||Susie Christian, Morro Bay, Calif.
The Jack o’ Lantern's gruesome grin gaped and growled as the candle within flickered wildly. I held the flashlight with hands shaking nearly as bad as those of my husband, who gripped a loaded pistol as we crept silently through our yard.
"There!" he whispered breathlessly. I whipped the light around to spotlight a tall and shadowy form, as he raised the pistol with both trembling hands. The light revealed only another bush, instead of one of the many drug dealers Wil claimed he had burned over the years. Haunting memories from his past, which his tormented mind believed were back to kill him. Cold fear and paranoia held our hearts in its icy grasp.
For hours we had stood at the bedroom window, hammer cocked, finger trembling on the trigger, as Wil’s mind conjured ghosts of the past. Now, as I peered into the mass of shrubbery, I wondered just how we had come to such a nightmare present.
Apparently he was low on his drug supply, and when I wasn’t watching, he slipped into his car and took off without saying a thing. Waiting hours for him to return or call, I finally got in my car and methodically made the rounds of the local bars, frantically searching for him. Of course I didn’t find him and it was lucky for me that I didn’t get a DUI that night. I finally got the call at 4 AM. He was at an out of town friend’s house, had overdosed, but would be OK. They said they almost lost him and wanted to keep him there until the next day to recover from a mild seizure.
I met my husband at a motorcycle get together three years previous, which is always a great place to look for potential mates. I was always creative about things like that. The unemployment line in Hollywood, sleazy bars and motorcycle bashes were my favorite places to look for boyfriends. I have always been creative. This time I bought a $25.00 ticket on an Indian motorcycle, went to the drunken raffle party, but didn’t win the bike. What I won was a man named Wil, and I brought ‘him’ home instead, along with his Harley.
For many years I daily consumed Cuervo Gold or anything else in front of me, and took any kind of upper substance around. Wil did the same and we got along well for a year or so, with him just doing the “recreational” stuff with me. Of course as the months went on, he found it increasingly hard to control his drug use, and returned to fixing his dope. He loved speedballs, which is shooting heroin in one arm and cocaine in the other and waiting for them to hit in the middle and see if this time he might die. Since we lived together, he was also having a difficult time concealing from me the quantity he was really using. His whole pay-check would be gone the first day. I could see him having a hard time eating his food, chewing it up over and over again, and spitting it out in neat little wads on his plate. He would wear cut off jeans in hot weather with his white spindly legs pitifully protruding, and looking like toothpicks. He always wore long sleeved T Shirts to conceal the needle tracks on his arms. Apparently, one day he hit something he shouldn’t have with the needle, and his whole upper arm area turned black. He tried hiding it from me for a couple of days by putting the pillow over his upper arm in bed. When I noticed the horrible bruise, he said the fellow at work let a load of pipe drop on his arm. Lies...connected to the disease.
Wil told me how far he really was out there and using lots of IV drugs, but the seriousness of it escaped me earlier in our relationship. I somehow thought it was sort of glamorous, although I didn’t want to try the needle myself. He said when he scored a new batch of drugs he would go shoot up in the bathroom next to the emergency room of General Hospital, where he could use the water from the toilet there. By shooting up in the hospital, in case the new drugs he just scored were cut with something life threatening, he could stumble out into the hallway and ask for help from the emergency room. They would see him doing the mackerel flop, hopefully find him in time, and he wouldn’t die. One time he did get some tainted drugs, because his whole body broke out in huge red and purple lumps, which turned to running sores a few days later. He reasoned that he had an allergy to something at work, and of course I believed him, because I wanted to.
Our relationship went from getting along like soul mates, to the steady deterioration that drug and alcohol abuse does to people. It is impossible to penetrate the thick, heavy curtain of drugs and booze and have a happy, normal life, where we are able to feel and function like normal people do. Somehow, the love I had for this man in the beginning of our time together caused me to stay with him, and support him through our combined madness.
The craziness went on for a few more weeks after the Halloween escapade and Wil was beginning to get visibly sick, emaciated and weak. He took me to his father’s grave at the mausoleum and broke down crying to his father, who had been a minister and a very good man. At this point Wil asked me to help him. The only thing I knew was that I had seen an ad in the newspaper for a drug and alcohol treatment program at our local hospital. Every time I saw the ad I ignored it, thinking there would never be a reason I would need to use that kind of information.
We drove home from the teary escapade at the cemetery and I called the number of the hospital that appeared daily in our paper. They said they did have an opening, but when they told me the price my heart stopped. Turned out Wil did have insurance through his work, but we still had to come up with two thousand dollars cash to get him in. Cash is a hard thing for addict-alcoholics to just happen to have on hand. I borrowed most of the money from my boss, who still trusted me, and Wil went in to treatment two days later.
