Strange: the last thing I made had the word “fuck” crossed out because I felt like I was unnecessarily using that word more often than I needed to. And yet the two pieces that I made the following week… well…
“Fuck This” is the result of my decision to blow off art therapy group that day and try to paint a bench. It didn’t work out. Later that day, I made “Fucking Miracles,” a birthday present for Candace. It took seven hours.
I guess you weren’t done fucking up, huh? That’s okay. I’m glad nothing too terrible happened and I’m glad you’re back in treatment. Everybody knows that I wasn’t exactly a quick learner either and if you relapsed and are inpatient again, it’s ‘cause you needed to relapse and be inpatient again. All of this shit happens exactly as it’s supposed to happen. You didn’t get what you needed last time around, but hopefully you’ll get it this time around. Now that your parents aren’t having to pay for it, the only consequence (for everyone but yourself) is the emotional toll, which is only as significant as we allow it to be. For you, I’m choosing to see the only real consequence as being wasted time. You’ve been cycling in and out of rehabs for a while. In theory, I guess that cycle could continue indefinitely, but (more likely) at some point, you’ll either “recover” or die. I’d like to believe that it’ll be the former.
Speaking as someone who’s spent a good chunk of his life stuck in serious mental illness, I can say pretty confidently that you’re a wreck of a human being. You can agree with that, right? I don’t mean that in any way that should hurt or offend you. We’re fucked up, but it’s cool – ‘cause we can get better. And when we do, it’s really awesome. For you, it’ll be especially awesome. Mental illness is all that stands between you and an awesome, happy, positive, productive life. For yourself and for those that will be lucky enough to have you in their lives. You’re a smart kid; you can do a lot of good. You can help a lot of people. But most importantly, you can help yourself. Trust me, it’s gonna be rad as fuck.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that it feels pretty rad to live like a fuck-up. Just yesterday, I was thinking about all the bullshit schemes we used to pull to get by. There’s something tragically romantic about living in a hole. About stealing allergy medicine to exchange for “groceries” (I don’t think sour patch kids, lemonheads, and brownies technically count as groceries). About bouncing around from city to city. Running from drug dealers. Running from police. But along with the thrill of all that shit, you know as well as I do, that it comes with a lot of awful, negative, miserable, crippling, nightmarish days and nights. Notice that I said that it “feels” rad to be a fuck-up. It’s not really. It’s a fucking bummer. Think back to those days before we went to St. Louis. Sitting in that little box of an “apartment.” Puddles of shit, piss, and toilet water covering the floor. Soaking into our bags, our laundry – soaking into everything. Us not having the energy to go outside for anything. Not even having access to a working toilet or a vehicle to even get to a working toilet. The stomach pain. The debilitating fatigue. The sweating, the chills, and the body aches. You on the bed and me on the couch. Too uncomfortable to even lay beside another human being. The little victories that made us feel like winners (getting away from the cops, getting drugs) these things were not worth the misery that came with them.
I don’t know if I’ve told you this, but I still don’t fully subscribe to everything in the AA or NA texts. I don’t think for a second that I’m powerless over any and every mind or mood-altering substance. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. I don’t fuck with any of them anyway. Because it’s not worth the risk. Proving that I can exercise control over some substance is not worth the risk of losing control to any of them. I could take a Xanax and it wouldn’t lead me down some shitty path. Maybe. But here’s the thing: it’s not even totally about it “not being worth the risk.” You know what the bigger piece is? What really motivates me to not drink alcohol, eat some pill, or (!!) shoot heroin? The fact that – not doing those things – is fucking awesome! For real. I had no idea how great it feels to be alive. To actually experience life. The good and the bad. ‘Cause when you choose to live (like that) the good is even better and the bad stops being all that bad. Sure, I still get bummed out sometimes, but it’s nothing compared to the way it used to be and I can usually spot the silver lining in it almost immediately. But I don’t really wanna dwell on this. You’ve heard all of the “now that I’m off drugs, life is amazing!” shit a million times. It’s true, but it’s nothing new and it’s nothing that’s gonna be of any value to you until you figure it out and see it for yourself.
