Clean

When you get out of treatment, you and a guy you were in there with ride around town after dark, wide roads lit by fluorescent yellow-white, scarlet pin-pricks scattered through the night along the skeletons of cranes like paprika. Windows down, cigarette smoke pouring out of them like white water. You stop at the red lights, because that’s what people do when they’ve scrubbed up and got decent and, you know, law-abiding. The music makes the frame of the car shake, sometimes you sing along together but mostly you stare. At the kerb, at lone humans loping like wolves in tracksuit bottoms, at the blank glass of empty office windows. When you suck in air you get the pure oxygen of the deserted road hitting you, gunpowder line sparking straight to the core like cocaine, meltdown at the reactor. Hour after hour spent on adventures to the out of town Ikea or the old football stadium, just to watch them glow. Drinking cans of plain tonic water, hyped up on fizzy cola bottles like teenagers, a couple of gentle outlaws on a sugar high.

***

When you are fourteen years old, you eat a whole bag of contaminated hallucinogens. You’re supposed to stop at four, and this is probably one of the first indications you’re gonna have a problem. They say if you can survive 24 hours after strychnine poisoning, you’ll live, on balance. You’re about four hours in when you see an angel for the first time, during one of those neck arches that felt like iron rods being pushed through your nervous system and would you look at that, there is a man on fire. A roman candle of a man, second-storey high flaring with orange gold that sears the drip of your eyelids, white-hot corona around death’s eclipse. The sheer roaring noise of his arrival scars the air, brands it with the kind of living burn you get in a lightning-struck trunk. You’re busy, shapeshifting into a thorn tree, gnarled and pouring out sweat sap hotter than a sticky midsummer, twitching on the lower bunk while Lisa crushed the hours under the doped up gears of her brain. Couldn’t even wake her by screaming she was so deep, or she was a goner too. You think about Johnson and how the great bluesman had gone under via strychnine and figure at least you’d die like a legend, and then you think: fuck off, I don’t wanna die at all.

You don’t have enough liquid in you left to piss at this point let alone weep but you manage to wring out a few acidic tears because you’re never gonna see your Mother again, and you’ll never get to say sorry to so many people, like your Mother. And your scrawny fourteen year-old ass is going to get tossed into one of those forever alone graves at the edge of the cemetery where flowers are only left by the wind pulling them off of the other folks’ hump of grass and some well-aimed bird shit.

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So you’re lying there and everything is calcifying as these little crystals eat up your musculature as they go, and you know you’re not going to the hospital because it’s just you and the zombie in the top bunk so your brain tries to make some peace with The End but you’re too young and stupid, and this panting little animal body twisting in a noose of its own contorting flesh is so much smarter than you are, and somehow another four hours are done. You crawl to the sink and gulp all the water you can choke out of the old tap and swear to God if you can just make it out of this one alive you’ll be different. No one will have to find you fossilised in dirty sheets brittle now with old salt. Never again. Never, never. Anyway, you make it out alive. Years later, you tell this story to a pharmacist friend, he stares at you, says:

‘How much of this shit did you eat?’

‘The pack.’

‘Jesus Christ.’

‘Yeah, I guess He had something to do with it.’

He shakes his head, cap mashed up in his massive hands. ’Well aren’t you a lucky son of a bitch.’

And bitterness rises up like a dark Nile flooding the plain of your gut, because you hear people talk about near-death experiences and how they were changed forever and you didn’t change. You kept change at bay in bars and on living room sofas with springs poking through and street corners and every time you nearly died you’d swear to God: ‘Get me out of this one, honey, and I’ll be different.’ Skinny little liar right off the bat, because even though you knew what had happened in the warped fisheye lens of your brain it was easier to shrug, say, Hell, it was a long time ago, and slide the empty glass back down the long coffin of the bar. 

