On September 23, I woke up in Prague on an L-shaped couch, head to head with a 30-something party boy from the suburbs of Chicago. He was sniffling in his sleep, occasionally pinching his nostrils to remove residual cocaine.
He sat up abruptly, checked his phone, sprang off the couch, buttoned his pants around his skinny boy beer belly, and scrambled to find the document he had picked up from his bald Australian friend’s house the night prior.
“Where the fuck is it? Fuck, I can’t believe I forgot this… I’m supposed to meet my lawyer friend, like, right now for my appointment with the foreign police. The one fucking thing I needed to do this week, goddammit.”
A mixture of coke and snot slid from my nose to my lip. I wiped it off with my sweatshirt sleeve and made a groggy attempt at sympathy.
“That sucks, dude.”
His phone rang. It was his lawyer friend.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming. Sorry, I slept through my alarm. Don’t worry, I’ll be there in a second.”
He continued searching his room — the living room of his former apartment — for the document. He found it. He left. As soon as the front door was shut, I reached for my computer and bought a plane ticket.
The day before the coke binge, I moved from a beautiful hostel with a terrible name (Adam and Eva) to a squat on the outskirts of Prague. I arrived at the squat at noon and saw a boy in bell-bottoms leaving the property. Too nervous to talk to him, I walked to the first cafe I could find and asked for the biggest beer they offered. I walked back to the squat and caught the attention of a man walking down the dirt path by the entrance. He unlocked the front door and went around back for a cigarette.
Two girls sat on the couch in the main room speaking Czech. They said hello and resumed their conversation. I set my bag on an opposing couch then sat on the couch next to theirs, waiting for someone to tell me what to do. It didn’t happen. I interrupted the Czech girls’ conversation. They asked if I knew anyone or if I had just showed up. No, I had been in contact with someone. I forgot her name. Could they direct me to a resident? One of the girls retrieved two boys in all black. They showed me to the guest room — a dingy space across from the kitchen containing four dirty mattresses and three hippies — then gave me a tour of the building.
The squat, as you might expect of a squat, was in a state of disarray. It was lovely in a way — there was a free store, a communal kitchen, toilets that flushed with rain water, and apple trees in the backyard — but in the two hours I spent there, the only conversations I had were with the three hippies and those conversations primarily involved agreements of “yeah, totally, man,” shaking dreadlocks, and sighs of “I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going, but that’s, like, life, man.”
I tried to be grateful and nonjudgmental and open minded, but failed miserably. The anarchists I wanted to spend time were caught up in their own lives, too preoccupied with cleaning and rearranging and joking in Czech to talk to the travelers. Which was fine. But for someone in a constant state of hyperarousal and terror, I was dependent on the existence of human connection and pseudo-comfortable living spaces for sanity.
Realizing that few conversations were forthcoming and plagued by an incoming panic attack, I left the house, jumped on a tram, and got off as soon as I reached the city center. I ducked into another cafe for another beer. Another coffee. Another five cigarettes, smoked indoors. I was drunk, which coincided with confidence and optimism. The squat suddenly seemed less chaotic and more inviting. Suuure, I could stay there for a week! I could stay there my while life!
I hopped back on the tram, got off at the wrong stop, refused to get back on when I realized this, sped walked back to the squat, and found 15 new people inside. They were sorting through lamp shades and kitchen supplies. I smiled. A girl with blue highlights said something in Czech. A man with a mop glared at me.
“Sorry, we’re really busy.”
I wasn’t sure what they were busy with exactly, but took the hint and walked a mile to a bar down the hill, where I would meet up with a Minnesota transplant who had reached out to me on couchsurfing. I had ignored his response to my public request at first, but finally reached out to him in the hope that he would rescue me from my current living situation.
The bar was called Ceen. The couchsurfer was called Cameron. He barreled in at 6:05, shook hands with the bartender, and took the seat across from me. Two liters of beer were placed before us.
Cameron lit a cigarette, the first of maybe 50. He took a deep exhale then launched into a monologue, his mouth moving at high speed.
