As I listened to a beloved member of my fellowship share a heartbreaking story of his brother who committed suicide after decades of struggling to get sober, two things happened. First, the idiotic, self-involved stuff I was worried about instantly melted away. Nothing like legitimate tragedy to put your “problems” in perspective. And second, a thought that always hits me when I hear news like this came over me once again: “Joe.”
Joe wasn’t my best friend in recovery. Joe wasn’t somebody I hung out with. In fact, Joe was actually someone I was kind of jealous of. Handsome, smart and with an incredible job Joe and his partner were the kind of gay couple in recovery us single losers wanted to be. But Joe and I did have two big things in common: the same home group and we both got sober on January 2nd 2009. When we picked up one year anniversary chips, Joe and I finally exchanged numbers and looked like we were moving towards becoming friends. Sadly, I never got to use his number. Joe and his partner relapsed and struggled to stay in the program. A few months later, Ken came home and found Joe dead in his bathtub. After struggling to get back into recovery, Joe couldn’t take it and like so many of us do, committed suicide. His death hit me like a ton of bricks. Here was a guy with my same sobriety date who seemed to have everything, dead in the blink of an eye. A shockwave of sadness flowed through our group and folks rallied around his heartbroken spouse. At the time, my grief manifested in wondering “Why Joe and not me?” I wondered for a long time why some us get to stay and keep being sober while others relapse and get taken out by this disease. It all seemed so senseless. Wasn’t just wanting it enough?
Three years since Joe’s death and two days since listening to my friend’s talk of heartbreak, I know that just wanting it for someone isn’t enough.They have to want and they have to want to do the work. And while we will never know for certain why some of us get to stay sober and stay alive, I like to think there’s a bigger reason. I put myself in dozens of crazy and dangerous situations and with lethal combinations of chemicals. I’m not sure why that stuff didn’t kill me. I’m equally puzzled as to why I chose to hang onto my life-preserver instead of relapse this go round. But what I do know is since I’m here I owe it to Joe and to my friend’s brother and millions of others to make the most of everyday, to work hard on being less of jerk and to help as many people as I can. I think of it as life-preserver insurance.
I went to detox on Friday night. But unlike the handful of near death survivors who sat in the little community room at the city hospital with me, I got to go home. I was asked to speak and anytime anyone asks me to speak at a detox or rehab, I jump at the chance. Not only because they’re such captive audiences or because I’m a lot more hilarious to people in hospital gowns but because it is an honor. For some reason my daily drinking and rabid drug use didn’t kill me so I’ll happily show up for people who really need a laugh or little bit of hope. Too bad Joey Kovar didn’t get to live to do the same thing.
29 year-old Joey Kovar, a cast member of MTV’s Real World: Hollywood and Celebrity Rehab, was found dead last Friday near Chicago. He was found with blood coming out of ears and nose. Drugs, of course, are suspected to be the cause of death. The real, Real World is a brutal place and checking out of it must have seemed like the only option for Joey. And that’s just how it ends for a reality star whose drug addiction and binge drinking made for great TV. No scads of celebrities Tweeting about how wonderful he was and no video montages of his finest moments. Just a big story on People.com and lame statement from MTV,who profited from his demons and then tossed him aside. Kovar soon becomes the answer to a trivia question and the world at large moves on to talking about bigger things like Oprah’s interview with Rihanna.
Now I’m not saying that we should have a moment of silence for Kovar or name a street after him but his death does make me stop and think about how we honor the lives of addicts. For big stars like Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston, we dance around the fact that they were drug addicts and focus on their careers instead. For z-listers like Kovar, we act like we do when anyone dies from alcoholism or addition, like it’s a shame but we saw it coming. Really what pisses me off about celebrities who die from drug addiction is the missed opportunity we have to really talk about the disease at hand. We don’t honestly say to kids or even adults, “This famous person died because of their alcoholism and drug addition. It wasn’t heart problems or drowning or because an evil doctor gave them a prescription. They died because they were addicts.” Yeah I realize things haven’t changed since I bitched about this same issue when Whitney died a few months ago.
But what I can do is not shut up and not sit back and watch any more. Having watched the Real World in the past and Real Housewives and any other bullshit show that pretends to be real, I can safely say I’m over trotting out hot messes, giving them wine and letting the cameras roll for our amusement. Being a disaster isn’t entertaining or inspiring. I’m done contributing to the culture who awards drunken idiots by giving them TV shows. This isn’t to say I don’t love my Chopped or RuPaul’s Drag Race but I’m just not interested in sacrificing dignity for entertainment anymore. And besides making a meal out of sheep’s stomach or performing in 6 inch clear heels requires some actual talent.
Anyway, it’s a shame Joey didn’t get the chance to hang out with my friends on the fourth floor detox of the county hospital. No there wasn’t any cameras or designer gift bags or journalists from Extra. There was just a group of people fighting for their lives and hoping they could change. Talk about real. We’d never tune in to watch such a thing on cable TV.
