Army of Voices

I get it. I really do.

I’m the worst.

I’m the dregs of society. I’m a scourge on your community. I’ve wasted your resources. I’ve consumed your tax dollars with my selfish attempts at detox. I’ve stolen your money. I’ve overdosed in your hotels. I’ve shot dope in your bathrooms. I’ve left needles in your yard. I’ve ridden in your ambulances. I’ve worn your handcuffs. I’ve been locked in your jails. I’ve died repeatedly, always with the greedy expectation that you’ll be there to save my life. And then, after you have, I’ve opened my mouth and swallowed another handful of pills that I stole out of your medicine cabinet.

The audacity of addiction.

And yet.

I’m the hardest worker you’ll ever meet. I can write your love and your life with my words. I’ve helped raise money for your causes. I’ve been a grand marshal in your parade. I’ve accepted your awards. I’ve collected your trophies and certificates. I have been given a key to your city. I’ve shined a spotlight on your passions. I’ve commemorated your loved ones after they’ve been taken from this earth. I’ve cried for people I never knew and will never meet. I’ve documented your dreams, your hopes and your aspirations. I’ve rooted for your success. I’ve contributed to your well-being.

The duality of addiction.

When do the scales become balanced? When do I achieve equilibrium?

The answer is never.

My story, like the stories of many addicts, includes criminal behavior, hospitalizations, multiple attempts at detox and treatment, and finally, imprisonment. I was indicted on federal charges in 2004, arrested and incarcerated at the Federal Detention Center (FDC) in SeaTac. I served some time and transitioned to a locked drug and alcohol treatment center, where I stayed for 60 days.

It was like summer camp after FDC.

In late 2005, I was sentenced in a federal courtroom. In addition to more prison time, electronic home monitoring and three years of federal probation, I was ordered to pay over $7.4 million dollars in federal restitution. About a month later, a Snohomish County Superior Court Judge – who seemed amused by the amount and proclaimed in court that he had “seen worse” – informed me that “this is not a free ride” and tacked on an additional legal financial obligation of over $7,000.

Today, I owe $10,000.

He also gave me jail time on top of my prison time, and refused to run my sentences concurrent.

It is disconcerting to me. There I was, a pathetic, nonviolent drug addict who had somehow managed to accumulate a year of sobriety as I traveled all over Snohomish and King counties on the bus clearing up warrants and completing community service. There I was, trying to build some sort of life, and in less than a month I was given a financial life sentence, an additional legal financial obligation on top of that, and was expected to report to Snohomish County Jail after I completed my federal time.

I never did.

I refused on principle. Who knows, maybe Snohomish County will knock on my door one of these days and take me to jail, like that weird kid in “Better off Dead” who wants his two dollars.

At the time of my federal sentencing, I was more concerned with how long I was going away than anything else. The prosecutor was seeking a much longer sentence than I received. I was more concerned with staying in school, as I had begun taking classes at the Seattle Vocational Institute and had a 4.0 GPA. In that way, my federal judge was compassionate. I was to turn myself in after I completed school, in April of 2006.

The restitution was an afterthought.

Actually, it was a non-thought. I didn’t think about it at all.

I had absolutely no idea how detrimental having $7.4 million in restitution would be.

Knowing what I know now, I would have happily stayed in prison indefinitely, if it meant I would not have this extraordinary debt. If given the choice, I would have the U.S. Marshals come for me right now and lock me up for however long it took.

There are endless ramifications.

No one will ever marry me. Guys don’t even want to date me after they find out. I am truly loath to broach the topic of companionship because every time I do, people take it the wrong way. And if I hear, “your time will come” or “you’ll meet someone when you stop looking” one more time, I’ll projectile vomit from here to eternity. I’m not saying I’m less of a person because I’m single. I’m not saying that my proverbial singleness is a bad thing. All I’m saying is that sometimes it sucks to be alone.

All I’m saying, is that having $7.4 million in federal restitution makes it harder to find someone.

All I’m saying, is that sometimes, when it’s late at night and it’s been a really hard week, I wish somebody was there to hold me and tell me that everything is going to be OK.

