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In Service to the Outsider

Illustrations by Daniel Peacock

Seventeen years ago I stopped taking drugs and alcohol and so far have never relapsed. I’m not tortured by my abstinence; I think through the consequences of what would happen if I opened the door again. If my struggle with cigarettes is any example — I’ve fluctuated between quitting and smoking two packs a day for the last decade — I’m still wired the same as I ever was. Nor have I ever been closeted about my own self-destructiveness, of which my decade of drug use was only one element. I’ve re-enacted many scenes from the life in my performance work (in one piece I’ve choreographed the placement of 30 syringes in my arm) and explained those stories so often that in the early ’90s I considered having my old-rugged-cross manifesto printed on a business card:

“I, being a natural-born kinky homosexual raised to be a minister in a fundamentalist Pentecostal family, attempted suicide frequently between puberty and 25 years of age, abused mass quantities of Valium, and crystal methamphetamine, ended up hooked on heroin, got clean at 25 only to have to get my head around being HIV+ when it was a death sentence.”

In the last few years, though, I hadn’t been talking about it so much. I was feeling disconnected from the process and culture of recovery. I was losing what it meant to “be of service,” a principle I’d revisited in 12-step programs after forgetting it in the self-centered addiction cycle — the idea that we can only keep what we have by giving it away.

Then, about 18 months ago, Ross came along. A young man living in Dallas, Ross contacted me by e-mail, wanting to know if I was performing anywhere in Texas, and whether I could instruct him in a “hook suspension” experience. I don’t often conduct shamanistic sessions, so I referred him to a body-modification Web site. But Ross wanted something more. Seven years ago, he explained in a later e-mail, he had read a profile on me in Details. His desire to hang horizontally from flesh hooks was actually a desire for a transformational experience.

Not until this past June, however, did everything blast wide open: Ross confessed that he was an addict, that he had “run up a grand total of seven rehabs and 19 months of incarceration,” that he had relapsed after 90 days clean. “We had talked about recovery over a year ago,” he wrote then, “and now I need to open the lines of communication to you ASAP. A lot of old concerns and behaviors have come up since flipping my life around. You’re absolutely right — what drove me to be so self-destructive is what I need to be looking for.”

I related deeply to what Ross was telling me.

From: Ross
To: Ron
Subject: addiction

Date: Mon. 9 June 2003

When I was 15, I found a new crowd of lower-middle-class white trash to smoke pot with and go to an occasional party or concert via LSD trip. But when those speedballs started coming you really didn’t need to squirt a good load. Not to glamorize the shit, but any time I relive the experience I just know that I had become something, had changed where there really wasn’t supposed to be a place for change. I became an addict, learned what the needle was about.

I don’t know if there was one snap moment where I turned my back on life, but I worked hard to not give a fuck. My addiction was environmental and internal. I was prescribed a low dosage of Valium at age 9, a prescription that kept increasing until by age 16 I was severely addicted. In junior high school with a few of the other bad boys, I practiced injecting with a syringe and water. In high school I discovered liquor, weed and PCP. In my last year of high sc hool, I started injecting MDA and then heroin. After that I didn’t care to do drugs any other way.

I loved the chemistry of using drugs, loved the way they’d create bliss or relief. I shot dope and stripped down to my underwear and purred. It was all exciting until it became pathetic. Once I became a real junkie — waking up sick, jonesing for a fix — it turned into a hell. I couldn’t save a dose for morning so I would go out to cop dope, getting sicker by the minute. I was on a waiting list to go on methadone maintenance, but I wasn’t enthusiastic about taking an even more addictive drug that didn’t get me very high.

It got to the point where there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for a fix: Lie, steal, cheat, beg, cry. After a few stints in jail, I realized I had a future behind bars. I didn’t have an honest hustle, so I would have to resort to crime for money if I wanted to stay well. People were disgusted by me. Not strangers, but old friends, artists, musicians — people who had opinions I cared about. I was a loser, a junkie, and nothing more.

Date: Tues. 10 June 2003

I was on foot humping the pavement for a tidbit job to keep me from getting kicked out of the halfway house. Hence I go to score some heroin. I hit this one corner store and there’s this almost homeless-looking character begging for change. I ask for heroin and he says he knows where to get it. But when he comes back to the car he brings a dime of coke. He gets me a needle and I’m behind a dumpster just shaking as I rush. At this point I need some straight pornography, which is a got-to-have for the coke rush, and then the dime runs out ’cause I miss my second shot I was shaking so bad. My first thought was get some more now! And I remembered thinking to myself that the guy at the store had an apartment, a pipe and a good connect. Well lo and behold he was standing right in front of his duplex smiling. I said “get some,” and up to his apartment we went. As soon as we get started I whip out the porno magazine and he says he’s bi and wants to suck me off. Well I can’t get it up on behalf of coke so I was the one doing it, ’cause that’s how it goes with me. A coke rush, some straight porno and I’m a queer until the coke runs out. (Incidentally the guy stated that he had AIDS.) Of course there was no rubber and why do I give a fuck as long as I am rushing so fucking hard I don’t remember who I am?

