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.