This is different than anything I’ve posted on Sprinter Life before. It’s long, confessional, and due to content and language, possibly inappropriate for children. It may not even be appropriate for the blog. Yet, for some reason, I felt compelled to write it, to share my story, maybe as a way to reach out and bridge the gap from where I am to where I want to be. So here you have it, a personal essay on how I found myself on a journey that led me from death and addiction to love and happiness–and ends, I hope, in grace.
When I was twenty-six, I was asked to be the 10 minute speaker at an AA meeting. I was still very ‘new’ and nervous about sharing my story, but in the 12 step program, one learns not to blow off a request to be of service. I was told to take a deep breath and just start from the beginning. So I did.
“Hi, my name is Stevie, and I’m an addict.” “Hi Stevie,” the room replied. I inhaled deeply, and from the podium in the most matter-of-fact voice that I could muster, I explained, “I started shooting heroin when I was 21 because my cat Spencer died.”
The room burst into joyous, wild, open-mouthed, hardy har-har hysterics. I did not expect this. I stared at them in wide-eyed shock as the blood rose to my face in a hot confusion so intense my ears pounded. This wasn’t a joke any more than the tracks that lined my arms were. There was no punch line. Why were they laughing at me? At 90 days clean after a brutal five-year addiction, I was too raw and sincere and demoralized to appreciate how hilarious this was to a room full of veteran alcoholics and addicts in recovery who knew, even if I didn’t, that shooting heroin because a cat dies isn’t what ‘normal’ people do. According to the unspoken wisdom of the room, I shot heroin because I suffered from the disease of addiction and that’s just what addicts do, whether they break a nail or lose a limb. It’s a chicken and the egg argument that I don’t want to get into right now about addiction, but, it suffices to say that my reaction to Spencer dying was a bit excessive, and my “explanation” was undoubtedly endearing to the old-timers because it surely reminded them of similar cock-eyed theories they had told themselves, and whole-heartedly believed, many years before.
What the good people in AA were missing, however, was that Spencer actually had everything to do with why I shot heroin. Spencer was my hero, or heroine to be precise, and the love she showed me was unconditional. Looking out from the eyes of my small self, she was who I wanted to be when I grew up: brave, defiant, tender, loving and wild.
On the way home from the pound where we adopted Spencer, my mom held the new kitty on her lap and told my little sister and me that in a past life, when she was Cleopatra, Spencer had been her cat. As my mom regaled us with the details of her and Spencer’s shared history of nobility and power, the two-pound flea-ridden fur ball pissed a bladder full of concentrated cat urine all over Her Majesty’s lap. My sister and I didn’t dare laugh, but inside, a deep admiration swelled in our hearts. In the years to come, when either my mom or dad hit Spencer or flung her off the deck so that her tiny body slammed against the side yard fence and slithered down into the trash cans, she didn’t run away and abandon me, as I often feared she would. Instead, she snuck back in the house later that evening to shit in my dad’s shoe or piss on my mom’s pillow before slinking into my room to sleep for the night. Unlike me, Spencer wasn’t diminished by the abuse. She never cowered or played nice to try and win their love, nor did she allow herself to be shamed into submission. It was as if my parents rage was something that occasionally spilled over into her world, in which case she’d promptly exact revenge but then carry on with her daily routine–take a nap, lick her crotch, kill a bird–seemingly unaffected by it. She wasn’t defined by the bad things that happened to her. I wished that I could be brazen and fierce and untouchable like she was–that when I was smacked or slammed or kicked or choked that I too would shit and piss and hiss and bite and fight back like a person who wasn’t afraid, ashamed, and longing for acceptance. But I didn’t even raise a hand in my own defense. I was pathetic; Spencer was strong.
And, yet, at night, once tucked into the safety of my bed, she nursed on my ratty crocheted ‘baby’ blanky well into adulthood, belying her toughness with a vulnerability for which I fell madly in love.
