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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

crawl out or stay buried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

viva the smartass revolution!

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Hours and hours of laughing. How dare they. Didn’t they realize the state of the world? Didn’t they notice that the planet was slowly hurling itself into a vortex of shit? Hadn’t they been paying attention to the last year and a half of jaw-droppingly horrendous headlines? Surely they must have. But here they were. My two coworkers the day after the Inauguration laughing their heads off. Not just polite, ladylike laughing either. That kind of laughing where you can’t breathe and have to take breaks to wipe the tears from your eyes. How dare they.

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It annoyed me because I knew it’s where I needed to be. I needed to be laughing. After all, laughing and rolling my eyes is my preordained destiny on this planet as a smartass since birth. Yet last weekend, I simply couldn’t rally. I was,for lack of a better word, mopey. Like really mopey for the better part of a week. Like dress me in black and turn on some Morrissey mopey. Like that sad white blob in the depression medication commercials mopey. It wasn’t until Wednesday when my sponsor and I had our weekly conversation wherein I own all of my crazy/toxic/weird ass behaviors and actions that I was able to really laugh. It wasn’t I until then that I realized I got wrapped up in groupthink misery and forgot Rule 62.

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Ugh. How could I? I always prided myself on being able to see the sassy, sarcastic side of life but for about five days, I just couldn’t muster that shit up. The irony here was that I am always the first in line to roll my eyes at humorless twerps and here I was among them. Yet upon consorting with my Twitter posse, I learned I wasn’t alone. A lot of us we’re struggling to see the light at the end of the current events tunnel. There was general malaise for days, honeychild and it felt pretty bleak. Even extremely funny folks whom I always relied upon to help not turn Facebook into a graveyard of depressing “The End is Nye!’ status updates were now posting things that made Sylvia Plath feel like Preston Sturges. After days of this mopey marathon, I’d had enough. Yes, there are things in life and in the news that should be taken seriously. But Sean Paul Mahoney is not one of them. As person who has also been given the gift of diagnosed massive depression (Oh! You shouldn’t have!) living in blah is a fucking terrible place for me to be. I had to snap out of it and the people closest to me sensed it too.

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My husband, the person who unquestionably makes me laugh the most, showed me the above image right before I went to bed last Friday night. He did so with a caveat, “Look I know you’re not looking at the news today but I think you’ll enjoy this.” He was right. Look, I’m a gay man with a heartbeat so OF COURSE I thought a white lady with bad hair dressed like a cracked-out nutcracker was funny. That sort of thing transcends political lines. It’s just funny. Thus my journey to be less mopey began.

By Thursday, I was back to laughing at work. After hearing the thunderous clang of a poor person who didn’t realize our large glass doors were in fact not open, I shared my story of how I did the same thing. It was when I first started and I was sent to run across the street. Ever the people pleaser, I set out on my mission and darted out the door– or into the door rather. My head hitting the glass made a dreadful sound that stopped the chattering, packed lobby cold. Before the even more humiliating choruses of “Oh my Gawd! Are you okay?!?” began, me and my bloody nose ran out the door and across the street. My coworker who is fairly new and not around at the time, was laughing her face off as I recalled the story and I was laughing too. I occurred to me then, like earlier with my sponsor, this is what we do for one another. This is how we help each other. We laugh together. And if you think about it, being a smartass in this current climate seems pretty punk rock.

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When I first started writing a lot as a teenager, I really wanted to be serious. I wanted people to know how dark and profound I was. Yet time and time again, the critique I always got–and still occasionally get- was “You’re writing is better when it’s funny and honest.” 30-some years later, message received. I was booked to speak at a twelve step meeting once not because my deep and inspiring journey was going to change lives but because, in the words of the person in charge of booking speakers, “You’re just really funny.” So I’ve leaned into being a clown and am honored the my goofy dipshit antics can benefit someone else, even for just a few moments.

Therefore, having a sense of humor right now feels particularly powerful given that the current administration is one of the dumbest and most humorless ever. Even Bob Dole, with the face of one of the evil trees from the Wizard of Oz and who walks through like he’s got a porcupine up his ass, reportedly enjoyed being parodied on Saturday Night Live, something What’s-His-Face is perpetually butthurt about. This is unequivocally a group of people who can’t laugh at themselves, who didn’t get the Rule 62 memo. We are living in times when inflated fragile egos and dour brainless bragging are trying to flatten wit and creative expression. The reality is crusty honkies in ill-fitting suits with no sense of humor are now running this joint. When I stop laughing, these assholes win. If I wanna resist and hang onto my sanity, my recovery and my soul I have to laugh. Moreover, I have to make others laugh. And If that means running into another glass door for you, I’ll do it.

