Tuesday, September 1, 2015
UGLY AS SIN/INTERESTING AS HELL--FROM CHAPTER IX: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
"You got to eat shit,
To have visions."
Nobody goes into a hospital “well” and certainly I didn’t. My demons were doing a little jig in my head as I rounded up some reefer, a bag of dope and a few grams of coke the night before I was to go into Montefiore.
Bernstein was chief of diabetology at Montefiore. His status at the hospital provided me with a private room, which, unbeknown to him, comforted my demons.
When the nurses and technicians began arriving to give me the initial and obligatory chest x-rays, blood tests, and other preliminary testing, my father and Jean left the hospital, leaving me a step closer to what I had in my pocket. Two residents came in next to take my history, and I couldn’t wait for them to leave as well. I’m a fiend for isolation.
As I said, I had a private room, which meant I’d have no problem using the coke I’d brought with me. I’d brought my own syringes, too. I’d swiped a spoon that was on my lunch tray. I went into the bathroom and got my shot ready. I stared into the toilet.
“What the fuck am I doing?” I asked.
“You fuckin’ idiot, flush that shit away,” I answered. I opened the vial and let the powder float down like snow hitting a puddle. Poof. Gone. It was the smartest thing I’d done in well over two years. I felt like I’d taken the first important step among many to come. I felt empowered. I also felt like reaching into the toilet bowl and getting some of it back.
Later that evening, a doctor visited me. He was a psychiatrist who knew about addiction. He asked what I was using and how much. I did my best to be honest with him. He thought I’d be able to be comfortable if I took some tranquilizers and, if I needed it, a sleeping pill for the next few days. If, however, he cautioned, I was feeling lousy, he’d prescribe methadone for a few days or increase the dosage of what I was about to take. It sounded all right to me, and it was no great hardship getting through that night.
Bernstein visited me the next morning, and after asking how I was doing, proceeded to put me on a twelve hundred calorie a day diet to get my diabetes stabilized; he also told me about The Diabetes Self-Care Center, how they instruct the diabetic in using a glucometer (a small and portable instrument that allows the testing of blood glucose), nutrition, exercise and insulin, and how the three interact together in this carbohydrate-based diet. “I’m interested,” I told him, and he said he’d talk to me further about it as the days progressed.
I began reading the introductory booklets about diabetes the nurses had rounded up for me as if I was newly diagnosed. The only thing that took me a long time to figure out was the “food exchanges.” For example, if I gave up a slice of bread worth “x” amount of calories, I could substitute that with other foods worth “y” amount. But two carrots meant three and half stalks. It was a royal pain in the ass.
One day my father came early and I told him I wanted to go into the program Bernstein told me about. He said it was all right with him. Also, he’d like me to go back down to Miami with him, hopefully before I’d begin the program. “I’d love to go,” I said, “if Jean could come with me.”
He hesitated for a second and said, “I’ll get back to you on that one.”
It was time, I felt, to force the issue.
My head cleared up little by little. The glucose, booze, narcotics, reefer and other substances that coated my body peeled away layer by layer. One day, I awoke and felt “clean.” I can think of no better word than that. The world, still held safely at bay by the confines of the hospital, was manageable. My thoughts were able to return to practical things, like getting a job. I began to answer ads for public relation positions from the New York Times. Jean brought a portable typewriter and I’d bang out cover letters, include a resume and send them out.
I was getting bored, and a bed was not opening up in The Loeb Center. The nurses had begun instructing me about the use of the glucometer and, while I was still clumsy, it was just a matter of time and repetition before it became easy. Bernstein said it didn’t appear a bed would be available anytime soon and thought it best for me to be discharged and begin The Diabetic Self-Care Program.
“Jerry,” I began, a hint of nervous embarrassment in my face, “not that I want to do this now, today, but do you think I’ll ever be able to have a cocktail or smoke a little reefer again? ‘Cause I gotta tell ya, I love smoking reefer.”
He looked at me, not as if I was an idiot for asking, but puzzled for a second. “I really don’t know. Everything is relative to the individual. I don’t know enough about this kind of thing to say one way or the other. Knowing you though, you’re not a moderate kind of person.”
