When I was first forced to participate in “expressive art therapy group” while in inpatient treatment, I thought it was a joke. “I can’t keep a needle out of my arm and I’m fucking dying and you want me to color?? You’ve gotta be kidding me.” But once I started to actually put a little bit of effort into it – and sharing with the group what I had made and the reasons I made the choices that I had – I got my first little taste of self-esteem. People liked my art and they thought my explanations were funny and insightful. It made me feel good about myself. Eventually, art became something I really enjoyed and – later – my primary occupation. Not only did it save my life but it’s my primary tool in maintaining emotional balance and it pays my bills and enables me to spend most of my time doing what I love most: making more art.
A lot of my work looks like a lot of my other work. I have a distinct style and I don’t really stray outside of the box too often. I’ve tried to experiment here and there but – when I do – I’m usually not too happy with the results. It’s only when I get back to doing what I love (drawing/painting funny faces with bright colors) that I start to feel better.
In September of 2014, my friend Paul paid me to draw something for him. He didn’t give me any instructions but I decided to visit a record he’d released when he first started his label, Radius Records, for a bit of inspiration. The lyric that popped out at me was from The Smoking Popes’ “Theme From ‘Cheerleader’”: “Every song sounds like the last one.” It made me think about how my art is all pretty much the same but how I’m okay with that. Just like how almost all of the songs I like (in the fairly rigid genre of pop punk) are all essentially the same. It reminded me of something I’ve often said when talking about music: “I don’t care about innovation or breaking new ground. A band can do the same thing over and over again; what’s important is that they do it well.”
It’s the same with my art. It doesn’t matter if I do the same trick again and again; so long as I do it well.
That’s what was on my mind when I did this. That and the fact that I had come to like my own art enough to stand behind it in spite of any criticism – but that I was still grateful to have fans and friends, like Paul, that liked and supported what I do. I wrote just a little bit about it on the left side of the drawing.
Every time I pick up a pen, a brush, [whatever], I risk failure, risk repeating myself. I’m not afraid. I like what I like, do what I do, and every time I pick up, I’m saying so. I believe in myself. But I didn’t always. Other people had to believe in me first. And if they didn’t continue to… I don’t know that I’d be able to either.
It’s taken me more than a year to write out the statement for this piece. Thanks for your patience, Paul!
On an unrelated note, my second NPR story of 2015 aired a few days ago, this time courtesy of Ryan Benk and the Jacksonville affiliate, WJCT. You can read or listen to it on their website.
Heroin is my drug of choice. While I’ve got a couple secondary DOCs, I’ve definitely never considered myself a “garbage can” addict (someone who will take anything at all to get any kind of fucked up). While I have a weird sort of pride about being a heroin addict, it’s only with some hesitancy that I’ll admit to ever having had any kinds of issues with alcohol or cocaine. I used to tease my friend Robin that – “while I’m glad to see you’re doing well, you probably need to go back out, hit bottom, and then come back if you actually wanna get better.” Because Robin’s DOC was crack – “not a real drug” (according to half-joking Sam).
So it’s really sort of embarrassing that I was as excited as I was yesterday when I bought OTC medicine for my cold symptoms. If there’s ever been any doubt in my mind about whether or not I’m really a drug addict, my excitement as I bought generic Nyquil yesterday ought to be all the indication I need to know that I am not like most people.
In so many ways, I feel like I’m just starting out – just starting to figure everything out. Myself, my life, what I want to do, how I want to do it. I feel like I’ve just recently started being me. This is my first large drawing (it’s two feet by three feet). Creating it was an interesting process and at so many different points, I felt myself being pulled in two different directions as to how I should proceed. Sometimes I want to push myself to try something new, sometimes I think I ought to stick with what makes my art look like my art.
The last thing I did was write in a sentence from the NA text that’s been in my head recently. “Although all addicts are basically the same in kind, we do, as individuals, differ in degree of sickness and rate of recovery.” I crossed it out. I wrote the word, “sick.” I crossed that out. I thought about what I wanted to do with the black bars where the words had been. I decided not to do anything with them.
