Chapter 3 – Taking Back Control of My Life
Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been an addict. The thing is, I just never really knew exactly what it is that I’m addicted to. I quit drinking for the first time back in 2011 when I was 23-years-old, not long after having gotten back from a trip to Southeast Asia with my buddy O’Shaughnessy. I was pretty emotionally messed-up at the time and couldn’t make sense of what I was feeling. I couldn’t understand how or why I felt so anxious all the time, like the room was spinning and the walls were closing in on me; the only thing I knew is that I didn’t wanna feel it anymore. So I’d go out and buy a handle of vodka and sit around by myself just drinking it until I passed out on the floor then I’d get up and feel all anxious again and to deal with it, I’d pour another drink. And one day in doing this I woke up with my face crusted to my pillow. My whole body was fucked-up. I had a nasty gash between my nose and my mouth. I suspected I’d fallen down a flight of stairs but in actuality I had no idea what happened to me. My parents had no idea what happened to me either. Nobody saw what happened to me. And it was terrifying. I was so fucking scared that the medicine I was taking to cure me of my anxiety could hurt me worse than the disease itself and that it could do so without me even having the slightest idea how. So I decided to quit drinking effective immediately.
A month goes by, I have no craving for alcohol whatsoever. I didn’t touch it. After I decided it was bad and I could get really hurt doing what I was doing, I didn’t even think about going back to it. But instead of my life getting better how I thought it was supposed to when you quit drinking, it started to feel much, much worse. I was so anxious I could no longer look anyone in the eye and I felt like I was either ready to break down and start crying or blow up and start yelling in somebody’s face at all times. I didn’t have any idea what the fuck was going on with me. I was really really really fucking scared. So, I sought some help. I knew this guy named Kevin who I grew up with that was a year younger than me and he’d already been going to AA for several years and he seemed really quite happy – like everything in his life was working out for him. So, I reached out to this dude and said, ya know, “Hey, I’m fucked-up. I quit drinking a month ago. I don’t really think about alcohol at all – like, I don’t hafta make a conscious effort not to drink it or anything like that but I’m crying all the time and I’m just, I dunno, fucked-up. I don’t know what’s goin’ on with me. Whattaya recommend I do?” And Kevin’s like, “Why don’t you come to a meeting with me?” And for a brief moment I hesitate, thinking, “Man, AA meetings are for losers. I’m not one of those guys. I’m better than that.” And then I’m contemplating making up an excuse to not go to this AA meeting. But ultimately I’m like, “Hey man, this is your life we’re talkin’ about here. You can’t just ignore this shit. You’re fuckin’ dying. You gotta do somethin’ about this.” So I tell Kevin, “Yeah. Yeah, I’ll come to a meeting with you. You tell me when and where.”
So one day I drive over to Kevin’s apartment and we’re chillin’. We’re talkin’ about drinking habits and stuff like that. He’s real open. He’s not hiding shit from me. He’s talkin’ about his relationship with God a little bit which kinda makes me feel uncomfortable but that’s cool cuz he’s just being honest with me about who he is and I really appreciate the candor. I reiterate my situation and he listens intently without judging. I feel safe with Kevin. And that’s really important for me. Cuz you gotta remember, I’m 23-years-old. This is back when I was first starting to write. And back then, I was writing stories about how funny I think it is to get drunk and do stupid shit and act like an asshole to people. I never wrote about my feelings because back then I viewed writing about my feelings as faggot shit. In fact, I was under the impression that having feelings in general was faggot shit to be ashamed of. You’re not supposed to talk about that shit with anyone – especially feelings about your relationship with alcohol. Cuz, as mentioned in the last chapter, that’s what faggots do. Real men fuckin’ drink. Real men don’t question it. Real men put the bottle to their heads and swallow until they got no faggy feelings left to feel. And that’s life. Then you die.
So anyway, after we’re done bullshitting, we get in Kevin’s car and head over to this meeting. I have no idea what to expect but this ignorant part of me thinks that someone’s gonna come up to me and say something like, “You feel the way you do because of X. All you have to do is Y and X will be solved and everything will be sunshine and roses from here on out.” I thought it’d be a snap. I didn’t wanna hafta do any fuckin’ bullshit work like the 12 Steps or anything like that. I never imagined it’d take me seven years of reading self-help books and psychology articles while doing introspective writing on the side to arrive at the conclusions of why I feel the things I feel, why I do the things I do and why I say the things I say as depicted in the previous two chapters. It never crossed my mind that maybe each and every one of us and our perception of the world is shaped in a certain way by our families, our culture, our socioeconomic status, our level of education, our race, our gender, our previous experiences and the limitations of the human condition. They didn’t teach me that shit in college. They never told me that, “Sure, you got free will but free will is a nightmare for the man who hasn’t taken the time to know himself and to develop a solid understanding of the world that surrounds him. That with a quality map and a dependable compass, a man is less likely to get lost on his quest for self-actualization.” Nobody told me that shit. And even if someone did tell me that shit, I wouldn’t have had the slightest idea what any of it meant.
I don’t remember much from the meeting to be honest. I don’t even remember where the meeting was held. I just remember the speaker. The speaker was this big scary-ass hulking Polish motherfucker whose biceps’d been ripping out of his shirt making it obvious where his demons had led him to spend all the free time that he used to burn up at the bar. And I’m listening to this guy tell his story. He’s talking about how violent and out of control he used to be under the influence of vodka and cocaine. And I’m fuckin’ terrified picturing this guy totally fucked-up just raging his balls off in a state of mind he can’t be reasoned with, throwing chairs around the room and breaking shit and then, god forbid, catching you in his crosshairs and coming charging at you to pick you up and toss your ass through a window. Horrifying shit. Really, really scary to think about. Like, I don’t fuck with guns, but that’s the type of shit that makes me think maybe concealed carry would be a good idea.