But, in terms of the money, there are worse complications.

I will never travel outside the country. I can never own property. I can’t receive an income tax refund. I can’t be a recipient of an estate, and in fact, I am fully expected to live in poverty in order to make substantial payments towards my debt. And therein lies the crux – the dept can’t ever be paid. Any payment I make to the U.S. Department of Justice is meaningless. It does nothing for me.

It does nothing for me.

It does nothing for my victim.

I’m not saying that what I did wasn’t wrong. It was horribly wrong. It is difficult to reconcile that behavior with who I am today. I betrayed trust, disappointed my family and deceived those who did nothing to harm me. If I could take it back, I would. I can, and have, consistently demonstrated meaningful remorse.

It is real. It is from my heart.

I’ve lost my freedom – in every conceivable way – to pay the price.

I was caught. I was imprisoned. I was sentenced. I was imprisoned again. I completed electronic home monitoring. I completed three excruciating years of federal probation, during which I was repeatedly set up to fail by a crippled justice system that has lost its way. There is no desire for “rehabilitation.” I had to fight to do the right thing and even when I did the right thing, my probation officer was there like a self-guided missile, seeking to destroy everything I’d worked for.

I was denied the opportunity to utilize a full, two-year college scholarship. Even though all the research clearly points to the blatant reality that education is quite literally the only thing that can halt recidivism, I was denied the opportunity to go to school.

I forced to “get a job” in order to pay my “restitution.” Because a two-time felon without a college degree has such a promising career future. Miraculously, I did find a great job, and once I had it, my probation officer did everything she could to sabotage it.

With a few rare exceptions, I was treated like dirty criminal by the federal judicial system throughout the entire process – and still am today.

Once I made it through probation, without a single violation or dirty UA, I was continually treated like a sub-par, less-than-human, disgusting, nasty felon. Anytime I’ve made the mistake of getting caught on the phone with the U.S. Department of Justice, I’ve been treated like a revolting, mentally-challenged nonentity.

I stopped answering the phone.

I’m terrified to own a car. If I owned a home, they could take it. I am not safeguarded by common protections afforded to those facing bankruptcy. Honestly, nobody knows what they’re capable of and I am quite sure they can do anything they want.

They’ve managed to completely sidestep the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Because of the federal government’s mastery at slight-of-hand linguistic intricacies, my “restitution” apparently falls outside the scope of the U.S. Constitution. Instead, it falls under the Mandatory Restitution Act of 1996, a cookie-cutter law meant to compensate victims for monetary loss. Which is well-intentioned, and in certain circumstances, the right thing.

Like when a victim is financially harmed and when the justice system is able to quantify the loss in a way that is not entirely subjective.

I didn’t cause my victim financial hardship. The loss was quantified in a way that is subjective. My victim is better off than all of us put together. Not that I’m excusing my behavior, because I’m not. And if that’s what you think, you haven’t been paying attention to what I’ve said, and you don’t know me at all.

I will never be safe. They will take everything from me. They always have.

I underestimated them.

After my most recent stint in rehab in 2012, I got a job. I was lackadaisical about my federal withholding. I didn’t really think the federal government was that organized. In 2013 when I did my taxes, I was excited to learn I was getting a $1,000 refund. My boyfriend and I were moving, and I really needed the money. But they took it. That $1,000 was sucked into the black hole that is my federal restitution. That $1,000 had zero impact on the debt. It had less than zero impact. It evaporated into thin air.

Everything evaporates in the face of $7.4 million.

It bends my mind. It’s unfathomable. It’s the most hopeless thing I’ve ever endured, and I endure it every single day of my life.

Nobody understands the ramifications. Nobody knows what can potentially happen. The situation is uncommon.

I have tried to research it countless times, but the things I learn are always worse than what I already know. One time, I read that even if I was able to have the amount reduced to a more manageable number – for the sake of simplicity let’s say $100,000 – I would be taxed on the difference because the IRS would view it as income.

Contemplating that makes me crazy.

So, I do the worst thing of all. I don’t pay.

I mean, why would I? Where is my incentive to make payments?

