I was raised in the very conservative, Christian “deep south,” where I’ve discovered that my life has been sheltered from the views and lifestyles in other areas of the country. Our town has a population of about six thousand. The whole county has less than thirty thousand. The Internet has been a real eye opener, to say the least. I accidentally found your column and was fascinated. I know that people are pretty much the same everywhere, but in the south people tend to keep things out of the public eye. Especially concerning sex and relationships. I have very much enjoyed reading your columns because they are honest, blunt and give me a new perspective on the lives of others that I normally wouldn’t see or hear. Yes, the “Southern Culture” you’ve always heard about is alive and well in the twenty-first century.
I am a professional in a real estate related field and I own my own business. I’ve been married for twenty-plus years and have four children. The first half of my marriage was what I considered utopia but we’ve grown apart over the last ten years or so. Now it seems that we simply cohabitate peacefully, similar to siblings. Neither of us is happy, but we stay together for the kids.
Several years ago, I was involved in an accident that damaged my spine. I was told by a neurosurgeon that operating wouldn’t help and he referred me to a pain management clinic. Now I am hopelessly addicted to the pain meds. In my youth, I experimented with drinking and drugs. Much of that was spurred on by the suicide of an older sibling. I never had a problem as far as addiction though. Now, I take a month’s supply of some very strong pain meds in about seven to ten days then I crash and have to beg or borrow from others to make it to the next appointment. I know that these drugs will end up turning my liver into a rock if I don’t accidentally overdose first. I know that I have a serious problem.
When the economy went bad, so did business and we ended up losing our health insurance. I no longer have employees, so if I don’t work every day, we don’t eat. Rehab is realistically impossible. I can’t depend on my wife for support and don’t have any other family anywhere close. I feel totally alone except for my children. I tried everything I could think of from prayer to “cold turkey.” I simply don’t have the discipline to follow through. I’ve come to depend on the drugs mentally as much or more than physically. I depend on the drugs to help me deal with the lack of work and income as well as dealing with a loveless marriage. Couple that with the loss of my dear mother a year and a half ago and soon thereafter, one of my best friends to cancer. Now I have begun to have problems with depression and suicidal thoughts that I’m sure are related to the meds as much as the economy or anything else. The choices I see are:
1. Continue like I have been, knowing that there is a good chance that it will kill me.
2. Find a way to go to rehab and lose the house and business (my wife doesn’t work).
3. Go to AA/NA meetings in this small town. This would almost surely ruin what’s left of my business.
I hope you can see some other options because I just don’t see any of the ones I’ve listed working out. Please be honest, blunt and give me a new perspective on my multifaceted problem.
Ruler of a Fallen Empire
Dear Ruler of a Fallen Empire,
I’m terribly sorry for your misfortune. You listed the three options you believe you have, but really they all say the same thing: that you believe you’re fucked before you begin. I understand why you feel this way, sweet pea. Your convergence of physical pain, drug addiction, financial woe, no health insurance, and an unhappy marriage is truly daunting. But you don’t have the luxury of despair. You can find a way to overcome these difficulties and you must. There aren’t three options. There is only one. As Rilke says, “You must change your life.”
You have the capacity to do that, Ruler. It seems impossible now, but you aren’t thinking clearly. The drugs and desperation and depression have muddled your head. If there is only one thought that you hold in your mind right now, please let it be that one. It was that thought that got me out of my own drug/money/love disaster several years ago. Someone I trusted told me what to do when I couldn’t think right for myself and listening to him saved my life.
You say that you don’t have the “discipline to follow through” when it comes to kicking your addiction, but you do. It’s that you can’t do it alone. You need to reach out for help. Here’s what I think you should do:
1. Talk to a medical doctor at your pain management clinic and tell him or her that you’ve become addicted to your pain medication and also that you’re depressed and broke. Tell the whole story. Don’t conceal anything. You aren’t alone. You have nothing to be ashamed of, hon. I know your first instinct is to lie to your doctor, lest he or she cut off your drug supply, but don’t trust that instinct. That’s the instinct that will ruin your life and possibly kill you. Trust the man inside you who you really are and if you can’t do that, trust me. Your doctor can help you safely taper off of the drug to which you’ve become addicted, prescribe an alternative, non-addictive drug, refer you to drug addiction treatment programs and/or psychological counseling, or all of the above.