On my 18th birthday, as I moved out of my parents’ house with a black eye and some matching trash bags full of clothes while my sobbing 11 year old sister hung on my leg and begged me not to leave her, Spencer moved out, too. Unbeknownst to me, when I failed to come home that night and every night following, she saw no reason to return. Two months later, my mother left a message on my answering machine saying that my cat hadn’t been home since the day I left and was most likely dead. Devastated, I drove to my parents’ street at a time when I knew they wouldn’t be home and parked in the cul-de-sac in front of the little league field where Spencer liked to hunt. I stood outside of the car with my face pressed against the tall chain-link fence that separated the street from the field and cried a blur of hot tears while making the kissing sounds that I hoped would beckon her soul. I was a mess. After five or ten minutes, ever present of my parents’ house a half a block away, I turned to go home. Just before I got into my car, however, I looked back one last time to pucker a final farewell.
And then I saw it. A tiny brown speck streaking across the field. I couldn’t believe it. It was her!! She climbed over the short baseball diamond fence, hit the ground running again and squeezed through the big gate on the tall chain-link fence where I had stood just a minute before. Then, from a solid eight feet away, she leapt directly onto my chest, landing with a thud, followed by a deafening purrr. I felt loved beyond measure.
I took Spencer home to live with my boyfriend and me in our tiny house in Redondo Beach where she settled in just perfectly. I worried that she’d miss hunting in the church and baseball fields by my parent’s house, but she didn’t seem to mind the sedentary life of living with two college students who studied and worked all the time. The formerly lithe huntress even put on a few pounds, lending her a more matronly gait as she sauntered about the house.
Now, if, a year and a half later, when that boyfriend decided that he was done playing house and opted to move back in with his loving family, I hadn’t decided to move into an apartment in West Hollywood closer to UCLA that didn’t accept cats and then drop Spencer off to go live with my parents again, well, then this story may have ended very differently. But, too absorbed in my own drama, I did abandon Spencer, and in my absence, she developed cancer and no one noticed until I finally drove down to visit and walked through the door and exploded into tears when I saw her ravaged body, a shadow of her former self. I scooped her up, all bones and fur, eyes dull with disease, and took her to the veterinarian. She crawled behind my neck beneath my hair, frail and terrified as we waited for the vet to see us. The vet told me that he was going to cut her open the next morning to do an exploratory, but that given her condition, it didn’t look good. He said to come back at noon tomorrow to hear the results. Even though I heard the vet with my own ears, I refused to let the information sink in. Spencer was dying and I just went numb. That would be the last time I saw her. The next day I did not return to the vet’s office, nor did I call. Instead, my mother went and the vet informed her that Spencer’s body was ‘riddled with disease.’ She had to make a choice between taking Spencer home to die naturally of cancer within a few weeks or to mercifully put her down that day. She chose the latter option, as I most likely would have done, as well, had I been there.
But I wasn’t there. I didn’t make the choice. I didn’t hold Spencer. And I didn’t gently scratch under her chin, telling her I loved her, as she passed from life to death. No one did.
When Spencer died, and I wasn’t there for her, the already thin thread that tethered me to my better self burned in shame and remorse. I hated myself with a passion that should be reserved for child molesters and murderers. I had failed her in the end, and the end is resolute and silent in a way that can only be described as fucking maddening.
And boy did I go down that wacky rabbit hole.
Was I too hard on myself? Absolutely. Was so much of my shame misplaced? No doubt. Was my pain self-inclicted? Of course. It almost always is. Yet, it was all necessary.
For five years I punished myself for failing Spencer, for childhood shame and pain that I was nowhere near understanding, for working so pathetically hard to be perfect, get straight As, look pretty and always just a little more skinny, and all for what? What did it matter when on the inside I was not brave, defiant, tender, loving and wild? When I looked in the mirror, I saw a girl who was meek, insecure, obedient, and desperate to be loved. And, yet, the irony is that I probably was loved. In fact, I know I was, but not by whom I thought should love me and not in the way that I wanted to be, so all the other love in the world passed through me like sand through a sieve. Like Spencer, my insides were ‘riddled with disease’; the center could not hold. I had a hole in my heart.
