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I t’s still dark when my body wakes me. My insides burn and feel like fire. They move and the pain comes. They move again and the pain becomes greater. They move again and I am paralyzed.

I know what’s coming and I need to get up but I can’t walk, so I roll off the bed and I fall to the floor. I lie there and I moan and it’s cold and silent and dark.

The pain subsides and I crawl into the Bathroom and I grab the sides of the toilet and I wait. I sweat and my breath is short and my heart palpitates.

My body lurches and I close my eyes and I lean forward. Blood and bile and chunks of my stomach come pouring from my mouth and my nose. It gets stuck in my throat, in my nostrils, in what remains of my teeth. Again it comes, again it comes, again it comes, and with each episode a sharp pain shoots through my chest, my left arm and my jaw. I bang my head on the back of the toilet but I feel nothing. I bang it again. Nothing.

The vomiting stops and I sit back and I open my eyes and I stare at the toilet. Thick red streams stick to its sides and brown pieces of my interior float in the water. I try to slow my breathing and my heart but I can’t, so I sit and I wait. Every morning it’s the same. I vomit and I sit and I wait.

After a few minutes I stand and I walk slowly back into the Room. Night is leaving and I stand at the window and I watch. Orange and pink streaks sail across the blue of the sky, large birds silhouette themselves against the red of the rising sun, clouds inch their way toward me. I can feel blood dripping from the wounds on my face and I can feel my heart beating and I can feel the weight of my life beginning to drop and I realize why dawn is called mourning.

I wipe my face with my sleeve and I take off my robe, which is now covered with blood and whatever I just threw up and I drop it on the floor and I go to the Bathroom. I turn on the shower and I wait for the warm water.

I look at my body. My skin is sallow and white. My torso is covered with cuts and bruises. I’m thin and my muscles sag. I look worn, beaten, old, dead. I didn’t always look like this.

I reach in and I feel the water. It’s warm, but not hot. I step inside the shower and I turn off the cold water and I wait for the heat.

The water runs down my chest and along the rest of my body. I take a bar of soap and I lather up and as I do, the water becomes hotter. It slams into my skin and burns my skin and turns my skin red. Although it hurts, it feels good. The heat, the water, the soap, the burns. It hurts but I deserve it.

I turn off the water and I step out of the shower and I dry myself off. I climb into bed and I climb under the covers and I close my eyes and I try to remember. Eight days ago I was in North Carolina. I remember picking up a bottle and a pipe and deciding to go for a drive. Two days later I woke up in Washington, D.C. I was on a couch at a House belonging to the Sister of a friend of mine. I was covered in piss and puke and she wanted me to leave so I borrowed a shirt from her and I left. Twenty-four hours later I woke up in Ohio. I remember a House, a Bar, some crack, some glue. I remember screaming. I remember crying.

The door opens and I sit up and the Doctor brings in a pile of clothes and my pills and he sets them on the table.


I reach for the pills.


I take them.

We got you some fresh clothes.


He sits at the table.

We’re going to move you down to a Unit today.

All right.

Usually when a Patient moves down to a Unit his contact with us is limited, but in your case, we need to continue to see you.


For the next week, you’ll need to come up here a twice a day, after breakfast and dinner, to get your antibiotics and your Librium. What I’m giving you is your last dose of Diazepam.

Got it.

He looks at my mouth.

We’re taking you to a Dentist tomorrow.

I haven’t looked at my mouth yet.

He knows what he’s doing and he’s a friend of mine. He’ll take good care of you.

I’m scared to see myself.

Stay strong and you’ll be fine.

Scared of the hate that my own image can conjure.

You should get changed and go wait in the Lounge.

All right.

They’ll send someone up from the Unit to get you.

I can’t wait.

He laughs and he stands up.

Good luck, James.

I stand.

Thank you.

We shake hands and he leaves and I change into the clothes he brought me. A pair of khakis, a white T-shirt, some slippers. They’re warm and soft and they feel good. I almost feel human.

I leave my Room and I walk through the Medical Unit, where nothing has changed. There are bright lights, there is whiteness. There are Patients and Doctors and lines and pills. There are moans and screams. There is sadness, insanity and ruin. I know these things and they no longer affect me.

I walk into the Lounge and I sit down on a couch. I’m alone and I watch television and the latest batch of pills kicks in.

My heart beat slows.

My hands stop shaking.

My eyelids drop.

My body is limp.

Nothing registers.

I hear my name and I look up and Lilly is standing in front of me. She smiles and she sits down next to me.

Remember me?


She smiles.

I wasn’t sure you would. You look pretty juiced.

