In the Weeds: 6/24/2014

“You have a choice. You can’t do this alone. You need a sponsor. Only you can decide not to drink and/or abuse drugs. You have control of your life. Addiction is a disease. You must have a support group. You must have a sponsor. You must not tempt yourself with the presence of alcohol. You have to do the twelve steps to be sober. Give up all financial means to buy alcohol.”

During my first honest and sincere attempt at total sobriety, all this advice swirled in my head in melody of confusion. How could I be the only one to choose not to drink but not be able to do it by myself? If Jesus is the answer to all my addiction problems, then why on earth did he turn water into wine for his first miracle for people who had been drinking for days? Why twelve steps? Why not one? During my visits to Alcoholics Anonymous, I was dumfounded by the swirl of emotions in the people around me. Why did they all identify themselves as alcoholics?

My doctors called it a hereditary disease. My Reverend Father called it a trick of the devil. My Mom didn’t call it anything. My wife threatened, in no uncertain terms, to leave with our son. The people in AA chain smoked cigarettes, drank gallons of coffee and scarfed free doughnuts until I worried they would die from obesity, lung cancer, anxiety and nicotine overdose all at the same time.

A very good friend of mine, a recovered alcoholic, a term that is shunned by most circles of addicts, told me once that it was difficult to shed one addiction without adopting another. Which would I rather die from? Bourbon or doughnuts? Lung cancer or liver failure?

I grew up in coal country, in deep Appalachia, where coal mining was a way of life, along with church, picnics, pig roasts, sorghum squeezing, moonshine and food. Our lives revolved around food. We appreciated what we had. Saying grace before eating had real meaning during my early years, when every meal was shared as a family. We were not allowed to eat in our rooms, or in front of the television, which we didn’t have anyway. I learned to cook early, following my grandmothers, aunts and mom around the kitchen as soon as I could walk – placed strategically on a counter top nearby before I became mobile enough to move about on my own.

Poverty is all too often wrapped in a package that includes drug and alcohol abuse, particularly alcohol. Men would imbibe often in secret, or with one another in the background, outside of churches where preachers shouted hellfire and redemption and trials and tribulations from the pulpit in the stifling summer heat as people fanned themselves and jockeyed for a seat on the front row.

I’d seen more than my share of the effects of coal mining and alcoholism on families. I’d passed the men in Grundy, Virginia who had been crushed in mining accidents yet somehow lived, maimed and crippled, walking with short canes to support the remnants of a life lived too hard. I’d heard of the knife fights, shootings and seen the deadly toll that alcohol had on families, with children passed from family to family as their parents sorted out their inability to control their finances in the up and down cycles which are a way of life in mining.

I’d seen the men come around to collect their money for moonshine, not at my house, but at other places. Unexpected places. A country store that still took script for cash. A fueling station that doubled as a place to gamble, if you wanted. I always thought that drinking would be like making a deal with these men – give me my poison and I will give you my life.

Years later, I found that it was exactly like that, but alcoholism takes much more than that from you. First, you lose your freedom. You can’t travel, go on surprise vacations, or venture too far from your known sources. You begin to lose friends, as you isolate yourself to protect your addiction. You lose money: Cash, then credit cards, then savings, money for clothes, gifts, travel, retirement possessions to sell for more alcohol. Then the unthinkable – you begin to use your loved ones for money. You take all they will give under various pretenses. Then you lose your reputation, your ability to work, find and keep steady employment. You start to lose your family. Your parents distance you as you become more of a liability and embarrassment. You damage your credit with unpaid bills. You frequent different liquor stores in hopes that the clerks won’t recognize you. You lose the respect of your significant other, then their trust and slowly, their ability to love you as you are. You lose time. Days, weeks, months and even years can pass in a haze of half-forgotten events as you teeter on the edge of control, existing from hangover to hangover in a drunken stupor.

Finally, you lose your health. The one thing you take most for granted fails. Your body and brain can no longer take the poison that is now keeping you alive. At this point, if you are very, very lucky, like I was, you will have some family, friends and loved ones around that still feel you are worth saving. That there is hope. The advice pouring in from every source in the beginning of this journey into sobriety was true: You can’t stop alone. You need care, medical help and people to give you reason to endure the pain of the first months of sobriety. Conversely, you are also the only one that can help yourself. You have to first want to be sober. Then you have to do it.

There will be a day when a recovering addict can no longer be defined by their past, but by the present a future. That is my hope – what kept me going, what drove me to work in a professional kitchen, what made me care once again, not only about the big things, but about the moments. The first shift you can stand proud for what you’ve accomplished. The beginnings of real smiles and emotions on the faces of your loved ones. The freedom to reinvent yourself as a new person, someone not beholden to regular meetings or your drug of choice.

Is it Jesus, yourself, other people or a choice? I think it is a combination.

In the Weeds, indeed.

In the Weeds: Spring 2012 (3)

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I collapse into the seat of my truck, trying not to vomit. One spell was enough. Only a few weeks before, while in Southwest Washington, D.C. I had tried very hard to ignore a Hispanic guy of indeterminate age who was vomiting helplessly into the street, propped up only by one hand on a parked car. Snot ran from his nose, mixing with the green bile he was spewing into the beautiful morning. Tears dripped off his chin as his eyes ran uncontrollably. At that point in my life I rarely ventured into the city, doing so only as a last resort to construction sites or when my girlfriend finally lost all patience with me and made me go. Like most people in deep avoidance, I did not frequent places whose occupants were a reminder of where I was headed.

Here I was now, in a college town that I had dearly loved, lying across the seats in the front of my Suburban, breathing from the bottom of my stomach in long, still breaths, praying that I wouldn’t begin to vomit again. My clothes still reeked of marijuana, lemon shots, peppermint schnapps and whiskey. I also had dim memories of eating Chinese Food somewhere after the bar had closed. Which added to the nausea building unsteadily in my tortured stomach. A glance in the mirror confirmed that I had lipstick on my face, bright red, and on my pants, bright blue. Who the hell was wearing blue lipstick?

