Man down

Author’s note: this piece has been modified since its original publication on February 16, 2019, to improve its accuracy and preserve events exactly as they happened.

The weird thing about rehab is that your first day in rehab is also somebody’s last.

I’ll never forget my first inpatient stay, at Lakeside-Milam in Kirkland in 1999. I was escorted there by my parents, under the guise that we were just going to “check things out.” But, when you’re a raging drug addict with track marks covering your arms, there is no such thing as stopping by rehab to “check things out.” Once you set foot inside rehab, rehab swallows you whole.

I didn’t even bring any clothes. My parents had to pack my things and drop them off for me later.

It was early in the day, and I went outside to the smoking area to clear my head and attempt to comprehend what was happening to me. A crowd of patients had gathered out there to say goodbye to a guy who was getting ready to leave. I don’t remember what kind of car he drove, but it was a sporty little thing, low to the ground, and I think it was white.

He jumped in the driver’s seat and pressed down hard on the gas pedal.

His window was open as he sped off, and all I could hear were those jagged guitar riffs that mark the beginning of that Korn song. He raced away leaving behind echoes of “Are you readyyyyyyyyyyyyyy……”

I’ll never forget it.

I don’t think I’ve ever wished to be someone else as profoundly as I did right then. I wanted to be him. I wanted to be done with whatever was going to happen to me for the next 28 days.

My most recent rehab experience was at Sundown Ranch in the summer of 2012. At Sundown, you get to ring a bell right before you leave – it’s tradition. It’s an old iron farm bell, situated outside in a tiny pavilion. I don’t know of its origins. I didn’t arrive early enough to hear it on my first day, but that distinctive clanging rang out clear and loud on day two.

I felt the same intense longing as I’d felt in 1999 – I wanted to be that person. I wanted to be done. I wanted to fast-forward through the next three weeks and be done.

Somebody’s first day is also somebody’s last. It’s disconcerting as hell, but it’s the rehab way.

Sundown was different than any other rehab I’d ever been to. First of all, it’s in Eastern Washington, near Selah, the furthest from home I’d ever ventured for rehab. Its distance from home was one of the main reasons I chose it. I did not want the ability to walk off the grounds and be in familiar territory, and I didn’t want to be close to any of my sources. I know myself too well.

Recruiting my sources to serve as drug-mules is one of my favorite rehab pastimes.

I deliberately had my boyfriend drop me off so that my car wouldn’t be in the parking lot. I sensed pretty strongly that I needed to be stranded there or I might not stay.

It was the most affordable, and it was the only rehab facility I’d ever heard of that offered a 21-day program. Inpatient rehabilitation programs are typically 28 days, and sometimes even longer. One of my prior attempts at rehab was at a place called Pioneer Center North, and I stayed there for a total of 60 days. This time, I didn’t want to go for one day, much less 28, so 21 days seemed like a workable compromise.

There were other differences too.

First of all, nobody searched my purse when I got there, and, even weirder, they didn’t take it away from me. I’d never been allowed to keep my purse in rehab before. It was a great feeling – especially because I had nicotine gum in there, which I technically wasn’t supposed to have. They told me I could bring patches, but no gum. I’d assumed my purse would be placed in storage for the duration of my stay, so I didn’t even worry about what was in it.

It meant that right away I was breaking a rule, which was oddly comforting.

They took my phone, which is standard, but I was able to keep my iPod, also standard. My room had a small safe in it, so that any items of value I was permitted to keep with me could be safely stowed away.

The rooms were another difference.

I didn’t exactly have a “roommate” the way I’d had in other rehabs. My room was connected to another room, with a shared bathroom in between. Granted, there was minimal privacy – my “roommate” and I both entered the room from the same main doorway, and that part was very open.

But we weren’t really “roomies.”

She had her side and I had my side, and each side had its very own sliding glass door. Outside each sliding glass door was a porch. My porch. I didn’t have to share my porch with anyone; it was my sliding glass door, and it opened onto my porch. Beyond the porch there was a shared expanse of green grass, and beyond that was another building with more rooms, sliding glass doors and porches.

It was dry and hot at Sundown. I arrived on Sunday, July 1, in the midst of what felt like the summer’s fiercest heat. The heat was relentless. It was almost always sunny and dry, except on the odd occasions when crazy rain storms would kick up, which were unlike the normal rain storms we have here in Seattle. At Sundown, these sudden, violent little storms brought a deluge of water that hopped up and down frantically, as bolts of lightning shot from the sky like missiles.

The storms came out of nowhere, usually at night, galvanizing the air and the earth. They’d douse you in a cloak of water if you happened to be outside when one struck. And then they were over – typically within about 30 minutes or so.

Our patch of grass would become a lake. In the morning you had to watch where you stepped, or risk soaking your shoes straight through to your socks.

But other than that, it was sunny, hot and dry. It was perfect for porch time.

We had the best porch time there.

Every day after groups, classes, didactics and other sessions, we’d head back to our rooms to capture a few moments for ourselves. One by one we’d open our sliding glass doors, emerge from our rooms and come out to our porches to sit and smoke, or we’d lay in the sunny grass and smoke and listen to music. Normally, that was me – or at least it was for my first week or so – until I quit smoking.

After that, I’d just lay in the grass and listen to music.

Sometimes we’d mingle on each other’s porches; small groups of us soaking in the lazy heat and enjoying the break from therapy. Trying to forget the unending feelings of fear, desperation, uncertainty and doubt that we all shared. Trying to feel a little bit normal, to see if we had any of that left in us.

I was out there one day on a girl named Alison’s porch. There were three of us, and we were all in the same group – a specialty group called the Relapse Prevention Group. At Sundown we were encouraged to spend time with our group-members outside of group sessions, particularly in my group, which was specifically aimed at addicts who had achieved long-term sobriety at one point and then “relapsed.”

That’s what they call it when you are sober for a while and then use again. It’s a “relapse.” I have issues with the disease concept, so I struggle with that word a little bit.

The Relapse Prevention Group was the only co-ed group, and as such, we were the only males and females at Sundown allowed to interact.

That was another difference – the way Sundown handled the whole fraternization issue. Girls and guys simply weren’t allowed to speak. Ever. No matter what. It was a weird, albeit effective, approach to avoiding the ersatz relationships that tend to flounder in rehab.

Alison had small speakers that she could hook to her iPod, so I was at her mercy when it came to the playlist. If it was up to me, we’d have been listening to Witchburn, Ten Miles Wide (which was still the Mothership back then), or Late September Dogs. I listened to those three bands constantly at Sundown.

But it was Alison’s porch and Alison’s speakers, so we listened to a Rihanna song called “Man Down.” I was mesmerized by it. It was smooth and rhythmic with distinctive reggae undertones, and it blended with the heat perfectly. Not my normal kind of music but it was perfect for Sundown.

“Oh mama, mama, mama, I just shot a man down… “

It was long and slow, exactly like rehab.

Rehab is one of the few places on earth where time slows down. And as much as I wanted to race to the end and be done, I loved that porch time. I loved that separation from the real world. As much as it hurt to be away from those I loved, there were many moments that I treasured. The moments when the sick dread I felt every time I imagined my relationship ending faded into the heat and the grass and the dry desert air, and the words from whatever song was playing would drown out the remnants.

Especially that Rihanna song.

“Rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum… Man down”

I knew my relationship was doomed. I think I knew it from the very beginning. I hated facing it. I knew once I got out, it was coming. I didn’t know when, but I knew it was inevitable.

I always fail at relationships.

And yet still a part of me still wanted to race to the end and be done. To be done with rehab. To be on to the next thing. Whatever that was going to be.

Back in the early 1990s I worked for an aerospace company in Woodinville, and we had an on-site Boeing buyer named Dick Calkins. I was in my early 20s then, so I literally lived for Fridays. Every week, I started wishing it was Friday even earlier than the week before. Every time he heard my “I can’t wait until Friday” chant, he’d tell me, “Chris, you’re wishing your life away.”

I think about that all the time.

I’ve wished so much of my life away. Each time I’ve gone to rehab, each time I’ve been incarcerated, each time I’ve been on probation, each time I’ve detoxed… I even do it now – as I accumulate sobriety. All I want to do is get there, to the next big landmark. I don’t know what I’m going to do once I get there, I just want to get there. I can’t wait. I want it now.

I do it every time I face a challenge.

I want to be on the other side of it, so I can say, “that’s done. I did that.”

This year, I’ve got two big milestones, and I’m counting the seconds until I get to each. As much as the speed of time terrifies me, I can’t wait. I want to race to the end and be done. The first one is right around the corner – if I can make it through the month of April, I will have surpassed my longest-ever stretch of sobriety, which extended from 2004 to 2011.

Then, on June 26, I’ll have seven years. Seven years of clean time – the most clean time I’ve ever had in my years of addiction. I just want to get there. To be done. I can’t wait. I want it now.

I need to see what happens next because something has to happen next. This can’t be it.

Sobriety is tenuous. It’s kind of like rehab… Any new day of sobriety, whether day one or day 942, is also somebody’s last. As I wake up in the morning, one day closer to seven years, somebody somewhere is sticking a needle in their arm or swallowing a handful of oblivion or sucking on the end of a glass pipe. It’s the nature of addiction. We don’t all make it. Some of us will die.

“Man down…”

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Photos of Sundown Ranch courtesy of Sundown Ranch website

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Never talk to me during The Jackal

I was sitting in the salon chair, staring at my hairdresser, wondering, for the millionth time, if it was possible to have dimples surgically implanted on my face.

I love my hairdresser. Her name is Diandra and she is stunning. And she has these amazing dimples. Calling her a hairdresser is mostly blasphemy – she is a true artist. And one of the kindest people you will ever meet. And did I mention that she is gorgeous? Seriously, the genetics at play in the Davies family are overtly shameful in their blatant disregard for us normal-looking people.

Whenever I meet somebody that gorgeous, I always think to myself, “That person could be a total jerk and get away with it, because they are so nice to look at.”

I have no idea where that thought comes from or why it enters my mind. It’s an erroneous and unfair assumption and doesn’t reflect who I want to be as a person. I wish I could say that I never judge people based on their appearance, but I’d be lying. It’s something I am constantly seeking to correct.

Diandra and I met at a strip aerobics class, held inside the Lululemon shop at Bellevue Square. Really, it’s a total fluke that I went to that class. I don’t have any rhythm, and I was not close friends with the person who invited me to attend. But it ended up being super fun, and I knew instantly that “total jerk” is the opposite of what Diandra is.

She’s a single mom, who works incredibly hard to raise her kids while running a business. And while her looks are striking, her gorgeousness is far exceeded by her kindness, generosity, compassion, capacity for love, humility, ability to forgive, and her determination to prioritize her children above all else. She is endlessly willing to go out of her way for not only her friends, but people she doesn’t even know.

She’s amazing. I’m in awe of her and I always have been.

I loved her right away. The strip aerobics class was sometime in 2010 and she’s been doing my hair ever since. In my eyes, she can do no wrong.

Except for that one day in August, when I was sitting in her salon chair, and her abundant desire to be helpful kind of… Well, I was irritated.

Irritated is really the wrong word – it was more subtle than that.

I was mildly irked.

I had decided to finally have my breast implants replaced. They were old enough to be considered functionally obsolete. They hurt. One of them was leaking. They looked terrible. I’d been putting off the surgery for years, because of the required four to eight weeks of downtime. As much as I hate to forgo exercise, I was excited to finally move forward with it, and had even secured a date.

It was supposed to take place in early October.

She asked me about my doctor. I was planning on going back to the same doctor who did my original surgery, I told her. He was excited to do it before his retirement at the end of the year.

She was instantly skeptical. Her reasoning was this: if he’s headed for retirement, how could I be sure that he’d be as invested in his work?

I had never thought of that. In fact, there were several things about my first surgery that I was unhappy with. Why was I going back to the same doctor? I honestly had no idea. Why had I not done more research? Why had I not sought a second opinion?

But it was set! I had a date! I was scheduled to give my surgeon a sizable deposit exactly one week from that day. Finding another doctor, at that point, promised to be time-consuming, awkward and inconvenient. It was August, and my brain was in magazine-writing mode, a semi-frenzied state that I achieve anytime my Choose Monroe content deadline looms near. I was busy scheduling interviews, organizing photos and arranging for the necessary time off from my “day job.”

Finding another surgeon didn’t fit into my plans.  I was perturbed. I wasn’t perturbed at her, per se, but I was perturbed at the situation. Why is she instilling these feelings of doubt? I already have my date!

The truth is, she wasn’t instilling anything. I already harbored feelings of doubt, but I had disregarded and buried them. She told me about the amazing experience she had with a Bellevue-based surgeon named Dr. Gavin Dry. She strongly urged me to at least schedule a consultation. In fact, she looked up the number right there on the spot and invited to me call from the salon.

Normally, I hate feeling pushed, and will resist. But sometimes, inexplicably, I stay quiet and do what I’m told. Looking back, I am so grateful that she did that, because otherwise, I’d have walked out the door with a breezy assurance that, “Yes, I’ll call…” and I’d have never done it.

I called on the spot and scheduled a consultation for the following Friday afternoon at 3.

The timing was atrocious. My down payment was due that same day. How could I commit such a large chunk of money to a surgeon I was no longer committed to? But, strangely, early in the week I got an email from the woman scheduled to take my payment. She asked if we could reschedule the payment for the following Monday.

It was auspicious. It felt like a nod from the universe.

My appointment with Dr. Dry was amazing. From the moment I walked in, I felt valued. I was initially told I wouldn’t see him on my first visit, but my consultant went out of her way to bring him in so that he could evaluate my needs. He was incredibly intuitive. I didn’t even know if what I wanted was possible, and I certainly didn’t know how to articulate my desired results.

But he knew.

I cancelled my existing surgery date and booked surgery with Dr. Dry. There was one key difference: with Dr. Dry, I had to wait until November 28 to have my procedure. He was booked much farther out than my other doctor and that was his first available date. That had an important implication: it meant I had to somehow retain my job with the city of Sultan that much longer.

Oddly, those two things had become connected.

For an undefined number of weeks, I felt very strongly that my time in Sultan was coming to an end. In September, when I wrote my quarterly spotlight features for the city council, I overwhelmingly felt that they were the last spotlights I would ever write. I was overtly candid in my council presentations, because I sensed that they were the last council presentations I would ever give.

