"I think you need help," she said. The glow of our TV illuminated her tears.
Eating too much Coricidin makes you walk like a robot from a shitty 1960s sci-fi movie. I struggled to sit down like a "normal" person, eager to beat back this assault on my integrity.
"I don't need to go to the hospital," I told her. I was convinced she'd back off and let me Robo-trip in the dark, in peace.
"No. I mean eMOtional help!"
I was tripping pretty hard by then, the "-MO" syllable reverberated in my head like a superball made of unadulterated, psychic pain. That night was years ago, but I still remember the anguish radiating off of my mother in that tiny family room of ours, a strong black woman helpless, at the end of her rope with an only son who was set on killing himself with drugs and alcohol.
The day after my mom confronted me while tripping in her den, I watched L.A. Confidential, slept on the floor and woke up in time for the gnarly Prince Super Bowl halftime show. We didn't discuss the previous night. Just like we didn't discuss me screaming at her that I was going to kill myself the week before. After Prince ripped it, I fell asleep feeling like I had a concussion and seeing closed-eye visuals of the women in my life having their faces ripped apart by clawed demon hands. I awoke the next day to what I thought was an OD on the DXM in the little red caplets of cough medicine. I called 911, and when they came, they told me I was simply having a panic attack. I went to intensive outpatient rehab a few days later, mainly to get the heat off. I only lasted a week. I just couldn't imagine not drinking.
Having been sober a little over three years, it can be difficult to touch base with that version of me. I can get complacent and forget that not being a suicidal, hateful drunk who'd put anything in his mouth or up his nose to get outside of himself isn't my default setting. But it's also important for me to run back that mixtape of songs to die to, if only to keep me grateful. For so long, the alcoholic life was the only one I knew. I was convinced I would die blacked out in a gutter, or at best, a shooting gallery somewhere surrounded by people I could barely stand but still called my friends. Over time, as my disease progressed, I made myself perfectly OK with a morbid outcome. Many of my "Nevers!" became "When can I do that again?" or "Fuck it." Incomprehensible demoralization was my jam.
Even at my worst, I didn't have the luxury of being oblivious to the pain I was causing my family, especially my mom, since she was usually the one bailing me out of my fuck-ups. Booze and drugs were the only things that helped shut up the million-man committee in my head telling me I was a shit human being.
If I was enjoying my drinking, I wasn't controlling it, and if I was controlling it, I wasn't enjoying it.
I realize today that I am immensely fortunate to have the mother I do. Our moms are supposed to be our ultimate, unconditional protectors. But as strong as my mother was, she couldn't protect me from myself, couldn't love me sober when I was in the throes of active addiction. And only now do I know how much that pained her. Only now do I try my best every day to make things right. When I was ripping and running, my dreams and goals, my fear of consequences, my love for her and her love for me couldn't keep me out of hell. My family was the last thing I was thinking about while hunkered down on stools in seedy bars and smoking crack on blocks where The Wire was shot. All I knew is that I wanted be outside of myself, and if my mom knew, if anyone knew, what it was like to be poor old me, they would see why I got faded every chance I had.
Looking at my prepubescent self, I can see character defects long before I took my first drink. Back then I was my mom's only child, her little gifted black boy. But I was angry. And dishonest. And jealous. Most of all, I was scared of everything. The release I got from drinking was a perfect complement to my egomaniac-with-an-inferiority-complex vibe.
My first drink was in freshman year of high school, a warm Natty Boh (Baltimore's beloved, formerly home-brewed piss beer) that I didn't get a couple sips into before the party was broken up. Like a good drunk, I figured I'd give it another shot. There was no booze in my house growing up. But I wanted to get to the bottom of what was so great about alcohol. Lying to my mom about going to my friend's house to play Goldeneye one summer night turned into listening to Jagged Edge's "Where The Party At?" on repeat during a bro-down and drinking Bacardi like it was water. I blacked out, the first of many nights spent time-traveling. I went on to disrobe, puke, smash a table, and cuss out a bunch of strangers. I would only find this out from my mortified friends after waking up in my friend's mom's bed with no idea how I'd gotten there (without her in it, much to my chagrin).
As terrified and disgusted as my friends were, as worried as my mother was when I finally stumbled into the house, all I knew was that I wanted to feel the way I did that Jagged Edge and Bacardi night, all the time, for the rest of my life. It wasn't long before alcohol and drugs became the most important things in my life. Even more important than my mom, the woman I'd drunkenly tell you I'd kill for, but would steal $20 bucks from after I'd sobered up and the shakes started kicking in. If I was enjoying my drinking, I wasn't controlling it, and if I was controlling it, I wasn't enjoying it.