As soon as I could, I tumbled into the cargo area of the Suburban. During my travels I had outfitted it with a twin mattress, tools, camp stove and my savior this morning, a small cooler that ran off the electrical system filled with water and Gatorade. I grabbed a blue Gatorade, fumbled through the green pack for ibuprofen, and chased both with an ice cold Heineken. My stomach clenched for a moment and I inhaled carefully until the danger passed. Besides missing the interview for a job I didn’t really care about, there seemed to be no ill effects from the night before. I laugh out loud, not caring much for how I sound, then collapse until the midday sun wakes me up.

It seems I am always waking up. Those moments right after wakening, as my befuddled brain makes sense of my surroundings (or not) are usually the only lucid thoughts that I have until the next time that I wake up. A glance around confirms what I last remember: I am in a hospital. The doctor-looking guy is sitting there once again, with only a different tie identifying that he’d ever left. I’m shaking very badly now, and my sheets are clean, recently changed, which could have multiple indications. Neither my wife nor my son are in sight.

The intern, as I would learn later, stood, brushed off his pants, tossed his McMuffin wrapper in the trash and sat on the foot of my bed. “Good morning, Mr. Matney. How do you feel?” I feel that, in the grand scheme of things, this is a relatively stupid question. “Do you know where you are?” “In the hospital,” I reply, as there really is no other answer. The fact that the toilet has a lid rules out worse places. He makes some notes in his notebook, similar to the one I carry while working in restaurants to help with remembering shit, like the special of the day, or one of the many stock recipes I carry around, mostly in my head. His pen scratches noisily, nearly enough to drive me crazy.

“Where is my wife?” He has turned his curious, unsettling gaze on me once more. I feel more like a lab rat or a medical curiosity than a patient. “How is my son?” My restraints are still in place, which is gnawing at me every single second that I am awake.

He assures me that they are well and safely at home. I relax a bit into the bed, relieved. I then turn to sorting out the sequence of events that brought me here.

I’d been drinking heavily since around mid-October, 2012. My wife had gotten pregnant with our first child around the first of March of the same year and I had made a half-assed attempt to sober up in September. I’d lost my scholarships, my status as a graduate student and dismissed from the teaching program in which I was enrolled shortly after my attempt to get clean. I lasted a few weeks a few weeks after that, then, tired of dodging the truth about why I was home and not in the school systems and why I wasn’t working on my thesis, I found it easier to pretend to go to work and instead join the early morning night shift crowd at a local bar that I liked very much at the time.

As to how, exactly, I ended up here, I realize I don’t have a clue. The intern watches my attempt to put together the recent past. Distinctly remember a very large, very sweaty guy in scrubs and a mask digging around in my ass with an air of vague interest and boredom. Checking for hemorrhoids, he had said. Most like causing them, I thought, expecting one of his cigar shaped finger to protrude out of my mouth, or maybe my nose as he rooted around like he’d lost something up there.

I explain to the intern that I had little idea of what had happened prior to my visit to my primary doctor. I remember going to breakfast, having a Bloody Mary, going to the ABC store, having a fight with my wife and throwing up blood in the bathroom. Beyond that, I reply, I don’t really know. “Do you know what day it is?” A valid question, no doubt. One I don’t really have an answer for. “March?” I guessed. Time to plant fruit trees and prepare the garden boxes for spring.

“What day is it in March? What year?” I frown at him. “I don’t know!?! It’s March! Where is my wife?” He sighs, and looks at his hands. “She dropped you off at your doctor’s office two days ago. Do you not remember any of this?” I stare at him blankly. Slow horror is creeping up on me in the darkness leaking into my peripheral vision. “Do you remember when your son was born? What day?”

My son was born on December 30, 2012 at 9:32 a.m. He was healthy, whole and my wife survived the ordeal with her usual toughness, ignoring or overlooking the fact that I had been drinking for about two months straight. By the time I left the safety of my office upstairs next to the nursery and drove my wife to the hospital in Roanoke, about an hour away, I was well into withdrawals and teetering on the edge of delirium tremens. My hands were shaking, my vision overcompensating and my basic motor skills were just about shot. I honestly wanted nothing more than to get my wife to the doctor and then find a bar. The further we went the less concerned I was about what order these things happened in.

It was late, and my wife was in labor. We did make it to the hospital. I concentrated on driving as though I was a steely-eyed participant in the Daytona 500 with the whole world watching, praying that I would pass a cop so I could ensure that the two people that I loved more than anything else in my life would make it safely to the hospital. The white lines became mental barriers as the wind howled and swirling snow slammed into the exterior of her car, muffled by layers of crash protection and sound proofing. Laura was in terrible pain and horrified that I would crash at the same time. My maximum speed appeared to be around 45 miles per hour, which I was convinced was nearly the same speed as an Enterprise Space Jump. The snow reminded me of the stars flying by in the movies.

We made it. Nolan was born without incident. I took the first few pictures of him and held Laura’s hand during delivery and managed to stay upright long enough for my sister and mother to visit, call her parents, who lived on the eastern shore, about six hours away, and converse with the nurses and doctors about Nolan’s health.

I reeked of rum and ketosis. My body was losing its ability to get through the sixteen hours or so that I had spent without alcohol. I was shaking and sweating horribly and wanted nothing more than a drink, an ambien, two ibuprofen and a place to sleep. Nolan solemnly looked around him in an attempt to see this noisy world he had been so rudely dumped into and napped between feedings. He mostly stared where the face of his mother was, into the voice and heartbeat that he had known for nearly nine months, a time of safety and care and bonding. His mom’s womb had nourished and held him and the bonds of love had developed deeply in that time period, as only they can between a mother and child that share the same space, blood, dreams and emotions from day one of his conception.