“Man, you wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had. I woke up at the top of a mountain that I climbed up last night in the dark, all alone. Saw the most beautiful fuckin’ sunset I’ve ever seen. Check out these pictures, man. But I had to catch a train back to the city within two hours. I trudged through the muck, splish sploshing up and down in that shit like I was caught in quicksand and got my camo pants covered in mud. I tried hitchhiking for a while, but who the fuck’s gonna pick up a dude in muddy camo pants? And I thought about hiding my nose ring, but when cars are moving that fast, that’s not gonna do shit, you know? So I make it to the bus and I go to pay the lady, but my money is gone. There’s a fucking hole in my pocket from my goddamn keys. I try to pay with a credit card and she tells me that if I wanted to pay with a credit card, I should have paid inside. Here I am, flat broke, this lady telling me to pay inside. I’m like, lady, I didn’t know there was a hole in my pocket. She let me pay with the card and I’m just standing there praying that I’ve got enough money for the ticket. Sure enough, it goes through, but I’m fuckin’ flat broke, man. I’ve got 32 fuckin’ crowns to my name. It’s cool though, I have money in the states, I just don’t know how much or where it is.”
32 crowns amounts to little more than an American dollar.
“Anyways, shit, I’m Cameron, nice to meet you. Tell me about yourself.”
“Well, I’m Leif.”
I repeated my own tired monologue: I was engaged, went to Europe and made some questionable decisions that ended said engagement, flew home, then came back to Europe for a bit of “soul searching.”
Cameron nodded, his eyes drifting to the other side of the room.
“Mhmm, well good for you.”
He offered his fist in approval.
After some chaotic stories involving Cameron’s Swedish prime minister friend who partied so hard, he wound up naked in his own fountain, a bald man charged into the bar with his Wizard of Oz dog.
“Camerooooon! Let’s go sit outside man, it’s fucking nice out.”
The bald man was a 35-year-old Australian lawyer with a Czech wife and teenager’s brain. He was high on blow at 6:30 p.m.
“Hey man, I’m going inside for a minute. You’re next.”
Cameron leaned over to me and asked how I felt about drugs.
“Um, I feel okay about them, I guess.”
“Cuz listen, he’s in there doing blow and I’ve got some in my pocket. Are you down?”
I was down for anything. My self-respect and personal boundaries had deteriorated months before. Within five minutes, I was watching myself snort a line off a mirror in the back room of the bar. I would witness my reflection engaging in the same act in thirty minute intervals for the rest of the night, sometimes off the mirror, sometimes off of smart phones, always with the goal of forgetting, never with the satisfaction of succeeding. And when I didn’t have a 1,000 korona bill up my nose, I had a pint glass to my lips. The table overflowed with them.
I was no longer capable of drunkenness. As a nightly drinker, my tolerance didn’t allow for it. But I would still try.
The bald Australian’s friend, a drug dealer with dreads down to his ass, showed up with more coke. Better coke, the bald man said. He always had the better coke. He also had a teenage daughter who stumbled upon his bubblegum kush and used it to make cookies.
“She ruined it, man. That shit was so good and she used it to make fucking cookies. I told her that next time she wants to smoke, she should come to me first. I know what I’m doing.”
A Czech girl and Cameron’s redheaded roommate joined us. The bald Australian lawyer got drunker and louder. He told me he didn’t wait long after his wedding to cheat on his wife — that, “It’s hard, man.” I nodded. He said he had two teenage girls staying at his house the week prior — beautiful teenage girls that he wouldn’t touch but liked to look at — and he couldn’t understand why his wife was upset about it. The Czech girl told me that she was embarrassed to be friends with him, but that he tended to be friends with good people. She didn’t understand it. She said she didn’t understand herself, either. She didn’t understand why every owner of every bar she ever worked at offered her coke by 10 p.m. She didn’t understand why she always accepted it.
The bald Australian invited a man from India to join our table. When he refused the Australian’s cocaine offer, the Australian ignored him. I didn’t. I asked him if he ever made mistakes. He said “yes, of course.” I said, “I bet you don’t make as many mistakes as I do.” He said, “you don’t know that.” We shared a cheeseburger and nachos.
The Australian man found a group of Australian teenagers at an opposing table and attempted to give them life lessons, his voice overpowering every other voice in the bar, his feet stumbling over bar stools, his dog cowering in the corner. I french braided the Czech girl’s hair. I french braided the drug dealer’s dreads. I smoked all of my cigarettes. Cameron asked me for my empty cigarette box. He said the bar would be appreciative, since they used them for drug deals. I snorted more coke, revealed more secrets, asked the drug dealer for advice. He said, “you just gotta stop giving a shit what other people think.” He said, “you just gotta live your life.” He said, “you wanna do another line of coke in the back room?” Of course I wanted more coke. Of course I would line up at the mirror with the bald Australian. Of course I would laugh at his degrading, sexist jokes. Of course I would go to his penthouse apartment after we left the bar so Cameron could pick up his court slip. Of course I would listen to the bald man’s shitty fast-paced techno song. Of course I would pretend to love it. Of course I would stay silent when he talked down to his young Czech wife who entered the room in a robe and slippers, wondering where he had been and begging him to turn the music down so she could wake up on time for work.
