Discover more from portrait of a body (in pieces)
4. A halfway house on the edge of reality
February (part one)
This is chapter 4. You can read from the start. Or don’t. Nothing matters.
There are rules to living here now. Routines. Things you need to achieve in order to stay: keep yourself together; keep yourself clothed; keep yourself clean. And attend meetings. As in twelve step, which sounds like a dance and is as difficult to do sober.
Between meetings your routine involves consuming vast quantities of both coffee and content. Having your brain back has flooded your system with old feelings, re-opened a wound or several. You’re embarrassed at your behaviour, your appearance. At how far you’ve let yourself fall. There are two types of shame and you’re mainlining both hard right now. The coffee you’re drinking is cold and old, and the content you’re watching is The Sopranos. You didn’t watch it when it was on, and the theme song makes you want to gouge out your remaining eye, but there are six seasons and you’re not really leaving the house right now. It’s bitter out, and there’s sulking to do. In the show Tony Soprano is a mob boss who has panic attacks and has to see a psychiatrist. The shrink, Dr Melfi, is telling Tony he crossed the line, and he apologises. The word boundary is mentioned. You’re not sure what it means.
February was named for Februalia, a Roman festival that lasted the entire calendar month. Romans would bathe, meditate, and make offerings to the gods of the dead. All in an attempt to atone for their misdeeds. To purify themselves. It comes from the Latin februa, which means to cleanse. It’s not enough that your brother is on your case about showering, now there’s an entire month giving you grief about it.
You wake up to a text from V. It’s a recovery meme. In it, a brooding man says I’m lonely and then when someone tries to put their arm around him, he says, Sorry, I need to be alone right now. Her caption in the text message says you. It’s highly relatable, which is the only true measure of art in the twenty-first century. V is your love addict friend. You met because in a moment of crisis she put a cry for help on Instagram and you were the only person who didn't reply asking for a picture of her feet. You know her because you met once at a book event, and you followed her on Instagram because she looks like a lingerie model and occasionally posts pictures of herself wearing very little. Any guilt you feel about this is countered by the fact it meant you happened to be around to save her life a few weeks before Christmas. And now you’re friends. In return, V introduced you to meetings and recovery memes. This is what people mean when they talk about the power of social media.
What the attic lacks in size it also lacks in charm. You can stretch out to sleep, but you have to stoop to stand, lest you knock yourself out on the ceiling. The entire space is painted white; the floorboards, the walls, the shelves, the hatch in the floor, all a brilliant shade of white. It’s meant to appear clean and minimal, soothing even, but in practice the space is so clinical it inflicts acute torture on its occupants. You tried a houseplant to add colour, but the plant considered the attic hostile and chose instead to die. It is a space that knows neither respite nor mercy. A gleaming void. A white abyss. You’d think your brother might choose a less maddening colour scheme, but then you’re not sure he did choose it. This is a construct. A staging area for the whims of vengeful gods. A halfway house on the edge of reality. It is the gap between stations, the static on the radio, put here for reasons you have yet to understand by persons and motives you can’t possibly comprehend. Still, beggars can’t be choosers.
The meeting tonight has a gratitude focus. It means less masturbators, V says. The porn addicts go to sobriety focussed meetings, so I skip those. Masturbators give me the creeps. You try not to laugh on camera. V isn’t talking about your average fiddlers; she means the thirty-times-a-day crowd. You’ve only been to a few meetings, all via video chat, and you’re still getting your bearings. In your meeting a man is talking about how grateful he is for the group, and for two years of sobriety. He’s lying in bed with laptop perched nearby so he’s visible in full recline. You wonder if there’s a meeting with a focus on manners. He hopes to be ready for sober dating soon, though his sponsor isn’t sure yet. You are also unsure. You haven’t decided you’re a love addict. There is a dictionary to swallow for starters, an entire language of recovery you don’t speak. In the meeting it’s time for you to share, if you feel like it. Since you haven’t figured out your thoughts or the lingo, you parrot the person before you and say you’re grateful for the meeting. It’s not a lie. It’s like V says: The good thing about meetings is you get to say, well at least I’m not as fucked up as that guy. You hit mute so no-one can hear you flub the serenity prayer.
You’re six-foot-three, with a pair of shoulders and a shit-eating smirk, handsome in a way that makes you easy to dislike but not in a way you’ve ever managed to monetise. Even before you lost track of entire appendages you had gaps, holes you filled with attention-seeking behaviour, with risk taking behaviour, with plain bad behaviour. You pursued unavailable women and let them pursue you. You’ve ended relationships, engagements, and at least one marriage. You cheated on everyone you dated (so they couldn’t cheat first), and fucked your way out of friendships, jobs, and places to stay. You’ve spent much of your thirties in a shame spiral, crashing and burning and inviting everyone to the bonfire. Something your friend Brandon called your Pleasure Monster phase: The sexts, the hotels, the early-morning, late-night, middle-of-the-workday, back-of-an-Uber hook-ups. The lies, the lovers, the lessons left unlearned. This is one reason you agreed to attend meetings. To try and atone for some of that. Another reason is that you can’t afford therapy right now and this is free. And then there’s the fact that twelve-step gives you an excuse. Because if you’re not a love addict then you’re just an asshole, and how do you begin to atone for that?
V has many theories about what is wrong with both of you. It’s because we’re creative, she’ll say, or: it’s because we’re too clever for our own good. The main way you hang out is via text while watching content together. She’s seen The Sopranos but is supporting your watch. Her current theory is that you both find it hard to navigate life and relationships because you were never taught any boundaries. Men often aren’t, she says. My parents had me young, so that’s my excuse. When you ask what those are, she reminds you about the time you tried to hit on her. And I said don’t do that, she says. That was a boundary. And you listened and respected it and here we are, she says. V is good like this. She explains things without judgement, as if we’re all imperfect and just need a little help sometimes. Get yourself a friend who is in recovery. But how do you know where your boundaries are? You ask. Boundaries sound like a lot of effort. Setting them, maintaining them, policing them. Tony Soprano can’t do it, and he’s had several seasons and a psychiatrist. When something makes you feel uncomfortable, V says. Or when something hurts, that’s a boundary. It sounds good, not having to put up with things that hurt you. Not hurting others. Another episode starts and you skip past the theme song before you’re forced to listen to it. See, V says when you tell her. Boundaries.
With your synapses firing full cylinder, the boundaries begin to form themselves: Not texting back is a boundary. Fucking you is a boundary. Breaking your heart is a boundary.
It’s been weeks without word from the LSD study. You follow up. The reply is a gut shot of screamers.1 Listen! They write. We don’t get enough funding to reply to every email! We have to share a laptop. It runs Windows 98! Mental health doesn’t get Cancer money! By the way, are you in Amsterdam? I hope so, because your watch is! Reading it leaves you tired and sore. But if your watch is in Amsterdam, maybe your arm is too.
Slang for an exclamation point. See also bang, pling, wham, shriek, screech, smash, shout-pole, gasper, startler, slammer, and French pardon. I might have made one of those up.