 

Handle With Care

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It’s a recipe. That’s the only way I can describe it. I’m sure that has something to do with the fact that I’m ravenously hungry every single time I sit down to write but it’s the only metaphor I have in my writerly rolodex right now. The ‘it’ I’m talking about is self-care, in case you were wondering. Those two words were a head scratcher back when I was on my tequila soaked kamikaze mission. The closest I ever got to self-care back then was going 24 hours without lying or avoiding a blackout for an entire week. So now that I’m this sober adult and shit, I still regularly tinker with this recipe on doing actions that help this love cruise of mental wellness stay afloat.

Last Thursday, I figured I better scramble to get some sort of self-care recipe in action. For starters, I logged off Facebook and Twitter and I avoided news headlines. Listen, everybody everywhere was talking about this world event happening, one that I find horribly depressing, and I honestly didn’t want to engage. Besides, what could I possibly add to a conversation with so many voices? I detest redundancy and more than that I hate being beat to the punch when making jokes about current events therefore I passed on reading and commenting. Intuitively something told me that hanging onto my serenity was more important than obsessively reading and wringing my hands over this train wreck in slow motion. It turned out to be a good move but it wasn’t easy and had a lot of steps like making a paella and macarons at the same time. Mmm macarons.

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In addition to not reading the headlines or being on social media, I had to take it one step further, I turned off my phone on Friday. FOR THE ENTIRE DAY! This deserves all-caps and an exclamation point because I’m undoubtedly my smartphone’s bitch and I know this. Hi. I am an addict so of course I cradle and obsess over the damn thing like I’m Gollum with a piece of shiny jewelry. I always laugh when people in recovery come to meetings only to spend the whole time playing on their phone. Boo, you are in the right place, you freaking iPhone junkie. So that was difficult but not impossible. I knew if I didn’t want to know anything, I’d have to cut off my pocket-sized link to the outside world. Next, I brought a book to work. Sounds simple but replacing the fondling of my phone with something more tangible was key in order to keep my mind off of that stuff that was happening. Books have always been my touchstone to my higher self so reading turned out to be a godsend.

The day was chill and clipped along at a normal pace. I engaged with a few visitors who were there just to see something beautiful and get their mind off of things. One in particular was so kind and clearly upset that our conversation made me teary. Like run to the bathroom just in case I totally lost it teary. Moments of tenderness aside, I couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of there and go home. But before I went home, I stopped at the bookstore. As I’ve mentioned before, libraries and bookstores have always been sacred places to me where I can manage to center myself. After about 20 minutes of perusing the fiction section and picking out a few titles, I wasn’t okay. I got sweaty and hot and felt like I couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t  panic attack but I needed to go ASAP. I realized in that moment of feeling like crap in the bookstore that despite all of my wrapping myself in bubble wrap, something was still broken. I was fucking depressed and devastated.

I walked home with my books (along with some burritos for dinner) like a zombie. No sacred place, no amount of precaution could disguise the fact that I currently felt like I didn’t belong in the country where I was born. The country, that I believed when they told us in Catholic school we should be proud to live in, now wanted totally different things than I did and that really fucked with me. Which is fine. I’m one of those prone to butt-kicking depression types so to think that I wouldn’t occasionally get my ass handed to me by emotions would be like thinking that McDonald’s will just one day decide to stop making Big Macs. Ain’t gonna happen. For what it’s worth, I don’t think “getting over it” is the answer. I think that sort of “don’t deal with it” thinking is the reason we’re all hooked on drugs and drinking our faces off. I no longer shoot to get over things. I shoot to move through things, regardless of how long it takes or how much it hurts.

Nevertheless, I got home, had dinner with my husband, watched an episode of Top Chef and was actually in bed by 8:30pm. I’d had it. The final step in the recipe was, “if all else fails, go to bed” so that’s what I did. By Saturday, I’d glanced at a few headlines and was shown a picture of White House staffer in a nutcracker uniform but otherwise I was still off the grid. We saw a play, had dinner with friends and generally moved to a more light-hearted place. There was a lot of laughing going on which helps me immensely. Undoubtedly, the winner of the weekend was prayer and meditation. I’ve been gently directed to do more of those things lately and have been sort of practicing a half-assed spirituality for months. I only turn to these things when I’m in bad shape so suffice to say, I was praying and meditating like it was going out of style. On Sunday, I started peaking my head out again. Tweeting, processing events with coworkers, texting program friends, more laughing. I read a little more news and spent more time on Facebook, two terrible ideas. I quickly moved back into self-care and had a great dinner with my husband followed by another early bedtime.

