This is a story I performed on November 19th, 2015 at (un)Spoken, in Austin, Texas. The theme was "Take Care."
Addiction – it’s a heavy word, addiction. How do you feel when you hear that word? Addiction. Does it conjure up the notion of lack of care? Of weakness? It seems to have a twinge of finality to it, like the curtain call of a grand ballet.
But what if we saw addiction as just choreographic adjustments to be made in the dress rehearsal of our lives?
There are as many ways to be addicted as there are shades of nail polish. And it’s my belief that we are all addicts in one way or another at any given point in our lives. There are the addicts that are most likely to be judged for their addictions – perhaps because the consequences of such addictions can result in fatality – drug, cigarette and alcohol addicts. Then there are people who are addicted to sex, food, porn, love, plastic surgery, working, gaming, shopping, gambling, exercising and to posting cat videos on Facebook. There are people who are addicted to anger, to being right, to being a victim, to not telling the truth, to manipulating, to cheating, to seeking attention, to seeking approval, to seeking an adrenaline rush, to getting tattoos, to fame, to money, to binge-watching shows on Netflix, to collecting Thomas Kinkade paintings … and the list goes on and on and on.
It is worth noting that Thomas Kinkade was an addict himself.
We all have the capability of being addicted. All of us. And this is because simply being alive can be a disturbing and burdensome proposition. We are put here on the earth without our explicit consent, and discover soon enough how ugly the world and the people in it can be, and even if we unearth the beautiful parts and mine the strength to disco on, we still feel immeasurable amounts of pain. There is violence and bloodshed in our backyards and in far away places. We love and commune and relate and connect; yet we hurt, betray, suppress, manipulate and otherwise traumatize each other. And when we think we’ve maybe found our rhythm, life still finds a way to push us out of step. Work gets in the way of play, fear of failure dominates, responsibility for not only ourselves but our families overwhelm us, money comes and goes or never comes at all, the expectations placed upon us juxtaposed against our limitations create inner conflict, we have accidents, we get sick, or people we love do, or they die and we hurt some more. We see hatred win over love, we see oppression and feel helpless to stop it, and the list, like that of addiction, goes on and on and on.
So we seek solace in the dance. We dance with substances, with things, with people, with behaviors, because it quells us, makes us feel (at least for a little while) like we are invincible, like we can push past the loss and the responsibility and the expectations and the fear and the pain and the hatred and the warring; or at the very least, we can escape from it for a time. We can ingest or do something to hit the pleasure centers in our brains and find a happy dance.
I began my own dance with addiction at age 15 in the 9th grade … at the end of school dance. I had snuck my mother’s Mazda 626 out of the garage and drove my two friends and I to the dance. My parents were away at a party and I had never had a driving lesson before. I may have driven the whole way to and from the dance with the parking brake on. On the way to the dance, we stopped at a 7-11 where we managed to talk a nice lady into buying us a 12 pack of Keystone Light. In the school parking lot, we each guzzled three beers and were instantly transformed into invincible super-teens. If I was to tell you in the vernacular of today, I might say that those three Keystone lights made me feel awesome. But we didn’t use that word back then. It was 1983, I was drunk, and I felt rad. Totally rad.
Oh, it is worth noting that I was wearing black, skin-tight parachute pants.
I had, until that point, been an awkward wallflower. But my friend had transformed me into someone who was pretty cute, the result of a total make-over, and I was wearing these parachute pants! So when we got to the dance and told a few of the kids that we had driven there, and that we were drunk, we were further transformed into the most popular kids in the gym. The beer buzz coupled with the absolute high of reaching this level of social acceptance turned my formerly shy self into a dancing machine and before I knew it I was shaking my ass to Madonna, Chaka Khan and Wham and learning how to do the Electric Slide.
No one says, “I want to be an addict when I grow up.” It is often a slow slide into the dance of addiction, one song at a time. Addiction begins as a coping mechanism and it has an evolution, one that is difficult to see when you are in it. We might notice we are addicted, but we don’t necessarily want to believe it’s happening. So denial steps in. Denial tells us we have the moves and says, “keep on dancing”. Denial is the co-dependent partner that you can eventually learn to walk away from. As long as self-loathing doesn’t step in and fuck things up. Denial can be forgiving. Self-loathing is relentless.
