There are plenty of artists in recovery. Furthermore, there are many famous artists who have never been in recovery, but are deep in addiction. I’ve often talked about what makes this happen. Does getting high help creativity?
My best answer to questions like this one is that what makes us good artists is also what makes us prone to being good addicts. We don’t pay attention to the status quo. We maintain a perspective outside of the normal world. We often have childhood trauma. We thrive in situations that would frighten most people.
What is an artist? That’s a self-determining definition, much like admitting that you are an addict. It has to do with how you view yourself and where your passions lie; people can have artistic talent without being artists, and you better believe there are plenty of artists out there without artistic talent.
I count all creative types as artists: musicians, comedians, poets, and whoever else works in self-expressive media. While some of us think in sound, others in visuals, and others in words; we all seem to come back to having at our core this ball of creativity. Accessing that creative center is the first part of the artistic process. Taking the message to the outside world is the second part of that process.
The Artist, the Hot Stove Toucher
There’s a lengthy correlation between brilliant artists and drug use. All of my artistic heroes were addicts of some kind at varying levels. The drugs and alcohol that are consumed change, but the addiction never does. Arthur Rimbaud, Edgar Allan Poe,Charles Baudelaire, Charles Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs, Jim Carroll, Philip K. Dick. Those are just the writers. If I had to get into the filmmakers, musicians, actors, and painters, I’d need another book for all of them. They relate their productivity to drug use, and say it helped, but did it really?
The same qualities that make a person a great artist also make him or her a likely addict. This personality takes no rules as a given truth, and looks at the world from a fresh perspective. This personality type I like to call The Hot Stove Toucher.
Most people who touch a hot stove will immediately learn not to touch it, but other personalities will touch it more. How long can I stand to touch it? What does burning feel like? Boy ,it feels good when I stop touching it. What does burning finger smell like? What if I try the other hand?
Applied to the art world, this personality innovates new usage of technique and content. The painter uses color and form in a new way. The filmmaker shoots from new angles. The writer explores new narrative styles. Most of the creative types we studied in college broke or bent rules in spite of popular opinion, and often to the point of career destruction.
Applied to drugs, this personality immediately damages itself. Crack is addictive? Give me some. This could kill me,
but what if I take just enough so it won’t, and how much is just enough? Give me some. If I drink too much of this, I’ll puke? Give me some. Furthermore, it doesn’t learn but tries again: this time I won’t drink so much, this time I won’t mix the two drugs, this time I won’t shoot it I’ll just smoke it. This personality thrives on danger and risk.
As a child, I always heard plenty of warnings about drugs and alcohol. Every year in school, some guy came around for drug and alcohol awareness week telling his tales of getting loaded and becoming an addict. A similar guy came around every year to church youth rallies. There was a whole industry of guys who used to be drug addicts but now talked to kids. The problem is, I never really listened to the full message, only what I wanted to hear.
What I heard was, “Go this far and no further,” rather than “Don’t go there at all.” The guys’ lives always sounded pretty cool in the beginning, while they were a KISS roadie, a Miami disco king, or the leader of a biker gang. In the middle of the story is When I Went Too Far, and someone dies or gets maimed and the guy goes to jail for it, where he finds Jesus, then gets out and comes and talks to us. Inadvertently, they always sold the lifestyle. They always talked about awesome hot rods, money, and girls. The only thing that stopped me at this point was the idea that God didn’t like it when I got high or did drugs, but when I lost my faith, there was no God to be upset.
With no God to anger, I was free to pursue all those crazy stories I’d heard over the years. I was definitely getting drunk, and a hit of acid was in my future, and there are going to be some awesome concerts, and I will get laid all the time. I’d heard all the cautionary tales, but I had learned from them that you stop right before you go too far and you’re okay.
The only lessons I learned from my own mistakes were the wrong ones. If I drank too much one night and got sick,
I’d blame that I didn’t eat enough beforehand or that I mixed two kinds of alcohol. If I got into a fight, it was because I was at the wrong bar. If I fell asleep on the train and ended up several counties away from where I wanted to go, I swore that the next time, I’d stand up the whole way. The idea that I shouldn’t drink that much never occurred as the proper solution. Normal people got sick off a type of liquor and never drank it again; I’d merely mix it with something different.
