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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

out of service

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It all started by a waterfall with cliff divers.  Okay and there was also a mariachi band and a large orange monkey. There was also magicians, an old drunk couple with guitars and the gloppy enchiladas that should probably be considered a hate crime against Mexico. Little red flags popped up and me and a bevy of other teenagers would magically appear with chips and salsa and sopapillas (this puffy, fired dough pillow creation best eaten at mouth scorching temperatures and drizzled with honey.) Later, they’d tear me away from all of this glamorous action and sequester me to a hot steamy kitchen where my loud thin Vietnamese manager Hong would yell at me, “Do something!” Suffice to say, I didn’t last very long.

Yep, it all started nearly 30 years ago when I was 15 and working at a ridiculous Mexican restaurant/theme park/Denver anomaly called Casa Bonita. The “it” in question is my almost 30 year on and off again career of waiting tables, working behind retail registers and dealing with the general public. These restaurant/retail gigs have always made for good money makers while I’ve persued drugs or writing or getting sober. Now at age 44, my time behind the counter and I’m sad to report by fake waterfalls with cliff divers has come to an end.

While I won’t say, “I’ll never go back!” to working in cafes, shops or restaurants, I will say for the time being it looks like that chapter of my life is officially done. On Saturday, I said goodbye to the part-time gig I’ve had since I moved to Portland at a culinary shop/cooking class hub. While aspects of it were fun, I did feel a little like the daytime stripper way past her prime. Bitter, slow and armed with one liners ripe for any possible thing that could come up, it became clear that my time in this arena had run its course. The fact that no one got stabbed and my sobriety remained in tact means my time there was success. My new adventure, working as a peer counselor for the State of Oregon will put in me in an entirely different realm of the word service but will certainly take me out of this weird wonderful, fucked up world that I have known since my teen years.

It’s an over-simplification of the highest order and a snap judgement anyone can and has made probably any time they’ve left their house, I can confirm that people are the worst. Entitled, rude, awkward, racist, homophobic, cheap, dishonest, mean-spirited and generally awful, people put it all out there when their shopping and eating out. I also happen to be people too so I know this is true for myself as well. We like to think “everyone’s doing the best they can” but I’d argue that when we’re shopping or eating out that we are often on autopilot and the first things to evaporate are our common sense, manners and general non-shittiness. Like we don’t go places with the intentions of being awful but we don’t exactly set out into the world with the opposite intention either. However, I will say after you’ve worked with the public long enough, you no longer flinch when cray-cray shit flies out of their mouths. Somewhere around Year 500 of me working with the public, I developed a protective shield, one that kept me free from reaction while also making everything and everyone seem funny, human and really not that bad. Naturally curious and nosey, I do actually like talking to people, the big weirdos. So as I took on these gigs in sobriety I was able to have fun with them and promptly forget them when I went home.

Back when I was waiting tables, a friend once optimistically chirped, “But as a writer waiting tables must be a great insight into people, right?”  I’m sure I agreed and muddled sure, sure, sure then followed it up by some insightful, funny story about customers. Yet now I’m not so sure. After all, it’s a micro-glimpse into their lives and not really who they are. Yet I will say as a person who loves to write dialogue, working with the public has been invaluable. Plus, people are really vulnerable(read: insane) when they’re eating and shopping so you get to see them in a heightened state which is great for dramatic purposes. Yet for all the drama and all the years waiting tables only a few good stories remain and they are simplistic at best. Here are a few of the most memorable:

That time I waited on Isabella Rossellini. For obvious reasons– duh!

That time I watched a sleazy guy cut his girlfriend’s steak for her. Despite watching people vomit or get in fights, this sticks in my brain as one of the grossest and oddest things I ever saw waiting tables. I don’t know why but it’s forever lodged in my conscience.

That time I got to escort Harrison Ford backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. Harrison. Goddamn. Ford.

That time a customer posted a negative Yelp review of the place I worked at and singled out my shitty, snotty attitude. She wasn’t wrong.

That time I got to send clothes to Cher’s house for her to try on and she in turn sent me a signed cd.

That time I helped Roseanne pick out body glitter and punk rock records.

That time a couple had sex in the changing room at a boutique I worked at.

That time Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks sang Happy Birthday to her friend at the restaurant I worked at.

That time Rene Russo ate in our restaurant while her kids ate Domino’s in her car.

That time I got hit on by a customer at lunch and later hooked up with him in between shifts.

That time a D-List actor rudely yapped on his cell phone and ignored his 4 year-old kid while dining at my work. He even left the kid(!!) alone while he went to the ATM and he didn’t tip.

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That time, despite being really high/drunk I actually made a lot of money. Okay. That was most of the time.

Did I mention Isabella Rossellini already? The point is the fodder isn’t nearly as juicy as you might think. And without the celebrity sightings the cache of my illustrious customer service career completely bombs. I’ve mainly learned that people want to be heard, people want to be noticed and people shouldn’t be fucked with if they’re hungry. Also, this makeshift career of helping other people has oddly opened the door for me to want to help them even more, beyond bringing dessert menus or helping them pick out body glitter.

Service, as fate would have it, is a necessary part of my recovery. At nearly 9 years into this jam, I am constantly on the hunt for new ways to be of service. They say helping others keeps people like me out of our heads and I am all for that. Thus my new career and even writing have pushed me into a life less about Sean. Or at least that’s my hope. Plus, if all else fails I can return to this old wacky world. That’s the thing. Once you’ve conquered it you can do it anywhere and at anytime.

Meet me by the waterfall and I’ll bring you some menus.

 

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.