I didn't get a lot of the consequences I deserved. I know it's only by some sort of cosmic grace that I'm not dead or locked up. Those were certainly the outcomes I was gunning for, once passing out behind the wheel on the Beltway, my shirt covered in vomit, lucky as fuck to have only dented some guy's Honda Accord fender. There were pangs of occasional guilt over how losing her only son would break my mother in two, but I couldn't let anything get in the way of my drinking. And no matter how bloody my knees got, my momma was always there with some hydrogen peroxide and emotional gauze. I knew nothing of how to live like a normal person, but today I know that's not because I was the piece of shit I told myself I was, but because I was sick and fucked up in the game on account of alcoholism.
In 2007, I thought a geographic cure would alleviate that sickness. My mom drove me up to New York, my delusional thinking rubbing off on her. In true alcoholic fashion, I moved up there with no job, no plan, and almost completely unannounced to the near-stranger who would be housing me. I thought that living in a rehearsal space would be the creative boost I needed to break free of everything I'd left behind in Baltimore. But I was the problem, and wherever I went, there I was. I figured I could reinvent myself in NYC. Perma-broke and coked out on other people's dimes, I called my mom constantly, if only to hear a soothing voice. But mostly, I called to beg for money. I thought I was owed the world.
A tough guy afraid of his shadow, I took out my anger on the late-aughts hipsters of Bedford Avenue almost nightly. The same day I swore (again) that I was gonna sober up and get some writing done, I got thrown out of my favorite dive for throwing a pint glass at a table of strangers I'd thought, out of sheer sleep-deprived, coke-induced paranoia, were gossiping about me. I went home, resigned to my fate, to cool off. But I was so drunk and tired—man, was I fucking tired—that I'd forgotten about the piss bottles I kept around my bed. A deep sip on a full Smart Water bottle that contained no water at all sobered me up enough to get up and out to another bar — a drink would fix this — which I would be thrown out of as well for telling three women I'd kick their teeth in. I thought they were talking shit too. I wasn't partying. I was disastering.
By her own admission, my mother says she never stopped loving me through all that hell. But now she can finally like me again.
None of these things seem sane or acceptable now. How could I possibly justify it, if only to myself, but to say that I was sick and dying on my feet? But it was the only way I knew how to be for a long time. And I was convinced I was smart enough to figure this whole thing out at some point and do right by my friends and family, and my mother.
For so many years, I thought my mom was weak for not picking the "right" man in my father (a man I've since come to have a great relationship with). I now know her to be stronger than any action movie star, pro athlete, or hard-living rock star I idolized growing up. It wasn't until I stopped drinking and started living that I realized the strength of her mind and spirit through all those years.
The night the tsunami hit Japan in 2011, I was rolling my face off, thinking life couldn't get any better. It was the start of a weeklong broken-heart bender. One lonely, desolate morning a few days into that bender, I got an email from my mother. She wrote that she was afraid I was going to die: "I feel helpless and it is the greatest pain I've ever felt." Even that emotional appeal, which brought tears that only some lines of coke and a blackout would stop, wasn't enough to get me sober. Driving to work with my tail between my legs days later, I finally mustered the courage to call her and say I was gonna get help. Maybe she believed me, maybe she didn't. Either way, it was another in a long line of tries at this sober thing. I just wasn't ready.
Years later, almost to the day, an email from my mom tells me how proud she's been of me. It's like an echo from the abyss that was my past life. It's taken me many years, but I'm finally realizing my privilege in having both my parents active in my life. I've realized a new sense of gratitude for having parents like mine. They weren't perfect, but they loved me through all the shit.
How could I have called my mom a bitch, or told her that I hated her, sometimes to her face? It doesn't compute today. By her own admission, my mother says she never stopped loving me through all that hell. But now she can finally like me again.
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I didn't get sober because I'm some great guy with a noble heart. I was just beaten and completely out of answers, worn down from the daily thoughts of suicide and the obsession of craving booze. I was ground down to the gristle from the worried looks of friends and co-workers, and the helplessness of trying to control my drinking. I was dying from the heartache I was causing my mom.
Toward the end, I needed a lot more of the coke and the dope and Mad Dog 20/20 to get the desired effect. Eventually, it all stopped working, and the reality of my unmanageable life set in like a fog of death. I got sober a few weeks before turning 27. I went to meetings to support someone, with no intention of doing much to help myself. I was determined I would die at 27 like the greats, while not having contributed a fraction of what they had. Thankfully, my suicide pact with myself didn't pop off.
Sober life has not been perfect. I've been sad, irresponsible with money, dishonest, angry, and downright selfish in sobriety. I'm still Kasai at the end of the day, and I know this shit is a lifelong journey. But I wouldn't trade my shittiest day today for my best day out in the killing fields getting fucked up.
In the past few years, I've been two things I never thought possible: sober and happy about it. I've also found what it means to be honest, to think of somebody else for a fucking change, to not want to die every day, to take a hold of the life I was meant to live. I fall down all the time, and I can still be an asshole, but the gift of being able to look my mother in the eye and not collapse under the weight of my shame, of hearing her say she can finally get a good night's sleep not having to worry about me being dead in a basement somewhere: Those are greater blessings than anything else I used to think would guarantee happiness.
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