In my defense, I haven’t made a livable wage in over a decade. When I was hired by the city of Sultan in 2017, I made $13 an hour for roughly a year. That’s about half of what I made in 2008. I legitimately haven’t been able to support myself since 2008.

Until very recently.

Any time I meet somebody “in the system” with legal financial obligations, they tell me I’m insane. They tell me it’s insane that I don’t make payments. Particularly with the county, as that debt does have a visible finish line. It’s tangible. I can pay it off in this lifetime. But, as a “punishment” it was so uselessly superfluous, that I struggle with it.

I’ve heard from countless government officials that the overall goal is to remove us from the “system.” To help addicts like me become contributing members of society. If that truly is the goal, why make it so relentlessly impossible?

I’ve tried to mediate it in my brain, but I can’t.

If my money helped law enforcement in some way, that would be one thing. If my payments actually helped cops, that would change everything. But that’s not the case.

I know I’m insane. I know I should pay. But I still don’t.

That’s why it wasn’t too surprising when, a few weeks ago, the inevitable happened. I stopped to get my mail on my way home from work, grabbing the sizable fistful of envelopes from my mailbox with impatience. I hate checking my mail. It’s as bad as the phone.

I sifted through the stack quickly, trying to figure out what I could immediately toss.

And there was a letter from the Snohomish County Superior Court Clerk.

Huge waves of dread and panic started washing over my body. I couldn’t breathe, my chest tightened, and my heart started to pound. For a few seconds, I thought I might pass out. I tore the envelope open and unfolded the letter with shaking hands. Words started rising up off the page, becoming large and bright and ugly. I was like John Nash breaking a top-secret government code at the Pentagon.

Garnishment

Legal Financial Obligation

Warrant

Payroll Deduction

Anxiety took over my entire body like a hurricane. I thought I might cry or start hyperventilating, but instead, I got mad.

Not just mad. Furious.

A little voice in my head whispered, “Don’t you know who I am?”

I really thought that. I really did. I know how that sounds. I do. It sounds entitled and petulant. And maybe it is, but I don’t care. I love that little voice.

That little voice is constantly drowned out by the army of voices in my head that tells me I’m worthless. The army of voices that tells me I’m not talented at my art. The army of voices that screams at me that I’m unlovable.

When that little voice chimes in and I hear it loud and clear…  I cherish those moments. Those moments of pure, unadulterated confidence in my goodness. Those moments of confidence that I have valuable and important things to contribute to the world. Sublime confidence. I know who I am in those moments. It’s magical.

I am a person who would rather die than lie, cheat, steal or inflict harm on others. I am a person who will bend over backwards for people I don’t even know. I clawed my way over every single hurdle placed in front of me by the federal probation department and cleared those hurdles without knocking them over.

I am an asset.

I am perseverance.

I frantically checked the date of the letter. I rarely check my mail, so the possibility that I’d already missed some key preventative deadline was very real. I hadn’t. I made a payment and set up another payment for next month.

But I’m terrified. This came from the county. The feds have been deadly quiet.

I paid them too, out of fear.

I can’t be garnished. If that happens, it’s game over. I’m done. I won’t play anymore.

There is too much happening right now. My job is great, amazing, rewarding and challenging. I’m endlessly grateful for it. It’s a dream come true. But it’s only one thing. Right now, there are so many other things that I’m terrified to face – especially alone. I really need someone to hold me and tell me that everything is going to be OK. Even though I know it’s not, I need to hear that so desperately.

Call me entitled. Call me obstinate. Call me spoiled. Call me whatever you want.

I already know. I told you from the very beginning.

I’m the worst.

 

Author’s note: Army of Voices is the title of a song by the Seattle-based band Witchburn. I have used it in this blog with permission. 

army of voices image

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The three day rule

The first time I did heroin I got so high I could barely walk.

I was 25. I knew, unequivocally, that everything else I’d done up to that point, whether alcohol, weed, cocaine or benzos, was all a waste of time. Heroin was what I’d been waiting for my entire life.

