I painted this for the cover of Billy Raygun’s posthumous discographic cassette. Each of the three bits of text is a lyric from a song of theirs that means something to me.
I thought I heard you calling; it was just the emptiness ringing in my head. I still think about you a lot. I still think about you a lot. I still think about you a lot.
In April 2011, my six-year relationship with Taylor came to a close. She broke up with me. I didn’t take it well. I had been pretty strung out on heroin, in a pretty bad way, for a little while but had just gotten into my first “treatment program” a few days prior (it was just methadone maintenance – not exactly the best path to wellness but what did I know?) On top of that, final exams for my final semester at Georgetown Law were about to begin and I hadn’t been to any of my classes all year. I didn’t even own the textbooks. I had a lot of studying to do if I was gonna graduate on time and I knew god damn well that if I didn’t graduate now that it was never gonna happen. I needed to keep it together (get it together) real, real fast if I was gonna keep everything in my life from crumbling into absolute shit, misery, and failure. Between the methadone, the heroin, the Adderall, and the sleep deprivation that goes along with studying in 24-hour shifts, I was … not entirely well. For a while there, I started to experience regular auditory hallucinations. Mostly, it was people (strangers) screaming at each other. It was like channel surfing on a TV where every single show featured nothing but loud, angry people. Occasionally though, I’d get a break in that and hear something softer and sweeter: “Sam…” It was a voice I knew; it was Taylor’s voice. Every single time, I’d turn around without fail, hoping (and actually believing) that this time she’d actually be standing there. She never was (of course) but it still broke my heart a little bit every time. It was a miserable cycle of studying, drugs, and crying.
All of this care / not caring is killing me.
This lyric isn’t tied into any one specific memory as much as it serves as an all-encompassing description of my relationships (romantic and otherwise) throughout my life. Oscillating frantically back and forth between giving a shit and shutting down. Between feeling loved and feeling abandoned and rejected. Sometimes it seems like my emotions are wired to a light switch. It doesn’t take a lot to flip from “perfect” love to total apathy (or even hatred). And since “we’re attracted to those at our same level of sickness/health,” I’ve gotten mixed up with plenty of girls who are equally skilled at unintentional (often drug-fueled) emotional back-and-forth. There was one night in early 2012 when my then-girlfriend professed her deep, unending, profound love for me in one moment, and was swearing that I was a disgusting, ugly, unlovable piece of shit in the next. And before the hour was up, she was right back to telling me how wonderful I was. Experiences like that can fuck with a person…
I’ll just admit that it’s a different girl, the same old story.
I painted this in April. I like ants. It’s expressive art and the story behind it is enough likeamillionothers that it’s not worth telling. Instead, here’s the story of my life in April 2011.
When Taylor finally called me back, she sounded weird. “What’s going on?” She wouldn’t say. She was being evasive. I just came out and asked – “are you done with me?” She didn’t answer right away but – when she did – yeah, that was pretty much the gist of it.
Six years… I was in total shock. I had just gotten into my first “treatment” program eight days prior. (Methadone maintenance). I was cured! How could she break up with me now?!? Life was about to become a dream! This is preposterous!
Not to mention, I was in the middle of my final exams. My final final exams. She couldn’t wait two fucking weeks to do this? I was gonna be so busy for the next few weeks that, at most she might have seen me once. By breaking up with me now, it was guaranteeing that I’d fail my exams, not graduate from law school, lose at life, and DIE. What a selfish, miserable human being. (Her, I mean). (I’m really cool and great).
Granted, her timing was a little poor but I’m obviously still alive, and my interpretation of things has changed with time. Taylor didn’t leave me that day – because I had already left her – when I let heroin overtake her on my list of priorities. For the last eight months, I had barely existed in her life. I spent all my time hiding from her, out all day, out all night, shooting up at school or the basement of our building, ignoring her phone calls. Now that I had a couple pleasant days I thought everything was gonna be okay again?
But I couldn’t see that; I couldn’t see anything. I just hurt. More than hurt. I was fucking leveled. I didn’t want to use but… I had to. If I didn’t relapse, that’d mean I wasn’t really hurt. And I was really hurt so… I had to shoot some heroin to prove it. To myself. To Taylor. To the world. (I’m not really sure). And I had to buy a lot (two hundred bucks’ worth) ‘cause that was the best deal. (Money management’s an important skill!) My little bundle lasted me through the day with a few caps left over for the next. And then I put it out of my head and got back to the task at hand.
I hadn’t been to any of my courses all semester (I never even bothered to get textbooks). I logged in to the school’s website, found out which classes I was enrolled in, and settled into a couch in a (usually) empty room at school, where I’d spend the next few weeks, trying to learn as much as I could and just maybe graduate. When I couldn’t stay up any longer, I’d put my computer in my backpack and sleep on that same couch where I was studying. I didn’t get up for anything. Almost. Every six or seven days, I’d walk to the closest store to stock up on bagel bites and apples, which I kept in the fridge of a student organization to which I (of course) didn’t belong. There were three other reasons I’d occasionally leave the couch: to smoke a cigarette, use the bathroom, and (most importantly) – once a day, between the hours of 6AM and noon – go get my daily dose of methadone.