Not a pretty sight watching Wil go through detox. He was delirious for two days, writhing, sweating, twisting and turning, completely incoherent in his mumbling and shouting. As I sat there watching his torment, I recalled the Thanksgiving holidays of my past and figured this was the very worst of the lot. There were a few moments I was certain he might die in front of my eyes. Wil seemed to have poison pouring from his every pore and devils emanating from his flesh. His blood work came back with a veritable smorgasboard of drugs in him. Drugs we later discussed, and didn’t dream he had ingested.
Sure I had problems with drug and alcohol abuse too, but secretly figured I could just slow down some. No one would notice if I had a diet pill here and there. I knew better than to drink booze at work because of the tell tale odor. I had been on my own secret “diet” for almost twenty years, previously. No one but me realized the buoyancy they were seeing in my “up” personality were the drugs talking. The hospital handed me this questionnaire to fill out and see if I was an addict, alcoholic or both. To my great surprise, if I answered the questions honestly, there was no doubt I could say yes to the majority. Scared me silly. I flushed all of my drugs and gave all the booze in the house to deserving friends, for whom booze was not yet a problem. Mysteriously, I didn’t experience the severe DT’s that my husband had the misfortune to suffer.
The counselors advised I spend as much time at the treatment center as I could. Wil was taken as an inpatient and I took most days off work to go in and support him. They also advised me to attend Al Anon meetings, which I did, and benefited greatly from the new knowledge of how to deal with other alcoholics and my reactions to them. I had always looked for the wildest, craziest most out of control man in any gathering, and mysteriously gravitated to them like a pigeon with a strong homing instinct. Or the ones that had potential and I thought I could fix.
Wil, with all his charm and charisma made friends fast at the treatment center and he referred to it as “Club Summit”, instead of Summit Place. Probably trying to make light of a serious situation, as the alcoholic is wont to do.
I too was made to feel welcome, and as the days slipped by I hardly noticed it was indeed Christmas season. Both motorcycles had quit running and I was down to one car that ran. Small stuff and maintenance, people who are out there boogieing just don’t tend to. Each day I would climb into my fifty-nine Mercedes, pray it would start, because I had no money left for repairs, and make the fifteen-minute drive to town to take part in our recovery. I noticed in passing there were businesses and front yards with twinkling trees trimmed in tinsel, and loaded with cheer and ornaments. But my heart was filled with fear and sadness over this new life we were both being introduced to. A new way to live.
We secretly discussed that we might just stop the drugs, and drink a little champagne or wine for special occasions. The folly of ideas such as this was quickly shown to us by the counselors.
The first month in recovery was a confusing and uncertain time for me. I accidentally locked my pet chicken, Crème Puff, under our house for a week. One day when I was feeding the other birds, I could hear her muffled voice, clucking and singing away through one of the vents. My eyes welled up with tears of thankfulness that she was indeed still alive. I was certain she had been attacked by a creature, and eaten. My inattention to her during this time of stress made me very sad, but hearing her little song through the vent made my heart soar. I opened the door to the crawl space and Creme Puff came out like a freight train, attacking my ankles, mad as a wet hen! I was so thrilled to see her fluffy golden self I let her peck on me all she wanted. My pets kept me going during this time of fear, change and uncertainty. They were my support group when I came home from the safety and shelter of the treatment center. I never felt alone, with the flock waiting for me come home at night.
Our first Eclectus had come to live with us in late summer and she was a huge part of our lives. In spite of the bad behaviour Wil and I had lived out, the pets were always taken care of. Venus was so incredibly gorgeous and smart. She fit in to our flock immediately and made herself right at home.
About a week into the treatment I asked permission to bring Venus along with me, and got an OK from the higher-ups. She rode well with me in my car, and got so excited to feel the primitive vents on my antique car blowing air on her. She was thrilled with the ride, and turned just right so the air could blow up into her feathers, all the while making the sound of the coffee pot perking, and reciting the other words Wil had taught her.
When we hit the door of “Club Summit”, Venus saw Wil and flew toward him. Even though her flight feathers had been trimmed, she made it to his shoulder and what a reunion that was. I brought her food and travel cage along, and she was assigned a special spot by the modest, imitation Christmas tree. The residents had decorated the best way they could with paper ornaments, and festooned the room with strings of popcorn and cranberries. Venus was busted numerous times, sampling the mouth watering strings of goodies.
As the holiday season progressed I took Venus in with me daily. One day I was in a hurry and left her home. Everyone there missed her, and John Atherton, the head counselor asked me, “Where’s Venus today? Our group just isn’t quite the same without her.” John reminded me to be sure to bring her the next day.
