is television. It’ll be heroic and a moment of my own personal strength! It’ll be like that scene in season 4 of Grey’s Anatomy where Izzie as played by Katherine Heigl does mouth-to-mouth on a dying deer. Well, it was none of those things. I didn’t feel heroic, just scared and awful. Trust me, I would have rather been Katherine Heigl that day and I’m pretty sure I’m the only person ever to write those words. It all happened so terrifyingly fast, as things often do at my non-writer mental health and additions based day job. But this day, with someone’s life in peril, was a first.

Listen, I can’t tell all of his story due to the nature of my job and it’s actually not really about that. It’s about me. I mean, I’m an alcoholic. Of course I can make someone else’s overdose all about me! But I will say that this person, like me, has struggled his whole life with drugs and alcohol. Lots of times in my job I get to see people, who also like me, finally overcome these things and change their lives. But more often than not, I get to see the really hard stuff. Wednesday was one of those days.

After talking to him and trying to just keep him awake, the paramedics showed up. They arrived really quickly, and despite having to use Wikipedia(!!!!!!) to figure out what Suboxone was (in a state with a major heroin crisis, mind you) they were fantastic. They did all the nursey Carol Hathaway things I couldn’t do. Or maybe all the things an EMT character on that show would do. I stopped watching after Clooney left so I don’t know who that would be. Anyway, they wheeled him off on a stretcher, slid him into the ambulance and sped away. What they didn’t take with them was poor, shattered ill-equipped, non-nursey me.

With lump in throat and tears waiting in the wings to fall from my face, I decided that this was probably a good moment to call it a day. I needed to go collapse in privacy of my own home where my husband and cats could be on call to pick up the pieces. I think it affected me so deeply because for one, I am a human being. Sounds like a stupid thing to even type but as a drunken, drug taking robot on a suicide mission for 20 years, I need to write that from time to time. A human watching another human in peril SHOULD be upsetting and my response felt appropriate. Again, it sounds crazy to even justify that but as an addict who used to live in a constant state of “I’M FINE. I’M FINE. I’M FINE”  just to admit a normal emotional response is still liberating. Now, at the workplace, I gotta keep it together. Nobody wants a mental health professional bursting into tears. What would Carol Hathaway think! But in the comfort of my own world, with the people I trust, it felt okay to not be fucking okay.

It also affected me because I am an addict and so of course for a moment I thought, “This could be me” followed by the guilt-induced but totally honest thought, “Thank god it isn’t.”The thing is every time someone relapses or overdoses or god forbid dies, we all think this. We all think that could be/should be me followed by I’m so glad that it isn’t. It’s the ghost of Alcoholic Christmas Future right in front of your face, telling you this is what waits for you if you decide to go back. The obtuse “What If?” worst case scenario became tangible in that moment as this guy, this usually funny, charming, energetic guy nearly slipped away right next to me. And, for lack of a more poetic turn of phrase, it sucked.

But what really hit me in those rushed few moments that felt like a shook up Coke bottle about to explode that this guy was a human too. Somebody’s son. Somebody’s friend. Somebody’s dad. He wasn’t HuffPo article or CNN statistic about the opioid epidemic. He was a living breathing example of what it looks like today all across the country. Luckily, I saw this human being yesterday at the hospital. He is doing okay. As I told him what happened the last time we saw each other, he looked shocked and apologized several times. I told him it was okay and then I did what Carol Hathaway couldn’t do: laugh with him as a fellow addict. I told him it was good thing we weren’t using at the same time otherwise we’d both be in the hospital. I told him to play nice with the other kids at rehab. I told him yes we still had all of his stuff and we’d hang onto it. But mainly, I tried to tell him, “I get it.” Because I honestly do and because over and over again in my recovery people have told me they get it too.

Bateau Ivre

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Since I got back from Paris, I’ve become one of those people who starts off a lot of sentences with “Since I got back from Paris…” because the trip turned my thinking upside down. I know, I know this idea that “Since I got back from Paris, my point of view has totally changed” all sounds very PBS low-budget travel show but it’s actually true.

We got home on October 16–or was it the 17th? All I know is it was an odd time of day and I was hungry. But that could very well be said of any day for me, travel or not. It was one of those days that started in another time zone, in another country but somehow miraculously ended on the same day in a different time zone, even though 15 hours had been spent somewhere along the line. All this travel math and 8 hours of airplane movies turned my brain into mush. By the time we returned to our little abode in Portland, I just wanted to collapse and hang out with my cats. I did just that for the better part of 2 weeks. But the longer I’m back from Paris (and Amsterdam and Vienna who I also hung out with on my voyage) the longer I’ve realized a few things about myself and the country I grew up in: America.

