(TW/CW: Mentions of active drug use, drug activity, STD's, infidelity, foul language)
Your loved ones stopped by your apartment last night. Their faces twisted in disgust as they scanned your space looking for a clear spot to sit. Their faces–solemn and united– and you thought, well, this can’t be good.
When did you last see Aunt June? Or your old best friend Hank? He hadn’t returned a single one of your calls in ages. Dad lingered in the doorway in his oiled up coveralls looking like he’d prefer to be anywhere but here. Mom’s tears had already begun making their journey down the front of her disheveled grocery clerk’s apron.
Instead of hugging them like you did when you were four-years-old, you just panic-cleaned around them as if your place had a tornado whip through it unknowingly. Your ex-girlfriend, Lena– God, she was so damn beautiful, still– grabbed your wrist, pulled you from the destruction.
“You should sit for this, Mac.”
The rest was a blur. There were honest-to-god letters handwritten on papers in each of their laps. It wasn’t the Oscar’s and there were no awards, just a long list of things that you messed up. You’ve been good at fucking things up for so long. It’s all you’ve ever known. An award for stealing the most family jewels, and using your friend’s identity as your own isn’t one that you’d put up on the fridge with a gold star. No sticker charts for you.
It started with your dad, all monotone and robotic.
“Mac, your behavior has affected me in the following ways…”
He didn’t hold back in reminding you about all of your shortcomings. Like the time you wrecked his brand new diesel truck into the side of the garage, leaving him with a pile of bills that he surely couldn’t pay.
They all took turns, like they were taking a roll call of all your ailments.
“Drug addict?” Here.
“Chronic liar-thief-depressive?” Here.
It ended with your father’s ultimatum.
“Mac,” his voice choked and you knew then that this was a precipice.
“Son, if you choose to use and play this game where you will continue to kill yourself every single day, you need to know that we will lay our chess pieces down. You will win. Checkmate.”
Chess felt like a funny way to describe your father’s finality with you. He was more of a digital Yahtzee kind of guy, and only while on the shitter.
Your mother, on the other hand, was always one for positive reinforcement. When you would run through the house with your muddy shoes as a kid, she’d say, “Mac! I can tell you played hard today. Look at all this mud.”
She could have hollered at you for dragging the bulky Indiana mud across her dingy-used-to-be-white linoleum, but she chose to focus on the positive, and with delight. That you were just a little boy with bright eyes, playing in the soil, while enjoying his simple little life.
“Son, your father is right. You can’t play this game anymore. It’s time to choose a new game. Will you accept the help that is being offered to you today?”
The first rule you learn about this new game is that you have to get honest. Admit that you’re a piece of shit, or that maybe you’ve just got a lot of trauma and this is how your brain chooses to cope.
Or not cope.
Denial is not allowed in this part of the game.
Admit it, you’re an addict. Move ahead two spaces, and draw a card.
There’s a tiny aluminum canoe on your nightstand that captures the reflection of your face. You can’t tell if it’s the crinkles in the foil that make your face appear carved out, or if this is just how your face looks now. Deep grooves etch your cheeks like someone has taken a lathe to them
God, you had no idea you looked this bad. Lift the foil to your face for a closer look and catch the familiar scent of vinegar. To everyone else the putridness would cause them to turn their faces away. Not you. You lean in further, inhaling the place that feels like home. What if you just heat up some of the residue? Just once should be fine, right?
Think back to what Hank said, “You’re gonna need more than willpower, Mac. You’re gonna need an outta this world deity to get you through.”
God? What good has he been for you lately?
Turned you into a druggie with no friends and family.
If not God, then who?
Someone you suppose.
Believe. Shake the Magic 8 Ball and ask it who your higher power is, if not God.
“Reply hazy, try again later.”
The card you drew two spaces back said to get yourself to a meeting. That the fine people there would help you sort out the rest. A well dressed business looking woman takes the podium. She’s a high end attorney that lost custody of her kids due to her drinking while driving her kids to soccer practice.
She’s got twenty days and you’ve got three. Remind yourself, it’s a game not a contest. No one gets awarded a certificate for the most sober person ever with a lifetime discount to their local grocery store.
It’s just one day at a time. One roll of the dice.
Each person that approaches the stand looks different from the next, and you realize that they’re all playing too. You want the same prize.
Surrender. Stay in the spot you’re in and don’t move ahead until you know where you’ve gone wrong.
Hunger. That’s not something you’ve felt in a long time. Search the cupboards for something to quell the clawing sensation within your belly and find nothing but a ramen seasoning packet.
Put the kettle on and boil some water until the sound wreaks havoc on your ears and the blood pounds in your skull. Find an empty cup, one not laced with liquor or vomit. Pour out the mug with, “None of this is my business, but I need it to be” written on it, and allow the tap water to rinse away the ashes and butts of variegated cigarettes.
