Voices on Addiction: Zombie Nation
The vine has a dream of light:
what is life in the dirt
with its dark freedoms
compared to supported ascent?
– Louise Glück, “Parable of the Trellis”
Five years without owning a TV and it only took a few weeks of having one for my roommate Lola and I to become fully submerged in a Netflix binge-hole—and it was then she suggested we start watching The Walking Dead.
I’d never really been into the whole zombie craze that seems to have preceded the show in pop culture, but I have long been fascinated with the phenomena of the craze itself. Comic books, graphic novels, TV shows, movies, video games, iPhone apps—culturally we cannot seem to get enough of the zombie apocalypse. And why? Why enthusiasm to watch putrid, vagrant cannibals decaying and threatening life as we know it? It’s such a pervasive storyline even the fan sites now seem bottomless; one such site, Zombiepedia, defines a zombie as:
…in its broadest sense, [is] a person who has lost his or her sense of self-awareness and identity, and cares only for the destruction (and often consumption) of any human around, no matter what the circumstances, or cost to his or her self. They make up for this loss of intelligence in sheer numbers, as the state of ‘Zombieism’ is almost always contagious, and spreads like wildfire. Technically speaking zombies are always dead, and re-animated.
In the original definition, in Haitian culture, a zombie (or zombi rather, suspected to be traced to the Kongo—the original, original—where nzambi is said to mean “soul” or “spirit of the dead person”) is a person brought back from death by a Bokor, or sorcerer/witch-doctor. The Bokor often poisoned unsuspecting victims and awakened their corpses, didn’t let their spirits go on to freedom and return to their Motherland, tethering them as slaves within their flesh, without mind or will power, to do the Bokor’s bidding. I suppose America’s zombie lore and “Zombiepedia” co-opted (bastardized) this idea successfully, and went further to build a now-extensive list of well-known zombies, including: Generic Zombies, Runners, Walkers, Voodoo Zombies, Contaminated/The Infected/Carriers, Stalkers, Crawlers, Bonies, Pukers/Vomiters, Spitters, Armored, etc.
As soon as we flipped on The Walking Dead and commenced watching Sheriff Deputy Rick Grimes come to and grapple with a world now fraught with ‘walking dead’, I noticed I was sitting rigidly on the couch with my shoulders tensed up and my molars grinding into each other. My dog had joined us, but even feeling her warm body sleeping on me wasn’t quelling the unease. I wasn’t scared; I was nauseous because I saw myself in a way I hadn’t for a long time: because I’d been a zombie once.
Later that night, after a few (many) episodes, when Lola and I went our separate ways to bed, I was shaken and intrigued in the worst kind of way—the kind where you morbidly Google/WebMD a mosquito bite to double check it’s not actually bed bugs, but aren’t satisfied after showering, checking your legs, mattress, and the dog, and move on to looking up every fact about Zika you can find and its potential cures. I opened my laptop and pulled up World War Z online and started watching. Those zombies were the opposite of the slow, dullards of The Walking Dead. In Max Brooks’s World War Z, in under ten seconds, a human morphs into the hysterical, rabid, living dead who thrust themselves through windows with guillotine jaws snapping something fierce at your flesh. On The Walking Dead the mutation from human to living dead set in more like aggressive gangrene. But no matter, mutate they do.
Once whole, healthy human beings with mind, body, and spirit intact—they were social, they had feelings, they loved, they laughed and cried, they got paper cuts, they had friends and family, they had birthday parties and sang along to songs on the radio, they had sex, they danced and built things, they kissed deeply and burnt their mouths on hot food—the zombie disease pries in past humanity and life departs. And amid the individual’s dehumanization is also their physical decomposition—the lack of blood flow makes the flesh garishly pale, progressively cloaked with a coat of green decay and filth (there’s certainly no bathing involved), their organs rot inside them, hair matts and falls out, they lose the ability to speak, their eyes are bloodshot and circled dark bulls-eye-less targets. A zombie may even snag or trip on something, tearing their flesh or ripping off a finger, no matter, they feel nothing, and persist in their undead drifting and bewitched insatiable hunger. Some versions have them wander day and night, others have them as strictly nocturnal creatures.