First of all, we ain’t shit. Look, I know that’s not poetic but that was the overwhelming theme I left Europe with. After nearly 2 years of emerging Trumpism, bombastic headlines and daily reminders from every digital platform that the world is fucked, it was a breath of fresh air to be on a continent that legitimately did not give a shit. As I checked Twitter while in Europe, it shocked me that Trump or Mueller or any other thing we were freaking out about were not trending. Case in point: dark alternative rock god Nick Cave was trending while we were in Amsterdam on a week where the US was still shocked from the horrific shooting in Las Vegas. Speaking of Las Vegas, it barely came up while we were there and while I can’t be sure, I’m guessing it’s because from a foreigner’s point of view, events like that happen all the time in the US. Hard to argue with that logic, sadly. Horrible redundant American tragedies aside, it felt good not to matter. It felt good to not have the impending shit storm of dread that so many of us have woken up with for months. It felt good not to be the center of universe for 5 minutes and realize that nobody cared about my paltry American nonsense.

IMG_2563.jpgWhich brings me to the other realization I had, and one as an alcoholic I need to remember regularly: other people are going through stuff too. France, a country which has arguably seen more than its share of heartbreak and violence over the last few years, maybe couldn’t be bothered with our hot messes because it’s still trying to heal. Michael and I attended a life altering exhibit chronicling the life and work of Christian Dior. The exhibit had dresses, designs and the art behind the famous designer. Told exhaustively on several floors of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, it was an uplifting and inspirational journey into the birth of what we know as modern fashion and fashion branding. But what knocked the wind out of me and gave me goosebumps was the reaction of the french speaking visitors to the museum. Filled with pride and curiosity, each person seemed personally invested in the works. After a massive line to get in and packed galleries, the spirit was unwavering and I think that says a lot about the French and perhaps humans in general. Devastated together by heartbreak but united by a love of art and beauty, the Dior show felt less like a fashion exhibit and more like a window into the French soul. In those moments watching them take selfies with the mannequins or devour the text about Dior’s life, I finally got it. These people needed this show and they needed each other. And I needed it too.

The other thing that hit me is that despite traveling several countries over the course of over two weeks and getting far, far away from Sean at Home, I am still me wherever I go. This is an unfortunate but inevitable fact. My carry on luggage comes equipped with my own personal baggage and ain’t that a shame? I will say that it is lighter these days and as a travel companion, I am pretty fantastic. The gorgeous photo at the top of the post was taken by husband the last night we were in Paris. It was a perfect, sun-kissed moment while amazing music played in the background. This was a snapshot, unlike the dozens of photos of cake that I took and posted to Instagram, that needed to happen. Such a significant moment, the image has since served as our screen saver since we got back from Paris. Out of curiosity and since my junior high French only took me so far, I wondered what “bateau ivre” meant. I cackled when the magic of Google revealed that it means “drunk boat.” Perfect. That’s me–bateau ivre, a little drunk boat floating around the globe. Except now this little drunk boat has safe harbours like the meetings I went to in Paris and Amsterdam (spoiler alert: alcoholics are the same everywhere), the sober friends I messaged from random locales and the moments of peace I got by staring at views like this one.

Lastly, since I got back from Paris, I haven’t felt like an American or just an American, I should say. Listen, I’m  not unpatriotic or a spurned former lover of the USofA. I just feel like more of a human. You know, a person who lives in the whole world, instead of in just his small American bubble. I feel like a person who is lucky to have these adventures and people who I love to come home to. But mainly I feel like if I love myself and help other people than this little drunk boat is safe to dock pretty much anywhere.

*This is the first in a three-part series about my recent travels to Europe. If you hate travel posts, I apologize but I promise to fill each of them with my signature brand of neurosis to not deviate from my brand too much. hearts–S.

 

 

 

 

 

forbidden happy

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You’re okay.

You’re okay.

You’re okay.

I had to kept saying this to myself as I laid in bed. I had to keep saying it not just because I knew it was true but also because saying it was helping. See, I woke up with my heart racing, sweating and generally having that feeling I was far from fucking okay. As I closed my eyes (You’re okay. You’re okay. You’re okay) I tried to believe it. I mean really feel like I was okay. My heart eventually took it down a few notches. I started to breathe normally. And right on cue, one of my cats laid on my chest.  We were okay. I am actually okay. That was the truth. After all, this isn’t some old feeling I had years ago although waking up in terror thanks to years of delightful things like depression, addiction and PTSD is an old familiar feeling. No, this happened this morning.

