Monthly Archives: March 2012

My High Flying Bird


My best friend is a junkie. Crystal meth has tossed his brain into unrelenting chaos. It has jumbled his lobes and pathways into amorphous masses in need of a fix. It has made him think that a young mother and her child recently sitting next to him on a plane were secret agents and that a pig stuffed animal was a recording device. He sees people in his bushes and leads the four or so people he insists are following him on high-speed chases through suburban neighborhoods. He gets angry with all of us for not believing him.

My best friend is a junkie. I winced the first time he referred to himself as such, but once he actually started shooting crystal meth instead of just smoking it, he said the label was the honest one. He got some strange thrill out of using the term, adding this to his other descriptors: “homo,” “alcoholic,” “unlovable.” His endless number of friends knows his flair for the dramatic, the relish he takes in all of these terms, so adding “junkie” to the list just feeds into the self-loathing that he thinks is being deflected by such sweeping terms. Trust me, he knows how transparent this is.

After two rather glamorous rehab stints for alcoholism many years ago and about 10 or so years of sobriety, he doesn’t think he has anything left to learn from rehab. In reality, he doesn’t think he has anything to learn from anybody. He plays us all by pretending to listen to us, agreeing and commenting in all the right places, manipulates us into thinking that he really HAS done that last hit. Several of his best friends have dropped out along the way, exhausted by him and his energy suck, and others, like me, have been deluded into thinking that this time will be different. Have. Past tense.

The handful of friends and family still willing to listen and spin their wheels have just come off yet another week of the madness that ensues when he’s gone missing. The cast of characters is different this time, the friend pool having shrunk and different core members of his family getting involved. It’s new phone numbers to put into my phone, new e-mails, and new phone lists jotted down on a random piece of paper. It’s hours of recap, bringing each other up-to-speed, venting. It’s putting spouses and partners on hold for days at a time putting them through the same scene they’ve witnessed many times before. When my amazing husband and I had a bit of an argument, I realized that this was now seeping into my marriage.

The last conversation I had with him he was on his way to a sober living program, all bright and sunny and optimistic. He was meeting a friend who would take him there for his 2:00 check-in time. Unlike the last program he blew out of, I wouldn’t have to wait a week to speak to him. He could come and go as he pleased (I learned that this place was in the middle of the worst drug-using part of town so I had my doubts about why he should even bother) so he could talk to me that night to find out what it was like. When I learned the next day that he called his friend saying first that he had a flat tire, and then that the axle fell off his car, that he later called her back and said he was an asshole and a liar, and that he never actually made it to rehab, I knew, that yet again, we had all been played.

None of us heard from him for three days. I said to everyone that he wasn’t such an asshole as to not call at least ONE of us to let us know he was alive. His brother started calling the coroner, morgue, prisons and filed a missing persons report. He provided his license plate number and the necessary information to ping his cell phone and see where and when he last used his debit card. A friend of his went over to his apartment to check to make sure that he wasn’t lying dead on the floor. For the second time, I started thinking about the eulogy I would give, how I would edit “A Day in the Life” to make sure that that last iconic chord was loud enough to have the impact that he hopes it will. I thought of the call distribution list that I would dole out to the many strands of friends he has.

When he finally surfaced, he told his cousin that he couldn’t believe that we were all so worried and that he thought we would all just assume that he had made it to rehab. He somehow had “lost” his car in one of the worst neighborhoods in LA with everything in it including his cell phone and wallet, slept on the street for a night and walked 15 miles to get home. He said he just wanted one last high and he would go to rehab the next morning. This set me off into my first rage. This made me resolute in my statement that “I’m done. I’m out.” And I meant it. I swore I wouldn’t call even though I feel like there are so many things he needs to hear, my anger being one. So, I didn’t. I didn’t until his cousin asked me, as a favor, to call him with some phone numbers that were in his lost phone.

I had to think about it for a while. I didn’t have any numbers that would do him any good. His closest friends had already refused him rides to find his car and later refused to drive him to rehab. He could get on a bus if he needed to. I finally steeled myself, armed with the vitriol I planned on unleashing the second he picked up the phone. His machine picked up on the first ring so I sort of stammered my way through my discomfort and anger. The last thing I said was “I have absolutely nothing to say to you.” I hung up and instantly felt guilty.

