Hello, My Name is Human (and so is yours)

(with a nod to this great song by Highly Suspect)

November, 1998: It was a beautiful morning in Buena Vista Park, in the Upper Haight district of San Francisco. The sun was shining, the air clean and crisp… a perfect time and place for a father and his daughter to walk through the park, enjoying the great outside. As they ambled along the path, the young girl saw someone lying in the grass on (and under) some cardboard, appearing to be asleep. The girl, curious, asked why the person was sleeping there. The father responded, “Because they’re a loser and need to get a job. Either that or they just need more coffee. Maybe we should bring them some!” and started laughing. The girl laughed a little, too, and they continued to walk.

I was the person feigning sleep on that cardboard in the park, and I heard every word.

It’s interesting what people say when they think the person in question can’t hear them. Already in a place of deep shame, depression, humiliation, and a strong desire to just not be alive anymore, that overheard conversation served to verify what I’d suspected about myself for years, and it helped carve a larger space in which I could nestle and roost in those feels. I’d been attempting to survive on the streets for a month, but I’d been addicted for the 3-4 years leading up to it, and if there’s one thing an addict knows, it’s the feeling of being unworthy and less-than. Sub-human, even.

Shame.

Brené Brown is a shame and vulnerability researcher, and if you haven’t read any of her books, I highly and strongly recommend you do. Read all of them, and start at the beginning (The Gifts of Imperfection is my favorite). But if you only choose one, I’d say to pick up her latest, “Braving the Wilderness.” I say this without having finished reading it yet (I’m working on it!), but in there, she offers up four paths to true belonging; to being bravely and wonderfully ourselves. She makes it clear that we cannot experience true connection or full acceptance and belonging until we show our genuine selves to the world.

I bring this up because one of paths begins with, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” It reminds me of the father and his daughter as they walked through the park that day. The father had a choice in that moment: to be kind, to lean in, to empathize and to share some real insight with his daughter about the world, about humanity. To encourage connection. Instead, he chose the other path: derision, sarcasm, and judgement.

I genuinely believe these choices are what lie on either side of fear. If we find that we’re afraid or unsure of the unknown – like addiction, or mental illness, or homelessness – it can be easy to let that fear take us to a place of judgement. To “otherizing” that person in order to grant ourselves some semblance of feeling control over our own destiny. “That would NEVER happen to me.” Right? But from that fear and uncertainty, we have another option: to move in, as Dr. Brown recommends. To understand, to empathize, and to ask how we can help. This helps drive connection with those who are suffering, and who may simply be in desperate need of a kind and loving heart to shine bright enough to light their way to the other side of the struggle.

And I find myself thinking about all this after watching a video of a woman from Kentucky who is faced with no choice but to stop her dialysis because she can’t afford to get there and back 3x a week, and is dependent on Medicare and Medicaid for her healthcare – which is currently under near constant threat by our administration. You should watch the video, and then tell me you don’t feel something in the depths of your stomach, heart, and throat for this woman who you’ve never met, and likely never will.

I guess the question is, do you feel empathy and compassion, or do you feel disgust and derision?

In case you’re wondering, I fall firmly in the empathy & compassion camp. I don’t know how you can watch it and not see the pain in her eyes and the desperation (but also, the resignation) in her voice. There is no doubt in my mind that this country has the power and resources to take care of every single person in it, comfortably and compassionately and comprehensively, without it negatively impacting anyone else or causing a lack of resources in other ways. We just have to prioritize that, instead of buckling down in fear of losing what little we have. The powers that be have convinced us there is scarcity, and they do this because it continues to line their pockets as we all move further in the other direction of struggle.

I think it all starts with getting back to in-person connections. The internet enables us to stay connected, but there is something significantly lacking in those interactions: the humanity of each other. We all need to start holding hands more, talking in person more, listening more, letting our guard down more and getting real and vulnerable and brave more.

I don’t believe in god, but I do believe in the common connection we all share, just by being alive. There’s room for all of us.

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Ding dong, the witch is dead.

Every year about this time, I reflect on where I was – WHO I was – in November of 1998. For those of you just tuning in: I was an IV drug user, addicted to heroin, cocaine, and anything else I could find… and for a brief time, I was homeless on the streets of San Francisco.

I’ve told the story of Thanksgiving, when I sat in the rain in Golden Gate Park, eating food prepared for the homeless by a Latinx family who spoke little to no English, who wanted simply to feed everyone they could. I’ve talked about knowing my sister, her (future) husband, and their/our friends were having dinner together just miles away in Oakland; knowing I was invited, and also knowing I was too full of shame to attend. Thankfully, it wasn’t much longer after Thanksgiving that I finally had enough, finally hit the low emotional point where I was ready to accept the consistent, gentle, and loving offers to help from my family… finally willing to admit I deserved to live, and that somewhere deep down, I still wanted to.

I’ve told the story about being in the throes of addiction, spending time in a relationship with another junkie who made it clear he was in love with someone else, but who continued to spend his time with me unless/until she opened the door for him to come back, even temporarily. He lived with me when I was still able to keep a roof over my head; ours was a partnership of desperation and despair. I remember once writing the words, “please help me” on a piece of paper and sticking it in a book, hoping the message would somehow float out into the universe.