Sultan City Hall was killing my soul. It was changing me into a person I have no interest in being. In general, I am a master at navigating misery, but this was altering my DNA. It was not sustainable.

I started telling myself that I had to stay until after my surgery. I’m not sure why… Neither thing was contingent on the other. I think a part of it, was the fact that I hadn’t had a job that offered sick leave in over 16 years, and wanted to take advantage of it. But when my October surgery date changed to November 28, I was worried about whether I’d last that long. Strangely, I knew I had to. Once November 28 was scheduled, I had an immediate sense of finality. I felt very strongly that I shouldn’t disrupt the underlying trajectory by hastening my departure from the city.

It was pivotal. Everything hinged on November 28. It felt much more monumental than the October date had felt. November 28 was absolute.

I didn’t know what was coming, but something.

In October, I was again seated in Diandra’s salon chair, pondering the feasibility of dimples. In addition to my new surgery date, two key things had happened since I’d seen her in August.

Number one: sometime in September, I discovered a news story from 2014 alleging that Dr. Dry – my new surgeon – was being investigated for fraudulent prescription writing, which he allegedly did to support a drug addiction.

Number two: I had applied for a job with the city of Kirkland.

Initially, the news about Dr. Dry hit me like a punch in the stomach.

I wish I could say I discovered it during deliberate research, but that’s not that case. I stumbled across it completely by accident, which is almost funny, considering how much I fault myself for not having done adequate research in advance of my first surgery back in 2002. I panicked. I frantically scoured the internet in hopes that there were two plastic surgeons named Dr. Dry.

I considered canceling my procedure.

And then I remembered the most important truth in the world.

I am a drug addict.

All I want, as an addict in recovery, is for people to not judge me for my past mistakes. If Dr. Dry truly had an issue with substances at any point in his life, and I canceled my surgery because of that, wasn’t I doing exactly the opposite of what I hope people will do for me? I had just applied for an amazing job with the city of Kirkland and was incessantly worried that the city wouldn’t be able to see past my background. How could I do that to someone else?

It struck me hard.

I kept my surgery date and my surgeon. It felt right.

By the time I was seated in Diandra’s salon chair, it had become such a nonissue for me that I forgot to mention it to her. I was positive that she wasn’t aware of the allegations, because that’s not the type of thing she would have kept from me. A fact demonstrated to me several weeks later when she sent me the link to the news story, immediately after it was brought to her attention. I told her how I felt.

She completely understood.

At any rate, I meant to mention it at my appointment, but I was so busy telling her that I had applied for a job with the city of Kirkland, that I didn’t think of it.

Kirkland. It felt like a dream. Initially, when I applied, I figured it was a longshot.

But Diandra didn’t think so.

Diandra has magic. She has demonstrated this to me on more than one occasion. She started to say something about the Kirkland job, and stopped herself. She then said, “When you get the Kirkland job.”

Not “if.” She said “when.”  And she didn’t say it like one of those annoying, chipper people. She said it like it was a thing.

Exactly two weeks later, the city emailed me to schedule an interview.

I instantly thought to myself, “Well, I must be the bonus, throw-away candidate. They must have a few real contenders, and they’re just adding me to the mix to provide balance.” I really thought that! But then I thought of Diandra.

When you get the Kirkland job.”

I started picturing Kirkland in my mind. I drove out there on more than one occasion and walked around. I did research. I studied. Especially after my first interview and I knew, visually, what city hall looked like. I started imagining myself walking through the doors of city hall to go to work. I could picture it. I could see it in my brain.

Diandra did something else for me that day in October, as I sat in her stylist’s chair. She offered to connect me with one of her friends, who is the Executive Director of the Kirkland Downtown Association (KDA). I know how important downtown associations are to cities, and felt sure that as a part of the city’s communications team, the KDA would be in my purview.

I didn’t take her up on it right away, but when I was asked by Kirkland to return for a second interview, I figured I’d better up my game. Somehow, I had made it through the screening process, despite that fact that I was moderately-convinced it was all a farce. I was playing for real now, and I wanted an edge.

I reached out to Diandra’s friend and she invited me to drop her name during the interview. It was perfect. The second interview went well. It made me sweat more than the first. I hated it and loved it. It was hard, but I like to do hard things. It took place Thursday, November 15, about eight days after the first interview. Things were starting to whirl around me, like centrifugal force.

In Sultan, I was hanging on by a thread.

On November 27, Kirkland called. They were reaching out to my employers and my references. They wanted to let me know. They also wanted to make sure it was alright to contact my current supervisor. A part of me wanted to say no, but fortunately, I thought that through before opening my mouth. I have nothing to be ashamed of. During my time in Sultan, my main objectives never wavered:

Work hard and constantly strive for excellence.

Love me or hate me, nobody can deny that.

I had surgery the next day.

On Friday, November 30, Kirkland called. I had the job… Pending a background check.

For a second, I was convinced I was hallucinating. I felt like death. While I didn’t use narcotic pain meds after my surgery, I did use a nonnarcotic muscle relaxer called Flexeril. That, coupled with my acute mental and physical fatigue, left me feeling hazy and muddled. Once I realized I was indeed on the phone, I felt crushed. I had to do the one thing I hate most in all the world: explain my criminal history to somebody who doesn’t know me, over the phone.

I’d rather have a root canal.

I thought of Diandra. “When you get the Kirkland job.”

I thought of Dr. Dry, my amazing surgeon who took amazing care of me, despite anything that may or may not have happened in his past.

On Monday, December 3, Kirkland called. I got the job.

I got the job.

This week, as I’m sitting in Diandra’s salon chair, I will have worked for the city of Kirkland for three days. I will likely contemplate what my face would look like with dimples. I’ll also contemplate my intense gratitude and appreciation for such a loyal friend, whose ambitious guidance and audacious belief in me will never be forgotten.

This amazing photo of Diandra, her kiddos and little miss Sadie, was taken by my amazing friend, Joe Orsillo.  

Diandra by Joe

The virtue of a proportionate response

I had to have surgery last week, and I was determined to get through the aftermath without the assistance of narcotic pain medication.

My surgeon had confidence in my ability to take pain pills like a normal person, but he doesn’t know me. He prescribed them to me, even after I told him I was an addict and needed to get through the recovery process without opiates. In a way, I appreciated this very much. My feelings on this topic are complex. I don’t want to be denied pain pills if and when I legitimately need them.

But I know myself. I know myself too well. I can have them prescribed to me. I can even fill the prescription. But I can’t actually put them inside my body.

I wish the reality was different, but I can honestly say that at no time did I feel the urge to take those pills responsibly. From the get-go, I was mentally calculating how many it would take to get high. They were only fives, the lowest dose of oxycodone you can possibly get. I viewed them with snobbish contempt and told myself they were hardly worth the relapse.

But still. There they were. A tank that I decided to stand in front of.

Why not just rip up the prescription?

I don’t know. Because I’m me, I guess.

I hate asking for help. While I know a lot of people, I am generally a very solitary human. I like to take care of myself and hate to seem vulnerable. But in this situation, I had no choice. I had to have a caretaker for at least 24 hours, and I knew I needed something to get me over the hump in terms of the pain. As terrified as I was to take a pain pill, I was even more terrified of throwing them away before the surgery, as I had no idea what I was up against.

Asking for help was complicated by another issue.

