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They Don't Know Nothing about Recovery

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

They Don't Know Nothing about Recovery

When I was in Miami, I had a band, briefly.  We never got around to even naming the damn thing, that's how short we were together.  But we didn't sound half bad.  It was my first band since climbing on that wagon.  This was one of the songs we covered.

It's a pretty standard take on the classic junkie tale, but it has a catchy beat and clever lyrics, and I love the energy and pop/punkish qualities.  I especially like the chorus:

                       They don't know nothing about redemption /
                       They don't know nothing about recovery...

I really hate the term "recovery" (recovering from what?  Cancer?  Being a dumbass?  From having dug yourself a hole and climbing out?).  But here, for whatever reason, I embrace it.  Maybe it's singer Tom Gabel's impassioned delivery, the way he makes it seem like he owns the word, like there's some real urgency behind it.  Usually, the word feels like a wet noodle, an all-encompassing, perfunctory catchphrase for a new healthy and positive club that's replaced the old unhealthy and negative one.  I never felt part of that club.  I have certainly used the expression, but I always feel like a phony when I do, like a devout atheist attending Midnight Mass to make his new mother-in-law happy, or wearing vintage '80s T-shirts with ironical facial hair.

The Litquake festival is underway in San Francisco, 8 whole days where it truly feels like books and writing matter.  My reading series, Lip Service West, will be part of the Lit Crawl this Saturday.  I'm sure I will be bombarding you all with more details in the coming days.

It's hard to get out to readings these days.  Finding babysitting for my own gig (and, yes, I will be reading at the LSW event, though I still don't have any idea what) was tough enough.  With Justine in grad school and working extra shows as a faerie, finding a babysitter to buy a couple hours so I can go to someone else's reading is too much work.  But I wanted to go to tonight's event.

Tom Pitts, ex-junkie and former running partner (who will also be reading this Saturday night for LSW), called me the other day and asked me if I wanted to go. I don't leave the house for many people; I'll leave it for Tom.  "Re Write: An Evening of Prose from Writers in Recovery" did seem pretty apropos.  Plus, the night was being sponsored by several publishers who specialize in the field of the junkie memoir.  I figured I'd...schmooze.

And of course I didn't schmooze.  Because I am a social retard.  The world of addiction and recovery is pretty incestuous; everyone knows everyone, especially when a lot of the smarter addicts and drunks who kick the habit turn to writing about it.  I am friends, or at least acquainted, with many of the readers who read last night.  Like Wendy Merrill, who has read for Lip Service West in the past, and the always hilarious Bucky Sinister, who I've met a half dozen times, but who like Jim Hall, still has no idea who I am (  Tim Elhaji also read.  I never met him, but Tim recently published one of Tom's stories.  Unfortunately, I missed his reading, which I hear was excellent, because Holden wouldn't let me pass him off to the babysitter, clinging to me, little tears filling his eyes, crying Da Da...  What kind of heartless bastard isn't melting over that?  Cutest goddamn thing the way he'll hold onto you when he wants you (conversely, there are many times when Mama is holding him when he'll just push me away).

There were a few more readers I didn't know, but the evening closed with my friend Alan Kaufman (who may not have recognized me either.  I think I need to get out more).  Alan's new memoir Drunken Angel comes out in November.  Alan is one of the most gracious writers I know, and was kind enough to blurb my memoir, Junkie Love.  The guy has repeatedly gone out of his way to help my career, and if something ever breaks for me, I will owe him a great deal.  The very least I can do is plug his first memoir Jew Boy and his remarkable (fictional) account of his days in the Israeli Army, Matches.  The mutherfucker can flat out write.

The memoir--my memoir--was why I was there, in part.  I mean, I wanted to hear Alan, and it was nice to actually go out at night with a friend, even if it was just to a reading.  But I, too, have a memoir, and a career I want, and I was hoping to meet...someone.

But the shit really depressed the fuck out of me.  And I didn't have the heart to schmooze.

And I think it's that goddamn word.  Recovery.

All the writers drew heavily on AA rhetoric and dogma in their respective pieces. There was a time when I would bash AA any chance I could, mocking their reliance on a Higher Power, their subjection to the group/mob mentality.  It took me 18 rehabs before I got clean; and every time Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob were shoved down my throat, I revolted like this Bruce Springsteen song.

When they said sit down, I stood up.  (Which actually makes controlling me exceptionally easy.)

Every time I'd come back through those hospital doors, a little older, more beat up and ragged, missing shoes, no jacket in the dead of winter, a new court case hanging over my head, some new girl driving me nuts, blisters lining my lips, giant sores on my face that I tried covering up with pancake makeup, they'd say, I told you so.

"When are you going to realize, Joe, you can't beat this thing through will power alone?  When are you going to realize there is only one way out and that you can't do it on your own?"