I needed to move. I pulled on pants and went to the gas station on the corner for some Reese’s and a cranberry juice and parked on my front stoop for a cigarette. I briefly regretted not bringing my dog out with me as I sat there at 4 a.m. and watched two crack addicts hover together down the block, break something glass, and speed-walk past me. Two neighbors a building over swaying and drinking beers on their own stoop chuckled as the zombies addicts sped by. I cringed again and squeezed my arms to remind myself I was okay, and that I was still sober.
The truth is I’ve never really found other people’s cult-love for zombie films fascinating because I don’t see fictitious monsters or funny entertainment; I see an active alcoholic, drug addict and/or mentally ill person. I see me.
I am an alcoholic. Before I was resuscitated to, quite literally, the land of the living: I weighed thirty-five pounds less than I do now; my face was a sullen and sunken, ashen green and grey; I constantly broke and stepped on glasses/bottles or lost toe nails tripping on things and felt nothing, I slammed my head into stationary objects and kept on to the bar/bodega where those who served me wouldn’t look me in the eye (and those who did greeted me ‘Ms. Corona’); I fought with gravity often, once even succumbing to it, apparently, on a cobble stone street in SoHo, and came to, to a group of strangers leaning over me asking if I was okay (I followed them to their apartment to ‘shake it off’ and see if they had any free beer, only then realizing I was 1.5 blocks from my apartment, and that’s where I must have been going); I was steadily losing my appetite for food, drinking most meals; I began to live in the dark, blacking-out by 8 a.m. only to wake when the sun was setting; writing or college accolades mattered none, my head was so fuzzy I could hardly read; I didn’t have any more friends or lovers left, only hostages when I could find them; I pan-handled when I was short for a 40-ounce. I’d begun to vomit almost every time I drank—which was daily; I did 24-hour bodega runs for more beer until I finally passed out; I physically had to keep going until my body shut down and cut me off; I didn’t have a life, I had a list of problems; I didn’t sleep, I blacked out and I didn’t dream, I hallucinated (mostly nightmares); I woke up crying frequently; I was so lonely and hollow my torso felt like a scraped out pumpkin that only became a jack-o-lantern when alcohol went in. Drag a steel spatula along the walls to gut the pulp and you can hear a dull scrape and a whimper while the seeds hit the floor—that kind of hollow.
My drinking hadn’t started this way, but alcoholism is a progressive disease, and I had somehow, over the span of nine or ten years, arrived there. Despite every decision and effort not to, I lost all choice, all personhood and lived, every single day, to consume alcohol like a fiend. I can still see myself, coming to at 5 p.m., cringing at the sunset, chugging water in my dry mouth and swearing I wouldn’t drink that day (night), only to open the fridge and see one single beer somehow still there. I felt my eyes water and watched from outside of myself as I opened the bottle and drank it, setting the whole cycle in motion again. John Barleycorn, it seemed, was my Bokor, and he had me under his thumb.
And what was almost worse than the circumstances or junkie gymnastics I performed daily to maintain my alcohol consumption (if you think for a second alcoholics or drug addicts are lazy, you still don’t get it; alcoholism and addiction are both 24-hour-a-day job)—the booze had stopped working. It didn’t feel like a warm, sparkling veil tucked in around my brain to quiet the voices and panic anymore. No champagne gold flutter of magic that made a warm buzz feel like a fleet of fireflies were alight inside me—just flat beer, bad decision making, and inescapable self-loathing. Alcohol was barely keeping my brain above a flatline, but I couldn’t even get drunk anymore. I had just turned twenty-four and I’d outdone Leaving Las Vegas’s Ben Sanderson. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I didn’t want to keep living like this. I didn’t want to die, but I wanted it to end. I didn’t know any other way to live at that point or how to stop, and I couldn’t hear another option while a ravenous parasite clawed inside me yelling for more—I was dying by my own hand and could not stop the process. Any sense of Alanna was gone. I was broken. I was alone. I was, in effect, possessed. And I was starving, in every possible sense of the word, to be free.