At one point, I saw myself in the bathroom mirror and was pretty impressed with how strung out I looked. (I guess the methadone / Adderall / sleep deprivation combo will do that you). I took a picture for posterity.
“Barkmarket Fuckacy” by House Boat is my favorite song on the last record [The Thorns of Life CD/LP] to bear the Traffic Street Records logo.
In the liner notes for the record, there’s a special “thanks to Sam North for basically ruining his life to help get this record made.”
(On our way to the studio for the recording of the album, I caught two felony possession of heroin charges and more misdemeanor charges for needles and other paraphernalia than I can count/remember). And if that wasn’t bad enough, the cops didn’t even give me back my drugs when they let me go! So on top of everything else, I had to spend the next day scrambling around Indiana looking for heroin.
In the last months of 2012, I was inpatient at Tranquil Shores and taking my recovery really seriously. My general mood and outlook were more positive and upbeat than at any point prior in my life; things were going well – most of the time. When they weren’t, it was bad. I had learned to deal with some emotional triggers but others could still set me off in an instant. I was breaking down in a mess of tears constantly [and, historically, crying wasn’t something I had done very often]. The treatment team was really happy with my progress but were discussing the option of adding an antipsychotic to my daily prescription. Personally, I was 100% on board with the idea at the time. The way I felt most of the time was great. I just wanted to stop falling apart for two hours every other day.
There was something else going on though that was tearing me up and that I wasn’t talking about. There was this girl. And though (for the first time) I cared enough about “playing by the rules” (for the sake of my recovery) to not turn it into a sexual relationship, we were very much emotionally invested in one another. And the kinds of little things that chip away at my soul whenever I’m involved with any girl (coupled with the shame of having to lie to my counselor to keep it a secret) were killing me.
Eventually, I came clean about the whole thing. Alexis denied it but she was leaving Tranquil Shores in a week or so anyway. That confession was the catalyst that finally kicked my recovery into gear (for real). There was no need to talk about anti-psychotics after that. When she left, still denying everything though, I figured it was all over between us. It hurt but what could I do?
In the last week of December, she got in touch with me and we started talking again. She still saw her [also my] counselor on an outpatient basis and she had gotten honest and confessed that everything I had said was true. We had both been advised that we shouldn’t be speaking with one another until we had a better grip on exactly what was going on between us, but I was so excited to find that she was no longer furious with me (and wanted to see me) that I didn’t care. On December 30th, I snuck out of Tranquil Shores and she picked me up down the street. At the end of the night when she dropped me off to sneak back in, I could have skipped back to Tranquil Shores; I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I didn’t get caught and we made plans to meet up again the next night: New Year’s Eve.
I played it cool and waited all day for her to hit me up. Nothing. I tried her phone. Nothing. And then four more days of the same.
She had relapsed… right? The night that we were together, she had told me that that it had been on her mind a lot but that she had held strong. That was the way I usually talked to people on the occasions that I had already relapsed, but I took her word for it. I had to because I so badly wanted it to be true. It was obvious now though. Our night together had been incredible. She apologized for denying everything initially (in fear) and said that she had been dying to talk to / see me, but needed to sort through her feelings first. She had done that though now, she said, and she told me she was more in love with me than she had ever been in love with anyone and that there was no doubt in her mind that her love was real, authentic, and deep. You don’t disappear on someone for five days after saying some shit like that. It wasn’t the behavior of someone “living a program.” I didn’t know what to do. She might be dead. [People that start shooting up again after a period of clean time have an incredibly high rate of overdose]. Two friends of mine had already overdosed in the last two months. I feared the worst and it ate away at me.
In those five days, I exercised self-discipline like never before. I only allowed myself to try and reach her once or twice a day and I kept myself busy and focused around the clock with my art and my treatment plan. I was a ball of anxiety but I was extremely proud of the way that I didn’t completely lose my fucking mind. I felt like I had bullets under my skin, bouncing around my skeleton… but I managed.
Late afternoon, January 5th, I got a text: “hi sammy.”
HOLY FUCKING SHIT.
“Hey! Where have you been? Are you okay? I’m so happy to hear from you! Call me!”
She called later that night. It was … off. She didn’t sound high, but she wasn’t exactly coherent either. Above all though, she stressed that I didn’t have anything to worry about – and she asked if she could see me tomorrow [Sunday] night. “Of course.”
Those weren’t my only plans for the day: Taylor was coming to visit. I had been looking forward to it for at least a month. I got all my little papers to my counselor, got them stamped, signed, approved, and sent over to property staff. Everything was in order. It was the first time I’d get to see her since Labor Day, 2011 – when we left San Diego on separate flights and, upon arrival in Florida, I immediately proceeded to overdose (intentionally) in an attempt to kill myself. [But that’s another story].
I’ve written a lot about overlapping things I’ve had with girls (especially in this stretch of time) but I don’t consider this anything like that. Taylor and I had dated and lived together for six years, but I had spent a lot of time looking at the relationship and was almost certain that I was looking forward to seeing my friend, Taylor (and not Taylor, the girl with whom I might still be in love). I wasn’t trying to “win her back” as I had back in 2011; this wasn’t romantic, we were friends. [Though this, too, is tangential – a subject for another time]. We planned her visit at 10 AM because she was flying back to Baltimore at 4 that afternoon. I was excited.
