you with the sad eyes

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Cyndi Lauper, Gay Pride Parade West Hollywood, 2003

When it comes to life encompassing black holes of depression and despair, it’s helpful to have a benchmark. It’s helpful to have a moment so damn bleak that nearly everything in comparison feels like a Smurfs cartoon. It’s helpful to remember these periods in your current life too so you don’t take it for granted or mistake temporary blahs as the end of the world. I’m lucky, and use that word with a wink and a shoulder shrug, that my 30th year on this planet was one of two personal benchmarks when it comes to despair.

The story goes like this: On November 30th, I turned 30 accompanied by the most over-the-top alcoholic birthday party ever stacked to the gills with drag queens, live bands, cocaine, family members and a trip to Disneyland. It was a happy weekend but that’s where it pretty much ended. By mid-December, I slipped into a depressive state so easily that I didn’t even know it at the time. Okay, okay. I was drunk 7 nights a week at this time so trying to figure out what was depression and what was just the remnants of the daily hangover was darn near impossible. Nevertheless, I was depressed and numb and incapable of feeling my life and when I did it felt like shit. I was working at the big theater complex in downtown Los Angeles at the time and thank god. I’d hide out and watch the LA Opera or listen to the philharmonic and cry in my usher uniform. I watched the touring production of 42nd Street so many times, I feel like I could still perform a one-man-show abridged version of it for you today. 42nd Street in Less Than 40 Seconds! In addition to the drama I watched on stage, there was plenty to be had in my real life. Unable to pay my bills, fighting with my boyfriend and generally being a hot drunk mess took up a lot of time and energy. The ongoing blahness of my life was so commonplace at this time that it was hard to remember when I felt anything else. Yet there are pockets of time that I remember, moments where I was giving it the old college try to feel better or at least feel something.

One such moment was Gay Pride weekend in 2003. By June, drinking and working at the the performing arts complex were all I really did. The social part of my alcoholism floated away with the birthday balloons and now it just served the purpose of erasing my days and knocking me out. Yet when it was announced that Cyndi Lauper was performing at Pride, I woke up. I HAD to go. Cyndi Lauper was everything to me as a kid. She sent me a message in videos like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “She-Bop” that it was okay to be a big, loud colorful weirdo and to be myself. I credit her for letting me follow the beat of my own drum at an early age. Therefore, my attendance at her performance the night before the parade was mandatory.

As sworn Eastsider who avoided West Hollywood at all costs, I sucked it up for Cyndi. I worked a matinée that day and then hopped on a bus from downtown LA. I stopped at the liquor store for a mini-bottle (or two or three) of vodka before entering the festival. While waiting for Cyndi to go on and my friends to show up, I wandered around drinking and watching random second stage acts. I distinctly remember being impressed by the Mary Jane Girls. By “Mary Jane Girls” I mean like one of the originals– the talented JoJo to be precise, along with a few new girls. “JoJo and Some Other Bitches” just didn’t have the marquee value of The Mary Jane Girls though. Nevertheless, I thought they were amazing. I mean if you could survive both Rick James and the blistering midday sun all while nailing a performance of “Candyman”, you deserved all the applause possible.

By the time the sun went down, I found my people. I know there was more drinks involved. I know Cyndi looked incredible. I know we were sort of bummed that most of her set was remixed super-gay dance versions of her most popular songs. I know we left and drank more. But as far as the other details of that night, I can’t help you. That’s a another bi-product of a year spent under the blankets of depression: the precise moments seem to melt into one blob of ickiness. What I am sure of today in 2017 is that I felt let down by the moment, overall. At the time, I thought it was all the gay pride hoopla and circumstance that left me feeling flat. Gay Pride in West Hollywood is always more of a corporate affair that could rub even the most optimistic homos the wrong way. Of course, now I know it wasn’t gay pride. It wasn’t West Hollywood. It sure the hell wasn’t Cyndi. It was me.