So, I’m sitting there and the guy keeps telling his story and eventually gets to the part where he talks about the last time he ever picked up a drink. I think he was at his mom’s house where he lived on the second floor. And he was talking about how it’s five in the morning and he’s just sitting there by himself at this table up in his bedroom drinking vodka, ripping line after line of blow. And he picks up the phone and decides to call 9-1-1. He says, “Hey, yeah, 9-1-1? Yeah, what’s up? This is so-and-so over on 1-2-3 Fake Street and I’m just over here chillin’ with this fat sack o’ blow and it’s like, really good blow. And this vodka ain’t too bad either. But anyway, I’m calling just to let you know that I can’t stop on my own. I wanna stop, but like, I don’t – ya know? On the one hand this stuff makes me feel alive but like, at the same time it’s fuckin’ killing me and sabotaging all areas of my life. So like, I was hoping you guys could maybe send an ambulance to come get me and take me away to rehab. Would that be cool? Could you guys do me that solid? Okay, sweet. Like, just tell ‘em to come knock on my door when they get here cuz in the meantime I’m just gonna be sittin’ right here havin’ myself a couple more drinks and takin’ a couple more bumps of this here blow. Yeah, okay. Thanks. You have a good day too.” And then he went on to explain for how long he’s been sober and how he wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of AA and his sponsor and his Higher Power and his loving girlfriend who was there in the front row and all that good stuff.
His story made me feel really weird. Like, I couldn’t relate to it at all. I couldn’t understand why this guy, as the protagonist in his own life, was gonna rely on some deus ex machina to swoop in and save him like that, to keep him away from his kryptonite instead of learning how to live without that stuff on his own. I mean, I’d already been sober for a month and didn’t think about booze at all. I didn’t have any problem quitting. I didn’t need to pour all the liquor in the house down the sink and constantly distract myself from its tantalizing allure or to punch three magic numbers on a telephone to have a pair of white knights delivered to the front door of my castle. Like, I didn’t get it. And to be honest, I just kinda thought the guy was being a big fuckin’ pussy. And I kinda felt like standing up and telling him so. But ya know, the guy was sober and doing well and had a really hot girlfriend so who am I to judge? And like, it’s AA and everyone’s there to be supportive and like, ya know…it was mostly cuz I was afraid of getting my ass kicked in the parking lot after the meeting was adjourned.
So when it’s all over I’m walking with Kevin towards his car and he asks me what I thought of the meeting. I’m very angry inside after hearing that guy’s story. I feel like I’ve been screwed over by Alcoholics Anonymous. I’m thinking that everyone who goes to AA is just a bunch of raging pussies that support other pussies in their pussyness and was kinda paranoid that everyone was now gonna think that I’m as big a pussy as I think everyone in AA is just for having gone to a meeting – like a “pussy by association” sorta deal. I feel like saying, “How you guys gonna let this pussy get away with that shit? ‘Yeah hey I’m just sitting here drinking and snorting things up my nose – you guys better come and save me! Or else! There’s no way I’m gonna exercise any willpower of my own here. I’m instead gonna outsource my willpower to the paramedics you send and then after that to the rehab facility and then after that to all o’ you pussies here at AA and to my sexy-ass girlfriend and let’s not forget my Higher Power – He is after all what keeps me sober since, ya know, I’m powerless against this fucking stupid distilled drink made of potatoes and this powder manufactured by some poor Colombian farmers.’ C’mon now! That guy is fuckin’ ridiculous. God is not an Indian giver. He deigned us free will when Adam and Eve ate apples from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – don’t you remember? He doesn’t want it back. Quit trying to make God responsible for whether or not you decide to put alcohol in your body.”
I didn’t say any of those things.
“Uh yeah,” I squeaked out. “It was really…good…and stuff.”
“You think you’ll come back?”
“Uh, yeah, maybe,” I lied and thanked him for offering me his time and support and never considered returning to an AA meeting ever again.
So I was back at square one. I was still fucked-up and torn apart with anxiety but didn’t know why. I strongly considered going to seek professional help but ultimately decided against it because I don’t trust mental health professionals. One of the reasons is that I don’t wanna give anybody the opportunity to put a fuckin’ label on me. I ain’t wearin’ no fuckin’ scarlet letter. Employers ain’t gonna be understanding of that shit. Potential mates ain’t gonna be understanding of that shit. Nobody wants to hear that shit. Having mental health issues is a life-ruining stigmatization. Why would I ever voluntarily subject myself to that? I wouldn’t. Even if I thought it might benefit me. Better to just keep suffering in silent desperation, projecting to the world an image of myself as the beacon of what it means to be successful as dictated by the mandates of The American Dream.
The other reason – the main reason, actually – is that when I was in my early teens my dad went to go get some help for the out-of-control anxiety and depression that’d been destroying his life and instead of helping the man understand himself by getting to the root of his problems, they just told him he had a chemical imbalance in his brain, slapped a Band-Aid over his gaping abscessed wound and sent him back to us all hopped-up on an assortment of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety pharmaceutical bullshit. And at the time my dad was still drinking twelve beers a day. And those twelve beers in combination with that cocktail of pills made him fuckin’ mean. Shit would get ugly around my house. We would fucking rage. Hard. But even when we as a family weren’t raging, my dad just wasn’t there anymore. I couldn’t find him in his eyes when I looked at him. After a couple years of this shit, we sat him down and we told him this. We told him that we missed the real him. That we wanted him back. That we’re tired of this soulless fuckin’ zombie guy who doesn’t care about anyone or anything. And he heard us. He wasn’t too far gone yet. So he decided to quit those fucking pills cold turkey. And after a couple days, after that shit made its way out of his system, instead of coming back to us he lost his fucking mind. One night my mom heard music blasting from the basement around 3am and went down there to see what the hell was going on. My dad was sitting by himself on the couch.
“What are you doing down here, Dan?” she asked.
“Just hangin’ out with the guys.”
He named three of his childhood friends – all alcoholics, all already deceased at that point in time.
“Oh,” my mom said before turning to go back upstairs. “Okay.”
My dad was still drinking his twelve beers a day which, when we ended up bringing him into a rehab facility, the doctor told us was a habit that’d been responsible for saving his life. They said that considering he was taking such high doses of all those pills that that asshole psychiatrist just kept prescribing him more and more of in a fruitless attempt to keep sweeping his ever-growing anxiety under the rug – they said just quitting them all at the same time like that without booze to keep him somewhat balanced would’ve shocked his system so bad that it would’ve just shut down and he’d have died. So I guess that was the only time in my life that I’d ever been really thankful for my father’s excessive drinking.
