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The Monster In The Box: Amy Dresner On Addiction And After
The Quietus , November 25th, 2018 11:01

In an exclusive extract from her new book, My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean, Amy Dresner recalls the halfway houses of the San Fernando Valley

No surprise, they kick me out of the rehab’s cushy sober living. I hear I am considered “resistant.” I prefer to think of it more as “invulnerable,” but whatever. Gone are the marble floors, flat-screen TVs, and gourmet chef. I’m shipped off to an independent halfway house in Tarzana. “Halfway houses” can be pretty shabby and poorly run, more about making money off addicts’ desperation than helping people find sobriety. They are notoriously overpriced and overcrowded.

I drive, chain-smoking, over the curvy roads of the Hollywood Hills to that remote shithole part of the San Fernando Valley. My little car is packed with my few belongings. I don’t cry.

I finally arrive at the large, gray, imposing house.

This isn’t bad, I think. I knock on the door, and an old biker chick with long purple hair opens it. She has only one whole arm. Her other arm ends abruptly at the elbow.

“Welcome. You must be Amy.” “That’s me.”

“I’m Violet, the house manager.”

I smile bleakly. Do I shake her other hand? I don’t know what to do. “I’m so happy to have another girl in the house,” she continues.

“There are five guys here right now. Finally I have someone to help me get dressed.”

Five guys? They sent a female sex addict to what’s essentially an all-male sober living house? Genius.

I try not to look at her arm. Did she lose it shooting dope? Was she born that way? I don’t ask. We go to the back patio to smoke as she reads me the litany of rules. I nod and say “no problem,” but I’m not listening. All I’m thinking is “How do I get the fuck out of here?” I feel panic building in my chest. I want to leave, but I have nowhere to go. I’ve been displaced from my marital abode. I’m not allowed back at Linda’s because her brother who owns the place has banned me – thanks to my little wrist-slitting incident. Both my parents live out of state. I mean, sure, I have a handful of close comic friends who check in with me occasionally, but most aren’t sure how to help or are too poor to. So this is home now, like it or not.

She shows me to the tiny room that will be mine. Two single beds with ugly bedspreads and a broken TV. That night I dream that I call my ex-husband and ask him to rescue me. I sleep twelve hours but still wake up tired and dazed.

I pad down to the kitchen. I grab a coffee cup out of the dish drainer. It’s supposed to be clean, but there’s something crusty on the lip. There’s a sign by the sink that reads “Do not leave dishes in the sink. Your mama doesn’t live here.” Funny. Welcome to living with five men.

I grab a spoon out of the drawer. It’s bent. Heroin or magic trick? “Time for morning meditation!” Violet, the house manager, yells.

She is in her bathrobe, holding a pack of Pall Malls in the crook of her stumpy arm.

You can hear the groans of cranky, newly sober young men.

“Wake up, princess. Time for morning meditation,” she calls into a dark, musty room.

Three young guys file into the den. Two are wearing black hoodies with the hoods up. One resident is missing. He didn’t come home last night. Another, an older alcoholic who does art department on movies, is already at work. He had eight years of sobriety – twice – and is also a chemical dependency counselor, but relapsed during his recent divorce. I get it. He picked up smoking in the last six months, but he just takes two drags off a cigarette and then puts it out. The ashtray is always full of long, white, bent cigarettes.

I’m sitting on the couch, holding my knees tightly to my chest. I hate this. I hate change. I wonder how long till I really lose my shit again. I can only imagine how this sober living with mostly men and a no-nonsense den mother will react to my crying and cutting and borderline bullshit.

In a house full of men, there’s no drama. And, having been raised by my father, I’m comfortable around guys. Being the only girl in the place, aside from the house manager, is oddly soothing to me. But most of these fellas are loners – not very social – so it feels quiet . . . too quiet . . . and I interpret the silence as loneliness and depression. They also do not like to talk in the morning, so the “morning meditation” is brief, consisting mostly of Violet making some poor fuck read from the Big Book and then ordering everybody to do their daily chores.

None of the guys eat breakfast. Few even drink coffee. I just hear the popping of Coke cans and grumbling. After we read from the Big Book, everybody retreats to their rooms to go back to sleep. Soon, the smell of homemade chili wafts throughout the house. I tell myself that this peaceful atmosphere is good for me. I can write. I can meditate. I can get my shit together. But I feel scared that the quiet despair I fight daily will rise to the surface and overwhelm me.

The only real sound in the house is the regular maniacal laugh of Tony, a twenty-four-year-old ex-tweaked who makes sandwiches at a deli during the day and goes to school to be a pastor at night. He’s young, in good shape, and makes a lot of goofy sexual innuendos – like greeting me with “You’ve come just in time. Which is more than I can say about my last two girlfriends.”