Writing a statement about a piece, right when it’s done, is tricky sometimes. There are some other little things going on here, but I don’t know quite what to make of them yet. Thoughts about friendships, school, identity, and where I fit in.
The piece sold but limited edition hand-numbered and signed 12×18″ prints are still available. Hit me up if you’d like to purchase one.
All day, I’ve been working on that ridiculously oversized drawing (the one I mentioned starting yesterday). I think I’ve put at least twelve hours into it so far. I might have problems.
Here’s the third of my nine learning-to-draw-with-charcoal “sketches” – the first four of which were done while sitting in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. The drawing’s from January, but this statement is from May.
I saw someone selling paintings with flat-color backgrounds behind characters like Merle from “The Walking Dead.” “Are you fucking kidding me?” I thought. “What’s the value in (or purpose of) a fucking portrait of a television show character, with nothing added at all to even personalize it?” I was pretty contemptuous for someone that’s trying to be – you know – well. But I realized: I don’t know why that guy paints, I don’t know what he gets out of it, and it really doesn’t matter. Maybe he’s the artistic equivalent of a rock’n’roll cover band playing in some bar every night – and maybeI’m a judgmental little shithead who just started painting a few months ago and should shut the fuck up.
The only thing that’s certain in all of this is that none of it matters. None of it is important. I’m sure there are people that think a portrait of Merle is great and that everything I’ve ever made belongs in a landfill. They’re not wrong.
I don’t wanna be judgmental and there’s no logical criteria from which I can really judge anyway. So… “I shot heroin. You paint TV characters. Life is meaningless!”
Admittedly, the statement, “Life is meaningless!,” was on my mind because I had been revisiting my Nate Gangelhoff zines and he used the phrase (hysterically) in an imagined scene wherein executives greenlight the publication of a Mr. T comic book. That’s in the third issue of “You Idiot” but both of his books and all of his zines are really spectacular.
August 1, 2012. I landed in Miami and rented a car. The cops in Overtown had been seriously on my case. I couldn’t go into the neighborhood without getting hassled (or worse). On one occasion, after putting a gun to my head, pulling me out of the car, and throwing me onto the pavement, they had actually made me pull down my pants (right there, on the street) and hold my butt open so that they could look inside my asshole for drugs. Again – this wasn’t back at the station – this was on a public street. That was before my car had been stolen. Having to enter the neighborhood on foot had made matters worse. I don’t “blend in” in Overtown. But I had a rental car now, so I was willing to take my chances.
I copped successfully and once I was sure that I wasn’t being followed (which had been the case several times prior) I pulled into a Wendy’s parking lot to shoot up. Normally, I’d insist that we wait until we were safely back in our shitbox apartment, but I was alone now and I wasn’t putting this shot off any longer. It had already been far too long.
The plan was to collect my things from the apartment (assuming they were still there – and that my key still worked), drive to Sarasota, collect some more of my things, and drive to New York, where I would live. I didn’t have any idea where specifically in the city I’d even go once I pulled into town, but I guess I thought I’d figure it out at some point in my eighteen hour drive up the east coast. I was going to get a job in a law firm as a paralegal, take the bar exam, and get a job in a law firm as a lawyer. And I was going to stop shooting heroin. This shit in Florida – this was just a “last round” sort of thing. I believed this. Sincerely.
The next 17 days were a blur. I could probably piece a lot of it together if I sat down and “timelined” it all out, but it’s not all incredibly relevant to this particular part of the story. What is relevant is that at some point in those 17 days, I got into a car accident.
I was driving to my drug dealer’s house, but I was already high on heroin and xanax. I made one stop on the way, at Liggett, to buy more needles. When I came out, two guys were standing by my car (the car I had borrowed from the Owens). “What do you have in the bag?” they asked me. What the fuck is this… I wondered… “It’s my prescription,” I lied, “my antidepressants.” “You’re fucked up,” they told me. “You ran up onto the sidewalk three times and almost hit us twice. What’re you on?” I had no idea that I had driven up on the sidewalk (or almost hit another car). I told them that I had been texting and that I was sorry. They said they couldn’t let me drive. They offered me a drive to wherever I needed to go. I put on my best sober and in control act and somehow, eventually, convinced them that everything was cool.
