Archive for addiction

Days: Fifteen Years Sober

Posted in Memoir with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2017 by sethdellinger

Prologue

There were chandeliers.  I had rarely been around chandeliers, and even then, never so many, never so shiny.  In fact, nearly everything was shiny—the centerpieces, the candle holders, the forks and knives had glints and sparkles.  Light seemed to reflect and refract from everywhere all at once, off of balloons and from under tables, men’s wingtip shoes had tiny stars in them, large wire-rimmed glasses on women’s faces beamed chandelier light into my eyes.  The whole ballroom was like a universe.

I should have expected to be dazzled at the first wedding I ever attended.  I’d seen depictions of weddings in some movies, sure, but being only eight or nine years old, I didn’t have a lot to go on.  I knew there would be a ceremony, and they’d kiss, and then I heard we threw rice at them, oddly enough.  I must have expected there to be a party afterward, but if I did, I certainly had no idea what to expect from it.  And all this shininess—I hadn’t been prepared for that.

My cousins were there—some that I liked and some that I didn’t, but we all kept playing together, regardless.  That’s what you do with cousins when you’re a kid, after all—you play with them no matter how much you like them.  Once the pomp and trope of the adult rituals during the reception began to wear thin for us (how many times does an eight-year-old think it’s interesting to watch two grown-ups kiss? Just because someone tapped their glass?) we found our way to each other and began exploring.  We found an elevator in the lobby that we rode up and down and up and down, getting off on random floors, running to the ends of the halls.  We made a game where you tried to touch the wall at the end of the hall and get back to the elevator before the doors closed.  It wasn’t easy.  We also devised a contest to see who could, when controlling the floor buttons, go longest without the doors opening to let a stranger onto the elevator.  Again and again we were tempted to press the Emergency Stop button, but we never did.  Eventually, an employee caught onto the fact that some kids were playing fast and loose with their elevator and we got yelled at and told to stop, and, feeling like we’d just been dressed down by a Supreme Court justice, we ran out of the elevator, through the lobby, and back into the ballroom.

We played under vacant tables.  We made forts under there by using spare tablecloths and draping them over the chairs.  We moved the large potted plants out a few feet from the walls and hid behind them until grown-ups gave us weird looks.  We took M&Ms out of our gift baskets and threw them long distances into each other’s mouths.  By and large, nobody was watching us.  The adults were having a grand old time and we were left to play, to run around.  It was a unique environment for us.  Dressed in our little spiffy clothes—suspenders, skirts, ties—we felt like miniature grown-ups, doing our kid things under the shiny lights.

Occasionally, the action in the grown-up world would halt briefly while they did another of their inexplicable rituals—shoving cake at each other, somebody’s dad dancing with somebody else, and on and on.  At one point, everyone stopped what they were doing for the throwing of the bouquet, which did not sound remotely interesting to me, but my cousins ran to the crowd to watch.  I was thirsty and a little tired, so I made my way back to my family’s table to regroup and hydrate.

Nobody was there, as they were off watching something happen to a bouquet.  I pulled myself up to the table, the empty food plates still scattered around, and my mother’s purse hanging on the side of her chair, and more M&Ms in clear mason jars.  I found my Sprite and gulped it down.  It was nice to have a moment alone.  Then my eye fell upon it: the champagne flute.  Full, bubbles creeping up the sides, mysterious presences.  I glanced around and verified I was unwatched.  I took the glass, using both hands to steady it, and brought it to my lips, surprised by the blast of carbon dioxide as the carbonation hit my nose.  I barely tasted anything as I downed the beverage in one quick movement.  I sat back in my chair, looked around myself again to see if I had been observed.  In a moment, the warmth hit my stomach.  A smile crept at my lips.

 

Days of Nothing

 

It had been a hot summer. Summers are always hot, and Pennsylvania summers get that special kind of humidity working for them, but this summer had just been a rainforest ordeal. We spent every day with a thin sheen of sweat on us almost all the time, even indoors, even in the dark in the basement. It was a summer of Sloe Gin Fizzes, chain-smoking Newports, sitting on the front porch.  It was a stoop, really, but we called it a porch, although you entered through the side door, not the front.

I was staying quite suddenly and unexpectedly with two of my friends who were renting a house in the middle of the Pennsylvania countryside. And I mean Countryside. At least a 20-minute drive from where anyone might consider civilization. The view from that front porch was actual and real rolling Pennsylvania Hills, green as Ireland, constantly sun-dappled, you could see the shadows of clouds as they passed overhead, rolling down the hills like boulders. Cows and sheep on the periphery, small tree outcroppings dotting the very tops of the horizons. I make it sound kind of lovely, but in fact, it was a pretty awful time for everybody.

See, if you are from Pennsylvania, it would mean something if I told you this was in Perry County, and really far out in the middle of Perry County. How these friends rented the house, how they found it, I’ll never know. But there I found myself, immediately after giving up on a semester of college, literally walking away from classes that were over three-quarters of the way done, because I couldn’t stop drinking long enough to wake up in the morning, or do homework or even read Mark Twain books. I simply threw in the towel, and after spending a couple weeks tooling around campus aimlessly, I decided to just jump ship entirely, threw what little belongings I had into the back of my 1983 Ford Escort, and drove an hour from my college out into the middle of the rolling god-damned Hills. I did this in order to spend the summer with two people who were likewise as troubled as I was, but in different ways, and we were miserable as hell together. We’d spend entire mornings out in front of the house with a two-by-four, swatting at the huge bumble bees as they flew past us, drinking 20 ounce cans of Busch beer, trying to kill as many of those bees as we could, for no reason other than there was nothing else to do. We’d sit on our plastic lawn chairs on that porch, with our view of the field, secretly hoping that it was manure spreading day, just so that there was something to look at, something to talk about, something to complain about other than the heat and the damn bees.

We spent our nights inside, in the dark basement, lit only by multiple strings of Christmas lights, the smell of must and tobacco smoke, no television, no stereo. Just imbibing and talking, and sometimes in full silence. I spent the whole summer reading one issue of Guitar World magazine, articles I didn’t even understand, once everybody else was asleep, reading these damn guitar articles in the almost total darkness, falling asleep on a dust-covered couch. It was terrible and wonderful.