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It happened this morning at what could arguably considered that height my personal okayness. Fuck okay. My life has currently transcended to fabulous. New job, great relationships, strong connection to my recovery and the incredible people in it, plenty of food, money, coffee and all of those things I need to survive. So why did I wake up there? Why did feel like I used to when I would wake up to the shitstorm of my life during yet another body crushing hangover? Why, after nearly nine years, did I wake up convinced for even a few moments that I wasn’t okay?

The easy answer? Blame it on the wiring. Much like blaming it on Rio or blaming it on the rain, blaming it on the wiring for people like me with mental health, uh shall we say, “challenges”, is the easiest route. Just because I am better and continue to grow doesn’t mean I’m going to have the thoughts of a totally sane and healthy person all of the time. The default setting of HOLYFUCKINGSHITEVERYTHINGISTERRIBLE is a tough one to override. Is it better than it was in 2009 or even 2015? Hell yes. But does it still exist? Do I still struggle with a brain hell-bent on self-destruction and misery? Also, hell yes. The thing is there’s a bunch of healthy stuff I do to drown that voice and those feelings out and I can currently say that all of those things are working. So perhaps it’s a glitch in the system and one that won’t last. I mean, I already feel better sitting at my kitchen table writing and drinking coffee.

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Yet it could also be something else. Something more ingrained. Yesterday, I was walking home after hanging out with someone from my recovery family. Fall leaves crunched under my feet for the first time. The air was warm but crisp. The quickly vanishing sun had turned downtown Portland a peachy orange color. The world in that moment felt beautiful. Life felt beautiful. Moreover, I felt really, genuinely, no bullshit happy. Like happy with no exceptions. Like not that kind of happy that’s temporary or faked or delusional. But legit happiness. Short of bursting into a musical number, I walked home happier than I can remember being in quite sometime. These are moments worth cherishing and remembering. Not because there was some big material payoff or splashy life milestone. But because a person like me can feel this way and can feel this way most of the time. It’s also worth remembering because there’s still a teeny, tiny part of me that thinks I don’t deserve this. That I shouldn’t be happy and that I should go ahead and do something to fuck it and up and sabotage it because it’s not like it’s going to last anyway, right?

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My idea of happiness, much like these candy colored ridiculous Lisa Frank pictures of unicorns, is decidedly twisted and out of whack. Like a good addict, I want happiness to be bigger and last longer. New, Improved Happiness! Now 100 times stronger than original recipe happiness! So right away I’ve set myself up for something that can’t happen or at the very least is not in any way sustainable. Thus when I don’t live a life that feels like an endless loop of someone winning both showcases on The Price is Right then I can go ahead and choose to feel fucked up, sad, and miserable.

“Choose” is the magic word here, kids and one that I didn’t know when I was drinking and using. I thought horrible things just happened to me and that I must have been cursed. I reality was, however, I chose some pretty horrible things and had life that reflected those choices. So yeah I can choose to feel happy. I can choose to see the truth that I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay. I can choose all this and still wake up in terror and have to choose it all over again. This is fine. Happiness isn’t something forbidden and out of reach or something spectacular that I’m not worthy of. It’s something that shows up under my feet like the fall leaves or lies on my chest like my cat. It’s something that’s already available. All I have to do is choose it.

relieve me of the bondage of selfie

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How do I look?

How do I look when I’m struggling?

How do I look when I’m happy?

How do I look when I’m grocery shopping?

How do I look when I’m dealing with family members, cleaning up cat barf, watching reality TV or cooking dinner?

More importantly do you think I look?

Luckily for me, I have the magic mirror of narcissism that is social media which answers those questions with bubbly hearts. When illuminated several times over, I have won at the game of self-worth. The numbers can even tick up in front of my eyes like flashing beacons that say, “You’re doing amazing, sweetie.” Conversely, when nobody gives a damn these bubbly hearts stay clear, invisible, with no numbers beside them to alert the world that my likeability has confirmed kills. Yet recently, I reached the very bottom of the mirror and stared at the whole thing. Yes, that’s correct. I really feel as though I’ve read all of what Twitter and Facebook has to offer. I’ve heard the opinions. I’ve had my opinions. I’ve seen their opinions become my opinions.  I’ve seen them take my opinions.  In fact, I’ve now heard and read so many opinions that none of them matter or stand out anymore. Even my own. Yes, I truly think I’ve read it all. And what I’ve learned is, to quote Jon Bon Jovi, it’s all the same, only the names have changed.