I pride myself on being that ONE person who would never turn my back on him, the one who wouldn’t judge, the one who would always forgive. After he wasn’t heard from for almost 24 hours, I thought that for sure I had sent him over the edge, that all hope was gone for him and that he had killed himself in the most dramatic way possible. I know better than to think I hold that much power over anyone, so dropped that thought pretty quickly. Despite that, I called him the next morning and said that he knew I wasn’t the kind of person who could abandon him, and that I would try him again later. (His long distance service was shut off so he couldn’t call me.)

It was another full day of people trying to make contact, but a bit less frantically. When his brother called me last night and told me that my best friend, the junkie, had started selling whatever he has of value, I knew there was nothing anyone could do.

My best friend is a junkie. The lyrics below are from an Elton John song that he wants played at his funeral (I think a long time ago he wanted “Levon” but that seems to have changed along the way.):

My high-flying bird has flown from out my arms
I thought myself her keeper
She thought I meant her harm
She thought I was the archer
A weather man of words
But I could never shoot down
My high-flying bird

The white walls of your dressing room are stained in scarlet red
You bled upon the cold stone like a young man
In the foreign field of death
Wouldn’t it be wonderful is all I heard you say
You never closed your eyes at night and learned to love daylight
Instead you moved away

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Bunnies in the Sun

I recently bought a deck of “conversation starter” cards to use as writing prompts for my recent foray into being a writing coach. They each contain a question like: “What literary character would you most want to be friends with?”, or “If you could ask your hero one question what would it be?’’ and so on and so on. In working with teens it’s a useful way to at least get them thinking about how to best express themselves and a good way for me to get to know a little bit about them before we launch into actual writing.
The other night with my family we started pulling random questions from the deck, my 16-yr-old stepson editing out the ones he thought were boring or too obvious before bothering to read them. When he got to this question, it took us a lot longer to respond to than any of the others before it:
“If you could know one fact about every person you meet, what would it be?”

_________________________________________________

This morning in my prison workshop, I asked the women this question. Like my family and me, they gave it some deep thought. I didn’t lead them in any particular direction but stressed the word “fact,” something concrete.

The first woman responded in all seriousness by saying she would want to know their shoe size. Well, I guess it is a fact but not exactly what I was looking for.
“Really? Why?” I asked.
“Well, I have really big feet and I want to know if someone has a pair of shoes that I like if I can fit into them and borrow them. I’ve been looking at your shoes this whole time.”
(For the record, I was wearing fabulous brown leather clogs, wide strap with an oblong gold buckle. End-of-season sale at DSW last year, thirty bucks.)
“Maybe you have a foot fetish,” one of the other women pointed out.
“Maybe. Probably,” she conceded.
I pointed to other raised hands.

“I’d want to know where they grew up.”

“What’s their nationality”
“How old they are.”
“What’s their education?”
We agreed that the person’s answer to this question would help determine if there was any common ground between them, either putting them on equal footing or completely at the other end of the spectrum.
“Here’s how my husband and stepson answered the other night. I think my stepson said it first but my husband was very quick to agree with him:

“WHAT IS THE WORST THING YOU HAVE EVER DONE?”

I realize that this isn’t exactly a FACT, that it’s very subjective, but I thought it was a fantastic answer to the question. I said to the women that for some it might be stealing a candy bar and for others it could mean killing someone, but, I think the answer can say a lot about how someone looks at themselves, the things they hold themselves accountable for, how they look at right from wrong.
I didn’t intend for them to answer the question, threw it out there rhetorically, but they started answering anyway.
“Well, I accidently let 10 baby bunnies out into the hot sun and they all died.”
Somehow, a few of us couldn’t help but chuckle. This woman was in prison for SOMETHING and I’m assuming that it wasn’t for killing her bunnies. She didn’t take the laughter personally. “I was watching tv, and I guess I left the cage open and they escaped. I even picked up some that were still alive and tried to get them to drink but they died anyway.” Of course it was sad and horrifying to kill your pets, but she couldn’t help but giggle with us while reinforcing that really, she thinks it was the worst thing she ever did. When the next woman answered with “drug trafficking” the bunny woman said she would switch places with her in a heartbeat.
A couple of women aswered with starting smoking crack, selling drugs, hanging out with the wrong crowd and evading immigration.

