Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Saint of Circumstance

I am going to tell a story about darkness and redemption, about being thrust into this dark world as a na├»ve, sheltered fifteen year-old child of divorced parents, and living as a homeless, heroin addict.  I am going to tell a story about transformation, and about how the Grateful Dead changed my life.
I became an addict during my teenage years, and was ordered to numerous facilities. I occasionally checked myself in to a one of these places as a last resort or respite from the harsh New England elements, but then would always find a way out. I mastered the art of manipulation and used it for survival; it became my way of life. This manipulation eventually became a lasso circling around me and pulling my own feet out from under me. I was surrounded by horrible people, the kind that would walk right over you when you were flat on the ground, on the verge of a drug induced coma or a fatal over dose. They would kick you over and steal your wallet to get another fix. I was one of those people: I stole, I deceived and I cheated. At the same time, I never lost that barely visible glimpse of who I really was. There was a line I would not cross for I knew if I did, I would lose sight of myself forever. I held onto the vestiges of my old self, and at times I would see that person within me. 
One of the turning points during that time in my life took place one night in a squalid Danbury apartment complex. There were heroin, cocaine, pills, and guns. I had met a man who brought me back to this apartment, and got me high for days. I thought that this was what people did. I was a junkie that needed a fix, and these people had plenty of drugs. I did not realize I would have to pay-one way or the other. When that time came, he wanted me to travel with him to another city and work. Looking back, I am uncertain what he meant by work; it could have been prostitution, stripping or selling drugs. Whatever it meant doesn't really matter anymore. What does matter is that this would be the first of many times where the act of preserving myself saved my life. I wanted out.
I traveled with all of my belongings in two backpacks. One brown pack contained a leather coat, a bit of money and a few other things of value. The other backpack was black and contained a stuffed bunny that my mother had given me when I was fifteen for Easter. I stuffed the bunny deep in the midst of clothes and toiletries. His one ear was often flopping out of the blackened, dingy bag that sat on numerous apartment floors, dirty sidewalks and public restrooms. After the days long drug binge and after realizing what this man wanted of me, I knew I had no choice but to get away. The woman I was traveling with, Diane, chased me down the hall of the musty, cheap apartment complex. She caught me and grabbed my face, slamming my head against the wall. The tips of her fingers pressed into my cheekbones, pulling at the skin under my eyes. 
She said, “You ain't going anywhere, whore. We have to pay for this. He gave us drugs. How fucking stupid are you to think he would give us this dope for free?”
 In a frantic moment, I slid violently away from her grip and ran down the three flights of stairs, pushing open the large industrial metal door onto the sun-filled sidewalk. I discovered that I was across the street from a restaurant called the Old Oak. I knew the place because I would go there with my family back in another lifetime. I stared at the sign, longing for my life, the short eighteen years I had known. I then looked to the window three stories up. I stood on the street while the man and Diane yelled to me from the third floor. They asked in a mocking tone where I was headed as they dangling my two backpacks out the broken screened window. The exposed insulation and bare mattresses were visible from the sidewalk. I felt angry. I wanted my stuff. They never told me this was part of the deal. I yelled that I would call the police.  He responded with a cutting laugh, telling me that I was a junkie on the street, and that “they were my only hope.” 
I threatened them, my voice growing louder. I was causing a scene. The man told me to shut up or he would come down to the sidewalk and kill me. I knew he would. I saw the guns. I saw the other shifty people in the building. I am not sure why he relented or decided I was not worth the hassle, but he made the following offer. He said: “You can have one bag.” In an instant I told him that I wanted the black bag. I knew that part of my old life and my family was in that bag; it was that glimpse of my old self. He threw the bag down from the third floor window. The bag hit the sidewalk and the contents scattered on the road. I quickly retrieved the items, and yelled to him: “we are even. The leather coat is worth money. Just leave me alone.”
I ran down the street in the middle of that summer afternoon, and away from that man, that apartment and those threats. Years later, I run this same street as I train for my next marathon, and it is a rare moment that I do not replay these moments that I just described. Even today I  long for my dwindling family life. After I walked away from that horrible scene, I carried that dirty backpack on my shoulder, with a rabbit ear swaying out from the top. I chained smoked cigarettes and observed the cars rolling past me. They were filled with normal lives and families and other teenage girls. Later on I found a safe place in at the local cemetery to fall asleep for a bit. I decided that I should stay awake all night for safety and that I should make a plan, a plan out of nothing.
Several months past, and I slept in a few different cemeteries on those warm summer days. Occasionally I would stay with an acquaintance. I found a few shelters that were much scarier than being alone. I was still getting high when I could. I would bring myself to the emergency room if things got rough or if I needed a few hours of respite. My father would not let me back into his home due to my heavy drug use, but he and my grandparents would buy me a few packs of cigarettes from time to time. I think back to that time, and recognize that many of my recollections are a bit fuzzy. This may be the result of the substance abuse during those years, or it may simply be that my brain won’t let me go there, operating in a kind of self-preservation mode. What I do remember is my first Grateful Dead show, and how The Grateful Dead changed me. When I found the Dead, I found a home. I found myself and my soul.  They restored my faith in humanity. I remember being in a large stadium, the lights flickering and the sounds melting into a distant echo. I felt as though I was the only one in the room. I had been in complete darkness, and now suddenly every note the band played began to expose color, bursts of color, sparkling, flailing color, the color that was deep inside of me all along.
