I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.

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I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. My body is convulsing but my mind is present. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. I cling to these words because they are all I have left to hang on to. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. I utter them, like a mantra, in between laboured breaths, and violent spasms, a hymn to my salvation. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank You. I love you. Nothing inspires presence like the immediacy of death. I can see it there, lurking in the shadows, hovering over me like the two men who laced my drink with GHB. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.

It was the summer of 2012. I had breached my parole conditions. I have a habit of doing that when I drink alcohol and do cocaine. The police were looking for me (real or imagined) but maybe they were looking in the wrong place. I had boarded the bus in northern Ontario and I was now unlawfully at large in the city of Toronto, hiding from the wreckage of my past. You can run from the scene, but you can never hide from yourself. The old adage is true, wherever you go, there you are. There I was, in the Village, a vibrant and diverse, predominantly gay neighbourhood in Toronto’s downtown core.

For all its vibrancy and diversity, sunshine and rainbows, the Village also has a bleak side. I found myself there in the shadows, among the hungry ghosts of The Six. Folks who have lived and were living extremely difficult and complex lives, facing even more hardship on the streets of Church and Wellesley as they struggled against the constant threat of victimisation, poverty and homelessness, issues around sexual identity, mental health disorders, conflicts with the law, and problematic substance use. My addiction sure knows where to hang its hat.

On the streets of the Village, marginalisation and vulnerability are targets for predation. Many folks selling the last marketable commodity that they have left in exchange for a fleeting bit of relief from their pain: the body. The body is never so divested of its inherent worth and value than in the survival sex trade. It is also never more susceptible to the violent impulses of the sadistic and predacious. A Manichaean cosmic duality of good and evil seems to reveal itself when the Love which brought this neighbourhood together is squared up against the Evil which has been perpetrated upon it. Serial murder, brutal homicides, beatings, and an all too common occurrence of folks simply vanishing like the conscience of those responsible for these hideous acts is well documented and the subject of numerous police investigations.

In retrospect, perhaps I was fortunate that night. I wasn’t there to sell my body, nor was I there because I was questioning my sexual identity. My addiction does not have a sexual orientation. I was fully aware that the two men who had invited me up to the apartment colloquially known as a “trap-house” weren’t interested in my charm and personality. They were interested in my boyish good looks. I was intent with their drugs. Both our desires would collide that night. The wreckage of the past would collapse into the present like my body on the bed which I would be made to lie in. So the saying goes, maybe I made my own bed.

In hindsight, If I had been more intuitive, I might have picked up on the fact that their queries regarding how much alcohol I had consumed that night was a red flag. I might also have realised that the shower that they offered to me had nothing to do with their being gracious hosts or that the tall glass of water they kept insisting that I drink had nothing to do with their concern for my hydration. I was too focussed upon their cocaine supply to realise what hit me when the GHB, also known as the date rape drug, began to flood my nervous system and interact with the two tablets of Ecstasy that I had secretly chewed in the bathroom just 20 minutes prior. Like the bad intentions that the night began with the chemicals collided with one another in my body and immediately went to work on my nervous system resulting in an initial wave of euphoria. The euphoria rushed through my body and broke against the shore of my synapses. I had found what I was looking for, release, freedom, something I can only describe as the stillness which exists in that fraction of a second when a wave hits the shore and then ebbs away.

As the sedation took hold I was escorted to the bed and the two men flanked me. One on either side. I was completely conscious and alert to every helpless moment, yet my body no longer belonged to me. It was feeble. I was a ghost in a machine that had been hijacked by these two malevolent figures and the chemical restraints that they had chosen to strap me down to the bed with. It became obvious what their plans were. I asked them why they were doing this. They told me they were bored.

In spite of my indolence I could feel my heart rate accelerating as the mélange of GHB and Ecstasy became a ruinous cocktail which my nervous system was no match for. Each short breath that my body would allow tasted thick and dense against my throat as I struggled for air. I began to sense that my nervous system would soon give way to something more violent, like the ascent of a rollercoaster before it reaches the apex and plummets. I accepted in that moment that death was a possibility, weighing my demise against the alternative consequences of my decision’s that night. There was a certain peace which I made with departure.