I recognized the moment for what it was, and was saddened to despair that I was too sick to enjoy these first few moments. I groggily got through it, with little sense of time or really even space. The nurses realized that there was something wrong with me, one of which sniffed my breath delicately and advised that I go to the emergency room. Despite my pleading they would not give me as much as an ibuprofen to ease my suffering, which seemed inconceivable beside the miracle happening in the next room.

Sleep would not come to me and when it did it was full of monsters and blood and my helpless newborn son screaming in pain. I lost my sense of time and space. I constantly fell from the couch on which I was attempting to rest. Laura had been awake for over 24 hours and begged me to go home and get some rest. She told me I was the one that looked awful. It was true. It was as if a ray of sunshine had rested on her and the baby and I were a lurching spawn of hell doomed to forever look upon total beauty and happiness from a safe distance, where they could not be harmed by my sickness.

As time started to slide back into place, Laura asked me once more to go home and clean and sleep before she and the baby joined me. Her only request was that I get something to eat and bring her something back. Weariness had settled into her and she needed me to leave. In my state, I was of no help. I stank of alcohol and sweat. My sheets were tangled and yellow and I felt terrible. I was shaking so badly that I could not trust myself to hold my own newborn son, terrified that I would drop this tiny living being that God had entrusted me with.

Stumbling my way along, I found my way out of the hospital somehow, to the car and drove home. The sun was just rising and it was cold and achingly beautiful. I was nearly beyond despair. I called my parents, pretended everything was ok, babbled nonsensically about Nolan and Laura, and then finally turned into the valley that led to our home.

Situated on a knoll overlooking the New River and surrounded with oak, hickory, beech and popular, it is a beautiful place. Smoke still rose from our chimney from the firewood that I had stuffed the wood stove with just before we left for the hospital. There was a heavy frost that turned the brown background of early winter into a wonderland of color and light. This was all lost on me as I hid behind my sunglasses and grimly drove the last one hundred feet or so in four wheel drive, sliding into Laura’s parking spot by rote and ritual rather than skill. I stepped out of the car, said hello to the cat, and vomited into the frost and snow. Over and over and over, until I was on my knees with snot running from my nose and bile running from my mouth. I crawled to the woodshed, where I struggled to stand, opened the door, and clumsily grabbed a handle of peppermint liquor out of the tool rack. My body clenched and shook as I poured my first drink since my son was born into my system. I shook violently for a few minutes, then crawled into the house, leaving tracks in the snow of a body drug rather than moving of its own volition.

Hours later, I awoke in the deepening cold on the floor of the kitchen near the door, which I had sense enough to close. The liquor bottle lay close by on its side, with only a trickle of liquid remaining in the bottom. I woozily got to my feet and managed to get the fire rekindled. I took off my urine and sweat stained clothes and crammed them into the washer on the “sanitize” option and staggered into the shower, getting a good look at myself in the mirror as I went. I was horribly fat. My eyes were but specks in my swollen, drunken face. My nose and cheeks were a terrible shade of yellow, along with the whites of my eyes. My swollen stomach reached far in front of me, protruding as if I were the one who had needed to give birth, not my wife. In self-defense against the stranger in the image, I rummaged through the space under the bathroom sink, retrieved a bottle of rum, and stepped into the shower.

The next few months are only bits and snatches of half-remembered facts and dreams. I remember having newborn pictures taken with our new son and my wife, his doting and protective mother. I dimly remember cooking, canning, keeping the wood stove going and holding my son when he cried at night and needed to be fed. I drank most of the time. I remember thinking, “Now I can drink all I want – my wife and family will be diverted by the baby.” My writing deteriorated into nothing but babble and nonsense. I posted nothing on my blog, nothing on my Facebook account, called very few people and had little to no human contact outside of my wife and son.

Now, faced with an intern in the hospital room who apparently had nothing better to do than to sit on the edge of my bed, stare at me in some combination of pity and loathing and ask questions for which I had no answer. “My son was born on December 30th, 2012.” “Were you drinking then?” I covered my face with my hands, and for the first time that I could really remember, began to sob.

In the Weeds: Spring 2012 (2).

Authors Note: The morning light is filtering through the darkness from somewhere. Keeping my eyes shut as long as possible, I listen and smell for some clue as to where I am. The taste is awful – cigarettes, expensive whiskey, cheap vodka and lipstick all congealed with the bacteria that congregates in your mouth and on your tongue when you pass out with your mouth open. I smell the unmistakable smell of cheap bacon frying, a smell that grew to haunt me while I was cooking three meals a day for a camp full of spoiled girls. There is the overriding smell of perfume I can’t place and my clothes reek of pot.

Taking a chance, I open my eyes. My head screams in terror at the sudden sensory overload. I feel thick, aching, sore, gross and relatively sure I’m somewhere I shouldn’t be. My interview! Shit. What happened? I dimly remember drinking expensive bourbon at a bar I used to frequent when I was in graduate school – when I was someone else. I remember high-fiving some guy I didn’t know while taking a piss in a trough in the restroom. I remember a blond girl with lots of lipstick and a fishnet outfit – it was eighties night, what a night.

The cinder block walls, adorned with selfies, Christmas lights, empty six-pack cartons and a shelf full of sex toys tell me where I am. A girl’s dorm room. Damn. I must have been wasted. I quick check reveals that I am still fully clothed, but I can smell lipstick strongly, so it must be on my face. My wallet is across the room on a nightstand covered in girl stuff – tubes of lipstick, make-up, glitter, thongs, bras, pictures of current and/or ex-boyfriends. I don’t know where my phone is, and I don’t care. It has only one number in it anyway and they will give me another one as soon as I turn up.

I slide out of bed and pull on my missing boot, not bothering with the mirror or state of looks. I only want to make it back to my old truck and sleep this shit off until I can make the drive back to D.C. This was stupid, dumb of me. I never went home with anyone. Not ever. My number one rule while drinking. I hear girls giggling in the background, behind the closed bedroom door and I catfoot to the window, relieved that it is open, even more relieved that it is on the ground floor.