The day or two before we checked him into a facility following his party in the basement with all his dead friends had been a pretty weird time. Dad was the happiest I’d ever seen him. He had this shit-eating grin on his face as he animatedly ran around and played with the exuberance of a child. At one point he and I were hanging out on the front porch listening to music on my iPod when he insisted every couple minutes that I play the song “Boom Boom Mancini” by Warren Zevon. Then at some point a car drove past our house and dad freaked the fuck out.
“Ah, no!” he shouted. “The paparazzi’s coming to get me!”
At first he ducked down behind the wall of our old wooden porch then he jumped up on the railing and was trying to reach for the gutter to start climbing up there.
“Hey,” I grabbed his arm and pulled him back towards the porch, “get down from there! You’re gonna hurt yourself!”
He reluctantly came down and I brought him back in the house for safekeeping.
I really don’t remember why I didn’t go with the rest of my family either that day or the next to drop my dad off at the inpatient rehab facility. But my mom said that there was a clock on the wall in the waiting room and when she was filling out the papers to check him in, my dad was using that clock to count how many times he could run back and forth across said waiting room in sixty seconds, happily announcing to everyone in the vicinity how many laps he just did and then going ahead and trying to break that score time and time again until he suddenly stopped under one of the lights in the room, looked up into it and shouted, “I’m coming, Jesus!”
We went through that two different times, each incident several years apart. And each rehab facility pumped him full of more drugs than he’d been on when he went in. And we’d visit him and he’d be his adult self again but he’d be totally high as fuck and we’d be like, “What the fuck is this bullshit?” Like, this one time we went to the rehab place and dad was just laying there in the grass stoned out of his gourd like the protagonist in the song “Spill the Wine” as described by Eric Burdon when he “declared War” back in 1970. He was on his side, supporting his weight under an elbow with the foot of his top leg – bent at a ninety degree angle – planted flatly on the ground for balance. He was picking apart blades of grass and tossing them into the wind as he wistfully stared into eternity, philosophizing that, “I think I’ve been depressed my entire life.” We didn’t know what to say to him. We’re like, “Oh, okay. Sweet. Well, good seein’ ya, dad. Hope ya feel better soon.” And then my mom goes over to the doctors and is like, “Hey, what the fuck’s goin’ on here? This shit isn’t cheap, ya know? We’re payin’ all this money to send him here cuz we want a sober functioning dad. What’s up with this bullshit?” And the doctors would say, “Well, he’s not on the pills that you sent him here to get off of. These are all different pills now.” And she’s like, “That’s not what we wanted. We don’t want him on any pills at all. We want him sober.” And so what we were basically told was that they can’t get him back to a functioning state without medication in his system so he’s either gonna be on pills for life and be this emotionally dead zombie guy or he’s gonna be this huge infant that can’t work and can’t do anything and just wants to run around and play fuckin’ grabass all day long. Neither option sounded good to us but we needed dad to work. So, more drugs it was.
Given at this point in time I recognize that my dad should’ve taken on more responsibility and put some more effort into resolving his mental health issues by reflecting on his life and getting to know himself a little bit better and making better decisions based on what he learned instead of blindly thinking he could just continue taking down twelve beers a day then add in a handful of pills every morning that’d magically make all his problems go away, I didn’t always see it that way. When I was twenty-three and didn’t know the difference between psychiatrists and psychologists and couldn’t fathom the concepts of self-knowledge, personal responsibility and self-mastery, the lenses through which I saw the world had been tinged with victimhood. I thought of it like this: “My dad went to that doctor looking for help with his anxiety and depression and they took advantage of him. They stole his soul from him. After we’ve gone through all that, you honestly think I’m dumb enough to trust another person with my mental well-being, to put my soul in their hands? Abso-fucking-lutely not. No way. Not a chance in hell. Fuck you, Big Pharma – you fuckin’ dad-stealing pieces o’ shit. All o’ you can burn in hell.”
So, as a sober 23-year-old man suffering from out-of-control anxiety, Alcoholics Anonymous and professional help were out of the question. I didn’t know what the fuck to do. I knew there was an issue and I was pretty sure that it was related to my past but I didn’t know what it was or how to address it. As I mentioned, through my writing which became less and less superficial over time as I became more and more introspective (faggy), I ended up getting a pretty solid grasp of what makes me tick. And like, don’t get me wrong, the enemy still attacks me from time to time but it’s a hell of a lot easier to respond accordingly when you know what your enemy looks like and why it’s attacking. But back in those days I didn’t know the face of my enemy. I just felt like some poor ignorant farm kid wandering through some Southeast Asian jungle lost and scared as hell, getting shot at by Victor Charlie from all different directions, not sure which way to point my rifle, just wishing I was somewhere safe.
During this time I was working with my dad washing windows and cleaning gutters, saving up money to once again go traveling with my buddy O’Shaughnessy. Things in my home were really no different than they’d ever been but my tolerance had gone way down and I felt like I was overdosing on all the drama, all the chaos of the house I grew up in. I felt like I was drowning in my own vomit and would send all these freaked-out panic-stricken emails to O’Shaughnessy who was living down in Singapore at the time. I was so embarrassed to be shooting so many of those SOS flares in his direction, but he was my closest friend at the time and I really needed help. I needed someone to step in and save me. And O’Shaughnessy delivered. The final straw had been an email regarding a drunken fight that started while mom was bitching at dad as he ate dinner and escalated when he put his fist through his dinner plate and my sister was really upset and crying so I got pissed off and hit my dad in the face with a shoe and then he grabbed me by the hair with one hand and punched my face in with the other. That was the one that prompted good old Timmy Boy into action. He got in touch with his old man who owned a hose and fittings warehouse in Cleveland where he said he’d give me a job and that I could stay at their house until I found a place of my own. As soon as I got on that bus headed out east, my anxiety subsided. I felt strangely calm. I was so fucking grateful. And when I got to work at Shamrock Hose & Fittings, to show my gratitude, I did everything in my power to be the best damn employee I could possibly be.