One morning, as we were sitting on our stoop smoking our cigarettes watching the distant rolling hills as though something might erupt from them, an Amish boy strolled past on the street in front of our yard, walking his ancient bike beside him. He stood and looked at us, as though he were seeing something for the very first time, some true curiosity. Thinking we were some sort of cultural emissaries, we approached him and struck up a conversation. I can’t remember now what was said between us, what inane questions we must have asked in the name of science, but after a 20-minute conversation, he went his way and we went back to the stoop, thinking we had just crossed some cultural divide. I can’t be sure what we said, but I know who I was back then, so I know I was an asshole.

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In my early twenties there was a short time period when I stayed with my mother in a small apartment she was renting in the small Pennsylvania town of Dillsburg. This was during a time when she went on frequent extended trips for her job, so even though it was a place where I wasn’t paying any rent, I would find myself with my own apartment for a couple days at a time, here and there. Living the kind of life I was living then, which is to say, mildly indigent, alone time was a fairly sacrosanct rarity. On these times when she was gone, I would wake up on the couch, still mildly dizzy from my stupor the night before, find some water to drink, and commence sitting there, absorbing cable television, mixing large amounts of Diet Coke with larger amounts of cheap gin, chainsmoking generic menthol light cigarettes until the whole room was suffused with a haze as if it were packing material. Somehow having that apartment to myself, and enough booze and cigarettes and food I hadn’t paid for to last me through a couple days, felt like I had a luxury a room on a cruise liner. I would crank up the air-conditioning, raid her collection of compact discs, listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole” over and over again at an incredibly high volume. One such night, after a lengthy day of solo debauchery, I found myself inexplicably out in the parking lot of the apartment complex, wandering aimlessly, smoking my cigarette with a gin and Coke in a supersize McDonald’s cup. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly I heard from behind me someone yell my name. It took me awhile to realize what I was witnessing, but it was one of my more lengthy roommates from college, suddenly here in this parking lot, 45 minutes from the town we went to school in. At this point, I must have been out of college for about two years and hadn’t heard from him since (this is pre-Facebook and even pre-MySpace). I couldn’t believe my eyes! After getting over both of our initial confusions, I learned that not only did he live in the same apartment complex, but he lived with a man that we were also roommates with. The three of us had shared an apartment for about a year in college, and now they were living together and working in the town of Dillsburg, while I was mooching off my mother in the same apartment complex! It was almost too much to handle. Excited for the reunion, we both walked into their apartment, and sure enough, there was the third roommate, and he was just as shocked as us! We spent about half an hour catching up on what we had done since school, and then sat there in a kind of dazed boredom. We had nothing to talk about. It hadn’t been that long ago we were in college, pulling pranks, making silly movies, running all over the town like young people who would never die, would never have a problem in the world. But now just a few years later here we were, clearly at different crossroads. We sat in silence and watched a movie, and then I left and never went back there again.

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I don’t really remember how it happened, but I know for a fact that once, stone drunk, I found myself walking down the Carlisle Pike in the middle of night, just past the 81 North entrance ramp, headed away from Carlisle. I had just past the entrance ramp when I saw a tractor-trailer pulled over on the side of the road, presumably for the driver to sleep there for the night. None of the lights were on and the engine was off. I thought to myself, ‘I could just roll underneath a truck right there and sleep for the night. I could just lay under there, be sheltered from view and the wind, look up at the underside of that trailer, let this drunkenness and tiredness wash over me, and sleep there for the night.’ And I did roll under that truck, and I looked at the underside of it. I put my hands behind my head and stretched out in the gravel parking lot. I laid there for a little while, I have no idea how long, but even in my drunken stupor, and as low as I was in every aspect of life at that moment, even I knew this was a bad idea. I rolled back out and kept on walking, and I have no idea where I went.

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Time is a sad, dense fog over a sea, and places are lighted buoys.  The people?  I don’t know, maybe they’re boats, or fishes.  The days stretch out like dreams in a desert.

 

Days of Something

 

Just a few months after getting sober, I found myself living back in Pennsylvania, after a short stint in New Jersey.  I had moved in with a friend of mine who had a spare bedroom. I got my old job back, the same job cooking greasy diner food for a company that kept giving me chances.  I would come home everyday and see some of my friends there, hanging around this house I had moved into. Sometimes playing music, or fiddling with the communal telescope, or playing board games.   A few weeks into this living arrangement, I decided that I was going to go out that night by myself.  I ended up going to a movie, “Million Dollar Baby”, and it was a good movie, I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I’ll start watching good movies.’  I walked out of the theater, and it was a late showing, and it was winter, so it was dark and frigid everywhere, and I was the only one in the parking lot, and it suddenly dawned on me that I could do anything I wanted. I wasn’t a slave to anything like I had been before. Nothing drove me to a bar or a convenience store to get a fix. Nothing told me I had to be somewhere that I could fall asleep anytime soon. I didn’t have to work in the morning. I didn’t have anybody who knew where I was or was expecting me somewhere. I walked across the frigid parking lot to the adjacent Walmart, bought a Butterfinger candy bar and a Red Bull, walked back to my car, and drove into the countryside, smoking cigarettes, laughing my ass off at freedom.

 