I fade into the mid-morning sunlight like a vampire seeking his coffin. I catch a glimpse of myself in a store window while walking down the hill away from the girl’s dormitory. The man looking back at me is not the same one I used to see. He’s sad. Lonely. Sick. Tired. Emaciated.

I wake up to a cold rain rattling at the windows and the sounds of a hospital room. Breathing carefully, I open my eyes and see the IV placed in my hand, taped in place by what appears to be experienced hands. A catheter snakes out from under my blankets and I really don’t want to deal with that fact at the moment. Baby steps.

A man in a doctor’s coat is sitting in a chair at the foot of my hospital bed. A visual check of my surroundings reveals nothing about the date or what hospital I am in. I’m not handcuffed nor restrained, which is good, or at least not as bad as it could be. My brain tries to process for a moment, then retreats like a Comanche into the mist. I collapse back on the bed, still trying to breathe, pulling air out of my abdomen, as deeply as I possibly can. My abdomen is swollen, grotesque under the covers. I’m in more pain that I have experienced before. My mouth is beyond dry, parched, my tongue swollen. My hands shake so much that I can’t reach the water that is just out of reach beside the bed and I collapse back, content to let the mystery of the guy at the end of bed go unsolved for the moment.

There are footsteps from soft soled shoes, unmistakably worn by a nurse. They have the best shoes for your feet in the world. Even better than what we wear in the kitchen, as there worn shoes are a testament to the number of years you’ve spend behind the line, slinging plates, shouting orders, yelling for corrections, enduring the searing heat that you eventually begin feel is normal.

I realize that my alarm is going off and I feel the world fading. Hanging on to the present with both hands, filling my head with memories, I ask the guy at the foot of my bed about my wife, my son. He is on his feet with a clinical look of puzzlement, nodding to my questions. They are ok – yes, your wife brought you here, no you can’t call, not at the moment. The nurse leans in close and checks my pupils. I’m shaking all over now, trying to retch something up that isn’t there.

The doctor, if that’s what he is, pushes me back in the bed with one hand. Despite my massive weight, I am too weak to even attempt to sit up. My hands seem to belong to someone else as I place them over my face and begin to weep at the realization of how far I have sunk and fear of what I may have done. The nurse presents a needle and over my mostly feeble injections, adds it to the contents of my IV bag. I fall back into a semi-coma like a lost soul into hell, wondering what happened. Did I hurt anyone? WHERE is my wife and child??

Everything turns gray and I turn to the nurse, mouthing the question one last time. She squeezes my hand. “Everything will be fine. Rest now.”

In the Weeds: Summer 1986

Authors Note: I finish my fifth drink, and signal for the bartender to pour me another. Bartenders can tell when someone is there to spend money, there to get drunk, there to get laid or there just to drink themselves a little closer to hell. Not for the first time that night, I’m startled by how old I feel. Where I was once only a few years older than the people in this college bar, now I’m over a decade older than most of the clientele. The bartender even seems young, despite his tattoos and nostril piercings. I wonder what if would actually feel like if I yanked them out of his nose. Would he scream? Would he sue? Or, would he enjoy the pain so much, so very much? Would an act of random violence send this last legal purveyor of the world’s oldest and most dangerous drug into a cycle of self-destruction?

I let those thoughts go. I drift in a place of nonchalance and relative peace, despite the noise around me. I’ve been drinking steadily since early that morning and have to real intention of stopping anytime soon. I’ve finally achieved the buzz and perfect combination of drunk and upright that I had been looking for. I can maintain this shit.

Where is truth? What is it? As I write in the silence of my kitchen this night, free of drugs and alcohol yet still paying the terrible price extracted by years of addiction, I feel that this moment is true. My son is asleep in his bed. My wife is tossing a bit, but drifting off in our bedroom just off the kitchen. Fireflies are lighting up the night with their mating calls, the females patiently waiting for the males to locate their flashes of light as they fly about aimlessly, searching for a mate. I can feel my feet, my nose, the keyboard and I have a relatively good idea of what will happen tomorrow, I think.

But, I did grow up in the late seventies and early eighties. A poor kid, usually dressed in hand me downs that were either way too small or way too big. Still, I loved my childhood and enjoyed life all around me. I was relatively free in my wanderings and doted on by my parents and grandparents. Still, what triggered alcoholism, that descent into madness as an adult? It certainly wasn’t here…

You ask yourself and so many others ask the same question: “How did you get to this place? Armed with the knowledge that alcoholism runs in your family and you come from literally generations of moonshiners and drinkers and others that abused and/or made their living from alcohol, why did I start drinking? When did I start drinking? Why was it different for me and not for so many others?

There was a day in the dead of summer when I was fifteen or so. Exhausted from mountain biking all day and borderline dehydrated, a close friend of mine and I decided to cool off in a mountain stream. There wasn’t much water, as it hadn’t rained in a couple of weeks and the stream was dependent on runoff, as is much of region known geologically as the Appalachian Plateau. We swam and pretended to fish and investigated for what had to the thousandth time a large drain that caused the pool of water to form. The artificial pool had been built by my Grandfather in 1977 after flooding devastated the area and left me and my parents largely stranded for over a week. The stream jumped its banks and washed out the dirt road to our house, so rather than try to re-direct the stream into its old channel, my grandfather laid what ultimately became his last rock wall. Nearly twenty feet high, the stream tumbled over the wall from the overflow cistern and carved out a deep pool into the soft shale bedrock in only a few years. It was a magic place for a boy and a teenager, quiet and shaded, with newts and water skaters, frogs and water snakes, and, if you were silent and still, the occasional wild turkey with her brood taking them to the stream for a drink of water and to dispel the afternoon heat in the coolness of the deep pool.

Not too many people made the trip with me to the pool aside from my little sisters. It was my place, one of the many places that I had to be alone, from the spot under the tree on the North ridge where I could, if the leaves were off, see into the next county and dream boyhood dreams of conquest and escape, of riding down the Mississippi on a raft or of sailing around the world, visiting new ports and writing about my adventures.