We spoke about Miami, Jean, and my folks. He’d gotten to know Jean over these last few years and bouts of illness, and liked her a great deal. He’d also at one time treated my mom for some of her physical ills as well as her “anxiety.” “Well, I’m sure you could use the rest, the sun, some good food and swimming. But you need your sanity more. If you can both relax...if not, come back. Nothing’s written in stone.”
After he left and I was waiting to get discharged, I thought about what we’d spoken about. Right now, I did not want to drink or smoke reefer. I wanted my system free of any mood altering shit in order to get a clear picture of how my body was doing. Once I got that, once I got out of that program and knew what I needed to know, then I’d decide. As far as Florida was concerned, I wanted to go down there if my parents were willing to have Jean as well. And even then, I’d take it a day at a time. Next, I called Jean and told her I was coming home.
Before going to my apartment I made two stops, the first to a surgical supply pharmacy to purchase a glucometer and the second was to The Diabetic Self-Care Program. I made an appointment to have my initial physical and stress tests the following Monday.
The next day was Jean’s birthday and we (my father, brother and his date) surprised her by taking her to Peter Luger’s, a legendary steak restaurant under the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. Afterwards, we came back to my apartment to have coffee and talk. They were interested in my new toy, the glucometer and wanted their blood tested. I unwrapped the new machine and went to work. It resembled a scene out of a Roger Corman or a badly shot vampire movie. There was blood everywhere. When I tried to get a drop of blood from pricking their fingers and then placing it on a test strip, the blood would drip onto the table, chair, and floor or run down their arms. Finally, when I did manage to get their blood on the right part of the reagent strip and insert it into the machine to get a reading, everyone had a reading indicating they were diabetic. The next day, when I brought the machine back, thinking it was inaccurate, I discovered I hadn’t properly inserted the strip to begin with. It added between thirty and fifty points to their tests. I told them all to cancel their doctor’s appointments, but Jean and I made another appointment. My father had told me that if we wanted, we could accompany him to Miami. I called the diabetes program and pushed back my tests two weeks, and two days later we were in Florida.
My mother hid her horror well, and she did her best to be gracious and hospitable to Jean. By the third day, she didn’t have to try any longer. She took to Jean, and Jean took to her. They found a commonality of interests and seemed to understand each other in ways that suggest, in retrospect, a desire to be with and love difficult, if not selfish, and exasperating men. My mother had shed a part of herself that she never thought she could, her value in appearances.
I was eating well, sunning, swimming, and exercising. Some nights, we’d go to the dogs. We all loved to gamble, especially my mom. She’d root home her dog with all the fervor of a religious zealot, and when she won she’d whoop and laugh and jump up and down. She seemed younger than I ever remembered her. The two weeks we were there flashed by quickly, but I was anxious to get back and begin what, I hoped, would be a life very different from the one I had been living. Questions, which gnawed at me like my inability to have satisfactory sex with Jean, were tamped down. I tried to believe it would resolve itself when other things settled into place. We were enjoying each other in other ways.
The program was an eye-opener. For the first time since I became diabetic, I was able to see, chart, and understand my disease. I was able to gauge how my glucose fluctuated in relation to my intake of food and exercise.
There were two other people, Ruth and Mary, who were going through the program as well. We struggled together. The staff was excellent, and while we didn’t think we could learn and assimilate all they were planning to dispense, we did. By the end of the week, we could eye-measure our food portions to the correct carbohydrate count, titrate (measure) our dosages of regular insulin to what our blood glucose counts were, and eat a meal.
Carbohydrates are crucial to being well balanced in this program. Depending on age, weight, and whether or not the pancreas was functioning to any appreciable degree, the staff would calibrate the amount of insulin to the carbohydrates to be consumed. From those measurements, we could decide whether we wanted to lose weight, stay the same or gain a few pounds.