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Philadelphia is a great city, but there’s nothing special about it in the winter. It becomes winter just like every place else becomes the winter: slowly, and then all at once. My first winter in the city was also the first winter I’d spent anywhere without a car. During the summer I had learned to get around by riding my bike and walking, and was just getting pretty good at it when the gradual winter hit all of a sudden. It was cold and it was windy, but didn’t snow for the first few months, and then one day, a day that I also happened to have off work, the sky opened up and dumped down about eight inches. It was a very different experience than my previous winters elsewhere, where you might go outside and walk around, do some shoveling, maybe go see a few of the local landmarks covered in the fluffy cliches. In a densely packed urban area that stretches out for miles and miles in any direction, and where local landmarks are a dime a dozen but breathtaking beauty might be a little scarce, I wasn’t sure exactly what to do with myself, other than sit on my couch and watch Netflix. Eventually I decided to just bundle up, put on some heavy shoes (since I never really am in the habit of keeping boots around) and venture out into the snow and see what happened. I started walking through the streets of my South Philly neighborhood, unplowed, unshoveled, the houses squished up against each other like sandwich bread, snow building up in the trashy pedestrian alleys between them, choking the tops of open the trash cans, pawprints sometimes the only sign anyone had been down a sidewalk.  And I kept walking and walking, taking note how it was different than my previous experience, and also ways in which it was similar, compare and contrast, compare and contrast, that is essentially how I Live every moment of my life. One experience must always be similar or different from previous ones; otherwise, how do you measure anything?  Eventually the neighborhood started to change as I kept walking, buildings got farther apart, the roads got wider, the streets were starting to be plowed, cars started moving around, the city seemed to wake up. I started passing people on the street and there was an air of conviviality, of shared experience. Everyone was saying hello, commenting on the snow, and it wasn’t just what people were saying, but the attitude, the feeling, like we were all finally together, not that we were undergoing any major hardship, but just that the presence of something so different, something so sudden, almost held us together like a web. Connection.  Eventually I realized I was closer to Independence Mall, which is the cluster of extremely significant historical sites in the city, than I was to home, so I just kept on walking. I arrived behind Independence Hall probably an hour and a half after leaving my house, still trudging through almost a foot of snow, surprised to see that there were a few people milling around, but only a few, much less than the hundreds and hundreds that crammed into this park in the summer months. I circled the building, taking note of what the roof looked like covered in snow, imagining it would have looked the same to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson when it snowed in the late 1700s. I crossed Chestnut Street, which is directly in front of Independence Hall, my feet not quite hitting the cobblestones, but still feeling the unevenness of the walk, as the snow impacted into the cracks around the cobblestones, as it surely has done to other foot travelers for centuries. I trudged across the open space in front of Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell to my left, taking note that it was still open, the Park Service still there and operating, but I didn’t see a soul in line to see the famed bell. I kept on going, heading towards the visitor center, with its bright glass interiors, newly built restrooms, shiny gift shop and concession stand. I often used to stop at the visitor center in the summer, as I was riding my bike around the city, for its quick and easy access to a restroom and bottled water.  As I swung open the heavy glass and stainless steel doors, it was clear to me that everyone inside the visitor center was surprised to see me, not because of anything about me, but simply because I was a human being. I was literally the only non-employee in this entire visitor center. It’s amazing what snow does to history tourism. Despite the fact that it was winter and snowing, I was sweating greatly, and was glad of the opportunity to take my coat off, breathe a little bit, stomp the snow out of every crease and crevice. I was thirsty and hungry, as I didn’t leave the house with the intention to walk halfway across the city, so I went straight to the concession stand, got me a bottle of water, a hot coffee, and some sort of breakfast sandwich.  I sat alone in the bright, metal cafeteria, my belly growing content as I fed it.  I took note that outside, it had begun snowing again, and heavier this time.  It was quiet in the visitor center.  I was far from home.

 

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This day started very early. I woke up around 4am not knowing what I was going to do with the day, but knowing that I wanted to wake up early enough to have a really thorough day, if you know what I mean. I was living by myself in Erie Pennsylvania, in an apartment, one bedroom, on the second level of an old house that was nearing dilapidation, but still teetering on the edge of respectability. It was smack-dab in the middle of summer, and waking up at 4am, the whole apartment was already laden with a heat, an oppressive second floor apartment kind of heat; a thin layer of sweat somehow on everything you looked at. I rolled out of bed, made myself a latte on my proudly-acquired home espresso machine, and set about pondering what to do with such a lengthy, summery kind of day all to myself.  I took a long, overly hot shower while the local morning news played on the television which I had crammed into my tiny bathroom. I stayed in the shower for the whole newscast, mind mostly blank. After the shower, while air drying mostly to cool off, I randomly selected a DVD from my bloated collection, and came up with “The 40 Year Old Virgin”, a movie that I don’t know how it ended up in my collection and no longer resides there, but at the time, a mindless comedy seemed just the ticket. I laid on my couch and let the Steve Carell comedy wash over me. Having gotten up so early that an immense amount of day still laid stretched out before me, even after my lengthy ablutions. What to do? Living by one’s self for so long, and so far from everyone you know, turns days and 31316_1458245861882_8379455_nmornings into quiet studies of one’s inner mechanics, and if you linger too long without plans, your cogs and belts begin to make a lot of noise. Suddenly it hit me: Niagara Falls. I’d been living relatively close to Niagara Falls for almost a year at this point, and it was always something bouncing around the periphery of what I wanted to do, but I never quite made it there, never quite made that my actual plan. Almost the moment that it struck me, I bounded off the couch, went to my computer to MapQuest the directions, threw on some clothes and some essentials into a backpack, and I was out the door.  I don’t remember much about the drive, although certainly there had to be a drive. It was close but not incredibly close, probably something like an hour and 15 minutes. A decent trip, but then again, much closer than almost anyone else in the world lives to such landmark. I remember having trouble figuring out where to park when I got close to it, the town itself surrounding it not exactly being incredibly helpful with instructions.  Finally I did get my car parked, and walked across a large grassy mall, the sound of the falls quite distinct, just like you expect the sound of Niagara Falls to be: thunderous, droning, like a white noise that comes from within.  I remember hearing the falls, I remember a large grassy area you had to walk across to get to it, but I don’t remember actually arriving at the falls.  In fact, the order of what I did that day and the specifics of how I did it, are lost in the labyrinth of my brain. I did the touristy things, I rode the boat, I walked up and down the path alongside the falls, I wore the poncho they provide you. I took selfies on the boat, all by myself, surrounded by revelers and families and church groups. After doing the requisite attractions, I found myself walking around the grounds, reading the historical markers, interpreting the interpretive maps. I noticed that there was a small landmass called Goat Island, out of the middle of the river, one of the features that gives the Falls that look, where it is divided occasionally, not one big solid Falls. It was accessible quite easily via a pedestrian bridge across the river, so I went out there, reading the Wikipedia entry on my phone as I went, the long and somewhat interesting history of the island, its ownership and various names. I arrived on the island to find a sweltering patch of grass, the heat dense with liquid, the roar of the falls now like a white noise outside myself, like a curtain descending. The island itself was no larger than a small park, and trees lined the northern edge, so that one couldn’t actually see the land fall away at the end.  I had the island entirely to myself. Of course the only thing to do on an island like that is to walk toward the edge. Walking through the grass I was assaulted by bugs everywhere, insects nipping at my legs, bouncing off my knees like miniature Kamikazes. The closer and closer I got to the river, the more amazed I was that there were no protections of any kind in place. One expects to find some sort of railing here, some warning signs, maybe even Park Rangers or something. But no, the island just walks right up to the river, and right up to the falls, anyone with dark designs would be in no way dissuaded.  The design of the island makes it challenging to walk right up to the falls, but instead it is very easy to sit at a clearing about twenty yards away from the actual precipice. I took my backpack off and sat in the grass, and looked out across the Niagara River, just beginning to get a real good head of steam up, just beginning to get its little whitecaps and wavelets, the water not knowing it was about to fly.  The heat washed over me, the insect buzzing began to mesh with the white noise of the falls, it all became a hot buzzing constant, I laid my head on the grass and sunk in, sunk down into the dirt, I was so far from home, and for a moment, I had no idea where I was, or maybe even who I was.