Brock was a bit different, though. For better or for worse, the lonely kid, maybe a year or so younger than me, had attached himself to our family and shyly made my parents as his own. He was adopted, one of the thousands of children in Appalachia to fall through the cracks in foster homes and inevitably be placed with a home whose sole business was to raise children in return for the benefits provided by the government for their service. I liked him, but was rather ambivalent about his presence, which confounded my Dad. He was worried about the influence that Brock would have on me, and for once Dad might have been wrong. I think it was I that was a negative influence on him.

Even then, as a child and teenager, I was given to bouts of depression that would often last for weeks on end, especially in the dead of winter or the stifling heat of mid-summer. The books that I read so voraciously portrayed a life far different from my own, a life where the teenagers my age were exploring, solving mysteries, attending summer camps and doing all the things that I wished I had privilege to, somehow.

Yet, here I was, in a pool of water cascading down a hand build stone wall in the dead of summer, seeking solace from the sun as it made its way across the sky. Brock and I climbed, as usual, out of the water to dry for a few moments as our camouflage shorts dripped all around us. We discussed girls, the sweet jumps that we had just did, swapped the same stories and lies that we had been telling for years and investigated our surroundings as only teenage boys can.

“It looks like a boob!” Brock was scouring the stream for rocks and geological artifacts that could, in any way possible, resemble female body parts. He’d already found a butt and a vagina, so he nearly had a complete woman in his hands. All the parts of a woman that mattered to a fifteen year old boy, anyway. I ignored him as much as possible. My antisocial tendencies were already very deep at this point in my life and I rather detested his babbling about various pieces of quartzite and sandstone and what he was going to do with Sandra when we went back to school.

Brock didn’t know it, but Sandra and I had become quite an item anyway, at least in my mind. She was older than both of us by a couple of years and extremely attractive in a miniskirt, knit gloves and leg warmers. She had taught me a lot in the years that I had known her, from how to play basketball, sprint faster, drive go-karts and many other things that I took for granted. I dangled from a hold above Brock’s head, far above the pool, headed towards the pipe that channeled the stream into the pool.

Climbing had always been something that I was good at. I was a bit afraid of heights, something that I would not have then admitted under the threat of torture and bodily injury, so it was always a thrill to deny myself the relative safety of staying on flat ground. I followed the tales of climbers and explorers, surfers and sailors, marveling at the adventures that they experienced and longing for the same. As I chinned myself with an ease that I now envy, I pretended for a few moments that I was the lone survivor of an air raid into Vietnam, the only one left alive after our planes had been strafed with bullets by violent Commies, forcing me to parachute into the jungle, chute at the last possible second to avoid sniper fire, abandoning my dog tags for the enemy to find so I could not be identified upon my inevitable capture. That was the coolest, of course, the torture part. At least, it would be cool if I could somehow black out during the process, only to revive long enough to spit out my refusal to comply with their demands, which always involved a bikini-clad native and American freedom, which coincided quite nicely with the scenario I was acting out in my imagination.

I spun around in a move that would have left many professional climbers dumbfounded, grabbing a hold blindly that I had seized so many times it was ingrained in mind to do so. I was now facing the pool and Brock, who was still searching the stream for his stony girlfriend. I was around him more than anyone else and was more than a little convinced that there was something deeply wrong with him. Although I ultimately took the blame for him, he was the one whose idea it had been to tie two cats together by their tails and throw them over a clothes line like an abandoned pair of shoes on a college campus. Their ultimate battle to the death didn’t happen as he quite imagined, leaving one cat screaming in agony on the ground and the other fleeing the grisly scene with most of his mates hindquarters crudely tied to his tail.

The problem of the screaming cat was addressed by first pouring fuel on the unfortunate creature and igniting him. The cat immediately turned into a rudimentary incendiary device, hell bent on completing the destruction by escaping into the barn, which was stuffed to the rafters with fuel oil, hay, gunpowder, bullets and firewood for our wood stove, all of which were more or less essential to my family’s survival.

I arrived in a dead run, alerted from my chores in the chicken coop by the screams of my younger sisters and brothers and racket that the seemingly invincible cat was making as he attacked everything in sight. Two of my brothers were old enough to handle firearms, but they were rooted to the spot as if staked down, watching the entire scene open-mouthed with horror. I assessed the situation as best I could, screamed at Brock to stop, please STOP trying to club the inferno that used to be a healthy cat and ran for the front yard and my Dad’s work truck, which contained a firearm in the center console.

Handling firearms without my Dad’s permission and supervision was punishable by a certain beating and most likely a grounding, coupled with no dinner for the evening locked in your room as everyone else played in the cool of the day. It was a miserable experience, but I felt at that moment that it was justified.

My father arrived on the scene just as his gun in my hand went off, effectively ending the threat of a burning cat and no doubt adding to the trauma for my two youngest sisters, both of whom had sunk to the ground in tears. I was crying, by brothers were screaming and my Dad was yelling at everyone at once, most especially me. I watched in slow horror as my beloved father tore his leather belt off and gave me the worst beating I had experienced in my short life. The firearm was returned to its hiding place and life went back to usual relatively quickly.

My strongest memory of the experience is of Brock watching, expressionless except for a smile that played for only an instant around the ambience of his face. He said not one word to me, not in thanks nor explanation.

Maybe I was thinking of that the day I clung to my perch high above his head. I’m not sure. I grabbed the lip of the pipe and summersaulted into the cool blackness of the cavern. Brock was still babbling about something below me, but he had essentially disappeared from my point of life at that moment. As my eyes adjusted to the low light and I once again enveloped myself in my imagination I noticed something that, in retrospect, probably belonged to a close family member. I didn’t think about it at the moment, but the place was essentially hidden from view from the road and readily accessible on the upstream side without any fifteen year old bravado or Rambo-style guerilla attacks in the imagination.