I was taken off my usual insulin and put on two other ones: UltraLente, long-acting insulin without real peaks or valleys. It’s used to cover the body’s basic metabolic processes; and Regular, used when eating meals. The amount of Regular would be measured against my blood glucose and how many carbohydrates I’d consume at any given time. It’s short-acting insulin that peaks in two to four hours and is out of the system in six. I injected the UltraLente twice a day, once in the morning when I awoke and later, between five and seven in the evening. These drugs freed me to decide what I felt like eating and when. If I decided during the heat of summer I didn’t want to eat lunch or if I was having a physically difficult time and didn’t want to eat, I’d skip the shot and the meal. I could never do that using my old insulin. Come Hell or high water, I had to eat because the insulin dictated peaking periods. By monitoring myself four to six times daily, I knew pretty well what my glucose, hence my diabetes, was doing. I learned that insulin takes hold more slowly in the mornings and so I’d eat less early. I learned that in the face of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar or insulin shock) not to panic. Instead of ravaging my body with sweets, a simple glass of skim milk would suffice. I was educated about different foods and how quickly they broke down in the system and learned their carbohydrate count. I grew comfortable with taking my insulin shot anywhere and even through thin materials, which enabled me to take the shot in restaurants without feeling self-conscious. The one thing I couldn’t control, besides some emotional mood swings, was my body’s natural change and decay. If you’re going to worry about controlling what you can’t, you’ll never control what you can. At the end of the two weeks my Medic Alert bracelet came in the mail. On its back is engraved “Diabetic, Takes Insulin,” with a number to call collect if I became unconscious anywhere due to insulin shock or any other accident. It was time to put what I’d learned to the test.
Finally, I thought, I had embraced my diabetes. I had become “the good son.” I was clean; booze and dope were no longer polluting my system. My family had accepted Jean. I’d turned it around.
I began looking for jobs and was met with rejection after rejection. Slowly, frustration was turning into anxiety and depression. I began chipping away at the thin and brittle barrier between me and some kind of mood alterer. Drinking was easy to rationalize. A glass of wine at first. In a short amount of time, it was scotch; and then, shorter still, cocaine, and finally junk.
Trying to stem the tide before it overwhelmed and drowned me, I quickly returned to Florida and my parents. My brother, who’d been living with them there and working at a job that my father had gotten him, took me the second night I was there to the Carlisle, a hotel that had just been remodeled and would soon become part of the South Beach we know today. He was friendly with the piano player and singer and wanted me to meet him. I ordered a cognac and by the end of the night I was snorting coke. I wanted to do the same thing the next night, which we did. Soon I’d made my own connections and began shooting the coke in our room, next to my parent’s bedroom, much like I’d done with heroin at my parent’s home in Seagate nearly twenty years before.
I needed to see a podiatrist while down there and my folks had me go to theirs near their condo. I had never had great sensation in my feet and so didn’t notice that the doctor was digging out a hole in the bottom of my left foot. When I finally asked him what he was doing, he said that he was removing the diabetic ulceration, which Bernstein had told me not to worry about. I yelled at him, which is rare for me. That night my foot blew up. It was nearly twice the size that it was the day before. And it was painful. Not tremendously painful, but painful enough so it suited my purposes. I went back to the podiatrist and had him write me a prescription for Percocet, which I eagerly filled.
After a few weeks of ingesting as many pills as I could, I decided to go back home to New York and see Bernstein. My decision was based on fear, healthy fear.
Bernstein sent me to a vascular surgeon who wanted me to go into the hospital immediately and start on I.V. antibiotics, which I did. In two weeks, the hole in the bottom of my foot healed into the size of a pinprick. Jean came to pick me up that hot day, at the beginning of August 1984. I felt like shit. I didn’t know what I was going to do, let alone how I was going to go about doing it. I was whittled down to a nub, with no job and a continuation of the ebbs and flows of my life. I had the cab stop on 2nd Avenue and 10th Street. I got out, bought a pint of booze and walked around the corner to the street cocaine dealers and bought however much coke I could afford.
In less than two weeks, the hole the size of a pinprick began to widen and “weep.” I called Bernstein. He told me to elevate the leg that night and call him the next day. It didn’t take that long. The next morning I awoke in a sweat and had a fever of a hundred and four. Four toes on my left foot looked a bluish green. I called Bernstein. Don’t wait, he said, get right in a cab and go to the emergency room at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, he’d be waiting for me.