The combo platter of raging alcoholism and depression made everything feel like a bummer. There wasn’t enough cocaine, tequila, glitter or 80’s music to make me better. Yet somehow, I hung onto this life of despair, in varying degrees for another 6(!!!!) years. Things got a whole hell of a lot worse before they got better, as is usually the case. I never made it back to gay pride in West Hollywood which had more to do with the headliners than any resentment towards the festival. More depressingly, I haven’t seen Cyndi Lauper again in concert. I feel like I owe myself a Cyndi amends for sure. But as far as feeling and really getting this idea of Pride? I think I know it now more than ever.

Being sober, HIV positive, married and expressing myself like I always wanted to as a kid is a life I could have never imagined. I feel freer at 44 on zero drugs than I ever did bombed out of my mind in my 20’s. I’m actually proud of myself as a gay man and sobriety has truly helped me get there. Not sure if that’s what Cyndi had in mind when she sang, “Your true colors are beautiful like a rainbow” but that’s certainly what it means to me today.

it takes a village, people.

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Seven pills a day.

Three to four meetings a week.

One guided meditation, three times a week.

Four other addicts who I call/text regularly.

Five afternoon naps during the course of a workweek.

10,000 to 18,000 steps per day walking.

As of May 27, 2017 those are the numbers. The numbers I need to keep this mental health cruise ship afloat. They will undoubtedly fluctuate and change. The meds for example will probably go down this month. Which is good news as I’m currently on some combo that has given me the bladder of a 68-year-old woman. The meetings should probably increase but will likely dip at some point because I am, after all, me. The steps, the naps, the mediation all subject to dip or increase depending on how fucked I feel on any given day. But in general, this is an honest equation I’ve come up with for today. I am realistic with my rebellious, stubborn ass. I know there are days when the “But I don’t wanna”s will take over. This is fine and I try not to beat myself up. I’m balancing a myriad of manageable but deadly diseases and sometimes what they all want me to do is lie the fuck down. Yet despite my best efforts to find the precise numerical equation to make me all better there’s something I need more than anything else: other people.

If I wasn’t so lazy I would be able to find you study after study that point to the power of support for folks like me. By folks “like me” I mean people with addiction, alcoholism, depression and HIV.  But these studies floating out there in the internet say people dealing with grief, cancer and trauma also benefit from leaning on other people. It’s odd too because when hit with one of these conditions we often hear, “You need to take care of yourself.” Which is certainly true but sounds solitary.  Like “Just figure it out on your own and make yourself all better. And could you hurry up because you’re a drag to be around?” However time after time, I’ve learned that when I take care of myself by myself, there is very little care involved. I’m tortured, isolated and filled with a grab bag of shitty self-sabotaging ideas. I second guess everything and feel like I’m the worst person on the planet. In other words, it’s a party for one and it sucks. Thus, taking care of myself involves me reaching out to other people.

This is not second nature for me. Kids like me from alcoholic homes suffer from “I got this!” syndrome maybe more so than any other kids on the planet. We in some ways raised ourselves and figured out stuff by on our own so reaching out and asking for help is a foreign concept. As a person in recovery for the past 8+ years, I’ve had to learn how to lean on other people and open my mouth. This week, I had HIV clinic appointment. It’s my first since moving to Portland. Thanks to the miracle of the private sector and little to no help from the government at all, HIV positive folks like myself with no insurance have a plethora of resources including free meds available. I am eternally grateful but in order to tap into that stuff I have to take the action. I have to make the appointments. I also have to show up for those appointments. I have to bring the documents and answer the emails and do the work. All of which I did this week but it wasn’t lost on me that just taking care of myself and asking for help is still no small feat. Overcoming my self-sabotaging, I got in and handled my business but it was far from a solo act.