 

 

 

love’s labor day lost?

 

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Work. Werk. Waherk. However you say it, we all do it. It’s the one thing we all have in common. We are all simultaneously either looking for it, loving it, tolerating it or having it rob our soul while seeking for more tolerable versions of it. It’s the classic conversational cop-out we use when we don’t know what to talk about. It’s ultimately not that important but important in the whole gotta eat and keep the lights on kind of way. It’s the thing that Americans are accused of by others of doing too much of while being the thing we give one another a hard time about doing not enough of. So fittingly we’d have a holiday centered around the thing we do the most.

This thing called Labor Day started in the late 1800’s and according to our government is,”is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” Impressive, right? Who knew I wasn’t just working to buy sparkling water and greek yogurt but actually contributing to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country? I guess I’m really doing my part by working on Labor Day. You’re welcome, America. Yeah as the chips fall, your buddy Sean won’t be doing whatever the hell it is people do to celebrate Labor Day. Sidebar: is it okay to say “Happy Labor Day!”? I never know with these things. Probably not so much with Memorial Day and don’t even go there with Christmas. But Labor Day? Seems innocuous enough. Unless you have to work, like I do, wherein you may be met with a big “Fuck you!” in response to your Labor Day tidings. But don’t worry. I will gladly accept your Labor Day well wishes. Suffice to say, I don’t experience FOMO when it comes to these types of Federal Monday holiday off events.

In fact, I tried to scan my brain for some witty/heartwarming/amazing story from the cranial archive about Labor Day and I came up with nada. I’m sure there’s a story somewhere in there that involves day drinking, cocaine snorting and generally celebrating my contribution to the well-being of our country but for now it’s buried, like the secrets in Al Capone’s vault. Which is fine as most of those stories, be it Labor Day, New Year’s Day, a Tuesday at 11am in April, are all interchangeable. The older I get and the more sobriety I have, I realize I don’t have to celebrate everything. Not only was Prince correct in saying that life is just a party that isn’t meant to last but sometime’s the party that life is celebrating is one you don’t even feel like you need to show up to. I’m okay with working today. Moreover, my ideas about work and what it means have morphed beyond the realm of celebrating with hot dogs and beer.

Now, I in no way, have found some inner peace with work and love every task put in front of me. Quite the contrary. Honestly, I’m still holding out for someone to pay me six figures to tweet and hang out with my cats. But until then, I’m okay with working. This idea of “work” has changed for me. It’s not all hardships and pains in the ass nor is it always a fulfilling and spiritual experience. Most of the time, it’s just work. Usually, its other sorts of work (read: largely unpaid) that are the most satisfying. When I wrote my first play, I was on an insane deadline which is what happens when you pitch an idea and are then expected to execute said idea (who knew?!). The bulk of the show came together between the hours of 11pm-3am. It was a play about Craigslist romances so I guess those hours were appropriate. Anyway, during that time after several late night sessions in a row I remember my husband saying,”Wow. I’m proud of you.You’re really working hard on this.” Other than people coming to see the show or laughing at the jokes, this was the best compliment I’d received. I was doing something I love and it was paying off, even if it didn’t make me rich. More recently, I’ve been doing “work” of the recovery nature and the benefits of that have been felt too. After a long personal inventory and the subsequent spilling of the guts, I exhaled. I mean really exhaled. Like a huge weight had been lifted and I was about 10 pounds lighter. I was also raw, sore and exhausted, like you would be after anything you’d consider hard work. I’m also, slowly but surely, moving away from this idea that work is something that has to be hard.

Take writing, for example. Whether it’s my own projects, writing for clients or sometimes even a damn email, the idea of writing always sounds torturous. I mean isn’t having clever ideas enough? Do I really have to put them on the page, too? Ugh. I guess that’s not very writerly of me to say. I guess I’m supposed to perpetuate some myth that every time I sit down at the computer it’s all genius and magic and that you too should try writing because it’s a ton of fun! And yeah those things can be true but a lot of time it’s just hard. Especially if my attitude sucks. If I sit down with “a gloom and doom, forget this” outlook, the output will be much the same. When thinking about a project it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed if I think how long it will take and how much work it will require. And this is how I’ve landed on my current remedy for that problem: don’t think about it at all. Like, of course, I have some ideas and I’m always scribbling down notes but I’m more productive if I just sit down and cut loose. If I give myself a break and tell perfectionism to kindly go screw itself, something real and honest might just have a chance to peek its way out. This blog was sort of birthed from that idea, as a matter of fact. Use it as a channel for the stream of consciousness and a place to spew out ideas while talking to myself and not trip about the rest. Hence why sometimes these posts read as though I hired Koko the gorilla as my ghostwriter. It’s also why some of these posts are published at an ungodly hour of the morning. I’ve found that my guard is down and I’m less critical when it’s early in the morning. Without over thinking it, I’m able to really have fun and say whatever is on my mind. There’s something more authentic hanging out here,despite weird grammar or missing words or crazy ideas.It feels truthful to get it all out. Besides, Koko will clean it up later.

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The biggest thing I’ve figured out about work, be it spiritual, writing or the kind that gives me rock star insurance, is that I need it. I’m one of those people if I’m making stuff or working on stuff, I am more pleasant to be around. It’s very Sagittarius of me. If I have things to do and projects to look forward to, I’m less likely to wreak havoc on the human race. Despite my aspirations to become a human mushroom who hangs out in the dark and survives on Netflix alone, I’m grateful I have work that keeps me busy and sane. So think of me as you have your hot dog or do whatever it is you people do on Labor Day and know I’m right where I should be: at work.