Here’s to Irony, one of my Higher Powers, that in some way I’m now one of those guys I never listened to. Instead of getting high to see Ted Nugent, I was watching The Melvins. Change the names of a few things, but the story is overall the same. If I went back to my old church and told them stories, I’m sure I’d have the same effect on them as the old druggies had on me.
I’ve known a lot of artists who thought that doing the drugs of their heroes would help them attain the talent of said heroes. It’s a common fallacy that somehow perpetuates in the art world. Whether it’s Jimi Hendrix and acid, Bukowski and booze, or William S. Burroughs and heroin, it’s fairly common for young artists to experiment this way.
My Life in the Art Scene
When I was eighteen, I found the world of spoken word poetry. It was 1987. I thought it was fun, and liked to participate in it when I could. The next year I read a Charles Bukowski poem for the first time and decided immediately to pursue a career in poetry.
I dropped all other artistic aspirations from my life. I was taking classes for visual arts and had been planning on entering film school at some point. I easily stopped trying to sing for a punk band, which wasn’t hard since none of the band members wanted me anyway. All that remained was poetry.
The more subculture writing I read, the more I found drugs and alcohol. Since I was drinking on a regular basis and doing cocaine, acid, and mushrooms whenever opportunity arose, this made perfect sense to me. I was going to be the next William S. Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, Hunter S. Thompson, or Charles Bukowski. It made perfect sense to me to devote the majority of my free time to writing and getting wasted.
I moved to San Francisco looking for its famous poetry scene, and I found it quickly. I also found that like my heroes and myself, the SF poetry scene was rife with drugs and alcohol. I was still underage, but most of the bars I was going to for readings didn’t seem to care.
Soon I was doing shows at places like The DNA lounge. As I was not yet twenty-one, they made me wait outside with Fritz the Doorman until it was time for me to go on. When I was announced, I’d run inside, do my time on stage, run backstage and slam a drink or snort a line of speed, then leave the club and go home.
There was also a burgeoning South of Market warehouse scene going at the time, spaces legal to live in after the live/work laws were passed. Many of the places had weird little shows with a lot of odd performance art. The spaces were literally people’s homes the rest of the time, and sometimes S/M dungeons as well.
The poets were from the marginal parts of society. They were sex workers, mentally challenged, and nonclassifiable
freaks and fuckups. It was the first time in my life I felt normal. No matter how misfit I felt before, these people were way beyond any level that I was. Better than that, they loved my backstory. When they found out I had been in a cult and was more or less a failed preacher, I got credibility in the art scene. It was like they were jealous of my trauma. The very things I was ashamed of and afraid to tell people about were what made me cool.
I started running my own shows. Throughout the ’90s, I put on more than three hundred events. I attracted the worst fuckups of the entire Bay Area poetry scene. Together, we built our own mini-scene of debaucherous poetry. Poets shot up in the bathroom before they went onstage. Drinking wasn’t normal; being completely blitzed was. They’d show up already destroyed from the El Rio’s dollar-well-drink Monday happy hour.
All the while, I was putting together a body of work that I hoped would be a book someday. There were short stories, comics, and poetry. I was slowly getting pieces published in underground magazines and growing a reputation. Then Manic D Press, which had published a few chapbooks for me, told me they wanted to put together a full-length collection of my work.
I thought that when the book came out, it would change my life. The book would become its own phenomena and would have a dedicated readership. There would be movies made from the stories, and I would get rich from options and rights. None of that happened. The book died on the shelf. It barely got reviews. One review, in the Austin Chronicle, trashed it. I wasn’t ready for negative attention.
As other friends and Bay Area writers changed from being hopefuls to being authors, I wasn’t emotionally equipped
to deal with their success. Every time the Bay Guardian or the SF Weekly or the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a good review of someone else’s book, it was reinforcement that they didn’t like mine.
As time went on, my resentments grew more quickly and to a higher level. I was sure I was being shut out of the local media by some conspiratorial plan; I had angered the wrong person, either with my scintillating talent or with my tell-it-like-it-is attitude. At that point, any new author who got a good review became One Of Them.