I felt awkward fielding questions about why I needed to have surgery in the first place. It’s not like I had to have a cancerous tumor removed. The need for this surgery was related to a decision I made in 2002, when I opted for breast augmentation.

Breast implants don’t live forever. At some point, they need to be replaced. I’ve known that mine needed to be swapped out for years; one of them had starting leaking and you could visibly see that they were lopsided. It drove me crazy. I hated the way they looked. I’m sure that nobody has died from a leaking saline implant, but still, it was a problem that I needed to address. And I felt guilty for the indulgent behavior.

I’ve been postponing the surgery for years, because of the necessary downtime.

I booked it on kind of a whim. I did it quickly and tried to not think about it.

And then there it was, staring me in the face.

I thought about my hard-fought sobriety. I have six years of clean time and if I can make it through to March of 2019 without ingesting any mind-altering substances, I will be in uncharted territory. Six years was where I slipped up last time, and it was because I was in an extraordinary amount of pain.

I thought about the things that motivate my sobriety and there was one thing that stood out in a way that was profound. The men and women of the Monroe Police Department.

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office too, for sure, but the MPD has a special place in my heart.

It’s an interesting thing, and one of the greatest gifts of my job as a reporter. As an addict, I was a walking felony. I was always terrified of cops because, typically, when I ran into one, I was doing something illegal and would inevitably end up in handcuffs. The first few times I had to interact with law enforcement as a reporter, I was petrified. I assumed they could smell my criminal history. I remember standing in Sultan in 2013, shaking then-Lt. Rob Beidler’s hand, at a complete loss for words.

I assumed they’d dislike me because of my background. I was awkward around them. My face would turn red. I felt guilty even though I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wanted to offer my purse and say, “LOOK! See? There isn’t any dope in here.”

But over time, that changed dramatically. I started divulging my history more and more. And every time I did, no officer looked at me with disgust, or treated me any different than they had before. Every time I did it, it was transformational, so I kept on doing it.

By the time I did my ride-along with MPD in 2016, I think I lasted about 30 seconds before outing myself as a felon and a recovering addict. My ride-along officer was entirely unphased by the news.

I watched my former self get arrested that night, in the pouring rain, as I sat in the front seat of that patrol car. It was an amazing experience.

I loved covering stories for the Monroe Police Department. Especially in recent years, when nationally, cops have been under fire. I sought to reverse the trajectory of negative press. I thought, and still think, that if I could create a compelling narrative that changed the mind of even just one person, it would be worth it.

These are officers who show up at little kids’ birthday parties with gifts, often purchased with their own money. Kids they’ve never even met before.

These are officers who are so impacted by their own children, they organize things like “Shop with a Cop” to help support the kids who need them the most. These are officers who don’t hesitate before dipping in to their own pockets when confronted with a community member in need. These are officers who break windows and jump in front of trains to save a person’s life. These are officers who jump at the chance to text an ex-junkie who is facing surgery scared and alone.

They are champions for their communities and champions for the human race.

They are champions for others in law enforcement.

They create nonprofits. They travel and build monuments. They feed the hungry. They volunteer their time. They honor and respect.

These stories are not told often enough and within the Monroe Police Department they are countless.

It became my mission. I never had adequate time to devote to it, but I did my best. Somehow, the consistent interaction with law enforcement gave my sobriety an entirely new dimension. It was sharp, and meaningful, and had such power.

It’s a power that lives and breathes today. It has never diminished.

I started covering Monroe Police and Fire Appreciation Week in 2014. It’s an annual occurrence, and was one of my very favorite things to cover as a reporter. It always ends with a big celebratory lunch, and in 2016 I was asked to speak at that lunch. I honestly had no idea what to say, but figured I’d better not waste the opportunity.

It was an especially meaningful year because the Monroe Fire Department had merged with Snohomish County Fire District 7. They had merged with my fire district. The ones who had saved my life on more than one occasion after overdoses, accidents and other calamitous, drug-related mishaps.

I decided to speak my truth. I stood in front of a roomful of cops and firefighters and told them who I was. I thanked them all for saving my life – literally and figuratively.

All of these scenes played out in my brain as I contemplated my sobriety, and I decided to ask the MPD for a little bit of help in terms of my surgery. I sent a few texts and Facebook messages to officers that I know, and reached out to a few of the officers’ wives that I met and became friends with over the years.

I was nervous and self-conscious, but I did it anyway.

It’s one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

They came through like an army. I received text messages, emails and Facebook messages. And not only on the day of the surgery! They started coming in the day before, and continued to come through afterwards… Every single word serving to remind me of who I am today. That army was essential. It was the powerful, proportionate response that I badly needed.

“Pain is temporary, pride is forever.”

One of the officers told me that, and it became my mantra.

I got my surgery on Wednesday, November 28. I got rid of the narcotic pain meds that night. They were no longer an option.

I was blessed with exceptional support. My caretaker took heartbreakingly good care of me. Nobody can break my heart like he does – it’s not his fault and I won’t name him here. He shattered my insides the whole time I was there. He did almost everything for me. I ended up staying at his house until Friday night. I wish I could have stayed forever and at the same time I’m sorry I went at all. I do everything wrong with him and seem to cause irreparable harm whenever I’m in his presence.

When I got home, there were flowers waiting for me on my porch. They were from the Monroe Police Officers Association.

Never has a bouquet of flowers meant so much to me.

On Saturday, a fierce anxiety settled in. My chest burned, my heart pounded, and my skin crawled. Combined with my low energy and overarching pain, it felt exactly like opiate withdrawal. Which made me angry. I denied myself the opportunity to take opiates… So why did I have to feel like this? Every cell in my body screamed. I was rifling through my mental filing cabinet in search of any person who might be able to hook me up with some benzos. I was ready to humbly request, cajole, beg.

My addict-brain kicked into high gear. Lorazepam would be fine, I told myself. That stuff pretty much sucks anyway. My doctor might even give it to me willingly… Probably not, but it’s worth an ask. It’s not taking opiates if it’s taking an anti-anxiety med. I can still say I did it without pain killers…

But I knew that was a lie. I can no longer outsmart myself in that way.

I went back to my mantra. I adjusted the wording.

“Anxiety is temporary, pride is forever.”

Crippling anxiety was my companion for three full days. And then, as of today, Tuesday, December 4, nearly one full week post-op, it started to subside.

There are grand changes afoot in my life, and I am better prepared for all of them with my sobriety firmly intact. When an addict needs help there is no such thing as a disproportionate response, and I humbly thank everyone who has been there for me in the past week. I owe you all my life. That may seem overly dramatic, but I assure you that it’s not. In any given moment of any given day, I am a heartbeat away from a hot spoon and that tangy, pungent smell that I can instantly recollect.

I need my armies.

Pain is temporary, pride is forever.

Thank you, MPOA

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The 2016 Monroe Police Department Citizens Academy graduating class

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When they ribbit, it means they’re happy

On two separate occasions in my life, somebody has stood in front of me with their hand out, palm facing the sky, holding a dead frog as tears streamed down their face.

Granted, frogs are awesome, and it is sad when they die.

But how many people can actually say that that’s happened to them? Twice, no less.

The first time it happened, it was my boyfriend, Terry. He had incredible love when it came to animals, so it wasn’t a huge shock to see him like that. I’d seen him nearly weep over baby possums that we found in the middle of the road one night; their mom had been hit and he was frantic to save them.