…a person who has lost his or her sense of self-awareness and identity, and cares only for the destruction (and often consumption) of any human around, no matter what the circumstances, or cost to his or her self…
Tell me you’ve never seen someone so drunk they looked like the zombies on TV. Have you ever had someone drunk dial you who could barely speak and cringe at the thought of where they might be, knowing they couldn’t possibly be mobile? Have you ever seen a junkie nodding out or, god forbid, walking? Have you ever seen a crack addict, with their sunken face and wild eyes, walk right up to you for change or walk right by you smoking crack from a glass pipe and then abruptly take of running like they were just shot through with electricity? Or the person who just stepped outside a bar to vomit and go back in? Have you ever genuinely seen someone fiend for something? And I mean fiend—aching sick, tear your face off if you get in the way, assault, lie to, steal from, cheat, maybe even kill, to get what they need? And I do mean need. Because if you get to the fiend point, in whatever form that takes, you need what you’re looking for. Booze, pills, powders—it’s the life source, the precious; at some point you can’t see people, just fleshy objects that either have or are in the way of your sustenance.
“Are they ever gonna find out what happened to make the zombies?” Lola asked, her eyes glued to the screen.
“I dunno. I’m not sure they’re even gonna make it out of the South at this rate.” I shook my head, “But doesn’t it always have to do with some government experiment gone wrong? Biological warfare that escaped the lab and infected everyone?”
“Or maybe it’s from eating too many pesticides and industrially farmed chickens.”
I laughed. “I guess anything’s possible.”
Before any form of American zombie entertainment there was, well, history (because there are always politics involved). America found one of the most subversive ways to degrade Haitian culture: colonize and trivialize their spiritual beliefs via our pop culture. Haiti, the country always described as the “poorest nation ever,” is the first nation since the Roman Empire to lead a slave rebellion so powerful and so totally successful that it would create a seismic shock that would later rumble through and shake loose North and South American continents from the institution of slavery. This, paired with Haiti’s second ousting of white intrusion, the 1915-1934 US Occupation of Haiti, has always left America festering with resentment, eager to delegitimize the whole of their culture for spite of being unable to take and control it.
So, go figure, we saw a keen influx of American entertainment about evil, terrifying zombies. Starting with William Seabrook1’s 1929 The Magic Island, credited with ‘introducing the West’ to zombies, which led to Victor and Edward Halperin’s film White Zombie in 19322
, (which apparently tanked in theaters). But Hollywood persisted with a sequel Revolt of the Zombies in 1936, and pushed steadily forward from there. The snowball rolled on into George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), followed by his Dawn of the Dead (1978), Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) (followed immediately by Michael Jackson’s epic music video to “Thriller”)—and today we’ve got 28 Days Later, Day of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, I Am Legend, The Walking Dead, The Talking Dead, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, World War Z, iZombie, Resident Evil Parts 1-85, the list goes on and on. Hell Max Brooks’s website proclaims him a “noted zombieologist” (I assume tongue-in-decaying-cheek?) and offers a promotion for a “Zombie Survival Guide Scanner,” an iPhone app allowing you to stay engaged in Zombie entertainment all day. You can easily use this “detector tool” to “scan friends and neighbors and determine their level of infection.” The app functions so you can “share” and play the ‘game’ with friends, and has the ad wrap: “Don’t be foolish with your most precious asset—life. Hordes of Zombies may be stalking you right now without you even knowing it. The [app] is your first line of defense in an undead world.”
In his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” David Foster Wallace writes about the perils (and, I think, early warning symptoms) of television over-consumption. Granted, he originally honed-in on the phenomena to discuss fiction writers’ predisposition to being “oglers,” but he also pinpointed the ways in which television’s watcher-to-screen contract morphed to twist the initial communication bargain and evolve into “metawatching;” creating audiences who were learning, essentially, to “watch themselves watching.” Nearly groomed for self-consciousness, viewers were now both sure and unsure of what they were seeing and if or how they were seeing themselves and the world. (I know: trippy, right?). And this of course, isn’t just fiction writers, but all of us now. Wallace also notes aptly:
Television regards irony sort of the way educated lonely people regard television. Television both fears irony’s capacity to expose, and needs it.