In the late ’90s, the poetry scene as I knew it was gone. Street poet stalwarts such as Jack Micheline and David Lerner had died. Diet Popstitute, emcee of the Klubstitute performance art night, also had died. Dozens more were too strung out to participate anymore. Most people, though, just quit. They went to the suburbs and had kids or got workaholic jobs; it was definitely a better life for most of them, but it eliminated a majority of the dependable artists in the scene. What came in their place was worse than I could imagine.
The movie Slam came out on video, and young kids everywhere wanted to be Saul Williams. This wasn’t what caused the downfall of San Francisco poetry, but it was the defining metaphor. San Francisco street poetics never recovered.
What had been the voice of the Mission poets was replaced with the hip-hop poetic of the East Coast. Just as the neighborhood was quickly changing face and population, so was its art. The black-clad subcultural artist types were forced out by the graphic designers and dot-commers flooding in. Rents rose, bars went from punk to house music, and the price of burritos went up two dollars.
Hip-hop came from street poetry, but you shouldn’t take street poetry from hip-hop. You should take it from the street,
direct from the source. Street poetry should sound like your neighborhood, not something from a video or a movie. More poets in the hip-hop scene steal from Gil Scott Heron than know who he is. The man has been stolen from so much no one knows who the work belonged to in the first place. There are still kids out there working with a many-generation version of Miguel Piñero’s delivery style.
All of this, I took very personally. The Bay’s natural influx of transients brought in a lot of kids with MFAs who were amazing performers. But their writing left a lot to be desired. No one who came to the scene after around 1997 or so made any significant literary contributions. Performance-wise, though, they made me obsolete.
For years, people wanted the Iggy Pop style of performance; they wanted us to get wasted and scream our poems into mikes. We never performed straight. I often had drinks brought to the edge of the stage when I performed. We brought new poems to the stage each week or we were heckled. The new scene was about memorizing a few poems and executing them with precision. I was outdated and done.
Charles Ellik gave me a feature spot at his venue, The Starry Plough. It’s a long-running slam venue, one of the best known in the country. It was my chance to show everyone from the local slam community what I could do with twenty minutes.
All day long, the day of the show, I tried not to get too fucked up to go on. I knew I could still get as wasted as I wanted afterward, but I had to maintain at least a little beforehand. By this time, I was drinking two pints of whiskey a day: the morning pint and the evening pint.
I thought I could cut back to a half-pint before the show. That would be enough to kill the shakes, I thought, to get me
right so I could go on. But the half-pint was a tease. I drank the rest of the pint shortly thereafter.
I went to the show. The Plough was a beer-only joint. No whiskey. I got a beer, but it didn’t go down well. Drinking beer for me by then was like smoking an ultralight cigarette. I found out I wouldn’t be going on for a while, and I decided to go to the store.
I bought a half-pint of whiskey and a Coke. I drank them quickly outside the club. When I went back in, I was feeling just right. I ordered a pitcher of beer and waited to go up.
When Charles called my name, I stood up and knew I was fucked. Even though the beer didn’t feel like much going down, the combination of that with the whiskey had me destroyed. I made it to the stage, but I wasn’t going to do much with it. I was so drunk, I couldn’t read my own poems off a piece of paper. So much for the poetic genius I thought I was.
Since the late ’80s, I had always been good at poetry. I knew I was a fuckup in a lot of other arenas, but I felt like I had something special when it came to poetry. I had finally lost the one thing that mattered to me.
I had gone from being a hard-drinking poet to a drunk who used to write. I had created a self-image of a bourbon-drinking street poet, the little Bukowski. It was all bullshit. I was a drunk with a book that no one gave a shit about.
That night I thought about my dead heroes.
Bukowski died in his seventies; there was no way I was making it that far. When he was thirty-five he woke up in LA
County Hospital. It took him ten years to drink himself there. They told him if he drank again, he’d die.
But as I saw it, Bukowski was better off at fifty than I was at thirty-two. Somehow he was able to handle his shit better. He wrote twenty or thirty poems a week by his own estimation. I was barely writing ten poems a year.
Bill Hicks died a month before Bukowski had, but at a much younger age. Hicks died of pancreatic cancer at the age of thirty-two. But by then, he’d left behind hours of recorded brilliance. I looked at my one book. It was nothing compared to what he’d done. We were the same age.
