Tuesday, March 29, 2011

“The Eighth Step” by Linda Peer

My counselor tells me that methadone addiction is superior to heroin addiction because it fills the hole but it is not psychoactive.

I tell him that it fills the physical hole but not the emotional hole. My heart does not sing when I see that translucent plastic cup, that unnatural green liquid. When I swallow it, joy does not blossom. Where is the thrill? Methadone is like a tired marriage. Methadone is like a droning suburb on Monday morning, busy as a bee hive and with the week of work between you and whatever you love to do: fishing, or skiing, or hanging at the bar, or whatever. How can methadone, the humdrum wife, replace the fiery bloom, the natural magic, of mistress poppy?

But I've been told that I quibble about words and argue about semantics. My counselor says, “What is the emotional hole you refer to, Billy? Why is it there? Go deeper. Let the investigation be your thrill.”

So I don't often mention my opinion to my counselor.

I'm on a mission and a pilgrimage. I'm on the eighth step of the twelve-step program. I am to let a Greater Power aid me. I am to make a list of the people I have harmed and become willing to make amends to them. I'm told that, "...in making amends, not only are we to 'right all such matters to the best of our ability', but we must ALSO change and stop doing the behavior that brought about the harm to begin with."

I'm well aware that habits both support and bind us. I've... let me say I've side stepped. I've side stepped a big habit by using methadone and the thought of attacking more habits at this juncture makes me... makes me want to hide in the bar. And why shouldn't I?

Instead, I've decided to sidle into the eighth step with the easier part, the men in my family--my father, grandfather, and uncle--because there are more women and although they are easier going, they will question me harder.

I should add that the inventor of AA wrote, "Every (addict) has found that he can make LITTLE headway in this new adventure of living until he FIRST backtracks and REALLY makes an accurate and unsparing survey of the human wreckage he has left in his wake."

He liked to capitalize words, but every time I (capitalized) read this it is the uncapitalized word 'unsparing' that gives me a pain in my heart and a twinge below my lungs, in the region of my liver. My heart and liver want to run away and take me with them.

Let me begin over: I'm sitting at my computer in my studio apartment in a dilapidated hotel whose heyday was about 1920. The current owner, a hippy turned rainbow person/entrepreneur, painted the old wooden gingerbread a Mediterranean blue. I am a good recovering addict: I have a job as a cabinetmaker and I pay my rent. That is important.

To my left, a window overlooks a half-cut lawn and the edge of the forest. Out there, even the air seems green. The smells of grass, spring lilacs, and lawn mower exhaust float in to distract me, but I will not indulge myself in the seductions of the view yet. I will exercise self-restraint. I will finish this. It is an effort I will eventually show to my counselor.

Let me set the stage for my remorse: I live in Piney, a tiny sylvan paradise where my grandparents bought a summer cabin. The landscape reminded them of the old country: the craggy mountains, the evergreen forest punctuated by groves of deciduous trees. I will relent about the view and describe it: beyond the spartan dimness of my room (addicts don't waste money on household accoutrements), wooly clouds drift over the mountains and browse in a cobalt sky. A neighbor swears as he repairs his lawn mower, oily parts and tools spread across his drive. Piney looks quaint, with Victorian buildings lining the short Main Street.

On gray, dull days I see the other Piney: the decaying trailers and the abandoned renovations, their sagging roofs protected with taut blue tarps. I notice curling shingles and dead-beat pickups, and Piney looks worn out and hopeless.

My grandpa never knew I was an addict, but he saw me grow from a clever boy to a youth without apparent ambition or any pleasure except to play guitar, a youth driven by the silliest of his friends' wishes and impulses. "Who are those boys to you?” Gramps said, “They are not your friends. Your family will care for you long after you've forgotten their names."
Dad said, “Everyone plays guitar. You can't depend on that to make your future.”

But I thought I knew better. I thought I'd leave my family far behind in my great American adventure, an adventure that would begin as soon as I could escape from them.
I did not become an addict in Piney, that happened in Texas, but you can buy drugs anywhere. Finding heroin is like hunting or fishing: if you know the habitat and behavior of the species 'dealer,' and you know how and where to wait, eventually you find what you seek.

My Dad and uncle both preferred their father's weekend life to his weekday life and settled in Piney full time. For years Dad commuted an hour and a half to work in Almedia. One autumn night he hit a deer, then a tree. Dad sat trapped in his car with the door crushed and his leg broken for an hour before another car drove by on that lonely road. He was lucky his horn worked, else he might have waited there all night.