The first seizure locked my body with the ferocity and violence that I had anticipated. My awareness of death has never been more attuned than in that space between violent convulsions and secondary spasms which reprieved my body only so much that I could find my breath; lost as it was in the maelstrom of those moments, cradled by those vile men.

Wherever you go, there you are.

I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. Maybe this is what I deserve. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. Maybe if I die, I will be forgiven for all that I have done wrong. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. Maybe there is a lesson in this experience. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. Maybe they won’t rape me.

Who’ll Be My Role-Model? Now That My Role-Model Is Gone, Gone

It was October and the days were getting shorter. I could feel the cool autumn air whispering against my face as I sat shotgun in my Father’s red Thunder Bird, barreling down Derby road. The passenger window was rolled down because my Father was smoking a cigarette while I sang the lyrics to You Can Call Me Al by Paul Simon which was playing on the car stereo as we drove up to the parking lot of our apartment. Even to this day, every time I hear that Paul Simon song on the radio it brings me back to those last few moments before my father put the car in park and shut off the ignition. Who’ll be my role-model? Now that my role-model is gone, gone. They were those rare moments of innocence which belong only to childhood. Moments which you can only pay your respects to in adulthood like a grieving relative who mourns what has passed at the foot of a tombstone.

All I remember caring about was climbing the stairs to our apartment and cooking the chicken fingers that we had bought at the grocery store on our way home. Chicken fingers are gourmet when you are six. You can dip them in plum sauce and eat them with your hands. More importantly, my Dad was going to cook them. He did all the cooking, and all the parenting. With my Mother Absent, or barely present, he played both roles, like a terry cloth mother to a rhesus monkey. And like the monkeys in Harry Harlow’s experiments, our bond was strong. Until it wasn’t.

I had been taught to believe that the uniform of a police officer was a sign of protection. I had also been taught to believe that the presence of my Father meant the same. My trust in both were immediately shattered when the officer who had been parked in our drive-way and waiting for our arrival walked up to the drivers side door of the T-Bird and asked my Father to step out of the vehicle before placing him in handcuffs. As my Father protested his arrest my excitement for dinner turned to terror which turned to rage when the child protective services worker who had accompanied the police for the arrest swept me up in her arms. I began to kick and scream for my Father while watching the police man stuff him into the back seat of the cruiser. Scalding tears of rage and sorrow roared down my cheeks as my child’s mind attempted to make sense of what was happening. The noise that suffering makes only sounds more sophisticated as we grow older, the language of abandonment is the universal cry of a child being ripped from it’s mothers arms, whomever that person may happen to be.

Now I was riding shotgun with the female child protective service worker who had been assigned the task of apprehending me that night. I remember the seat-belt being strapped too tightly against my already constricted chest. She offered me McDonalds but I refused to speak. All I wanted was to eat chicken fingers with my Father. It took me a quarter of a century, three separate trips to the Penitentiary and I don’t know how many hours of therapy before I would forgive him for what took place that night. The narcissism of childhood is justifiable, in adulthood I have come to learn that such resentments are about as useful as taking a poison pill and hoping the source of your anger dies. My poison was alcohol, and cocaine, or anything I could get my hands on that would provide me with the comfort and security I longed for as a child.

As an adult I would come to understand that my Father had been arrested for charges which had stemmed from well before my birth. Charges which I will not be discussing here except to say that they led to the eight year penitentiary sentence he received nearly two years later. His punishment was my punishment. We were both arrested that night, the only difference being the conditions of our confinement. He went to the local detention centre to to be processed and await his bail hearing. I went into the custody of children’s aid services and was placed in a foster home.

I know that in my last post I left off with a promise to delve further into Marc Lewis’s The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not A Disease. I veered away from the biological side of things here and instead chose to focus on a personal experience of mine that came to the surface when I was reading Natalies Story which appears in chapter three When Craving Comes to Power: Natalies Story.

