There was a boy. When I tell my story in a recovery meeting, this is the line that gets repeated. There was a boy. Of course, when I say, boy, I mean, young men.
In 2005, it was Mark. We were both twenty-seven years old. We met in a twelve-step meeting in midtown Memphis. He was tall and thin with hazel eyes that danced in the dim lights of the meeting room. His brown hair was cut short like the hem in his pants, slightly too short for his long legs. He wore shiny black dress shoes and rode a bicycle. Mark was newly sober and living in a halfway house. He looked like someone who would understand Kundera’s insuperable longing to fall. I was reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and I had no one to discuss it with, no one to talk to about the constant vertigo I felt. The drugs and the lifestyle of the streets and crime constantly called. As I resisted their pull dizziness set in, the longing to not only fall, but leap. Everyone I knew talked about recovery and the twelve steps. No one seemed interested in my thoughts on how addiction, my addiction at least, related to Kundera and his literary concept of vertigo, how I felt myself teetering on the edge, the world tilting, and all direction vanished.
I worked as a server in a diner with a bunch of other twenty-something women who were sober. I’d recently moved out of a homeless shelter and into a one-bedroom apartment where hip midtown Memphis slid into South Memphis, a neighborhood which at the time was the poorest zip code in the country. My friend Hannah rented an apartment in the same complex, and we’d work our long shifts, hit a meeting, and then go home and crash. Sometimes I fell asleep in the chair in her living room still in my uniform. Sometimes she fell asleep on my couch. We both had sponsors and were working the twelve steps. Hannah was over a year clean and sober but had only been out a rehab for a few months. She was pregnant by a man who worked at the rehab.
Mark never seemed that into me. But I kept trying, like Kundera’s Teresa, wanting someone to metaphorically pick me up, to love me. I’d linger after meetings and find excuses to talk to him. Those light eyes and long dark eyelashes made me believe he was thoughtful. I don’t remember how but I finally got his attention, and we started dating. We went to dances at recovery groups on Saturday nights and stood in the corner, me leaning into him, and him looking off somewhere else. Then he came over to my apartment and we made out on my couch in the glow of the horror movie we’d planned to watch. We curled like spoons, Mark’s hand on my bare breast, and I asked if he liked shapely girls like me.
He said, “I like girls.”
I thought it was somehow sweet, like it connected me to other women and to the beauty I saw in them, though now I’m sure it was a generic response that alluded to the fact that I was not special to him. I could’ve been any girl.
Eventually, Mark stopped going to meetings and stopped answering my calls. Rumors circulated that he was back on drugs, and no longer staying in the halfway house. I had over six months sober, longer than I’d ever had.
Let me back up.
In 2003, I went to my third rehab. The fourth, if you count my one week in that place for veterans. A man who had been my counselor at an outpatient facility worried that I’d be dead soon if someone didn’t intervene and get me off the streets. He somehow managed to get me into a center for veterans even though I was not a veteran. The fifth, if you included the county mental hospital where I’d had a seventy-two-hour hold placed on me. Then, from May 2003 until February 2004, I tried to stay sober and I did achieve a month, followed by a week here or there. During this time, there was another boy, a painter, a thirty-three-year-old man with three years sober, and I begged him, pick me up, keep me from falling.
My father died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack at the end of December 2003. Sometime toward the end of February 2004 I was back to poking heroin into the soft dimples of my arms. I returned to meetings for thirty days that April just long enough to meet another boy, the stick-up boy, who was a criminal. I drove the get-away car for him until July, when I ended up in another state-run treatment center, and he ended up in federal prison. After that rehab, I lived in a homeless shelter for two months before moving into the south of midtown apartment and dating Mark.
The old woman who had multiple years of sobriety called me the relapse queen. She was a former nun, and had short hair and oxygen tubes that ran from her nose to the small tank she lugged around on wheels, and I often imagined her wobbling drunk around the convent with wine spilled down her habit. I sat in meetings and heard how addiction was cunning, baffling, and powerful, and how I had lost my choice. Yet, when I would straggle back into the rooms, bruised from needles, there would be a few who seemed to think I was just showing off, playing a game, as if I wasn’t hopelessly and slowly falling toward death.
In all fairness, I wasn’t easy to be around back then. I was a raw wound with a mouth that spit words of deceit and trickery. I was unsettled and chaotic. When I tried to meditate, to practice the eleventh step, I rattled out of my skin.