I share all of these boring-ass details of my weekend because that’s what the recipe looked like. Handling myself with care took a lot of steps and to my surprise I still felt shitty. As I started to get down myself yesterday for still being a raw, emotional wreck, a little light came on. I didn’t drink all weekend nor did I use drugs and I also didn’t hurt myself or others. So in my mind the recipe was a success. Sure, I would like to feel magically fabulous with all of my hurt gone but staying sober and relatively sane was good enough. Hell it was a miracle. I recently talked to a sober homie of mine and we both agreed that drinking right now and being “out there” right now would be a nightmare.

As far as me and this country goes, it’s one day at time like everything else. It’s acceptance, like everything else. It’s love and tolerance, like everything else. And it’s also plane tickets. Late Friday night, my husband purchased our flights for a long-brewing trip to Europe. Because when the going gets tough, the tough make a recipe for self-care and the tough also get going to Paris.

A New Gratitude

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You are really concerned about Thanksgiving. I’ve seen your dozens of posts about its racism, pilgrims and gluttony. These are all really important discussions. Likewise, I find all of the seasonal slideshows about stuffing, pie and potatoes to be equally important. Your thoughts on this holiday are valid but without sounding like a dick: if these are your only thoughts on Thanksgiving, you are doing it wrong. The delicious filling on the inside of this turkey-football-inception-puzzle-holiday is gratitude. Sorry ’bout it Hokey Pokey, but gratitude is what it’s actually all about. By all means, groan at this very word and whilst you do so, listen to Ms. Patti LaBelle. Please enjoy the hats and earrings.

See, I told you. Everything goes down better with shoulder pads and drum machines. Even concepts like gratitude. Look, I get it: the idea feels beaten to death. Rightfully so, as our culture currently offers a warped and syrupy expression of gratitude. There’s 6,001 inspirational gratitude memes (none of which I will post because I love you). There’s an underdeveloped but widely spread idea that if you’re just grateful for what you have a magical gift basket of your heart’s desires will show up on your doorstep. And how could we forget the tweets using #grateful for the most annoying superficial things? Yet if we clear away all of the lame ass Pinterest sentiment, gratitude is actually some badass shit. Turns out, science agrees with me too.

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The Greater Good Center at Berkeley is filled with neuroscientists, sociologists and psychologists who’ve “launched a $3 million research initiative to expand the scientific understanding of gratitude, particularly in the key areas of health and well-being, developmental science, and social contexts.” Clearly, this group of smarties thinks gratitude is something worth investing in. So far, the research is already paying off. According to the website:

They’re finding that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits:
Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure;
Higher levels of positive emotions;
More joy, optimism, and happiness;
Acting with more generosity and compassion;
Feeling less lonely and isolated.

Tal Ben-Sharar, who taught Harvard’s most popular course on happiness agrees too. One of his six keys to happiness is to, “Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.” In fact, it was his book Happier which I stumbled on back in 2010 while housesitting, that blew my brain open and catapulted me into my own gratitude practice.

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When I was drinking, I remember watching a mid-2000’s episode of Oprah (which were the best in the craziest way possible. I could write 2,500 words on the Hermes episode alone) where she said she always wrote down 5 things she was grateful for before bed. It sounded like a brilliant idea and I probably even told people I started doing it too. But the reality was Oprah was a billionaire with lots of things to be grateful for and I was a drunken coke whore who was waiting tables. Coming up with 5 things back then was certainly a challenge. Still, it stuck in my brain so when Happier fell into my lap, I started making a daily list.

Keep in mind, I’m an addict so even my  early gratitude lists were excessive. 25 things every day along with 30 minutes of meditation. Apparently, I was trying to win some Best In Spirituality ribbon. However, binging on gratitude and meditation wasn’t exactly sustainable. Luckily, the practice morphed. First, a sponsee and I started texting our gratitude lists. Soon, my sponsor and I started sharing our gratitude lists in a private thread on Facebook. It was whittled down to five things. They were written with intention and I did it every single day for years even after I moved away from my sobriety family in Los Angeles to Denver. The list and ritual with it soon moved onto the people I’ve sponsored. And lo and behold, it’s been a daily part of my life for nearly 7 years. It’s the closest thing I have to a religion, if I’m totally honest.