There, in the cool of the stream on the far end of the pipe, maybe one hundred feet away, was a six-pack of Coors and fifth of Wild Turkey.

To this day I really don’t know whose stash I raided. Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of that afternoon. I pulled the cork on the bourbon after ripping the tag off the first can of beer, which loosened me up considerably, given the amount of exercise and lack of water that the day of summer activities had required. Wincing a little at the smell, but wildly curious and very rebellious, I took my first swig of what would become the bane of my very existence many years later.

The rest of the afternoon passed in some sort of blur. Dehydrated, young and holed up in my culvert with only the alcohol to keep me company for an unspecified amount of time. As I was to learn years later, alcohol mars the perception of passing time, rendering watches obsolete and either slowing down or speeding up your life. In my case on that day, it didn’t take very long for my mind to succumb to the effects of Wild Turkey 101. Brock, oddly enough, took one swig and promptly gagged and rinsed his mouth out in the stream. He then tried a Coors, with very similar results then threw the mostly full can at my head in a fit of anger.

To me, it was the ultimate form of rebellion and I reveled in both the immediate effects (mostly pleasant) and the morning after hangover. I felt like an adult. I was fifteen. I had essentially learned to drink.

In the Weeds: Spring 2012.

Authors Note: Have you ever had a story to tell? One that you’ve kept hidden, buried, shoved into the back of your consciousness until it becomes distorted and torn? I have such a story. This story is embarrassing, humiliating and deeply personal. It is also something that is rarely addressed in our society in it’s entirety, which is what I mean to do.

Please, if you are easily offended, shocked or put off by upsetting situations or language, then it’s simple: Don’t read it. It is a journey of a sorts, through space and time, a story of the life of an addict, who in this case, happens to be me. This story may not have a happy ending, and the hero is no such thing. Names, places, situations and identifiable projections of individuals have been changed as I see fit. If you think you spot yourself in the following narrative, you’re wrong.

I’m going to post this every other day or so as I write. It will keep me working and give the patient readers something to follow. What I really hope is that it helps someone, anyone that feels abandoned, hurt or lost in the long road that is the lonely journey out of addiction. With that said, here we go.

Spring, 2013.

“You’re dying.” I find these words to be irritating at best and extremely vexing at their worst. My head is swimming noisily, I’m relatively certain that I am going to throw up at any moment and to be quite honest, my ass hurts. In a way that can’t be good for me or anyone around me. I am trapped in my street clothes on one of those paper covered hospital benches that is, at this moment, way too high for my surroundings. I was happy, or more content only a few moments before while planted in one of the normally sized chairs in the tiny little waiting room where I was able to largely ignore the fact that I was sweating profusely, running an amazing fever and shaking like a leaf in a tornado while trying to deal woozily with the fact that I was suffering from multiple hernias and likely about to either a. Have a heart attack any moment or b. Slide into delirium tremens from alcohol withdrawal. I was banking on the heart attack.

So I sit, somewhat disconcerted, as usual, by my primary care provider’s insistence on sitting on a small, three legged stool that is at least three feet shorter than eye level from my perch on the outrageously overpriced hospital examination table. She’s dressed, as usual, in a loose-fitting, comfortable looking dress with no-nonsense shoes and a gorgeous scarf, along with eyeglasses attached by a beaded chain around her neck. I’ve never seen her deviate from this script of an outfit, nor have I ever seen her actually look through the eyeglasses. Over the years I’ve watched her look under and even around those lenses, but never through them. I speculate to myself that they are in fact for decoration only, but I know that this woman has a personality that would never allow her to wear something that did not have some function. Even if that function is just to throw the patient sitting awkwardly three feet above her head just a bit more out of kilter.

My eyes are so yellow and bloodshot and sensitive to light that I cannot for the life of me imagine taking my sunglasses off, yet that is what this evil woman perched on this stool around my kneecaps is demanding. At this point in our somewhat tenuous relationship I have realized that it is impossible to argue with her or question her motives, yet I hesitate with all the guilt of someone who is standing in the ruined remains of a bank vault that they have just blown to smithereens in the hopes of a million dollar payoff, only to find the treasure trove empty of the dollars they sought and instead occupied by a slightly deranged police officer seated on a small, three-legged stool.

So, I removed my sunglasses and ball cap. She squinted into my eyes, like she needed to, with her eye-magnifying-thingy and resumed place of authority on her stool to write in what is rapidly becoming a huge file on my health.

You’ve got to understand something. Just a few years ago, there was no health file on me. No medical records. Despite years of broken bones, car crashes, stitches, staples, multiple trips to the emergency room(s), I had never possessed health care that was decent or comprehensive enough to warrant medical records. This became a real problem when I was trying to get into Officer’s Candidate School shortly after finishing my Bachelor’s Degree in Geology back in 1997. The Marine Corp medical examiners were not blind, nor did they possess yellowish, bloodshot eyes. These young doctors were very determined and fit individuals, as was I at that time, and could hardly miss the fact that I was covered in scars from previous injuries suffered during a life filled with mostly recklessness. Nor could they overlook that despite the fact that I was 24 years old, healthy as I could be and did not carry one venereal disease, I had no shot records beyond my Mother’s memory.

Now there was a detailed file chronicling nearly a year’s worth of documented and extensive alcohol abuse. From that first Thursday morning when I finally admitted my drinking problem, while reeling with one of the worst withdrawals I had ever been through until today, my alcohol dependence and the breakdown of my independence were now thoroughly documented in a folder placed on the knee of a hard-eyed primary care physician who knew exactly what she was looking at.

She repeated the words that I was still trying to wrap my brain around. “You have six months with proper care and treatment, two years at the most if you continue to drink as you are right now.” My brain and body were still screaming at me for another drink, anything to calm the shakes and the nudges at my peripheral vision, something to return this world to some semblance of normalcy. “How much have you been drinking since your last treatment?”