What is gonna help you? I don’t know. You’ve been in a lot of really awful situations. You’ve experienced some pretty terrible things. You’ve felt a lot of serious pain. A lot of severe emotional pain (which is the worst kind of pain). I don’t care what anyone says – the feelings of worthlessness, self-loathing, and fear that I’ve felt hurt just as badly – if not more than – anything else that anyone else in the world has ever experienced. And I’m pretty sure that the same is true of you. My point is just that I don’t think you really need to go out and “hit bottom.” “Bottom” is a different place for everyone, but we’ve both experienced what would have been bottoms for plenty of other people. What I guess I would call my bottom happened while I was already in rehab, almost four months after my clean date. It didn’t have anything to do with drugs. It was over a girl. Or it was triggered by a girl anyway. I’m not saying this to upset you and you shouldn’t be upset by it; it’s just reality. I’m codependent. I get attached to people. Sometimes it involves real feelings, sometimes it’s just a result of a compulsive need to feel validated by attention or affection from some girl. That’s been a huge part of my “illness” and I think it’s been a huge part of yours too. Of course I care about you (or I wouldn’t be writing this letter) but let’s be honest – a big part of why we got together was just unhealthy, codependent bullshit. We started talking about running away together five or ten minutes into our first conversation. We didn’t know anything about one another. So while real feelings may have developed later, it was definitely all nonsense at the start. And if we’re being totally honest, we were so fucked up on chemicals for most of the time that we were together that any feelings we had were, more likely than not, (in essence) little more than a survivor’s bond (the same kind of bond any two people share after experiencing some tragedy, trial, or dilemma together). We’re not soul mates, we were just dedicated to convincing one another that we were worth loving. I wanted to make you love me so that I could believe that I was worth loving and you wanted to make me love you so that you could believe the same about yourself. That’s what’s up. I’m sorry if that’s hard to hear, but it’s not by accident that I’m never without a girlfriend and you’re never without a boyfriend. Somewhere along the way, we both grew into needy little brats with little to no self-esteem but enough ego and arrogance to hide that fact from most of the world. But I’m getting off track.
So December of last year, I hit bottom in my room (in rehab). I had been flirting with this girl that had arrived sometime after me and though we weren’t explicitly acknowledging it, we were moving into dangerous territory (more than friendship). On this particular night, she did something that hurt my feelings, I retaliated by doing something to hurt her feelings, and she got so upset that she told me she never wanted to talk to me again. And I was so upset and so full of hate and fear that I wanted to kill myself. I hated myself so much for making the decision to say what I had to her and fucking up the friendship or relationship or whatever you want to call it. And I was terrified that I’d never be able to “get it right” and actually live and maintain some degree of happiness or self-esteem – that I was going to be miserable forever. I made a half-hearted attempt to kill myself that night but that’s not really important. Nobody found out about it until I was ready to disclose it. I only mention it so you understand just how spectacularly wrecked and pathetic I felt. But the next morning I decided that I had had enough. I was constantly upset about different little things with this girl (or [insert girl’s name here] over the course of the last ten to twenty years) and I wasn’t talking to anybody about it because I was afraid they’d cut us off from one another and (basically) because I was embarrassed to admit that I had these adolescent feelings for this random girl – so I wasn’t getting any better and my treatment was pretty much a waste of time. I was still improving, but by holding back in this one area, I was keeping myself from getting all of the help that I’d really need if I was ever going to “recover” in any sense. I came clean in group – I tattled on myself for all the inappropriate stuff going on between this girl and I, and I talked about how much it had been fucking with my head and how unhappy I had been as a result. She wasn’t in group that day though. She was about to coin-out so she had scaled back and was out on pass with her parents for a couple of days. When she got back the next afternoon, we had a meeting together with my counselor (who was also her counselor). She denied that there had ever been anything going on at all. It wasn’t until two weeks later that she told her counselor the truth. She had already coined-out though so they were only meeting once a week. She stopped showing up to her appointments the following week. And – today – she’s still out there, shooting up and fucking up her life.
