There’s a picture of me somewhere. In it, I’m wearing a (then contemporary) California Raisins sweatshirt, sweatpants, and bare feet. My auburn bowl cut suits well my round face. I’m five years old. I occupy only the far right portion of the frame, but proudly. The boastful position is due to what dominates the rest of the picture: a wall built of disposable cups, constructed by placing them in rows the way brick walls are built, only with the opposite measure of stability. The wall stretches six or seven feet across and it’s about a head taller than me. I’ve built this thing and many like it. For whatever reason, my father has seen fit to fund this strange hobby and I add to the walls just as soon as he provides more plastic sleeves of waxy-textured cups. I work and work and work at it until I’m made to go to bed—and I protest that order. I wake up in the morning and resume the project.
And this is all I’ll ever do. After a few days, I tire of the cups, and never work with them again, but the this is something else altogether.
There’s a picture of me somewhere. In it, I’m dry-skinned and pale, with paradoxically wet hair from sweating, which I do most of the time for a variety of reasons. I’m 24 and fifty pounds overweight, which is also a paradox, because I’m on cocaine or amphetamines almost every day. Though, upon introspection, the fifty pounds is likely due to the fact that I drink roughly that volume of alcohol in an average 72-hour period. Oh and also, I consume two or three large pizzas at a clip when I smoke pot to come down. All of that requires some complicated math but if you’re like me, this consumption is hardly a record. But introspection is rare in my life when this photo is taken so I wonder why I can’t lose weight with coke, the way people shrink up in after-school specials. More importantly, and this is something I do realize, I’m a toxic, miserable human being. Nevertheless, when I put this or that chemical into my body, that other this—the inescapable obsession and discomfort that has me always reaching for something—is caged. I go to bars, I lay on couches and floors, I don’t leave my apartment for days at a time but I don’t have to allay what I feel by building walls of cups or struggling to begin a novel I won’t finish. Drugs are just easier.
Another picture: a nurse is taking this one. I’m checking into an exclusive rehab in the Southwest. They’ve offered to fix my alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorder, depression and anxiety in 45 days. More problems will be identified later but that’s normal, I learn. The image will be shown to me when I exit as a “before” picture so that I can compare it to my future self and bolster the notion that I will have risen like a phoenix from…Arizona. At least I’ll have a tan.
I won’t make it that time. The tan will end up being all I leave with, because I’ve still got a year of doing this left in me. The fun might have stopped a long time ago but that doesn’t mean the behavior has.
Recently, another a picture was taken of me. This time, I’m wearing a cap and gown. I’m happy, because I’m a college graduate. I’m 30 now, but it’s a true miracle that this is happening. I’m finishing with a 3.89 GPA at a real university, and in a program for screenwriting, which has long been my dream. I’ve worked hard both in school and full-time at a decent job. This is all possible because I’m sober—five years, actually, as of last month. Sometimes I feel like I haven’t stopped to take a deep breath during that time but here at commencement, it’s worth it. My mom accuses me of deliberately making a weird face for the photographer, and she has a point, but nobody can take this away from me.
So what changed and what’s different now? Everything and nothing. My visit to Arizona eventually turned into five months of sobriety, a new high-water mark for me at the time. But I wasn’t interested in AA or taking advice and retreated into every old behavior I knew. It got worse, like anyone who’s been there will tell you, but something about it was very different. In that year, my last one of using, I couldn’t access what it was that getting high did for me. Drugs and drinking no longer quieted the fire alarm in my brain that rang without stop since as long as I could remember. No matter how hard I tried, there was simply not enough of any substance in the world to do the job.
By the end I knew my luck was going to run out—this time catastrophically. So, in short, I did treatment and AA over again, but I did it right this time: I got a sponsor and did what he said. I worked the 12 steps. I tried to help others. People promised me that life would turn around and it did. Everything changed.
But nothing could shut off that fire alarm. I was growing as a person and feeling better all the time but the need for an obsession still haunted me. In some ways, this led to success. I was respected and seen as dedicated both in school and at work, and I was proud of that, but it came at a cost.
I’ve been in and out of therapy all my adult life, and while I’ve yet to be diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, something about the way I’ve heard it described has always rang true. The idea of reacting to one’s fearful and intrusive thoughts and feelings by engaging in obsessive behaviors to the exclusion of all else? That’s me. And in sobriety, that became more me, not less.
I spent a great deal of time living in fear of making a mistake and feeling like I had brought upon a personal apocalypse when I did. I thought about how inferior I was for not being able to finish school sooner and beat myself up when I received anything less than an A. I worked every chance I could and felt miserable and guilty if I missed a day or couldn’t cover for someone else. I checked my bank balance on my phone, the way other people check Facebook or Twitter, and kept mental totals of the money I wasn’t making. Whatever I was doing, it wasn’t enough. There always had to be more. Yes, everything had changed, but so had nothing.
This wasn’t a pleasant way to live. I discovered that, in sobriety, I could still be a toxic, miserable person. School and work wasn’t enough for me. I tried a few obsessive relationships, but that didn’t work either. Luckily for me, I hit a wall. I had to admit to myself that inward happiness—which I had scoffed my entire life as the pretentious priority of flakes—was my only shot. I saw that if I continued to let this obsessiveness rule me, I was never going to be happy.
Wouldn’t it fantastic if that was the end of the story? Far from it, unfortunately. Don’t get me wrong, the realization that I had to look within myself for a satisfying life was huge and, however slowly, has really changed my outlook. But I’m still the same guy. A little more in check now, doing fewer things that cause me misery and harm, but surely still the same guy.
In May, I found a pair of pants I liked at Goodwill. They were about my age, made of polyester, and called “Action Slacks.” By mid-July, through the grace of God (as well as much searching across the region’s second hand stores), I had 10 pairs. Take note, I live in Los Angeles—I don’t know that there are 10 days a year where the climate allows polyester pants, to say nothing of the lack of professional or social situations for which these ridiculous trousers are appropriate.
But I’m not driven by reason or practical concerns. I’m a motor that runs on obsession. I’m better than I used to be but I have plenty of better left to get. The obsessive this is still very much a part of my life. I will surely punish myself for everything this piece has failed to express. Yet I’ve learned that I can change. And so I have every reason to believe that five years from now—possibly sooner—I may be completely content to let my work life be less than perfect and my pant count be fewer than double-digit. And who knows, a camera may even be around to capture the moment.