After a morning dealing with incredibly nice nurses, case workers and receptionists, it hit me how many people I actually need. Beyond that setting which also includes therapists and pharmacists, there’s all of the people in my recovery life I need. Sponsors, sponsees, all the people who share their stories with me, all the people who listen to my story, the people who set up meetings, the people who make coffee at said meetings, the people who just smile or say hi and know exactly what I’m going through and on and on. Oh and this does not even include all of the friends, family members and co-workers who lift me up, encourage me, walk with me, laugh with me and generally help this baby bird out of the nest on a regular basis. Yet it doesn’t stop there. There’s also you.

You who exist in this digital realm that somehow I was lucky enough to find. You who despite never meeting in person we are linked together by our joint experiences. You who share my pain, joy and warped sense of humor from wherever you are. You who are also damaged but recovering. You who read my rambling, crazy nonsense and even say nice things about it. The point is it I feel proudly connected to you and all the other dozens of people who help me along the way. Like I said, it’s been proven countless times that I cannot do any of this alone and now I know I don’t have to. While you may not be cops, Indian chiefs or construction workers, you are my people and for that I’m eternally grateful.

a job well done

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

please talk about me when I’m gone

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What other people think of me is none of my business.

What other people think of me is none of my business.

What other people think of me is none of my business.

Rinse and repeat four thousand times. Sure, sure, sure. I believe this. Or I try to. See, I know it’s true and even for a narcissist like me the very idea can actually be comforting. Knowing that nobody’s opinion of me is actually important is a relief. Like if I am really “there” in that head space of truly and joyfully not giving a shit about what people think, it can provide a whole lot of freedom. Of course the whole idea of social media hinges on what people think about you and this is a tad difficult to reconcile. Still, I know in my heart that what people think about me is none of my business. Well, at least until I die, anyway.

Oh trust me we’re about to take self-obsession to a whole other level so buckle up. The level of the afterlife, specifically.  I do know that I can’t actually control what people think about when I die or maybe I can but that’s not something I’ll find out until I’m like dead. Uh duh. Still, that doesn’t stop me from thinking about what sort of legacy my big ass personality will leave behind. Listen, my real hope is that I’m not so exhausting that I kill off all the people around me. Likewise, I don’t want my departure from this realm to be a “Thank God that bitch is gone!” sort of thing. I also don’t have grand illusions of monuments being erected or holidays being launched in my honor after I die. Of course, I am open to these things but I am not counting on them. This all sounds odd, I know but I have been thinking about it a lot lately. At age 44, I spend entirely too much time wondering about death and old age all the other things I didn’t think would physically happen when I was drinking and using drugs. Not in a morbid way though. More like a “Hmm. I wonder what the hell that’ll be like” sort of way. I know death is a train on its own timetable that I cannot stop and I don’t wish to. But I’d be lying to say that I wasn’t curious about what happens after it picks me up from the station.

My sister, who is sober and living in Florida and therefore proof that those two things can in fact coexist, was telling me a story the other day about a woman she knows from the rooms of recovery. This woman, in her 80’s recently died, causing a shockwave of sadness amongst her sober community. She had been able to cobble together 18 months of continuous sobriety after years of struggling to get sober. It’s an incredible accomplishment at any age. So imagine my sister’s shock and disappointment when nary a mention of this woman’s brave struggle against alcoholism even came up at the memorial. Instead, it was a ceremony rich in religious practices that were more about her family than her own. My sister felt like it was slap in the face to this woman who had by all accounts busted her ass to get and stay sober. We then agreed that if our respective funerals were given an unwanted religious makeover that we would independently haunt this earth in a manner that would make Amityville Horror look like a housewarming. We also agreed “that” part of our story was worth mentioning and honoring in death. After all, it’s a heroic battle that should be celebrated. There’s no doubt that a bout with cancer or time spent in the military would be heralded. Thus we came to the conclusion overcoming addiction should be treated the same way.  I mean for us. You do whatever you want with your funeral and haunt this earth however you choose.