Natalie is described as an intelligent and unassuming young women whose heroin use landed her in a maximum security prison. I doubt this could have been predicted by her family, friends, or college professors. Like many college kids, Natalie experimented with an assortment of drugs but it wasn’t until she found opiates that the “hum of potential threat” that “had been part of her world for years” was abolished. The threat of failing academically, but more so socially, a “corrosive anxiety about being rejected” a “misty layer of anxiety” which was “always floating just above the surface”. A threat which “opiates took away”. Percocet turned to OxyContin which turned to Dilaudid and the last stop on the cloud of comfort and security was heroin, a cheaper and more intense “shocking river of peace”. First smoking it, finally shooting it intravenously. It didn’t happen over night, just like the middle-class life that she had been enjoying didn’t simply bottom out like a game of shoots and ladders after her first hit of heroin before she landed herself in a prison after a drug possession charge and a failed stint in rehab and another in an outpatient drug program.

In prison she was faced with the dilemma of staring down the walls in front of her or imagining a future that was more palatable than a prison cell. She began to meditate and chose the latter. Introspection opened up the door, literally and figuratively. Eventually, by asking the right questions, she got some answers. Comparatively, she didn’t feel herself to be as wounded as some of the women she served time with, but she came to the conclusion that, though her childhood wasn’t horrific, it also wasn’t happy. She had been depressed, estranged from her biological father and subject to the acrimony of her stepdad, all the while steering, self consciously, through the ambivalence of high school. Heroin brought her comfort and relief from this pain. Until it didn’t. That’s when her recovery began.

In the book Lewis makes a simple but profound statement in respect to Natalie. He says that “Natalie had to find a self before she could find self-control. She needed the time to reflect, to meditate, to remember and mourn her wounded childhood.” Only then could she begin “to form new patterns, new habits, based on a more coherent, more conscious sense of who she was.”

Like Natalie, I’ve got to locate my self. Whether standing in my dead mothers empty apartment with my hands wrapped around one of her empty beer bottles or stranded in that parking lot when the police took my father to prison and all I wanted to do was taste the comfort and security of those chicken fingers. These experiences aren’t easy to remember, and they are even more difficult to mourn. They often leave me feeling as empty as those beer bottles in my mothers apartment and as miserable as my father must have felt when he watched his son fade from view while sitting in the back of a police car. That said, like Natalie, I have got a choice. I can continue to stare down the walls of addiction, literal and figurative, or I can begin to imagine a future that is more promising. The former is familiar. As crazy as it sounds there is a certain amount of comfort and security that I have found in my pain and my suffering. Perhaps this explains why I keep returning to it, like a frightened child looking for his Father. I am not a child anymore, the innocence of childhood can never be recovered. I can, however, pay my respects to it, grieve my losses and move on. Who’ll be my role-model? Now that my role-model is gone, gone. It’s a good question.

Why Am I Here? I Don’t Have A Disease!

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The sun has reached its apex for the day and I’m at the ‘nooner’. Now, depending on which dictionary you prefer that could mean that I am: (a) having a midday sexual encounter, (b) getting jingled at the pub, or (c) attending a lunch-time Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting. I don’t know why it can’t be all of those things, and I’m not ruling out at least one (you’ll have to guess), but the correct answer is (c), I’m at NA.

Why am I here? Not in the existential sense either, like literally, why am I at this NA meeting? It doesn’t really work. It’s been almost 14 years, and like they say in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), isn’t the definition of insanity “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”? Forgive me for being flippant but I’m a little bit disenchanted, I could be having sex!, but instead I’m stuck here, kneeled at the pew of my “powerlessness” over addiction.

NA knows why I am here. We all read the laminated oracle reprinted from the little white book of Narcotics Anonymous at the start of each meeting. I’m here because “before coming to the fellowship I could not manage my life”, along with my “inability to accept personal responsibility”, and “incapacity to face life on life’s terms”. Apparently I “suffer from a disease from which there is no known cure” and my only hope of recovery is that it be “arrested at some point”; as relief from the power of addiction is outside the realm of the natural world, and only God has the antidote.