The Monday following the dance I was suddenly the rad kid in the school, and of course I loved it. Maintaining my rad status became an addiction all its own. The next year I started high school and quickly became the go-to party girl for information on where the big parties were each weekend; and at a school with 3,000 students, the parties were plentiful. We would somehow manage to procure a couple of bottles of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill or Mad Dog 20/20 and we were good to go. I would dance the Electric Slide, and play drinking games and make out with boys, and then dance some more. One night I passed out on a filthy mattress in a garage, woke up sometime in the wee hours of the morning (clothes still on) and realized everyone had left. So I proceeded to walk the two miles home. A young couple found me stumbling down the very dark road, picked me up and drove me home, never once admonishing me for being drunk and stupid, but instead just taking care of me when I couldn’t do it myself. I once drove my car into 3 feet of water on an unlit farm road, and I’m still not sure how I made it home. I was arrested twice in high school, once because I had a warrant for unpaid speeding tickets and again for being a minor in possession of alcohol at a party that got raided by the police. As a teen I jumped bushes, walls and fences, and hid in many a closet during a party raid. Once I was driving down the highway and I lost control of my dad’s prized vintage Mercedes, I did a 180 – ended up facing oncoming traffic and somehow managed to not hit anyone in the process. More than once I was pinned by a boy whose entitlement insisted I fuck him. And more than once I managed to take care of myself by throwing up a knee and screaming no.
It wasn’t unusual for me to drink so much that I puked and then gather myself and keep on drinking. I would cut class regularly and go with a friend to her house where we’d raid her parent’s liquor cabinet and come back to school completely smashed. The time that I remember most vividly is when I passed out on the sofa in the drama room. My teacher knew I was trashed, and so she let me sleep it off; she even gave me Alka Seltzer when I woke up. These stories and many more earned me the distinguished nickname of Boozer.
And then there was ecstasy. It came onto the scene when I was in 11th grade and it was easier to get than booze and way more fun. I saved up all my money from my part time job at Michael’s and spent it on E, which is what we called it then. Every weekend my friends and I would tell our parents we were sleeping at each others houses and we’d stay out all night on Friday, go dancing at clubs with our homemade fake ID’s, then stumble home on Saturday afternoon, nap, shower, change, and do it all over again. If we couldn’t find a place to crash we slept in my car, and we often did, where the backseat was perpetually covered with two pink blankets and a Strawberry Shortcake sleeping bag. I am grateful to Ecstasy for making its appearance mid-way through my high school years because doing the Electric Slide is SO fun on E. Plus, it meant I drank considerably less, remembered more, and fell totally in love with my friends. I don’t believe that pure MDMA, which is what we were doing, is bad for you. I use it still and I think of its use as a way to take care – it activates compassion and empathy and can be pure magic when used with people you love. It is totally rad for dancing with abandon, but I what I love most about MDMA is how easy it is to access that empathy and compassion … for myself.
By the time I got to college I decided I should probably go for broke and try all the drugs, and after a traumatic first semester in which I was heartbroken due to the deaths of two friends and my grandmother, I was introduced to a new addition on the illicit drug scene: Crank, aka Crystal Meth - and things got bad fast and remained so for about a year. This is not something I really tell people: that I was a meth-head. But this was 1989-90 and we didn’t know then what we know now about meth – it’s bad news. I was in full-scale escape-mode and obviously not taking care of myself. Staying up for days on end makes you trip over your own feet. Denial was leading the dance and the steps had changed considerably.
After college, twice I tried moving away from the area where I’d grown up, in an effort to make some changes and take some good care, but both times my moves got sloppy … because both of the places I chose to work were residences of my most seductive dance partner - alcohol. First I slung cocktails and ran Keno tickets at a casino in Reno, Nevada. I worked the swing shift and afterward I would stay out and drink for a solid 8 hours after most of my shifts – until about 7:30am, at which point I would drive home, stumble into the apartment I shared with the man who would eventually become my husband, and pass out until I had to be back at the casino at 3:30. I ended up having an affair with a bartender who worked at the casino, my eventual husband and I broke up, and I danced my ass back to Texas. A year later, I worked as a tour guide at a winery in Branson Missouri where it was standard practice to drink along with the patrons during the wine tastings. Throughout most of my shift I was invincible, gregarious and witty but by the end of the day I would be smashed. No one, to my knowledge, ever noticed, probably because they were all smashed too. I moved back to Texas after just a few months and of course, the first thing I did was get involved with a film producer who was also a convicted drug dealer; and who had stopped selling drugs, but whose pockets burst with vials of ecstasy and cocaine, which he doled out like skittles and pixie sticks to us, his perpetual trick or treaters. He played host to debauched, depraved, drug-filled indulgent fun most Saturday nights, after-hours at his studio, where there were heaps of drugs and a fair amount of nakedness. To this day, I cannot hear Portisehead without rubbing my nose to make sure I don’t have coke in it.