Librium and Diazepam.

Yeah, I just got off it. I hate that shit.

It’s better than nothing.

She laughs.

Talk to me in a couple days.

I smile.

I doubt I’m gonna last a couple of days.

She nods.

I know the feeling.

I don’t respond. She speaks.

Where you from?

I reach for my cigarettes.

North Carolina.

I draw one out.

Got one of those for me?

I hand her a cigarette and I light them and we smoke and Lilly tells me about herself and I listen to her. She’s twenty-two and grew up in Phoenix. Her Father left when she was four and her Mother was a Heroin Addict who supported her habit by whoring herself to whoever would pay. She started giving Lilly drugs at ten and started forcing her to whore herself to whoever would pay at thirteen. At seventeen, Lilly ran away to her Grandmother in Chicago, where she’s lived since. She’s addicted to crack and quaaludes.

A man walks into the Room and we stop talking and the man stops in front of me. He is thin, preppy, nearly bald. He has small nervous eyes.


He smiles.


He seems very happy.

Hi, I’m Roy.

He holds out his hand.


I stand and I shake his hand.

I’m here to take you down to the Unit.

All right.

Do you have any bags?


Any extra clothes, books?

I have nothing.

A dob kit?


He smiles again. Nervously.

Let’s go.

I turn and I look at Lilly, who is pretending to watch television.

Bye, Lilly.

She looks up and she smiles at me.

Bye, James.

Roy and I leave the Lounge and we walk down a short, dark, carpeted Hallway. As we walk, Roy watches me carefully.

You know that’s against the Rules.

I stare straight ahead.


Talking to women.


Don’t be sorry, just don’t do it again.

All right.

The Rules here are for your own good. I suggest that you follow them.

I’ll try.

Do better than try or you’ll be in trouble.

I’ll try.

We come to a large door and we walk through it and everything changes. The Hallways are long and lined with doors. The carpets are plush and the walls bright. There is color and light and a feeling of comfort. There are people walking everywhere and they are all smiling.

We walk through a series of Corridors. Roy stares at me and I stare straight ahead. He tells me about the Unit and its Rules.

There are between twenty and twenty-five men on the Unit at any given time, three Counselors and a Unit Supervisor. Each man has a Counselor who oversees his Recovery Program and the Unit Supervisor oversees them.

Each man is required to attend three Lectures a day, eat three meals a day, and participate in all Unit activities.

Each man has a job that he is required to complete each morning.

Mood-altering chemicals are not allowed on the Unit. If you are caught using them or possessing them, you will be asked to leave.

Mail is passed out once a day. Unit Counselors reserve the right to open and search any and all mail.

Visitors are allowed on Sundays between one o’clock and four o’clock. The Staff reserves the right to search and examine any gifts or packages that you are given by Visitors.

The women are housed in separate Units and contact with them is not allowed. If you see them in the Halls, hello is okay, how are you is not. If you violate this Rule, you may be asked to leave.

Roy stares at me.

The Rules are serious business. If you want to recover, I’d recommend following them.

I stare straight ahead.

I’ll try.

We walk through a door marked Sawyer and we enter the Unit. We walk down a Hall with doors on both sides. Some of the doors have names on them and some of them are open. I can see men in the Rooms.

We leave the Hall and enter a large open Room with two levels. On the Upper Level there is a soda machine, a candy machine, a large coffeepot, a kitchen and a large table surrounded by chairs. On the Lower Level there are couches and chairs, arranged in a circle, a television and a blackboard. Against the far wall there is a Telephone Booth and there are large sliding-glass doors built into two of the other walls. The doors open onto large expanses of grass and trees, in the distance I can see a Lake. Men sit at the tables and on the couches. They’re reading, talking, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. When I enter the Room, they all turn toward me and they stare at me.

Roy smiles.

Welcome to Sawyer.


It’s a good place.

I want to leave.

You’ll get better here.

Run away.

Trust me, I know.

Get fucked up.



Let’s go to your Room.

We walk from the Upper Level of the Room to a Hall off its far end. The Hall is lined with Rooms in which I hear People talking, laughing, crying. We stop at a door and Roy opens the door and we enter the Room. The Room is fairly large and contains four beds, one in each of the corners. Next to each bed is a small nightstand and a small dresser. A Bathroom is off to one side. There are two men sitting on one of the beds playing cards and they both look up when we enter.

Larry, Warren, this is James.