Listen, I really don’t know how or why gratitude works. It’s magic and that’s kind of what my whole God spiritual life thing is based on. I don’t have any specific religious God defined. I just think the magic of the universe and all things I can’t explain fall under the God umbrella and it works for me. I do know that whatever bullshit I’m grappling with seems pretty incidental when I’m able to write down a few things that made my day easier or put a smile on my face. Sometimes, just horrible days being over is something to be grateful for. Gratitude has even managed to carry me through hard times. When I’ve struggled, muscling through and finding something, anything to be grateful my outlook transforms. Anger, sadness, depression all have been loosened when I focus on what’s amazing in my life and let go. Ditto with poor health. I’m no Berkeley grad but based on my last doctor’s visit, I can tell you my blood pressure is low and I feel pretty fantastic so I gotta believe gratitude (along with some decent choices) has certainly helped. Therefore, I guess it’s only natural like as gratitude has changed me, my idea of gratitude has recently changed too.

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As I was getting ready to write this, I was listening to Alanis, as one does in sorts of research situations. My current idea of gratitude was right there as sung by a 90’s Canadian songstress:

Thank you terror
Thank you disillusionment
Thank you frailty
Thank you consequence
Thank you thank you silence

That was it! When I started this practice it was all about just the sunny, wonderful things that made my life better. Yet as I listened to this song I realized, it ain’t really just about that anymore. Today, I am also grateful for the fucked up stuff too. I’m grateful for loss, for moments of darkness and yes even for situations that feel horrible and utterly hopeless. Like homegirl said, terror, frailty, disillusionment– all of it. Crazy but it’s the honest to god’s truth because I know that the healing and wisdom gained from hard times is immeasurable and something to be thankful for. Sure, I’d like that daily list to always be filled with rainbows and life-changing pieces of chocolate cake but being grateful for heartache and sadness is even more powerful.

Thus tomorrow, on Thanksgiving day, I’ll write my gratitude list as always. It’s not lost on me that I’m lucky to even be alive and celebrating Thanksgiving so that will certainly cross my mind. As will the people I’m grateful to have known who aren’t here this year. Not being drunk on holidays always makes the list. Then the list will move onto lovely things like hugs, my cats and mashed potatoes. But by taking 3 minutes to realize that everything doesn’t suck, the holiday becomes something incredibly special to me.

And then if I’m really lucky, I get to wake up on Friday and write a new list all over again.

swim toward the light

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Wander around on a dark beach with two sweet ladies from West Texas long enough and you’re bound to find something miraculous. That or you’ll twist your ankle, whatever comes first. Nevertheless, that’s what I found myself doing on Friday night. While most tourists were shaking their stuff at local nightclubs, the husband, the aforementioned Texans, myself and a guide were wandering around a Puerto Vallarta beach in the dark. The task at hand? Sea turtles. Baby ones, to be exact. The husband saw the “awwww!” look on my face when he mentioned a tour that worked with a sea turtle rescue and responded by booking said tour. From July to about December, big mama sea turtles pop up all over the shores of Puerto Vallarta, kinda like American tourists but better dressed. That guy I married and I often say to one another,”It’ll be an adventure.” This can apply to going into a really sketchy looking discount store or waiting in line at the post office or, in this case, helping sea turtles.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: sea turtles who have been doing their thang on the shores of the planet for thousands of years certainly know what the hell they’re doing so why do they need people to help them? Thanks to our polluting and generally destructive asses, sea turtles are in trouble. So if we can make laying more eggs easier, protect those eggs and then help these little infants back into the ocean, we can hopefully grow the species as a whole and therefore reverse a teeny bit of the fuckery we’ve caused these poor creatures by ruining their oceans and hunting them.

Our five person turtle loving brigade walked along a stretch of beach populated by posh hotels and the obligatory white people who come along with them. Our mission? To see if we could find any mammas laying eggs. The tour doesn’t promise you’ll see this phenomenon and wisely so. These mothers are on their own schedule and won’t pop ’em out just so some family from Pomona can snap photos for their Instagram pages. But we optimistically trudged along the sand anyway. It was warm and quiet, the kind of beach quiet you can buy if you’ve got enough cash. I’m more of a hustle and bustle type so we were staying in a part of the city that actually looked like Mexico and less like glamour Burbank by the sea. After no sighting and with one of our Texas ladies exhaustedly taking solace under a tiki covered patio, we started to head back to the nursery. It wasn’t going to be a complete wash. The rescue had set aside a bucket of flapping baby sea turtles that we could release when we returned.