2. Perhaps your doctor knows of a drug treatment program available to you at no cost, but if this isn’t an option, I implore you to attend an NA meeting (or an AA meeting, if that’s what’s available in your town). Of course you’re afraid of being judged and condemned. Some people will judge and condemn you, but most won’t. Our minds are small, but our hearts are big. Just about every one of us has fucked up at one point or another. You’re in a pickle. You did things you didn’t hope to do. You have not always been your best self. This means that you’re like the rest of us. I’ve never been in a humiliating situation when I wasn’t shocked by all the “normal” people who were also in the very same humiliating position. Humans are beautifully imperfect and complex. We’re horny, ass-saving, ego-driven, drug fiends, among other, more noble things. I think you’ll be comforted when you go the AA/NA meeting and see how many have problems similar to yours—including people you assumed would not. Those people will help you heal yourself, darling. They’ll support you as you face this addiction. And they’ll do it for free. I know a lot of people who have transformed their lives thanks to those meetings. Not one of them thought they were the “AA/NA type” before they went. They knew that they were smarter or more sophisticated or less religious or more skeptical or less strung out or more independent than all those other hopeless freaks who went to AA or NA. They were all wrong. You worry that your business will be ruined if word gets around that you’re attending meetings. I think people are more generous than you’re imagining—yes, even in the “very conservative, Christian ‘deep south.’” But, Ruler, even if you’re right, what’s the alternative? Your addiction and depression will only deepen if you continue on this path. Would you rather have your business go down because you did or because you live among a community of punishing jackasses?
3. Talk to your wife and tell her about your addiction and your depression. This might be the first item on the list or the last—I can’t gauge from your letter. Will your wife be an important advocate for you as you make the initial reach for help or will she be more supportive if you tell her after you’ve made a few positive changes on your own? Either way, I imagine she’ll feel betrayed to learn that you’ve been concealing your addiction from her, and eventually relieved that she knows the truth. You say your marriage is “loveless” and perhaps you’re correct that your relationship has come to its natural end, but I’d like you to consider the notion that you aren’t the best judge of that right now. You’re a psychologically distressed drug addict with four kids, no health insurance, uncertain business prospects and a pile of bills. I wouldn’t expect your marriage to be thriving. I doubt you’ve been an excellent partner in recent years and it doesn’t sound like your wife has either. But that the two of you have managed—after your ten happy years together—to roll on for another ten “peaceably,” in spite of the enormous stress you’re under, is an accomplishment that you mustn’t fail to recognize. It may indicate that the love you once shared isn’t dead. Perhaps you can re-build your marriage. Perhaps you can’t. Either way, I encourage you to see.
4. Make a financial plan, even if that plan is an anatomy of a disaster. You cite money as the reason you can’t go into rehab, or even to AA/NA meetings, but surely you know that the financial repercussions will be far worse if you continue on your present course. Everything is at stake, Ruler. Your children. Your career. Your marriage. Your home. Your life. If you need to spend some money to cure yourself, so be it. The only way out of a hole is to climb out. After you consult with your doctor and see what options are available to you, and after you have a heart-to-heart with your wife about your situation, sit down with her and have a discussion about money in which everything is on the table. Perhaps you qualify for public assistance. Perhaps your wife can get a job, either temporarily or permanently. Perhaps you can get a loan from a friend or family member. Perhaps things won’t seem so dire once you make the first steps in the direction of healing and you’ll be able to maintain your job while you recover. I know you feel panicked about your financial standing because you have four children to support, but every choice you’re currently making is hurting your cause. The only way for you to support your family financially is to get yourself together.
