minutes & moments matter

“It’s like you’re giving birth to a big sober baby!” a friend of mine told me when I was about to celebrate nine months of sobriety back in October 2009. I laughed at her metaphor but it was kind of true. Whatever was growing inside of me was not the same hopeless drugged-out, eternally hung over monster that I was before. The longest I had ever gone since the age of 20 was five months. At  age 36, 9 months seemed like an impossibility. You don’t see that chip handed out at meetings very much and based on my own hellish days in early sobriety, I understood why. At seven months, I received my HIV-positive diagnosis, had a cyst yanked out of my face by the thorough yet sadistic Dr. Wong, attempted to piece back together my life after leaving a long-term relationship and basically tried daily not to drink or kill myself. Just getting to 9 months was like winning a race. Even though I knew I hadn’t graduated, the fact I made to that moment, really meant something.

It is strange that the life of a drunk, so free of schedules and oblivious to the concept of timing, suddenly becomes sensitive to every second when they stop drinking. Personally, I clung to tiny  little glimpses of joy as proof perhaps this hell wasn’t going to last forever. I collected happy minutes and hours, reflecting on them, leaning on them when times got dark. Coloring with my nieces, devouring big slices of pizza on beach by myself, random laughter with friends in recovery-  kept the lights on and kept me going. In Southern California, recovery milestones are met with lots of clapping, sometimes singing and cake. In the beginning I rolled my eyes and snickered at this stuff. After a few months, I found myself singing, clapping and even crying like my life depended on it.

Currently, I have people in my life counting days and collecting moments. Restarting sober lives, waiting for difficulties to pass, changing for the first time, learning to live without someone. Seems to be going around. And thank God.  Hope, for me, exists largely in the human capacity for change. Also, watching others hang onto moments and minutes forces me to be grateful for my own. Mainly, it gives me the strength to keep growing and changing too. Fears and difficult stuff didn’t vanish in a puff of glitter just because I stopped being a drunken dipshit. Quite the contrary. But if I try to love this moment and be thankful for the happy minutes, it’s amazing how much easier it all seems.

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Crazy pants

The very minute I start to research how apply for guru status in hopes of becoming this country’s new gay, white Oprah, is the very minute something happens that reminds I’m not in fact some all-knowing sage mystic sitting on a hill in Sedona. Yes, all it takes is one encounter that could have been avoided to confirm that I am indeed still batshit after all these years.

Without getting into the insane yet mundane details, I can tell you I had a meeting that turned into a screaming match. I’ve had a disagreement with a work collaborator for months and earlier this week things finally erupted.  It went from 0 to Housewives in 2.5 seconds. I sprung a Nene Leake, if you will. While these kind of explosions make for great television, they don’t really fit in with the way I try to live my life. Besides on those shows, the overdone screaming broads are usually nursing a kiddie pool filled with Pinot Grigio when one these kind of things happen. At 10:30am on a Tuesday morning with 3.5 years of sobriety, I didn’t have that excuse.

These days at Sean Inc. where the living being I encounter the most is my cat, yelling at another adult with my finger waving is not something I make the habit of doing. I mean, I’m supposed to be sober. I’m supposed to the kind of person who doesn’t yell at people anymore. But there I was screaming like a lunatic and I stormed off. Actually leaving was the smartest thing I did in that entire 10 minutes.  Yes a mere 10 minutes. It only took that long to turn me into a total lunatic.

I quickly discovered, as I rage-walked to wherever-the-hell I was going, that “letting someone have it” or “giving them a piece of my mind” doesn’t feel so good any more. In fact, it feels horrible. But what did happen, as the result of the crazy exchange, is that something dysfunctional finally ended. Would I have preferred to end this arrangement with an impeccably handwritten note on rose-scented monogrammed paper? Sure. Alas dignity and manners were tossed out the window  in favor of a ghetto “cuss a bitch out” type of exit. Oh well.