It needs irony because television was practically made for irony. For TV is a bisensuous medium. Its displacement of radio wasn’t picture displacing sound; it was picture added. Since tension between what’s said and what’s seen is irony’s wholesale territory, classic televisual irony works via the conflicting juxtaposition of pictures and sounds. What’s seen undercuts what’s said.
If you somehow have never seen someone in such a state that they really do look like the living dead, I’m impressed. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) pegs alcohol as the third highest cause of death in the US, that in 2012 alone doctors wrote enough prescriptions for painkillers for “every American adult to have a bottle of pills ”; in 2014 Nora D. Volkow, MD’s presentation to the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control in 2014 :
The number of prescriptions for opioids (like hydrocodone and oxycodone products) have escalated from around 76 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013, with the United States their biggest consumer globally, accounting for almost 100 percent of the world total for hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin) and 81 percent for oxycodone (e.g., Percocet).
and in January of 2016, in conjunction with continuous alcohol abuse statistics, the CDC “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)” (it’s a real thing, worst report name/report ever, right?) states:
The United States is experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose (poisoning) deaths. Since 2000, the rate of deaths from drug overdoses has risen 137% including a 200% increase in the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids (opioid pain relievers and heroin).
Generic Zombies, Runners, Walkers, Voodoo Zombies, Contaminated/The Infected/Carriers, Stalkers, Crawlers, Bonies, Pukers/Vomiters
Brooks’s app must have broken in the first week they took it live!
It’s true though, now I consider that even if I don’t pick up a drink a day at a time, what if I broke my leg or got in a car accident and had to take painkillers? What if a doctor thought a benzo or opioid would help and gave me a prescription? I’ve always had a dark draw to the thought of morphine, but what if I truly needed surgery? What if I got hooked? Prescription drugs are so easy to get a friend in college straight-up called her psychiatrist her dealer. Like, “Ugh finals are coming up again,” “Yeah, I know, gotta re-up on the Adderall and some Valium for after; don’t sweat it I see my dealer Wednesday for therapy.”
Maybe if you’ve somehow never seen a person deeply afflicted by a mental illness and/or addiction to a substance (and that doesn’t even count addictive/debilitating behaviors like gambling or codependency et al.), it’s because isolation is such an integral part of the disease of alcoholism and addiction. Like the zombies in I Am Legend, who creepily hover together in the dark rooms of abandoned buildings, seemingly sweating and panting in bloodthirsty clusters until the sun goes down and they can hunt—we alcoholics and addicts in the thralls of our cups tend to move (and/or become immobile) similarly. We don’t want to be alone, in fact we’re often also dying of loneliness, but we also don’t want to be disturbed while we feverishly consume our substance, so we wind up solitary, where no one will bother us, especially not the healthy or living. But like any animal, invariably we need to leave our caves to re-up get more sustenance.
The more episodes of The Walking Dead I watched, in conjunction with more and more accompanying zombie films, I wanted to know more about the zombies that others seemed to see, to understand the draw. I wanted to see how people could simply see past the uncanny resemblance of the Americanized entertainment zombie and the living dead people trapped inside drug addiction and alcoholism. Although, maybe that’s just a mass denial, which is also a necessary element to any successful active addiction (I think denial is the strongest drug in the world); looking at the world through sludge colored glasses with blinders on can make it simpler at times…
In a handful of Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese religions there’s a type of supernatural entity, a Preta (the Sanskrit name), also known as the ‘Hungry Ghost,’ which is said to undergo incomparable levels of suffering as they experience an insatiable and extreme level of hunger and thirst. While the Preta is said to be invisible, except possibly by people in ‘certain mental states’ of mind, their form is described as literally embodying their mental states: “…human-like, but with sunken, mummified skin, narrow limbs, enormously distended bellies and long, thin necks.”
Alcohol was barely keeping my brain above a flatline, but I couldn’t even get drunk anymore.
