Every once in a while I’ll post something by someone else (especially if that “something else” is about me). Here’s an awesome essay by Celeste Roche, who came to one of my readings in CT. I don’t know her, and if I met her I don’t recall (sorry, Celeste. Crazy couple days!). Celeste wrote this piece for her professor, Debbie Bradford, who was a classmate of mine at CCSU way back when I was first sobering up in the aughts. It’s pretty cool to see how you come off looking to others (I mean, providing that you come off…cool)–and it’s nice knowing Junkie Love offers a little hope to someone else suffering from addiction (in this case a friend of Celeste). Most importantly though I am publishing this because it fucking rocks as a piece of writing, drawing an astute correlation between dope and craft, illustrating bona fide chops. (And the “senior-center-scented” line alone is worth the price of admission…)
RECOVERY by Celeste Roche
“If you don’t like how you’re depicted, then maybe you shouldn’t act that way.”
Joe Clifford is a former drug addict, sharing his story with a group of folks at the library in Berlin. He says this when an audience member asks how he handles the “camera-shy” people in his life who might not appreciate their role in his narrative, Junkie Love.
He tells his senior-center-scented observers about many things outside of their daily sphere of concern: mimicking an addict who feels slighted by the world because his utilities mysteriously were shut off (because he didn’t pay for them), mentioning that he still harbors a measure of “survivor’s guilt” regarding the dope scene.
He didn’t know I’d be here—I didn’t know that he’d be here—and he doesn’t know who I am. But I think that part of him hopes people like me will wind up at his book readings, possibly with a copy of their own.
I came as a writer, someone hoping to hear about a local success story, prowling for some encouragement as I sheepishly plunge into the instability that is “professional” storytelling. But I didn’t check to see what the book was about, or even titled, before coming.
Before I decided to write, I majored in economics, worked two or three or four jobs and spent the rest of my time cleaning-up after dopesick guys who have more potential than common sense. My senior year was cluttered with overdoses and less significant drug-related mishaps. Even love wasn’t a valid excuse to friends on the outside—I was such a smart girl; I shouldn’t be dealing with people like that. But Mikey and I met in the Gifted Enrichment program. He was smart, too.
Writers and heroin addicts are very similar. We look back on our previous fixes, wondering what made us think they were anything like good ideas. We try to convince ourselves and others that we’re not thinking about it, when really every conversation is just a veil over the syringe, an interlude in the story. We tend to have difficulty “getting a real job,” often finding ourselves between temporary gigs, chasing what it is we truly want, occasionally ending-up on public assistance in the process.
There are two big differences.
One: when an elder, probably a very upright aunt at a family gathering, asks us why we don’t have a stable career and a modest family at this point (we were always so bright and quite popular with our peers, of course), the junkie tells a beautiful story that is, for all intents and purposes, a lie. The writer, perhaps in her one moment of virtue, balls together a few strings of courage and defends her paperback dreams.
Joe is married now, though not for the first time. His young son and eight-pound poodle are points of pride. He rolls his arms lightly as he lists all of his ties to the literary world, including a successful blog where he chimes to the universe about his dear child. With little concern, almost as an afterthought, he assures the audience that he, of course, has a real job as well. From the excerpt he reads us, we feel that he has desired this life for some time: he bemoans the paranoid and childish antics of a certain Debra and a couple of other friends while rattled by coke somewhere in the snowbanks of Vermont.
A creaky voice inquires how he went from what he was to what he is—how he killed junkie Joe and got to be a remarkably average-seeming, almost-clean-shaven, productive member of civil society.
“Each detox,” he says, referencing over a dozen clinical experiences, “chipped away at it a little bit more.” He adds, and the audience laughs, that he had been writing his success story since before he ever went clean.
I remember that.
When Mikey and I got in touch after years of not talking, he went into a thirty-day rehab program. When he came out, we were ready to get a boat and sail around the world together, making wonderful music and helping out however we could wherever the winds took us.
When Mikey got his job doing direct sales after four months of rotting in our apartment, he advanced quickly, beating the record for fastest promotion (four months) within his first week on the floor. He chirped at me, tired, flailing his cigarette, “I can own my own business in a year! How do you like that? Drug-addict-turned-business-owner. I like how that sounds.”
“You need to focus on the former before you can achieve the latter,” I’d sigh, carrying the dirty dishes from his floor to the kitchen.
A few good fights, a parting of ways and a couple of overdoses later, he e-mails me asking if I have a copy of the resume I had made for him. After waking up in the Bliss Wing at Hartford Hospital to a gaggle of angry Italians and one very sad Jew demanding that he go into a program, he moved to California to live with his ex-stepfather and his younger half-brother—also a recovering addict.
I know, how Joe knows, how Mikey knows—everyone needs to climb his own ladder.
Two: the goal is different. The dopehead is not looking to commit—not to Mary Jane, Lucy, Crystal, Molly—he exists “for nobody.” The goal is to go as far through the door as possible without actually leaving. Flirt with death, buy her a few drinks, maybe slide your hand up her leg—but don’t bring her home. You only bring her home when she’s the sole soul left in the bar, when even the owner, the jukebox and those snide little peanuts have abandoned you. Writers, on the other hand, aim for the deep end. An overdose that only swells in your throat without causing the lungs to explode and leak out of the mouth just isn’t worth it. Go big, or get a nine-to-five. Or…at least try to go big.
Joe reminisces about writing bad checks to get through life with his and his significant other’s drug habits. Likewise, he reminisces about writing bad stories: there was something about monkeys in an earlier version of this not-quite-memoir. But he killed the monkeys because they were holding him back. The addict Joe only ever fed them. Every addict has a happy little clan of monkeys who tug at his cheeks when they’re hungry. Writers have no time for monkeys—it’s hard enough to keep one stomach full while freelancing.
Mikey had a monkey.
We were sitting in the “family lounge” outside of the ICU, staring into our own horizons of guilt and rage. Mikey’s mother mused about all the little signs—how she should’ve known that he wasn’t really doing well. I curled my legs up into the little nook of a chair, resting my head on folded arms.
A white-haired Puerto Rican entered the room, muttering in a language nobody ever understands. He kissed Jenny and handed her a stuffed monkey.
“A dis, found Mikey’s monkey, eh, I taught I bring him.”
“George!” Jenny pat the stuffed monkey. “Mikey gave me this one Mother’s Day—he asked me what I wanted, and I told him I wanted a monkey. He was always so sweet.”
I buried my head deeper into my fetal cave, the irony paining me.
Nick, Mikey’s older brother, seated quietly, brooding and redditing in the corner, clears his throat as the Puerto Rican man—the third ex-husband—leaves the room.
“I think we need to consider the fact that Mike might have done this on purpose.”
I lift my head and press it back against the wall.
“Why would he do that?” Aunt Linda is sincerely perplexed.
Nick and I stare at one another, silently, knowingly. Because every man clearly wants to live on the Planet of the Apes.
Joe Clifford apologizes as he speeds through his pitch; our society demands that artists be ashamed of the notion that they should be paid for their work. His status as a recovered addict does nothing to change our culture’s view of him as a writer. People like to think that writing is easy, even though it is usually more difficult than living through the things worth writing about.
I neglect to buy a book directly from him, but I put two copies in my Amazon shopping cart. I think I can learn a lot from Joe, as a writer. And I think I know someone else who could use a good example.