It always started with a drink; probably something with vodka in it.
That drink ignited that nice anesthetic feeling that dulled the knowledge of what I was about to do.
The alcohol threaded through my veins, wormed its way into my nervous system, and sent the blood, high and red to my cheeks, putting a ridiculous smile on my mouth.
Before I knew it, the sun would be rising on yet another wasted day. My poor poisoned body would be trembling, aggressively awake yet exhausted, every cell coated with gummy white powder, lungs parched and frozen, Parkinson’s hands.
Maybe I’d get one more eight ball—not for fun, just so I wouldn’t have to come down. Another day would disappear. And then another while I blacked out, tangled in my dirty sheets, on my bare mattress on the floor, my dog desperate to be let out, pissing in the corner because he had no choice.
Afterwards I’d stumble, shaky, from my rotten apartment. I’d bang a key on the old piano in the hall on my way out. The noise made me wince, but somehow reassured me—I was still alive.
Outside, the sky. God, the aching beauty of the Chicago sky in Spring; crocus’s pushing up through narrow plots of dirt along the side walk, the smell of cool water blowing down the street like something in Lake Michigan had been sucking on peppermints and then let out one long exhalation.
I’d make my way down the block, baseball hat pulled down low, fingering the few dollars I had left in my coat pocket and hoping it would be enough to buy more than another pack of cigarettes.
On the way, I passed my gym. “My gym,” that was a good one—The Sweat Shop, where I’d had a trainer who had “fired” me for not showing up one too many times. I couldn’t go in there anymore, I was too ashamed—not that I was ever in any condition to work out anyway.
I avoided looking in the window. One time, on a similar day, I’d glanced in and seen a friend of mine smiling and waving at me as she pumped her legs on the elliptical.
My heart nearly stopped. I half waved and then tried to look away as if someone or something else had caught my attention. But she knew. I could tell because I saw the look of alarm cross her face, saw her legs slow, her mouth grow slack with disgust or confusion through the shiny beads of sweat that rolled down her lip.
When I let myself think about it, what bothered me the most was not that I was killing myself, not that I was wasting every single cent I earned on drugs, not even the humiliation of never being quite clean or smelling right– it was how much time my habit sucked up and tossed away.
Big blocks of my life, years, were going missing. The earth turned, the seasons changed, but I, I was always the same.
I began to wonder, if I just made one different choice, what would happen. What if I didn’t bang the piano key, what if I didn’t hide behind my baseball hat, what if I washed my sheets. If minutes become days, and days become years, then change could start with one minute, with this minute.
It took me a long time to get better. A lot of people helped along the way. But the beginning was that realization; that I could choose differently, and that my choices would accumulate positively or negatively, each one another stone added to the wall I was building with my life.
I could build well or poorly, but it would never be faster than stone by stone, and it would never be anything other than stone upon stone.
Here I am, my foundation riddled with cracks, badly grouted, constantly settling, shifting in the solid earth, but standing.
I lay down big stones now atop those raggedy pebbles from the bad days, and soon my wall will be high enough that I can stand on top of it and wrap my arms around the sun.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: elephant archives