The frog was my pet. We had gotten him from our friend Laz, who had a plethora of snakes, tarantulas and other exotic critters that he was getting rid of. He’d closed his Everett-based reptile shop, hence the slithery menagerie.

I’ve always loved frogs, but honestly, that one was kind of intimidating and I never really bonded with him. He was a Brazilian horned frog, and he needed a pool in order to survive. He didn’t have to be in water all the time, but he had to have water access. He ate crickets.

He liked his pool and he liked crickets.

I kept him in a small terrarium that had some wood and rocks and, of course, his pool. The terrarium was actually just a converted fish tank, but it worked perfectly fine. At least, it worked until the owner of said fish tank decided to reclaim it, while Terry and I were out of town for the weekend. We came back to discover that my poor frog had been rehomed, and that he had not taken well to his new environment.

He was all dried up and dead, pool-less, in a small, round bowl.

The fish tank belonged to Terry’s brother, who had apparently decided that he needed it worse than my frog did. That was clearly not the case. Terry discovered the mishap and picked up my petrified frog, distraught, crying inconsolably. I was bummed too, don’t get me wrong.

But, I took several Xanax and pretty much felt better right away.

That was the first time it happened. It happened again about a decade later.

In the interim, I had another pet frog. I really loved that frog. I found him myself… He was hopping around inside an apartment complex in North Seattle. It was not a place where you’d expect to find a frog, so I caught him and took him home. He was adorable. He was a green tree frog, and he’d change colors depending on his surroundings.

I built him a terrarium and bought him crickets to eat. He’d ribbit all the time which was really endearing. I asked the people who worked in my local pet store how to care for him and they educated me. They told me that his ribbiting meant that he was happy.

Unfortunately, my cat Fang became obsessed with him. She’d lay on top of his tank, and just stare at him. The poor guy must have thought the sky was made of white fur. While I was in rehab in 1999, she dislodged his terrarium and it fell and broke. Either she ate him or maybe he got away.

Nobody presented me with his corpse on the palm of their hand as they wept, although I might have held him myself and cried, had I been there to discover his cat-ravaged body. I really loved that frog.

It was probably 2003 or 2004 when it happened again. My dance with addiction was in an intensely hopeless phase. I was homeless and had somehow hooked up with a married couple named John and Linda. They were older, and both longtime junkies. The relationship worked well for me, because Linda had a great hustle – she was an amazing shoplifter. She was slightly pudgy with wrinkles and long grey hair and looked like somebody’s grandmother, not like a person who would fill their coat and bag with merchandise they didn’t plan to pay for.

She almost looked respectable. Until she smiled and revealed her alarming lack of teeth.

At any rate, it was a mutually beneficial relationship, because we could cost-share. We split the cost of our hotel room every night, shared our dope, food, crack… Pretty much everything. Linda did all the shoplifting and I did the returns. We actually had some fantastically elaborate receipt scams; she was quite ingenious when it came to that stuff. We pulled off some grand capers that really made the whole thing seem feasible on a long-term basis.

Until one of us got arrested, overdosed, kicked off a bus or set our bathroom on fire.

We didn’t have a car, so whenever possible, we’d hire one. The only problem with that, was that it meant less dope for us at the end of the day, because we had to kick down the driver. Because of that, we typically relied on Metro to get us to where we needed to go. We rode busses up and down the I5 corridor to avoid hitting the same stores all the time.

One night, we got off the bus at the Lynnwood Transit Center, which is just a few blocks off Highway 99. I don’t remember where we were going, but it was dark, and we were making our way to 99 on foot. It was the end of our “work day,” so I’m sure we were heading to one dope house or another. We were walking west on 200th Street S.W. in the Scriber Lake area when it happened.

We suddenly realized that the ground was crawling with frogs.

It was dark out, and wet. And there were frogs everywhere.

They were big frogs, like my Brazilian horned frog, and there were hundreds of them. They seemed to be coming out of what looked like a pond or a stream on the north side of 200th, near the entrance of an apartment complex. That’s where they were the thickest. They were headed south, across 200th. The problem was that it was dark, and drivers couldn’t see them, so every time a car entered or exited the apartment complex, the frogs were getting run over and killed.

They had a semi-decent shot at survival once they began to cross 200th, because their groupings were far less dense. But in that little driveway, they were getting massacred.

When we realized what was happening, we found ourselves at a loss for what to do. The frogs seemed bound and determined to travel from one side of the street to the other, regardless of the danger. Regardless of the fact that their journey was killing them. We tried to get them off the road… We tried to persuade them to take another route. But they just kept coming.

Linda started picking them up and tossing them out of harm’s way. I wanted to help her, I really did, but they were so big and there were so many of them. Linda was frantically determined, desperately trying to save as many as she could. And then, she inadvertently picked one up that had been hit by a car.

It was in bad shape, and it died while she was holding it.

There it rested, dead, on her outstretched palm. She made a sound, and I turned to face her, to see what had happened. She looked at me with such profound sadness. Tears streamed silently down her face and her mouth gaped open as she gasped for air.

It was just all so hopeless.

In a way, it’s weird that we stopped at all. It was the end of our “work day,” which meant that our number one priority was meeting our connection, so we could get loaded. That’s why we did what we did. We’d do our wake-up in the morning, embark on a day of stealing and returning things, and then we’d re-up at night. That’s how it usually went. That was our day.

The fact that we spent so much time trying to save the frogs is oddly out of character.

I can see now that we were the frogs. And maybe on some level, we recognized that. Maybe that’s why we tried to save them. Our daily endeavors were just as risky and doomed as theirs – it’s just that it took us longer to die. The primary difference was the reason we did it – our “why.”

The frogs had a cause that was far more noble and worthy than ours.

They faced certain death because they wanted to go swimming in the lake across the street. Maybe that lake was their home, maybe their food was there… Or perhaps their families. Whatever was there, they found it worth the risk. We faced certain death as well, but we did it because we needed to pay for a hotel room in which we could shoot dope and smoke crack all night. And we’d get up the next day and do it all over again. Everything in our lives was contingent on how much we could steal from others.

There was nothing noble about that.

Eventually, John and Linda and I parted ways.

I saw them again – or at least I thought I did – several years later. I had been in and out of federal prison twice and was building a life of sobriety. I worked in south Seattle at the time, and was on my lunch break, having just picked up an expensive bottle of wine for my boss. It was his birthday, or maybe his wedding anniversary, I can’t remember which. I was wearing designer jeans and driving my own car, on my way back to the office when I saw them.

They were sitting in an alley, holding a sign that asked for money.

My insides froze.

Granted, it happened fast, and it may not have been them, but Linda’s hair was so distinctive, and John’s was too – always tied back in a scraggly grey ponytail. It looked like them.

It felt like them.

I remember pondering the weird dichotomy of the situation. There I was, heading back to my job, wearing $130 jeans and transporting an $80 bottle of wine. I had an apartment of my own and a full tank of gas. I remember being so grateful. Even though I wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be in my life, I was still grateful.

I feel a similar gratitude now. I may not be exactly where I want to be in my life, but I generally don’t indulge in habits bent on killing me.

And if I ever do, hopefully my cause will be more noble, like that of the frogs.

 

This frog is not related to this story in any way, but it demonstrates that I do really love frogs. I took this picture at an event in Monroe in 2016.