In listening to the conversation my answer came to me, at a moment in my life where the question resonsates for me for all the right reasons:

“I would want to know what their dream is for themselves. If they’re 3, I want to know what they want to be when they grow up. If they’re 70 I want to know if they have lived their dream.”

Here We Go Again or Why My Life Can Never Be Rewritten

“So with the time we have left, tell me about your background, the key players in your life growing up.”

Fuck. Here we go.

It’s been 5 years since I stopped seeing an amazing therapist who I had seen for years. I wanted to start seeing someone again, someone new, someone who would concentrate on my here and now, the snapshot of my current life first and then perhaps go back to my childhood where the seeds are clearly planted for who we are. (Also, it was very clear when my old therapist had attended a conference that introduced new techniques and approaches to therapy, and I basically had to stop when she suggested my current me go back to talk to my younger me as if she were sitting next to me on the couch.)

I guess that I was deluded into thinking that I could somehow stave off my somewhat unusual upbringing for several sessions, kind of slipping it in after a few weeks or so—“Oh, and by the way, my mother died in a double-suicide.” I spent the first 30 minutes of my first session talking about my string of job losses and layoffs and how that made me feel like a failure that has lead to some pretty strong self-loathing. I talked about some really bad financial choices I’ve made along the way. I talked about my wonderful second marriage and how there was no way I could get through any of this without him. I talked about my very deliberate change in a career focus and how my work with female inmates and at-risk pre- and teenage girls has always brought out the best in me and how I can’t possibly do anything else at this point in my life, how any other administrative job in fundraising is just a set-up to fail and quite frankly something that I have no more zest for.

This woman is lovely, mid-60s I would guess, very gentle and astute. Her office is very comfortable and I was happy to see an abundance of pillows which I’ve always used to cover my stomach while I sit on the couch.

“Do you have siblings?” she asked, pen poised over pad.

I listed my two brothers and sister in birth order, giving a sentence or two about each of them, emphasizing as always my brother Mark who has been there for me throughout everything.

“What about your parents?”

I did the usual mother/father dog and pony show. When I got to my mother’s suicide, and threw in the “double” part, she put both hands over her heart and shook her head in sympathy. I’m not exactly sure what I said to lead her to ask a question a few minutes later that no one has asked before.

“Was she murdered?”

Whoa. I realized that maybe because we hear so much about someone killing someone and then killing themselves that this could have prompted the question. But, due to a lot of circumstances surrounding their deaths, it is entirely possible that the man she died with could have somehow forced her into something that she wasn’t intending to do. Is that murder? Would that make my “script” change? Double-suicides are dramatic enough. I don’t need to throw in the possibility of some sort of crime although there had been yellow police tape in an X across the door to our apartment. I’ve thought about going to the NYPD where a wild goose chase only about 2 years ago lead me to learn that that is where any police report would be kept, but I haven’t thought much about it since.

“I think it’s really interesting that you’ve chosen to work with teenage girls and women who are somehow suffering.” I thought about this for a second and realized that again, no one, including me had really made that connection.

“I’m not sure I ever really suffered,” I said pushing back a little bit.

“Well, at 13 you were left alone with a very sick woman while your father moved 3,000 miles away.” I didn’t really feel as if she were trying to convince me that I actually “suffered” but maybe, as almost everyone who knows my story, she was trying to give me credit for what I had been through.

We had to end at that point. I feel trapped, pigeonholed by my narrative. I’ve had a really happy life but I always seem to get pulled back to an unfathomable event that happened 26 years ago. In many ways this may seem hypocritical because I write a lot about this (and there is a lot more to come) but I want to believe that my present setbacks have nothing to do with my history, that they are somehow a character defect based on other things and not a rocky past.

Won’t Get Fooled Again?


I was already 10 minutes into my weekly prison class when a white woman stormed in in a huff, muttering so we all could hear that she was supposed to be released that morning but the court had apparently fucked up her paperwork. She got a little bit too close to me as she walked past and it was the first time I felt the slightest bit unnerved by an inmate.