I started going to shows as a new kind of addiction, one which my mother and several other people in my life even today do not understand. The music made me see the universe, it made me feel that the glimpse I had of myself that sunny afternoon was a reality, and that it was something worth digging deep for. I credit the music for bringing about the connectedness I felt to myself as well as to others. The Grateful Dead community provided me something that I had always craved. There it was, right there under the sky, in the blazing sun in a parking lot in Las Vegas, or on a grass field, or in a stadium or on a car radio driving through the middle of the country. I immediately learned the ropes, the lifestyle and how to sustain myself within this community. I craved the music. It was like a drug. In fact, I would never get high during the show. I changed my drug habits as well, opting for mind-altering hallucinogens and home-grown marijuana. It was a far better world than the white cellophane bags with a very different skull and crossbones stamped on the outside. The deadheads took care of each other: we were all in communion, dancing, feeling, singing, cheering for more. We would be out on the road, driving for more, traveling in caravans down the highway to the next show. I began selling my own creativity, making life on the road work. I wanted the Grateful Dead to become my life, and it did. 
I found a traveling companion in Sean. He was a road-worthy individual that supplied us with constant tapes and facts about shows, noting what year a particular show was played and how they played any given song. He would notice the slightest difference in the way that Jerry Garcia sung a particular verse or how a band member would play eight beats instead of nine. We travelled thousands of miles in my Volkswagen bus. Sean was a wealth of information, and it was information that I wanted to know. I have countless travel stories from those years. They are stories of our time with the band, meeting them personally, and how they provided an endless source of inspiration and drive for us to be better people. Today I am chronicling a different story, one about my full circle path of the music of the Grateful Dead, of my long hiatus from their songs, and how at the age of forty-one, I returned to their music, and was changed again.
Years after Jerry Garcia died Sean began his battle with mental illness. I was 6 weeks pregnant with our child when he began having regular manic episodes. Each episode would be scarier than the last. He would fixate on the Grateful Dead and Jesus. He used his sharp intellect to manipulate, embarrass and harass. He became so delusional that his illness made him somewhat notorious among the inner circle of the band.  He frightened others the way he frightened me. During these early episodes, I spoke with many people associated with the band who had known Sean for years. We were a presence backstage and at the time we were working to start a non-profit organization inspired by humanity that was such a part of the Grateful Dead subculture. Sean was a photographer and would obtain press passes for large venues like Madison Square Garden. As Sean descended into worse and worse behavior, I would insist to Sean and to others that he just needed medication. At the same time, those who knew him would push me to run, to get the hell away from Sean and to get help. His behavior and his obsession with the Grateful Dead ebbed and flowed, but it began to signify to me and Sean’s family and anyone else that knew the situation that Sean was beginning another round of mania. He would make no mention of the Grateful Dead for months.  He would even become embarrassed of his previous harassment and delusional conduct. Then with every change of season he would make a slight mention of the band or perhaps quote from the bible and we would all know what would come next. 
Things got worse, and as new mother, I lived in a state of fear for me and my child. This, in turn, made me take a huge step back from anything related to the Grateful Dead. I was still trying to help Sean through his struggles at this point, but I was also in maternal protection mode. I would make no mention of the band in his presence. I still longed for sound and the feeling of what I had found. My life was about protecting my child, and he needed every ounce of me to do that. I missed the music, and would sometimes drive my sleeping baby down the road, listening to a Dead tape I had snuck out of the house. I would roll the windows down and reminisce about being in a dark venue, the clouds of smoke rising, the lights going dim, the bass guitar belting out one deep note and the air filling with diamonds. I would listen to “Space," a song that the band played in the middle of each show. This music would bring us to the edge, to a deep psychedelic place. Then it would toss us over that edge and swoop us up in midair. It all made sense to me, and not just to me, but also to the fifty-thousand others that danced with no inhibition, with so much feeling and love for every note, and so much love for being there.
Now, I had a very young child to focus on, and leaving Sean made my long break and detachment from the Grateful Dead much easier. I left Sean because of my fear and concerns of safety for my son and I. Yet it was something else too. I found myself on that sidewalk again in the afternoon sun. Only this time, instead of a stuffed bunny, I had a beautiful little boy in tow. I left with nothing. The man and the music I had loved were becoming a fleeting glimpse, a vision like the one I had years ago of myself. The music left my life as quickly as it came into it.