It was February of 2012. O’Shaughnessy and I planned on leaving to go travelling in September of that year. For the first two or three months over in Cleveland, things had been going pretty well for me. I found a place to live. I was continuing to write. I launched my website. I was working out six days a week. I was writing piano music. I was putting away a bunch of money to go traveling. Everything seemed A-OK from the outside. But inside, I felt really fucking empty. I felt emotionally dead. I was bored outta my mind. I was suffering from what Milan Kundera would refer to as “the unbearable lightness of being.” I needed some fuckin’ action. I needed to shake things up. So I went out and got shitfaced retarded on whiskey and caused a big fuckin’ scene in some restaurant, sitting down at a table full of strangers and provocatively stuffing their food in my face and then threatening to kill the employees as they dragged me out and held me until the police showed up. After having a civil discussion and apologizing for my behavior, the officers gave me a free ride home. I ended up having one other drunken night out during my time in Cleveland when a friend came to visit, but that was social drinking. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely had way too much to drink and ended up getting blackout wasted how I’m always compelled to once I start drinking, but that was something a little bit different. That was two childhood bros out getting fucked-up together, reminiscing about old times. That wasn’t the desperate act of a man going out by himself with the subconscious intention of causing a bunch of problems in an attempt to feel alive.
After another month or two of living clean and peacefully (with the exception of my friend’s visit), my life in Cleveland felt so stupid and pointless that I was beginning to get terrible anxiety all the time. I didn’t know how to cope with it. I wanted nothing more than to escape from the dull reality that I’d created for myself. But the trip that O’Shaughnessy and I had scheduled wasn’t for another three months. And like I had after I broke my face in Chicago, I again decided that drinking causes more problems than it’s worth. But I still needed an escape. The only thing I could think about was going back home. I was jonesin’ for my old life back in Chicago. I resisted for a couple weeks, telling myself that it’s not gonna be any different. That it’s gonna be the same old drunken fuckin’ angry non-communicative “we’re all in denial” bullshit that it’d always been. But something about that appealed to me. And my reality was unbearable. I had to run away. Eventually I went into Mr. O’Shaughnessy’s office and told him of my plans to go home and gave him and his wife a gift certificate to a restaurant they took me out to on one of my first nights in the city to thank them for their hospitality and for helping me out during such a difficult time in my life.
So then there I was back at home in the late spring/early summer of 2012 where I again started working with my dad. At first it felt really good to be back in a place that felt so familiar and comfortable but then after a week or so the nostalgia wore off and the anxiety returned in full force. I noticed it was like my body was stuck in fight-or-flight mode 24/7. I couldn’t relax at all, ever. I was having trouble sleeping. My stomach hurt all the time. I started producing horribly smelly stink-farts even though my diet hadn’t changed and all my dumps started coming out all tiny and scraggly instead of big and solid and healthy. I didn’t wanna see any of my friends. I lost my sense of humor. Sure, I wanted to fuck because sex temporarily takes me away from the anxiety I’m feeling but I didn’t wanna go out and meet girls and go on dates or anything like that so I’d just jack off to porn all the time. I hated watching my mom run around like an asshole all day doing everything for everyone and then complaining to me about all she has to do and expecting me to complain about stuff to her in return so we can be miserable together. And I hated working with my dad. People would always say, “Oh, how nice! A father-son company, you guys must be very close.” And I’d just go, “Oh yeah. Yeah, that’s us.” But I was secretly seething all the time that I was “stuck” working with him and living at home and that he’s an incompetent asshole and I hate him and that – since my mom is too fucking weak to divorce him – life would be easier for my family if he’d just die so she can keep the house and his retirement checks without getting abused anymore and I’d feel ashamed of myself for having such thoughts and wanna kill myself because of it and, god dude, it makes me sick to think about all this shit. It was the same old shit I’d always felt. For as long as I can remember. For my entire fucking life. I just wanted to get the fuck outta there. I just wanted some fuckin’ peace in my life.
What I didn’t realize then that I see so clearly now was that this is part of a pattern. When I’m at home, I feel feelings more intense than anything else I’d ever felt in my entire life. I’d never experienced emotions like those I have at home neither when I was away at college in Milwaukee nor when living in Cleveland nor when I was washing dishes in New Orleans nor when I was working on a salmon boat in Alaska nor when I was teaching English in Colombia nor during all the travelling I’ve done to these 50+ countries I’ve been to since college graduation. Never! The short-lived adrenaline rush I got jumping out of an airplane when I went skydiving last October doesn’t compare to how constantly on-edge I feel living at home with my parents. That probably sounds pretty fucking ridiculous to anyone who isn’t me. Well, actually, that’s not true. Because I’ve encountered a bunch of really super-useful information over the years written by members of ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) support groups who feel the same way. And of all the information I’ve found over the years, I’ve never seen my emotional experience more clearly put than in the following excerpts from an online article called “Addicted to Chaos” by addiction counselor Rita Barsky:
“We never felt safe in our family of origin and the only thing we knew for sure was that nothing was for sure. Life was totally unpredictable and we became conditioned to living in chaos. When I talk about chaos in our lives, it was often not the kind that can be seen. In fact, many alcoholic/addict mothers were also super controllers and on the surface, our lives appeared to be perfect. The unsafe and chaotic living conditions of our lives were not visible or obvious to the outside world. Despite the appearance of everything being under control, we experienced continued chaos, developed a tolerance for chaos and I believe became addicted to chaos. I think it is important to say I have never done a scientific experiment to investigate this theory. It is based on observation of numerous alcoholic/addicts and their behavior.”
“During the recovery process life becomes more manageable and less chaotic. The alcoholic/addict begins to feel a sense of autonomy and safety. A feeling of calm settles over their life. The paradox for the alcoholic/addict is that feeling calm is so unfamiliar it induces anxiety. There is a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop. When there is a crisis, whether real or perceived, we actually experience a physical exhilaration and it feels remarkably like being active. From there it can be a very short distance to a relapse. Even if we don’t pick up, we are not in a sober frame of mind. Addiction to chaos can be very damaging. Once engaged in someone else’s crisis we abandon ourselves and often develop resentments, especially if it is someone we love or are close to. Family chaos is the ‘best’ because it’s so familiar and we can really get off on it. When there is a crisis with family or friends we feel compelled to listen to every sordid detail and/or take action. We are unable to let go, we need to be in the mix even though it is painful and upsetting. It requires tremendous effort to detach and not jump in with both feet to the detriment of our well-being.”