“What are we supposed to be doing?” she asked, somewhat resigned that she wasn’t in fact, at least for the time being, going anywhere. The other women filled her in and continued doing what they had been asked to do.

As per usual (and I’m going to switch this up a bit going forward), the women are asked to tell us about something we’d be surprised to know about them—something that would dispel the way people sized them up as “junkies,” “losers,” and bad mothers.

This woman was eager to share:

“I was a professional model and did runway shows for really famous designers in the 90s. I was Miss Teen USA in (the late 80s) and we didn’t know that the judges were all professional model scouts. I got signed to Elite the next week.”

“REALLY?” I practically squealed. “Who did you do runway for?”

“I did Versace. The best thing about him was that he always let you have one piece of his clothes. Christy Turlington stole a pair of my leather pants. “

I gasped.

“Yep, she’s a thief.”

“Oh my God! She’s my favorite!” I said in disbelief. CHRISTY, yoga guru, peace activist, holistic skincare creator? Say it ain’t so.

She went on to say that she and some other big-named supermodels of the time started a support group for young models to keep them away from the cocaine that was all- too available to them by the industry to help keep them thin.

I realized by looking around at the rest of the women that this side conversation was a bit lost on them and was taking up way too much of their time.

She went on to say that she was held hostage for 4 years by a human trafficking ring and once released she helped to form an “underground railroad” for Asian girls to help them escape the sex trade.

At this point the other women were amazed, awed by the things she had done to help others. When, at the end of class, she handed me her paper, she wrote that she had published poetry and had some pieces of art shown at some very reputable Boston galleries. She wrote her name at the top so that I could Google her to see her Miss Teen USA photos and whatever other modeling shots I could find of her. I was excited to see what she might have looked like before she became a self-admitted drug addict, with unwashed hair, bad skin and a prison uniform.

After class I ran up to the woman who runs the program and asked, maybe too excitedly, if she knew that the woman was a RUNWAY model in the 90s?! I told her that she had written down her name so I could look her up online. The program director pulled me by the hand and said, “We’re doing this now.”

We went into her office and used every search term we could use to find her. Nothing.

“She totally lied to you,” she said, understanding my disappointment. “These women are some of the most manipulative women I’ve ever known. They have to be to live on the streets and do what they do to make money to support their habits and lifestyle.”

“When I get home I’m going to keep searching,” I said. I SO wanted this to be true to prove that someone could not randomly pick something so specific, giving me what was purported to be her professional name so that I could see her in all of her glory. Was she feeding into whatever I may have been putting out there in my excitement? Did the vapid starfucker in me come out?

Truth be told, she didn’t have the features that models have. She was only 5’10’’ a teeny bit shorter than most runway models. I searched obsessively for her for over an hour. I found the list of Miss Teen USA contestants and winners since its beginning and her name wasn’t among them. I combined every possible first name, middle name and last name that she gave me with “model”, “Versace,” “Elite,” and the only thing that came up was a woman who was burned at the stake in 1620 for being a witch.

Something very similar happened to me at my first job with a disenfranchised population: Without any training, I answered phones at the largest AIDS organization in New England for newly diagnosed people with HIV and AIDS. Even though the majority of the clients we served were gay men, it was just seeping into the addict population. One day I picked up a call and a woman had me in tears with an incredible and seemingly genuine sob story about stolen money, eviction, lack of food and medication. I told her to come to our offices immediately so I could get her the frozen food we had on hand and some free legal and housing advice. When I told my co-workers her name, they just laughed and told me that she was an addict and made these types of calls weekly to take whatever it was we would give her. I had been played.

I know people who get caught up in their own lies, who like the inmate above has probably convinced herself that she had done all the things she claimed. Was that her purpose, to make her feel worthy? Was she trying to impress me and the other inmates? Why was it so important to me that the things she claimed were true? I don’t want to be hardened to these women. I want to take what they choose to share at face value. I’m not sure I have the instincts to know what is true but I fear that if I start looking at what I’m doing with skepticism it could take away from an experience that has changed my life.