While the Hungry Ghost’s story varies a bit by culture/religion, in Buddhism, the Preta isn’t a malevolent or scary spirit, but one that is pitied as often pathetic in their constant effort to unsuccessfully satiate themselves. Some Preta are described as sadly just trying to lick up water from the floor of a temple, while others are afflicted by a fierce hunger for a specific object or substance, often one bizarre or humiliating, as the entity is said to be a greedy or unkind person reincarnated. Some substances could be feces, or occasionally blood. I wonder if this was some cross-cultural preface to what we alcoholics and addicts have become, or if all of it is just commentary on what we see when people lose their humanity—the living undone, near death, undead, the living dead, the zombie, the tortured spirit trapped in a mortal cloak, invisible to the living.
In week five of our TV binge, Lola and I were still on The Walking Dead (so many, many seasons). The dullard zombies were still, ever-wandering, without identities and hungry. It was mostly getting sad to watch, though, because the wandering human ‘survivors’ consistently could not catch a break. A couple times I rooted for them to settle in and make a safe home (once in a prison, laughably), to just relax for a while and it would explode again. It’s a “show” of course, fictitious entertainment, but what’s so interesting to me is that the zombies are just happenstance faceless predators wandering about—the real villains of the show are other people. Maybe most of what people like about these stories has to do with watching how people respond to these dire circumstances, how they either come together with complete abandon, or how they completely abandon all things decent and turn on one another, as if somehow personal gain could take precedence over uniting with others and being a stronger unit to navigate the wide, scary world with.
Like Lola, who I was back to eating pizza with on the couch.
I was briefly watching Lola watch the show, how her body looked relaxed as a wet noodle while mine was beginning to cramp from tension in my shoulders and jaw, when she haphazardly asked, “What if they figure out how to un-zombie people? Wouldn’t that be cool?”
“Indeed.” I fingered my lighter. “It would.”
I got up and made a smoothie.
Alcoholism is a family disease. After the Narcan and CPR certification, when I was undergoing training at a sober living facility I briefly worked for, I was reminded it is part of substance abuse Psych 101 that any family unit is only as healthy as its sickest member. Which is to say, it takes a village. The US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health notes:
Treating the individual without family involvement may limit the effectiveness of treatment for two main reasons: it ignores the devastating impact of SUD’s [substance use disorder] on the family system leaving family members untreated, and it does not recognize the family as a potential system of support for change.
For any family to participate in a loved one’s recovery it would require them to look at themselves as well. For a full unit of people to truly hold one another up, to re-tether a weighty plant to a trellis and help it reach the sun, grow up and out—everyone must be on the same page. Everyone would have to acknowledge the reality, to see it and touch it and feel it, to move forward together. Otherwise the organism stays a flailing misfit in the garden, some vines stretching to reach the fence, others dragging with rot in the soil.
I would be remiss to not say that any amount of toxic stress or trauma experienced in my home life growing up didn’t also fuel my view of the world and my feelings of self-worth, which would later further fuel my drinking, having never truly dealt with those underlying, unprocessed issues. My parents loved me and provided for me in tremendous, incredible ways throughout a myriad of circumstances, good and bad, growing up. I’m not ungrateful for a minute. But they also gave and taught me all they could about life with the tools they had—and they each came from turbulent, violent, neglect-filled, alcoholic and mental illness-ridden homes, which is to say, they never really got all the tools either. And from my understanding, neither did my grandparents. So, I essentially come from a long line of people mentally, spiritually, and physically at odds with themselves, with others and with the world. This in no way means we aren’t resilient or inspired, capable or whip-smart, loving or loved. But well intentioned or not, without ever truly, deeply confronting, feeling, and honoring the heritage of pain behind us, there’s no way we can move forward without in some form recreating it. We seek out what we know, good or bad, tumultuous or scary, because it’s what we know as “normal.” It’s a lineage of pain embedded in our beliefs. Trauma is like this—and alcoholism and addiction are inherently traumatic for the diseased and those around them—the ripple effects of it are deep and multi-generational. Hell, even the lore of the zombie in Haiti is directly entwined with their long, dark history of brutal slavery that plagued the island. In Haiti being a good Samaritan to avoid a Bokor turning you into a zombie is a solid motivator of behavior as a zombie epitomizes and echoes the horrors of being enslaved. In his BBC article interrogating the history Roger Luckhurst notes: “The zombie, in effect, is the logical outcome of being a slave: without will, without name and trapped in a living death of unending labour.”
