The Relapse Trilogy Part One: Seeing Stars

One thing I always wanted to do, although where I could do this I have no idea, is to look up at the sky from the depths of an empty well, because, supposedly, if a person is staring up from the bottom of deep enough shaft the stars can be seen, even in bright daytime.  Behold, this starry sky in the middle of the day.  Because of course starlight is always shining, but we can’t differentiate these beams while our eyes are exposed to the light of our super-bright sun.  I can imagine, though, that creatures who migrate, the great navigators, the many kinds of birds, route-finders like homing pigeons, and monarch butterflies, maybe that’s a thing they’re doing.  Seeing light differently from the way we see light.  Are they sighting on Polaris and the constellations with, like, some kind of a neural sextant?  Pretty amazing to be able to do this.  Birds do use Polaris, the north star, to set a course.  But, to determine not just latitude but also longitude, to get a fix on your position, you also need to know the precise time.  That’s the purpose for which accurate portable clocks were invented.  They were needed on ships, for the expansion of the British Empire in the 18th century and we need them on satellites for GPS today.  I wonder, though, is there maybe something even more marvellously significant here that we’re completely missing?  What if it’s not that these birds and butterflies have remarkably good inner clocks that we’ve missed in dissecting their brains.  What if there’s something we totally don’t get about time?  Maybe it’s not that the wayfinding species have a piece of equipment that we don’t have, but rather that our equipment evolved to not perceive or for some reason to misperceive, what’s really there—maybe have to say not what’s really there, but when’s really here.  Maybe it’s not just that there’s a there there that we’ve missed but that there’s a when now that we can’t even imagine yet.  Maybe it ain’t what we don’t know, but what we do know that ain’t so, as the old blues song goes.  Hmmmm.

For forty years, I was lost in addictions.  To varying degrees, to a variety of substances, to sex and other behaviours.  From when I was about fourteen to age fifty-four when I finally quit, and since then haven’t taken anything stronger than this cup of coffee.  Not until this recent eight-day relapse, which happened a few months short of my turning sixty-eight.  I should admit that while abstinent I sometimes still have issues with a manic-obsessive personality.  And I occasionally dabbled in some behaviours that had been linked to my addictions: once in a while before the relapse I secretly viewed porn—very furtively because my wife abhors it—and maybe I went out shopping for clothes, which she also hated my doing.  Before getting married I used to like small clothing stores, especially consignment shops, places run by friendly people who appreciated my tastes.  And for sure still I crave exquisite almond chocolate croissants fresh from the oven of a French bakery, along with a latte, and a very good book.  Would love that latter combo right now, and I’m very well-dressed for it, too: in the warmest Smartwool socks, Icebreaker merino base layer, Duer Performance bluejeans, a Patagonia Workwear hemp-and-cotton long-sleeved crew, and, also by Patagonia, a cozy-comfy flannel shirt.  Sitting on the sofa eating my customary breakfast: my house-specialty home-baked granola, with blueberries and vanilla yogurt, topped with pistachios.  And of course this coffee, which is a stimulant.  A mild stimulant.  Taken in gratitude.  For all this.  For the pride-of-place sixty minutes of my day, my writing time.  Wouldn’t miss it or any of this for the world, and not a stain or smudge in sight, at least not on me, Baby.

I did not relapse to crack.  Ohmygod, if I had, but I didn’t and because I didn’t, this relapse did not conclude with me groping at the girls who tend to come along with the purchase of cocaine.  Who at the end would be gone, too, when I’m on my knees in a bathroom flicking a lighter at an empty pipe.  Glad that this time it ended nowhere near there.  But I have to admit that I did start out with a half-baked plan for that possibility.  I’d bought a connector for the laptop to the TV screen, for the porn.  But I’d made no advance plans for the pot.  That part was a complete surprise—well, sort-of.  My wife went to a far-away country to attend a wedding.  Before she left I was all about being very helpful, with the challenges of travelling during the pandemic.  Also, there was Xmas stuff needed to be done.  But after dropping her off at the airport—and then making a fiercely careful to and fro on the freeways back home for her forgotten carry-on luggage, with which then back to the airport, all in time for her to get through the boarding process—I let loose a bit, treating myself to two new pairs of very luxurious socks, and a premium steak.  The socks were not a good idea, because, as I said, my wife disapproves of my buying clothes for myself, mostly because my wardrobe is about five times deeper than hers, and she’s a well-dressed professional woman, but also because my shopping looks to her like I’m toying with my old bad behaviours, meaning addictions, not to mention that I was bringing in even less income then than the chickenfeed I was earning before I retired.  Didn’t really retire, just gave up trying.  Soon as I got home I put the new socks on anyway, a little sadly, curling up in front of the TV with my excellent steak, extra-rare, and a bag of potato chips.  A Netflix comedy thriller, which was boring, but okay, I wasn’t expecting to be transfixed.

