There are certain things I try to do regularly, in order to better ensure my emotional, mental and spiritual health:
- Keep a gratitude journal, in which I write down 3 things I am grateful for at the end of each day.
- Meditate and freewrite for 5 minutes per day.
- Try to get enough exercise.
- Make a long list of good and kind things I can do for others, from the simple (thanking people via email) to the complicated (signing up to volunteer at an event). It is in giving that we receive, etc. So instead of feeling lonely or depressed, I can look at this list and try to do one of these things for comfort, as a way to help myself feel better.
All this results in something like that Linda Gregg poem I love so very much: I’m not feeling strong yet, but I am taking good care of myself. Ideally these actions are more like guides or signposts as opposed to harsh dictator-like orders. I don’t want my life to feel like this endless to-do list, like the only thing that makes me worthwhile is what I end up doing. I want to know that I’m good for being ME, not just for what I DO. But just like everyone else in the world, from time to time I experience intense bouts of moodiness, melancholia & depression, but I can usually bounce back pretty well if I focus on doing the things that I know will make me feel good.
I have a lot of good things here that help me with that. There are some times when I look at this little life that I have built for myself in Portland and it feels like something I can marvel at. I’ve done a really good job at making friends with lots of different groups of people (even successfully combining them at times!), getting out and about, doing work that is important and connecting with writing communities. My job is fulfilling and meaningful and keeps me busy but not overwhelmed. I’ve worked (am working) hard on my writing and it’s come a long way in the past two years, I think. I also think the past two years I’ve done a really good job of learning (am still learning!!!) the most important thing at all: how to depend on and take care of myself, and all of the self-care that entails. Portland itself often feels like that David Whyte poem to me: This is the temple of my adult aloneness, and I belong to that aloneness as I belong to my life.
I also have a lot of good things coming for me. July 10th is my last day as an Americorps member (ever!). July 11th, I’m driving to Berkeley. July 12th to August 4th, I’ll be working my summer job. Then I get to spend some time with friends in San Francisco, visit my grandparents, hopefully go to Yosemite. At some point I drive back to Portland so that I can do my meditation retreat from August 16th to the 26th. And then the next two weeks are completely unscheduled. I can go to Crater Lake, Opal Creek, Yellowstone. I can visit my best friend in Chicago. I can be a bum, basically, until I fly to England on September 10th and begin what I guess you would call THE NEXT CHAPTER.
(I am really excited about that, obviously.)
This idea of self-care might explain why I’m so into non-fiction books about addiction. I’ve spent the past two years working really hard to learn how to take care of myself, and in a lot of ways (ironically enough!) addiction memoirs feel like effective “How To” manuals on how to do just that. In the past few weeks I’ve skimmed through/read Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man (Bill Clegg, crack), Lit (Mary Karr, alcohol), The Night of the Gun (David Carr, cocaine and alcohol) and Tweak (Nic Sheff, crystal meth, son of the author of Beautiful Boy). Ultimately, Beautiful Boy still gets my vote for overall best addiction memoir (I also have good memories of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s More, Now, Again, but rereading it might give me a different impression).
Portrait of an Addict wins for Best Portrayal of the Addiction Experience. The excerpt that appeared in the NY Times magazine still feels to me like the strongest piece of writing among all these works. I liked reading this book because it doesn’t fuck around with what it’s like to be addict. You want your crack and you want it now, and you’re going to be crawling around on your hands and knees trying to sort the crumbs from the carpet fluff in order to get it. My favorite parts of this book were the ones that felt like Day in the Life of a Crack Addict, i.e. like the magazine excerpt. The author really doesn’t mess around, you are there with him, every step of the way, on his journey to get more, more, more, more, more. It feels like complete and total hell. I don’t really know how I feel about the other sections in the books, i.e. the flashbacks to his childhood and how traumatizing it was that he couldn’t control his bladder (oh boy, does that remind me of my day job, working with kids!). At least these sections were written in a very poetic style, so they didn’t detract too much from the overall narrative. All in all I would say that this is a very strong work.
Out of all of these books, I think I enjoyed reading Lit the most. This is surprising because I REALLY didn’t think this would be the case. To be honest, I still haven’t actually read every word of it. I skimmed to the part where she starts drinking and read/skimmed/skipped around from there.
I didn’t think I would like this book for the same reason I didn’t think I would like Eat Pray Love: I thought I would find the author whiny, self-entitled and narcissistic. This didn’t happen. On the contrary, I would call Lit the Eat Pray Love of addiction memoirs. In the same way that Eat Pray Love came to mean a lot more to me the second time I read it, like REALLY read it, I suspect Lit will have the same effect if I eventually sit down to attentively read every word.
So basically, I liked Lit because of the tone the author used. She reminds me of what Tobias Wolff and George Orwell have said about writing non-fiction: you can’t be afraid to show yourself as shitty, weak or afraid. You’re not always the hero in your own story, you know? Sometimes you’re the bad guy. Mary Karr won points for me for not being afraid to look critically at herself, into the so-called abyss. At the same time, she has this wise, compassionate yet ball-busting tone that reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s the same kind of gentle but realistic tone I would like my own future self to use when talking to my younger self someday.
The other great bonus about this book is that it contains a scene in which the author dates David Foster Wallace. Some google fu also revealed to me that she apparently was a big influence on Infinite Jest. YES!!!! Yet another reason to read this book again, this time with feeling!