A friend of mine once said aptly, “Saying I’m an alcoholic but I come from a great supportive, family where no one else drank or had issues but me is like saying there’s smoke but no fire.” It doesn’t happen. There is dysfunction and pain everywhere, in every family—what society doesn’t tell us is that it’s okay to look at it and dig in. It’s a requisite to change. Which is probably why legislation around alcoholism and addiction hasn’t changed yet—it would require us on a deeper level, at home, in communities and neighborhoods and in government, to look at what is happening and acknowledge we have a part in it, too. We should have intervened sooner and cut off big pharma. We should have supported the poor and driven the economy by lifting everyone up. We should have taken our loved one directly to therapy or rehab at the first sign of trouble. We should have revolted when we saw people of color getting drugs more easily on the street (a friend said growing up in Baltimore one in three people was addicted to crack, everyone knew, no one could stop it). We should be revolting still that people of color are three times more likely to be incarcerated on drug charges than their white counterparts. We should mandate there not be a disproportionate number of liquor stores and fast food in poor neighborhoods and require access to quality groceries across the board. Rehab should be available to anyone who wants help, regardless of insurance. There should be more we could do. We should be revolting now. But we’d have to really see each other to do it. Maybe if we slowed down and had more connection, it wouldn’t just be us surviving zombies able to see the Hungry Ghosts and other zombies on every corner, we all would.
Then we’d have to care.
Like Julie. Who, despite having just watched R eat her boyfriend’s brain, isn’t terrified enough of R to attack him and does what he tells her, or grunts for her to do rather, being a zombie who can’t really talk much anymore.
Warm Bodies, bad in many ways, but brilliant from where I sit, was the best zombie movie I stumbled on after Lola and I departed from the couch one night in week six. The movie opens with R, a zombie struggling to cling to some of his humanity, wandering aimlessly among other dullard zombies and thinking to himself Why can’t I connect? I just want to connect. As the story unfolds he and some of his epically slow-moving posse encounter a few human survivors who’d wandered out from their barricaded shelter to forage for supplies. As R’s zombie crew either dies and/or attacks the humans, R shares with us he doesn’t really like eating people but delights in eating their brain because when he does, he absorbs their memories and feels human again for a few minutes, flooded with sensory perceptions he’d all but lost.
But mid-feast, R sees Julie and knows it’s love. R saves Julie by getting her to ‘act like a zombie’ and wander back to their zombie base-camp at an abandoned airport. He hides her in his airplane-house and gets her to stay longer because he’s lonely (well, and now in love, obviously). The more time he spends with her, the more human he starts to feel. And in turn Julie begins to no longer fear or hate him. They become friends, laughing and playing records, talking (kind of) and driving cars in the sun when no one’s around. They connect.
This is basically what un-zombied me. My first real spiritual experience was genuine human kindness. I met others who’d survived zombie-dom and learned how to live again. And I believed them, because they understood exactly where I was coming from. They spoke the same language and had the same stories in a way no other ‘normal’ person could. I was like a feral child by the time I surrendered and chose life, and these kind, surviving alcoholics rooted for me, simply because they personally knew what I was up against, and they wanted me to live, too. They lifted me up. They helped me eat and taught me to take my shoes to the cobbler. They sat and listened when I was overwhelmed with feelings and thought I’d burst from my skin if I didn’t drink to quell them. They invited me over for dinner or to make crafts when I was lonely or lost. They offered something I could never repay: they bore witness to me. Just for being a person. I was seen. I was heard. At moments, I was beginning to stand in the light again. And suddenly I started to even see and hear myself sometimes—to matter to myself again, to care.
