The Old Man used to tell me, “If you sleep with dogs, you’ll wake up with fleas.”
Then he’d point to my friends and point out my condition.
Then he’d say, “You’re gonna have to start scratching soon.”
I suppose he was right.
At least here, I seldom qualify or tell my old stories anymore in part because I have evolved and partly I stay away from the topics because of stigma and worries that my professional life would suffer as the result of my honesty towards my past life. Then again, if there is any place in the world where I should feel comfortable exposing old truths—it should be here, with you. After all, this is why I’ve built this place; to neither be the hero nor the villain but instead, be the storyteller of my life as it was and as it is. Plus, it would be inaccurate to say that although there were bad times in bad places, I remember my so-called bad friends to this day. And I still love them too. Well, some of them anyway. Some of them are loved through messages and phone calls and some are loved from a distance because it’s hard to watch someone suffer.
This is not to say that I was the worst around or anything of the sort. I am not here to defend my street cred nor try to prove my addiction and show off my scars as if to say, “I was tough once.” If anything, I am tougher now, unarmed, humbled and undecorated. Moreover, I am just me now with no image to hide behind. I am fortunate that I got out when I was young. I am lucky that my opportunity came when I was a kid. Otherwise, I might be on the other side of the statistics column.
I saw an old news clip of me during a recovery initiative. I was telling the reporter, “There is no common face. There’s only a common problem.” It doesn’t matter where you come from or how much money is in your pocket. I don’t care what part of the country you live in or who you pray to, addiction is real. I know it is. Mental illness is real too and we know this is true because of the amount of avoidable deaths that take place as a direct result of mental illness.
I have been through different fellowships and visited different facilities. I have spoken in detoxes and rehabs and schools and colleges and to be clear, I break it down to an emotional understanding. I do not glorify the drugs or the rock-star ideas that somehow, crime is cool and going to jail is an item that builds up the resume of some bullshit idea that “This is tough.” I reject this idea the same as I reject the mottos which somehow promote the stigmas that say, “Once a junkie, always a junkie.” In fact, I despise this motto because first and foremost, people can and will improve if they understand how to do so.
But I get it though. Not everyone sees it but I do. I see the romance. I understand the attraction. I understand the voice and the need to react or respond to a world that doesn’t seem to work so well.
I get the dreams and I get the need to feel that certain absence of gravity. I can say that this makes sense to me.
I get the crime piece too because, and this is as real as it comes—oddly enough, there is protection in the image of being crazy.
As a matter of fact, there is a quote from someone crazy, who said, “Whatever that means. Sure he’s crazy. He’s mad as a hatter. What difference does it make? You know, a long time ago, being crazy meant something. Nowadays, everybody’s crazy.” Now, that’s crazy and what’s really crazy about this is the person who said this is known for his cult following and the Manson Family.
Think about this for a second, Charles Manson was regarded as a murderer and pure evil, and yet, he received more fan mail than most celebrities. What does this say?
But anyway, I digress.
Suffice to say that I could have been the one who turned right instead of left. Suffice to say that it could have been me who found himself at the wrong side of a gun. It could have been me on the nod, or dangling, or hanging down, or living in the pain but no. I got away.
I think of things like the bullshit scams and the ideas of flooded nights where I could be occupied in the outer hemispheres of the mind, high as ever, and refusing to come down. I think about the efforts that never worked out or the time where I cut off a few parking meters because I heard the score would be enough to help settle me out. We plucked a few from the poles and bashed them open with a hammer. I think we ended up with about six bucks. I remember thinking I was going about this the wrong way.
I don’t know . . .
I was lost but I knew exactly where I was.
I was sinking into these ideas that swallowed me like quicksand and inevitably, I gave way and allowed myself to sink.
It’s the pain. You know? No one wants to feel pain. No one wants to feel the burden. No one wants the dilemmas or the predicaments; yet, life is life. Am I right?
No one asks for tragedies but they come. Also, once you’re in that life, the idea of withdrawals and what it takes to get out of that life are unthinkable.
I have always believed that the reason why people worship the devil isn’t so much about evil itself. It’s about the concept of strength and power against a tide that seems to swallow us whole. It’s a barrier or more accurately, I see this as a false sense of safety.
To put this plainly, the reason why people worship gangsters, criminals or killers is because nobody ever messes with the tough guy. And me, I wasn’t tough. I was only pretending. I wore my image like a see-thru veil. I didn’t know how to be comfortable in my own skin or deal with the discomforts of my anxiety. So instead, I pretended. I acted. Or, more to the point, I stayed high to keep myself balanced.