An unexpected thing began to happen in the treatment center. There were folks there that were so shut down and miserable they would barely talk in group. They never shared any of their feelings, even in the one-on-ones with the counselors. Several of these troubled people began to show some interest in Venus. We saw one of the most shut down girls go over to Venus, and very inconspicuously start talking to the parrot, using the Christmas tree as a shield so we couldn’t see her. Listening carefully, but not in a way that could be detected, I could hear Kathy whisper, “Venus, you are listening and I know you understand what I am going through right now don’t you.”
Venus cocked her head sideways and blinked her huge golden eyes, giving Kathy a sign she knew just what Kathy was talking about. Venus could be trusted with any secret, no matter how bad Kathy thought it was. Every day Kathy would wait until she thought no one was looking, go over by the cage and have these quiet, lengthy discussions with Venus. In a couple of weeks Kathy started to open up more in our groups, and each day she made more progress and trusted us with more of her inner feelings. How wonderful she had Venus to practice talking to, thereby getting her into a mode to let more of her feelings out each day.
Christmas Eve afternoon they showed us a movie. It was pretty graphic and depicted drug users shooting up. I was cuddling Venus in the dark of the room and about half way through the movie Wil stood up and mumbled, “I can’t hang. I need a fix and I’m walking right now.”
He swiftly made it to the exit door and was on his way out. I saw that Venus detected the problem with him leaving so suddenly, and with trimmed flights, she made it the distance to his back, landing squarely on one shoulder. His mind was made up about the need to score, but here was his dear little girl-bird on his shoulder.
Blonde Mary, who had several years in recovery and visited the treatment center often, stood up and intercepted them both in the doorway, taking Wil’s arm and gently whispering, “Come over to the next room and let’s talk Wil.”
I am certain that Wil would have walked out the door, hit the closest bar and found drugs in less than fifteen minutes. But that would have been hard to do with a pretty little red bird hanging on his back for dear life. Blonde Mary, Wil and I talked a long time. Long enough for the craving to pass.
Christmas day a local minister and fellow Harley rider, picked Wil up at the treatment center in his car, and brought him home to spend the day with me. I had gone out to start my car on Christmas morning and it now wasn’t going to budge out of the driveway either. Seems like the whole household had to break down, clear down to the last vehicle, before we could start the job of repair in motion.
Crème Puff, the bantam hen, was the first to rush out and greet Wil as he came up the driveway. She grabbed hold of his pant leg with her beak and thumped him soundly with her feet. We knew that translated to mean she was happy to see him. Blinky, the Gambel’s Quail stood tall and also cried his greeting out to his returning friend.
Venus Eclectus heard Wil’s voice and let out a war hoop the likes of which we had never heard before. She was on his shoulder in a heartbeat and wouldn’t leave him the rest of the day. There she was, helping him unwrap his gifts and begging his Christmas dinner from his mouth. That amazing Christmas she seemed the happiest of all to see Wil come home. If there was any kind of cohesive quality to our lives during the dark time of early recovery, Venus was surely the glue that held us all together. She was the one thing that remained constant for us in the jumbled up world we were trying to escape from, and find a more sane and spiritual way to live. God bless the animals in our lives. For me it has always been the ones with feathers, but just having the connection with the critters so enriches our lives. They give us our first lessons in unconditional love. Critters are entirely safe friends who do nothing but give, and ask so little in return.
In 1970, when I was attending art school I brought several still life paintings in that I considered to be my best work. My teacher took one look at the paintings and said they are very nice, but they merely look like the objects you were looking at. You know very well how to paint in a representational style and are good at it. How about breaking from that familiar style and try another approach. Let’s see something different, like a new technique, use only inch wide brushes, eliminate the size “0” brushes, squint your eyes, extend your arms. I didn’t want to leave the familiar area at all. But art school let me see many approaches to the same picture.
Last year a good friend suggested I write something “dark” for a change. I resisted of course. Same as my art school experience. I like to write light, gauzy, fluffy things with happy endings. I searched the corners of my mind for a dark way to go for my Christmas story. How could I write anything dark for such a happy season? I came up with this piece, which is about 50% true, and darker than I have ever written about before. This story didn’t have a happy ending for my late husband. He started using drugs again after six years and committed suicide in 1995, of an intentional meth over dose. I have been clean and sober since 1988. Proof it can be done by some.
Venus had a mate added to her life a few months after Christmas, who is Vulcan. They lived together happily for over twelve years until Venus died of an infection. Vulcan is still with us and has a new mate.
Something I heard at an AA meeting: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift and that is why we call it the present.” My 2006 present to you all...a small slice of my life!