 

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“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown
Waiting for something or someone to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run. You missed the starting gun!”

‘Time’, by Pink Floyd

 

Days of Everything

 

It was a cold night, but not too cold, which was fortunate, because we had to park very far away from the arena. I unbuckled Boy from his car seat and heaved him into the air, bringing him next to my cheek to give him a kiss in the crisp evening air. “This soccer game?” He asked. “Yes,” I told him. “This is the big building I told you about.” I sat him down and stuck out my hand for him to grab, as we strolled quickly through the immense parking lot together. He had lots of questions. He kept calling it football, which was interesting, I thought, since most of the world referred to soccer as football, but he couldn’t possibly know that, could he? Most of his questions weren’t really about the sport we were about to go watch, but the building it was in. How could a building be so big that you could play soccer inside of it? How tall was it, was it taller than the telephone poles? Taller than our house? Will there be snacks? Soft pretzels? I’ve become accustomed to the constant barrage of questions at this point, pulling from deep within me a patience I honestly did not think I possessed.  Not that this patience is without limits—but at any rate, I seem to have more than I thought.  I suspect a toddler will prove this to be true of most anyone.

I was surprised by the patience he displayed as we waited in a long line to buy tickets. It seems every day, he is making leaps and bounds, growing in things like patience, understanding, and empathy. Which is not to say he’s still not a little ball of emotions that doesn’t know how to act, just maybe a little less so than a few months ago or a year ago. He’s becoming much more of a companion as opposed to a force of nature to wrangle and watch. While for the most part, time with Boy is still all about teaching, there are moments now of truly just being.  And “just being” with a little guy like boy is more magic than I’m accustomed to.

Finally, tickets procured, we entered the concourse, looking for our section. I hadn’t studied the arena map extensively, and had chosen seats in the section on the complete opposite side of the concourse, so we had to walk past countless souvenir stands and snack bars, him wanting desperately to stop at each, and also wanting to enter into each section as we passed, with me constantly trying to tell him that it wasn’t much farther, not much farther. But through it all, he didn’t freak out or melt down or cry, just implored me strongly. Finally we came upon our entrance to the arena, and I picked him up because I knew the stairs were going to be steep and he was probably going to be shocked by the sight of walking into the big room. Carrying him on my side, we entered the arena proper, and although an indoor soccer field lacks the nebulous breathtaking quality of a baseball field, the sudden shock of green and the expanse of a sudden cavernous room had its desired effect on the countencance of Boy, which is to say, it produced a certain amount of awe. After pausing to allow him to soak it in, we climbed up the steep steps, to find our seats. We were all alone in our section, something I had to ask the ticket man to do, in case it did not go very well. Boy was beyond excited to sit here. He was very into his seat, enamored with the idea that the number on it matched  the number on his ticket, and in this enormous room, this seat was his and his alone. He was not restless as I had feared, his eyes trained on the action on the field. I would steal sidelong glances at him, see his eyes glued to the action, his head swiveling as the ball bounced back and forth, his complete concentration and immersion something only possible in the earliest years of life, and during a first exposure to things; the sights and sounds meshing with dawning understanding, realization writ large across his face. He would sometimes stop his concentration to ask questions about the goalies, which he called The Goal Guys, their different colored jerseys causing him no end of confusion. Later, as he was able to again float back into our world, he would watch me for cues whenever the arena sound system would play the tropes of modern sporting events: the “Charge!” song, the “De-Fense!” chant, and on and on. He saw and understood there was an audience participation element and he wanted to learn.  I would raise my fist and yell “Charge!”, glancing over to see him mimic it, his tiny voice bursting forth its own “Charge!”  This moment, especially, nearly crippled me with emotion.

He paid close attention to the game and stayed quite interested for well over an hour and a half when he started to fall asleep on my shoulder. I told him I thought it was time to go, and he protested quite strongly, saying he didn’t want to miss anything. And I kept giving in, saying we could stay, and then he kept falling asleep again, until eventually I picked him up, went up the stairs to the upper concourse, and told him he should get down and walk around and look at all the empty chairs, all the sections without anybody in them. The arena was quite empty, in fact, especially once one got up to the upper reaches. We got to a very high section, a corner section so high up you could almost touch the roof in a few of the spots, and as we emerged into it, it became clear that it had not even been cleaned out or looked at after the preceding weekend’s Motocross event in the arena. Everywhere there was trash, even half-eaten food and some beer cans on their sides. It was an astonishing array of trash and smells to walk into amid what appeared to be an otherwise normal arena. It was immediately too late for me to backtrack and take him out of this section, he was much too interested in the hows or whys this could have happened. I explained as best I could that they assumed they would not sell any tickets in this section for the soccer game, so they must be waiting to clean up from the Motocross. He did not want to walk around the section, but he also didn’t want to leave. I picked him up and we watched the soccer from way high up near the ceiling, looking down on all that old trash and beer cans, until he looked at me and told me he was ready to go home. I felt that I had a companion here, a little guy who I could teach and learn from, who was now going to be interested in things, who was present with me.

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It wasn’t too long ago that we had a little get-together for Boy’s birthday. My Love’s father was there—and let me tell you, I like Love’s father so much it’s nearly criminal–as well as both of my parents and my paternal grandmother. My parents have been divorced for quite a few years, and yet they get along like the best of friends, and there was my dad’s mother, chatting it up with his ex-wife, all while boy ran around and told everyone he loves them all the time, and climbed on everybody, and climbed on me, while I held Loves hand, while the room was full of talk and laughter, while there was warmth everywhere, and everywhere I looked there was future, future, future.