It was when I finally got a DUI and landed myself in Dallas’ Lew Sterrit jail for the night that the veil of denial began to lift. After lying for 8 hours, face down on the cold cement floor of the jail, my face tucked between my arms, while other addicts like me and various other characters leaned sullenly against the walls, biding their time, I knew that something had to change. When I was told that I could make my one call I was terrified. If you’ve ever been arrested and made the call, or if you’ve ever accepted a call from a jail or prison, you know that it’s a collect call that announces where it originates. I listened as the operator announced to the person I needed to reach most urgently, “Hello, you have a call from Lew Sterritt jail, will you accept the charges?”
My employer, who was alarmed to hear that I was calling her from jail, accepted the charges. Choking back tears, I told her that I couldn’t make it to work that morning because I was in jail. And I told her that she would have to make due without me until the following day … since I was in jail. But, I told her, I would be back the following day, after I was out of jail … at which point I could resume my duty as her nanny.
It’s worth noting that I have never been quite so full of self-loathing as I was when I made that call.
For a year, I did my community service, met my probation officer monthly, paid the large sum of money I now owed to the city, and then married the man that I had lived with in Reno and moved to the San Francisco bay area, where I began practicing the dance of sobriety. I did okay (6 months here, 9 months there) but had a lot of trouble with the mastery of it. I spent two years at a program for acupuncture and Chinese medicine, where I studied really hard and made straight A’s but still continued to rage on the weekends. Interestingly, Chinese Medicine school taught me how to take care of myself while I partied: drank too much? Take some dandelion and milk thistle before bed! Smoked too many cigarettes? Have the husband do some cupping! Too much cocaine and feeling super jittery? Calm Spirit herbal formula and Melatonin!
And then I got pregnant and this was when I really learned to take care. I may have eaten some mushrooms before I actually knew I was pregnant, but as soon as I found out that I was, I positively mastered the sobriety dance, replacing wine with wheatgrass and cigarettes with acupuncture treatments.
And then I had a baby and a whole new set of responsibilities and then post-partum depression hit, then 9-11 hit, then financial issues hit, then health issues hit and I was reminded how disturbing and burdensome a proposition it is to be alive.
And so my dance with addiction began again and I even managed to pick a new one up along the way – sex! – and so I alternated between the sobriety and the addiction dances, until 2008 when we moved back to Texas, this time to Austin, and I found an outpatient rehab in North Austin. It was there that I began to understand why I’d behaved the way I did and to learn how forgive myself for it. And it was then that I began the process of critical self-examination and of my role in this life. And I learned that even though the world can be scary and ugly, my responsibility is not to shoulder the burden of it, but to do the work to make it more palatable in whatever small way I can. And since then I have written a book about open relationships and polyamory, produced 5 years of BedPost Confessions with Julie Gillis and Mia Martina and launched our new show, (un)Spoken, I’ve gotten divorced but maintained a beautiful relationship with my ex. I’ve home schooled my amazing transgender teenager, been to burning Man 4 years in a row and taken trips to Brazil and Tulum – and all of these endeavors have taught me more about universal love, self-love, and open-heartedness than I could have ever imagined and I have come to understand that being an addict doesn’t mean I’m fucked up or weak or careless. It just means I’m human.
AND, I met an amazing woman who is now my partner and together we own a mobile bartending business.
It is worth noting that the irony of owning a business centered around alcohol is not lost on me.
But I’ve danced. And I have learned what moves feel right and which ones don’t. Like navigating an illness or a mentally ill family member, or recovering from an abusive relationship; we improvise the steps as we need to in order to just … keep the rhythm. Our dance partners change. Our addictions fall away for good or perhaps they resurface. But if we can offer compassion, empathy, support and forgiveness for all addicts (including the addicts inside of ourselves) we can mitigate the more destructive effects of addiction and with lots and lots of practice, and a little bit of stumbling, we can learn to line dance our way through this dress rehearsal, one kick ball change at a time.
Oh ... it’s worth noting: Two packs of cigarettes were smoked in the writing of this story.