In all fairness, my life was/is un-manageable and there were certainly times where the finger I was sticking up at the rest of the world should have been pointed directly back at yours truly, but this business about suffering from “a disease from which there is no known cure”? Come on!

In my last post I said that I would be exploring Marc Lewis’s refutation of the disease model of addiction which he expounds in his highly praised book The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not A Disease. I also said that I found Lewis’s assessment of addiction revelatory. I might have chosen a less biblical descriptor for his insight, but the apocalypse of addiction is upon me and I couldn’t help but receive the divine inspiration of a formerly addicted neuroscientist with over 50 peer-reviewed scientific articles who has been practicing psychology and teaching/doing research since 1989. Key word, formerly addicted!

I won’t simply regurgitate the introduction and first chapter of his book as I highly suggest you read it yourself, but his argument goes something like this. The disease model of addiction is, if anything, convenient. It’s a convenient way of explaining a complex problem that is driven by some combination of biological, neurological, psychological, and social-cultural processes. While Marc Lewis devotes the bulk of his attention to the brain science of addiction, what he does not do is divorce this from what he describes as the brains “natural partners”: psychology and personal experience. Meaning that in order for us to truly understand the nature of addiction would require multiple levels of analysis, including the complex sociocultural processes that we are subjected to as modern humans in the most highly technological stage of late capitalism (Gabor Maté, Bruce Alexander, and Johan Hari have all written books that will provide some nuance). But I digress—the main point is that the disease model which has been claimed as the property of the medical community (and as the means of production for the Treatment Centre Industrial Complex that has been built up around the lives of the addicted) is a convenient way of interpreting the changes to the brain which occur with chronic substance use. It’s also a convenient way to make sense of compulsive drug seeking and chronic relapse, despite the harmful consequences. It’s convenient for the medical community, the psychiatric community, and the addiction research community because, if addiction is a disease that means they can claim authority for its research and treatment, which is worth billions of dollar. I’m so surprised!

Politics aside, the disease model is also a convenient way of shielding the afflicted from the stigma and guilt of being addicted. As Lewis describes in his book, and as I experience each and every time I plant my ass in the chair at an NA or AA meeting, suffering from a disease from which there is no known cure that you were powerless against is certainly easier to contend with then the condescending eyes of a society who defines you as a moral failure. While having a disease may seem more appealing than being a dreg of society, it also doesn’t mean that you will stay clean. In fact, Lewis references one study which found that internalising the disease model of addiction is actually a pre-treatment predictor of relapse into substance use in the six months following treatment. It also ignores the empirical fact that millions of people simply stop using substances without internalising the disease model of addiction or the “benefit” of an intervention from the medical community. Isn’t that miraculous?

I can hear the AA literati’s reciting the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous ad nauseum. I’m just “looking for excuses”. I’m probably one of those “unfortunates” who is unwilling to “completely give myself” to their simple program, “constitutionally incapable of being honest with myself”. My only saving grace being the fact that I am “not at fault” because I was “born this way”.

It precisely the fact that I am constitutionally incapable of being dishonest with myself that I reject the disease model of addiction and find Marc Lewis’s position persuading. The changes which occur in the brain with persistent substance use are not evidence of a chronic, relapsing brain disease, but aren’t all that different from changes which occur in the brain with any other form of learning and development, like when you fall in love (or become a Trump supporter). If addiction is a disease then so is affection (and the 62,984,828 Americans who voted for Trump suffer from an incurable malady).

