I’m no preacher nor am I a teetotaler, but I know that the fourth step of Alcoholics Anonymous states that after “we’ve admitted to being powerless over alcohol”, and after we came to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, and had made a decision to turn our lives over to It, however we knew It, we should “[begin to make] a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Again, I’m no preacher/teetotaler, but I also know that the tenth step of Alcoholics Anonymous tells us to, after we’d made a list of all those we’d harmed and righted ourselves in a world we’d put off its axis, “[continue] to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”
I’m no comedian, but there’s nothing like having cancer to get one over on your sobriety, your doctors, your wife, and your family and friends.
When I was 25 I decided to get clean and sober after a car crash in Yellow Springs, OH (the very small southern Ohio town where I did my B.A.). I quietly pleaded guilty to a DUI, my second in a few years, and I walked across the Xenia, Ohio, courthouse lawn, in shame and in handcuffs, to serve out a quiet 63 day sentence. That was December 4, 2000 (my first full sober day). It was a Monday, I remember. A clear, crisp morning. You could see your breathe it was so cold, and in the midwest, in December it’s a rare thing to see a cloudless sky but, there, by God, it was. The great blue dome of the Heavens above us. I don’t remember snow on the ground, but there must have been by then. I remember someone yelling to those of us being forcibly moved forward by a big burly, corn-fed Sheriff’s Deputy to the stocks, I mean, jails, “Now that’s not a good way to start the week!” I could’ve killed that sonofabitch for such truth-telling, but I couldn’t see him for the sun that day was as bright as I’ve ever done seen it. I don’t even know if I could see the man in front of me my eyes were so blurry with doubt and confusion and fear.
In the end I only spent three, maybe four, boring days in Greene County Jail, but I’d had enough. There were no fights or rape scenes or anything like that, worst that happened was the black guys below me played Uno with such fervor and intensity that every time someone wanted to lay down a Draw Four card, I’d hear (and feel), “Draw Four, Motherfucker!” They must have started up so high, at the top of the bunk, near where my ass was, and just dropped it down with so much anger. Guys were always laughing and saying that shit was “hella fucked up, messing up the pile and shit.” I don’t know, but that was jail for me. I didn’t like not being able to do what I wanted, like for “physical time” we went to another room, walking along a yellow line, and then sat in there for awhile. We were pod 5 and the black guys owned the basketball court, and everyone else just sat and watched or just did their time in that room. The whites, older white guys mostly, some rednecks, they’d disparage the blacks, but if they got wind of it, the black guys, that’d be it. I’d heard about it. We did lose TV privileges one night because the black guys (I was in the black guys section for whatever reason — I mean with a name like “Rafael Torch,” where else was I going to be?) decided to turn on BET and they jammed for about five minutes before the whites staged a near riot and the Sheriff’s Deputy went wild and shut us down. No TV all day and all night. Justice. That feels like an awful long time ago, but it taught me my lesson. I did what others told me to do all day long and was at the mercy of others because I couldn’t control my alcohol. My father, Tom, who’s got close to 30 years sobriety was always telling me, “Listen, it’ll lead you to one of two places: jail or death.” I was, like, 16. What was jail? What was death? I was, like, “Whatever, Tom. Ok, sobriety.” And there I went, headed to jail, not then, but I did end up there. Like I mentioned earlier it wasn’t my first run-in with the law. No matter, I haven’t drank a drop of alcohol since; but, I got to say, my cancer, and I’m no ironist, has made my sobriety pretty complex.
I’ll spare you all the details of the last six months. The bottom line is that I was eating pain pills like they were Pez candy. I’m no James Frey, but man I could wolf down some pills. I was eating probably eight to nine Vicodin at a time, sometimes up to fourteen to fifteen a day. I’d get guilty and try to get it down to ten a day. Sometimes It’d work and sometimes it didn’t. I was in pain, yes, but sometimes no. Mostly no. Sometimes I just ate it because, and this is much more complex than it sounds, it made my life easier. A great lifting of the Spirit came over me because most of my sober time, whatever that is in the midst of a six month bender of pills (Vicodin, Norco, Oxycodone, Oxycotone, Dilaudid, Morphine, You Name It), I was stuck with the feeling of having a pretty serious cancer — I mean five spots, two in each lung and one along my Psoas muscle is pretty fucking serious — or the fact that they couldn’t stop my cancer from growing — it’s what we’d been trying to do since August 2009. I was feeling the pain all right, and, again, I’m no ironist. What if they were going to tell me it’s not stopping? Then I’d have to start making some decisions, I guess.
And I got a kid on the way. Fuck me.
Chomp! Five more Vicodin. Lift of Spirit. Sleep. Wake. Repeat.