To place a sense of time and space on this situation, my first attempt at total sobriety under the supervision of a doctor had been the past September, in 2012. My wife had just became pregnant at that time and I was trying to get rid of my addiction problems without really telling anyone exactly what was going on or admitting what was wrong with me.

This was the following March, 2013. It was one of those nasty early spring mornings when it rains, snows, the sun shines, then it sleets, then snows some more and everything is just a muddy mess. Honestly, I don’t remember much of the chain of events that brought me here, passed out on the examination table with my primary physician and nurse hooking up IV’s and getting me ready for transport to the emergency room.

So, to answer my doctors question was to admit that I really didn’t know how much I was drinking. I remember reading Stephen King once back when I had a serious writer’s crush on Mr. King and his description over how silly that particular question seems to a true alcoholic. “What do you mean how much have I drank? Why, all of it, of course.”

Nonetheless, she pressed the question to my blurry mind. This entire doctor’s visit had begun nearly twenty-four hours prior when my wife had overheard me vomiting in the bathroom. I’m not sure if you could describe what I was going through as vomiting. Dry heaves are never pleasant, but they are decidedly less so when you can literally feel your insides tearing and the first trickles of blood on the inside of your thighs from a release of internal bleeding. She was extremely worried, as she should have been and no longer bought into the “It’s just ulcers – it’s normal for my family” excuse that I kept coming up with. She is a gentle soul, and rather than demand from me that I go to the hospital she asked if I would please go see the doctor. By that point in the morning I had managed to choke down a couple of pills along with half a fifth of vodka and was feeling no pain, except for the nagging sensation that I had actually damaged something that may be important this time around.

By the next morning, the gig was up. My goose was cooked. I had not been able to eat, despite my best efforts and I was now under the scrutiny of Laura and unbeknownst to me at the time, my Mom. My mother was raised in a family saturated with alcoholism and knew all the signs of late stage denial and was also well versed in how stubborn her offspring could actually be, even when it seems that they are hell bent on their own destruction. Between the two of them and some rather strategic searching throughout the house and vehicles, they quickly realized that I was consuming mass amounts of alcohol. The exact amount remained a mystery, even when I was confronted directly with the question and too sick to hide the answer.

So here I am, face to face with an unyielding physician along with her glasses and penetrating gaze, trying, as is my smart-ass way, to find some sort of humor in the situation. “Does how much I drink per day include coffee? If so, you can count that out because I’ve given up caffeine.” She is anything but amused. She shifts the stack of paperwork on her lap and taps her teeth with the stem of her glasses. That is a new tick for me – I have to admit that I have never seen that one before. I wonder what this new turn of events has in store for me. Probably a new round of pills that take the edge off the urge to drink for a few days and provide me with a new buzz when that urge wears off and I combine them with a few gin and tonics. I’ll at least be able to eat an oyster po’boy and help take care of my son without shaking so badly that I’m afraid to touch my baby boy. I do at least have some of my wits about me, just not very many of them. I realize that she is not going to back away from this question, the one about how much I’m drinking each day, so I take a wild stab in the dark, not really sure of the answer. “Maybe a liter or so a day? Maybe less, maybe a little more?”

She is still tapping her teeth with her eyeglasses while studying me. “Why are you sitting sideways?” she asks. I explain that I’m pretty sure that I’ve blown a gasket of some sort in both my stomach and my large intestine, as I have a defined umbilical hernia and what I am sure is a severe case of hemorrhoids along with what is likely a miniscule tear in my lower and maybe upper intestine. I’m not stupid, after all. The pain is rather intense, and reminds me of a day, long since past, when a slate bar that I was using to apply pressure to a piece of mining equipment while it was being welded snapped under the heat and pressure and smashed into my lower abdomen and upper body cavity, rupturing my spleen. I already knew that if any engineered material was subjected to enough stress, it would strain – my brain had just not caught up with the unreality of what we were trying to do. Coal mining reminded me of what I’ve read and heard about Vietnam and other wars, where a select few in power order their minions around in a play for power and ultimately, profit. That particular night a multi-million dollar ripper head, that piece of a grander machine that cuts off the coal to be sent out of the mine for processing, had broken. We were attempting under the most dire of circumstances to weld it back together just long enough to hit our quota so that we could pass our problems off to the next shift and thereby avoid the inevitable wrath of the men in suits, who would arrive at a suitable hour the next morning, resplendent in personal helicopters and tailored suits which hid what I much later learned to be gathering fluid in the abdomen, a direct result of the consumption of too much alcohol.

“Ascites. Jaundice of the skin and eyes. Acute abdominal swelling, likely caused by fluid accumulation due to liver failure from acute alcoholic cirrhosis. Fluid retention in the hands and feet. Visual impairment. Excessive sweating and involuntary shaking of the extremities. Pupils are dilated. The patient is unaware of the date and suffers from severe abdominal cramps, rectal bleeding and dry heaves accompanied by some hemorrhaging. Vital signs are unstable, BP is 225/150. Heart rate is 115 and crashing.” I realize that Glenda is speaking into a tape recorder and that the main doctor for the clinic is standing just behind her. She turns to the other doctor who is wearing a tie with Golden Retrievers imprinted on it. They turn on a recorder. “I’m afraid that there is nothing that we can do for him here. Outpatient treatment has been unsuccessful in the past two attempts and I am unwilling to continue those attempts without hospitalization and detoxification under medical care.” She leans in close to me. “Do you understand what we have been saying?” I nod. “Is your wife in the waiting room?” Another nod. In a sudden flurry of comfortable garments and medical paperwork, my doctor abruptly leaves the room.

With a sinking heart I realize that Glenda is headed out that door to confront my wife with the enormity of my current situation. The doctor of record pauses for a moment, subconsciously, I think, adjusting his ridiculous tie. “I hope you realize that your life, for better or for worse, has just changed. I wish you the best.” I glance down at the bloodstained paper bed cover and spiral into unconsciousness.