He got me a room, hooked me up to another I.V. and the next day, early in the morning the vascular surgeon amputated my four toes, leaving me the big one. Sometime later, he told me that necrotic tissue had been covered up by new skin so there was no way of knowing what lurked underneath. How prescient he was! But it was not my foot that held the necrotic tissue, it was my fucking mind. I never told him of my diet of booze and coke that made all those fun and games possible.
I was heavily sedated for the first few days, and still heavily sedated after I became somewhat conscious. The pain, this time, was indeed excruciating. When the nurse came in to put a fresh dressing on the wound site I watched, amazed, that all that bloody gauze was where my four toes once were. It reminded me of the old magic trick where the magician just keeps pulling and pulling fabric out of his top hat. But the pain meds kept coming. My body began clocking the four hours until my next fix. And the next. And the next.
As I became accustomed to my surroundings I began to note just what kind of place I was in: the vascular surgery ward of a major New York City hospital in a poor section of the Bronx. It seemed that Jaws had come out of the ocean and established residency there. I was on that ward for the better part of two months. I saw many people came in to have a toe amputated; they came back a week or two later and had the ankle removed; and still later to have everything below their knee sawed off. Every day it seemed there was a “code blue.”
Jean came nearly every day bringing me food. How the hell she did it after working a full-time gig, I’ll never know. Being a prick, I had little trouble thinking I deserved all her attention. Besides, I was still receiving four hour doses of narcotics, allowed to smoke cigarettes to my heart’s content, and was able to, during the evening, get into my wheelchair, go to the rec room on the ward, and see an amazing phenom, Doc Gooden, pitch for the Mets. This was not all bad.
What was disconcerting was that my amputation site wouldn’t heal. After the operation my doctor did a skin graft that was designed to fill in the hole. But because there was a nurses strike for two weeks after my operation, the hospital had to postpone what they determined as elective surgeries. For the next twenty years I had to scrub the site out at night and dress it in the morning, using Betadine and gauze pads.
Ritchie, my last roommate, came in with heavy guard chains for his own T.V. Soon we became friends. Both his legs were shot. While in Korea he was captured, tortured and beat unmercifully around his legs so that every three months or so, he’d need operations to restore whatever tissue he needed to marginally walk. He chained smoked Kools, was married to an ex-belly dancer who now was a nurse on Riker’s Island prison, and lived in Yonkers. He, more than anyone else, educated me in how to play doctors for pain medication. He had four or five of them scattered throughout New York City. There was another interesting thing about him and his wife: they were peculiar animal lovers.
When I finally got released from Montefiore, I met up with Ritchie the next day to score some drugs. After getting some Dilaudid we went back to his home to shoot it. Before entering he told me not to worry about the four Dobermans that would bound out to greet him. I was pretty loaded already from my own prescription of Percocet so I was not all that concerned. But when I walked in, a powerful odor hit me, and I was overwhelmed by “caw” “caw” and screeching sounds. The first room I peered into had six or eight monkeys swinging from branch to branch and a bevy of parrots clocking their activity. “Wait,” Ritchie said, when he saw my expression. “Wait ‘til you see this.”
He took me downstairs to his garage. Inside a mesh cage stood a full-grown lioness.
“How the fuck did you get her here?”
“My wife smuggled her in as a cub.”
“Cool,” I said.
After shooting the Dilaudid, we talked and nodded off for the rest of the afternoon. When evening came, he brought me into his backyard to look behind some bushes.
I could see, through a window into the garage, the lion’s eyes, fierce green orbs, following our every movement.
Jacques Hassoun writes in, Melancholia and the Cruelty of Depression, ...“The object we call a drug is established by said addict in place of what immediately departed from his life... Being amputated from that part of himself that allows him to consider the future, he is expelled from the civil order, from the City; as a result he is no more than a suffering body, craving whatever might pull him out of an infinite sadness. And even today, day after day, through ersatz drugs, the user takes care of this body that has no existence apart from its suffering...”
And it didn’t. From there, it was welfare and food stamps and rehab and small jobs and drinking, arrests, and desperation. Things I thought I’d never do, I did. Until I stopped through the help and interventions of Jerry Bernstein (once again, always there) and a psychiatrist he recommended, who put me on a cocktail of anti-depressive and anxiety medications that I’d be taking for the next few years.