That’s exactly it. I mean, can you imagine being me when I’m two or three-years-old sitting on the carpet at home and playing with my Legos or toy cars when my angry anxiety-ridden dad comes home from the bar all fuckin’ shitfaced and is met by my resentful anxiety-ridden mom who never gets any help with me or any of the work around the house and one of them picks a fight with the other? Can you imagine how horrifying that’d be? Because as a kid, I don’t know of an outside world. My parents are all I know. They are, for all intents and purposes, my entire world. They feed me. They protect me. They do everything for me. I literally need them to be alive. And for me to see these two people who I depend on for my survival shouting ugly shit at the top of their lungs in each other’s faces and shoving each other around the room must’ve been devastating and traumatic – like my entire world was crumbling before my eyes. Scary shit to think about.
But then let’s fast-forward ten or eleven years to when I’m in seventh or eighth grade. During all these years in between, since mom is the one who’s home all the time and talking to me and cooking for me and doing everything for me due to the nature of her caretaker personality, I develop a way deeper bond with her than I do with my dad who’s always out either working or at the bar with his buddies. So when it comes down to it, when mom and dad inevitably get into another of what I emotionally perceive to be a fight to the death, who’s side am I gonna choose? Who am I gonna jump in and fight for? I’m gonna choose mom. There’s no doubt about it. It’s not necessarily because I love mom more than dad. I love both these crazy fuckin’ assholes immeasurably which is why the stakes always feel so high during conflict. It’s more so because my animal instincts don’t take into consideration how important my dad’s paychecks are to our survival as a family; my animal instincts tell me mom’s more important to my survival and that of my younger siblings cuz she’s the one always feeding us and tending to us. So now as I’m thirteen, fourteen-years-old and am big enough to start contending with my father when he comes home all fucked-up and is yelling at my mom (even if she’s the one who picked the fight with him), who feels it’s his job to jump in and start shoving dad around to preserve the life of our primary caretaker? Me. It’s my job. And can you imagine what an adrenaline rush such a thing provides? Can you imagine, with my neural pathways lit the fuck up as we go at it, the depth of the primitive pre-societal tribal bond I’m forming with these two people now that I’m mature enough to go into battle with them instead of just being some kid crying on the sidelines? It’s fucking incredible.
Now fast-forward to freshman year of high school. I fucking hate high school. High school was terrible for me. I mean, it is for most people. But in my personal experience it was pretty horrendous. I can’t relate to anyone. I feel like me being there is like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. I’m super horny and convince myself I’m in love with girls that I’ve never even talked to (and don’t have plans to) and am constantly daydreaming of how good life would be if the current object of my desire would make herself mine. I don’t drink and I don’t like socializing in a normal sense but I still feel this need to be part of a group. I still need kinship and camaraderie. So even though I don’t drink I gravitate towards kids who do because they’re the type of guys who like to go out on the weekend and break other people’s property and that sort of thing is my cup of tea. That’s fine and dandy and satisfies my need for chaos on the weekends, but how about when I’m actually in school at a strict-ass college prep like Loyola Academy? Can’t pull any of that shit there, that’s for sure. So I’d do some class-clowning when I could to achieve some sense of normalcy but the overwhelming majority of the time I’m super paranoid that everyone around me is talking about me and judging me and making fun of me. And I’d get these basketball-sized pit stains under my arms thinking about everyone making fun of me and then I’d have to keep my arms clamped tightly to my sides so no one would see my pit stains and in trying to hide them like this, I’d get even more nervous than I had been and I’d sweat even more. After sitting down in a chair, I’d be terrified to stand up because I knew I had a really sweaty ass and I was afraid whoever was sitting behind me was gonna look down at my seat and see the ass-shaped sweat stain I left there and make fun of me for having a really sweaty ass and start calling me names like Swass Boy or something like that. These obsessions ruled my life. This is how I existed every single day.
So one day I go to meet my counselor. Her name was Mrs. Yauch. I’d never met her before. She was an older lady – a bit goofy – but reasonably nice from what I can remember. She told me that she was very impressed with my straight A’s and asked me a bunch of questions about classes and how I feel and other things. I didn’t think anything of it. But sometime after that meeting, she either called my mom or maybe it was during one of those parent-teacher nights – I dunno – but she said to my mom, “In all my years as a counselor, I’ve never talked to a student as anxious as your son.” And my mom told me that. And I was like, “What’s that mean? Do I seem anxious to you?” And we were both like, “I dunno, fuck her,” and we just ignored what Mrs. Yauch had to say about me.
Then one year later, during my sophomore year of high school, during one of the drunken family fighting matches that my brother never participated in and that I always tried to protect my sister (seven years younger than me) from seeing, I separate from my mom and dad to go flip all the couches in the living room, I throw a baseball through the wall and I smash up a lamp and some other shit with a baseball bat. I was on a rampage. So then I use electrical tape to secure a steak knife to the end of a hockey stick and slash my dad – who was shirtless at the time – across the stomach with the blade end of the contraption. He drops to his knees and crawls over to the phone on the wall in the kitchen, calls 9-1-1 and mumbles something hilariously stupid into the receiver like “My family’s abusing me” and tells them to send an ambulance. A few minutes later my dad decides the wound isn’t really that bad and that he doesn’t need to go to the hospital after all. He decides he’s had enough raging for the night and goes to lay down. My mom calls 9-1-1 back and tells them not to come. This must’ve seemed pretty suspicious. So instead of an ambulance they send a squad car over. One of the responding officers had been this tough lady cop named Acardo with whom my friends and I previously had some run-ins while hanging out at Brooks Park. I don’t really remember much of the interaction. It was just me and my mom standing there. They asked questions and she explained about the drunken fighting between her and my dad. One of the officers took a peek inside the living room and asked who made the huge mess. I told ‘em it was me. The lady cop started talking to my mom about how she’s seen it dozens of times, that the situation is affecting her kid and that she should look into finding an attorney. And I remember being deeply offended hearing that. I was so pissed off that some fucking outsider was gonna come to my house and tell my mom that I’m fucked-up. So I stepped in between my mom and the cops and shouted at them to not fuck with my family and slammed the door right in their fuckin’ faces.