 

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My love and I put on our light spring jackets and walked into the crisp evening. Just the two of us, we interlocked our hands, and headed down the street toward Midtown. It is one of the benefits of living where we do, that usually, given the right weather and the right child care situation, we can walk to some of the places that we like to spend time together. This night it was simple: we were going out to eat. It was one of the last walkable nights of the year, and we knew it. The cold was setting in, soon we would be driving everywhere and stuck inside like prisoners.  So tonight, we knew, was a walking night.

There was a very popular and artsy restaurant in the middle of Midtown, which somehow we still had not made it to. Recently they had started serving a very popular veggie burger, that all of our friends were talking about, and we still hadn’t tried. It had been on our list for weeks.

The thing about taking a somewhat lengthy walk with the person that you love is that it forces conversation you don’t normally have inside the house or perhaps in a moving car. You see things that you don’t normally see, are reminded of things you might only see or think of by yourself, you’re moving at an interesting pace, a different speed. I love holding hands and walking with my love. I love the way her hand feels, I love being connected to her physically in that way, I love being able to look at her face from the side so often. I love being able to point out things, and have her point out things to me, elements of our neighborhood that we only see when we are walking the dog by ourselves.  I love kissing her outside. Many people spend most of their lives in relationships and begin to take things like this for granted, maybe even very early on in life, they assume they will have a companion in this form. Having spent so long single, small things like holding hands, walking down the street, these things never seem anything other than magical to me. My love thrills me.  Literally every single thing about her. It’s electric.

Twenty minutes later we found ourselves the only customers in the artsy eating establishment, it being only five o’clock. We were talking about the art on the wall, the interesting sculptures, the funny man who kept looking at us askance from inside the kitchen. We talked about the interesting ordering system the restaurant used, the haphazard way salt was placed on some of the tables but not others, we talked about our days, we held hands and looked at each other. Sometimes we didn’t say anything and that was lovely in its own way. When you know someone is your true partner, being in their presence is a constant salve.

The food came and it was delicious, just as delicious as everyone says it is was, and it was fantastic to share a meal with someone who shares so many of my worldviews, who has the compassion in the same places I do, love and freedom in the same proportions, to share a meal with a woman who has taught me so much. As I was finishing off my Diet Pepsi, stealing glances at this woman, I kept thinking some of the same thoughts I come back to all the time.  How I waited so long to find her.  How, when I did find her, I couldn’t and still can’t believe how perfect she is.  How my journey to find her wasn’t about me, or even the journey, but it was about her, about us.  How I still learn about her every day and she’s such a delicious mystery.  How she fits so well.  I looked at her as I sat there, finishing my Diet Pepsi, and I said to her the only thing one can say, given the unbearable weight of the world:  I can’t believe you’re finally here.

 

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The days, good or bad, really do just stretch out like deserts, uncountable deserts, again and again and again.  Some, you find, contain nothing: plodding marches under a bored sun.  But sometimes, they are filled up, filled with everything you ever dreamed, brazen neon signs of days, confetti and love love love.  I don’t know about you, but I’m trying to figure out how to keep them filled up.  I want the days of everything, forever.

Baltimore, 1998

Posted in Memoir, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 24, 2016 by sethdellinger

I suppose there’s always a lesson to be learned, whether in a filthy dive bar or over tea in a teahouse, whether in sweaty socks in a high school gym or walking onto stage in a vaunted theater, there’s always some lesson to be gleaned, whether it is for you or against you, whether it is exactly what you want to hear or it devastates you, it is going to be there, regardless.  Take, for example, standing on the balcony level of a thumping bar in Baltimore, peering down at the crowded dance floor below, my head already swirled with gin, watching three of my friends dance in a group, turning sluringly to the young girl next to me, who I’d never met or even spoken to before, Hey!  That one down there, with the orange hat?  Do you find him attractive?  Women are always into him instead of me, and when she grimaces and turns from me wordlessly, I amble over to the balcony bar, order a double of the top-shelf stuff, and settle into a corner table alone.  Even in my youth I saw this not as a lesson in the unfairness of having friends more desirable than yourself, or being a bad dancer or lacking social graces, but as a gut-punch reality check about a path I was trodding from which I could not return.  But what else did I know as the waitress lit the candle on my round table in the dark?  What did I know about anything?

I Loved Smoking Cigarettes

Posted in Memoir, real life, Uncategorized with tags , , on September 9, 2016 by sethdellinger

I love smoking cigarettes.  Or at least, I did.  I smoked my first cigarette at age sixteen and my last one at age thirty-one, and in between was never anything short of a constant, unabated love affair between myself and cigarette smoking.  And it was very consensual.

 

As a little kid, both my parents smoked and I hated it.  I bugged them to quit, heaped guilt upon them.  The evidence that smoking killed you was just heating up and becoming a major story.  The idea that my parents were doing something to hasten their own death was more than I could bear. I was a righteous little dude.  But even in the midst of that phase, I remember being at the supermarket with my parents, looking at the multitude of brands of cigarettes with exotic or evocative names and packaging and thinking to myself, If I was a smoker, which of these would I choose?  I was fond of Alpine and Kent.

 

The righteous little kid phase passed, as they tend to do.  My friends began to experiment with the kinds of things young teenagers experiment with.  I was hesitant.  I gave halfhearted lectures on the dangers of smoking, but it never would have made a difference.  We were barreling toward rebellion and all-out substance use whether we knew it or not.

 

I “smoked” my first cigarette in my friend Mike’s Ford Mustang in the enormous church parking lot beside my house, when I was sixteen years old, at about eleven o’clock at night.  It was a Marlboro Red.  Mike had been smoking for quite some time and was very experienced; in fact Mike had begun doing everything before us and was being very polite about helping us catch up.  I put “smoked” in quotation marks because I did not actually inhale the smoke from that cigarette; like many novices I actually had no idea I was not 63514_1593589805396_348923_ninhaling.  Now that seems somehow impossible—to not know the smoke is not entering your lungs.  But it was very much the case.  I wanted to smoke and was pleasantly surprised when I didn’t cough like I expected to, but disappointed when I didn’t “catch a buzz” like I had heard so much about.