The men stand and they walk over to where I am standing and they introduce themselves. Larry is short and powerful looking, built like the butt of a sledgehammer. He has long brown hair and a thick beard and a southern accent. He looks as if he’s about thirty-five. Warren is in his fifties and he is tall and thin and tan and well dressed and he has a large smile. We shake hands and they ask where I’m from and I tell them. They ask if I want to play cards and I say no. I tell them I’m tired and I want to rest and I thank Roy and I walk over to the empty bed and I lie down. Roy leaves and Larry and Warren go back to their cards.

I close my eyes and I take a deep breath and I think about my life and how I ended up this way. I think about the ruin, devastation and wreckage I have caused to myself and to others. I think about self-hatred and self-loathing. I think about how and why and what happened and the thoughts come easily, but the answers don’t.

I hear footsteps, feel a presence. I open my eyes and there’s a man standing over me. He’s in his thirties. Medium height and thin like a reed with long bony arms and delicate hands. He’s clean-cut, short hair, clean shave.

You’re new.

He’s nervous and hyper.


And his eyes are empty.

What’s your name?


I sit up.

I’m John.

He sits on the edge of the bed and he hands me a card.

That’s my card.

I read it. It says John Everett. Sexual Ninja. San Francisco and the World.

I laugh.

Wanna see something?

He reaches for his wallet.


He opens it and he draws out a faded newspaper article and he hands it to me. The article is old and from the San Francisco Chronicle. It has a picture of a man standing in the middle of a Street holding a sign. The headline reads Man Arrested On Market Street With Sign Reading Cocaine For Sale Three Hours After Being Released From San Quentin.

That’s me.

I laugh again.

I went back for three more years.

I hand him the article.

That sucks.

He pockets it.

You ever fuck anybody in the ass?


You ever fuck anybody in the ass?

What are you talking about?

I got into it in Prison and now I’m addicted to it. That and rock cocaine. I thought you should know right off the bat.

I stare at him.

Honesty and openness are very important here. They’re part of the Program and since I’m working the Program, I wanted to tell you. Is that okay?

I stare hard.

It’s fine.

He gets nervous, stands, looks at his watch.

It’s time for lunch. You want me to show you the Dining Hall?

I stand without a word. I just stare.

We leave and we make our way through the Unit and down another series of Halls. As we walk, John talks about himself. He’s thirty-seven and he is from Seattle. He grew up in a wealthy and powerful Family that has cut him off. He has a twenty-year-old Daughter whom he hasn’t seen in ten years. He spent eight years in jail. His Father started molesting him when he was five.

We enter a long Hall with glass walls on either side of it. In one of the sections, women sit eating their lunches, in the other sit the men. At the end of the Hall is a Common Area with a salad bar and two cafeteria-style lines where food is served. John grabs two trays, hands one of them to me, and we get in line.

As we move forward, I take in my surroundings. There are men and women. There is food. There is talking, but there are no smiles. There are round tables surrounded by eight chairs. There are People sitting in the chairs, there are plates and glasses and trays on the tables. There are about a hundred and twenty-five men in the Male Section spread among tables that probably hold two hundred. There are about a hundred women in the Female Section spread among tables that hold about one hundred and fifty. I get a bowl of soup and a glass of water and as I walk through the Room, I can feel People staring at me. I can only imagine what I must look like.

I find an empty table and I sit down and I’m alone. I take a sip of the water and I begin spooning the soup into my mouth. It’s hot and each spoonful shoots a wave of pain through my lips, my cheek, my gums and my teeth. I eat slowly and deliberately and I never look up. I don’t want to see anybody and I don’t want anybody seeing me.

I finish the soup and for a moment, at least, I feel good. My stomach is full and I am warm and content. I stand and I take my tray and I put it with a pile of other trays and I leave the Dining Hall.

I walk back to the Unit. As I pass an open door, someone calls my name. I stop and I go back to the door and a man stands and he comes from behind a desk and he walks toward me. He’s in his early thirties. He’s very tall and very thin. He has dark hair pulled into a small ponytail and he wears round black glasses. He is dressed in a black T-shirt, black pants and black tennis shoes. He looks like a grown-up version of a kid who spent his childhood sitting behind a computer and hiding from Bullies.

You’re James.

He reaches out to shake my hand. We shake.

I’m Ken, your Unit Recovery Counselor.

Nice to meet you.

He turns and he walks toward his desk.

Come in and sit down.

I follow him in and I sit down in a chair across from him and I look around his Office. It’s small and cluttered and there are piles of paper everywhere and there are files everywhere. The walls are covered with schedules and small pictures of either people or landscapes and there is a framed copy of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous hanging behind him. He reaches for a file and he sets it on his desk and he opens it and he looks at me.

You settling in okay?


Anything we can do to make you more comfortable?