I didn’t inject it that first time – my friend Susie cooked it up and put it in a needless syringe and squirted the liquid up my nose. We were at her parents’ house in north Seattle, where she’d been staying. The effects were almost instantaneous. She grasped my arm as she struggled to get me out to the car so we could leave. She didn’t want her mom to come home and see me like that, because she’d instantly know I was loaded.

Her mom was no rookie.

She pulled me in close and stared at my face, worried that maybe she’d given me too much.

“You’ll be fine,” she said.

Later that day, when I left to go home, she gave me some dope to take with me.

“Just make sure you never use more than three days in a row,” she said. “And you’ll be fine.”

Never use more than three days in a row and you’ll be fine.

That was the first time I’d ever heard of the three-day rule, which is meant to shield you from potential opiate addiction. The basic premise is that if you use for more than three consecutive days, you’ll have withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop.

Keep it at three days or less, and “you’ll be fine.”

Somehow, somewhere, somebody had decided that three days marked the threshold of opiate addiction. It was the doorway between fun-loving-recreational-heroin-user and full-blown-needle-wielding-face-picking-abscess-festering-junkie.

It was a simple rule, but like a lot of things that are simple, it wasn’t easy. Because when you’re faced with withdrawal symptoms, even at their most subtle, it is much easier to get some dope than it is to suffer through that sickness. It is much easier to disregard the three-day rule entirely and worry about the consequences later. I’ve attempted to follow the three-day rule countless times and failed every single time.

“I’ll be fine, I won’t use more than three days in a row.”

I’ve said it a million times.

Yet, the framework of the three-day rule is structurally sound. Establish a threshold between enjoyment and pain and then take great care not to cross it. How hard can that possibly be? When it comes to dope, it turns out that it’s pretty hard. But over the years I’ve remained captivated by the three-day rule; my belief in its validity is absolute.

Dance right along the edge, but don’t go beyond.

In 2016, I decided I would apply the three-day rule in a different way – I would use it to protect myself from the pain of failed relationships. I separated from my long-term boyfriend on December 31, 2015, and woke up, by myself, in my own apartment on January 1, 2016. To say that January 2016 was a difficult month is like saying opiate withdrawal is mildly annoying. Opiate withdrawal makes you want to die.

January 2016 made me want to die.

I maintained the rule’s simplicity: don’t fall in love. That’s all there was to it. I was barred from love, and anything even approaching love. Like, lust, fun, friends, even a dramatic crush… All of that fell in front of the threshold and into the category of “you’ll be fine.”

It was easy to achieve at first, since not one guy showed me even the slightest inkling of interest. The year was almost over before one finally did, and I realized instantly that I couldn’t have hand-selected a better candidate for the three-day rule. He was perfect.

It would be impossible to fail.

We had literally nothing in common – we couldn’t have been more different. We weren’t destined to be together, in fact, we were doomed from the start. It was never going to go anywhere or become anything, and even in a parallel universe, it still wouldn’t have gone anywhere or become anything.

Despite the mismatch, he ignited my insides.

He turned the floor into lava and forced me to hop around on tables, chairs and mountains to survive. It was more than just butterflies. It was earthquakes and tidal waves and impending death. It burnt my face and hands and peeled off layers of my skin. It was intense and I loved every minute of it. I was not fine, nor was I going to be fine. I completely failed at the three-day rule.

I mean, I failed.

And then, inevitably, he dumped me.

I was shattered.

The thing is, I wasn’t really shattered over the guy. I’ve been through much more traumatic breakups than that. Despite the fact that I had proved myself inept at following the three-day rule, which was frustrating, I had known intellectually that we weren’t going anywhere. It wasn’t rocket surgery. Yes, I was heartbroken, but it was really just a case of poor timing – it happened immediately after my abrupt separation from the newspaper, in January of 2017.

That newspaper was my entire life. I survived January of 2016 because I still had the newspaper. In 2017 I had nothing. I was irreversibly altered. My cells shifted and assumed new formations.

I was rejected as a worker, rejected as a professional writer, and rejected as a woman.

All in the same week.