Got up early as usual the next morning for my morning devotions, which begin with yoga outside on the deck, then continue upstairs in my study with chanting, sixty minutes meditation, seated stretching, a little more chanting, the Heart Sutra, before this writing hour in the living room.  All entirely as usual.  And then I put the final coat of paint on my basement stairwell, getting near the end of my latest home improvement.  Working on projects enables my manic side, and for a few weeks I’d been working ten hours a day making the basement a better place.  Painting the floor turned into a much bigger job than I’d expected.  Seems like everything I take on turns into something much bigger than I expected.

My wife asked me, for our next couple therapy session—we’ve been going once a week for a few months now, was less frequently before the relapse but we’ve been going for more than a year— she asked me to think about why, if I was struggling, I didn’t seek help, from my individual therapist, or from the couple therapist, or a friend, or her, someone?  Instead of getting the drugs and so harmfully going at it.  She frequently suggests therapy homework questions for me, and come to think of it, this is not her first ask of this one, which this time she brings up while we’re power-walking.  We’re on a trail in our nearby ravine, marching through the beautiful natural surroundings during the hour of the week that used to be reserved for making love.  A Sunday morning.  I believe it’s better to make love.  I should be carrying a sign.

And, trying to keep up with her, because her pace is quicker than mine, I have to tell her that right now I don’t know the answer to that obvious and reasonable question but I promise I’ll think about it and share it with my personal therapist, and then with her, and after that also with our couple therapist.

Addictions counsellors often say that the relapse ends when the using resumes.  After that it’s just being in active addiction again, same old, same old again, and ohmygod I was so surprised, after fifteen years of no drugs, to prove this, again.  So I thought a lot about where I was at, before I got the flashing neon thought: google cannabis store near me.  Mind you, there was never any great length of time when getting high was not on the menu, all those years.  But formations of thoughts featuring me smoking crack and having sex with girls might have been extra-pronounced, maybe more than usual, that fall after returning to Toronto, after I’d put my sailboat to bed.  I was looking at six months of off-season.  Seemed way too long not to be messing about in my boat, which I’m hugely devoted to.  Was two months late starting the season spring due to Covid restrictions.  And there were still major uncertainties regarding the pandemic.  So for long days I’m working on improvements to the basement floor, and it’s kind of boring, I have to admit it even though Buddhists don’t believe in being bored.  I mean, yeah-no, I’m still meditating every single morning in my study.  Doing my morning devotions.  And I’d set up TRX straps in the basement, so I’m still exercising, but way less than before because no more YMCA, where I used to go every day, like, nine to five, the Y guy I am—I was, because gyms were among the first things got closed, and have stayed closed.  Also, no Sunday services or weekend retreats at my Zen Buddhist Temple.  Home, Y, and temple, that’s my life.  But now, it’s: Thank God for Taylor Creek Ravine.  For nature.  Bird watching.  Because there’s no hanging out with people.  Coffeeshops are all shut.  By fall, just about everything: closed.  When I’m out walking I’m looking for places to pee, in the bushes, or in laneways, behind dumpsters, surreptitiously.

And my relationship is uneasy, unsafe, and unsound.  No giving each other the benefit of the doubt.  All of a sudden, with slight excuse, we set each other off.  And then we’re sad and mad as hell for a couple of days at least, just trying to be polite, not feel every word or action is weaponized.

Summertime, living was easier.  We were enjoying drives in the country, looking for places we might want to live after she retires and we sell this house, which is quite valuable because it’s in Toronto.  Fourth largest city in North America.  In the summertime it was little towns, back roads, bush, and pasture.  I just really like going down a country road.  Listening to music.  Sometimes playing the same songs as when I was young, going to the country, sunshine smile on me.  Always smoking weed when I was a kid, with friends, what we did for fun was get high and explore Ontario backroads.  Like with my best friend Alan.  This past summer, driving around in Stormont County, I was remembering those times, and I was thinking that they were not unwholesome, in our awe-struck-ness at the bucolic locale.  Field and forest, streams, and the smell of pine and cattle.  Old barns and stone farmhouses, viewed through the windows of big cars.  Alan’s dad had a huge Oldsmobile, and Alan loved to drive, and was extremely good behind the wheel.  He’d been sneaking the car out at night since he was fourteen.  A few years of that and now he’s legal and a great driver.  Bounce from the highway to the county line and then he’ll edge the beast off-road, I’ll roll a couple of joints, maybe we’ll catch a yellow moon on the rise, marvel at it through the clouds of our exhalations.  All my changes were there.  And we had some appreciation for local history and stuff.  In Stratford there was an after-theatre coffee house, the Black Swan, where Alan and I followed a band called The Perth County Conspiracy (Does not Exist).  Draft dodgers, actors, folk rockers, and all of us pretty serious stoners, but our pot smoking didn’t feel unethical or unhealthy.  Just part and parcel of making the scene.