As we walked, we ran into a 40-something Owen Wilson type and his equally blonde girlfriend crouched down in the sand with flashlights. The pair, along with some Solo cup clenching randoms, had stumbled on a hatching nest of baby sea turtles. Hundreds of them, as a matter of fact. Their ingenious but totally uninvolved mother buries the eggs by the dozens in the sand so when they hatch they spring up, in the words of our guide, “like popcorn.” And boy did they. The little guys kept crawling out of the sand, one by one. The minute you thought it had to be the end of this adorable family reunion, a bunch more would show up with sand covered heads and their itty bitty slits-for-eyes just barely opened. We’d pick them up and place them in the bucket, seen below. With their funny flapping arms and soft rubbery shells,  I fell in love about 300 times that night  as I placed them gently in this plastic waiting room before they went out into the world by themselves.

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We were instructed not to use our flash as turtles use the light of the moon to guide them and a bunch of flashing lights could really disorient the little fellas. All on their own and without parents, these babies would learn to swim, eat and come back to shores like this one. It was all instinct and mystery and had nothing to do with me. What our group of five could do was help them out of the bucket. Turtle by turtle, we watched them flap, stumble and march towards the surf like little soldiers. In fact, they were off to quite the battle. Our guide informed us, because of predators, mainly shady birds which we saw earlier in the night nibbling on turtle eggs, only one in one hundred would survive. Our guide stood in the tide holding her flashlight acting as a beacon to hopefully direct turtle traffic into the water.”They’ll swim towards the light,”she said and gosh darn it despite being only alive for a few moments they did precisely that. Waves rushed in and swooped some of them in the water. Others walked with purpose into the ocean. And a few more sort of meandered, taking their time and often required additional help getting near the water. I think we know which group I identified with.

As we wished them well on their journey, it struck me that really none of our odds are very good but somehow some of us make it. If you’ve beat cancer, you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve come back from the brink of mental illness, you know what I’m talking about. And if, like me, you’ve somehow managed to stay sober you know what I’m talking about. Over the last nearly eight years, I know I’ve had tons of people help me out of metaphorical plastic buckets, brush the sand off me and guide me towards the light. My chance for survival if I try to do anything alone are not very damn good.  Hobbling along alone in the dark, whether human or sea turtle, fucking sucks. Sure, instinct will help a turtle out but we people? We need one another.

2016 has felt like a never-ending process of me swimming towards the light. Despite darkness, difficulty and a brain that really wants to uses drugs and drink until it explodes, I’ve somehow kept swimming. From job stuff and life stuff to Orlando and the election to the recent death of my grandmother, the battle to fend off depression and addiction and alcoholism has kept me on my muthafucking toes this year. Any more time on my toes and the damn Bolshoi will be calling me. Yet it’s all part of the gig called life. A gig I’m lucky to have.

Our trip back to the nursery got delayed–twice. The not-guaranteed-but-wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if sighting of a mother turtle laying eggs happened! Two gals, one successful and one who sort of fell asleep during the process and didn’t really seal the deal (again, I identify), laid eggs. Just like that: more little lives, more daunting odds and more trips towards the light were set in motion. The whole journey humbled me and my own does too. It puts a lump in my throat when I think about how many people have held up the light for me. Inexplicably, dozens of folks in person, online and even people I don’t know have lit the way and told me to keep swimming. If you’re reading this, you are probably one of those people. Thank you for that. Seriously. I cannot do any of this alone. I’ve felt so much love in the most trying and horrible times of this year, it truly knocks me out. Like those little guys on the beach in Mexico, I could do it by myself but your help makes it a fuck ton easier.