I also had to learn about the disease I was up against, the substance that possessed me when I took it in. I had to learn that despite knowing exactly what happens when I take a drink (and I’ve had to write it out), my brain will still at times tell me it wasn’t that bad, or that it could still turn out differently next time. But then, as my mental fog began to clear, despite that voice, I also began to remember many of the things I’d done when I was drinking. I relearn daily about my alcoholism simply by actively remembering it and honoring how much bigger than me it is. I also learned that a blackout from alcohol is an overdose. That a person can be in a blackout and call people and send emails and dance and drive—that it wasn’t just someone tipping over with their eyes rolling back in their head. I soon realized I’d been blacking out, and in effect, overdosing, daily for a few years. Of course, I was a mess. When you are caught up in any kind of addiction, and begin to slowly shift your life around to make it acceptable, it’s amazing how much you’ll find acceptable, how little you’ll give yourself and how much you’ll allow yourself to lose. All while thinking, ‘Man, we’ve got booze, we’re doing great!’ But then I saw I didn’t have to live like that anymore.
Kind of like R, who didn’t want to become a “bonie,” the skeletal, predatory living dead, who was so far-gone from humanity they threatened anything living. R was threatened by the bonies as much as he was the humans who tried to kill him or shut him out because of his current state. But he wanted to be alive again. And he persisted.
And suddenly a whole group of zombies followed R to try to regain entrance to the human world—they wanted to get better, too. The benign zombies and humans even had to fight together to survive the bonies. The humans were confused at first, ready to just write them off and start killing the filthy undead corpses, until the corpses helped them. The humans suddenly had to consider the zombies still vaguely resembling people. They needed each other. The humans had to let them in.
After such a long time of extreme isolation and continuous distorted reality, re-acclimating to life is hard. For much of the first year I was sober I slept. A friend pointed out I probably hadn’t really slept and rested for years—I’d been anesthetizing myself nightly, so of course I was tired. But I was also weirdly used to isolation, so for the first ninety days I had to make a bargain with a friend I would leave the house at least once a day. Granted, I was also detoxing so my body was a wreck and my brain resembled scrambled eggs. I was suddenly overwhelmed walking down the street going home—I actually saw the street. I’d look up at the trees and their warm glow in the New York City lamplight and stop to really look at them. For two years, I’d lived on that block and I couldn’t remember really seeing the street. Sometimes a freezing breeze would blow that winter and I’d stop to either cry because I could feel it and/or stop just to feel it. Later in the fall I’d listen to the wind rustle the swathes of dry ivy leaves by my window in gusts, like a thousand pages of books I hadn’t read, and smile because I knew I could read again.
As I continued slowly working and going to meetings and occasionally doing things like go see a movie in a theater with a friend (!?), I’d still have to take a day off to sleep. Sometimes life is so big and so loud and being a human being in the world is so much I feel overwhelmed and need a cocoon. Even all good things, even incredible things—sometimes the feeling of it all is so big it’s hard to stand it, all the life in this life. Being able to see it all. To feel it.
What ultimately completed R’s transition back to humanity was an act of service. He helped save Julie’s life from the bonies and was transformed. R and Julie were elated as the realized they could help lots of zombies come back to life. Today, still, part of what keeps me sober is freely giving that which was freely given to me. If I meet an alcoholic in need, who wants help, I listen. I will tell them my experience and that they don’t have to be alone anymore. In any way I can, I will be the village of people that supported me. Sometimes I just try to carry an extra banana to give a homeless person if they’re hungry. We can always find one hundred opportunities in a day to connect with the world around us if we want to. Just as easily as we are presented with one hundred opportunities to exercise having learned to ignore what’s right in front of us all the time.
But I still have my cagey phases. Thankfully they’re far less toxic than they used to be. I’ll take mild neurosis and TV-binge slumps to the living hell I was in any day.
By week seven, I stopped watching The Walking Dead. I didn’t care how it ends, because it’s not just a show and it never really ends anyway: go look outside. Shut off the TV, put down the phone and go walk around. How lucky are we? To be here in the land of the living, to be alive?
Rumpus original art by Max Winter.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.
1. Apparently also an alcoholic—and quite active at the time of the books writing…↩
2. Notice any overlaps in timeline here? I’m just saying…↩
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