But yeah I think when I die, it would be nice for my whole story to be told. Not like I plan on dying soon, as I am from a decidedly salty stock of people who tend to hang on for 90 years and act sassy until their very final moments. Still, I fought hard for this whole story, dammit and would like it all to be remembered. The idea of having people who only knew me sober at my funeral is a nice one. The idea of people being there who saw the whole journey is even nicer. And since my cross to bear in this life as a chronic bullshitter is telling the truth, these testimonies to my character might as well be as honest and funny as humanly possible. It would be very “off brand” to have it any other way. Might as well celebrate the whole picture, warts and all. As long as it’s not in a church and there’s 80’s music and tacos, I think there’s nothing from my personal life that couldn’t be talked about in death.

Sure, I can’t control what happens at my funeral, although my grandmother who had everything from the readings to the food and the location on lock well before she died would argue with this sentiment. But I can control what happens until then. I can try my best to be less of a dick on a daily basis. I can try to tell people I love them whenever and wherever I can. I can take minute and smile and think, “Wow. I’m fucking lucky to be walking in the sunshine right now” like I did the other day as I strolled home after buying flowers.

Therefore, consider this my official notice that you can say whatever you like about me at my funeral as long as it’s the truth and as long as you say a lot of it. Also, conditions and terms of the aforementioned haunting are subject to change depending on what kind of shit goes down over the next few decades.

the despair & depression disco dance party playlist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

a hot mess, now at room temperature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Strike a Pose’ Strikes a Chord

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“Look, around. Everywhere you turn is heartache. It’s everywhere that you go.” Madonna,Vogue, 1990

It wasn’t the scene of Madonna simulating oral sex on a bottle. Nor was it the many scenes of her openly discussing her love life. It wasn’t even the scene where she turned “Like a Virgin” into a masturbating with a crucifix blasphemy filled ballad that people were talking about when they talked about 1991’s Truth or Dare. It was the scene where two of her male dancers kissed each other while playing the game in the title of the film. The sight of two men making out on the big screen was so nonexistent in 1991 that jaws dropped around the world when the film was released. Now over 25 years later, the story behind that kiss as well as the all the dirt on the tour, the film and the diva herself can be seen in the new documentary Strike a Pose, now on Netflix.

As a Madonna fan, I’ve been dying to see Strike a Pose since I read about it last year. The main reason being that Truth or Dare was seminal in my life as a gay teen trying to find the courage to come out. What that seemingly simple scene did for me and others like me was show that who we were was okay. Madonna and her dancers were presenting a life where you could be yourself and not give a fuck about what people thought. Sure sounded good to me, the terminally effeminate and unique soul that I was. Yet according to the film, that scene and the glamorous carefree life that came with it also came at a price.

Strike a Pose profiles the lives of six of Madonna’s dancers from the Blonde Ambition tour who were also featured in the “Vogue” music video. Luis, Jose, Salim, Carlton, Kevin and Oliver became instant stars during the tour and their fame exploded when moviegoers met them a year later in Truth or Dare. The movie takes an unflinching look at the past and pulls no punches especially when talking about the AIDS crisis. Two of the dancers, Carlton and Luis, tell heart-wrenching stories about how they were terrified to tell Madonna and other members of the company that they were HIV positive. Carlton found out in Japan while Blonde Ambition was getting ready to take over the world and Salim was diagnosed in 1987 but kept it hidden. Their stories are incredibly sad and ironic given that Madonna was vocal advocate for HIV and AIDS, having just lost her friend artist Keith Haring to the disease. These dancers were very young and I can’t imagine how terrifying that world was back then. Thus the story of Strike a Pose, after it gets done dishing the showbiz details, quickly becomes to a story I can really relate to: a story of survival.