Years ago, a friend of mine once succinctly told me, “You’d like to be Marcia Brady but you’re really a Jan.” He was right. The bastard. Like the tortured Jan Brady, I am a quintessential middle child with the baggage to prove it.
Jan and I suffer from serious conditions like “Where’s Mine”-itis, “I’ll never be as good as her”-phobia” and general feelings of suckiness. I spent a lot of time trying to be different from my siblings and to stand out. Unlike Jan, however, my methods weren’t as harmless as making up a fake boyfriend or wearing an afro wig. I was more of the dropping acid on the mall and shaving stripes into my head type. Potayto, Potahto. I’d hardly be a fabulous alcoholic if I didn’t blame my lot in life on my birth placement so you best believe I milked being a middle child for all it was worth. Us middle children have an uncanny ability of making folks believe that we were rarely fed, chained to a radiator and ignored all because we have more glamorous older and younger siblings. Of course, all of it is a lie. Maybe not a lie in the early years but more of a childhood perception. It becomes a lie though the more we tell it to ourselves. I told myself and others that I drank over the hand I was dealt. But that was bullshit too. I drank and did drugs because I didn’t want to cope with life and wasn’t terribly interested in living the truth. Period. I think I would have drunk the same regardless of wherever I wound up perched on my family tree.
I rarely feel those childish moments of middle insecurity anymore. But I have been experiencing another kind of “middle” lately. My play has opened and closed to much success. My whirlwind romance is nearly two years old. Other extreme highs have just simmered into a great daily life. And I feel like I’m not at the climax or at the foot of the mountain. Just in the middle. As an addicted person, this ‘maintaining’ irks me. It needs to be either high highs or high drama and nothing in between. Like my other middle problems, this one stems from feeling “less than” and is also bullshit. When I’m sullen and self-absorbed and dissatisfied with everything, it completely craps on the amazingness that truly exists in my life today. Today, I woke up early, made muffins, hung out and got inspired with my writing group and then went to the theater with my husband. I even got new shoes and a coffee maker. My life is great! So what if it is the middle? Oreos, most of my favorite books,Tootsie Roll pops, Gone with the Wind– all have fantastic middles. Yet what if the middle is tough or crappy or unenjoyable? Doesn’t matter. I’m still lucky.
Last week I heard a friend of mine’s mother had killed herself. I don’t know why and the only thing I really know about suicide is that nobody ever truly knows why. What I can guess happened is that this sweet woman who had helped tons of people and changed her life suddenly couldn’t see past whatever stormy middle she was in. To honor her, I can be thankful for the big dramatic highs, the life-changing lows and especially the everyday middles.
It’s so alcoholic of me to turn the death of someone else into a blog post about myself. I remember going to a meeting the day Michael Jackson died and all anybody could talk about was how hard the death of a person they didn’t know was for them. We’re such a dramatic and self-centered lot. Therefore it is difficult not to talk about Whitney Houston. As an addict and alcoholic and fan, it’s hard not to take her death personally.
As the news is still fresh and many tears are still not dry, when it comes to Whitney Houston’s death over the weekend there is so much we still don’t know. It’s tempting to say it was drugs or booze that killed her. But the fact is we don’t know. As a person in recovery, I can assume she chose the final and tragic Door Number 3. They say there are only three options a life without recovery has for those who cannot stay sober–jails, institutions and death. My snap judgement is that she is a victim of the third option. It angers me because I’ve seen friends die because they couldn’t stay sober. But again, we just don’t know. So the best we can do is mourn her, appreciate her talents and pay tribute to her.
But is that truly the best we can do? After the decades of Judys, Jimmys, MJs and Amys when do we stop co-signing the behavior and acknowledge that these brilliant tortured souls died of a fatal disease? With MJ, we blamed someone else. With Amy, we ignored the obvious. If it does turn out to be drugs and alcohol that killed her, maybe Whitney’s death could be an invitation to an honest, global conversation about the reality of addiction. Kate Middleton has taken on the project of alcoholism and addition in England. Diana’s pet project was AIDS. Middleton clearly sees the issue as serious as any other major, fatal health epidemic. And that’s what it is. Houston admittedly tried to get and stay sober for years. To honor her memory with education and honesty, would be truly awesome.
And yet we just don’t know. I saw Whitney Houston in concert in 1990. The reason you went to a Whitney concert back in the day was to see that freakishly amazing voice come out of this beautiful woman. She didn’t disappoint. That voice was her special effect. That voice was the superpower she had over millions. In life that voice could change minds, inspire and give you chills. There’s no doubt her voice will live on for decades. We’ll remember that gift and maybe not talk about the demons that so clearly plauged her. And even when we do know more, we’ll just focus on the good stuff. Because we think that’s the best we can do.