Because of the internal balance I was able to achieve through psychopharmeceutical, psychiatric and social interventions, I was able to get out of the bind I’d been in, look around, and decide what I could and wanted to do. I decided that I wanted to somehow be around literature and writing. I enjoyed the time I spent as a teacher and now set my sights on that, with a different emphasis: teaching “gifted and talented” students. I applied to and was accepted by Teacher’s College/Columbia University. I eagerly began taking classes that September.
The classes engaged me, and I enjoyed being on the campus of Columbia. Being grandiose, and steeped in my own particular history of reading, and in some cases knowing the writers of the “Beat Generation,” I felt good about being in the same place as them. When it came time to do my student teaching, I choose Stuyvesant--probably the most prestigious public school for gifted students in the metropolitan area--and arranged an appointment with the chairman of the department.
Bill Ince, the chair of the English department, wore Irish tweeds, had intelligent blue eyes and, after listening to my brief and selective history of practically growing up in Greenwich Village, introduced me to one of his English teachers who allowed me to student teach in her class. Barbara could see that I knew my way around the classroom and we became friendly. I wasn’t intrusive, but tried to add to what she was instructing her students. Oftentimes Barbara letting me lead the discussions. In one of her classes I met Saul, who was writing his senior college essay on Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl.” I felt hopeful that a kid from his generation was drawn to that poem, which had been so important to me. I told Saul and Barbara that Ginsberg was my mentor during my New School days and then asked Ince if he would want me to try and contact him to give a reading at Stuyvesant. After some equivocation because of Ginsberg’s reputation, the opportunity was too good for Ince to pass up.
That night, I pulled out an old address book and dialed the number I had for Allen. He picked up. I didn’t have to spend a great deal of time reminding him of our time together nearly twenty years ago. I told him why I was calling and he agreed to read for the students.
Ince was elated when I told him. His chest puffed up as he made plans to inform the principal. There was a terrific buzz around the school and the event was filmed, a copy of which was given to me. A few weeks later, I had a similar visit from another one of my current friends, Jason Miller, the Pulitzer-Prize winning writer. It was then that Frank McCourt, who was teaching at Stuyvesant at the time, and I started to become friends. Both he and Jason shared an Irish heritage and their resistance to the Brits occupation of Ireland at the time.
One day Ince called me into his office. He whispered to me that one of his teachers had contracted the HIV virus and would be taking a leave of absence. Ince said that there was a list of teachers a mile long who were waiting for a slot to open up at Stuyvesant, but he had the power to give the position to me, should I want it. Something stopped me from immediately accepting it. I thought about my continuing studies at Columbia, and the amount of work I would have to do should I accept the offer. I asked if I could have the evening to think it over.
The day that I took over his class, the departing teacher, with a look of fear and defiance in his eyes, told me he’d be back soon.
I was immediately struck by the depth and endless curiosity of my students’ minds, and the amount of work I had to do to keep up with them. By the end of my first term of teaching, going to classes at Columbia, as well as all the other things a human being has to do, I began to have difficulty juggling everything. I knew something had to go: I dropped out of Columbia, thinking that I could, after putting in some time at Stuyvesant, be eligible to take the test to become a full-time licensed teacher. Still, I found myself exhausted by the constant stream of work; it seemed I had endless papers to grade with nearly a hundred and fifty students. Unlike teachers in the math department who could put tests through a scantron to come up with a grade, English teachers had to go over students’ papers line by line and then talk to them about it. I still didn’t believe in preparation. Me, make lesson plans? Fuck that. I figured I was smart enough to go into the class, read the material along with the students and wing it.
I had the idea to take the students’ papers to the Cedar Tavern, have a few cocktails, pretend I was a serious critic of their work, before going upstairs to have dinner with Jean. Yeah, I knew it was crazy thinking, but maybe, just maybe, I could get away with it. My grandiosity was in control of my thinking. The way I saw it, I was the one who brought Ginsberg and Miller to read. I was the only teacher who was given space in the student newspaper. The kids I came into contact with were crazy about me. But I knew, from the moment I accepted the position, that I’d done the wrong thing for me. And now I was just flailing my arms, treading water, trying not to drown.