We need some more information to round out our file. Do you mind answering a few questions?


He picks up a pen.

When did you start using drugs and alcohol?

I started drinking at ten, doing drugs at twelve.

And when did you start using heavily?

At fifteen I was drinking every day, at eighteen I was drinking and doing drugs every day. It has gotten much much heavier since then.

Do you black out?


How often?

Every day.

How long has this been happening?

Four years or five years.

Do you get sick?

Every day.

How often?

When I wake up, when I have my first drink, when I have my first meal and a few more times after that.

How many times is a few?

Anywhere from three to seven.

How long has this been happening?

Four or five years.

Do you ever contemplate suicide?


Have you ever tried it?


Have you ever been arrested?


How many times?

Twelve or thirteen.

For what?

All kinds of shit.

Such as?

Possession, Possession with Intent to Distribute, three DUI’s, a bunch of Vandalism and Destruction of Property charges, Assault, Assault with a Deadly Weapon, Assaulting an Officer of the Law, Public Drunkenness, Disturbing the Peace. I’m sure there’s some other shit, but I don’t remember exactly what.

Are any of the charges still outstanding?

Most of them.


Michigan, Ohio and North Carolina.

Have you been going to Court?


Are you out on Bail?

I skipped Bail.




I’ve been to Jail. I don’t like it and I don’t want to go back.

You’re gonna have to deal with the charges at some point.

I know.

We’ll encourage you to do it while you’re here. Or at least start the process.

I’ll think about it.

How have you been making a living?

Selling drugs.

That will have to stop.

I know.

Have you ever been to Treatment before?



I was never willing to go. I told my Parents if they tried to put me in I’d leave and they’d never see me again. They believed me.

He pauses and he sets down his pen. He looks me in the eye and I can feel that he’s testing me, waiting for me to look away, so I don’t.

Do you want to get sober?

I think so.

You think so?


Does that mean yes?

It means I think so.


My life is Hell, has been Hell for too long. If I keep going I’m going to die. I’m not sure I want to be dead yet.

Are you willing to do whatever it takes?

I don’t know.

I’ll ask again. Are you willing to do whatever it takes?

I don’t know.

I’ll ask one more time. Are you willing to do whatever it takes?

I don’t know.

He stares at me, angry I won’t give him the answers he wants to hear. I stare back.

If you’re not willing to do whatever it takes, you might as well leave. I would rather you not, but we can’t help you until you’re ready to help yourself. Think about it and we can talk more. If you need anything come find me.

I will.

He stands and I stand and he comes around the desk and we leave the Office and we go back into the Unit. Men are returning from lunch and are gathering in small groups at the tables, on the couches, in small clumps of fold-out chairs. Ken asks me if I want to meet anyone and I tell him no and he leaves and I watch him walk over to another man and start talking to him. I find a chair and I light a cigarette and I take a long deep drag and I look at the men sitting around me. They are black and white and yellow and brown. They have long hair, short hair, beards and mustaches. They are well dressed and they wear rags, they are fat and they are thin. They are hard, weathered, worn-out and desperate. Intimidating and thuggish, addicted and insane. They are all different and they are all the same and as I sit there smoking my cigarette, they scare the living shit out of me.

Ken is finished talking to the man and he announces that it’s time for the Lecture so the Men stand and begin filing out. My drugs are wearing off and I need some more so I skip the Lecture and I walk back to the Medical Wing and I get in line. As the line moves forward I start to feel anxious and nervous and angry. With each step closer to the drugs, the feelings become stronger. I can feel my heart beat faster and I look at my hands and they’re shaking and when I get to the counter I can hardly speak. I want something, I need something, I have to have something. Anything at all. Just fucking give it to me.

The Nurse recognizes me and she reaches for a chart and she looks at it and she turns around and she gets my pills from a cabinet. She hands them to me with a small plastic glass of water and I take them as quickly as I can and I step away from the counter and I wait. Almost immediately I feel better. My heart slows, my hands stop shaking, the nervousness, anxiety and anger disappear.

I turn and I leave and I walk toward the Unit and I go to the Lecture Hall where I sit and I listen to a man explain the relationship between a healthy diet and a sound mind. None of it makes any sense because of the drugs and at a certain point the Lecture ends and I stand up and I leave and I go back to the Unit with the rest of the men. One of them looks like a Movie Star and I think I talk to him but I’m not sure. The afternoon and the early evening slide by in a lidded daze where the ability to think in any identifiable way disappears and where every moment seems to be an eternity. Shortly after dinner I climb into bed and for the first time in several years I am conscious of the fact that I’m going to sleep.


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