Now let’s jump ahead to junior year – the year in which any student with college dreams has gotta buckle down and kick some ass on the ACT and the SAT to get accepted. I’m starting to feel really quite burnt-out at this point in my life – kinda like I don’t have any energy left to invest in doing things that might provide myself with a better future. My mom feels differently. She still has high hopes for me. She puts me in this expensive-ass Kaplan ACT prep class on weekends that I don’t wanna be in but begrudgingly attend just to please her. The tutor stands at the front of the class droning on about some bullshit I don’t care about. I’m sitting in about the third row back. I look around the room to check out how everyone else feels – to see if anyone else thinks this shit is as fuckin’ gay as I do. Everyone is paying close attention to everything the man says, listening intently and taking copious notes. I feel isolated. And trapped – like I’m being held prisoner in this room with people I can’t relate to. I don’t know what to do. I can’t bring myself to care. So I start staring at this girl’s ass in the front row. She’s sitting next to her boyfriend – this dude who’s wearing basketball shorts that expose these abnormally muscular calves I’m quite impressed by and jealous of. The chick has a tiny waist and is wearing these tight-ass yoga pants that highlight the shape of her big juicy hiner. And I begin peeling those things off that luscious rump in my mind. The fantasy is nice and I’ll probably use the image to masturbate to later on but in the meantime is not enough to stop the walls of anxiety from closing in on me. I start to feel like I’m suffocating. To cope, while the tutor is writing something on the dry-erase board with his back to the class, I take off my shoe, pick it up with my right hand, swing my arm back at the side of my desk and throw it as hard as I can at the ceiling, making a huge sound and knocking one of the rectangular drop ceiling tiles outta place. Everyone is staring at me. The teacher turns around and looks and sees this shoe on the ground in the aisle and notices I’m the only one in the class who’s wearing one shoe. And like, since this class isn’t part of an actual high school and he can’t threaten me with detention or a trip to the dean’s office, the guy just shakes his head and is like, “I’m not even gonna give this douchebag the satisfaction of addressing what he just did,” and goes back to his lesson. I maybe go to one or two more sessions before deciding that ACT prep classes are for total fags and drop out. Mom doesn’t get a refund. I dog the ACT and get a 23. Then I go in to take the SAT not too long after. That morning on the way to the testing center I step in dog shit. I smell it the whole time I’m taking this test I don’t wanna be taking. When the test is over, before we hand in our papers, in an act symbolic of how I feel about my future, I reach down to the ground and use my answer sheet to wipe the shit off my shoe before handing it in to the proctor on the way out. I have no recollection of what I scored on this test but I’m almost certain I did pretty shitty.
Skip ahead now to senior year. I’ve still never touched alcohol but my grades have dropped way the fuck off. I have a C average and something egregious like a 30% in pre-calc and I couldn’t give less of a fuck. I’m totally burnt-out. I don’t care about going to college. I don’t have hopes or dreams. I don’t necessarily wanna die, but at the same time I don’t really have any interest in life either. One day my new counselor Mrs. Riggs calls me into her office for a chat. She asks me if everything’s alright at home. It clearly wasn’t. “Yeah, everything’s fine.” Are you depressed? Absolutely. “Nope, I’m good.” Have you ever had thoughts of hurting yourself? Definitely. All the time. Every day. “No. Never.” “Hmm, I see,” she said, furrowing her brow, probably not believing a word I said.
Mrs. Riggs was a nice lady and was also the first person to ever recommend to me that I watch Curb Your Enthusiasm because she said the humor was right up my alley. She was right about that. She knew me pretty well given our limited interaction. She was really worried about me and my future. To fix my failing math score, she put me in some remedial program where I and a bunch of other kids who were falling behind had to meet in the library after school every day to get special help with our homework. I also had to meet with my pre-calc instructor every day during lunch in the teacher’s lounge to do my homework in front of him. These things made my self-loathing arrogant self extremely resentful for two reasons. On the one hand I felt like I was a lost cause and that none of it mattered. On the other hand, I was offended that they’d dare put someone as intelligent as moi into an after-school program for fucking retards. So to spite Mrs. Riggs and my math teacher – just to see the fuckin’ look on their faces – I purposely got a zero on my next pre-calc test. I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure that class was a requirement to graduate from Loyola. Whether it was or not, they ended up letting me just drop the class which is something unheard of. I never met anyone else who they ever let just drop a class cuz they were totally fucking up in it. I don’t know if it was Mrs. Riggs or who on the faculty fought on my behalf and arranged that deal for me so I could graduate and go to college instead of letting me fail and either kicking me out or making me take it over and causing me to stay in a home they suspected had been pretty fucked-up, but I’d just like to say thank you. Because whoever you are, you knew there was something seriously wrong with me long before I ever figured it out and knew that I’d never figure it out if I didn’t get out of the house and see the way I grew up from the perspective of an outsider. You did me a favor you didn’t have to and I just wanna let you know it didn’t go unappreciated.
So as I was saying, I spent a good amount of time senior year moping around the house, fantasizing about what everyone would say, what everyone would be whispering if I became a heroin addict and then overdosed or if I went to my math teacher’s house and killed myself on his porch so he’d have to find my bloody disgusting body there with my brains splattered all over the place. “Yeah,” I thought, “that’d show him for giving up his lunch period to give me private calculus lessons. Fuckin’ asshole.” Since I was so busy thinking about really important stuff like that, I wasn’t really too interested in applying to any colleges but my mom made me do so anyway. She wanted me to get the fuck outta here. She wanted me to do something with my life. She wanted all her own suffering to have a meaning – like graduating from college was my end of this implicit deal we had or something. It was like this: she gives me everything, she sacrifices herself for eighteen years working hard in a deli schlepping sandwiches and making soups then coming home and cooking for us and getting shit on by my dad, ignoring her own wants and needs and getting all resentful about it and taking it out on me then I go out, get a degree, do something great with my life and give her my glory in return. That’s what she wanted. And the only thing my guilt-ridden mind had ever wanted in life had been to see my mom happy. So, who was I to deny her that dream?
Sometime in the fall of senior year, I went back out and retook the ACT because the 23 I got was below the standards for any of the schools to which I was applying. On the retake I’m pretty sure I got a 27. I got accepted to Iowa, U of I and Marquette and denied from Notre Dame and The University of Chicago. I only applied to Notre Dame because my grandpa and my dad are obsessed with Notre Dame sports and since I was already pleasing my mom by going to college in general, I figured I might as well please them too by going to that particular college. The University of Chicago I applied to because each year they offer full scholarships to a handful of sons and daughters of members of the Chicago Police and Fire Departments who exhibit exemplary academic potential. With the grades and test scores I had I was too big of a burnout fuck-up to have been granted that shit, but – even though he didn’t end up going there – my brother actually won that scholarship two years thereafter.