I wanted to stop the little gnawing feeling in me that kept saying, “You’re going to die. This is it. They can’t stop your cancer. Can you believe it? This is, this has been, your life. Crazy, right, homie?” I wanted to shut-up that questioning, terrible part of me that was there in me, all the time, like some wild propagandist for the truth of Cancer, yaketty-yakking in the jungle of Cancer, yukking it up out in the rains of Cancer, yelping in the blizzards of Cancer, yup-yupping it under the dark midwest skies of Cancer. That’s the party line for me. There’s also the very big part of drugs, that it just makes one feel good — like I said, that first sweeping across the body of Vicodin, it’s like a great rising of Spirit, and a wonderf ul wealth of body and self communes, and this very rarely happens, but you can hear it sometimes in that tortured voice of Billie Holiday. The latter, it just making you feel good, is the part I don’t share with very many people, which puts me in great violation with AA, the whole “continue to take moral inventory of ourselves and” blah, blah, blah.
When I first got sober I remember watching the movie biography of Dr. Bob or Bill, I can’t remember now (James Woods is in it), anyway, I remember watching it and hearing Bill or Bob say they drank because “they never felt good enough,” and that just about did it for me. I didn’t need to see no more of that movie. I got it. I was like, “Yep, where do I sign up?” And then, there I was, setting up chairs and making coffee and greeting people at the door and I got a sponsor and never did say no, the way the old timers tell you. They say, “Never say no, kid. Don’t drink. Go to meetings. Never say no.” It was a religion. I went everyday for my first three years, and when I say everyday, I mean the Lord’s Day, too. I communed with my brethren. Some went back out and we got reports. It was scary. Then, seven years in I got some doc out in ol’ Houston telling me I got four months to live because of some cancer, and the first thing I think is, “drink.” Yet, I didn’t. I stayed the course. But I got the first taste of pain pills. And what did it matter, people probably thought, if he eats too many? He’s only got three more months, they’d whisper. Like the gossip of a small-town knitting group.
So, here it is: 1. I’m eating pills like candy because still, even after a decade of sobriety, I still don’t feel good enough, even though these have been the most fruitful years of my entire life and 2. There’s the actual pain of having cancer, like having tumors and stuff and chemo and 3. (maybe the most profound part) wanting, desiring of a little solace from the very real fact that the experimental treatment I just had may not work (although I believe and hope that it is), but being a realist, I have to give some thought to it not working. Therefore, I’m popping pills like it’s New Years 1999 and I’m Prince, because I just want some time away from thinking about having to make decisions about future treatments and “lists of thing to do before one dies” (I hate the other name people have given to this list. That makes me want to get high and waste away in a corner). Let’s face it, how many surgeries do you think I have in me? My oncologist said it right when he said, “How much lung do you think we can take out before you can’t breathe? How much Psoas muscle you think got? How much you think we can cut out before you can’t walk anymore?”
And then there’s my much more darker dealings with death. We don’t have to go there. Like I said, I’m no James Frey. I’m no cowboy. I’m just trying to right this ship because, brother, I got off-course. The pills, you know. And I’m just trying to right this ship before I get totally lost in some drug-haze ocean where, yes, I’ll experience no cancer, but I’ll experience full-on drug addiction once again, and there ain’t no more SOS in me anymore I don’t think. It’s just empty, rattled signals. This “· · · — — — · · ·” will just fall on deaf ears the world over. This feels like a true statement.
So, the other day I got caught. The last few days I’ve been going cold turkey. I came home with two prescriptions from my oncologist for “headaches,” which is a real side-effect I feel; but did it warrant two scripts for the two Oxy’s, one fast acting, one long acting? Did it warrant taking five or six, maybe eight long lasting Oxy’s and maybe four or five short acting Oxy’s at once? Was my headache that bad? No. I just was getting high at that point. I hadn’t yet made the connection. I was all but short-circuiting after Bethesda, and I know to you AA brothers and sisters out there this all sounds like “rationalizations, etc.” I hear you. But, here this, what’s worse is, yes, I was/am a cancer patient, and I was playing the card hard with my wife. Of all people, she asked, “Why did you even need to get the one script filled, the short acting one?”
“I don’t know. What if my headache was extra large?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t even think about it. It was busy, I was looking for a thermometer, you know, because of my headaches and shit, and the lady at the counter was all like, ‘Can I help you?’ and I just handed over the scripts because, you know, Tylenol’s been recalled (Did you know that?), and I was all, like, wondering what the difference between Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen was. You know what I mean?”
She just stared out the window of the apartment we were living in and started crying. She said, “You’re lying. I can’t live like this. You’re lying.” Then she did the saddest thing I ever saw her do. She just kept locking and unlocking the window like she wanted to open it and then not. It made me feel so sad inside I almost lost it.
“I’m not. Tylenol is being recalled. I was crazy overwhelmed with Walgreens. Just handed over the scripts. Overwhelmed. Maddened. Crazed there. You know how it is there, Em.”
“You’re lying. I can’t do this.” Lock. Unlock.
The skyscrapers beyond her looked sad. They wept. The cornices of their high floor windows looked like rolling tears. Oh, those sad skyscrapers!
We were in a jam, a fix, her and I. We’d been for days and weeks maybe. My vicodin addiction made me extra sick during my experimental treatment. I just quit it and the doctors didn’t know and their pain dosing wasn’t, like, you know, eight pills every five hours. That’s for horses. Yes, Emily and I, we was in what they call a fix.