Back to that day though – I had had high hopes for the meeting with our counselor. I thought she’d be caught off-guard initially, but come to terms with it and we’d be able to move forward and actually be honest with the treatment team about our feelings and be able to sort through them and start to get healthy. When she denied everything and told the counselor that I was delusional and making it all up, I got pretty depressed again. A few hours later, in my room, I don’t even remember what I was doing, but I was thinking about myself, trying to figure out what I was about – who I was, what kind of a person I was. Something clicked in my head and I decided that I was whatever I wanted to be. People always told me I was a good person, but I suspected that there was a pretty good chance that I was actually a rotten, evil, little shit that just happened to talk a good game and make people think otherwise. Even if I did good things, that was probably bullshit too. I mean, if I still had evil shit going on in my head, then that just meant I was an evil person who behaved well, right? No, not really. We’re all fucked up. We all have disgusting thoughts. What matters is what we choose to do with them. I grabbed a pen and a piece of paper and started writing. I wrote out a bunch of affirmations (something on my treatment plan that I had been told to do a million times, but wouldn’t – not in any serious way anyway). I wasn’t doing it with any thought for my treatment plan, I was just writing about the kind of person that I wanted to be, but writing in the present tense because I had decided that the moment that I wanted to be that kind of person, then that was the moment that I could be, and was. This was that moment.
After that, something was just different. Immediately, for example, I finally called the guy that I had asked to be my sponsor for the first time. Made plans to start step work (and then actually followed through with those plans). I also started doing the things that he had told me I should be doing every day. And I asked him what else I should be doing – and then I did them. I did a lot of stuff I hadn’t done before, but – maybe most importantly – I got honest. Thoroughly honest. In a way I had never been before. Nothing was off-limits, I talked about everything, no matter how uncomfortable it was for me. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t 100% perfect from that moment forward, but I consistently made an effort to be. If I did something wrong, I admitted it. And I still did plenty of stupid shit. On the same day I did my seventh step, I had made plans to meet up with a different girl that I had met at a meeting. I realized that I couldn’t really ask my higher power to remove my defects in character – to help me be honest – if I was actively making plans to sneak out to meet up with a girl. So I called her up and I cancelled. And I told her why I was cancelling. Can you imagine how much of a fucking geek I felt like in that moment? But it also felt good. It was the right thing to do. Plus, I got to brag to my counselor later about what a fucking champion of recovery I had been. (Apparently, pride wasn’t a defect in character…)
I’m getting away from the point of all of this maybe. I’m not trying to make this storytime. Here’s what fucking helped me: (1) the (aforementioned) realization that I was whatever kind of a person that I wanted to be, so long as I behaved in ways that such a person would behave; (2) deciding that whether or not I believe in a higher power and whether or not I believe that everything ultimately works out for the best, I’m going to fucking live like I do (I’m constantly telling people shit will work out for the best – do I believe it? I don’t know, but they’re gonna work out however they’re gonna work out, so we might as well just call it “the best” (really it’s “the only” but… um, whatever… you follow me, right?)); and (3) recognition of the fact that feelings are temporary phenomena that come and go, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly – but always at a pace consistent with my own attitude toward them. I’ll expand on that a little… you’ve probably heard this shit before too: the whole “be a witness to your feelings” concept. Like, “witness your feelings, rather than become them.” You know: “I’m not miserable, I only feel miserable.” These days, when I start to get upset, once I pick up on it, I take a look at it. Like, “Okay, I’m feeling upset and it’s because of A, B, and C. I can either dwell on it, put on my fucking grumpy face, withdraw from everyone, and revel in my unhappiness as the grand champion of depression and the king of self-loathing OR I can decide that it feels much better to not be upset and take a look at what I can do to deal with A, B, and C and what I can do to stop D, E, and F from ever happening and causing me to feel this way in the future. (Not getting “romantically” involved with girls in early recovery, for example, was a pretty good start; keeping in touch with my sponsor, doing everything my counselor tells me to do, and telling the truth were good follow-ups (for me) as well). I also recognized what kinds of things help me get through bad feelings until they pass. That’s one way that painting has been really important to me.
