Content warning: addiction, drug use, violence, sexual abuse, child abuse
Danny’s been a good boy for a long time. He’s cut back on red meat, only buys organic, and never drinks soda. He exercises regularly, presses his clothes, takes two showers a day, and shows up on time for everything. His coworkers know him as a reliable team player who cleans the coffee machine. Danny treats himself and others with respect; he smiles and holds office, elevator, building, and car doors. He’s patient. He talks to people in every department, even the ones on the engineering team with that bald guy who picks his nose.
But there are things that none of these people know about Danny. It’s like they’re on a beach near a cliff with a cave, and they understand the cliff but are oblivious to the cave. They congregate on the beach around a fire that keeps them warm. They like Danny; he doesn’t put out the fire. Danny’s the only one there who knows about the cave. He knows about it because he comes from it. These people see Danny’s smile, his burgundy oxford shirt, and argyle socks; a can-do attitude. They don’t see Danny.
Don’t let people know you if you don’t want to be embarrassed
Stand by the sunflower; it looks just like you
Danny, now there’s bark stains on your new white sneakers
And you don’t look good in the picture I took
“Everyone has their vices.” We’ve heard that said before; we all live and hear the same things. A human's life is the same as a sand crabs if we’re talking about Danny. Danny, the human sand crab who burrows in the wet sand, then gets scooped out and violently hurled into the crashing waves. Don’t worry; life’s cyclical. He’ll find his way to the beach again.
Don’t be shy, child
It’s just a mulberry bush
Come on in, taste a succulent berry
Promise not to tell anyone
Come now, child
Just a bite
Danny tries his best every day. If he has a bad day, it’s a really bad day because he’s not supposed to have bad days. Danny doesn’t want to be ungrateful, which is why rain clouds always turn into storms. Screams into pillows at 6:45 pm, and it doesn’t matter the season; this is what the walls of Danny’s apartment witness.
Things you try turn into things you do, turn into routine, turn into habit, turn into burnout. The word “burnout” was coined by Herbert J. Freudenberger in 1974. He borrowed the metaphor from drug users who used it to describe their rock bottom. Danny always thought his rock bottom would be associated with his past, his drug use, those years of living in the cave. It wasn’t supposed to be the nine to five that brought him down.
Sober for five years, which is nothing, Danny has the impulse, and it needs to be fed. The costume is not drug use; it’s business casual. Appearance is everything to adults. Young children don’t care. They are capable of taking in so much that they can’t focus on one thing.
You look so fit
Can you spell it?
Come on, it’s part of the game
Take it off
You have to do it
“Take your impulsiveness and put it in a ball. Fill the ball up until it turns into a balloon. Wherever you go, it follows, but only pay attention to it enough to ensure nothing has fallen out. Ok, Danny?” Danny whispers to himself while sitting on the toilet at work, “When you’re standing in line with your ball, and you get upset, remember; if you weren’t standing there, you’d be standing somewhere else.”
Danny’s losing his mind. He’s been spending too much time online shopping. This week, he’s loaded up his credit card with $1,505 from Banana Republic, $670 from Nordstroms, and $825 from Nike. It’s only Wednesday.
This is what happens when you ignore your ball.
Danny’s convinced himself he needs all of the things he’s purchased. It’s just like it was when he was using, and the worst thing is he hasn’t realized his behavior yet. Danny’s on a freight train to a brick wall. The train’s going to smash to pieces, and Danny’s going to implode. His purchasing habits are snowballing.
It’s the devil during his after-work shower that surfaces the betrayal. There’s a drop of water stuck between the square patterned drain cover that keeps flashing; it’s the devil’s eye winking at him. “Stop, Devil.” He wants to say. Instead, he just stares into the abyss.
You don’t need to talk
Exhale with me
I know its confusing, child
But you’re so brave
$3,000 worth of clothes doesn’t fill the hole that Danny’s acknowledged is back. He tries to remember that this too shall pass, that the hole is not meant to be filled. He knows it’s better to remain still, but he’s a yellow ray floret floating down a river on a water lily made of five years of sobriety. It’s easy to drown, and he doesn’t want the storm to knock him off what of he’s built. But wolves howl, and rattlesnakes play their music. Danny - just like the rest of us - doesn’t get to choose his prison.