About five minutes later, I crashed into another car. Luckily, nobody was in it. That’s probably because it was parked – not on the street, but a good deal off of the street in a driveway. The people came out of their house. I apologized profusely and recycled my lie – saying that I had been texting. They wanted to call the police, which I assured them wasn’t necessary. “I’m really sorry, but I can’t wait around that long. I have a doctor’s appointment to go to and I’m moving out of state tomorrow. If I miss it, I won’t be able to get my prescriptions filled before I leave.” (I was planning on leaving, but not the following day – and there was no doctor’s appointment). I gave them my information. Well, not so much the information, but the actual documents. To convince them that I could be trusted, I gave them my driver’s license and the vehicle registration and insurance card from the glovebox (it wasn’t my car, it had been loaned to me after I returned the rental). And I had them call my phone right then so they could see it ring in my hand, verifying that it was legitimate. I assured them they didn’t need to call police and hit the road. I said I’d come back for my license and other papers later.
The calls started coming in. They called the police, who wanted me to come back. I pretended I couldn’t because I was at my appointment, but when the vehicle’s owner called me (having also been contacted by the police) he told me that if I didn’t go back, there’d be a warrant issued for my arrest. But that if I did go back, I’d just get a citation. By this point, I had already injected even more heroin, but I convinced myself that I could pass for straight, stashed my lockbox full of drugs and paraphernalia, and drove the smashed up car back to the house where I had hit the car.
I pulled off the act successfully. No one suspected (or at least accused) me of being under the influence of anything) and I just got some tickets… and a summons to appear in court. For “leaving the scene of an accident without giving information.” Which was obviously a totally bullshit charge considering the tremendous extent to which I had given my information BUTit was a fuck of a lot better than being arrested for DUI and possession of heroin.
I cut a deal wherein I had to pay some fines, take a driver improvement course, and do some community service hours. By the time I went to my courtdate, I was already in rehab again, but they didn’t need to know about that. But here’s the one bit of information that I’m actually trying to get at: I (unknowingly) failed to satisfy one of the criterion in some way, so when I got out of Tranquil Shores (seven months after all of this even happened) I found out that there was a warrant for my arrest. Unless I wanted this shit hanging over my head, I’d have to go down to the jail and turn myself in.
It was a bummer but I kept an incredibly positive, upbeat attitude throughout. Even when I found myself handcuffed to a wall in a hallway, for hours, waiting for them to even begin the process of booking me. (Translation: I could have been sitting in the lobby, I could have just been outside – but I guess that’s not how that shit works).
I even stayed positive when – having asked for permission to draw (and been granted it) – another officer came and took my pen away. (And this was at the phase of the game where incoming arrestees are all filling out paperwork so we’re not talking about a “no pens allowed” policy). Which isn’t to say that any of this is a tremendously huge deal or “totally unfair.” But it is the sort of thing that “the old me” would have found to be a TERRIBLE INJUSTICE and lost his shit over. I didn’t do that though. I smiled and thought about how I was grateful to be in a position where I wasn’t caught off-guard – where I was able to arrange for my bail to be paid ahead of time – and grateful that, so long as I stayed on the path I was now on, this would be the last time I’d have to deal with this kind of shit. This would be the last time I’d have to sit handcuffed to a wall.
So this is my self-portrait from the last day I was arrested.
Post-script: Obviously, I never made it to New York. I checked into rehab on August 17th. Also – fun epilogue: From the scene of the accident, I went to trade in the (now totaled) car for a motorcycle… which I also managed to crash (just thirty minutes after being issued the tickets and the summons!) – impressed??
The original drawing is no longer available, but if you ask Bill Pinkel (one of my favorite artists) really nicely, maybe he’ll let you take it out of the frame and see what I had with me / got marked down on my property inventory sheet. Either way, it is available as a 4×6″ print – numbered, signed, and sealed.