 

I “smoked” in this fashion for a surprising amount of time—perhaps a month.  My girlfriend at the time had started smoking a little before me, as our group of friends all slowly picked up the habit, and it felt good to be part of the crowd.  Plus, the eternal truth: I thought it looked cool.  I thought it made me cool, and in many real ways at that time, it did make me cool.  At that time and in that place, there could be no question that to be a smoker was preferential to not being a smoker.

 

One afternoon, a bunch of us were hanging out at the drive-in theater.  That sounds weird, but it was an actual thing we did.  The drive-in near our house had a concession building that was open during the day and actually doubled as a pizza shop (with pretty darn good pizza) and a pool table, jukebox, some video games, and a cigarette machine.  For a few years, it was the go-to place for my group of friends.  Anyway, I was there with my 167955_1781791590323_329476_ngirlfriend and a group of people, and I was walking around the pool table, shooting a game, smoking, and being cool as hell, when I noticed my girlfriend and her bestie looking at me and laughing.  I went over to see what the deal was and she said to me, You’re not inhaling!  I was floored by this information.  How could I be sucking the smoke into my mouth and not inhaling?  Needless to say, I was mortified.  I didn’t smoke any more cigarettes that day.

I can’t remember how long it was until I tried it again–but probably less than 24 hours.  I still had some cigarettes.  I waited until my entire family was asleep and I went outside our house.  It was probably around 9 or 10pm.  I sat in the mulch along the side of our house and lit a cigarette.  I sucked the smoke into my mouth like I always had been, and then consciously tried to suck it in even further.  BOY HOWDY.  It happened easily but the reaction was large.  My lungs kicked back and coughed it out, but there was also an instantaneous physical elation. A soothing, a numbing.  I took another drag and the buzz started to settle in.  The buzz is called that for a reason; my body everywhere began to buzz, to hum, to tingle.  I decided that if this was going to be my first ever buzz, I was going to make it a big one, so I began to “hot box” the cigarette–smoke it in quick, successive hits, allowing the nicotine to hit my system as fast as possible.  About a minute into it, I essentially blacked out–my vision began to creep away from me at my periphery, my head began to spin, my whole body went numb.  I slumped over in the mulch.  I have no idea how long I remained that way.  When I finally began to return to my senses, I had only one overarching thought: I must do more of this.

And that’s it, that’s what does it (at least, for me): the buzz.  I doubt I’d have smoked enough to get addicted if it weren’t for the buzz.  The buzz disappears quickly with repeated use, so we tend to forget it.  We get addicted and then we think THAT’S why we smoke, or many other reasons we make up for ourselves.  We forget how massive those early buzzes are.  They are like freakin’ narcotics.  The blast of my first dozen or so nicotine buzzes were unlike any sensation I’ve experienced before or since–and I’ve been down a few roads in this life.  It is an intense, euphoric high–but one that lasts only a minute or two.  By the time you’ve chased that high for one or two packs of cigarettes, it vanishes, replaced by the crippling addiction.  You still think you like smoking, but all it is is scratching an itch.  We find scratching pleasurable, too, but only when there’s an itch.

After Mike, I was the second of our friends to really start smoking, and a few of them gave me some pushback, refusing to lend me money for a pack of smokes.  But eventually they all came along for the ride–eventually almost everyone I knew from my hometown came along for the ride.  We were Red State Pennsylvanians.  It was just something you did.

I’ve written extensively about my alcoholism, and how drinking formed who I was for so very long, but in almost all addiction literature, nicotine gets short shrift.  It shapes your life in so many ways, but since it doesn’t actually inebriate you or ruin your life in any blatantly visible ways, it’s always the also-ran to the more dominant addiction.  And so it would be with me.

I smoked cigarettes while leading a “normal” life from the age of 16 until 20.  We partied.  We did crazy things.  I had a lovely teeneagerhood filled with cars and girls and cigarettes and, yes, booze that didn’t control me.  We exerted our rebellion by smoking–in malls, in parks, in basements.  My girlfriend and I would take drags of smoke and blow them into each others’ mouths–it’s actually quite sensual.  We learned to blow smoke rings, and bought cigars.  We thought we were grown ups.  We thought the whole world was nothing.  We thought we’d never die.

Around age 20 I became physically addicted to alcohol, which naturally altered my relationship with cigarettes.  It actually made me need them more.  While my body’s need for alcohol was the dominant itch by far, the prospect of having alcohol but no cigarettes was damn-near terrifying.  I now needed to jump through hoops to ensure I had a steady supply of TWO drugs at all times.

Against all odds, I was able to quit drinking very early, at the age of 25.  It was a no-brainer that I would continue to smoke cigarettes, though.  Alcohol had been ruining my life and killing me–the general theory seemed to be that I needed to keep smoking to not risk relapsing on alcohol.  And who knows?  That may have been true.  I managed to stay successfully sober, after one relapse, but I continued smoking cigarettes for another seven years, until age thirty-one.  Many people told me, around the time I quit, that they had really associated me closely with smoking; that I had been the person who got them 33919_1384782511500_5306327_nstarted, or who made it look fun and enticing, and that some people even thought of me as a smoker before they even thought of me as a drinker.  Smoking was a big part of me.  Alcohol or drugs take you over because of how they alter your personality, but cigarettes defined me more than most people give them credit for.

When I quit drinking, I mourned alcohol like a loved one who had died.  When I quit smoking, I didn’t mourn it–I missed it like an amputated limb.  Seven years later, some days, I still do.  If I walk through a cloud of smoke someone just blew out of their lungs, often I am disgusted, but sometimes, if you catch me on just the right day, I stand in the cloud of smoke and breathe it deep.  Who knows why these things are true, why or how they happen to some and not to others.  To me, it’s a mystery–but maybe only because I don’t want to know.