This is okay. I mean how many things do we all have to actually talk about? It’s normal that we’d ramble on and ramble and repeat crap again and again. Besides, humans and their ability to have different spins on the same topics is one of the best things about humans. The “best things about humans” would be a great hashtag, by the way since it appears our collective qualities are harder and harder to celebrate these days and therefore should be gathered as evidence. It would be a great hashtag if I was doing those sorts of things anymore. But I’m not. In fact, I’m not really doing any social media anymore.

Or should I say “for today” I’m not doing social media. In case you didn’t know, “for today” is that give a way phrase we addicts use to signal that for hopefully 24 hours we won’t engage in something that is addictive and unmanageable. And by “not doing,” I mean I’ve cut back on Twitter and deactivated my Facebook for like 2 days so far. I know. I’m practically a monk. As someone who has worked in digital content and social media for the past seven years, I guess this is the part of the post where I should talk about the virtues that social media does have. You know– the ability to bring people together from around the globe, the ability to share information quickly and the ability to make you feel bad about you had for lunch– those types of things. And they are all valid and worthwhile. But I’m not going to talk about those virtues. Because my problem with social media is (wait for it) me.

Sometime over the summer after I had spent entirely too long styling a selfie for an author photo a website that I  contribute to, it hit me maybe my relationship with all of this is too intense. Putting my self-worth in the hands of others is something I’ve done for decades. So much so that if the folks at MasterClass are interested I’ll gladly share my knowledge with the world for the low, low price of $90.00. Us ninja level codependent people pleasers didn’t need no stinking social media to wrap our self-esteem in the approval of others but it sure the fuck makes it a lot easier! Now, instead of calling people or walking to their houses or showing up to their events that I don’t want to go to but will go to in hopes of them liking me more, I can just post witty, wise crap that will endear me to their hearts. In my pocket at all times, I hold the power to turn over my power to faceless others in 140 characters or less. Weeee!

I’m making light of this because that’s sort of what I do when a behavior of mine has become problematic. Like, “Ha, ha, ha! Isn’t it a hoot how much cocaine I can snort?” But the reality is my relationship with social media started to feel problematic. More than once, I’ve ignored my husband or missed what he was saying because my face was stuck to my iPhone like a fly on the windshield. Not a cool thing to do to my literal favorite person to talk to. Also troubling? Something about my dependence on it felt odd. Like here I was preaching the gospel of being sober and present in my life but all the while I had gleefully become my iPhone’s bitch. Uh, what?  I at the very least don’t use my phone or text during meetings. I mean honestly if I can’t live without looking at it for an hour, I really need help. But nearly everywhere else I’m glued to it and that’s primarily because of social media.

Even worse, I’d committed the cardinal sin of social media, the one I’d warn clients about, the one every article back in 2009 would caution against: I started to take it too personally. When the tweets of others start to feel like attacks or the vague online personalities of people you don’t actually know in real life start to affect you, it’s time to get a grip. After all, it’s all for entertainment purposes only which I fundamentally know. Yet somehow here I am. But it also kind feels like something else. Like it feels hallow and immature for where I am right now. Worse for a snob like myself, my dependency on it is shamefully basic. I’m no better than our president or Taylor Swift. Look what I made me do.

So what? I grab a stack of novels and go live in the woods? Not really an option especially since I have real life commitments and hate mosquitos. Like my other addictions, I have to figure out how to treat it. Listen, I’m my motto has always been “Why do something you enjoy when you can turn it into an obsession?” so I’ve been down this road with booze, drugs, cigarettes, tv, sugar, people, sex, ad nauseam. By the way, if you’re struggling with drugs and alcohol and this sounds like some trivial-ass bullshit, that’s because comparatively it is. Nevertheless, I know I first need to admit it’s a problem, which I guess what this 1200 word declaration is all about and then I have to take action. For me, action looked like deactivating my Facebook account and taking Twitter off my phone. The obsession, as the sober kids say, has not been removed just yet and I’m really starting to see how much time I was actually spending on it. Yikes. It’s becoming clear how much of a crutch it actually is.