Your letter appeared in my inbox a couple of days after my last column ran. It was so hard for me to stick to my word to take a break from being Sugar so I could write like a motherfucker on my book under my real name because I felt urgently that you needed advice. I thought of you every day. I sent you the inexplicable version of love I feel for those who write to me. I kept imagining your despair. Your words about there being no way out of your situation rang through my mind, especially as I worked and reworked a scene that I wasn’t sure I should keep in my book.
It was about the year I lived in Brooklyn when I was twenty-four. I shared an apartment with a man who was then my husband in a building that was mostly empty. Below us there was a bodega; above us a couple who got into raging fights in the middle of the night. The rest of the building—though full of apartments—was unoccupied for reasons that were never clear to me. I spent my days alone writing in the apartment while my husband worked his job as an assistant to someone who appeared to be in the mafia. In the evenings I worked as a waitress.
“Did you hear something strange?” my husband asked me one night when I got home from work.
“Hear something?” I asked.
“Behind the walls,” he said. “I heard something earlier and I wondered if you heard it too, while you were alone today.”
“I didn’t hear anything,” I said.
But the next day I did. Something behind the walls, and then from the ceiling. Something close, then distant, then close again, then gone. I didn’t know what it was. It sounded awful. Like a baby who was extremely discreet. Its keen had the weight of a feather, the velocity of a dried leave falling from a tree. It could have been nothing. It could have been me. It was the exact expression of the sound my insides were making every time I thought of my life and how I needed to change it and how impossible that seemed.
“I heard something,” I told my husband that night.
He went to the wall and touched it. There was nothing there. It was silent. “I think we’re imagining things,” he said and I agreed.
But the sound kept coming and going, all through December, impossible to define or reach. Christmas came and we were all alone. The people who probably belonged to the mafia gave my husband a bonus. We spent it on tickets to the opera in way-back seats. It was Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
“I keep hearing it,” I said to my husband on the subway home. “The sound behind the walls.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Me too.”
On New Year’s Day we woke at seven to a yowling. We jumped out of bed. The sound was the same one we’d been hearing for three weeks, but it wasn’t discreet anymore. It was coming very clearly from the ceiling of our bedroom closet. My husband immediately got a hammer and started pounding away at the plaster with the claw end, chipping it in great chalky chunks that fell over our clothes. Within ten minutes, he’d clawed almost the entire closet ceiling away. We didn’t care that we were ruining the place. We knew only that we had to get to the source of that sound, which had stopped during the pounding. Once there was no more closet ceiling to claw away, we went silent and stared up into the mysterious black innards of the building.
At first it seemed there was nothing—that the horrible sound-maker had again gone away or perhaps we really had imagined it—but a moment later two emaciated kittens appeared, coming to peer down at us from the jagged edge of the hole. They were the strangest things I’ve ever seen. So skeletal they should have been dead, visibly shaking with fear, caked in soot and spider webs and globs of black grease, their eyes enormous and blazing.
“Meow,” one of them said.
“Meow,” wailed the other.
My husband and I held up our palms and the kittens walked into them immediately. They were so light it was like holding air with the smallest possible thing in it. They were like two sparrows in our hands.
I worked and reworked this scene as I pondered you and your problems over these past weeks, Ruler, but after all that work, I decided to take it out of my book. It was nice, but I didn’t need it. It was an odd thing that happened to me during a sad and uncertain time in my life that I hoped would tell readers something deep about my ex-husband and me. About how in love we were and also how lost. About how we were like those kittens who’d been trapped and starving for weeks. Or maybe not about the kittens at all. Maybe the meaning was in how we heard the sound, but did nothing about it until it was so loud we had no choice. I could’ve sanded it down. I could have fit it in.
But I took it out because of you, Ruler. I realized it was a story you needed to hear instead. Not how the kittens suffered during those weeks they were wandering inside the dark building with no way out—though surely there’s something there too—but how they saved themselves. How frightened those kittens were, and yet how they persisted. How when two strangers offered up their palms, they stepped in.