But I was, in booze. The only things keeping me afloat were my shakey defenses of grandiosity and self-aggrandizement. One day after class, a junior who was incredibly bright, sexy/attractive, and had an obvious crush on me, asked if I would read something she’d written and talk with her about it. Of course, I said, flattered and full of myself. We met one day at a coffee shop across the street from the school where I knew it was frowned upon for teachers and students to intermingle, especially those of the opposite sex. But I was me, the rebel teacher; the teacher on the side of the students; the teacher who understood the “square” dodgy presence of those who by birth were their parents.
During our “conference” I told her that I thought her work was terrific and encouraged further investigations of her perceptions and creativity. I also took the time to tell her a little more about myself than the other students knew and even “let it slip” that the Cedar Tavern had been where I spent time “kicking around” in Greenwich Village. She shared with me that she and her girlfriend had obtained illegal driver’s licenses and frequented some of the hotter spots in New York City during the week and on weekends, as those curious and sophisticated teenagers are wont to do. I told her to keep writing and it wouldn’t be a bother to me to read whatever it was that she wanted me to.
One early evening I was at The Cedar by myself. A hand gripped the crook of my arm. I turned to see her staring up at me and smiling. I felt myself blushing. What are you doing here, I inquired, trying to get my bearings. She told me that she was meeting her friend to go to Nell’s, a popular spot with those “in the know” on 14th Street, and asked if she could come up to my place, which she knew was across the street, until it was time to see her friend.
Once upstairs, after some chit chat, she sat on my lap. We kissed. She coyly asked if I wanted her to come to my place after she and her friend parted ways that evening. I played it off by saying that if she did come over I didn’t want her drunk and laughed with the tingle of expectation.
Much later that night, my doorbell rang. She was very drunk. I told her she should go home and offered to put her in a cab. She refused, and went into my bedroom and lied down, fully clothed. I went and lied down next to her. Had she been less drunk, or I more so, we would have fucked. Of that I have little doubt. I was unable to close my eyes, let alone sleep. The next morning, I got her up and she left. I couldn’t go to work and called in sick. Within a very short period of time, I was stopping on 10th Street before going to work and picking up cocaine, going to work and doing coke in the bathroom, getting home and drinking and then shooting the rest of the coke and drinking some more. A short time after that, I went to Ince and told him that I’d gotten a diabetic ulceration in my amputation site and would have to go into the hospital.
I called up my psychiatrist who I’d stopped seeing by then and told him I had to see him. I had unraveled completely. He got me a bed for the next day and put me on a suicide watch. I’d done some pretty despicable things in my life but the worst was taking advantage of kids. Even though Goethe had said, There are no things which I can’t consider myself guilty my behavior had been too disgusting for even me.
I thought I must have been hard-wired to go through trying to get clean over and over and failing. Bukowski once said that suicide was very comforting because he knew that the cage was never completely shut. If I could have looked at it like he did, I would not be here now to tell this tale. I could not pull the proverbial trigger.
Once the booze and drugs cleared from my system and I felt better, the suicide watch was lifted. Unlike all my previous hospitalizations, I was in no hurry to leave. I called Ince from the hospital. He told me that he had to give away my program to another teacher but would make sure he’d find me suitable substitute work on an everyday basis when I was ready to return. I decided too, that the day I’d be released, whenever that day might be, I’d go to an NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting and called their local number to find where the closest was to my pad and what times they were held. In my new found commitment to honesty there was one important thing that I had to do: I had to speak to Jean.
Jean had come to the hospital one afternoon after I’d been there for a few weeks. She began telling me how hopeful she was that this time would be different and was sure, that although we’d been through a lot in our time together (which was nearing a decade), our love for each other... I stopped her and said, with as much sensitivity as I could gather at the time, that I did not think that what I felt for her was “love” in the way she wanted, and that she deserved to be “loved.” Moreover, I thought that it was best for her to move back to San Francisco and begin a life for herself where, if she was lucky, some man, who would be lucky as well, would fall in love with her without the strum and drang that our relationship had been burdened with. It took us two more years to disentangle from one another, but she did and it was the hardest thing I’d, up until that point, ever did with another person who I relied and depended so heavily on. The day she left and I watched her get into a cab I felt that a piece of my flesh was ripped away from my body. And I’m sure she must have felt the same.