So, why am I here? I’m here at this NA meeting because there is honestly nowhere else to go where I can find a community of people with the common experience of addiction. I’m here because the only de jure requirement for membership is the desire to stop using substances and like many of the former addicts whom Marc Lewis interviewed as part of the research for his book, I look at it as one stop along the way on the journey towards finding myself. Like the woman described as Nathalie in Lewis’s book, I have to find a self before I can find self-control. Which means that NA cannot tell me why I am here, only I can. If a Nietzsche quote can do any justice to Marc Lewis’s work I think it would be his famous aphorism, off cited by the likes of holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl, that those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how.’The disease model of addiction confiscates the opportunity for those with a problematic relationship to substances from figuring that out for themselves. Like Lewis charges in his book, whether the medical, psychiatric, treatment centre, or twelve step community, they all seem to know what the problem is, and they’re the ones to fix it. I’d rather be like Nathalie and take responsibility for myself.

Now if you will excuse me I have got a mid-day sexual encounter to attend. Next blog post I will look more deeply at what Lewis describes as the intersection of experience and biology as well as the strategies for becoming an addict in the past tense, which were found to be useful to those he interviewed on their path to recovery development.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Addiction Is Not A Disease? Now You’re Speaking My Language!

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My Mother drank herself to death: alcohol induced asphyxiation. She choked on her own vomit and died, alone. I was thirteen, she was 40. The last memory that I have of her is the smell of death which lingered in the vacant apartment where she took her last drink and her last breath.

It was the day after the funeral and my heart was as heavy as the casket which I couldn’t carry out of the chapel before saying my final goodbye at the cemetery. I felt empty. Empty like the beer bottles which were strewn about her apartment, ornaments of her morbidity. I remember picking up one of the empties and wrapping my hand around the brown bottle. Perhaps like her, I was looking for answers. Maybe she had found hers. I’ll never know. Though It wouldn’t be long before I would understand the misery of an empty beer bottle.

I never lived with my Mother. At the time of her death I was under the guardianship of my Aunt and Uncle. My Father was in a federal prison where he had been since I was 8. Like the death of my Mother the loss of my Father was abrupt. I came home from school one day and he was gone. Left in his place was one among the many women on the circuit of his love life. She sat me down and handed me a tape recorder. I pressed play and by the end of the tape I was all alone. I’ve rewound that tape and played it again many times since. It always ends the same.

The last time I saw my Father I was the one wearing handcuffs. My legs were shackled and I was flanked by two armed correctional officers. I had been granted a “compassionate” escorted temporary absence from a Federal prison to visit him in the hospital on his death-bed. Like he did, I was serving an 8 year penitentiary sentence, except this was my second time down below, for Robberies. The irony continues to mock me like the iron handcuffs I was wearing that day which restricted me from clasping his weak and feeble outstretched hand as he gasped for air. I can still taste the cruelty and humiliation I swallowed in those last moments before saying my final goodbye. His hungry blue eyes told me that he loved me and it was time to go back to prison. My father died the next day, alone in a hospital.

I didn’t become an alcoholic because my mother was a drunk. Nor did I snort cocaine and rob banks because my father was a felon. That’s too easy. I’ve got two beautiful nieces and a nephew who’ve run a similar gauntlet of trauma in their young lives and they haven’t chosen to obliterate themselves with substances. Just like the fact that every Vietnam veteran who returned to the United States of America after the war didn’t keep injecting themselves with heroin.

I also reject the idea that I have a disease, as tidy of an answer as that would be for me to account for the trail of destruction that I have carved out in the course of the last 14 years. The prescription of a lifetime of evenings spent sitting in some church basement and proselytizing myself to the doctrine of Alcoholics Anonymous tastes about as good as the coffee they serve at the meetings. I simply cannot “fake it till I make it”, nor do I care to submit my will to a power greater than myself as a precondition to restoring my sanity; especially not when I am told that this “power” can be as hackneyed as a Styrofoam cup.

At the same time, I wouldn’t exactly say that my relationship with drugs and alcohol was a choice. At times, it felt about as much of a choice as going without water for a couple of days and deciding to pass on a drink from the fountain. To keep with the analogy, try holding your piss for a couple of hours. I suspect you will eventually give in, lest your bladder burst.