Burnout comes on a Friday when he gets a review that involves his boss telling him people are worried that he’s not well. Someone’s heard him talking in the bathroom, and the gossip’s spread far enough along to get him scrutinized. His clothing has failed him; the costume didn’t work. Danny thinks the rat is Frank from the customer success team. He’s never trusted people who wear as much gel in their hair as Frank. Danny wants to find him and shout at him, “Why are you wearing so much gel in your hair? Hair is supposed to move! You can’t stop it from moving, you fool!” Of course, this would only serve to strengthen his boss’s reason for concern.
Cave people thrive in the darkest blacks. Blacks like a piece of black construction paper colored black put in a coffin and buried. Blacks like the grim reaper’s cape. Danny’s boss doesn’t understand why Danny’s smiling. After all, he’s just asked Danny if he’s been drinking at work, “… It’s just, people have noticed you’re less conversational. You’re always on your phone. They say you’re talking to yourself.”
Danny scratches the back of his head like a hungry dog scratches its ribs. He’s smiling because it’s funny that this is how they think he’d act if he was drinking.
“I haven’t been drinking.” He says.
“Then, Danny, what’s going on?”
Promise not to tell
It's confusing, child
But you have to do it
“The hole can’t be filled. The hole can’t be filled. The hole be can’t be filled.” Danny chants after he throws back his sixth shot of whiskey. He’s at the bar thinking of how much he’s missed this.
“Give me another!” He shouts.
The bartender gets a clean shot glass and pours another, “You’re switching to beer after this.”
“I’m switching to beer after this!” Danny yells before swallowing the shot.
It’s burnout that’s brought him here. It’s the pressure of five years; the hole that can’t be filled; the storm on the horizon. Sobriety has fallen out of his ball, and now the flood gates are open.
A squirrel tightrope-walks on the fence outside of the window of the bar’s bathroom that Danny’s pissing in. A moment of clarity often happens before the descent to the cave. It’s the realization of one’s behavior, the recognition of the demon, which drives them further into the dark to grapple with despair. Danny thinks his life has been a series of failures since childhood. It started that day he ran away to the orchard and met that man, and it’s continued and will continue forever. His moments of triumph, like his sobriety, appear as ascents required to make the pain of the fall worthwhile. The squirrel doesn’t fall off the fence, and it never drops out of its tree. It’s not a sand crab being thrown into the crashing waves.
Danny’s asking for cocaine, but he eagerly purchases Ritalin off a prostitute who seems to live in the bar’s back left corner. It’s good he’s found the upper because he was starting to feel wobbly. The second time inside the bathroom, he doesn’t even look outside the window. His oxford’s untucked, its sleeves are rolled up to his elbows. He bends down over the toilet’s tank and puts the white pill on top of it it. He covers it with a dollar bill, then smashes it into a crumble with the edge of his cell phone. Using his driver’s license, he minces the drug into a coarse powder and shapes it into two neat lines. His boss told him to take some time off.
Goosebumps on skin
Blades of grass stuck to a sweaty back
Rocks digging into the flesh
As the weight presses him down
There’s an old guy at the bar with slicked-back hair that’s thinning and white and curls at the bottom of his neck like long pubic hair. His face is red from all the booze from all the years. His ears have some hair growing out of them, which must mean something. The old guy’s hollering at a much younger woman who’s sitting by herself, waiting for her friend to return to the empty seat beside her.
“You’re too pretty to be sitting alone. Why not come over here?” The old man says to her.
Danny’s never met this man, but he knows predators.
“That’s alright,” The younger woman replies, “I’m actually with someone. Thanks.”
She’s nice enough to make eye contact, but the old guy’s a dog who doesn’t take no for an answer.
“Your friend’s not here now. Come on, how about a drink?” He says, patting the stool to his right.