I find it fitting that I would look for a solution in a book, considering it’s where I’ve found so many of them, before and since.

But it’s that apartment I keep thinking about. I’d taken it over from my sister when she moved across the bay to live with her dude; I thought if I did that, I’d stop spending money on drugs, and instead use it to afford a home in a great neighborhood. But good intentions and wishes can never overpower a demon or disease; in this case, I was suffering from both, and my only hope was a wholesale revolution of self, which wouldn’t come until much later.

I lost that apartment when I couldn’t afford to pay the rent, and when my family discovered the extent of my drug use. I was taken to treatment, where I lasted all of about 4-5 days. That’s when reality hit. When the bad feelings started to crop up. And I don’t just mean the dope sickness, which in and of itself is panic-inducing and enough to make anyone run to the hills in search of something – anything – to not have to feel it anymore. Instead, it was the thoughts and the feelings and everything else I’d been working to numb and avoid… THAT was what had me climbing the walls, unable to focus on anything else but my misery and the one thing I knew would fix it, even while exacerbating it everywhere else. When you get to that point, repercussions don’t matter. How you’re affecting other people doesn’t matter. The possibility of overdose and death really don’t matter… in fact, the possibility of death seems almost a sweet reprieve, even when you’re absolutely not seeking it out with intention.

So, after those 4-5 days in treatment, I walked out. I knew I had money waiting for me in a bank account, certainly enough to get high for a week or two, and then I’d figure it out. I didn’t know what “figure it out” meant, nor did I care; you live in the moment when you’re in that frame of mind. It’s mindfulness of the worst and most desperate kind.

It’s funny, though. I wouldn’t “spare change” people… I wouldn’t steal from stores to eat or sell things for drug money… I wouldn’t prostitute myself… so, I had limits in how I was willing to survive on the streets. And those limits rendered me essentially useless. I ate out of a few garbage cans here and there, but mostly I just didn’t eat. I didn’t bathe for a month that I can remember. I smoked other peoples’ cigarette butts out of public ashtrays. I slept in parks. I terrorized my family, manipulating and lying to them to get them to send money so I could eat, but mostly so I could keep buying drugs.

Eventually, I met up with a guy named Mark. I’d met Mark through my ex several months prior; he became something of a guide for me during my short time on the streets, helping me survive a little longer. He was the closest thing to a friend I had out there, and I’m grateful for the protection he offered when I needed it. It was a rare thing, to find someone in a similar situation and to actually be able to trust them. At least for a little while, anyway; I guess at some point, it might eventually get back to “everyone for themselves.” out of necessity, but I wasn’t out there long enough for that to happen.

On what turned out to be my last night on the streets, I’d joined up with Mark to buy drugs and to find somewhere safe and dry for the night. It was dark, with a light rain falling; we trudged through the streets of the Upper Haight, and finally came to a place where Mark said he knew we could crash for the night.

It was my old apartment building.

But we weren’t going IN the building… we were going UNDER it.

He’d found a crawlspace, accessible from the street; we proceeded to crawl, wriggle, and otherwise navigate our way to a spot just big enough for a few people to stretch out. We were lying on the earth, building belly as our sky. I remember, even then, finding bittersweet and sour humor – is it irony? – in the fact that what was once my home, meant to envelop me, was now a big, dark, looming beast essentially landing on top of me.

Like the house on the wicked witch… only this was all self-inflicted.

In a way, it was a poetic end, right? The house done killed the witch, alright… but the house was, in fact, still a home. It was a beacon of what was possible, what was out there if I fought for it and let people help me get there. And the witch was my addiction; it didn’t fully die for a few years after that, reappearing as a spectre or yet another death rattle in other kinds of behaviors and actions and thoughts and things that just needed time to work themselves out. Like cutting off a chicken’s head… the body is still gonna do its thing for a bit.

Getting sober is a lot like that. You can take away the substances, and that’s cool, but then you’ve got a holy shit pile of thought patterns and behaviors and survival skills and defense mechanisms and dysfunctional programming to undo. Addiction doesn’t just HAPPEN… and neither does recovery.

I’m not sober anymore, and haven’t been for 12 or 13 years, I guess. I took the absolutely necessary time of being sober, did the work as best I could, kept and employed the tools I learned in AA… and now, I have wine with dinner, or the occasional cocktail out on the town, and there’s no fear of me returning to where I was. Not everyone is like that, and I think it’s a huge mistake to assume anyone else could “do sobriety” like me and have it work out exactly the same. We are the sum of our own experiences, and it doesn’t mean I’m better or worse – just different in what works for me. I still go to therapy regularly, all these years later; I’m hyper-vigilant when it comes to self-introspection, evaluation, and assessment. I constantly take personal inventory, because it’s how I’m wired. And I think that, more than anything, is what keeps me alive and thriving.

Here’s to another year of reflection and gratitude. The further away it gets, the more surreal it all seems; but I wouldn’t be who I am if it weren’t for everything I’ve been through. And you know… I like who I am, so I’ll take it.