The good news is that I didn’t hang up the phone and go get drunk. Which was how I dealt with the aftermath of confrontation before. Instead, I called people in recovery. I went to a meeting. I told on myself for acting insane. And yesterday, I apologized to the person on the receiving end of my crazypants bullshit and made a real amends. This is truly an improvement and proof positive that even though my crazypants still fit me, it’s up to me whether of not I want to wear them all the time. Besides, my crazypants are out of style,  look ridiculous on me and have no place in current my spiritual wardrobe, so to speak. A few days after the blow-up, the fallout has been cleared and I feel better. It’s freeing to say, “Yeah, I’m fucking nuts but I’m working on it” and then carry on with the promise to try harder. Owning your insanity, I’ve heard it said, instantly makes you a little less crazier than you were before. If that’s the case, I’m on way to be becoming the poster child for mental health miracles!

The Library

I remember the first real meeting I went to. For those of you just joining us, by “meeting” I mean for the things alcoholics and drug addicts go to, not  a meeting like the high-powered thing CEOs go to with catered lunches and glass top conference room tables. This not-as-glamorous but equally as powerful meeting took place on the 4 floor of a dilapidated senior living complex in downtown Los Angeles. My recovery plan was simple.  I figured I’d sail in there,  shed some crocodile tears and legions of good-looking and helpful people would rally around  me and fix my life. I would then leave a brand new person, never to return. This rinky-dink library was filled with vintage page-turners by Nelson DeMille and Jackie Collins and probably didn’t see a lot of reading going on. I suspected it was more of an alternative napping place for the residents. (That’s how I plan on spending my golden years, by the way: finding new and kind of inappropriate places to fall asleep.) It figures that my first meeting would be in a library. I’ve spent the better part of my life hiding in libraries and stumbling on life changing information and this encounter was no different.

On my way to sit down, a really, really happy smiling older man in a flannel shirt and tan pants accosted me with a small square of paper. After getting my name, he explained the paper was to ask anonymous questions about getting sober. “Can you please shoot me?” or “What the hell am I doing here?” didn’t seem like the kind of inquires they were looking for so I kept the paper blank. As the meeting started, I surveyed the room looking for the three categories of  I normally look for upon entering a new situation: ” Fashionable people I want to talk to”, “Guys I Want to Sleep With” and People I Can’t Wait to Judge. It was a Tuesday afternoon so it was slim pickings for all three. Having grown up with a dad who got sober I was familiar with the slogans and prayers and pomp and circumstance to be found at an AA meeting. Within in moments, like clockwork all of it was there. But just as fast, I realized I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. Also, these people were really fucked up. I mean seriously. Relapses, depression, suicide attempts, jail time and that was all from people who’d been sober awhile! Where was the hugging and smiling and instant life-fixing? It sure the fuck wasn’t next to the Mary Higgins Clark books and burnt coffee in the senior center library. Still, I was desperate enough to stay and listen. I listened as a tough looking Latino guy (who would have comfortably fit into Category number 2 if times were rough and trust me, they were) read the questions and other alcoholics answered them. I listened to a hipster dude talk about how his world had improved. I listened to a girl cry who said drinking had made her life a mess. But mainly, I listened to people who kept coming to meetings. For years. And years. Older men, the smiling variety who didn’t fit into any of my categories, shared about how they kept coming to meetings and never drank, no matter what. Hearing this I started to cry. Suddenly my life flashed before my eyes. An eternity spent in dank smelly libraries listening to drunk people who tried to kill themselves. Somehow I don’t think I put this scenario on my vision board.

At the end of the meeting, my friend the smiling guy gave me a chip, he hugged me and told me to keep coming back. “Like Hell I will!”, I thought to myself. But I did come back. Because even though this seemed like the end of the world and the last fucking thing I wanted to do, my life was just beginning. Mainly, I came back because I wasn’t fixed yet and maybe it wouldn’t happen in one sitting but at least these people were laughing and weren’t drinking. No, I wouldn’t have imagined a new start happening in a shitty senior center in downtown LA but honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Clean Up on Aisle 9!