Except I did do it on my own.  Took a fucklot of time.  But I dug in my heels and I did it...

I was very proud of that.  I saw it as I somehow had fought the good fight and won. Except no one had ever been fighting back.  All these counselors and 12-Steppers were just trying to help an addict who needed guidance (and a firm hand), and say what you want, but AA (NA) fucking works.  I was an idiot to fight it the way I did, especially when you consider that my biggest sticking point was my refusal to believe in God (and all that Higher Power stuff is nice; but it's a Christian program. You close meetings with the Lord's Prayer, it's a Christian program).  But I ended up backing off that claim, returning to the faith of my youth.  We were married at St. Marks.  My son was baptized there.  I write for the church newsletter.  And these days I actively practice much of the AA philosophy.  I just don't go to meetings, or have a sponsor, but I draw heavily on all those slogans I used to mock as trite before.

In the end, what does it matter?  I got here, too, regardless of the crooked path I took.  And despite knowing how foolishly I acted in rejecting AA, my tenacity of having to fall and fail on my own, there is still some satisfaction I glean from knowing I did it like Frank and the Boss.  But I also probably missed out on a lot too.  Not the least of which, I am still saddled with just a few "character defaults" that AA might've helped me get rid of.

I always thought of AA as brainwashing ("Well, maybe your brain could use a little washing...").  Of course it's not.  There is a great deal of breaking down to build back up, because your best thinking got you there, you can't be trusted as an authority on your own life, which is why I kept failing.  I do envy the look I see in the eyes of AA graduates, the peace and growth I know I lack.  But I am also still 100% me, and AAers will say that's the problem.  Admittedly, I am a miserable, angry bastard.  I can be petty, trite, violent, and temperamental.  And I can get sick of myself (like Jerry says on Seinfeld, "Just once I'd love to go somewhere without me...")  But who doesn't?  At least once in a while.

This is the path I chose.  I know there are people who may get tired of hearing about the drug stuff (believe me, I get tired writing about it).  But two events define my life: the addiction and the accident.  The one thing they have in common (besides my being incredibly stupid to have landed in the mess in the first place) is I powered my way out through hardheadedness and sheer will.  And I am glad I still have me--stubborn, ornery, donkey souled--to help me out.  'Cause I don't think the fight ends simply because you put down the bottle or spike.  It goes on and on and on...

And this guy can be a neurotic mess at times, especially when the heat is on, and he can act like an impetuous child when things don't go his way, but I can't think of any guy I'd rather have by my side when the chips are down.  Or rather when those walls spring up.  Because they will.  And it takes a certain kind of guy--call it stupidity or determination--who will bang his head hard enough and long enough to pave/carve/get his way.  Or he'll die trying.

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At October 12, 2011 at 9:29 AM , Blogger hlhinsley said...

Gratitude. As usual Joe, tears and laughter with all that creative wisdom swirling around my head happens when I read your "good shit". Keep coming back. Your worth it.

At October 12, 2011 at 9:32 PM , OpenID said...

I just read Candy and Cigarettes on Underground Voices today and I was glad for it. Then I found out you live in my hood, are also sober, write about similar visceral topics (though I'm much newer at the game of submitting my work) and are also a musician...

anyhow, pretty cool. I love your stuff so far. And you know, Candy and Cigarettes was particularly poignant because I have definitely hung out with that guy. Many, many times. I actually married a much nicer version of that guy and we've been together for 8 years now. Small world.

I feel the same about AA, and like what you said about recovery here:
"Usually, the word feels like a wet noodle, an all-encompassing, perfunctory catchphrase for a new healthy and positive club that's replaced the old unhealthy and negative one."

Yet, I've been the person walking back through that door quite a few times myself.

I was going to go to that Litquake writers on recovery thing, too, but I couldn't get to the city in time for it. And Bucky is in my kettlebell class.

At October 12, 2011 at 9:50 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

Thanks for the kind words, stifledartist. If you can, you should come out Saturday night for the Lip Crawl in the Mission I produce a reading series (and because this is a special event for Litquake, I will actually be reading as well, which isn't something I usually do) called Lip Service West. You can find all the details here: I call LSW a "gritty, real, raw" reading series. 1,500 word, true stories. We get a lot about addiction and various forms of criminality, but it isn't always hardcore; in fact, a lot of it is rather light. But it's all true. I started the series out in Miami during grad school, and this weekend my original partner is flying in to read with me. So it should be fun. And if you are new to this writing and submitting stuff, nepotism is always a good way to break in ;) And even if you can't make it, send me some of your work. I am always on the lookout for good stories. Guidelines on the site. Hope to see you Saturday. And I hope you'll consider submitting. Thanks again for the kind words.


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