Talk about not being the hero of your own story. The Night of the Gun is interesting because David Carr adopts a different technique than the other authors mentioned here: he treats his story like a traditional work of journalism, so the big emphasis in this book is on verifying facts, interviewing sources and compiling information. It works pretty well, and I definitely ended up reading a lot of sentences word-for-word as opposed to just skimming or speed reading.
The other big thing this book deserves praise for is for avoiding the “went to rehab, now everything’s okay” trap. I really liked the sections in which Carr openly commented on the typical structures of “recovery stories”: I had a beer with friends. Then I shot dope into my neck. I got in trouble. I saw “the error of my ways.” I found Jesus or twelve steps or Bhakti yoga. Now everything is new again. (177) This kind of open commentary and clearly expressed awareness on the typical (even boring) structure of addiction narratives is refreshing when compared to books like Tweak that treat the stops along the way like they’re a Really Big Deal.
I also really liked the parts of the book in which he reflects upon the nature of memory, and of memoirs as a form of creation myth. To me, this book is interesting because it’s about acknowledging darkness: as humans, we all have these deep evil impulses within us, and sometimes it seems like some of us are just better at controlling them than others. Carr tells one anecdote about a friend of his who, after smoking crack for the first time, immediately said “no” to the second hit, because he knew that it wouldn’t lead anywhere good. In contrast, Carr (or any of the authors listed in this post) said yes, and then yes again, and again, and again, and again. It makes me wonder if it’s really as simple as JUST SAY NO, or if it’s all just genetic, or maybe deep at heart we would all be raving crackeads if we could. Living from moment to moment, pleasure to pleasure, thinking about nothing else except the next moment of gratification, like in those nightmarishly hypnotic final pages about the epic Demerol binge that closes Infinite Jest. It sounds like complete and utter hell.
Tweak, I am sorry to say, I did not really enjoy. It had a lot to live up to as the companion/shadow work to Beautiful Boy. But I still think that even if I hadn’t read his father’s book, I wouldn’t have enjoyed this one. This book made me think of that apocryphal story about the Beatles, about how the first time they smoked pot or took acid or whatever, Paul McCartney wrote all these lyrics down that he was convinced were really super genius, when they were actually not even that good. I wonder if the same thing happenned to the author here. I think it’s really good if the author was able to use writing as a way to get through/over his addiction. But I really didn’t find the story in Tweak very compelling, at least not the way it was told here. A lot of the book is written in this very speedy, rambling On the Road type style. I didn’t really dig it. Am I biased because I maybe secretly wanted Beautiful Boy II? IDK. All I know is that this book felt like one episode after another, buying, using, selling, having sex with whacked out chicks, in a sketchy house, on a sketchy street, with a sketchy dude… I mean, I guess the life of a drug user is episodic in nature, so maybe the book is very accurate in that sense, but it honestly didn’t make for a very compelling read for me. I got bored after 100 pages and put it down.
“Yeah but except so how can I answer just yes or no to do I want to stop coke? Do I think I want to absolutely I think I want to. I don’t have a septum no more. My septum’s been like fucking dissolved by coke. See? You see anything like a septum when I lift up like that? I’ve absolutely with my whole heart thought I wanted to stop and so forth. Ever since with the septum. So but so since I’ve been wanting to stop this whole time, why couldn’t I stop? See what I’m saying? Isn’t it all about wanting to and so on? And so forth? How can living here and going to meetings and all do anything except make me want to stop? But I think I already want to stop. How come I’d even be here if I didn’t want to stop? Isn’t being here proof I want to stop? But then so how come I can’t stop, if I want to stop, is the thing.”
Here’s one thing that all of these books made me think about: what is it that creates that fine line? What is it that separates me from the heroin junkie on the corner, or from any of the authors in these books? Because I want things too, you know, in the same way that we all do. We all have desires. Oh man, sometimes I even want things very, very, very badly, and I get really, REALLY upset if I don’t get them. My world gets all thrown up into a twist if I’m not getting this supposed thing that I supposedly want oh so very badly. But you know what, maybe living isn’t about about getting what you want all the time. Maybe the ultimate goal of life isn’t just to seek pleasure or to be happy or to avoid pain. What it means to live a good life is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and I don’t really know if I buy into that whole Aristotelean thing about pleasure being the way of the good, or whatever it was (freshman year feels like a really long time ago).
So what DOES make a good life? And how do you live it? Well, according to most of these books the answer seems to be the following: you literally take it one day at a time, and you lean on these corny mantras (like “one day at a time”) as though they’re a life raft. When I read sections like that, maybe it’s weird, but I feel really comforted. I think things like Oh, OK. So that’s one way, then. This is a way that you can live your life.
It’s like when I obsessively devour these books, what I’m really looking for is a manual on How to Live (not just “How to Survive”). Don’t we all want that, in the end? To live as joyfully and as meaningfully as we can, as opposed to feeling like we’re barely surviving, hanging on by a thread? And I guess one answer is that you just have to take it one day at a time. Try to be kind and forgiving towards yourself; after all, you’re all you’ve got. Don’t waste your time on people in your life who aren’t good for you and make you feel bad. Even if you’ve done bad things in your life that you feel bad about (like almost kill your infant twin daughters by leaving them in a freezing cold car overnight so that you could go into a house and smoke crack), the least you can do now is forgive yourself. Instead of waiting till you feel good in order to take action, act in a way that you know will lead to good feelings later (maybe that’s the definition of faith). Have faith that if you keep at it, and don’t give up, the good feelings WILL come.
Good things are coming soon. Every thing and every feeling ends. Better days lie ahead. At the end of my suffering there was a door; at the center of my life came a great fountain. (Louise Gluck)