(I quit smoking on September 20th, 2009, with the aid of Chantix.  If you’d like to read my blogging of it, all the entries associated with my quitting smoking can be found here: https://notesfromthefire.wordpress.com/category/chantix-diary/ )

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Thirteen Years Sober, Plus a Ton of Love

Posted in Memoir, real life, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on March 23, 2016 by sethdellinger

April 3rd has been a big day for me for many years: it has been my sobriety anniversary since 2003.  This year (if you suck at math) will be my 13th sober year.  But the date has, of recent times, taken on a few extra meanings.  It now also marks my love and I’s half anniversary (this year being one and a half years) as well as the one year mark of me moving from Philadelphia back to Central PA (although you may recall I spent the first month back here at my father’s house, so it is NOT the one year anniversary of me and Karla living together).  Got all that?  The bottom line is it is a date that now marks, essentially, the full evolution of my life.

(I’ve written extensively about this topic before; if you’re new to the blog and interested, I detailed the days I got sober in a two-part blog, part one here and part two here .   There’s a dandy of an entry on the topic here.  Here is a good one about when I was very close to rock bottom.  Anyway, there are TONS, I’ve been writing this blog a long time, feel free to go to the home page and explore the tags “Recovery” and “Addiction”)

For the first few years of sobriety, obviously the anniversary date was a very big deal to me.  I made sure to get together with family and friends, wrote poignant poems, went places with significance to my recovery story.  As the years passed, the day morphed gradually; while it never lost significance, it did lose intensity.  Somewhere around Year Five, Dad and I started marking the occasion with a breakfast at The Hamilton, in Carlisle, a tradition that was a little short-lived due to my moving away from the area around Year Nine.  In addition, around Year Six I began to make a point of watching “Dark Days”, a documentary about homeless addicts who live in the New York City subway system.  While my life never dipped as low as that, I certainly felt like I had stared that kind of desperation in the face and just barely escaped it.  Watching the documentary (which is not just emotionally affecting but a startling display of filmmaking) is a way of keeping that reality fresh for me, a kind of “there-but-for-the-grace-of-Whatever-go-I” kind of experience.  As I now live with a family and have a busier schedule than at any time previously in my sobriety, I’m now watching “Dark Days” before the actual anniversary.  Here, check it out:

I’ll also be able to see Dad on the actual date again this year, which will be nice.  We had just gotten into the swing of the tradition when it had to stop.  Unfortunately, The Hamilton isn’t open on Sundays, so we’ll have to change it up a bit, but of course change is nice, mostly.

Of course, if all those wrenching changes hadn’t happened to me back then, I never would have been in a position to meet, woo, and win the dear love of my life, Karla, and help her raise her amazing son.  The year and a half I have been lucky enough to be doing this has been a delicious treasure, like a secret revealed to me.  The size and scope of the love I have been able to feel for them (as well as our dog, Benji, who is my “poocher love”) continues, routinely, to shock me.  It is honestly a level of emotion I would not previously have thought humanly possible.  It is akin to reaching the highest level of a video game, being positive it is the highest level, and then discovering there is not only a level beyond it, but in fact twenty more levels.  I frequently have to tell Karla, breathlessly, that I don’t know what to do—I don’t know how to express or even deal with my love for them.  She just smiles and kisses me; what else is there to say?

I’ve made many slide show videos before, but just to mark the occasion, I’ve made a new one encapsulating Karla and I’s entire relationship.  Have a look:

 

What really excites me is how the advent of my family life really highlights for me the changes I’ve gone through internally.  When I think about myself thirteen years ago, of course, the changes within me appear very dramatic—at the end of my drinking I was as big of a mess of a human being as could exist.  But even beyond that, once I got sober and began taking the baby steps into reliable, independent adulthood, I still felt for many years as though I had many, many character traits I needed to work on, often becoming convinced I could never make the necessary changes.  I was selfish, grumpy, standoffish, a certified loner.  And while elements of those traits still clank around within me, my life with a partner, child, and pet continually show me my progress.  I don’t bring this up in an attempt to get a pat on the back (after all, being a good person should kind of be a given) but just because I think it’s an extraordinary fact that it is possible for anyone to set out to “work on themselves”–to make alterations to their inner workings and, over time, actually see quantifiable results.  Four or five years ago, when I was living an isolated life, giving strangers the finger in the gym, going to great pains to avoid my neighbors…I would not have thought it would be possible to make significant change.  This date, April 3rd, gives me now a terrific chance to measure almost everything, and commemorate almost everything; how far I have been able to come since sobriety, how much Karla and family have changed me or helped me register change, and how being back in central PA has affected me.

Speaking of now being back in Central PA for a year–I feel as though I must acknowledge I have failed, to an extent, in some of my other relationships.  Most of my family and friends here I have seen between 1-3 times.  My sincere apologies to those of you who may feel I am ignoring you.  I won’t belabor you with excuses (however very, VERY true they are) of how busy and challenging life with a toddler is, etc etc, but I will say, however…that’s life, you know?  We’ll keep trying.

And what is sustained life like back in Central PA after taking such a long trip away?  Well…it’s not quite the same, but not entirely different.  It is without a doubt a nice place to live.  It is cozy and vibrant and there is more than enough to do.  It is bizarre, though, feeling as though I returned to the place a different person.  I like the river very much.

Amber, You Died

Posted in Prose, Uncategorized with tags , on December 6, 2015 by sethdellinger

An hour or so ago, I stepped out of the house to take an evening stroll.  This, it seems, is an unusual event for just about anybody this time of year.  It gets dark mid-afternoon and the temperature drops and the people disappear; they go somewhere but they’re no longer pedestrians.  I, too, am outside rarely now.  It was brisk but not frigid.  The sidewalks, being vacant, were also silent.  The cold, dark air sent every sound intact to my ears–the crunching of the leaves, the hiss of the light wind.  I studied the street lights’ faint glows as I walked past them, wondering who they shone for on this barren evening.  Television glows, like mini auroras, illuminated most of the ground floor windows.  I felt ensconced by the darkness; enclosed but not stifled.  The streets were like chilly wombs.

Amber, you died.  It wasn’t a shock–probably not even to you–but it’s still hard to believe.  It would be fair to say we didn’t know each other well; we worked together, briefly, seven or so years ago, and after that never saw each other in person again, but we communicated frequently (off and on) via electronic and written means.  But we didn’t know each other well still, because we only ever conversed about one subject.  Amber, you tried.  You tried so hard, I could barely stand to hear about how hard it was for you.  You tried so hard.