And just so you know, I’d gladly stumble around in the dark and hold up the light for you too.

cat hugs, drag queens & everything in between

Today’s question: If a sad tree weeps in the forest do the other trees go and get chocolate?sad tree.jpg

I ask because on Friday, I was a sad tree. Maybe sad is the wrong word. There’s some legitimately sad people in this world who have earned their sadness. On the Syrian orphan scale of sadness, I didn’t even register. No, I was just kind of ‘blah.’ I woke up blah. The things around me felt blah. Projects I’d been ticking away on suddenly felt blah. I just felt down which morphed into being vaguely (okay, totally) annoyed with most things and people around me. In other words, I was a delight. I have,however, acquired enough emotional intelligence to know that when I feel like this, I’m usually just tired and I need to go away. Like far away from human contact where I won’t say or do horrible things I need to clean up later. It had been a weird Friday and my tiredness was squishing it all up and making it even more irritating. Earlier in the day, I had gotten “one of those phone calls.” See, if you’re in recovery and around addicts and alcoholics, you get to see people whose lives were in shambles and now have totally transformed. But other times, you get “one of those phone calls.”These calls usually involve someone who has relapsed or died because of the disease of alcohol or addiction. On Friday, I got one of these phone calls. It was a relative of someone in my sober family and it sucked. And it always sucks. It never stops sucking, as a matter of fact. You’re heartbroken but also really grateful that you are not in that place and that you have tools to keep you out of that place. But that takes awhile. And the feeling of devastation never really goes away. Compacted with the general blahness that my Friday was already flavored with, I was pretty over it. It was days like this that reminded me that I should maybe start seeing a therapist again. But given the late hour in the day, I was lucky to at least have this goofball waiting at home.

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Look, my love for my cats and for Larry in particular is well chronicled on the internet. And I straight up don’t care. You don’t have to search far to find oodles of studies that say living with an animal can help with mild depression and as person with mild or sometimes  even spicy depression, I can attest to this. Animals are just a fuck ton cooler than people. They don’t want to hear your life story. They aren’t judging the crazy outfit you put together. They just want to hang out. Now, being the big animal weirdo that I am, I’m convinced they know when you aren’t okay. Like last year when I had the 10 week party known as pneumonia, our two little muffins, Maeby and Larry followed me around the house like doting nurses. Promptly showing up for every nap time and popping by for soup and terrible daytime tv on the sofa. So like clockwork on Friday, these two were there. During my “Thank God It’s Over” Friday afternoon nap, Larry stretched his lanky long legs across my belly while resting his head on my chest. True, he probably just thought I looked like a good pillow but I like to think of these as cat hugs. I refuse to see it any other way, actually. It feels deliberate and intentional or that is how my crazy ass has interpreted it, and so it’s a cat hug. End of discussion. He purred melodically and wouldn’t let me roll over and I leaned into it. Moreover, I needed it.

Post nap time, I watched some weird ass PBS news thing, as dictated more by my status as an older, liberal gay man than an actual desire. I grilled some amazing eggplant, ate said eggplant along with roasted red peppers and couscous and watched more unmemorable television. Soon, however, the husband showed up. He was at a post-work drinks kind of thing and didn’t get home until much later. But it wasn’t too late for drag queens. Like clockwork and like my cats, the television oeuvre of RuPaul was here to save the day.

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As the planet of pop culture knows already, RuPaul and several seasons of drag queen television fierceness have made the world a better place. Endlessly creative, completely glamorous, instantly quotable and hilarious, surprisingly inclusive and highly addictive, RuPaul’s Drag Race is, as the Washington Post recently said, not just a tv show but a movement.  The latest incarnation of the show, All Stars 2 pits former season favorites against one another for a shot at $100,000 while camping it up, posing and lip synching along the way. RuPaul’s Drag Race premiered the year I got sober so it’s always been a touchstone of joy and inspiration for me.  It’s one of the handful of television shows that always lifts me up (even the seasons that aren’t so good, cough, cough season 7, cough,cough.) This latest drag queen battle royale doesn’t disappoint. Filled with big twists, big lips and bigger personalities, it’s all the things you want to order off the Drag Race menu in one place.

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Also incredibly helpful? Marrying someone who cares when you feel blah. It’s a whole new grown up world for me to be married and say, “Today I felt like shit” and to have that person genuinely say, “I’m sorry.” Sounds simple, I suppose but for an emotional kindergartener like myself, it’s major. In fact, just being present for blah days is major. Not that long ago, the minute something felt real or sad or blah, I’d douse it in alcohol so I wouldn’t have to deal with it.

All of this brings us back to the random question at the top of the post and the answer is maybe. Maybe other people will bring you chocolate when you feel blah or maybe not. Maybe you gotta get yo own damn chocolate. Or maybe if you’re like me, you just get to go home. You get to lay down and feel embraced, by felines or friends or family or drag queens or maybe even something you can’t see. Because the real gift is you get to feel terrible, know it’ll pass and know that you’ll have help along the way.

 

Psst! If you’re looking for something to cheer you up, why not try the newest epsiode of Sloshed Cinema here?