In fact, one doctor even told me as much. It was the 26th of December in San Francisco, and I had just turned twenty-four. I had flown up to San Francisco from Los Angeles two days before on Christmas eve to get clean alone. The boyfriend with the loving family who didn’t want to play house with me anymore had moved to New York a year prior and was home visiting briefly for the holidays. On Christmas Eve, he said he’d come pick me up and presumably take me back to his parents’ house. I was so excited to see him and go home to his loving family. It would be like it used to be. I would be like I used to be! The loving family had known me since I was fifteen–their son being my first boyfriend–so surely they could help me get back to the girl who had conversed with them in french, played Fur Elise on their baby grand piano, and spent many past Christmases at their house. I put on a long-sleeve sweater and packed up my sparse belongings into a vintage pink, hard plastic Samsonite and waited for him by the door. When he showed up at the abandoned house near Hollywood and Vine, where the ‘rooms’ inside were no more than cubicles separated by old sheets, and the tenants living there were otherwise known as junkies, I quickly realized that I had made a big mistake. He did not see me as I used to be–not even a little bit–and he definitely was not going to take me home to his loving family. So, he did what he thought best to do, which was to drive me to LAX and put me on a plane to Oakland at midnight. Alone. On Christmas Eve. He explained that I had to get clean alone, because only then would I know that I was really doing it for me. Sadly, I believed him. (Why so many addicts think they can do it on their own escapes me, but I blame my folly on the arrogance of youth and Ayn Rand.) Anyway, I never saw him again, and the next day I spent Christmas in a residential hotel in San Francisco, South of Market, lonely as fuck, nodding out watching infomercials. But, the day after, when the methadone clinic reopened, I set out to get clean…ALONE! During the perfunctory medical examination that you get before they give you the toxic pink syrup meant to cure you, the doctor listened to my heartbeat and informed me that I had developed a small heart murmur, a somewhat common repercussion of IV drug use. Finding the idea of my heart whispering sweet nothings to be wonderfully poetic, I asked “What’s it saying?” “It says to stop shooting heroin. You’ve got a hole in your heart,” she quipped. “Well, of course I do,” I snapped back, “why do you think I shoot heroin?” Again, like an idiot I argued a case of the chicken and the egg, but I couldn’t help it--the irony was too sad, true and tragic to not be glib.
Needless to say, after countless attempts, I did not get clean alone in San Francisco or anywhere else for that matter. It took a village for me to get clean and to that village I will forever be grateful. My official clean date is April 5th, 2002.
About a year and a half after I stood from the podium at the meeting and introduced myself as an addict, I met Kiki. I was living in Cyndi’s back house in Hermosa Beach, when Layla, Cyndi’s daughter, moved back home with her three year old dog and two cats. Within a couple of months, Layla realized that she needed to find a home for Kiki, but by then I had fallen hard for her and would be damned if we were going to give her away. So, I took ‘official’ responsibility of Kiki, and it was a win-win for everyone.
I continued to go to AA meetings for a total of three and a half years, most of which Kiki attended with me. Throughout that time, I worked an outside sales job and took acting classes–again, with Kiki in the backseat while I met with clients or outside the theater practicing my lines with me. Towards the end of my time in AA, however, I began to feel boxed in by beliefs that no longer served me. In recovery, I had been playing my life ‘safe,’ based on a fear of relapse. The more I made choices based on this fear, the less authentic my life felt, and the more angst I developed. My sober comrades seemed to suggest that I could either be bound to my program or my disease–my choice–but I didn’t see it that way. I understand that A.A. vs. addiction is the choice for many people, but that dichotomy didn’t feel like my truth. I was no longer afraid of relapsing on heroin. I have an immense respect for the drug–it is not to be trifled with--but I came to realize that heroin was simply my way of self-medicating, and it could be replaced by a host of other problematic ways–such as sex, work, money, power, status, food, love, shopping, the list goes on–to cover up what was festering on the inside. In other words, heroin was not the problem. My own mind was. And, really, it still is, along with the stories it tells me, the feelings it generates, the constant craving for more of the good stuff, less of the bad stuff, and especially, especially the way it tells me that if only I could control you, her, him and that guy over there, then finally I’d be happy.
