Twenty years ago today, I was handcuffed to a hospital bed. While driving drunk and under the influence of cocaine, I had driven a burgundy Toyota Tercel into a ravine. I had gotten out of the car for some reason and when I returned from stumbling around in the dark, someone had climbed down into the car and was attempting to steal my car stereo. I started to yell, and the person hit me in the face with the car door. After that, I climbed back into the car and locked the doors, and when the police eventually arrived, I refused to get out. (I had lost both my contact lenses at some point, so I just assumed they were the same person from before who had hit me in the face.) When I eventually did unlock the door, the policeman felt it necessary to hit me with his nightstick or flashlight until I was unconscious. I woke up, blood covered and somewhat delirious, in that hospital bed. After I refused to give a urine sample, the medical staff held me down and forced a catheter in, which effectively concluded the part of the evening where I was high on cocaine and alcohol. I do not recall whether my mother or father were in the room at the time of the catheter—I have never felt it necessary to ask. I most vividly remember two things that happened after the catheter, which remains one of the more painful physical experiences I’ve ever experienced: one, that the police officer in the room at the time was giggling, and two, that the doctor apologized a few minutes later when he realized that I didn’t have any urine to give, catheter or no. At some point I realized that my parents were in the room, and at some point after that I realized that I was going to jail.
That was April 4th, 1997.
I did not mind jail. As much as one can, I would have to admit that I probably liked it—there was a structure to it, an enforced discipline of simple rules that alleviated me of the necessity of making choices, and while I was only incarcerated for a few weeks, I think that bit of time may have saved my life. The weeks leading up to arrest are hard to recall, both because of the actions that I took and because of the amount of drugs and alcohol I was putting into my system. (My weight at the time of my arrest was 97 pounds, and the only food I consistently took in on a regular basis was whole milk. Merely eating on a regular basis while in jail did a lot for me.) I remember smoking crack in a crackhouse in downtown Atlanta that week, only to look up as a toddler wandered through the room. I remember nearly driving into oncoming traffic on I-85 as I traveled around the city, looking for cocaine, settling for crystal. I remember throwing firecrackers at cars in the middle of the night and having to crawl for hours in a drainage ditch when the cops were trying to find us. I remember fighting and losing. I remember the police dragging us across a parking lot by our handcuffed elbows. I remember the few weeks after jail where my parents and siblings couldn’t look at me without disgust, pity, rage and confusion tumbling across their faces and seething through their mouths. I remember sitting in my probation officer’s office (what happened on April 4th was not my first arrest) as he handcuffed me to the chair and met with the rest of his probationers, as I waited for a bus that would take me away to serve out the rest of my probation in the county lock-up.
But then he didn’t. My mother had found a facility for people in my situation—people facing drug related criminal charges, a house out in the middle of nowhere, on the other side of reality—and my probation officer, who had always made his contempt for me 100% verbally clear, decided that I could go there. And so that’s what I did for the next two years. I tried to stay out of jail, I tried to hold down a job, and I tried not to smoke crack.
I remember instances like that, things that can make for good stories if you tell them right, and I can remember times after April 4th where I did tell those stories right, to make someone laugh, or to try and impress a woman with how far I had come, or to try and impress a man with how much tougher than him I was. It was only in the last few years that I have realized that the laughter and concern I received from those stories came from being uncomfortable, and that the impressions I made were purely negative. I told those stories for pity, and pity was what I got. I do not believe that I am truly that far from that kind of ego and vanity right now, writing this down.
But it has been twenty years since I have gotten drunk or bought cocaine or smoked crack or stayed up for days on crystal meth. And there was a time—a time that started when I was 15 years old and did not end that night—where nothing was certain for me and all I thought I wanted was to die, to be someone who felt nothing. I got up every day, and if I wasn’t able to move quickly enough and distract myself, if I wasn’t able to get some kind of attention, then I was consumed with self-loathing and self-obsession and self-destruction. I would get cast in a movie, and everyone would know about it, and it would be a sign of success—and then me and two other guys would overdose on pills in the middle of the day, I would get expelled after they went to the emergency room, and I would still be nodding off on the pills at my grandmother’s funeral two days later. Anything that went well, I found a way to destroy. And as far as I could imagine, that was how I was always going to live, until I found a way to die.
Nina did not know me then, and I’m glad about that, but there is something she says when she works with people, and I really like it, and it applies to me: I didn’t want to die. I just wanted to change my feelings. The reality of my time back then was exactly that: i wanted my feelings to change, and I did not think they would. But the other thing was this: I didn’t know it was okay to feel that way. I don’t blame anyone for that—my parents did their best with me—but for some reason it just never registered with me it was okay to feel bad, and so every time I felt bad, it was made that much worse by my absolute faith that it was wrong to feel bad at all.
A little over a year ago I had to speak at a funeral for someone who I have loved my whole life, who had died due to drug use at an age you wouldn’t think it would be possible to do that at. A little over three years ago, someone else I cared about died alone in his little house, and by the time an internet friend got someone to check on him, he had already begun to decompose. There is no end to these kind of stories for some people—these kind of anecdotes will be added to every single day. For me, the story I have is only this as I have told it. My wife, who I have been married to for almost 9 years didn’t know about the depth of it until sometime last year. But it is a part of me, and I wonder—because of what happened since that funeral last year—if there is not some value in acknowledging how my life and my mind has changed. I may be wrong. This may be nothing more than ego. I may delete it in a week.
I have felt a weird guilt in the past year of a kind that I have never known in my entire life. And that guilt is that when someone has asked me how it was going, I have wanted more than anything to say that it is going great. I have wanted to tell them about the amazing simplicity of my life, my real life, the life I have with my wife and my daughter and my friends and the family that welcomed me back. But I have yet to be able to say it without apologizing it or minimizing it, or dismissing it outright like it is a joke. Maybe it’s because I believe that I’m going to destroy it? I doubt that. I think it is because after all this time I don’t believe I deserve it, that I’m wired to think that way.
And yet I do deserve it—I can remember the men and women I spent every day with 20 years ago who held me together and taught me all the things about life that I didn’t know, the cantankerous seen-it-all North Georgia men who gave me the kind of bottom-rung jobs you give to bottom-rung people, and then slowly gave me a little more responsiblitiy when I proved I could show up week after week, the ex-nurse who taught me what you do in a gym, the rednecks who taught me how to get up early and get to fucking work, the bipolar landscaper who sat me down and told me to shut the fuck up, which remains my number one mantra, my belief, my guiding principle, and my greatest weakness: shut the fuck up. No situation is ever more improved than when I can shut my fucking mouth. (He was talking specificallly at that time about how annoying it was to listen to me whine about a girl who had dumped me, a girl who believed in the healing properties of polished rocks and had a bunch of goats for pets, but still: a mantra is a mantra.)
Those people gave me the life I have today. Everything that has been built in the last twenty years has been built on the foundation they gave me. But now that I have that life, it is my job—my imperative, my task—to live that life and honor it. I have tried to do that in the last twenty years in my own way, and I believe I have helped more people than I have hurt. I hope that I can continue to do that.