I wanted to keep from the pain. I wanted to keep from the discomfort that there was something in me, something that I could not explain, something wrong, something faulty and that there was something about me that needed to be hidden and kept a secret. I would never dare expose or tell someone about the weight on my chest. I wanted to hide the imperfect details and the weaknesses. But no matter how I tried to break free, the quicksand kept taking me. I kept sinking.
Here it is: I’m telling you that I was dying and euthanizing myself, one day at a time; yet, to someone, there is an understanding attraction to this. Out there, there’s some poor kid who sees themselves as a stain and to satiate the need, they find a button to push, like a plunger in a syringe or a pill from a bottle. It’s not the drug so much, it’s what the drug represents. It’s not the lifestyle, it’s what’s behind the motivation to live that way. And I get it. I really do. I understand why people look for the quick fix. I understand desperation. But wait, can we even talk about this anymore? Can anyone say anything honest or openly? Are we allowed to be brave enough to own our truths so that we can overcome them and improve?
This is why no one talks about their problems. It’s not that we don’t want them to go away. No, we’re afraid. At least, I am. Even now, here with you, I write this with my toes curled and my muscles clenched because I have fears that I am judged instead of celebrated.
I wrote a poem about the old days. The poem is fiction but based on true history. I changed things up and melted a few things together. And yes, this is true. It’s true that this was me. It is also true that I am not the stigma. I am not a statistic. I am a person in recovery and I say this proudly. It took me decades to get to where I am. In fact; it took me more than three decades to be where I am; to be this free, to be this comfortable with my discomforts; and moreover, to narrate my story without dressing myself up to be a hero or villain. These days, I am Ben. I am a searcher and a believer. I am someone who comes from the poem below. But lastly, I have learned that I am not the sum of my past. I am the prediction of my future, which to me is only brighter because I have given myself the permission to be free~
There I was, lost.
I sat down to feel a warm rush move through my body
Ah, the waves . . .
they crash over me like a drizzle in the sunset.
My mind collapsed, sinking downwards and suddenly,
everything slowed down to an amazing crawl.
The outside of my small world was irrelevant—but inside,
my so-called mental church
was caught by the wrong type of resurrection.
A light swung,
dangling from a fixture in the middle of the ceiling
and I could smell the sickness.
I could smell the vomit on my shirt,
but that didn’t bother me.
I was unmoved.
Besides, this is part of the game.
I was unmoved and unable to care.
I was detached and dangling like a loose cobweb,
hanging from the corner of the ceiling
lost and lifeless
and weightless in the breeze.
I loved the way euphoria came in.
It pushed reality to the side.
It melted the hard sounds
and softened the edges of life on life’s terms.
But more, an off-white powder euthanized
my position between boredom
and switched me over
to a mindset that was absent of gravity.
That’s when Vince came in to set up.
He sat nearby as I watched him prepare.
Vince warned me, “Never let it get this bad, kid.”
And it went this way; the elder warning the younger,
“Don’t be this way.”
But I never understood why.
Why would you warn someone when, meanwhile,
you’re setting up next to them
and taking part in the same sickness.
Vince told me you should kick.
You should find the book or something.
Vince meant the Bible.
He carried a Bible with him
and would recite verses.
He quoted scriptures and I would listen, too,
because the verses he chose
always seemed to fit . . .
Sweat rolled down the bridge of my nose.
I was lifting from a nod.
I re-entered the room,
emerging from a soft haze
and Vince was at it again.
Preaching . . .
About to shove, Vince said.
He who follows me shall not walk in darkness
but have the light of life.
His eyes were half closed like window shades
descending down across the windows to his soul.
I am the door, he said.
I am the bread of life.
I am the good shepherd.
(Vince pushed in)
And God the Father spoke to me.
I saw sins and my poison.
I saw the matters of my life
materialize in weeping angels,
falling from grace, backwards and upside down
dying in mandatory suicides, punctured through breast
of a most sacred heart—and I could almost hear the angels
forfeiting their life in soft explosions
that burst through my mind.
Then the light came in
I swallowed pieces of sunshine
wishing that I could take a better breath.
Hoping that I could be better
that I could walk freely
that I could feel the warmth of the sun.
That by all means, I could be me again.
Powder answered my riddles but in the end,
they never explained themselves.
Instead, they left me in mystery.
he kept preaching
Surely goodness and mercy
shall follow me in all the days of my life
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
I thought to myself, I hope so, Vince
because this sickness is incredible –
This is written with loyalty for those who mourn, for those who are lost, and for those who have been found.
I close this with a sense of uneasiness but the kind of brave I want to be in this life is the kind that allows me to be unafraid to be honest about myself.
The Old Man told me if I slept with dogs, I’d wake up with fleas.
He never saw what I have become.
I wish he was here to see me now.
I think he’d be proud of me.
At least, I hope so.
I celebrate you.
Amazing poem, Benny..