Fortunately, however, I had figured out that I could quiet the brilliant, neurotic, and wonderfully wacky trap called the mind–at least to a manageable din–without the use of heavy narcotics. Sure, this was a skill I’d have to practice for the rest of my life, but my mind was no more “broken” or “diseased” than a “normal” person’s. It’s just a mind, and that’s what minds do: They fuck us up if we let them. Granted, I was certainly spooked by the AA prophecies of my impending doom, but, deep down, I was more terrified of conforming to a life that felt too small for me to unfurl my limbs and run with the wolves. As safe and warm and familiar as the womb was, I wanted out. I needed out. It was time to reach for the stars…
…Or at least for Europe. Without ceremony, I left AA, quit my job, and boarded a plane to London. I backpacked through eight countries by myself, a dream I’d had since I was an adolescent. Along the way, I ate a space cake in Amsterdam, drank Trappist beer in Brugge, and enjoyed more than a few glasses of Bordeaux in Paris and Brunello in Rome. Just as I suspected, my “disease” did not ambush me. On the contrary, I felt brave, defiant, tender, loving and wild! I was alive and free, but not in the Light-as-a-Feather-Who-Gives-A-Fuck-Because-I’m-Wasted way, but rather in the I-Just-Had-An-Existential-Crisis-And-Am-Terrifyingly-Responsible-For-My-Own-Happiness kind of way. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel diminished by my bad childhood, my bad choices, my bad feelings, and my very bad behavior. In the five years I was loaded and the three and a half that I was sober, I had a lot of time to deconstruct these stories that I believed about myself and my life, and after careful reflection, I realized that there was nothing bad about any of it. They were just experiences, and what I decided to do with them was my choice. I could choose to 1) be ‘diminished’ by them and punish myself with drug addiction, 2) spend the rest of my life identifying as an ‘addict’ and steer the ship from that vantage point because at one point in time I was moored there, or 3) embrace the art of alchemy and turn that bad shit into glorious motherfucking gold. I chose the latter option. I chose to view my past as fertile ground to grow me into a better person, a more compassionate being of my own creation who can better hold you when you’re aching because I know what it means to hurt so much you shake with pain, who can risk it all to pursue crazy dreams and live in a van and pee in a funnel because I know what it is to lose everything and still be okay, and most importantly, who can love love love with utter abandon because I’ve had a holey heart and I know how to stitch it up and march onward chanting Long Live the Ubermensch! all across Europe.
Shortly after I returned, I turned thirty and re-enrolled at UCLA to finish my literature degree, an accomplishment that Kiki earned right along with me, attending classes and staying up late writing countless papers together. Also, completely disregarding my friends’ reasonable concern, I fell madly and irrevocably in love with a devastatingly handsome rock climber, who was living in a van in Las Vegas, the very second I sat on his luscious lap–which is meant to say, IMMEDIATELY, because that is how we met. From a distance, I walked right up, sat on him and said, You Are Mine Forever. Okay, I didn’t say that. What I really said was, “Whoah! You’re cute!” as I squeezed his face in lusty adoration, but the subtext was clear. And when Kiki met him a few days later to go on what would be our first family hike together, she pretty much said the same thing but with less words. Neither Kiki nor I had ever taken to a man with such vigor before, but what can I say, we knew that he was the One for Us.
In the following years, I have continued to make decisions that honor my truth, even when they have defied social norms and at times earned me outright disdain. Along the way I have been abandoned by friends and family for choices I made that were beyond their comfort zones, I have ripped my heart out of my own chest while it was still beating, and I’ve had my heart smashed into a million tiny pieces. But, ultimately, none of that matters. I followed my heart and that path has led me to here and now–the happiest I have been in my entire life.