Last summer, I was recalling this long-ago season of my life and thinking that getting high occasionally seems like okay, as long as a person isn’t addicted.  And I was sort of like forgetting about my addictions, because I was a kid in those bygone years and they hadn’t yet become an issue.  Let alone, The Issue.  Didn’t become so until much until later, after my situation changed, a long time after Alan died—he committed suicide, gassed himself in a spot off the side of a side road, in the vintage truck he’d bought because he’d fallen in love with it.  He smoked all the time and became very depressed—no, addictions didn’t really arise for me until after I’d moved away, to another city, to a distant city.  And a disconnected life.

Now, summer and fall of my life waning fast, I’m editing my memories, taking something possibly more than a hobby interest in my history.  Seems like I’ve stopped wishing I could have a different past.  Seems, therefore, I’m forgiving myself.  And going down a country road, again, I forgive my best friend for life Alan, for his quitting life.  Going back to the country I’m forgiving myself for not saving him, and for attempting to kill myself, too, variously—reports of my success in this were greatly exaggerated, I’ve had some amazingly good luck.  And now does feel like some weight has been lifted off my shoulders and so maybe I shouldn’t act all surprised the thought came to me that it might be nice to smoke up again, get high once in a while.  Do it on the light side.

These days now I’m also thinking about how I might really enjoy a glass of red wine with my steak, and a whisky at the barbeque—but no, considering how I so shockingly hit the ditch with the cannabis I’m not going to test that soft shoulder.  Although, you know, the other stuff I’d once upon a time done addictively, the viewing porn, the shopping for clothes, it’d gotten so that I could do them and stop, and not be craving.  Probably has at least something to do with chemical hooks in the substances.  So, with lattes and croissants, I don’t know, maybe I’m addicted to coffee, butter, and chocolate—the delicious confection of caffeine, fat, and sugar.  Probably I am—I reckon for sure I’m physically dependent—but why worry?   As long as I can still fit into my pants.  All two hundred and some pairs, my irreplaceable collection.  If I were a better person I wouldn’t consume meat or dairy or any products that cause suffering to animals.  I think using porn and being a carnivore are kind of similar.  Purchases, which are consumptive, extractive, and diminishing, and therefore morally indefensible.  So it’s good I’ve quit porn.  And we should all go vegan.  I’m right behind you.  Crunching and munching, licking, and smacking, right behind you.  I wish I was a better person.  Should put that on a sign, too.  Could be a sandwich board, with in the middle as the chopped liver.

My therapist told me that Leonard Cohen said: “Them that don’t eat meat eat something else.”  The Buddha said more or less the same thing.  He said that all living beings live by consuming the lives of others.  Which, even for a prophet, was an outstandingly unfunny thing to say.  And he was not just talking about how we snack on animals and plants but also how we suck the emotions and mental states out of each other.  The buzz-kill Buddha, was Siddhartha Gotama.  My therapist knew I occasionally looked at porn and he never judged me as wrong for that.  Didn’t cheer me on, and for sure didn’t dissuade me from being careful to not get caught at it.  He thinks that older white men like me and him are in a tight spot these days.  Me, too.  I think we’re alienated and discouraged.  White males over sixty living in western countries suffer more than the statistically proportionate share of mental health issues, and in seeking relief by, for example, extracting the youthful sexuality of girls, we project our problems.

My therapist also said that, considering my history, I should have called him before deciding to put mind-altering drugs into my system, especially in combination with porn.  Yes, considering my history, I should have.  Trouble is, I don’t recollect my actually deciding to do it.  I was just suddenly doing it.  Almost instantly gone from being for a long time considerably sadder than at any time in recent memory to being considerably stoned.  Maybe entered into it as a nostalgic one-time thing, a fling while the paint dried, after which I’m going to get into another home improvement project, or whatever, something reasonably respectable.  For sure I did not suspect that I was leaping off into a majorly obsessive run.  But that’s what happened, I was totally gone for eight days and nights.  My wife was devastated and my marriage changed forever.  Want to say once more that the addiction part could have gotten much worse, and I don’t really know why it didn’t, because the way I went at it, right from the get go, my past addiction experience says go directly to crack and total chaos—do not pass go, do not collect my better self, just grab two hundred bucks and run for it.