Bad men win when good men do nothing

I’ll never forget the first time I met Mama Susie.

She was outside of her Kenmore apartment, caring for one of her plants or maybe one of the many birdhouses she had scattered throughout her “yard.” She stood awkwardly, gently swaying, and there was an odd stiffness to her spine. Her back was to me, and when she turned she had the sweetest, friendliest, most welcoming smile on her face. It seemed remarkably out of place.

I was there, after all, to buy drugs from her.

It reminded me of the first time I experienced a holding cell at the federal courthouse in downtown Seattle. I had been locked in there for hours, and when it was finally time for me to go to court, I was escorted past the woman in the holding cell next to mine.

She was an older woman, in her late 50s, with short, curly salt-and-pepper gray hair. She smiled at me so brightly that I was taken aback. It was bizarre to me. I was miserable and terrified, and I had no idea what was about to happen to me. And here was this woman, who looked like a grandma, in much the same situation as I was, but she had a beaming smile on her face.

It was incomprehensible.

I’ll never forget her. Her name was Karolyn Grossnickle. I ended up on the same unit as Karolyn, which was DA, or Delta Alpha, as they say in prison-speak. I never really got to know her, but she was always kind. She had gone her entire life without even a traffic ticket, and yet there she was in federal prison.

Susie and Karolyn were nothing alike. It was just that Susie’s smile was so staunchly at odds with the circumstances, much like Karolyn’s was that day.

Susie was older too, maybe in her 60s, but there was something very childlike about her. She looked at me with genuine kindness and ended up giving me the drugs on a front, which was even weirder than her happy mood. I guess maybe I had the tiniest bit of credibility, as we were introduced by my sister, who she knew.

Through a very unfortunate set of circumstances, I met all my most recent drug connections through my sister.

Susie was an incredible source, as she had a multitude of serious health problems and was on strong, narcotic prescription painkillers. She would sell me her entire monthly script of “tiny green bombers,” which were 15 mg oxycodones that I could smash up and snort if I wanted. I loved them, and she gave me a great deal. She didn’t need them because she mostly managed her pain with Opanas, and also meth, hence the need to sell her oxycodones.

She had a cramped, two-bedroom apartment stuffed full of things. It was a typical junkie sanctuary; messy, airless and exquisitely disheveled. I love places like that. I always have – I am instantly at home in them. Each room was filled with teetering piles of stuff, stacked with plastic containers that were filled with more stuff. At least one other person officially lived there, but it was mostly Susie’s place.

Lots of people came and went, and they were all junkies, of one kind or another.

She had a sweet dog named Sasha, an older black lab who was kind of fat and very loving. I loved that dog. She was mellow and gave the place a touch of normalcy.

Cooking, feeding the dog, leaving to run errands, eating Starbucks cake pops, walking through the woods behind the apartment building… All those mundane things happened there, but all of that was secondary. That apartment was where you went to get high. That was its purpose. That was what it was all about.

It was black and white. You didn’t go there to achieve, set goals, or work towards future success. You went there to fail, obliterate feelings and to experience a world where everything is black or white. Sick or well are the only things that matter in that world. Are you sick, or are you well? Do you have dope or don’t you? Everything you do is dictated by how you answer that question.

Beautiful in its simplicity.

Susie liked to do crafts and she had fishing tackle boxes and plastic bins filled with sparkling, colorful trinkets that you could make jewelry with. Beads of all shapes and sizes, metal loops, clasps, chains, pieces of other jewelry that had been carefully dissected, and an endless collection of tiny charms.

It was a flailer’s paradise.

I love charm bracelets. I always have. Creating a charm bracelet was the perfect project for us to do together… I got to dig through all her containers and hand-pick all my charms, while she put the whole thing together. It was a project you could really get lost in, and we did. We smoked meth and snorted Opanas and did heroin as we worked.

Crafting and getting high go together quite nicely.

The bracelet was a multi-day project, not something you could whip out in a couple of hours. One of the days we worked on it, we toiled for an entire afternoon, floating in that hazy, delightful space where the drugs are good, you have enough of them, and you don’t have to talk or think or feel.

Sasha snoozed quietly on that floor that day, and I vaguely remember thinking that she didn’t seem quite like herself. She hadn’t said hi to me or come up to get any pets. It never dawned on me to lean down and check on her, which in retrospect, is probably a good thing.

She was dead.

I don’t know when she died, but she was dead when I was there. I spent an entire afternoon, doing drugs, flailing through buckets of charms and beads, and I was sitting next to a dead dog the entire time. And I never even knew she was dead. I left to go home, and when I came back the next day, she was gone. Susie told me that she was dead. We both looked at each other because we had known that something weird was going on with her that day.

She just wasn’t herself.

Every time I think about Sasha I feel unworthy of eventual dog ownership, even though dogs are my favorite thing in life. What kind of a monster spends an entire day crafting next to a dead dog? It’s a relentlessly dark memory, and I feel ashamed when I think about it, but it’s important for me to remember that it happened.

It is important for me to remember how ugly I can get.

Lately, my life has felt completely out of control. It’s making me squirrely, uncomfortable, sad, angry and filled with loathing. I hate not having control. I hate being told no. I hate not being able to get what I want. I hate bullies. I hate when people stand idly and do nothing when others are abusive, cruel, fake and punitive.

The people that allow the unjust to continue are just as guilty, in my view.

“Bad men win when good men do nothing.” – Susie Hollenbeck

Most of all, I hate having feelings and want to kill them so fiercely that they can’t ever again reassemble themselves into something the lives and breathes.

When I get like this, I like to know that failure is still an option. I like to know that the door is there, and I can walk through it – or not. I like to know that my past misery is available to me. All I have to do, to get it all back, is pick up a drug.

It’s inexplicably soothing for me to know that.

And to truly be in control of that choice, I need to know where the drugs are. Knowing means that I have ultimate control over where I go from here. I need to control something so desperately, I can feel it in my teeth. I can feel it in my soul. I can control my sobriety, I can control my muscles, I can control my strength… These are the things I love and embrace the most right now.

Even though sobriety can be such a tedious pain in the ass.

I texted my sister the other day, and asked her about Susie and some of the other junkies that we spent time with at the Kenmore apartment. I just wanted to know where they were, in case I ever need to find them.

Just like Sasha, they’re dead.

Two out of roughly eight of us are dead. Those are bad odds. That means a quarter of us have died in the last six years.

Susie, like I mentioned, had severe health issues, so it’s not too stunning that she’s gone. My sister thinks it was her cancer that finally took her. My heroin connection was a younger girl, nice, always loaded and always friendly. She’s dead too. Overdose.

While it could be viewed as alarming that I made this inquiry in the first place, I’m glad I did. It is absolutely, 100 percent, time for change in my life, but not that kind of change. I’m not going down like that.

I still wear my charm bracelet. And I think about Susie and Sasha every time I wear it.

NOTE: I named this blog “Bad men win when good men do nothing” because it struck me as EXACTLY the right title. My friend Susie Hollenbeck used to say that, and I love the sentiment. In the interest of clarity, Susie Hollenbeck is NOT Mama Susie. They are two completely different people, coincidentally both named Susie. 