At 11AM, I called. Running late, she said. Okay – no big deal.
At 1PM, I called. No response.
At 4PM… she’s on her flight right now. She fucking bailed on me and didn’t even care enough to tell me.
And what do you know… I haven’t heard from Her all day either. We’re supposed to meet up tonight… I sent her a text. I tried to call. Nothing. I need to go for a walk.
I signed out for an hour [I had been at Tranquil Shores for five months so I had that privilege on a Sunday afternoon]. I walked down the street not knowing what the fuck I was even doing. I sat down at a bus stop and waited… to hear from her. I wrote her a short but desperately conflicted “please let me back into your life” kind of note. I sent it as a picture so that she’d be more likely to look at it (assuming she actually had her phone and really was just ignoring me).
No response. I walked some more. Sat at another bus stop. Decided to draw. I looked in my bag and took out the only medium and paper I had on me: crayons and a tattered envelope. I was trying so desperately to remain optimistic and see everything in the best possible light. Taylor’s bailing on me that day and this girl (that I was in love with)’s strange behavior and looming death… it all hurt but it had to be for something. If nothing else, I told myself, it’s practice; I’m getting better at feeling pain and not falling apart. When I live in the real world again one day, where I could quickly and easily numb out pain with heroin, these experiences will be what keep me from doing so. I will get through this and I will be okay. It’s another opportunity for growth…
Here’s the note that I wrote her just before I drew my little cartoon.
If you wanna know how things turned out with her, it’s in my statement for “Spoiler Alert.”
Taylor and I are pals and talk all the time (but never about why she didn’t show up that day).
I’m always busy. I always have “really important” stuff that I “have” to do. When I was living in DC, it was Traffic Street Records year-round and law school around final exam time. Back then (before heroin became the main problem), I feel like the biggest point of tension in my relationship was my emotional unavailability. Every night, Taylor would ask me to come to bed, I’d tell her I was almost done, and then six hours would pass before I actually made it to the bedroom. So every night she went to sleep alone, woke up while I was still asleep, and then came home from work to find me busy packing up records or laying out a record insert or [whatever]. Eventually, I started doing whatever Traffic Street stuff that I could at school instead of the apartment, so that she’d already be asleep when I got home and I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about not coming to bed and not paying attention to her.
Heather and I moved to Jacksonville this June. She didn’t have a job lined up before we got here so, for the first two weeks, we were both home all the time. Since I’m always busy, I’m never bored and I’m always content in that regard. But Heather has been working [forever] and likes having a job to go to every day. Consequently, she was bored out of her mind. And – maybe because of my own insecurities and my experiences with Taylor – I felt guilty anytime I was working instead of paying attention to her. It was stressing me out. And the fact that she was visibly bored and unhappy made even harder. Especially when I tried to talk to her about it and she just tuned out. Eventually, I decided that there was nothing I could do and just went about doing my own thing. But when it got to the point where we were barely talking at all, it was too much.
I’m feeling disconnected. I’m trying to push through it, assume the best, not stress out. If someone’s not talking to me, it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with me. They could just not feel like talking. Or it could have everything to do with me. But if every attempt at conversation – every question asked – is met with a one-word response, what am I supposed to do? [Moving to a new city together] is supposed to be exciting. And it is for me. But I feel like only for me. And that tempers the excitement a bit. I opened up, put everything out there. Explained with sincerity how I’m feeling. And I got nothing back. Literally, no response.
[ -written June 17th]
I was at a loss. Now I couldn’t work. I sat alone in the living room dumbfounded. And scatterbrained; I had my probation deadline hanging over my head and hadn’t finished my community service hours yet. That was also weighing on me and fucking me up. Especially since I was getting my hours from home; that meant that I could have been doing it in that moment, but wasn’t. Instead, I decided that I needed to paint. It had been too long.
There’s a small block of text in the center of the canvas:
My first impulse is to lie in bed, face down, and cry forever. My second is to beat off. I need to write and paint. I spill my guts and… I’m struggling. Sharing life isn’t easy. I might not be built for it. It’s tough to know what’s right for me. I like being me but it isn’t easy. I guess nothing is. That doesn’t feel true.
The next day – as has so often been the case this summer – I did a total one-eighty. Within twenty-four hours of painting “Blueprint,” I was working on a drawing that says: “I couldn’t be happier” – something I genuinely felt.
Nearly a year had passed since I painted this piece and it remained unsold. That’s mostly due to the fact that I hadn’t been displaying it because I didn’t really like it anymore. I don’t usually go back and work on old pieces because I tend to think of them as “artifacts” from another time in my career. But if I was keeping it locked up in a trunk, in a garage somewhere, it wasn’t really doing much good as an artifact or anything else for that matter. Better to go back, work on it some more – until it was something that I could be proud of and sell with confidence. It took another ten hours or so and I finished it on May 12, 2014. Sixteen days later, it was sold. Here’s what it used to look like…