Danny’s sitting on his stool with a bottle of Heineken in his jittery right hand. The bartender’s changed, so he’s got a shot of whiskey in his left. Perhaps if this new bartender had seen Danny’s bouncing legs on the other side of the bar, she wouldn’t have given him more fuel.
The young woman grabs her phone and stares into its screen. For a moment, it appears as if this has solved the problem. Then, Danny watches the old guy’s face change into a scowl. The old guy rises from his seat, takes a gulp of beer, sets it on the bar, then walks to the young woman, who’s still under the spell of her phone.
Danny’s legs move faster and faster on his stool: up and down, up and down. He gulps the shot of whiskey.
The old guy places his palm on the girl's back, right on the bra strap. The girl jumps and looks up from her phone. When she sees it’s the old man, she pushes away from the bar and stands up.
“Don’t touch me!” She shouts.
At that very moment, the female bartender spins around and looks at the old guy.
“Are you bothering her?” She asks.
The old guy begins, “Nobody’s bothering….”
Then Danny punches him right in the face. The old guy doesn’t go down, and though his three right knuckles are indented, Danny doesn’t notice he’s broken his hand. The old guy calls Danny a “pussy.” At the same time, the bartender demands that they “Get the fuck out of the bar.” The young woman’s already disappeared.
Danny’s been in fights before, but it’s been five years, and he’s not prepared for what’s to come.
The old guy knocks Danny square in the nose so that blood splatters out of his nostrils. Then he puts Danny into a headlock and starts working on his eye sockets. Blow after blow, over the bartender’s plea to take it outside, the old guy smashes his fists into Danny’s face. It lasts forty-five seconds, and when the old guy lets go, Danny falls to the floor.
“I’m a fucking veteran!” The old guy shouts.
“I’m calling the cops!” The bartender yells back.
The old guy gives her the finger and walks out the front door with Danny’s blood and eyelashes caked in between his knuckles.
Danny’s mouth tastes like sucking on used gauze pads post wisdom tooth surgery. He’s on his hands and knees on the sticky floor and still doesn’t notice his hands broken. He springs to his feet to gather himself like his face doesn’t look like it’s been busted with a baseball bat. The bartender says something to him that he can’t understand. He also can’t see anything through his swollen eyes or breath through his nose, and when he inhales through his mouth, there’s a gurgling sound.
I know its confusing, child
Goosebumps on skin
the weight on top
A visit to the mulberry bush
Don’t let people know you if you don’t want to be embarrassed.
Danny drives home drunk and blind, gurgling through his mouth. The music’s off, his hand throbs when he turns the steering wheel, and at one point, he jumps the curb with his tire. His face feels better the lower he is to ground, so he’s hunched over the steering wheel so close that when he hits the breaks, his lips press against it. His front teeth are loose.
Everything is blurry; he only sees the color of the lights and shapes around him. He feels a terrible pain at his temples. It’s aching like a headache but on the outside of his face.
He feels sorry for himself and becomes emotional.
“I can be better.” He mumbles, “I can do better.”
Soon, he’s crying. It’s very painful for his eyes to shed tears. He tries to calm himself, “It was a mistake.” He sniffles, “You’re going to be ok.”
At the next stoplight, a police car pulls up behind him. Danny doesn’t even notice. When the traffic gets going and Danny starts to swerve, the officer hits his lights. Danny cries even stronger. The intensity of it makes his throat hurt as he whines, “no, no, no.”
He jumps the curb when he’s pulling over, and the car crashes into a parking meter. Everything slams to a halt, and his face slaps the steering wheel. It’s a searing pain, like being branded.
The officer hits the PA system and says, “Turn off your car! Put your hands out the window!”
Danny keeps his head laid against the steering wheel. The tears are falling, and there’s blood dripping from his nose and mouth; it drops on the floor mat in slow motion, blood mixing with water in a puddle. In each droplet, he sees another wink from the devil. He’s deep in the cave.
“Let me see your hands, now!” The officer shouts.
Danny’s so broken he can’t move. He just weeps, “I’m sorry. Please. I won’t do it again.”
Danny’s not being a very good boy.