In the following years, I did maintain a connection with a friend from that inner circle of the band. He was someone who made himself accessible to the general public, to deadheads, and, ultimately, to Sean. After I left Sean, his illness continued to worsen. I had my ways of knowing when the onslaught of mania would take hold. This would at times result in restraining orders. I would get regular phone calls from that friend. He often gave me the validation that I needed in my own denial. He would relay to me how ill Sean had become, and catalog all the entirely bizarre things he would say and write. I longed for Sean to return to the way he used to be. We would commiserate how awful it was, trying to come to terms with the potential risk to our safety by continuing contact with Sean. I danced a very different dance, one not just of fear, but also of guilt and worry. Sean had been a best friend. We once shared a life and a love of something so intense. It was hard to reconcile those feelings with the ones I felt as I lay in bed, worried that he was going to come and kill me. In those days, I would bring my son, Elijah, into my old, squeaking twin bed with mismatched sheets, clutching him tightly through the hours of the dark. This gave me some sense of security, thinking that if Sean did break in, he would see Elijah first, and then rethink his manic, delusional thoughts. I often tell this story to others in order to give weight to the reality of what a scary place I was in. It was my regular reality that someone I loved so much and trusted went far, far away, yet still stood there in front of me. As much as I wanted to believe that nothing would happen to me or my son, my gut told me something else. There had been too many episodes of erratic behavior for me not to expect the worst.
In recent years I have ventured out to a few shows to see the remnants of the band perform.  I had put my life back together and felt like I was in a safe place. I was glad to be out, trying desperately to resurrect what I had previously felt. The band felt different, and I sensed they were working out their own kinks. I would leave the show with my cup only partially full, partly because I had such sadness for Sean. Certain songs reminded me of him but how separate we had become. The music made me feel sad for him and what he lost and continues to lose. 
 Recently, I decided to subscribe to satellite radio to put music back in my life, especially to check out the Grateful Dead channel. The first few weeks took me to another world, a world I had left so far behind. I heard the excitement of the live shows, and the conversations from talk shows featuring deadheads like me. They were still out there and still craved the music. The band was performing for nine nights at a nearby small theatre. I knew several friends who were going and decided to take the leap away from my chronic isolation and join them for a several night run. The first show was mind blowing from the first note. I felt like I was channeling a side of me that I had previously thought had forever left me. I lay in my bed that evening in a blissful stupor and questioned why I felt so fantastic. Was it all the music, was it the company of familiar types of people and friends, the energy of all of it or was it the feeling of so desperately needing a break of the daily struggles of my life? Those struggles continue, with the father of my son and other loved ones in my life. I was driven to get to shows, like the old days. I took a night off from work, knowing it would be money I had to spend and not squirrel away, the way I constantly do. I was ready, or at least more ready than usual to face the aching that the music potentially could provoke in me, reminding me of losing my best friend. I heard the songs he loved, songs that we had loved together and songs that I had loved alone.
 I attended the last night of the series of concerts at this local theatre. I knew there was anticipation. When the Grateful Dead would finish a long tour, the last show was always a tough ticket to get. It was all about the potential of saving the best for last. This particular night, I sensed something wasn't right from the minute the band went on stage. This would not be the first time that I have had that dreaded sense that the very ones I idolized, would begin spiraling down from the pedestal I put them on. Bob Weir staggered and collapsed on stage. He appeared to be intoxicated or under the influence of something. It was a hard moment. I questioned that transformative magic. I felt like the energy was lost. I witnessed this band that I loved, this band that had save my life, crumble ever so slightly before my eyes. Perhaps this was the real reason that I was there. I got on the bus, and then it got a flat. It was certainly fixable, but in that moment I was once again on my own, walking down the street with packed bag in hand.
I woke up the next morning sad; sad for the band and music I love so dearly and sad for the thought of when the band would no longer exist. I was mostly sad for being denied the escape from my reality, an escape to a place that was such a big part of my history. I went for a run and started to work through these thoughts. I peeled back the layers and struggled to figure out why I was hurting, what the shows and the music really meant to me. I wanted to feel what had changed. At the same time, I wanted to discern the full circle of this music, and how I had come back to the place I started.
That evening I bought tickets for several of the upcoming local summer shows. I decided that I needed to experience firsthand this music that did indeed continue to feed my soul. The band member who had collapsed on stage ended up being fine. I spoke to that friend from the band who put things in perspective, drawing out how we each battle these less dignified traits of denial, stubbornness and, ultimately, of being a frail and imperfect human. The past two weeks have been eye-opening. I sensed what was beyond the current dynamics of my life. It was the music. It was the affection of the crowd, the mutual love we all have. It was the promise of an evening spent out there in the universe, of the unknown, of a beginning and letting go of the past.  I could see what it did to me, how it enabled me to rise above and look at things from a different perspective. Then, several days later, I realized that indeed it wasn't just the music, it wasn't just the dancing free, and the connections to the other people around me.  It was finally seeing empty pages to be written, it was feeling a spark of longing for a place of spontaneity and freedom. It was the constant and steady pull that has never left me, that pulled me towards the light on the sidewalk years before or to the light at a show just last week. The light that signifies the deep desire to feel alive.
Every moment, everyday.