Then there were the dozens of actors and comedians who weren’t heroes but died too young from drugs, alcohol, and chaos. John Belushi. Chris Farley. Sam Kinison. When I was in junior high school, and heard that John Belushi had died, I thought thirty-three was a ripe old age. Thirty-three was right around the corner for me.
Even after all that, it took me another six months or so to get into a program and quit for good. I’d had another idea that had already washed out, that I would write a screenplay, sell it, and use the money to get into a treatment facility like Promises, where I would network and get a nice Hollywood job when I left. That didn’t work out at all.
Fear kept me from going to a 12-Step program. The last year I drank, I didn’t enjoy it. Part of me wanted to stop, but my
fears were bigger than that part. These fears turned out to be illusions; they were not attached to any real threats.
Fear #1: Once I quit, I wouldn’t be able to write anymore
I wasn’t really writing anymore anyway. There were a lot of pieces started, but few of them finished. It was never a question of talent, but always a matter of execution. Aside from the actual writing, there was no way I could get together a manuscript or make any kind of deadlines.
Fear #2: People would feel ripped off if I performed sober
I really thought that people wanted to see me wasted up on stage. I bought into that myth that performers were better when they were on drugs. But I had proven that I couldn’t perform anymore while high or drunk.
Fear #3: I would lose my credibility as a street poet if I was sober
I considered 12-Step artists as sellouts. I really thought less of them as creative types.I’m sure I have lost some credibility now—with drunks. This fear took a few 12-Step meetings to get over. Other artists I respected took me to meetings where I quicklyfound out that a lot of writers I’ve known were now sober.
My fears were unfounded. Maybe they were legitimate to a point, but they didn’t really hold up under pressure. When I faced them, there was nothing there.
The Art of the Grudge
What I saw later, while doing step work, changed me as an artist forever.
In Step 4, you’re supposed to list all your resentments. Ever. It’s a big task that a lot of people can’t get past. I did mine
by sections of my life. There was grade school, junior high, high school/Boston, high school/Arkansas, immediate family, other relatives, roommates of all eras, and several different churches. I wrote up a separate one just for my art life.
I had resentments against other writers, venues, journalists, editors, publications, and publishers. Writers who had success that I didn’t. Venues that wouldn’t book me. Journalists who wouldn’t write about me, and specifically some who had but later cut me out of the articles. Editors, publications, and publishers who rejected my work while publishing other work I thought to be inferior.
I’ve seen drugs and alcohol, or the chaos that comes with them, destroy a lot of writers. I saw a whole other scene of performance artists decimated by HIV. But jealousy, envy, and bitterness that fuel resentment and grudges have destroyed more creative people’s careers than AIDS, crack, and heroin combined.
My jealousy was at a debilitating level. I couldn’t be friends with people because of it. While it’s normal to be somewhat jealous of the success of others, I felt that if you got a good review in the Chronicle, you were no friend of mine.
The energy I was spending with these negative emotions was keeping me from creating new work. There’s nothing worse in a poet than an inordinate amount of self-pity. The poems were bad. There’s no other way to put it. While my early poems were genuine, once these defects of character took over, the poems read like parodies of bad poetry.
The Not So Secret of My Success
While my impetus for working the steps wasn’t achieving publishing success, that’s exactly what happened.
While other people in the program were praying and meditating to get closer to their Higher Powers, I was creating on a daily basis. The better I became as a writer, the closer I became to my Ideal Image.
When I wasn’t writing, I turned to editing. I had a lot of material from the previous five years that hadn’t been edited or finished. They existed on computer files, written on scraps of paper, and drunkenly scrawled in journals. It’s not so much that drugs and alcohol will ruin your talent, but they will definitely ruin your execution. There was nothing finished in the batch. Many of the pieces were the same poem written over and over, and yet not a complete poem ever.
I knew that to become my Ideal Image, I had to have a body of work published. I wanted ten books. That, to me, would be a significant accomplishment for one lifetime. Just as they said One Day At A Time in my 12-Step group, I decided One Book At A Time. Still, it seemed daunting. I hadn’t had a book in the previous seven years. Most of my contacts in publishing were no longer working at the same companies. I wasn’t sure how to start.