So, yeah-now, I’m not saying that my having passing thoughts of drugged-out sex is incongruous or even rare, because, yeah, during—enduring—the tedious and anxious first year of the pandemic, for sure I noted an increase in such thoughts.  But the thing is, that’s okay, I’m used to it, I mean, I’m very used to the ebb and flow of escapist ideation, among other perseverant pests inhabiting my seven-decade-old embodied mind.  Inhabitants that pass without being acted upon.  This terrain is very familiar.  It’s interesting to me how now for more than a year since the relapse my fleeting fantastications have taken a deep dive into the woodwork, and I’ve been wondering what accounts for the absence.  I reckoned first that the reason has to do with the relationship, the way it’s changing, undergoing the couple therapy, for example.  With both of us trying really hard to make it work.  For sure this is a big part of the freedom.  And I’ve gained some valuable new insights, which I definitely need to share here—relapses can be, you know, so educational.  Yawn, not this again, I know, but I have got to talk about it.  Starting with how I’m a little curious about why I’ve apparently stopped wanting that intense pleasure, because since this relapse, for probably the first time in a decade-and-a-half for fuck sake of abstinence, sex-and-drug ideation just seems like it’s totally off the to-do-today list.  Also off my to-feel list.  I have both a to-do list and a to-feel list—I’m a two-list guy.  And yeah, I’m happy for the extermination.  Probably temporary like everything else, but meanwhile, good riddance.

My feeling states are subject to varying degrees of awareness, but often there’s the feeling of something being, like, on the menu.  Can be very deeply embodied, with little or no cognition involved.  And it’s different from when something is on an agenda, like items planned for a meeting.  Menus are about what’s to eat and their function is to stimulate the appetite.  If a person is feeling empty, gazing at a menu can get the juices flowing.  Boredom is a feeling of aggravated nothingness, and eight months into the pandemic and no end of it in sight, gradually accepting that fact, and winter’s coming on, and day after day working on basement improvements, which is not at all like in the Spring when I’m out in the boatyard making my sailboat more functional and beautiful, I was very bored.  And was not admitting that to myself.  And I’m stuck in the house.  Where I’m in frequent conflict with my wife.  Very small house, and she’s here all the time, too.  I feel like I’m going crazy, and probably I’m not but for sure I have an average brain and cannot choose my thoughts.  And this is a dangerous situation, I’m in a tight spot, because, if it comes to survival, and running or hiding, then my agenda will feature sex and drugs.  That’s what’s on my menu, sitting on the table in my own little boutique of self-centred respite.  Typically, I try to not follow negative thoughts.  Instead I try to make it my policy to busy myself doing the things that create conditions for the arising of wholesome feelings and valuable ideas.  I’m actually above average in this respect, in gratefully focussing on reality’s bigger and better offerings.  I really do try, and things usually work out pretty well, but not all the time.  And, you know, figuring into what happens, and the consequences, there’s luck.  An egregiously surprisingly big factor: luck.

Some days are better than others, some days feature very risky moments.  It’s all about one day a time.  Before I lit the first joint, I didn’t think, did not say to myself: HALT!  I am Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, H-A-L-T.  Could be horny, angry, lonely, and tired.  Basic idea is that you must not fail to notice this vulnerable state.  I remember one of my favourite crack dealers, street handle was Sleepy.  We’d meet at Coxwell Station, on the TTC.  Sleepy was legally blind, didn’t drive.  He’d come on the bus and was always grateful that I was waiting for him on the platform so he could get back on before it pulled out again, because his bus was infrequent and his apartment in Scarborough was a long ways away.  He was an older Jamaican gentleman, and very proud of a newly-gained sobriety.  And very big on 12-Step, he had a different slogan for me, like HALT, every time I scored off him.  I remember another time him telling me “an addict alone is in bad company, you got to stick with the winners to win with the stickers.”  I regarded his proselytizing as an eccentricity more than an annoyance.  Sleepy always gave me a good deal.  He showed up on time with a quality product, good count, and no drama.

“Well, thank you, Sleepy, for sharing those words with me, which I’m sure are true.  You take care, now, and have a good day, eh.”  I watch out for him as he puts his white cane onto the vehicle’s steps and with his other hand hoists himself aboard.  Neatly dressed, very nice hat.