So, as the story goes, I had no interest in going to any of these schools. I didn’t wanna study anything. But like I said, my mom was very determined to get me outta here and save me from how fucked-up I was. She liked the idea of Marquette because one of her friends had gone there and, as such, it provided a sense of familiarity and security. She also liked the fact that Milwaukee wasn’t too far away from home and that I could come back whenever I felt like it via the Amtrak train for a nice home-cooked meal (I did this probably every other weekend the first semester of freshman year). My mom didn’t know how to work computers at the time so she had one of her more technologically savvy friends come over to help enroll me and pick my classes and to select my major for me. She chose journalism because writing was just something I naturally did. I’d been writing stories ever since I was a little kid when I’d fold pieces of paper in half, put a staple through the folded edge of the stack so it was like a little book and then fill the inside with whatever weird bullshit my imagination told me to. And if I’m not viewing the whole scheme of things like some little immature-ass Holden Caulfield of a bitch, I have to admit that what she did turned out pretty well for me.
Disappointingly enough, I’ve never given my mom credit for all this because after graduation when I came back home I’d always said, “Fuck you, mom! You ruined my life! You made me go to college when I didn’t want to (which is true) and got me in fifty-thousand dollars of student loan debt (which is also true) and that’s why I’m now stuck back here living at home with you fuckin’ assholes (this is a lie and a rationalization concealing the real reason I keep coming back here) and feel like killing myself!” What I never did say to her was, “Thank you for the seventy-thousand you and dad put towards my college tuition and however much you guys paid to send me to a top-tier Jesuit high school and Catholic grade school. Thank you for all the hours you spent talking to me and doing puzzles and playing games like Memory with me when I was a little kid, laying the foundation for my education and moral compass as well as shaping my personality. Thank you for my siblings who are the two best friends I have in the whole world. Thank you for all the hours you sat with me at the kitchen table helping me with my homework and school projects. All the times you took care of me when I was sick. All the times you’d pretended the crayon and colored pencil drawings I’d make and the illegible stories I’d scribble below said shitty drawings were good and interesting so I could develop some self-esteem. All the movies, music and old TV shows you’ve introduced me to over the years – especially Eddie Murphy’s Delirious which was pretty life-changing for me when we first watched it together back when I was in sixth grade. All the support and encouragement you’ve given me in my desire to better myself – be it purchasing a bench and some weights so I could get my swole on in the basement or that electric piano in the living room on which I had dreams of learning to play Elton John songs. All the food you’ve poured countless hours into making that I’ve put in my body and shit out the ass that you used to wipe until you taught me how to do it on my own – the ass that wouldn’t even exist if you hadn’t spent nine months caring for it while it grew inside your body. All my clothes. The house we live in. Every stupid fuckin’ toy that I just had to have over the years. Sporting equipment. School supplies. Everything.”
I never said any of that. And I never said, “Even though some of the choices you’ve made in your life are the direct cause of a lot of the emotional suffering I’ve experienced over the years, I acknowledge the sacrifices you’ve made for me and understand that you’ve never wanted nothing but the best for me, so thank you for doing everything you did to get me off that couch and out the house after senior year. At college I met some great friends. I broke out of my reclusive shell and learned how to socialize with other people (even though I did abuse the shit outta alcohol while doing so). Even if I never use my degree for anything, without having gone to college I never would’ve met the friends with whom I ended up traveling and without ever having travelled I never would’ve written America’s Finest Ambassador and without ever having written America’s Finest Ambassador I never would’ve felt compelled to start getting really introspective when writing my follow-up book Life of a Manchild and if I never wrote Life of a Manchild I probably wouldn’t know myself as well as I do today and if I didn’t know myself as well as I do today, who the fuck knows what nasty fate may have befallen me. I perhaps never would’ve even left this house. Maybe I’d have continued blindly reacting to old emotional patterns that are hardwired into my brain from growing up with you nutjobs in this fuckin’ craziness and would’ve ended up one of those losers you read about in the newspaper that kills their parents and themselves over tickets to some fuckin’ Selena Gomez concert. I dunno. But I’m not that person because of what you did for me. And I’d just like to take this opportunity to say that I love you and thank you for that. You’ve always recognized the value in me as a person even when I didn’t and pushed me forward during all the times I just wanted to say ‘fuck it’ and throw it all away. And I just want you to know that I recognize the value in you too. In spite of what you may think, your existence is worth much more than all the sacrifices you make for other people. You too deserve to be happy. You don’t need to keep doing everything for us kids. We’re okay. You did a good job. Mission completed. At this point in my life, the only thing I need from you is for you to learn to recognize the intrinsic value of yourself. I want you to finally stop and take the time to figure out what your wants and needs are and to dedicate the rest of your life to making sure that those wants and needs get met. Cuz really, believe me, you’ve earned it.”
So anyway, what happened was: I went away to Marquette University and absolutely hated the academic aspect of college. I fucking hated all my classes and thought they were all so god damn stupid and pointless and started getting completely fucking wasted four or five nights a week to deal with being there. I thought about dropping out all the time and would call up my mom, crying and telling her I wanted to come home. She’d always comfort me and tell me to just hang in there. I honestly didn’t feel like hanging in there but I did it just for her. I kept up the heavy drinking and stuck with that coping mechanism all four years, coasting through my classes and graduating in 2010 with something like a 2.3 GPA. I had zero intention of using my degree for anything, sought out no jobs and went straight back home after graduation where, during the day, I continued working with my dad washing windows and cleaning gutters (which I’d already done during breaks from school since I was like 15) and delivering food and doing dishes at night over at a local catering company called Unforgettable Edibles (which was a job hook-up from my mom that I’d also been doing since I was like 15). And ever since then, I’ve been following the same pattern. I’m here in my parents’ house putting away money doing whatever physical labor work I can get, going through this intense cycle of highs and lows, love and hate, pity and anger, guilt and hopelessness, cold comfort and stomach-wrenching anxiety until I can take no more, get desperate and pick out some faraway place on the map to where I can run off in search of peace. Then when I’ve found peace and things seem good I don’t feel alive and get terrible anxiety from the bland flavor life has taken on so I either get blackout drunk and do some stupid shit to sabotage the situation or I skip that step, make money-related rationalizations as to why I need to go home and then just come back here straight-up to begin the cycle all over again. Rinse and repeat until the end of fucking time.