In January of 2016 I had wanted to die. In January of 2017 I wanted to jump out of a hayloft, impale myself on a pitchfork, hobble onto the railroad tracks and have a train splatter my body parts into the Skykomish River. It was too much. I was filled with loathing for the people who “fired” me and for the man who broke my heart. I hated them all, vigorously. I reveled in that hate.

And the more my situation didn’t improve, the more I hated them.

I told myself over and over and over, that never, ever, ever again would I allow myself to be vulnerable. It wasn’t worth it. Those butterfly moments always led to pain. I took crazy-bold risks in my adventurous exploration of this other human, but it wasn’t worth it because love muddled everything up. Love broke my resolve, it broke my determination and it eventually broke my heart.

No more. Ever.

But, like sore muscles or a bad migraine, the pain eventually faded, and in 2018, I met someone who sparked my interest. The situation was eerily similar to the first one in some ways, yet worlds apart in other ways. At his core, he was exactly the opposite of the first guy. We had a lot of things in common. It was easy to be with him because we shared similar views and had experienced things that most of polite society has not.

Unfortunately, my failure to correctly implement the three-day rule was even more catastrophic than the first time.

I didn’t just disregard it or put it on a shelf. I tossed it straight out the window of a car traveling 65 miles-per-hour and watched it bounce along U.S. 2 a few times before disintegrating into a cloud of dust.

The worst part was that without even knowing he was doing it, he was able to follow the three-day rule perfectly. And he didn’t just follow it, he executed it flawlessly. That was not an outcome that I anticipated, and unrealistically, I assumed that I could change it through force of will. It made me mad that somebody was better at my rule than I was, which led to some undesirable tactics on my part.

I tried everything to push him beyond that threshold. To get him to feel the same way I did. To get him to discard the three-day rule like I had.

Sadness, anger, adventure, edginess, medical frailty… I tried it all. Nothing worked.

It’s embarrassing to admit that, and I’m not proud of it.

The strange thing was that his rejection of me went far beyond typical rejection. It was rejection on what felt like a daily basis. It was excruciating because I had a weirdly stubborn sense of hope. A sense of hope which was constantly doused, only to resurface again almost immediately.

It was worse than typical rejection in ways that I’ve not experienced before in my life.

He made it clear that he didn’t want to be with me, but even worse, he actually went so far as to encourage me to be with someone else. Except for all the times he did want to be with me. It was like he was saying, “You and I aren’t even a remote possibility. We never will be a remote possibility. We never were a remote possibility. You are so undesirable that I not only want you to disappear, I want you to widen the gap between us exponentially. Except not right now. Hey. Come here.”

It was insanely hurtful, yet still I’d go back for more. Like a puppy.

Did you change your mind yet?

How about now?

Matters of the heart, like drugs, render my intelligence completely useless.

I hadn’t heard from him in over a month, and he reached out recently. It gave me pause. I engaged, at first. But then, our entire situation unfolded in words right in front of my eyes and it happened all over again. That kaleidoscope of feelings I’d experienced almost daily for so many months.

A glimmer of hope, a touch of excitement, deep longing, and then stabbing pain as he, yet again, shoved me away as hard as he could. As badly as I wanted to focus on the positive parts, cave in and go to him, I knew it was only a cheap, temporary solution to something that I’m not even sure is a problem. I knew I couldn’t. I knew I wouldn’t.

I bounced off him this time, like a rock-climber, rappelling down a granite cliff. It felt lonely and terrible, but it also felt like closure.

Watching it happen right before my eyes was illuminating.

I still think the three-day rule has validity. I still think it could be worth another shot. I’ve identified the deficiencies in my previous two attempts – I obviously didn’t try hard enough. And it is, after all, the three-day rule.

It only makes sense that I’d find success on my third attempt.

Never use more than three days in a row and you’ll be fine.

Also, while you’re at it, never fall in love.  

three day rule

This photo was taken at an awards ceremony in Yakima on November 7, 2016. I won a big award. It was amazing. It was the night before election night and everything that happened after that. Looking at it will always remind me of the fact that there was lava under my feet even as I stood there smiling for the camera.

 

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. 

Bracelet