 

A Positive Breakdown

ramblinron:

Stage Fright – One from 2012

Originally posted on Ramblin Ron:

I’m stuck. I can’t think. My kitchen is full of people who are currently staring at me, waiting for me to begin cooking. I realize that if I ever had a plan, it is no longer in occupying space in my head. I feel like I am having both stage fright and writers block at the same time. I stare at my ingredients as if I am not recognizing them. My guests and family are happily sipping wine. Laura is cheerfully preparing the salad course, chattering away with her Mom while slicing absolutely identically sized pieces of pancetta. I wonder what I was ever thinking when I volunteered to cook this meal.

It doesn’t help that we have had a foodie weekend. Chef’s Tour Saturday night, English breakfast at the Underground Pub on Sunday morning – wonderful Scotch Eggs, coffee and lattes by Strange Coffee – I’m feeling more than…

View original 533 more words

Work Boots and Chef Knives

The fluorescent lights gleamed their unyielding light as baskets full of foul smelling clothes, boots, hard hats and various tools hung over my head like something out of a prison movie. The showers are empty at this time of the morning, between shifts. The firebosses haven’t yet surfaced from their nightly checks and the boss men have yet to relinquish their paperwork, worried about an impending visit from the suits. They could arrive at any moment, resplendent in their suits, unloading from their helicopter with all the self-importance of swaggering drug lords. For better or for worse, these modern gangsters held sway over thousands of lives, not only those of the men that they employ in one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, but their families, by fallout the communities themselves as everything exists to support the coal mines that still operate in the Appalachian Mountains.

Not for the first time, I notice that my boots are worn nearly completely out. Matterhorn boots with Kevlar insoles and triple layered toes with thininsulate liners and Gore Tex with leather outside, they are without a doubt the toughest boot on the market. Vaguely intimidating, they look like something a Special Forces soldier tossed aside in Iraq.

My life is hitting a crossroads once again. I am fully aware of the decision that I’m getting ready to make, I’ve contemplated it for months, it seems. My untimely departure from Reno, NV back to the coal fields was not turning out to be a great choice of options, but hindsight is what it is. I realize that my head is nearly on my knees. I’m completely exhausted. The months of travel, stress, work and study have left me nearly drained. Moving is always harder than you think it will be, especially after you develop some baggage, figuratively and literally, that you have to drag around with you.

I contemplate briefly once again continuing to work at the local restaurant I’ve been helping out with. They still desperately need a cook, but have little to no money to pay anyone. I’ve never been anxious to work for free, and I know for a fact the restaurant is on the ropes. The only customers for the past few weeks, that I can at least verify on my two days off, seven days on work schedule are the occasional lawyers that wander in to gawk at my girlfriend, order coffee and make a big deal out of a one dollar tip.

Then there was a rehearsal dinner for a group of locals. The bride and groom weren’t brother and sister, but they were in senior year of high school, sheltered to no end and certain that they were the center of the universe. I guess that day they were. They ordered shrimp cocktail by the bucket, nearly fifty pounds of ribeye steak along with asparagus, mushroom lasagna and several other entrees that were most definitely NOT part of our normal menu.

I had been up for nearly two days, working double shifts for another foreman whose wife had just delivered a little one and I was too tired really to remember much of that night. We had ordered everything that they asked for, using up all our credit in the process and to the best of my recollection, nearly everything was well cooked. The steaks were all medium to medium well, the shrimp overcooked, the lasagna soupy with processed cheese and the sweet tea was, well, sweet. I’m southern and I get sweet tea. My Mom’s tea is perfectly sweetened, with the sugar or molasses added while the tea is still boiling, so that it develops that nice frothy sweetness on top after it’s poured. I’m not sure to this day what this shit was. Instant tea with some sort of artificial sweetener, it would have made a goat sick.

The end of that night for me was punctuated by the horrified gasp of a bottle-blonde teen who had just insisted that we “say grace for what God has put before us.” She picked up one of the shrimp out of her faux crystal glass, which had been rather artfully, if I do say so, placed around the appropriate cocktail sauce garnished with fresh mint. She regarded her catch with scorn and said, “I wanted my shrimps COOKED.”

Nobody paid for that meal, as I recall. I heard that the restaurant closed just after I left and the location is still vacant to this day. So much for the owners’ hopes and dreams, which ultimately swung on one seventeen year old blonde girl with a guitar and Jesus obsession. So much for so-called self-professed Christians.

More than a decade later, I sit on my back porch reading over paperwork: Bills, charts, money owed, costs of living, daily news and other daily chores. It stormed last night and the remnants are clearly visible. Mist obscures the mountains from view and the air smells clean – washed. The stars are still visible, even this late in the morning, with the sun sending out a few tentative rays over the mountains to my left. I can hear running water and a Scarlet Tanager pecks merrily at the green blackberries. It’s time for another change. I’m learning that this gets harder with time, with roots, with security. Where I once wore my strength and seeming invincibility as my armor against the emotions that ripping ties apart inevitably bring, now I am open and visible in spite of the security blanket of my comfort zone wrapped tightly around me. The decision must still be made.

So many years before, I had shrugged, glanced around the still empty bathhouse and headed for the door. I almost left my mining hat, belt, safety gear and dog tags. The boots I had tossed in the trash. On second thought, I crammed these memories into the old green backpack that had been my constant companion since high school. On the way out the door I snatched my boots out of the trash. I left the familiar and the security of what I knew once more, shrugging it off like an old skin.

Today, this is harder to do. I think of the kitchen that I had to leave behind and remind myself that I was not a failure there, nor anywhere else, despite what others may think. Life is a series of events and decisions, actions and reactions. We have to live with our decisions cheerfully and not dwell on the mistakes of the past.

I make my way down the steps to the pantry and make sure my rock hammer, mining hat and belt with the dog tags attached are still there. I check the blade on my chef’s knife, which is now nearly as worn as the rock hammer, but not quite.

I’d better not lose track of these things. They may be irreplaceable.

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