And who has been by my side for nearly ten years as I’ve moved from city to city, job to job, made friends, lost friends, found myself, fell apart, and found myself again? Darling Kiki.
In the near decade that I have spent with Kiki, I have been my best self more than ever before. If Spencer taught me to be my own self–to not be defined by what happens to me but rather by what’s inside me–then from Kiki I have learned to go where the love is and not dwell in the absence of where I want it to be. If you ever see Kiki in a crowded room, you’ll know exactly what I mean. First, she sits next to someone and offers up her head or belly to be scratched, fully assuming that all people are spilling over with love and want nothing more than to give some of it to her. Given that she is downy soft and adorable, most people oblige. But, when that loving person finally tires of giving her affection, as is wont to happen, she simply moves on to the next person and repeats the drill until she’s worked her way around the entire room. What she doesn’t do is waste one single second not being adored when she’s surrounded by so much love.
So, if some people could no longer be friends with me or “support my choices” because I wasn’t sober anymore, or I was going through a tough time and was a total shit-show to be around, or I moved into that van and married the devastatingly handsome rock climber and got knocked up while driving from Mexico to the tip of South America and said fuck the American Dream… well, then, so be it. I have lost whole villages at a time, but you know what, if you lose one village, you have to go find another one. There is no special honor in doing it ‘alone.’ In fact, doing it alone is stupid, it sucks balls, and it doesn’t even work. We absolutely need love, connection and community to thrive so we simply must go where it is and not dwell where it isn’t.
Of course, it hurts deeply when people fail to love and accept us for who we are, but it doesn’t hurt nearly as badly as betraying our own truth in a futile attempt to win affection or approval that isn’t there to begin with. And there’s no point in suffering anyway when Kiki is right: Love is in abundance. Why surround ourselves with anything less?
In learning to speak Kiki’s language, I have learned to be present, observe, listen, and participate in the here and now without projecting my crazy trap onto it. So has Tree. In fact, the three of us spend an inordinate amount of time just staring at each other with dopey looks of love on our face–every non-word sinking deep into the wrinkles of our soul. Kiki has also taught me the importance of having a pack and keeping it together. I’ve learned that no matter what hardship befalls me, I can show up for the ones I love, and that, above all, has made me feel so very good about who I’ve become. And even though I can never go back and right my wrongs in life, this feeling of being my best self allows me to forgive myself for failing Spencer, my friends and family, and of course myself. I have learned to have compassion for my suffering and all of yours too–especially for the “you” that have hurt me.
So, by now you may be wondering, why the hell I am telling you all of this?
A couple of weeks ago, we found out that Kiki is very sick with not one, but TWO heart problems, and I am now faced with perhaps the biggest lesson Kiki will ever teach me: how to let go with grace, or rather, how to face down the end, the resolute and silent end, the fucking maddening end, without losing my shit.
William James called death “the worm at the core” of man’s pretensions to happiness. I agree and would only add that I think it eats at the heart of love as well. I often push out horrible thoughts about losing my lifeboat people, the ones that I would automatically save if the ship was going down. That is unequivocally my biggest fear, the one that’s been with me my entire life. My biological father died of a heroin overdose when my mother was five months pregnant with me, bequeathing me a world in which I could feel the presence of ‘loss’ long before I understood what a dad or a husband was, or what it meant that he was ‘dead.’
I learned that grief is polymorphous. At times, it has dimensions, weight and texture. It’s like a giant octopus that sits on your chest, steals your breath, confounds your fingers, trips up your feet, cuts out your tongue and leaves you wailing so loud that you don’t even realize that you’re the one screaming. And, yet, other times, it’s a thick, diaphanous ether: silent, invisible and everywhere. It refracts light and warps the mind’s eye, distorting everything you see, touch, taste, hear, and smell–it all becomes disfigured by grief.
Grief is the boogieman that crawls under your bed and waits for the lights to go out.