After a few of these orgasm double engenders, I call him out. “I thought you wanted to be a priest or some shit.”

“Sin now; pray later.” He smiles, winking like a used-car salesman. He’s actually a sweet guy, and very spiritual despite his obvious prurience. We have long talks by the fireplace about the God that I don’t believe in. I envy his faith and the solace it gives him. I try not to freak him out with my atheism, and I try to downplay my sordid past. I don’t want to lose a friend, and I definitely don’t like the idea of him pulling his pud at X-rated images of me.

One of the guys in the house is a thirty-year-old website developer.

He’s an opiate and gambling addict. He is also going through a divorce. That makes three of us. The guy lives on pizza and Pepsi. His big belly sags below the bottom of his T-shirt. He looks terminally sad. I want to give him a hug, probably because I need one. We both have that heavy stench of grief and loss.

There’s a bald ex-tweaker who lives off the laundry room. He has a sign on his door that says “Welcome to the Pleasure Zone.” He tells me how he liked to take crystal meth and Cialis, and how he had a hard-on like a hood ornament. I laugh. I’m already one of the guys. I’m relieved. The first two days, they all said “sorry” anytime they mentioned the word “pussy.” For the first time in my life, I don’t want to feel special. I just want to belong.

Once a week, there is a “speaker meeting” at the house where somebody from the program comes and shares their story with us. Dinner at seven; meeting at eight. Violet, the house manager, has been in and out of the program for twenty years, so we know a lot of the same people – either people I hate or people I have slept with, or both. (Let’s be honest . . . they’re not mutually exclusive.) This week, the guest speaker is somebody who has watched me come in and out of the program for seventeen years. I feel anger toward him, but I realize even then that it’s really shame in disguise.

“Amy, can you help me with something? ” Violet asks. She wants me to chop onions for her chili. My eyes tear as I cut them up. She’s a good cook. I have two arms and I can’t make an egg. I have mad respect for her. She is devoid of self-pity. I want that.

What I am starting to realize is that I’m never happy. I never understand what I have till I’ve lost it, be it a comfortable marriage or a posh sober living situation. I complained constantly at the other facility: there was too much structure; they were AA robots; none of my young house- mates understood the trials of a divorce. Now I’m in a very relaxed sober living facility with people closer to my age—a few of whom are also going through a divorce – and I still complain: there’s not enough structure; nobody is really serious about their recovery; I’m the only girl.

There’s a saying in the program: “If you don’t like something, change it. And if you can’t change it, change your attitude.” It’s not original. It’s actually a bastardized form of a quote by Maya Angelou. But whatever its origin, I come to see that it’s spot on: How we choose to look at any situation will determine our happiness. There are beautiful millionaires who want to blow their brains out, and there are eight-year-old kids with cancer who are happy as fuck. My shitty situation is temporary, and it is a direct result of my own actions. I decide to do something I had only heard about before. I try to be “positive.”

Luckily, for me, being positive involves arts and crafts, something I mastered during my days as a tweaker.

First, I make a vision board, cutting out things I want from magazines and pasting them onto poster board. It’s mostly women I’ll never be and things I’ll never have, but I guess that’s the point.

I start making lists of things I’m grateful for in my present life. Some- times my list only has a few things on it: health, sobriety, my hair. (My hair is pretty much the first thing on the list every day. I got lucky in the hair department.)

I also make a commitment to get in the habit of looking for the good in people. I tend to be very critical and judgmental, so this looking for the good thing doesn’t come easily. I mostly don’t do it, but sometimes I catch myself thinking shitty thoughts about other people and stop. Does that count?

One of the guys helps me see how negative I am by punching me in the leg anytime I complain. It is an aggressive form of behaviour modification – or the beginning of a BDSM relationship. The bruises trailing up my leg soon become mottled time stamps showing how often I bitch about things. Despite my less than ideal living situation (isolated, with addicted strangers, in a run-down mansion), I do feel calm. I’m not cutting. I’m not acting out sexually. And I’m not crying. Well, not every day. I have no strict rules to rally against here. No Liz to bust my ass. No drug testing. It’s all on me.

This is classic addiction. You think you’ve got the monster in the box. You’re hopeful, relieved, maybe even arrogant that you have a handle on it, and then bam! You eat dirt. Alcoholism is a sneaky bitch. She waits for the one moment when you trust her and let your guard down. You have to be ever vigilant against her, and I am anything but.

My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean by Amy Dresner is published by Hachette. Order it online from Foyles