It’s painfully clear to me that I am becoming a homosexual of a certain age when things like vacuuming and picking out a toilet bowl cleaner have become truly soul-satisfying experiences. From licking cocaine off of the  private parts of strangers to Windexing my glass coffee table while I’ll listen to the Stephen Sondheim Pandora station– if my dealer could see me now! Granted, I’m not insane about cleaning. Cleaning didn’t become my new tequila. No, I’m still gleefully disorganized and live in a romantic state of what I like to call, “writer messy.” Still, working nearly full-time from home does require me to be a little more put together and it’s easier to create when my desk isn’t doubling as The Tiny Scrap of Paper and Dead Pen Museum.  Considering my old drunk house had a sunroom filled with water damaged yet empty appliance boxes, VHS tapes of bad 80s porn and mysterious toenail clippings, I do okay today in the cleaning and organizing department. If only the upkeep and cleaning of my personal life was as easy.

We are told in recovery that if we don’t drink, trust a higher power, help others and clean house, we’ll do alright. The clean house thing is always a struggle for me. Drunk me always liked to shove it in a closet and shut the door when it came to actual and emotional messes. Out of sight, out of mind. Out of control. This method of avoidance maintenance, unfortunately, no longer works for me. At three-plus years of sobriety, I can run but I hide. I’ve had little personality flaws, flaming character defects and some shitty habits show up on my doorstep recently. Instead of facing the music and dancing, I’ve decided to sit this one out and wait for a song I like better. In other words, I’m dealing by not dealing. As previously stated, this kind of shenanigan can’t go on for long. After being really uncomfortable and causing a fair amount of personal drama, I had to grab the metaphoric broom and mop and clean my shit up. This involved but was not limited to such delightful activities as admitting I was wrong, listening to someone I hurt without getting to attack them in return, and owning some really awful behavior. Ugh. I’d rather cleanup the toenails.

Unlike a sparkly clean bathroom blinding with it’s whiteness and smelling like a bleach bouquet, the benefits of personal cleanups aren’t always immediate. Usually for me they require a change in attitude and action. A week has passed since my mess was uncovered and the cleanup process began. This so-called major overhaul and shameful mess hasn’t been so bad. What I thought required an emotional forklift really just needed some honesty and humility. (Which by the way is not in the same aisle as paper towels and Ajax. I looked.) Sure, I’d like to be able to shut the door and say, “Nothing to see here, move along!” on my personal disasters. But as a person in recovery, it’s a luxury I no longer have. Today, I get to face stuff, clean things up and continue to change. And that’s pretty terrific.

So  pass the Pine-Sol and pump up the jams!

Inspiration for 10/4: “Try Just a Little Bit Harder” by Janis Joplin

“If it’s a dream, I don’t want nobody to wake me.” 

42 years ago today, Janis Joplin was found dead in a Los Angeles hotel room. On that October 4th, the world lost a soulful, powerful vocalist who’s influence would be felt for deacdes to come. Janis was one of many artists whose flame was put out by drugs and alcohol. Her story has sadly become a rock and roll cliche and gets repeated several times every year. Yet it’s her take no prisoners music and badass vocal stylings that survive today. And “Try Just a Little Bit Harder” is one song which truly captures this legacy.

The track appeared on her 1969 record I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! While not lyrically, complex, “Try Just a Little Bit Harder” embodies the kind of attitude and sass that the world found irresistible in Joplin. While reading about Janis I found this quote by another idol, Stevie Nicks, that sums up Janis’ power perfectly:

“Janis put herself out there completely, and her voice was not only strong and soulful, it was painfully and beautifully real. She sang in the great tradition of the rhythm & blues singers that were her heroes, but she brought her own dangerous, sexy rock & roll edge to every single song. She really gave you a piece of her heart. And that inspired me to find my own voice and my own style.”

So on this chilly Thursday I’m going to rally and turn “Try Just a Little Bit Harder” into my funky theme song. Maybe I’ll blast other Janis tunes during my day to honor her.  Also as I work on some writing projects, I’m going to strive for that “beautifully real” quality that Stevie pinpoints in Janis. Finally, I’ll use the title of the song as kind of a mantra. Spiritually, creatively and emotionally I can try just a little bit harder today. And it’ll feel good. Or  as the lady herself would say, “You know you got it if it makes you feel good!”