Smack the shiny packet of MSG against the counter and pray that it’s not shrimp, but something more agreeable like chicken or beef. Brew your broth of 10¢ noodles without the noodles and hope that it stays down once it hits your lips.
Start with your resentments.
I resent my mom for making love look so easy. She told me that I was an Indiana boy and that on some Indiana night I’d find a girl to love just like my dad did, like it was as easy as breathing from there on out. It affected my future relationships because I was often frustrated and filled with anxiety. This made me selfish and caused me to stray into the nights looking for a girl named heroin.
Morals. It’s a small detour back four spaces. Wait your turn.
“Hi, my name is Mac. I’m an addict, and like many of you I have brought harm to the people I love the most. I’ve been clean for a little bit now. I try not to count too far ahead. Numbers sort of feel like pressure to perform for me. If I have twenty dollars I can buy a bag. If I buy a bag…”
Heads nod in rhythm to your confession. You’ve always felt nervous talking to strangers but somehow these people are familiar.
Declare. You can begin to do repairs now.
Roll the dice, because this next move is tricky.
Your sponsor Ron is a piece of shit just like you. He plays this game too. It was his dying mother’s last wish for him to participate, and because she was pretty much the only person left willing to speak with him, he plays.
Going on ten years now.
Imagine ten minutes without heroin before you imagine ten years without the glass touching your lips and the lighter burning your calloused fingers.
Better yet, start with ten seconds.
Ron says, “Mac, are you ready to turn your flaws over to someone mightier than you?”
You’ve told him this a million times already, that you don’t believe in God or Goddess. As if he knows what you’re about to lecture him about, he cuts you off.
“I don’t care if you turn your defects over to mother nature herself in a big ass canyon, or spit them into the river. Get rid of ‘em.”
Ready? Empty out your pockets onto life mountain and await your next assignment.
If you ask for help from someone else, think about how you’ll never feel the way that the smoke crawls up past your eyes and down your throat at the same time. The entrancing dance of pain melting away has always looked most beautiful in the form of smoke.
“Dad, I need help.”
Humility. It’s a hard lesson to learn at times, but you’re handsomely rewarded with an all-inclusive stay at a rehabilitation facility. Stay as long as you need.
Make the list.
Broke mom’s heart. Gave Lena an STD. Wrecked dad’s truck. Lied. Drank. Drugged. Stole.
Stop the list there. Straighten out the front of your Indiana Hoosiers shirt like it’s your alma mater even though you didn’t make it past the first week of Chemistry 101.
Now that you’ve made half a list, the directions state you have to take inventory of how your actions have harmed people. You might spend more time here than you hope to.
Make the list, so that you can move forward.
Inventory. This itemization will move you ahead one space.
Just make the list.
Call Hank. Leave a message and let him hear the clarity in your voice. If he calls you back, make the amends.
Knock on Aunt June’s door. Accept the genuine smile she delivers to you. If she invites you in, make the amends.
Swing by your mom’s grocery store. Ask her and dad over for dinner in your place. If she nods with hesitation, make the amends.
Do not call Lena. Leave a note under the windshield wiper of her car. Don’t harm her anymore than you have.
Amends. Say you’re sorry for fuck’s sake and wait your turn.
Keep showing up, it works. Keep taking inventory because you’re still a piece of shit.
Say you’re sorry.
Say you’ll do better.
Do the work.
Then do the work some more.
Maintain. But make it personal this time. For each time you admit wrongdoing you may advance a single space.
Find a way to clean up your life in other ways. Start running until every muscle feels like it might burst through your skin. Notice how the high from running makes your heart race all the same. Run at night. Run when it’s freezing cold, when your breath swirls in front of your face and down through your lungs like ice. The entrancing dance of a true deep breath: one that’s not riddled with need and sadness. It looks beautiful because you, are so fucking alive.
Indiana nights mean something new. You’re not looking to score. You’re seeking to connect with your body in the form of feet pounding the asphalt and with the meditative rhythm of your panting.
Prayer. You don’t have to move ahead or back now. Just be.
You don’t have ten years like Ron, but four years ain’t nothing. The game never ends for fuck ups like you, considering you’re someone everyone wants to be around. It takes you a few tries to get through the steps. Extra amends felt contrived and hollow after the third time.
But now, foil is only used on your baked potatoes and your MSG packets are happy companions to dehydrated noodles. It’s not about how you play the game, but that you always continue to play.
A new guy grabs your attention from the back of the room. He’s sweaty and uncertain about what he just walked into, so you invite him to the front to speak.
Words spill from his weathered lips as quickly as his eyes dart to and fro. At some point you notice the concentration of tears pooling in his eyes. You think to yourself, God, did I look like that?
Take a page out of your mom’s playbook and approach him after the meeting. You recognize what dragging Indiana mud all through a nice clean house looks like, and this guy is caked in it.
“Hey, you’ve lived hard. Look at all this mud.”
Service. Give a newcomer their day one coin. You’ve got work to do, return to start.