***

Now you’re resurrected, dragged backwards into your body by the tough-love chest compression of the clinic. Autumn is here – you see it in the curling edges of the leaves fluttering above the benches in the square and feel it slide blade-like into your bones the way it does every year since the accident, but summer doesn’t want to take the hint. She’s a party girl talking too loudly on the stairs, hoping the colder season will take her number.

There isn’t much to do in these newborn days, so you guys drive. You drive around the outskirts of town like one more circuit and your new lives will fly up to meet you, will pour themselves down your throat like shining water. Like the man the size of a house made of flaming wheels will come again with that sound to raze these sleeping buildings to mere lines in the dust and hand you that map he meant to drop off almost twenty years ago when you were busy in the electric chair. You stop at the red lights. It’s what people do when they’re decent, law-abiding. Clean.

Ordinary Pain

Grief is a glass jar.

I said this to a strange woman in church once, as we sat and stared at the colours bleeding through a window as the sun went down. Green stems snaking around an angel in robes of red and blue. I looked at the detail in the golden feathers of the angel who was standing under what I think was a lemon tree – although I have never seen a lemon tree so perhaps it wasn’t – holding an open book. Nothing legible was written there.

I can’t remember the kind of day I’d had, but I know that church well enough to know that I don’t go there when I’m in a good place. I go there to wrap the silence around me, to breathe in the dusty skin of all the compassionate stones who remember some of the worst days of my life. They swallow my footsteps the same way the gentle earth outside has swallowed the footsteps of almost everyone in this parish and washed them down with more stone.

‘Grief is a glass jar in your head, full of a terrible rotting black liquid, and the aim of the game in our society is to walk around without spilling any because if you do, it will seep down through your brain and onto your tongue and everything you think and say after that will be stained with it.’

The woman was silent, just shifted on the pew as the thick muffled thump of the clock hands boomed above us.

‘Your breath becomes foul with it, and once it’s on your skin it never washes off. Everyone you used to know avoids you in the end. What happened to processing this stuff? What happened to wearing black for a year and eating bread and salt and wearing a necklace out of their hair?’

The quiet stretched out ahead of us both like a road. Then the woman reached over a took my hand. Hers was wrinkled and spotted brown like a hen’s egg and her hair was a brittle cloud tinged with the blue-violet of an oncoming storm. Her son’s name was in the book of rememberance on the far wall and she had been eating bread and salt for years, and she knew the weight of the glass jar and the taste of that rotting fluid very well. We said we’d get a coffee sometime, but addiction ate me the same year and I never did.

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Years later I’m sitting in a semi-circle of addicts in DBT, the faux leather chairs are wipe-down for those moments when someone’s detox overtakes them and they vomit up the jacket potatoes that are part of the wallpaper of days in the clinic. The booklet held in front of me says that immersing your face in cold water can be a calming physical coping strategy for dealing with ordinary pain.

I spent the rest of the day wondering about those words. I guess ordinary pain is not getting the job, or realising your ex has moved on, or breaking up on your birthday, or realising you shelved your dreams to have the children you weren’t sure you wanted but felt you should have, or watching an old friendship become distant and awkward, or falling in love with someone you can’t have, or your house burning down.

When I got out of treatment I sat in a meeting where a man’s mother had died only a few hours before. He said he could have been in the pub but he preferred to be with us. He could have talked all night and that circle of people would still have been there, like the petrified, ritualistic mummies sometimes found in ancient caves. A circle of frozen addicts, in awe of the sacred.

His face had the same stain as the woman who’d lost her son, as so many faces I’ve seen across the years. Etched like battery acid by that foul corpse fluid of grief, embalming us while still alive, draining us into premature age with the effort it takes a heart to pump stagnant water. I thought about that booklet then, watching him collapse. In my mind’s eye I saw him putting his face into a sink of icy water. I thought of all the counsellors who would tell him there was no out-of-order death, we expect our parents to go before us, so what he was experiencing was just ordinary pain.

I’m sure that booklet has many valuable things to say, I’m sure it can help many people reconcile conflicting thought patterns and find better coping mechanisms for their individual problems.

I tore it up when I got home.