Your funeral was four days ago but I wasn’t able to be there.  I wanted to be.  I wanted to see your parents, and you.  I understood you.  The morning of your funeral I had to go to a training class for my new job.  It was an hour and a half away and it was a very wet and foggy morning and I thought of you as I drove there, as the fog kept stretching out before me, obscuring the tiny mountaintops on either side of the highway.  It was a dreary morning and it seemed appropriate.  I’m sorry I wasn’t there.

The older I get, obviously, the more people I know who die. Sometimes it seems like the list is growing rapidly.  Each time, it is disconcerting how easily people seem to take the event; sure, folks are upset that someone died, but if they weren’t extremely close or related to you, it might be an event that gets remarked upon, discussed briefly, and then perhaps dropped from discussion for the most part.  The deceased might be thought of in quiet, solitary moments, or memorialized in sappy throwback-Thursday Facebook pictures, but generally speaking, after some initial sadness, the dead are just the dead, and the living are the living.  It is disconcerting, but I’m not sure if there is another way to work it.

I could spend lots of time recounting the things we talked about, the things you told me, the many different ways I tried to approach the subject, but none of that history matters any more now than it did then.  I could groan about how I feel bad for not helping you more, how I shoulder blame for you dying–but everyone always does, of course I do, and of course I shouldn’t.  The nexus of this moment right now for me, Amber, is that I can’t stop thinking about how you died, and what it must have been like for you in those moments.  The depth of your pain and your desperation, and what you must have known.  What did you think of as you slipped away?  Did you know you’d never be back?  Was there–oh god–was there finally an easing of your burden in your last moments?  It is more than I can bear to think of.

If I were to write your parents a letter–which I might do still–there would be many things I’d like to tell them, many of which I don’t have ready to put into words yet.  But there are a few that I know:

There really was nothing you could have done.  Everybody says that to people in your position all the time, but I want you to know: it is not always the truth, but it is the truth now.  There was nothing you could have done.  There was nothing Amber could have done.  There was nothing I or any counselor or facility or even the penal system could have done.  Your daughter was gripped by something the likes of which I have never borne witness.  The strength of the affliction was beyond hope.  This might not make you feel better, but it’s the truth.  I’m by no means an expert but I know this to be true.  But also: throughout all her pain, and bottomless suffering, Amber shone a light of purity that nothing could extinguish.  She wrote me a little over a week before she died and she was still in love with that dog of her’s–what was that dog’s name?–the dog that is also dead now, she never stopped loving him, like the purest little girl hugging a blanket.  And horses.  And Olsen twin movies.  She held her things close to her and kept her flame alive, somewhere deep inside the onslaught.  I’m not sure what kind of lessons or truths we can get out of all that.  Like I said, I didn’t know her very well.  But I know those things about her.

Amber, you died.  I didn’t want you to think we didn’t notice.

 

She Drank

Posted in Prose, Uncategorized with tags , , on November 28, 2015 by sethdellinger

It’s now been many years since I was an active member of the “recovery community”, ie attending meetings of 12-Step programs, etc.  But my time in them as well as my outspoken status as a recovering alcoholic (which is just another way of saying addict) made me many friendships and relationships with people of just about every walk of life, and people of extremely varying success with staying clean and sober.

There’s a woman I’ve known for about 6 years now.  She’s about ten years younger than I am.  She is an alcoholic of the absolute most acute variety–she can get sober for a few months at the most but never, ever stay sober.  In the few years I’ve known her she must have relapsed fifty times and been to as many rehabs.  It got really heartbreaking.  We never stayed out of contact for long; according to her I was one of the only people who never, ever judged her, who really did stick to the story that her troubles didn’t make her a bad person, that no matter how hopeless it got, she could still write a good ending to her story.

She struggled so mightily with drink.  I’ve never met anyone who struggled so.

We’d been texting somewhat frequently in the last few months–her travels had taken her to a Recovery House very near where I lived.  We never got together, but our proximity did increase our communication.  In the five months that she lived near me she relapsed three times and went to rehab twice.  In the past few weeks she had moved back with her parents about twenty minutes away and was, for a time, sober.

I logged onto Facebook today to see posts about her death.  I felt sick and lightheaded.  We’d texted last less than a week ago.  She was massively troubled but was just a sweet little girl encased in all that mammoth pain.  I texted someone to ask how she died and I got this simple text back: She drank windshield washer fluid.  I have no great words of wisdom here, and no tidy sentence to end this thought.  This is what the human mind and body can drive some people to.  I breathe deeply for her tonight and mourn.

The Theme Was Hotels, the Theme Was the Absence of Worry

Posted in Memoir, Prose with tags , , , on November 13, 2015 by sethdellinger

Some memories that seem somehow important:

Waking on a hotel bed as a young young boy–no older than 5–on a family vacation to Ocean City, Maryland.  I had apparently been allowed to sleep in.  I could see out of a high window (it was a high window to me then) and the sun was at it’s zenith.  I was suffering from my first sunburn, which if you remember is quite confusing.  What had awoken me was the sound of seagulls squaking.  I caught a glimpse of a clump of them flying by the window in my first few moments of consciousness.  The bed was the most comfortable and comforting thing I could imagine. The air conditioning was pumped up, and the cold air mixed with the warm sun created an elegant sensation. I was alone in the room. This is the definition of childhood happiness, and the absence of worry.

Waking on a hotel bed, trembling.  Where am I? Which hotel is this?  It is dark, and much too hot.  It smells of mushrooms and bile in here. Who is next to me?  Is it someone?  Perhaps it is her.  I didn’t think she’d return. I try to rise, but my peripheral swims with still motion, my stomach lurches, I knock the lamp over, lay back down.  The trembling rises, it crescendos, it is hot and shaky and moist in here.  This is depravity.  This is the sadness. Strangely, it is also the absence of worry.

Waking on a hotel bed, a man of nearly thirty.  I’m in town for my job interview.  The light through the drawn curtains is low and grey; it’s just past dawn.  I only slept an hour but am instantly awake.  My eyes focus and are aware. Standing before the mirror to tie my tie, I am fatter and older. I accept this and smile. I like my fat cheeks, the bulbous nose.  I earned them. I gather my things: the suitcase I bought, the journal I keep, the socks I wash myself.  Tomorrow I’ll drive home. Tomorrow I’ll be OK, I know.

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