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Ode to the Dr. Sy kick package

Back in the day, if you were a junkie and you wanted to quit, you could go and get a kick package from Dr. Sy. All the addicts knew about him… He had an office on Beacon Hill. For all I know he could still be there today, prescribing kick packages to desperate heroin addicts fighting to get clean.

In theory, it’s a great idea. You got a total of seven different prescriptions, each of which addressed a different aspect of opiate withdrawal. The intent was to get you through the most acute part of the detox by using medications to help diminish the pain of the withdrawal. You got all the stuff commonly associated with opiate detox, including anxiety meds, a muscle relaxer, blood pressure meds, nausea meds, meds for stomach cramps and other digestive issues, and something for sleep.

I can remember the names of most of them, but not quite all.

The anxiety meds were always Ativan, which are adequate, but definitely not as awesome as Valium or Xanax. They do help with anxiety though, and they can be fun if you take a lot of them.

The best part of the whole package was the muscle relaxer… The muscle relaxer was typically carisoprodol, which is the generic form of Soma. Soma is one of the earth’s most delightful pharmaceutical treasures.

Take enough Soma and the angels will sing to you, right before you fall on your face.

He would refill the prescriptions for you one time, and that was it.

The only real caveat was that you had to have a caretaker. You had to have someone who could babysit you and dispense the medications throughout the entire withdrawal process. And you had to bring that person with you to the appointment, or you couldn’t get the meds. He would meet your caretaker, ask you to stock up on fluids and electrolytes, give you the prescriptions, and then you were on your own.

Again, it’s a great theory, but unfortunately it breaks down in practice.

No normal person is equipped to handle a withdrawing drug addict hopped up on a vigorous cocktail of seven different prescription medications. For me, things would start to go awry the minute the dope-sick began to settle into my bones. And then, once I was two or three doses in, my ability to function as a reasonable human being deteriorated completely.

I am rabid when I’m in withdrawal.

If my caretaker closed their eyes for 30 seconds, it was 30 seconds too long. I was tearing up the house, searching closets, pulling open drawers, dumping out purses and bags, looking in every corner of every room until I found my kick package. In that process, if I found medications belonging to my caretaker that looked like they could provide me with some relief, I’d grab those and choke them down by the handful without any hesitation at all.

I attempted several Dr. Sy detoxes throughout my years of addiction, often with tragic and sometimes nearly fatal results.

The first one was the worst. My mom was my caretaker that time – it was before we knew any better.

We got the meds. We stocked up on Gatorade, Sprite, soup and saltine crackers, the way Dr. Sy advised. We started the process.

Once I started getting sick, the recommended dosages weren’t enough. I wanted more. I was relentless. I was absurd. I drove my mom insane until, somehow, I got the kick package away from her. She may have handed it over – any reasonable person would have – just to get me to shut the hell up.

At that time, my parents were my landlords and I lived right next door to them. I carried my kick package back to my house in a brown paper sack, like a furtive alcoholic in possession of a bottle so precious, that nothing else in life mattered at all. Once I was inside, I started taking the pills. And when I still felt terrible, I took more. And when I still felt terrible after that, I decided to take them all.

That’s the thing about opiate withdrawal. You can take a hundred different pills to try and alleviate the symptoms of withdrawal, but nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever vanish that pain entirely. Except dope. One shot of dope and it disappears instantly. But dope is the only thing that will give you any true relief.

I took the whole kick package.

I don’t remember much after that.

I was in one of my bedrooms when everything began to hit me. It felt like powerful magnets were pulling me down to the hardwood floors, like the air had suddenly turned to quicksand. I was being sucked into the floor and my knees would smash against the hardwood every time I tried to take a step. I’d struggle to get back up, only to slam back down onto the unforgiving floor once again.

It hurt. I remember that.

At some point, I was discovered, on the floor, unresponsive. It was not the last time I would be found like that. I don’t know how close I came to death that time. I rode to the hospital in an ambulance, which I’ve done many times. My parents were upset. When I woke up all I wanted was a strawberry shortcake dessert, and they went and got me one.

It didn’t stop me from doing more kick packages later. Over time my addiction worsened, and I attempted to get clean over and over and over. Nothing ever really worked.

Kick packages always sounded like a great solution. I knew, in my heart, that at some point, I would get it right. It was too beautiful of an idea for it to never work. I started each new kick package with hope and excitement, and an odd feeling of superiority over my ability to acquire such a thing in the first place.

But I never quite managed a successful kick using a kick package. If I’m going to detox, I need medical professionals to dispense my meds – I need people I can’t manipulate, browbeat, harass and drive completely insane. I need to be locked up, so I can’t rob my caretaker blind and do irreparable harm to myself and those around me.

But I still love the idea of kick packages.

I think I’ll always love the idea of kick packages. They are tangible. You can hold them in your hands and then you swallow them and they’re inside you. They’re a part of you. They make you feel better. They alleviate your unpleasant symptoms.

They take away the pain… Or at least, they make the pain much more tolerable.

I love that.

I think they should have kick packages for regular life. It shouldn’t just be a junkie thing.

I love the idea of having multiple medications to ease my suffering while I’m enduring a hardship. When I feel like I’m in hell because I want things I can never have; a kick package would help make that fiery jaunt a little less horrific. I long for a kick package when life gets too overwhelming. I long for a kick package when I get a broken heart. I long for a kick package when my soul aches so fiercely I can feel it physically. I long for a kick package to tone down life’s intensity so I can breathe.

I long for a kick package when the noise inside my brain is so loud it renders me incapable of rational thought.

Just for a few days, to get me through to the other side.

In theory, it’s a great idea.

It would probably break down in practice.

Photo: The bag I carried to my last detox. I finished all my dope and checked in at King County Detox June 25, 2012. Sober date: June 26, 2012. 

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Fireworks, a big fish and a myna bird

The front door of my grandparents’ house was never locked.

You didn’t even have to knock when you arrived. You could just walk right in. It always felt a little strange to me, because I couldn’t imagine people just walking in to my own house. But my grandparents didn’t mind at all.

It was a grand house, with large, square brick columns that extended all the way from the ground to the roof. The never-locked door was the front of the house in name only, as it pointed east, while the home’s true face – its essence – looked out west over Big Lake in Mount Vernon. I loved that house as a child and I loved that house as an adult. I still love that house, and it is difficult for me to fathom that I will never again set foot inside its many walls.

It was a house filled with rooms, and the rooms were filled with things.

As a child, it appealed to me greatly because I loved the idea of a house that you could get lost in. It was an adventurous house, and you could look around and see new things every time you were there. There were secrets there, just waiting for somebody like me to retrieve them.

Every year they had a huge 3rd of July party that all were welcome to attend. The Big Lake Fire Department does fireworks on the 3rd at Big Lake, and the party was always huge and sunny with tons of food. I always think of fireworks when I think of Big Lake.

There was a pool table downstairs, and a leopard-print chaise lounge. The chaise was draped with an actual bear skin rug, which captivated me as a child. And there was a whole extra living room down there. You could be down there and do whatever you wanted, even if you were a kid. There was freedom there, because all the adults were upstairs in the other living room watching sports.

That’s where my grandfather was.

Any time I picture my grandfather, I visualize him in one of two places. He is either in the living room of his lakefront house, in his chair, or he’s behind his desk at Hendrickson Realty. In both places, he always held a lanky brown “More” cigarette in between his fingers, usually with a full ashtray lingering nearby. At home, a can of Budweiser accompanied the cigarette like a chaperone. At the office, it was coffee.