Sitting in a meeting, the solution became clear: I would get a new book in a series of steps. First, I’d write a new manuscript. Second, I’d edit it into a presentable format. Third, I’d find a list of publishers that might be interested. Fourth, I’d submit it as many times as required until it was accepted.
But it didn’t end there. I’d make sure the book was successful if I was going to get more. Fifth, I’d work peacefully with my editor. Sixth, I’d promote the book once it came out.
Seventh, I’d really push the book once it came off the new titles rack and became yesterday’s news. Eighth, I’d continually work on the next manuscript to have it ready for the next book.
One of my challenges was what to write. The manuscript I could have done the most quickly would be a poetry manuscript. The drawback to this is that poetry is the worst-selling form of writing out there and it also is one of the most difficult forms to get published in book format. Many publishers start with poetry, but as they evolve into bigger entities, they tend toward prose.
Such was the case with Manic D Press. When I approached the editor, she told me she didn’t want to see a book of poetry, that I should write her a novel. I knew that my book of poems was a good one. I didn’t want to leave them behind. The closest I was to a manuscript was a book of poems, not writing a novel from scratch.
I noticed that Gorsky Press made fine-looking books, but hadn’t published anybody that I knew. Also, their distribution was not what it could be. But still, I could tell they were headed in the right direction. As the Alternative Press Expo was coming up soon, I would have a chance to meet with representatives of the publisher in person.
I met Sean Carswell, one of the two people behind Gorsky Press, at the APE show just as I thought I would. I asked him if he was looking at manuscripts. He told me that he only took new manuscripts through a contest.
Contests. Don’t get me started. I don’t like contests. The short of it is that most contests are a waste of time. I didn’t want to be anywhere near it. I wanted to move on and find another publisher. But that was Old Me talking. New Me was up for playing by the rules, even if they sounded stupid. This is a prime
example of how we, as artists, can turn our will over to a Higher Power, when that Higher Power is the artist we want to be.
My idea was that I’d play by the rules, lose the contest, and then convince Sean to publish my book anyway, as I could help him get better distribution through my contacts in the industry. I resolved that even if he didn’t want to publish my book, I should help him anyway; it would be the right thing to do. Then the unexpected happened: I won first place in the contest, which was a cash prize and publication of what would be Whiskey & Robots.
I took the cash and paid for a semester’s tuition at San Francisco State. In the past, money like that often led to a bad weekend in Reno. I quickly spent all but $18 of it at the university registrar, and bought dinner with the rest, which included a Coke (not just water) and a slice of cheesecake. Fancy!
Lies Artists Tell Ourselves
I had an obsession with failing that tied in directly to my drinking. I let the smallest obstacle turn into an unscalable wall of defeat. At the first rejection, I cursed the entire rest of the industry for not approving my art. I complained that no one wanted my work, but in reality, I had only shown it to a few people. All this misunderstanding and rejection from the world was a really good excuse to tie one on.
No one understands my work. Does anyone ever see your work? Do you have a manuscript or portfolio ready for submission? Are you self-sabotaging by making your work so
inaccessible that no one in his right mind could ever understand it? Is there the slightest possibility that you need to improve? Tough questions, but ask them of yourself. Maybe the problem isn’t with them, it’s with your work.
The only ones who make it are ass kissers. What’s an ass kisser? People who don’t get wasted beyond recognition at literary events? People who follow submission guidelines? People who work hard, ignore rejection, and keep trying? I think you see where I’m going with this. The only ones who make it are hard workers.
The system is set up against me. Simply put, this is some paranoid bullshit. The system doesn’t even know about you. You’d have to be a whole lot more important to deserve such a conspiracy. The system is extremely difficult for anyone to work through. Not just you, pal. It’s tough for everyone trying to break in.
Self-Image and the Artist
I had this image of myself as this subcultural underground literary hero. I had been part of a really awesome street poetry scene that people still ask me about today. But as time went on, it was this image that dragged me around and ruled my life.
I pictured myself with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a book of my poems in the other. I was a middle finger in the hand of American literature. I was the Iggy Pop to the Dan Fogelbergs of academia. I was a tough guy poet, a Bukowski with steel-toe Doc Martens.