So what the fuck? If I don’t have a disease and I can’t stomach the canon of the Twelve Steps, what is there left to do? In Narcotics Anonymous I am told that there are three places for me: “Jails, Institutions, and Death!” (to really appreciate this prognosis I suggest chanting it aloud in a group). I’ve already been to Jail and I am pretty sure that I have spent more time in treatment centres than a doctoral student who has all but completed their PhD has spent in a University. If my addiction is really a bogeyman who is “out in the parking lot doing push-ups and waiting for me” like my last NA sponsor observed, death doesn’t sound so bad (and they should probably at least give me a whistle or some pepper spray to protect myself).

This is where my blog starts. I’m 32 years old and I have spent the entirety of my adult life in the clutches of “addiction”. I’ve spent a total of 22 months in residential treatment centres, 8 years in the penitentiary, and many months in between on parole in a halfway house. I’ve been diagnosed and medicated for mental health issues and explored the deep recesses of my mind with certified psychologists and psychiatrists. I’ve tried AA, NA, CA, and I even have a BA in Sociology. I’ve tried religion, read the Secret, and, for a period walked the Red Road. Yet, like a child who places his hand upon a hot stove, I keep getting burnt.

My last dance with the devil was about three months ago. I couldn’t hold my piss and found myself once again in a hotel room in the company of another hungry ghost and a near empty bag of coke. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Repeat Offender Parole Enforcement (ROPE) squad had set up surveillance on the hotel. It must have tipped them off when I didn’t return to the halfway house the night before. I remember glancing out the window as we coke users are known to do about every 15 minutes or so and seeing a police vest. With nowhere to run but the bathroom I did what came natural. I hid in the shower and proceeded to smoke cocaine resin while the cops outside threatened to come in and taze me if I didn’t give myself up. It’s one thing to be high on coke and think that the cops are outside. It’s a whole different level of outrageous when they actually are. Considering how much cocaine I had ingested over that 12 hour period, the idea of getting tazed wasn’t sitting very well and eventually I walked my arrogant ass out of the bathroom and into a pair of handcuffs before being jammed in the back of a cruiser and brought to the local jail.

My Father used to tell me that I had the unique ability to fall in a bucket of shit and come out smelling like a rose. I’m not sure what to call this fragrance but after 1 month in a local detention centre and 3 months back in Federal prison the Parole Board decided to grant me back my release, thorns and all, on the condition that I attend yet another treatment centre. On the day of my release, like a kid from a five-star binder commercial I had resolved that “this year’s going to be different” and tried to go in with an open-mind. If I’m anything, it’s resilient. Nevertheless, I wasn’t holding my breath. I assume my parole officer wasn’t either. I doubt it was a compliment when he told the parole board that I could teach the program at the treatment centre in stating his opposition to my release.

Last Friday I finished the program. My parole officer was right, I could probably have taught it. Then again, just because you know the game doesn’t mean you can play. If I took anything away from the program it was a book that I was given to read authored by the Canadian Neuroscientist and former addict himself Marc Lewis. His book The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not A Disease is informed by the latest research in Neuroscience, his own struggles with addiction, and the narratives of former addicts whom he interviewed as part of his research. The fact that Marc Lewis uses the past tense to refer to his addiction issues and those he has worked with is telling. Rather than embrace and accept that identity, as is the de facto precondition for membership in most of the twelve step groups, Marc Lewis suggests a path forward from problematic substance use which challenges the medical establishments disease model of addiction and suggests that addiction is nothing more than a relationship, no different from falling in love, sometimes with similar consequences. The idea that one can become a person for whom drugs and alcohol are no longer a problem because they have mastered the narrative of their own life and merged past, present, and future, autonomously, for me, is revelatory.

After 14 years of being told that “I am like a man who has lost his legs”, a sick, but rationally calculating addict with no hope but to have a spiritual awakening in acquiescence to a higher power and that god damned Styrofoam cup of stale coffee and twelve steps written at a time when scientists still believed that babies can’t feel pain, Lewis is speaking my language.

In my next blog post I will be exploring Lewis’s refutation of the disease model of addiction with comments related to my own experiences. The journey of self-discovery continues.