Driving it home.

One of my co-workers died of an overdose this past week.

I’m finding that I don’t really know the “right” way or the best way or the most respectful or honoring or correct way to talk about this, or if I should even talk about it at all. But as is often the case in death, we evaluate how we, the living, are impacted. In working for an agency that provides addiction recovery services for women, and in being a woman who battled my own addictions years ago, who spent a lot of time in the rooms with a lot of other fellow battlers, a lot of my own personal connections were made with her loss. A lot of tender spots were troubled.

She was a former client who’d gone through one of our programs and then came to work with/for us. I remember meeting with her on her first day of work, and there were times over her tenure that I helped her with various IT-related things. The last time I saw her was in the lobby of our building; she noticed my back tattoo and came over to pull my shirt back and take a look. She loved it, and said so, and it was a sweet moment quickly interrupted by the usual chaos of the reception desk.

We had an all-staff meeting to talk about her loss, to open up the discussion to everyone struggling, honoring the different ways we all grieve. Grace was asked for and given. It was absolutely the best way to address something like this, considering our line of work, our relationships with her and each other, and knowing how many would be impacted. Having counselors on staff who could address the important parts, and calling in a therapist from our EAP to be available for anyone in need, helped.

But the most touching and important part was when someone relayed a story of the last time she’d seen her. She (the storyteller, who I’ll call G) was at a desk, head down, doing some work. Our co-worker called G’s name, and G acknowledged it without looking up. She called G’s name again, this time prompting her to look up and see tears running down our co-worker’s face. She was struggling, and sad, and asked G for a hug. G took the time to remind her of how loved and important she is, how much she matters to so many people. Our co-worker said something to the effect of, “I wish I could believe it.”

I remember saying, thinking, and feeling that exact same thing the day I walked out of treatment the first time. I’d made up my mind that I wasn’t done yet, that I wasn’t worthy of sobriety, that I wasn’t ready and wasn’t loved and wasn’t meant for anything other than the drugs that were waiting for me on the other side. After a few days with nothing in my system, I was panicking at everything I was thinking and feeling, but at the same time, it was like nothing could penetrate the walls I’d erected. Some of the staff and clients tried to talk me out of leaving, telling me they loved me and wanted me to stay. I remember crying tears of resolution and defeat as I said, “I hear what you’re saying – I just can’t FEEL it.”

I am fortunate to have survived after going back out; not everyone does.

When I learned of her passing this week, I was immediately transported back to the time when I was sober, going to meetings, working the steps, trudging the road to happy destiny with so many other strugglers and survivors. I remember learning that someone from my home group had relapsed; he went out drinking, passed out outside, and he froze to death. I thought of my friend Paul who I met in the 3/4 house I lived in for 15 months after treatment. He was close to a cherished ex back then, and I’d been grateful to reconnect; I was supposed to visit him in NY about five years ago, but when I went to reach out on Facebook to talk about plans, I learned that he’d died two nights earlier. And then all of our conversations prior to that made a lot more sense; the struggle I’d detected underneath the bravado and humor he’d done his best to maintain.

Somewhere along the way, I got used to learning of people dying from their addictions, and I think that’s what hit me the hardest of all. I don’t want to get used to this. I don’t want to be numbed to the fact that this shit is hard, and scary, and real. It may just be one of my own defense mechanisms, to protect me from re-living just how close I’m sure I came to meeting my own demise. And when I think about that time in my life and compare it to the beautiful life I have now… well, I breathe an enormous, anxious, guilty sigh of relief that I’ve managed to overcome.

Not everyone gets there.

Addiction is different for everyone who goes through it. What gets you there, what keeps you there, and what gets you out of it – if you get out of it alive or at all – is unique to every single person who experiences it. I’ve been asked what I think it is that got me through it; I can attribute some of it to having a solid, loving family; some of it to doing all the hard work I’ve done (and continue to do) emotionally and spiritually; some of it to the people I met and loved along the way who showed me how to live; and some of it to pure, dumb-ass luck.

But because it’s unique, there’s no one cause, no one simple fix. And it is horribly unfair, unrealistic, and simplistic to make sweeping generalizations about addiction, or the people who live it. I am able to drink wine these days without fear of falling back into using heroin or cocaine or methamphetamines, but that doesn’t mean I get to rest on my laurels with the emotional work I’m doing, and it doesn’t mean I’m “cured” or that anyone else could or would have my same experience. And because of that, I will absolutely spend my life correcting those faulty assumptions people make about addiction, because those assumptions can be damaging – even deadly.

All of this to say… I could have been her. And to me, the heartbreaking part is she could have been me. It took a really long time, and a lot of devoted, loving friends, family, and now, Carter, to hold presence and remind me how loved and lovable I am. It took years of undoing all the self-loathing and insecurity and fears I’d amassed. There are still moments where I can’t feel it, can’t believe it, and need to be reminded, but those moments are few and far between, and I have the confidence, wisdom, and trust that they’ll pass. They always do. And I think that’s the golden spot we all strive to reach; not perfect confidence that never waivers, but unearthing and amplifying that little voice that tells you to just hold on until the hard parts pass.