One of the ways this image got me into trouble was how it promoted my drug and alcohol use. There were a lot of times that I rationalized extreme behavior as keeping with my extreme poetry lifestyle. Truth was, I wanted to do all of those drugs and drink all that booze. But I would convince myself it was to gain experience or perspective, in my quest to be the next Hunter S. Thompson or whomever.
Ironically, this image was what people didn’t like about me and my work.There were plenty of instances when I wasn’t asked to participate in a reading series or a festival because of my problematic drinking. It was never a question of my talent ,it was the answer that everyone knew when they asked themselves how I would behave.
In 1995, I was asked to go to Birmingham Southern College for a writing festival. It was my first real university reading. I was given a plane ticket, a stipend, and my own hotel room. This was luxurious beyond my imagination. Beth Lisick, who was also going, was told by our publisher not to let me get too drunk. I was one of the best our publisher could send, but she had her doubts about the impression I would leave. I did get too drunk there, almost constantly. I wasn’t too drunk to perform, as would happen years later at the Starry Plough. But at all the after parties, I got hammered. I was already out there enough, with my Charles Manson hair and my Charles Bukowski tee shirt, but I had to go the full distance and slam the Jack Daniel’s whiskey as well. The next year found Jeffrey McDaniel and Beth Lisick, my travel mates, both in The Best American Poetry from that year, included by someone who was at that festival. I didn’t make it in the book, which was a real shock. Why not? I didn’t understand. I still can’t say for sure, but what I do know is that Beth and Jeffrey maintained
themselves on a social level, whereas I frightened the literary horses. I didn’t get a single booking from that festival.
Usually, now, when I go somewhere and do my best, I’ll get one or two offers to go another place and perform as well, or I’ll be asked to submit a piece for publication. My talent goes only so far. After that, it’s how I treat other people. No one wants to work with a drunk. No one wants to take a chance on a possible problem.
As I could then, I’m sure you can think of plenty of artists who are troublesome addicts who still get gigs and chances to display work. But for every one of them, there are plenty more people who can’t get a break because they’re such social disasters. If you book an addict, you’re opening yourself to having an act that shows up late or not at all. Working with anyone during the production process of something like a CD or a book is often emotionally draining; with an addict, it can be a nightmare.
There are a lot of artists out there. If you’re at the top of your game, if you are at the level of Led Zeppelin or Richard Pryor, you will be booked and worked with regardless of how you act. But only a few artists and entertainers will ever achieve that level of success. After that top tier of name talent, there are a lot of people who are really good at what they do but are not household names. Unfortunately, there are only a few spots in every art form for these people to shine. If you’re problematic, you’re eliminating yourself from this list. Unless you’re the person filling the room with ticket buyers, unless your name sells the book sight unseen, unless your name gets the song airplay, all you have is talent and behavior.
Humility and the Artist
Pride is an artist killer. Pride will take you out. Pride will fuck with you until you give in. With pride, you can justify resentment, jealousy, and envy. Pride will keep you from doing what is necessary to advance yourself, since you erroneously think those things are below you. As a defect of character, it’s one you have to eradicate.
But this pride is only a tool of your addiction. Your addiction will use your sense of self to trick you into relapsing. You will rationalize usage in order to look good in front of others, even if you don’t really want the drugs or booze.
There are artists who create and artists who complain. If you’re doing one you’re not doing the other. The complaining is a point of pride. With the energy you spend bitching about how someone didn’t give you the gig you deserved, or about how somebody else undeservedly got a good review, you could be writing your next book or painting your next masterpiece. Pride keeps you from creating.
In the writing world, I’ve seen pride keep success from many writers. The prideful writer only wants to be in the most prestigious magazines and submit work to the most well- respected publishers. Meanwhile, the other writers are getting published.
Pride also keeps people from walking into a room and saying they want help. Pride is what keeps people from getting to Step 1. Pride doesn’t want you to admit that you have a problem. Pride thinks that everyone else is the problem.
The only solution I see here is to switch the pride to other areas of your life, and to learn humility. This is a prime case in which a character attribute can be used for the good or ill of yourself. Pride isn’t inherently bad; it’s more like a trophy case.