After that, Dad went native. He raised honey, four kinds of pears, apples, and vegetables. He caught fish and shot deer, ducks, and turkeys. He fixed cars in our driveway and computers on our kitchen table. Mom baked bread, canned vegetables and fruit, and smoked trout. She sold honey, jam, pumpkins, and pies. We all chopped wood for the stoves and tended the garden. It was an earthly paradise for Dad, but all I wanted was to escape.

But I have wandered. Back to the eighth step. What it says exactly is this: “8) Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all.”

It is awkwardly put, isn't it? Is that the royal “we?” The tenses are a mess. It reads as though even the guy who invented it didn't want to do it. But as I said, I've been told I pick nits.

How have I harmed my dad and granddad? My grandfather is dead, but that does not matter for this purpose.

I did harm in the usual addict ways. OK, I'm supposed to be specific. After I returned from Texas, I needed money. Mom has a softer heart than Dad and she's a softer touch. I nabbed a ten from her here, a twenty there, long after Dad cut me off, saying I'd just spend it on drugs. And I spent it on drugs. So I caused conflict between them. I was not the only conflict they had, though, nor the first, nor the most important. I may have caused the obvious flowering of their troubles, but the root lay elsewhere. In those days, Dad would come home late, into the neat, bright kitchen where Mom was already washing dinner dishes, his meal waiting on a plate atop the wood stove, a pie tin over it to protect it from drying out. He'd give her a swift kiss and a pat that took her for granted. He'd get a beer, take the plate to the table and dig into meatloaf or chicken, home made fries or mashed potatoes, summer squash or kale. He'd stretch his long, jeans clad legs wide under the table and fill the space with his heat and his smell: the man of the house. He'd give some lame excuse for his lateness: he ran an errand for Mom or he'd stopped for a beer to celebrate a buddy’s birthday. “Don't imply it's my fault,” Mom would answer, keeping her back to him. “Don't say it was for someone else. You are late for your own reasons. It's just selfish.”

He gave her reasons to complain. She complained and gave him excuses to stay away, his home was not a haven anymore, he said.

The truth was, Dad's eye had wandered and it came to rest on a young lady who seemed to see in him what he needed to see in himself. My counselor talks about that: the terrible need to see a polished version yourself, the image of your hopes and wishes. You make excuses for all the other things you do, or you blind yourself to them.

For a while, Dad was a big man in that young woman's eyes. He was a fascinating man and a man of means. He bought her the bland Bud Lite she asked for, then taught her to appreciate the micro-brews he preferred. He got her something luscious from the Nordstrom catalog. Did my mother feel that money leaking away from her household?

The young woman flirted, listened admiringly, took what she could get, and then married a guy her own age from the next town over. She'd had a fiancé all along, a soldier away on duty. She had a harmless fling with Dad; she never slept with him. I wondered what she said about him behind his back. No matter what it was, after she dropped him, Dad stomped around at home and barely talked to Mom, as if he had no other place to unsheathe his hurt and disappointment.

But I am avoiding the eighth step. Let me try again. My father and grandfather could not understand why I acted so aimless and rambling. I wanted more fireworks, more excitement. I practiced the guitar, I started a band, then another band. I aimed to be a rock star. I prayed for groupies. I was hot to go to LA, to Austin, to Seattle, to New York City: any place where things were happening and I could test my metal. Ah, my metal.

The trouble with methadone is that sometimes you crave a high. You crave that searing bliss that vomits you out of yourself. You want that annihilating other. You want the soft loving vision of an opiate that caresses and transforms everything. The sordid world blossoms and everything is paradisiacal.

Unfortunately, that is only true at first or if you quit for a while. The illusion of transformation is the seduction of the drug, like a sexual infatuation, like my Dad. Or maybe you really are transformed, at first, and maybe infatuation transforms you, too. Addiction itself is mostly about getting sick and getting well, where the drug makes you well again. Getting well is a transformation, too, I suppose.

The things you will do for transformation! My counselor says that for most addicts, the excitement of the life is itself addictive. The abused substance and the culture of drugs fill up the foreground of the addict's world. They trump all other problems. Without them, life seems both flat and pettily problematic.

I have vowed not to tell stories of my addict adventures, of dare-doing, close encounters of the worst kind, and near escapes from the law. My counselor says life on the edge is the romance of addiction, deluded like all romance and more dangerous than most. But what is life without romance?