How do you deal with the fall outs of instant fame? If we are to believe Strike a Pose, the answer is, not very well. These kids thrust into the spotlight were given all the drugs, booze and VIP access that they could handle and they rightfully took advantage of it. Naturally, things got ugly pretty quickly. Jose and Luis, who became minor club sensations with a record of their own, both got hooked on heroin and parted ways with Madonna after their addictions got out of control. For Carlton and Salim, the battle to stay well in a society where everyone with your condition is dying is a very real one, not helped by collective shaming and ignorance. In one of the films, more devastating segments, we’re introduced to Gabriel, the dancer featured, along with Salim, in that famous kiss. Gabriel died from complications of AIDS in 1995 at the age of 26. According to his mother, Gabriel wanted Madonna to cut the kiss from the film and after she told him to “Get over it”, he  went on to sue her for forcing him to come out. It’s an unsavory moment but not the only one. Kevin and Oliver also sued Madonna for compensation from the film. Yet the movie goes surprisingly lite on the Madonna bashing which is surprising given that her reputation as a difficult  boss and coworker is legendary.

It’s because of this however that Strike a Pose is effective and moving. By avoiding being a victim, bitchfest, Strike Pose turns into a portrait of growth. It isn’t about Madonna anymore. It’s about the six dancers and what happened since their worlds were turned upside down. Against the odds, these men have somehow stayed well, gotten sober and survived. Salim’s story, for me, is the center of the films’ heart and message of resilience. Still dancing and living in New York, Salim speaks  publicly for the first time about being positive and the result is a raw, tear-jerking emotional moment.

As a fan of Madonna and Truth or Dare, the movie delivers on the serving the desired nostalgia of the time. With clips of the film and access to the songs, the movie gives a fan what they want. But as somebody sober with HIV, the movie goes a lot deeper and soon becomes relatable and courageous. Gay men like myself have always been attracted to women who survive. Cher, Elizabeth Taylor and Tina Turner all had been through the ringer and counted out but somehow came back. It’s a glamour and toughness that we as gay men latch onto and find aspirational. Yet what Strike a Pose does beautifully is finally give gay men the fierce, empowered, truthful comeback story of their own.

Bartles & Gays

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When you’re seventeen and somebody offers you a wine cooler while you watch a 300 pound drag queen do a version of “Rhythm Nation”, you take it. And if you’re me at age seventeen, not only do you take that wine cooler but you’ve already taken nearly everything else anyone has ever offered you. I’d like to say it was because 1990 was a freer, wilder time but if we’re being real here I would have been a drunken teen delinquent in even during the Revolutionary War. Getting lit with Paul Revere, y’all! Yet 1990 was unique for me because it was the year that I went to my first gay bar.

Down by the railroad track in an area of Denver that’s now filled with stoned bros stumbling towards sporting events, was a 3.2 gay bar called Stars. In my mind, it was Stars with a Z but when it comes to details from the late eighties and early nineties, I am admittedly an unreliable narrator. Whatever it was, it looked a lot like liberation in that moment. Already a fixture on the teen goth and alternative nightlife scene, I was always in search of new spots to dance, be loaded and be my snarky, bitchy little self. I was also in my coming out phase which officially wouldn’t really happen until later but at seventeen I knew I liked boys, I hated my parents and I loved to dance. That was enough. I was, as our dear Janet says in the aforementioned song, “looking for a better way of life” and I was pretty sure that included kissing boys and getting wasted.

The bar itself was nothing to speak of really. Kind of a hole in the wall and filled with a mix of lesbians, creepy older dudes, drag queens and lots of queer youngsters like myself. Allegedly the bar, was supposed to be 18 and up but my shady ass always found a way in. I remember this curvy, gorgeous biracial girl named Shanni who helped sneak me into a club through a fence on the patio. She seemed like the disco unicorn of my dreams and like a girl I’d never met before. Little did I know that all the gay clubs were filled with awesome chicks like her but I was thankful for her assistance. 1990 lent itself to a “look the other way” type of attitude about underage people hanging out and drinking in bars. Plus, Denver had that whole weird ass 3.2 drinking thing which was basically, let’s face it, a preview for the hardcore boozing coming attractions. The humble trappings and colorfully sketchy regulars didn’t scare me off. I was in love with the place. It blew my brain open to see gays of all sizes and colors being themselves and having a really good time doing it.