Even as reliable as Sleepy was it also took at least a couple hours to score.  What happened to me last December was that just a few minutes after walking up the basement steps with the consuming thought, I’d made the online order and straight away driven to the store for curbside pick-up, drove home, rolled the joint and smoked it.  All in just a very few minutes.  And then comes a hundred more— “One is always too many and a hundred is never enough,”— and I only stopped with some difficulty only eight—“one day at a time, time takes time”—eight days later.  And probably just because my wife was on her way back from Africa.  Because from that first bite to the hundredth I was a goner.  The old addict-me had stolen my attention entirely.  But, an old me, or just a stupid-old appetite?  I don’t know, I mean, I don’t experience any meaningful difference between this persona in my panoply of inner selves and this persona’s appetites.  It’s just this: the feeding starts, an intense addictive pattern takes over, and from that point I cannot hear any inner voices in the committee of me speaking out in favour of my asking for help.  If they’re there, they’re completely drowned out.

Feelings of fullness, satisfaction, or contentment for sure never came.  The rewards were actually pretty meager.  As relapse lessons go, this one ranks as everybody’s first mention.  Probably, too, I was just lucky I was able to stop before I needed to consume something more powerful than what was available from the neighbourhood cannabis outlet and the Canada’s world-class porn site.  Just lucky that I did not have my stupidity tested further.  Blind luck, too, that a funny thing didn’t happen on the way to the pot shop, like running into someone I used to know.  Really, there’s a lot that I just don’t know.  I do know that the way I used to take drugs has become much more dangerous, due to the obvious oversupply fentanyl, for example.  The rising tides of addiction have been poisoned by synthetics.

“You still abidin’ somewheres, Sleepy, my man?”  I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re doing okay, and I hope so.  The woman Sleepy had living with him, she died.  Much younger than him, kind of sexy and seriously addicted, of course.  One day I traded Sleepy some clothes for a sixty piece, asked him later if he liked them and he said he just took them to Seaton House, the big men’s shelter, to distribute among his many customers there—his “custies”—except for one pair of sweatpants, which his girlfriend really liked.  I remember them.  I always wondered if she was wearing them when she jumped into an unbecoming “personal injury at track level.”  Forest green Patagonia polar-fleece, they were nice.

Let go and let God?”  My man?  Probably you shared his wealth of slogans with her, too.  Probably you said: “Misery is optional.  The key to freedom is in the steps.”  And no doubt she got a mountain of crack off you, too.

Really surprised me how powerful my addiction-experience was.  Like, suddenly, I’m out of control, on a run and can’t stop myself.  Can’t listen to reason.  After fifteen years of abstinence from all mind-altering substances.  Like riding a bicycle, I guess, but should’ve remembered I’d left my bike parked on the top of a very steep hill.  This is so different from playing classical guitar, to which I was for many years devoted, even addicted, and now no way could I do that again no matter how much I practiced.  Performing the compositions of J.S. Bach is complicated and challenging on many levels.  Being entertained by erotic images while stoned on cannabis is dead easy, for a man of average brain like me, at least, it is.  I should have known better, right?  Yes, and I regret it.  The etymology of the word regret is: ‘gret’ which originally meant ‘to cry’ and with the prefix ‘re’ it means to cry again.  I regret, regret, regret.

So, whatever, and that’s all for this episode, in my podcast trilogy on my relapse and lessons learned.  One of which is that, obviously, from now on pot and porn are on the same no-fly list as crack.  Also, no psychedelics or alcohol because I was addicted to those, too.  And anyway, alcohol causes cancer, I recently read.  The big distilleries don’t want people to know that and apparently, they go to some lengths to suppress the knowledge.  While they expend huge efforts to make young women want their bright and colourful girly drinks, like vodka coolers.  Same idea, some of the same people, as brought out Virginia Slims.  If you’re old enough to remember cigarette ads.  Which, interestingly, were the first offspring of the corporate anti-science movement, which has recently gone viral, like, literally.  I’m an old guy.  Standing at the barbeque doing my steaks and burgers I’ve gotten into the habit now of drinking a premium designer root beer, which has less sugar than the cheaper stuff.  But still, compared to booze, it’s cloyingly sweet and very unsatisfying—except I love the first sip.  Problems resulting from sweet first sips have basically been a problem for me for my entire life.  So, although I had been imagining how I might like to sociably imbibe, you know, take the edge off at dinnertime, but now, after what happened with the pot I’m totally not considering that anymore.

No thank you, I’m going to leave my edge on.  And in the next episode I’m going to talk about my edge.  And how, to the quick, it cuts.

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