My behavior those days scared the people who’d been sober a while. I was too out of control, my energy wild and bouncing, crashing into everyone. The women who’d been sober for years had a hard time being around me, but they cared about me and worried that I would continuously relapse. Years later, as I tried to help young women who lived on the edge of recovery, slipping in and out between break ups, and other difficulties of life, their traumas manifesting in their language, their futures so uncertain, I understood those sober women from my early days.
When I said Mark could move in, I told him that it would mean he was my boyfriend. I was lonely. I needed him to be with me. Perhaps, not him in particular, but any man, and he was there, and he needed a place to live, and I could give him that.
Inside the rehab in 2003, a counselor had all the patients write down what could cause us to relapse. I wrote down loneliness. When I read mine aloud, she scoffed. She said loneliness was no big deal and called it “a soft piece of velvet on your soul.” But my loneliness hurt, haunted, and curled me into a ball crying silent tears into my living room’s hardwood floor. My loneliness had a voice, told me I was unlovable, worthless, and that I should say fuck it and fall into the abyss. But first, it told me to let Mark move in.
There was no joy. Mark found work, or so he said, with a construction company. He’d come home after work, his light eyes pitch black, the pupils overtaking the irises. His teeth chattered when he talked. Obviously high, but I pretended not to notice. Then there was a break-in, my DVD player and other small items stolen. The balcony door had been crowbarred open, the wood splintered. When I had nightmares, triggered from the break-in, Mark held me. When I noticed the footprint on the balcony door, on the side of the door that faced inside the apartment when closed, I knew that someone placed their foot there to pry open the door. I also knew that this meant the lock had been broken from inside the apartment. I knew it was Mark. Still, I didn’t kick him out; instead, I asked him to please come up with a reasonable lie.
Then one night, as I went to bed, he kissed me. He leaned in and told me that he promised to be better, to return to meetings, to be a good boyfriend. I looked up at his dark lashes, his lost pupils, and the freckle on the tip of his nose. I didn’t believe him, but I kissed him back.
I woke up at 3 a.m., and he was gone, and so was my car. I called Hannah. She came over and sat with me. She didn’t try to fix it. She didn’t lie to me and say he would bring the car back. She sat with me while I panicked.
A week passed. No car. No Mark. I sat in meetings and listened as people told me to have faith that my car would be returned. I didn’t, and still don’t, believe in that kind of faith. As if God or whatever is in charge cared about a car, an object. I knew the faith they referred to was some kind of belief that I would get through it, through the bad boyfriend, the stolen car, through the absolute humiliation I felt. I had become the type of girl, the type of woman, that allowed men to lie to her, to stay in her home, to use drugs and steal from her. I always thought I was too smart to be one of those girls. Those girls were probably smart, too. Those girls were probably as lonely as I was. Those girls probably lived, like me, with that soft piece of velvet in their soul that caused a wind to let loose through them, a wind that howled an emptiness so vacant that all the boys and men in the world couldn’t fill it.
A week passed, a full seven days, and I woke up with eight months clean and sober. I had missed phone calls from friends, and messages from Hannah and my other close friend, Jenny, asking me if wanted to go to a noon meeting. I didn’t call them back. I didn’t call anyone. I went into my bathroom, and as I peed, I thought about the cash I had from waiting tables the day before, I thought about the young woman I could call who’d give me a ride to the dope track, and I thought about God and prayer. In that tiny bathroom with the small window that looked out into a parking lot, the tiny bathroom with a constant drip from the sink and the wall paint that flecked off onto the floor and gathered in the corners, I looked up to the ceiling, to the heavens, to God, and I said, “Fuck you.”
I type this during a global pandemic, after having survived the opioid epidemic, after surviving and being cured from Hepatitis C, at fifteen years sober. Just the other night as the death toll rose, as refrigerated trucks full of bodies double parked in the streets of New York, I stared at the ceiling, at the heavens, at God, and I said, “Where are you?” That’s what my fuck you in 2005 had really meant, but I hadn’t understood God then. I still don’t. But now my expectations toward God, myself, and other humans, has changed.
Within an hour after shouting fuck you at the ceiling on the day that I awoke with exactly eight months sober, I put a needle in my arm. I did so much my eyes couldn’t stay open. My cat, Angeline, nudged me to wake me to feed her. Then, suddenly, I was in the bathtub, my head lolling under the water, waking up as I started to drown. Then I was in someone’s car, and I could see myself in the sideview mirror—saliva hanging from the corner of my mouth, my pupils so tiny, little pinholes to match the ones on my arm.
I came to on March 2. I took the bus to work. I waited tables. Hannah was off, but Jenny was there. In the server alley in the kitchen, she looked at me, and she knew.
She said, “Oh, Kitty.”