Backtrack for just one second. I know what the one thing that helped me the most was – or at least made the biggest difference in my recovery and got me really moving in the right direction. It was the willingness to do things that I didn’t want to do. Someone would tell me to do something and I’d do it. I didn’t think about it, I just did it. You and me are not people that like to do what they’re told. Fuck it. You can go back to making your own decisions some time later on down the line. For now, just do whatever the fuck you’re told. Trust me on this one. You will be so much happier. And do shit with sincerity. Don’t do anything half-assed. Really do it. Anything you do, do it for real. 100%.
I don’t know, kid. This shit’s the easiest shit in the world and it’s also the trickiest. If I could boil it down to just one thing, it’d be a question. “What would Jesus do?” is not that question, but it’s not totally off the mark. If I’m struggling with something, generally or even in a moment, I ask myself, “What’s the loving thing to do here?” By which I mean, how can I demonstrate love for myself, as well as love for others, with my actions? Neither is more important than the other. It’s a careful balancing act. Real love doesn’t ever require you to put someone else’s needs ahead of your own needs. (I mean that in a narrow sense though, when I say “needs,” I mean needs – not wants or wishes or whatever else). Sometimes it’s relatively easy to figure out what I should do and sometimes it’s even relatively easy to follow through and do it. Other times, not so much. Last week, I was in a pretty dangerous interaction (emotions running high) and I asked myself what would the loving thing to do right now be. And I didn’t know. I actually had to stop, tell the person to give me a minute, and I sat there like an idiot, in silence, for maybe two or three minutes, going through all of the options in my head playing each one out and trying to determine what my best move might be. As this person stared at me, waiting. So I definitely looked like a fucking dolt, but – in the end – by taking that time, not reacting emotionally (as was my first impulse), recognizing my priority (being a good, loving human being), and playing out the different tapes to the end and really considering the impact that each potential action was likely to have… I saved myself from a situation that – in the past – would have either put me in the throes of a suicidal depression or had me on my way to go cop some heroin. So… yeah, it’s a neat trick when I can manage to pull it off.
I didn’t bother to edit this letter at all (after I wrote it or even while was writing it) because I figured the worst case scenario was that I’d come across as a rambling lunatic, which I’m pretty okay with. Especially since it’d also result in a longer letter for you to read. And who doesn’t like to get long letters in rehab? And shit – how’s that for some positive from the negative? Silver linings, kid. Bright sides. It all works out in the end. But recap: the way I see it, you can (A) keep fucking up (A.1) until you get better or (A.2) until you die or (B) just fucking get better already. Either way, it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be and it’s gonna be fine. Some outcomes are more desirable than others, but they’ve all got good in ‘em and the world’s gonna keep spinning as it should regardless. If you die, there will be some good that comes from it. Personally though, my favorite outcome would be for you to just get better (and get better now). Faith, no faith, whatever – it’s cool when seemingly bad shit happens that I’m able to spot the good that results, but it’s even cooler when things happen that just make me smile.
I’m gonna burn you a CD, but I’m gonna print and mail this letter out right now. Just in case I procrastinate on it. I don’t want you to not get this ‘til later just ‘cause I’m taking too long to put some songs on a disc. So – obviously – I haven’t done it yet, but it’ll probably be about half songs that I think are inspiring/cool/helpful/positive and about half songs that we used to listen to during our little five-month terror spree. That’s the plan anyway. Either way, you know it’s gonna have “Your Heart is a Muscle” on it.
Be well, kid.
For what it’s worth, this letter was never read. Both times that it was mailed, she left treatment before getting it.