It wasn’t until recently when I figured all this out about myself that I had one of those “Oh my God” moments thinking back to the speaker at that one AA meeting I’d gone to seven years ago. That big Polish guy wasn’t a pussy at all. The truth is that that guy knew himself way better than I knew myself at the time. He identified exactly what his problem was. He was honest to himself about it. He knew where he was weak and wasn’t afraid to admit it to himself and accordingly devised a plan of action of how he could rectify the situation and fix his broken-ass life and become a bodybuilder and get himself a super-hot girlfriend he met at the gym that I was unreasonably jealous of. That man was stronger than I could possibly comprehend as a stupid angry fucked-up 23-year-old asshole who was pissed off at the world and hated the happiness of others and didn’t know why. But now I do. Now I know.
Starting around the last couple months of 2015 just before I moved to Colombia in January of the following year to get my CELTA certificate with the intention of becoming an English teacher, finding a wife and living happily ever after down there before inevitably feeling empty and bored with teaching, having sex with a bunch of prostitutes to try and fill the void and hustling back home a few months later, I started studying Spanish. And I’ve kept up with it. I started off trying to read simple stuff like fairy tales and looking up every word I didn’t understand and I’d put ‘em all on a list and at the start of every week I’d make flashcards with sixty new vocab words from that list – English words on one side, Spanish on the other. In addition to going through that stack of flashcards three times a day, I’d get at least an hour of reading in and would also try to watch a daily episode of “Los Simpson” on a site called simpsonizados.org to develop an ear for the language. As time passed, my skill set grew and grew. Next thing ya know, I’ve not only read the whole Harry Potter series in Spanish but I’ve also gone on to read more complicated texts like shit by Colombian authors Mario Mendoza, Gabriel García Márquez and Héctor Abad Faciolince as well as the Spanish translation of Milan Kundera’s philosophical masterpiece The Unbearable Lightness of Being which I’d made reference to earlier. I can’t speak Spanish with fluency because I rarely ever use it to talk to anyone – maybe with our Mexican mail carrier I’ll have a brief exchange once every couple months – but you bet your ass I can understand it. But that’s not what’s important here. The most important thing here – the point that I’m trying to make – is that I enjoyed the process of learning it. It was a journey, not a destination, as all self-improvement always has been and always will be. The daily discipline required of setting my aim high and working steadily towards a goal gave me structure and purpose which protected me from the anxiety I get when I start thinking that everything is stupid and pointless and that I’m not really living unless I’m getting wasted and causing problems or getting hurt or getting pissed off or hurting other people when I’m pissed off at them for hurting me with their stupid crazy drunken bullshit. Simply put, I found a reason to live.
It’s because of this recently discovered interest in the learning of foreign language that I got so excited when my buddy Walsh sent me the link to a job position called Cryptologic Linguist on the US Army website back in early December – a job for which I’d get paid to go to school for like a year-and-a-half to learn Arabic or Chinese or Pashto or something like that that I wouldn’t stand a chance of learning on my own. And then if I pass the class, my job would be to listen to and translate intercepted messages and report what I discover to my superiors so they can make tactical decisions based on the information I’m presenting them with. To me, the job itself sounded fuckin’ incredible. But the icing on the cake here is the nature of the commitment – that it’s a military job. Allow me to explain.
Ya see, I finally know what I’m addicted to. I’m addicted to chaos. More specifically, I’m addicted to the chaos provided by the tumultuous codependent relationship between my mother and father. And I always have been. I can’t get enough of it. I fiend for that shit. And I’ve never learned to live without it. When I’m not physically around my parents, I subconsciously try to recreate their havoc in my own life so I can feel normal. My recreation of it is a travesty so I come back here for the real deal. I get my kicks and then I get worn out. When I get worn out, I run away. Then I’m away and I get bored. When I’m bored, I self-sabotage and come back again for another ride on the family roller coaster. And I do it over and over and over and I am so god damn sick of it, dude. I’ve had enough of this pinballing-ass bullshit. Cuz like, I’m fuckin’ thirty-years-old already – ya know? I’m fuckin’ scared. I try to picture myself five years down the line and I’m fuckin’ scared of still being here during the five or six months of the year in which I’m not away on some escapist adventure, isolated from the world in the solitary confinement of my childhood bedroom, wistfully thinking about what could’ve been. I am so fuckin’ scared of becoming a hopeless loser that never amounts to shit because I was too big a pussy to face down all these fuckin’ demons and do something about it. Because, in spite of what my grades and test scores and all the dumb shit I’ve done over the years may suggest, I’m not fucking stupid. And I really really want a shot at redemption. I want a second chance at life to live up to my full potential.
So, here’s where I’m gonna hafta take a page outta that scarily ripped Polack’s book. Just the way he did when he decided to pick up that phone and call the paramedics to come save him from himself, I am finally ready to admit that I’m not strong enough to stay away from my parents’ house of my own volition. Time and time again, no matter where I’ve gone, no matter what I’ve done, I always end up back here. And sure, I feel as comfortable as a pig in shit, but God knows how miserable I really am living this way. So what really appeals to me about getting a contract for a military job is that once you sign your name next to the X on your enlistment papers, your ass belongs to Uncle Sam. You’re part of the world’s largest war machine and they ain’t gonna let you just say “fuck it” and go running back to mommy and daddy anytime you damn well please or go off wreaking havoc on a fucking days-long pants-shitting vodka bender because your external reality has suddenly become too good for your backwards-ass psyche to handle. There’s gonna be people there to hold me accountable, to remind me that I have a responsibility to attend to and that other people depend on me to be strong and do what’s right. And that’s exactly the kind of support I need right now to help me learn to live on my own, chaos free.
On December 27, 2017, I took the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) and ended up with an AFQT (Armed Forces Qualification Test) score in the 99th percentile. After doing some research, I decided the Army wasn’t the best fit for me and started meeting with an Air Force recruiter. He said it wasn’t guaranteed but that he could probably get me a linguist job if I was able to get a passing score (110 or above) on a test called the DLAB (Defense Language Aptitude Battery). A couple weeks later, after passing the initial credit check and physical examination, I went back to MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) and scored a 137 on the DLAB. Not long after, I signed my name on a contract to be an Airborne Cryptologic Language Analyst with the US Air Force. I ship out to basic in three weeks.
-March 6, 2018