My step-grandmother, Ida, held an identical pose.

My grandfather, Willard M. Hendrickson, was an intense man. He was a force of nature. He was a perfectionist, who expected perfection from others. I always viewed him as a strong, imposing man, even though from my earliest memories, he walked with an unsteady gait from an injury long passed that left him without depth perception. He spoke of the incident often, but I can’t recall whether it was a logging accident or something that happened to him as a paratrooper in World War II.

His gaze was often steely, sometimes mischievous, but always filled with life and fire.

Even on his deathbed.

All my life I felt very close to him. Out of everyone in my family, I feel I am most like my grandfather.

Even though there were many places inside the Big Lake house that I never saw my grandfather go, every corner of it absorbed his essence. It breathed and expelled my grandfather’s air. It too, was filled with life. There was a huge aquarium at the top of the stairs, inside of which was a round fish that swam lazily. And there was always a myna bird named Joe, who conversed with my grandfather often.

I have a million stories about my grandfather. By the time I was born, he had gotten divorced from my biological grandmother, Elsie, and had been married to Ida for almost a decade. Grandma Elsie lived in Depoe Bay, Oregon, with my step grandfather, Captain Stan. As a kid, I felt very lucky. I had a whole extra set of grandparents on my father’s side. Not everybody had that.

After Willard and Ida had been married for a while, they decided they wanted a child of their own. My grandfather had four kids with my Grandma Elsie; my dad, my uncles; Norm and Rich, and my aunt Diane. He and Ida adopted a baby girl and called her Wilida, cleverly combining both of their first names. When she got older, Wilida started going by the name Wendy instead, but to me, she was always Wilida. I don’t think she liked the name very much, but I always loved it.

I bet there’s nobody else in the world named Wilida.

I loved having an aunt that was only three years older than me. None of my friends had aunts that young. When I was a kid, my grandfather bought a small RV, and they’d take Wilida and I on trips.

That’s how I know that despite his demanding nature and brave face, there were things that gave my grandfather pause.

On one trip, for whatever reason, we drove through Depoe Bay. I’ll never ever forget it. As we drove down U.S. 101 we passed Tradewinds Charters, which was owned by my step grandfather, Captain Stan. Grandma Elsie was in there, helping customers. I could see her rosy cheeks and the red hat she always wore. But we couldn’t stop – my grandfather would not. It felt so odd to be in Oregon, driving right past my grandmother, with her never knowing I was there.

I think we went back at some point, and spent time with Grandpa Stan, but only after Elsie had died.

When I was older, I lived at the Big Lake house. I got my real estate license and worked at the family business. To get my license, I had to take a course and pass an exam. My grandfather never for a second doubted that I passed that test the first time I took it. There was simply no question in his mind. I was not so sure. I was terrified. It was a hard test. I was sure I had failed.

But I passed, and he looked at me with undiminished pride.

My grandfather and I would drive for hours all over Skagit County. My week-long real estate crash course had left me ill-equipped to sell vacant land, so my grandfather filled those gaps.

He would sometimes say that I reminded him of his daughter, Diane. My aunt Diane died in 1981, when I was 11 years old. I remember her only in bits and pieces. I wish I could have known her better.

You have the Hendrickson gene, he would tell me, as though it were a coveted prize. I’ve often laughed at the curse of the “Hendrickson gene,” but maybe it’s not all bad.

Willard was a brilliant man. Nobody can argue that. All his kids are brilliant. He may not have been spry enough to exercise in his later years, but he never stopped studying things and learning. He was passionate about information. He was forever an entrepreneur, which makes perfect sense to me now. I can’t ever imagine him working for another person. This is something else I can relate to very much.

I never would have thought of myself as having an entrepreneurial spirit, but this past year has taught me much about such things.

I have a million stories about my grandfather, but I have one that is my favorite. I can’t remember exactly how old I was when it happened, but I vividly remember the aftermath: my grandfather’s knees, torn and tattered, covered in wounds that looked vicious and unruly, even as they were healing.

He had been off exploring properties located along an old logging road, which is something he did frequently. He was a logger for many years, before transitioning into real estate and land development. His first office was in Smokey Point, which he later relocated to Sedro Woolley. He knew those old logging roads like the back of his hand, he knew about land, he knew where you could drill a well and where there wasn’t any water for two miles down.

As he got older, I admit he belonged behind the wheel less. His issues with depth perception made driving a challenge. But he loved challenges and he was stubborn. I’m the same.

I wouldn’t want to stop driving either.

This time, he had adventured west of Big Lake, winding up some old logging road, until his car veered off into a ditch that he couldn’t get out of. He left the vehicle and tried to walk out, but walking was not his strong suit. I forever worried about him walking up and down the narrow, steeply-pitched stairways in the Big Lake house. He always seemed more-than-slightly unsteady on his feet.

He walked as far as he could, down what was likely a silent, narrow road of dirt and rocks, and when he couldn’t walk any more, he got down on his hands and knees and crawled. The details are murky to me now, and I would kill for a written account of what happened. I bet you anything there was one, somewhere, at some point. He may have been lost overnight, but I am not 100 percent sure of that.

He was gone long enough that my grandmother became worried and sent people to look for him.

I can guarantee you one thing; giving up would have never occurred to him. “Lay down and die” is something that would have never entered his mind – not even for an instant. He walked as far as he could, and when he couldn’t walk anymore, he crawled. There was blood running down his knees as rocks cut into his flesh, and he continued to crawl.

Eventually, somebody found him, and rescue was at hand. By the time I saw him, he was back in his chair, proudly displaying his wounds of battle.

And even after all that, he never stopped exploring his properties, his logging roads, his territory. I know this because he did it all the time when I worked with him. I know this because it was in his blood.

One time, we were somewhere north of Sedro Woolley, and he showed me a house that was entirely underground. We laughed as we thought about the people who lived there, mowing their roof.

The story of him crawling his way down a deserted logging road is one that I relate to very much. I crawled my way out of addiction in 2012 and was left empty and shaking but with hope. I built a new life which was blasted into rubble in January of 2017, and I’ve spent the past year clawing my way out of a selfish, reprehensible pit of self-indulgent misery. I didn’t last five seconds on my feet before I was forced to crawl, painfully, inch by inch.

Some days, I still feel like I’m crawling.

When you want something bad enough, and you can’t walk, you crawl. It’s just what you do.

My grandfather died on September 11, 2007. He had fire in his eyes even as he fought death. He talked about going in to the office, and I don’t doubt that had he been able to crawl, he would have tried to get there. I miss him. I wish he could have read my work and I wish we could have talked about property rights and land use and the Growth Management Act (GMA). I wish I could visit his house, and breathe in some of his will and spirit, but the house is lost to us now.

I don’t know exactly how it happened, but nobody named Hendrickson owns property on N. West View Road in Mount Vernon.

My mom and I discovered this just a few months ago.

I hopped onto the county assessor’s website. People I have never heard of before in my life now own 23924 N West View Road. It is unbelievable and shouldn’t be. It just shouldn’t be.

I have a million stories about my grandfather. This is only one of them.

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One of my favorite pictures of my grandfather, holding my sister in 1979.

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My grandfather and Wilida, with my dad and I.

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Beautiful Big Lake

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