Pride follows motivation. How you’re using your pride is more important to look at than what you’re proud of. Be proud of the car you restored, since it took determination and perseverance; not because it makes other people’s cars look like junk. Be proud of getting yourself in shape, because it takes discipline in diet and exercise; not because you can use it to intimidate others. The key here is that you are doing these things for the satisfaction of the self, not for some external return. What’s more frustrating than trying to impress other people and they don’t give a shit If you’re a failed artist and a successful addict, I’m guessing pride is your big problem. Get over yourself. You’re lying in a puddle of your own failure, imagining yourself to be some kind of misunderstood genius, reveling in the image that you’re a Dylan Thomas or Edgar Allan Poe.
The Tough Guy
Show me a tough guy, and I’ll show you someone who was on the wrong end of a lot of childhood beatings. Whether from parents, siblings, or strangers, every tough guy I’ve met got his edge the hard way. Sure, there are some posers out there, but they’re pretty easy to pick out. I’m talking about the guys who, regardless of size, are no one you’d ever fuck with.
The swagger, the tats, the clothes—all of it says Don’t fuck with me. If you’re a mixed martial arts–trained fighter, you can handle yourself in a fight, but if you’re rocking 19-inch biceps, no one will dare start a fight with you. No one wants to start shit with a guy with a Fuck the World (FTW) tattoo across his forehead. Skinheads simply look more threatening than Emo Rockers. Most of all, it’s the stare; a small man with a lot of fight in his eyes can often make much bigger men or several men back down. But the point is, the entire persona is there for preemptive self-defense.
Unfortunately, tied into the persona is drug and alcohol use. Whiskey drinking, speedball shooting, and the like are not within the realm of the wuss. It goes so far that IV-drug users will make fun of those who snort or smoke the same drugs. Asking a tough guy not to drink anymore is like telling him to trade his Indian motorcycle for a Ford Escort.
I met a man I’ll call Harley in the program. I really looked up to this guy. His life sounded decidedly worse than mine; he had definitely bottomed out much worse than I had.I knew if he could get his shit together, so could I.
Harley was the archetypical bad boy. He had the rockabilly look down. He had an awesome old car and a motorcycle. He’d done real prison time. He’d kicked heroin. He was around 5 percent body fat and covered in tattoos. Best of all, his face and eyes showed that he had been somewhere ugly and made it back alive. But there was still something missing.
One day I heard the news that he had started drinking again. Not relapsing through some trauma or accident, he decided that he was cured of his addictions and decided to pick up the beer. After talking to him and to others, what I put together from everyone’s conversation is that he thought not drinking was bad for his image.
When Harley was at Bondage a Go Go, the San Francisco club that caters to all kinds of fetishes, he often tried to pick up strippers on their night off or the Goth girls. He had some success, but not as much as his addict’s sexuality craved. The one thing that betrayed his image was the soda water he sipped from. In fact, it creeped some of the women out that he would buy them drinks but not drink himself. So Harley made the decision that he would drink beer when out trying to pick up girls.
There were many opinions on this, but none of them were favorable. The wisest one was from another member of our group who told Harley to his face that he’d be shooting dope again inside six months. Harley denied it, but was shooting dope in five months. As far as I know, Harley’s not put together much clean time since then.
Harley, while trying to impress a hooker he had brought home, shot a load of dope into his neck. This is something he’d done before with success, so it wasn’t completely out of the question. The problem was that Harley hit his windpipe and blew out his vocal cords. He never talked above a whisper again.
The dope got the better of Harley’s looks as well. His skin grayed into a pale mess. Something happened to his posture so that he could no longer stand up straight. His eyes lost their mystery; instead of looking like a man who’d been there and back, they looked like the eyes of an old dog who is begging you to shoot him and put him out of his misery.
In the end, Harley doesn’t look like a tough guy. He looks like a junky. That’s exactly what he is before he’s anything else. He is the thing that shoots dope. That’s the cruel trick of addiction. It will promise you something and take more than it gives.
I miss Harley quite a bit. He was an important person in my sobriety. The group he was a part of did more for me getting sober than the entire rest of the program combined. He shows up now and then, but can’t put too much time together at a stretch.
All is not lost. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m writing him off. But I do know that he went from having serious sober time to having tenuous sobriety. The road back is often more treacherous than the road there. Many more people have gotten sober once than have gotten sober twice.