I stuck to my plan. I went to an NA meeting the day I was discharged from the hospital, an unusually hot April day. I did not want Jean to meet me when I left the hospital. I wanted to do whatever I was going to do on my own. There was a three o’clock meeting on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. I walked in there and immediately smelled the disinfectant. I read the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions that were posted on the wall. They didn’t impress me. They were much like what I had heard and been taught during my time spent in Therapeutic Communities. My motivation for being there was strictly self-serving fear; I did not want to use again. At least not today. A few people, seeing I was “new” came up to me, introduced themselves, which increased my anxiety. They told me that I was “welcomed” and not to worry, which made me worry a little more. I went home that day and had dinner with Jean. Then I went back to a meeting the next day and the day after that. It seemed to work. I made a few friends and began going out to dinner and coffee with them. That seemed to work, too. I got, as they suggested, a “sponsor” and that seemed to work as well. Then I went back to work at Stuyvesant, which was more than a little awkward, especially when I’d run into the junior who I almost had a tryst with, but I was able to diffuse that situation. I was beginning to hope that things would work out.
“Hope in one hand and shit in the other, and see which one fills up first,” the old saying goes. I’d managed to put some exterior structures in place: part time work, NA meetings, a few friends to socialize with, Jean and some help from my parents. And as long as my exterior looked good, I was able to twist, turn, repress and rationalize some of my internal concerns. I tried, when my internal conflicts arose to “keep it simple” as the program advises and my friends and sponsor suggested. I figured I didn’t need to “work” the 12 Steps, that I knew myself and had already written a memoir about the “sins and evils” of my past life. I rationalized that my parents support of me was similar to the Nazis reparations to the Jews. I knew, however, in my heart that I was, in the jargon of the program, “Taking the easier softer way.”
That fall I was surprised to be invited to my brother’s wedding. He was marrying a neighborhood Italian girl who he started seeing when in high school, and the on again off again romance had resulted in a wedding date after twenty some odd years. My brother and I, aside from our drinking and drug taking had not had a relationship. I’m sure due to some parental arm twisting I was invited.
Jean and I cabbed into Brooklyn. My parents came up from Florida. My father wore a striking rose-colored sport jacket influenced, no doubt, by the Jewish/Italian gangsters of Miami. I felt extremely awkward. And what with NA I knew I couldn’t drink. I was happy when the evening ended and my brother and his now wife was spirited away in a limo.
And so it went, one month passed; two became six; six a year, and then two. Jean had returned to San Francisco and I was having a difficult time accepting my role as a substitute teacher. I felt that I was baby-sitting. I was still frequenting The Cedar Tavern even though I wasn’t drinking and even though the program suggested no hanging out in bars. I felt I had to stay in contact with Joey Diliberto, one of the owners, who I’d grown close with over the past twenty-five years and who had indeed become closer to me than my brother. And so, one day at The Cedar, a regular there at the time, told me that a friend of his who owned a bookstore on Astor Place might be looking for a manager. I went to see him, told him some of my background, and he offered me the gig as the night manager. I was eager to leave my current job and turn a page.
In many ways I was back in my element: being around books, managing a retail operation in Greenwich Village, socializing with other ex-drunks and drug addicts, and going to The Cedar, the famed hangout of artists and writers since the 1950’s and having club sodas where present day drunks drank. Yet there were obvious changes in my life, too. For the first time in a very long time, I was really living alone; I’d stopped going to NA meetings and started going to AA meetings and consequently the “sober” friends and sponsor I had went by the wayside; I’d not had sex with anyone in over a year, and that part of me began to itch. Also, I’d developed a “frozen shoulder” a common, though painful, enough occurrence in diabetics and was referred to a shoulder specialist. When I told my new doctor how much pain I was experiencing he prescribed Viocdin. I reasoned that this was “legitimate” pain and I tried to diligently control that medication as I stretched and exercised the shoulder, but found myself either taking an extra pill occasionally or “predicting” when the pain would arrive and take one to ward it off.
“C’mon, Norman, balance. Don’t fuck around. Balance,” I admonished myself. It seemed to work. My shoulder unfroze. I patted myself on the back, and went on.