When Spencer died, I was wholly unprepared for the vacuum that would besiege me and siphon out my insides. I went straight mad, no stops along the way. Looking back, however, I realize that I was but a waif, a wispy little thing–I had no internal substance or external support to brace myself when the invisible octo-beast came tearing through my fragile being. It’s no wonder that I sought to self-medicate with a world-class, knock-out pain-killer. It feels good.
I have been asked many times what heroin feels like, and I always answer the same: Relief. Blessed sweet relief. It’s like crawling into a hot bath after a lifetime of bone-aching cold. At least that’s what it felt like to me ten years ago, and I imagine it would still feel the same today. It would tint my world in sepia, softening its tones, creating a hazy warm buffer between me and the worm at the core of my consciousness, the gnawing fact that I and everyone I love is going to die. But, as nice as it is, I don’t want relief anymore, or at least not the kind that insulates me from my core, regardless of what discomfort is wiggling around down there. I want to be present for friendship, love, hope, fulfillment–and even disappointment, loss, pain, and grief–because the truth is that they are all interrelated. I can’t just pick out the piña colada jelly bellies and leave the buttered popcorns in the bag. If I could, I would, but since I can’t, well then I want them all. I want the whole rainbow of bellies, and even the worm, because, again, it’s all necessary.
To elucidate this point, today I draw strength from somewhere ancient inside me that I discovered, ironically, thanks to heroin. Heroin stripped me of everything–college, cars, apartments, beauty, friends, family, dignity, and five precious teeth–but left me with what can’t be lost, with what is essential. In losing everything that I thought mattered in making me a decent and lovable creature, it was as if my life went on rewind all the way back to when that sperm fertilized the egg and BANG! I started over. I was reduced to nothing more than potential again: perfect in every way, a locus of divinity. And, in recognizing my own miraculous Awareness, I realized that I am but one bright speck on a planet shimmering with Awareness. And, guess what? So are you. We are all wonderfully interconnected, made of the same sparkly stardust, and yet tasked with endlessly unique ways of expressing the divine consciousness within us. How wondrous and radical is that?
And from this wondrous place of radical divinity, I started healing. I was able to look at why I reacted to losing Spencer the way I did and admit that I wasn’t just grieving my dead cat. I was grieving my dead heroine, specifically because I had become nothing like her. I hadn’t just failed her in the end, I had failed myself in becoming the woman I wanted to be because I hadn’t done the necessary work to be her. I hadn’t sorted through the child abuse or the resentment or the adolescent expectation that life should be ‘fair’ or any of the feelings and responses those things bring up. But, finally, stripped of all pretenses, left with nothing but twenty-seven teeth, a shitload of track marks and a little lamp unto myself, I was willing to let go of my druggy buffer blanky, dig deep into the icky muck, and attempt to sort it out.
And, lo and behold, if I didn’t find a little Spencer in me after all! It was a brave, defiant, tender, loving and wild little girl who walked through the doors of AA and asked that village for help, and it was an even more brave, defiant, tender, loving and wild woman who walked out to help herself.
It is also from this magic place of strength inside that I am compelled to throw myself into the fire pit of love for Kiki and Tree and family and friends and even strangers on a daily basis, where I let those hot flames melt and mold and forge me into a better version of myself.
And even though my mind reels in anguish at the thought of losing Kiki, my lifeboat dog, the one whose constant love has saved me when my ship was sinking, the one who has been by my side more than anyone else, the one who is like a root that travels deep into me and connects all the manifestations of who I’ve been for the past ten years, still, from this place inside me where my essential being dwells, and where Kiki will forever dwell, I will let go with grace.
I accept that suffering is part of being human; death is part of life; loss is part of love. And as painful as it is, I’m eternally grateful for it.
And it’s in this wondrous place of radical divinity that I also find you and all your little lamps unto yourselves, ready to light my way when the darkness comes, and the boogieman comes out, and it’s time to cross the river without my darling Kiki. When I stand on the shores of grief, possibly losing my shit, you will send me missives filled with kind words of condolence, encouraging me to let go and float across on my shaky boat to your shores of compassion, where I will march onward.