When, a few days later, she hid the short acting Oxy’s and I found them, and then took twenty-five, not all at once of course — I was working undercover, you know — not really thinking that she’d, as smart as she is, have counted them! She asked, “Where’s the 25?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“You’re lying to me! Again!” She’d started to cry.
“No, I’m not. Believe what you’d like.”
“Believe what I’d like? They count these things like crazy at Walgreens. You’re telling me that they missed 25 fucking pills?”
I said nothing. I was pleading the fifth. I shrugged my shoulders. I still had my long lasting pills in my book bag. You know, for the headaches and the cancer and the self-pity and the whole not good enough bit. Real blah, blah, blah stuff, I know. Stop reading now. It doesn’t get any better.
“You’re lying to me!”
Stupid shrug of shoulders.
Three days or so ago, with maybe 7 of the 120 pills my oncologist had given me to take for pain (that was on Tuesday, June 20 — you do the math), Emily asks, because I’d been acting so weird: shakes, cold sweats, no energy, withdrawn, moody in the extreme, “goofy” (?), she asks, “Where’s the bottle for the other Oxy’s.”
The jig was up. The race was over. I’d nowhere to go.
I told her from the bed, in the midst of cold sweats, “I don’t need to give you my bottle. That’s ridiculous. I’m not going to give you the bottle. I’m not going to be answerable to you about my pain pills!”
She left the room. She was mad. There was silence all over the place. It swept across the joint, from wall to wall, from beam to beam, from bathroom to windows to kitchen to bedrooms. It was nothing but silence. The silence of a wife who’d been lied to and now was just waiting because the silence would pull me out of my nefarious den. No one would have been able to withstand that silence. It was as wicked and paranoiac as Hanoi Hanna must have been for the grunts in ‘Nam.
I slowly pulled myself up. I grabbed my bag. Pulled out my sad little bottle that had maybe 7, maybe 6 pills left, of 120, prescribed June 20, 2011. I walked to the living room because what else was there to do. Let my marriage go? I had cancer to worry about. I have a baby on the way. I gave her the bottle, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on her face. It was wonder. Not the kind of wonder one might experience driving through the redwoods south of San Francisco or traversing the twelfth-century streets of some European capitol city. No. It was not that kind of wonder. It was wonder, yes; but it was wonder that I’d lied to her for so long and it was the kind of wonder one has when one watches a crime being committed in broad daylight. Like, Does everyone see this shit? It’s the wonder of collusion. Like she’d been part of this whole scheme I’d up and had running.
“That’s like ten a day.” That’s all she said at first. “Wait, it’s more.” She took the bottle from my hand, shook it, looked into it. She’s very good at math. She’s in the business world.
“I’d take a handful, yeah, but I stuck to the every twelve hour thing like it says on the label. I followed the label. Like,” and then in a lower voice, “the second part.”
“But it doesn’t say take 5 or 6 every twelve. Does it? Does it say ‘Take 8 every twelve hours?’” She held up the bottle. It gleamed in the sunlight coming through the windows.
“I guess not.”
“You guess not.”
“You guess not. That’s all you’ve got to say, some stupid fucking ‘I guess not.’”
There’s nothing worse than that moment for a drug addict. When you get caught. She’d asked if I was taking too many before, only days before, and I’d said, “Of course not.” I was scheming her, and, more than that, more serious than that, I was scheming me. See, and I ain’t no 12-stepper preacher/purist, but I got to say drug addicts are the very best schemers. That’s a true statement. They never really lose their touch, even with cancer and a decade of clean time, which is really all up in the air now because I don’t know now. What’s sober when you’ve got cancer and you’ve got to take the drugs or suffer in pain ? I know what’s not sober — when you’re just taking the pills– but there’s such a fine line between fighting the feeling of having cancer (Like, “Oh, God. Please help me, God, just not feel like I got cancer for a few hours. Oh, God. Please help me just erase a little part of that part of me. Not the whole part, God. Just that little part) and actually having the physical pain of cancer (Like, Oh, God. This hurts, this hurts, this hurts, make the pain go away, the pain. Oh, God, the pain. I hurt so much. Leave me be, God). I’m no Dr. Bob or Bill, but I guess if I was honest with myself, I’d have to say I ain’t been all that clean these days. I haven’t been all that sober. Sober means not only being temperate in the use of drugs and alcohol but it also means being marked by seriousness and gravity. Sober is being marked by self-restraint, being devoid of frivolity, excess or exaggeration.
What to do? You see my conundrum here, don’t you, dear reader?
It’s what hurts. But you are what you do. There ain’t no escaping that. That there’s a true statement. I’ve learned that sentence the hard way, some time ago, and I keep having to learn it even now because somehow my brain just can’t seem to get it in its right self. But I’m getting there. I’m trying to be honest here. I ain’t no James Frey.
I’ve kicked habits now six times since I’ve been with cancer, but these last six months, these grueling last six months of surgery and chemo and then these whack-job IL2 treatments have been grueling. And now I’m kicking. Make no mistake. I kick. That’s a true statement. I kick and kick and kick. Make no mistake. It’s true.