The song of the summer was certainly “Vogue” by Madonna. It was that song that gave every homo a chance to be flamingly gay on the dance floor and be as over the top as possible. It was our anthem and the moment that solidified Madonna’s role in my coming out. I remember sipping wine coolers with a friend watching a pimpled, discount version of Madonna lip synch the song and him saying of the performer, “Well, bacne certainly isn’t very vogue.” I had entered the realm of gay nightclub cuntiness and it came with drag queens and a dance floor. I truly belonged.

Other songs like “Everybody, Everybody” by Black Box, “Two to Make it Right” by Seduction and “Hold On” by En Vogue were also deep in the gay club rotation. Although I worshipped (and still do) at the Church of Madonna, what my mind kept coming back to when I sat down to write this was Janet Jackson. The songs we were hearing in the club that summer were from Rhythm Nation, 1814 which was released in the fall of 1989 but still getting tons of airplay. The children today would definitely describe that record, with its political undertones and brutally honest outlook, as “woke AF.” The mind-blowing thing about that record is that it has a mere three songwriters for the entire album. Doesn’t sound that impressive but when you consider that most of today’s “deeply personal” pop records boast upwards of 50 songwriters it at least proves we were dealing with a different caliber of artist on the radio back then. Sorry, but with 50 writers, nothing can be deeply personal. That’s a group assignment. Anyway, while not overtly gay and far from her all-out-sexual phase of her career, the songs of that record like “Miss You Much”, “The Knowledge” and “Black Cat” had a self-awareness and strength that on some level as a gay man in the making I must have needed to hear.

Ms. Jackson aside, my inner personal dealings with people my age or older weren’t all that amazing. Pretty disastrous, in fact. I mean, I was seventeen and just coming out so I was an asshole. I wanted boys to like me but had zero game. There was always some dramatic falling out with a group of friends that I knew from the club which I was usually smack dab in the middle of it. So thank god there was alcohol. The wine coolers made dancing and talking to boys easier. They made meeting new people easier. They made me easier. Tasting like Kool-Aid’s more ghetto sister, wine coolers were what I secretly really looked forward to the most about those evenings. Not too harsh and grown up in their 80’s appearance, wine coolers made underage drinking feel more normal. They also unshackled me from any other fears I had. That summer, I did cocaine for the first time, had my first three-way and basically checked off all the “I’ll never do that!” boxes off my list. And again, I was only seventeen. No wonder I felt like a Sheen family member by the time I turned 20.

At age 44 as I write this with Janet Jackson videos in the background, I feel for kid with the wine cooler. As if coming out wasn’t enough of a mindfuck, the poor dude had to wrestle with addiction that was already proving to be unmanagable.He had no idea the ride he was in for. Yet I wouldn’t change a moment of it. I wouldn’t go back in time to warn him about his future. Mainly, because that’s impossible and even if I could go back in time, the bitch wouldn’t listen anyway.

Instead what I’m left with is some amazing music, some hilarious fuzzy memories and some times that I loved but don’t really miss. Well, much, anyway.

newcomerish

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

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

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

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

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

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

lost weekends found

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To all my people who know where your wallet is this morning, put your hands up!

All my people who woke up in their own beds, put your hands up!

All my people, who didn’t have to read their sent text messages to remember their weekends, throw your hands up!

I mean not to invoke every terrible, cornball hiphop 90’s song ever but if you are sober and accomplished those things over the weekend, bra-fucking-vo. I mean it. Staying present during this nightmare happening in slow-motion is some badass stuff. What a time to be über conscious! Like of all the eras I picked to not check out and live in my own chemically enhanced alternate reality, I chose this one. I’m just thrilled.