I held out my arms, the wounds still fresh, and she hugged me.
A little while later, a manager asked if I was okay. I shook my head no and held back tears. I couldn’t believe I had done it again. I’d thrown away eight months of sobriety. Now I had regret, and despair. The sun filtered in through the large front windows and the cashier clicked the keypad and swiped credit cards.
The manager, a woman around my age, twenty-seven, said, “Well, I can give you a Xanax.”
She didn’t know that Xanax would be me continuing to relapse. She didn’t mean any harm. She saw pain in my eyes and wanted to give me relief. Isn’t that all addicts ever want? She reached into her pocket, and pulled out a peach pill, the weaker kind of Xanax, and just as I was going to reach for it, Jenny turned the corner and pulled me away.
That night, I sat on my couch and waited for Jenny to come and take me to a meeting. In my head, I heard the vertiginous call; I felt the insuperable longing. I sat on my hands in the dark, the only light was from my small TV, and my phone rested in my lap. I thought about calling the man who always sold me drugs, who had sold me drugs the day before, and all the years before. I thought about how close my neighborhood was to his, a distance I’d never considered, and how he’d probably drop something off for me if I paid him a little extra. My phone lit up. It was Jenny. I didn’t answer. A minute later, it was Hannah calling. I didn’t answer. I sank further into self-pity. As commercials played on the television screen, I thought that if Jenny and Hannah genuinely loved me, they would come over. But I assumed they wouldn’t. Not because they were bad friends, but because of that constant belief that I was unlovable. My phone lit up and buzzed, repeatedly.
In the book Go, by John Clellon Holmes, a book I read pre-addiction and during addiction, he calls all the beaten addicts and alcoholics, including his fictionalized versions of Kerouac and Cassidy, children of the night, everywhere lost, everywhere wild… paralyzed by a vision of unending lovelessness. I knew this vision well. I was one of these children of the night. In fact, it had been something I wanted, a desire to be lost and wild with a belief that nihilism lead to freedom. But, Holmes continues, this vision causes the person to suffer the most unbearable of all losses: the death of hope. And when hope dies, there is only irony, a vicious senseless irony to jeer, spit, smash, curse, destroy. Fall. To let go and fall into the void, screaming all the way down. But my hands reached out and gripped the rail to keep me from plummeting. After all, Kundera’s vertigo was caused not by the fall but from resisting the fall. I was letting go of Holmes and clinging to Kundera. And, thank goodness, while there were boys, there were also girls, women.
Jenny and Hannah banged on my back door so hard that my windows rattled. Hannah shouted, “If you don’t open this door, I will kick it down.”
I knew Hannah could and would. I turned off my television. I made my way to the door. As I opened it, the last of the day’s sun snuck through as Hannah shoved passed me. “Where is it,” she said.
“Where’s what?” I asked.
“Don’t play. Where’s the rig?”
Jenny looked at me with a gentle smile. I pointed toward my bedroom, “In the top shelf of the closet.”
“You look like shit. Go brush your hair,” Hannah said, blunt as always, as she made her way to my bedroom.
Hannah found my needles. She grabbed two plastic bags from my kitchen and took everything outside to smash and throw in the dumpster.
At the meeting, I sat between Hannah and Jenny. I couldn’t focus. People shared and I felt far away, like I was still deep inside the void. At the end of the meeting, the chairperson called on me to do the chips. He didn’t know that I needed a white chip, the surrender chip, the start over chip, the chip I’d picked up over and over again. I didn’t respond. I stared straight ahead across the long rectangular tables littered with coffee cups and full ashtrays.
Jenny stood up, “I’ll do it,” she said.
When Jenny asked if anyone wanted to try this way of life, or try it again, tears pooled in her eyes. I stood up. I heard some people gasp. Jenny handed me the chip and hugged me. Then the group circled up, held hands, and said the Serenity Prayer. I was wedged between Hannah and Jenny, their hands clasping mine as I chewed on the end of a stir straw, and a thick sadness spread inside me.
For the next few weeks, I went to work. I went to meetings. I sat with Jenny and Hannah after the meetings and stared off, searching for the light but still only seeing the abyss. I was quiet. Dazed. Broken. The car was still gone. Mark was still gone. I thought about using every minute of the day. I didn’t think I would stay sober.
I prayed, “God, please. No matter what I think, feel, want, or believe. No matter how bad I hurt. Please. Please. Just don’t let me go do it.” I wasn’t asking for the alleviation of pain. I wasn’t asking for a man. I wasn’t asking to feel good. I was only asking to be stopped from getting high.