Suddenly, I don’t aimlessly scroll like a zombie in search of little bubbly hearts. Suddenly, I don’t have you to tell me how I look. And now I have to look at myself.

action! I wanna live.

feelingsWe are in the era of the topless, body positive Instagram post. We are in the era of the multi-tweet thread chronicling everything from an individual’s heroic battle with a mental illness to a harrowing account of waiting in line at the airport. We are in the era of blogs like the one your reading now routinely using (or abusing) their pages to become a digital dumping ground for confessions, neuroses and run-of-the-mill epiphanies. As a big fan of all of these things, I will say respectively and from the most spiritual place possible, fuck this era. Fuck this false sense of heroism for simply being a human who handles their emotional shit. Fuck this bar for being so low that we now spring to our feet anytime someone is real about themselves. Because for people with mental illness, addiction and alcoholism this brand of self-truth telling isn’t some breakthrough handpicked specially for a Lenny Letter essay. It’s just how we stay alive.

Hopefully, my flagrant flinging of the f-bomb didn’t frighten you off. But I swear all of this is on my mind for a reason (cue the aforementioned confessional in 5, 4,3,2…). While I like to think it takes guts for me to yell into the void of the internet, “Ugh. I feel shitty and I kind of hate myself/everything else!” I know it’s ultimately chicken shit. After all, I could whine for days digitally (and I have and thank you for reading, by the way!) but if it’s not happening in real life and if I’m not reaching out in the real world, it’s all for show. While bleeding on the page and essentially throwing glitter on my hot mess mental health is sort of my brand, it can’t just be a blog or a series of tweets. I mean for me. “For me,” in case you didn’t know,  is what we say so we don’t alienate people who are doing something else to treat their own hot mess mental health. But in this case I don’t know if it is just “for me”. Study after study, book after book has shown that people with the stuff I have tend to feel better when they share it with others who have the same thing. All of this is to say, that yesterday, live and in person without editing or a delete tweet option, I let it out.

The “it” in question is some of the financial and career blahs I mentioned before but then also my general feeling horrible/depressed/over everything that’s been plaguing me for several days.  Plaguing is a dramatic word and not at all accurate when it considering places like Syria or Venezuela or Chechnya. But I described it to my husband as a “baseline of annoyance and depression”. In other words, I’ve been a fucking delight. Completely wrapped up in self and miserable, I forced myself to go to a meeting yesterday. It was a gay meeting not unlike the gay meetings I got sober in Los Angeles back in 2009. Gay meetings are awesome, by the way. Not only do I find them to be a little more entertaining and honest but they are filled with people who get me in a way sober straight people do not. Anyway, after hearing lots of stuff that resonated, I vomited out everything that I was feeling. While the details of this monologue are best left in the magical ethos of the sacred spaces of 12 Step rooms, I will say that I felt better almost immediately. And more than that a few people gathered around me and gave me their phone numbers after the meeting. After a tear filled text session with my sober bestie in LA, who hilariously called me controlling and called alcoholism a cunt, I started to feel human. I calmed down. I ate bread and watched reality shows. I snuggled with my husband, who currently deserves some sort of trophy. I went to bed. But I went to bed knowing that I need to be in a new state of action.

The thing is I’ve been going to meetings and doing the work I need to do to stay sober since I moved to Portland but clearly I still need more help. This is always a drag for me discover. I really, really hoped that when I got sober I’d only have to ask for help once and only feel shitty for a small period of time and the rest of my life with be like the last 3 minutes of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. What I’ve gotten in reality is a life that actually looks more like the last 30 minutes of Postcards from the Edge which is to say not perfect, challenging and a lot of work if I want to stay healthy and happy. Yesterday’s breakdown/breakthrough was a wake-up call to do more work and to keep going. Therefore, I’ve committed to 30 meetings over the next 30 days. I’m also going to find a sponsor and take on a service commitment. I traditionally don’t like to do any work and will only do so when I’m in a considerable amount of pain so consider this me screaming, “Uncle!”

I guess the point of this yet-another-act of internet heroism is this: my mind was in a dark place. A sad place. A despair filled place. A fucked up place. And was kind of there for a while and was pushing me to feel like, “Why bother?” This freaked me out. Because how long do I think like this until I then start thinking that drinking or using or god forbid suicide all sound like awesome ideas? Yikes. So I told the truth. I told on myself. I cried in front of strangers. I asked for help and I did it not because I wanted applause but because I want to be happy and alive. And because it’s what we do.