When I lived in Texas, Colorado, and California, I met people who scaled frozen waterfalls, trusting their lives to ice screws and the spiky points on boots and axes. My buddies raced motorcycles and mountain bikes, and rode bulls. Their eyes lit up when they talked about tires skidding, falls into crevasses. They were ignited by danger. The thrill rises like a wave, crests, recedes, wears off, and then cries to be renewed. I think the old time explorers were avid that way about the Northwest Passage, the headwaters of the Mississippi, and the Fountain of Youth. They were possessed, and we admire those who succeeded. In truth, we glorify life on the edge.

And what about other excitements, like my father's? What about life on the edge of betrayal, on the edge of being caught? There is fire burning everywhere, in everyone.

My counselor dismisses that fire. He says it is just the inability of the body to properly metabolize testosterone, as automatic as the knee jerk reflex. Unromantic. Testosterone swirls round and round until it produces a kind of internal version of a forest fire. He claims I suffer from simple testosterone poisoning and should find a productive outlet. I point out that I mountain bike, but have you ever met a serious mountain biker who did not smoke pot? So you see, my addiction is nothing special. I am just like everyone else. A productive outlet is not the final solution.

Mom says I'm a smart aleck. She says, "You won't get better until you stop talking in that cynical, smart alecky way. You think you have to act like you don't care about anything." Lines form in her brow and I see how anxious she is for me.

But I do. Care about things. But this is the only way I know how to talk.

Damn. Let me start over again. About Dad: one afternoon after that girl blew Dad off, I was with him, driving up to Piney Pass on the straight two-lane, not the curvy back road he usually takes. There are rock ledges and trees on both sides, so you see the sky as a blue V above the crest of the ridge, where the road tops out. It looks like you could launch from there and drive into the clouds.

For a change, Dad and I weren’t arguing, just listening to the Grateful Dead on the CD player and commenting on the music. I was explaining some guitar moves I call stoned riffs. He had his head back, laughing, when a dog darted into the road. Dad stomped on the brakes and swerved but the dog thudded against the bumper. When I opened my eyes, Dad was gripping the steering wheel, staring out the window, and we were stopped off the edge of the road. He exhaled and opened the door.

The pup was into the weeds. The poor thing was shattered; spine twisted all wrong, not going to live but not yet dead. It tipped its head toward us and looked as though it thought it had done something wrong, that I'm sorry dog expression. Dad said, “Shit, it's Walter’s Emmy.”

She was a little boarder collie mix. I was stunned, shattered in my mind, and just stood there.
Dad said, "Sometimes I wish I carried a gun."

He went to the truck and got a hunting knife he kept under the seat. He knelt by the dog, stroked her forehead between her eyes where dogs like to be rubbed, and said, “Good girl, Emmy, good girl. I’m sorry, girl.” Then he held her muzzle closed and slit her throat, like he'd kill a Sunday chicken, and that good dog's life bled out in a red stream into the weeds. Dad pulled her body deep into the grass, out of sight of the road, and arranged her and so she looked normal and comfortable. Crows had already gathered in the trees, waiting for us to leave. Dad kicked at the dirt and said, “We could try to cover her, but they'll just uncover her. We have to tell Walter.”

I hadn't said a word. I just watched what he did. I admired how clear Dad was, how he handled it. Then, once it was over, he sat down in the grass, covered his face with his hands, and began to sob, brutal and constrained. I didn't know what to do so I sat down by him. When he stopped he said, his face turned away, “Nothing I have ever done has come out the way I intended.”

It didn’t seem right to try to reassure him. I didn’t understand what he was accusing himself of. I could guess some of his regrets, but I had never thought about his intentions. I only thought about him in relation to myself, as if I was still a little child.

We drove to Walter's, but he was away. Dad wrote a note in carpenter's pencil on a paper bag and masking-taped it to the door. He wrote that Emmy’s body was half way up Piney Hill and he was sorry.

When we got to my place, I offered Dad a beer. We drank two each sitting in the yard and then he went home.

Two days later I signed myself back into the methadone program I'd dropped out of. They gave me the counselor I have now and he's a decent guy, really. I've given up the fire in my heart and the world that blooms into flame or flowers to search for something more quotidian and steady.
My counselor describes it as the thing that sustains ordinary people and that, at its best, runs like a deep, cold river rich with trout.

But I've wandered again. From the eighth step, I mean. I seem to have difficulty sticking to the point. I am supposed to be recalling the harm I've done, become willing to make amends, and stop doing the things that caused the harm in the first place. I guess I'd better start over.

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