I finally understood it was time to quit. But the first time I did, with a mere two weeks clean, when I was fragile but desperate to stay strong, my best using buddy since high school, Dee, got out of jail again. We had made one of those pacts about using to the end, and suddenly I was at the end before him. It killed me to reject him to his face, as we’d grown up and experienced a million things together, including living in his car for a period of time. But here I was, not willing to go along for the ride, even though he was on his way to buy dope for us. That was my first experience of saying no, and though I used again, it was a start.

Date: Thurs. 19 June 2003

I thought I knew what pain was like until I met Tara. Tara got me good. I get out of jail last year, fresh from seven months of I ain’t seen no daylight nor had any pussy since the last time a chick with a dick gave me head. What happens is I had been out a month, I meet this chick at a meeting, and shazaamm. This girl was full-throttle balls-to-the-walls, let’s go out tonight, overdose, rob gimps, get so high that I never wanna come down junky love that makes me want to really know why I was ever brought into this motherfucking world. This relapse occurred in one day. Somehow self-destructiveness can happen in minutes.

 

After five attempts at the 21-day methadone detox — and numerous cold-turkey withdrawals (which I preferred, because I think the suffering dialed directly into my martyr complex) — I realized I didn’t have the ability to stay stopped. I never ever thought I’d be able to stomach attending 12-step meetings, let alone participate in a touchy-feely support group with prayers and handholding and hugs galore. Finally, I had to say out loud that I wouldn’t lose myself in a weird cult, but I had to find a solution to active addiction.

In the fashion of a born-again addict, I went from being noncommittal and suspicious to engaging in total submersion, not only attending meetings daily, but in as many areas and venues as possible: Hollywood churches and park centers, an East L.A. boxing gym, a South-Central recovery center and a clubhouse in the San Fernando Valley. I bonded with a few people, and we were ambitious about having a full recovery program. This did not make the higher-power talk any easier, so I’d just close my eyes when others said the Serenity Prayer. I’d rewritten the steps with a bend that spoke to my head. I created my own visualization exercises. I stayed with it.

Recovery filled my life. I worked the hot line, served as meeting secretary, chairperson, featured speaker. At the peak I sponsored 10 addicts; I was outspoken, young, gay, HIV-positive, and I could speak shamelessly to an audience of 100. It took me a while to realize I was well on my way to becoming my worst nightmare: a self-righteous fanatic. I had to ease back into real life and have faith in my commitment to stay clean.

I tried to find a happy medium: I cut my commitments way down and rediscovered living life, which included nightclubbing, art and sex. I kept my head screwed on around people’s drinking and drugs, and kept going to a few meetings a week.

Date: Mon. 30 June 2003

Like an alien come down to discover Earth and all its glory, that is my perspective today. My second day of work in retail, everything is casual as it should be. I feel a bit more positive about my recovery. Only through communication with my support group have I been able to keep my last relapse from becoming a binge.

I went to a fireworks show with two girls and one other guy in recovery. One girl I had slept with (a lousy fuck she was) and the other girl is a hottie. It was a challenge just to keep my distance, especially after the gay sex. Still gotta iron out the HIV issue so the sex life is on pause. What is the proper sex etiquette with Hep C?

One night about a month ago, Ross and I talked on the phone for the first time. We talked for more than an hour; it was hard to hang up. Counseling him in this informal way has made me remember the recovered addict’s duty to “be of service,” especially to hard-nut cases like him. Our conversations re-ignited my passion in the process of recovery. I try to infuse my words with urgency, to tell him he can either put the brakes on now and dig in and do the work, or remain a mess and keep investigating jails, institutions and death. We made a deal that if he sticks to his program he’s going to come and visit me in December.

Date: Thurs. 10 July 2003

It’s a good day to be alive. I’m in over my head — nine months of welding classes! I think I really will enjoy it, I can’t wait! I’m going to learn to weld! Of course I’m dreading the HIV test, and have not even thought about it (denial). I keep telling myself to stop being a baby, right now I just gotta focus on today. Just started looking up some Reiki on the Internet — seems very interesting, healing through magnetic fields or something like that. I dig the spirituality concepts, although I really don’t need to go out and opiate myself on some concept of God. To be quite honest, I am in search mode for something to believe in which includes me, I so want to believe in myself. Which is also why I want to try out some body mod. I truly must suspend in my life at least to have the experience under my belt. What I get through tattoos is cosmetic. I want to try hook suspension as my recovery program. I must! We’ll see what happens in the next weeks. I must become a little more self-confident, my confidante.


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