One night in early April, Hannah decided we needed new wheels since mine were gone, and she didn’t have a car either. Our landlord’s young nephew was outside in the parking lot. We flirted with him a little and talked him into dropping us off at a pawn shop. There, Hannah and I picked out bicycles. An old blue Schwinn with thick tires, a bell, and a basket for me. Hannah chose a silver one, simple yet sleek. We rode all over midtown. We rode the bikes to meetings. I can remember the lines on the streets, the red blur of taillights and the white streak of headlights, as we weaved in and out of traffic. Hannah was three or four months pregnant and wearing her overalls all the time, but it didn’t stop her from riding that bike. When I rode, the wind whipped my hair, and I could feel myself rising out of the darkness.
Two months after Mark had stolen my car, two months after the March relapse, I walked up to the corner store. Cooler weather had surprised Memphis on that May day. I had on a lightweight sweatshirt and blue jeans, my hair pulled up in a messy ponytail. The wind blew across my face. The sky was gray. A large tree arched over the sidewalk where some of its leaves had fallen, dried out from the previously departed heat. The street was momentarily quiet, no cars in sight. I felt it, for the first time, a feeling I had forgotten. The feeling I thought had died. Hope. I lifted my head to the sky, enjoyed the breeze.
Around this same time, my car was found in Nashville. Jenny drove me to retrieve it. She had recently read my copy of The Unbearable Lightness Being. We talked about Thomas and Teresa. About Sabine. About vertigo. About how we had to stop thinking broken men like Thomas were sexy, and how we had to stop believing that if these broken men loved us, we would somehow become unbroken.
Halfway to Nashville, Jenny blasted the radio. I’d first met her back in 2004, during one of my brief intervals of sobriety, at a conference for young people in recovery. I’d stood at the coffee station in the back of a large room as a speaker told their story of getting sober. I stirred creamer in my coffee. Jenny—I knew her face and name from meetings—walked up. I smiled at her, a polite gesture of hello.
She said to me, “My dad just died.”
I breathed. An exhale. I said, “I know how that feels.”
In the car on the way to get my stolen car, the rocky hills of middle Tennessee cradled the road as we shook our hips and sang along. We alternated between a hip-hop station for her, and a Yeah Yeah Yeahs CD for me. Our taste were so different, but it didn’t matter. We understood each other. Even now, during this pandemic, we still understand each other. We message each other, we sometimes talk on the phone. Jenny says things like “I’ve never had a friend who knows me like you do.” Though I’m the only one of us who has stayed continuously sober since those days, I agree. I’ve never had a friend understand me like Jenny.
In the fall of 2005, still sober, I drove my car as fast I could to the hospital. I found parking and ran across lots and walkways trying to find the right building as my heart pounded and my breath quickened. I finally found the right place, the right room. Hannah’s feet were in stirrups. Her mother held her hand. The doctor told her to push. I ran over to her and grabbed her other hand.
“Where the hell have you been?” her mother yelled at me.
Hannah looked over at me, looked me up and down, and laughed. I wore a black pinstripe dress that flared out with tulle underneath. I had on bright red lipstick and clunky baby-doll shoes. I’d been at a dance for young people in recovery.
Just yesterday, here in 2020, Hannah posted on my Facebook, Do you remember helping deliver Mariah while you wore a cocktail dress? She still lives in Memphis, or at least near it, and manages a restaurant like the one where we once worked together. She has three more children. I’m in Denton, Texas, where I’m continuing to study literature and writing, a little older than the other graduate students, but that’s okay. After all, my life had a treacherous detour. I responded to Hannah, Yes, of course, I remember. Mariah’s birth is the only birth I ever witnessed, the only baby I helped bring into the world. I also might not be here if it weren’t for Hannah. Though she and I rarely speak, her own sobriety now tenuous, I will never forget all the moments I’ve shared with her.
But back in the fall of 2005, I told Hannah to push. Sweat rolled down her forehead. She cussed at me a few times, and when I let go of her hand, she screamed for me to hold on. Her legs shook. The room was like all hospital rooms. Off-white. Fluorescent lights. A smell of sterility. Hannah cried. Said she couldn’t do it. Couldn’t push. I told her she could. The baby was crowning. Her little head poking out into the brief crack of light that comes between two eternities of darkness, as Nabokov writes in Speak, Memory. Hannah pushed again, and Mariah’s tiny body slid out, naked, shaking. Blood slung across my fancy shoes. The umbilical cord was cut, and Mariah was swaddled and placed in Hannah’s arms. What an ecstatic moment. To burst out of the void and into the light.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Marie Thompson.
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, interviews, and book reviews 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.