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Heavy sighing and bitchy remarks aside, I am actually glad that I’m sober right now. Incredibly so. Believe it or not, I’ve tried to drink my way through difficult times and I just wasn’t that fabulous at it. The problem is you eventually wake up (perhaps covered in puke or not knowing where your phone is. Throw your hands up!) and you are still you and the world is still the world that you were trying to obliterate. So here we are sober as fuck with a front row seat to the world’s crappiest real-time reality show. Pass the popcorn. popcorn-gifdream-of-jeanniebarbara-eden.gif

When people ask me, “How was your weekend?” I’m always a Debbie Downer as I usually work weekends. These best weekend ever weirdos are the same ones who are giving themselves aneurysms trying to have the best Halloween ever and the best New Year’s Eve ever. Exhausting. The best weekend ever for me involves a decent night’s sleep, tacos and plenty of pop culture. So yeah I fail miserably at that question. I should probably just have prerecorded messages like, “It was awesome! I went wind surfing!” that I can press play on and walk away when asked. Nevertheless, my weekend was great. All the boxes were checked including tacos plus bonus deep dish pizza with friends. In general, I’m winning at life (as long as I don’t read any current news or look at Facebook for extended periods of time.)

It has been on my mind recently that I do have it really good. I’m not rich by any means but I have a roof over my head and regular employment (things I didn’t always have, even in sobriety). My health is better than ever, despite being dealt a whack immune system and a delightfully Scandinavian set of mental health challenges. But mainly the big freaking gift here is I am not in a constant state of chaos like I was for so many years. And I’m not being alcoholic-dramatic when I say “many years”. My drinking, drug abuse and its subsequent fallout happened from about age 14 to the tender age of 36. That’s roughly two years longer than the run of Gunsmoke and just eight years less than The Simpsons, to put it in television terms. Therefore not living like a lunatic for several years at a row is  something that never stops being cool.

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Remembering entire weekends is something pretty special too. There are large chunks of time that are fuzzy at best for me. You don’t do as many drugs as I did to not lose whole portions of your life. Hello. That was sort of the  whole point. Mission accomplished! Now, knowing where I am, what I said to people and how I got home is my new normal. While I still have to apologize for being a jerk (All. The. Dammed. Time.) I,at the very least, remember being a jerk and can clean it up fairly quickly.

Last week, I recorded a new episode of Sloshed Cinema about the 1945 film The Lost Weekend with Ray Milland and Jane Wyman. The story centers around a man, who fresh out of rehab, relapses and falls into a weekend of alcoholic insanity. It’s a terrifying film that is trying to have an evolved conversation about alcoholism in 1945. Director Billy Wilder, whom I adore like most movie nerds, does a fantastic job of portraying the disease as a real nightmare. Yet what really resonated with me is the film’s ability to tap into the chaos and insane thinking. I had so many weekends (and weekdays for that matter) filled with alcoholic despair and downright insane actions that I just got sort of used to living in terror. My last few months drinking, I had a series of heart pounding anxiety attacks which really felt like the end of the world and the only thing that would make it go away was drinking more. This is exactly the horrific predicament that Ray Milland finds himself in the movie. He either drinks and stays miserable or he ends his life. It’s a chilling place that most of us wind up and the fact that a movie so old was talking about it is amazing. Films like The Lost Weekend and the conversations they have are precisely why I do my podcast. Movies have this ability to tap into things that maybe we haven’t ever talked about out loud (Moonlight is currently doing just that in theaters across the country). When I research these films, nine times out of ten, somebody on some message board posts, “Watching this made me realize I had a problem” which is incredible.

In addition to being a plug for my podcast, I do have an actual point in post this. No, it’s not just the Jeannie eating popcorn gif. It’s that I need reminders that things are actually good today. I need to remember that I’ve come a long way and that no amount of racist, baffling headlines refutes the miracle that I am sober. I need to stay grateful, no matter what. So all my other grateful people out there, throw your damn hands up.