And then I would walk with Cameron to the squat to sneak in and grab my bag. I would leave the door unlocked and slightly ajar, feeling like an asshole but not enough to do anything about it.
At Cameron’s apartment, he would take off his shirt and I would see his pudgy, rippled stomach in the half-light. We would lie on either side of the L-shaped couch.
He would say, “what a crazy night, huh? Fun though.”
Cameron would reach his arm towards my head and I would pretend to be asleep, craving human contact, but disgusted by his earlier attempts to fuck the Czech girl. I may have lost all self-respect, but I wouldn’t be his second best.
I woke up five hours later in the same place I found myself in almost three years prior: I could either die or seek help.
But this time, death wouldn’t be something I inflicted upon myself. No, my death would be inadvertent. It was an eventual inevitability. I wasn’t actively searching for it, but I wasn’t hiding, either. I just didn’t give a fuck. Giving a fuck would require taking a good, long look at myself. It would mean facing the horrific things I have done to this person:
I prostituted this girl. I stuffed her with booze. I numbed her with amphetamines. I sliced her arms with razor blades. I starved and shamed her. I spent the past 15 years telling her she’s a worthless, unlovable piece of shit.
But look at her. I mean, look at your child self. We were all born with big, bright eyes and open hearts. We were born good. Sarah McLaughlin would tell you in a really breathy singing voice that I still totally love that we were all born innocent. I really and truly believe this. Sure, some of us were born with physical and/or emotional qualities that make things more complicated, but I’m pretty sure Satan has never visited Earthly sperm banks.
The sad truth is that there were people in our young lives who were incapable of filling our hearts with love, safety, and understanding. They’re usually people who were born into similar scenarios — people who were also subjected to chaos, trauma, instability, etc. at an early age. It’s a vicious fucking cycle. It sucks. You weren’t at fault.
Now if you pair childhood instability with biological sensitivity, you’re in for a wild ride, kid.
Fortunately, the emotional and physical repercussions of my Czechoslovakian coke binge finally gave me the courage to jump off my own coaster, mid-ride.
Isn’t is funny how someone so honest can hide one of her biggest truths for almost a year? And by funny, I mean, like, “oh my God, my life has been falling apart.”
I’ve left out lots of “little” truths along the way.
I left out the fact that I lied to my therapist about my drug and alcohol use for six months so that I wouldn’t have to break up with Dustin.
I left out the fact that I quit trauma therapy because the therapist advised me to stop drinking.
I left out the fact that I was smoking weed all day, everyday for the last three months of my relationship with Dustin.
I left out the fact that every morning after I drank, I wanted to die.
I left out the fact that I used to tell Dustin at least three times a week that I thought I was an addict and needed help.
I left out the fact that in the past few months, I haven’t gone more than two days without drinking — that the only reason I didn’t drink on those days was because I was hungover.
I left out the fact that I spent many late nights wandering the streets of Europe in scandalous clothes and with no way to get home, hoping to find a man to spend the night with.
I left out the fact that a man yelled at me on the street while I kissed an Italian boy and that after I went into the hostel, the man began pounding on the door, trying to follow me.
I left out the fact that on the first night I slept with Laurent, he stopped me on the red bridge by the water and said, “I could rape you right here” and that I still had sex with him.
I left out the fact that two weeks ago, I went to an enormous party at a squat in Rome. I got groped by a stranger in the crowd. He forced my hands towards his dick and wouldn’t let go. I tried to laugh it off (“at least he’s giving me attention”). I drank enormous amounts of alcohol. My drunk demon came out. I made out with a man, grinding on his lap in public, while laughing and making eye contact with a stranger. He said he had MDMA, did I want any? Sure. Ten minutes later, I asked if I could have it. He said yes, he already put it in my drink.
I left out the fact that drinking turns me into a completely different person — a person I can’t stand.
I left these things out because because I wanted people to think I was okay. I didn’t want to be told to seek help. I didn’t want to hear the things I already knew.
Really, I just didn’t want to stop drinking.
The illusion is gone. There’s no more hiding from it. I tell you these things to hold myself accountable. I write them to solidify the fact that:
I am an addict.
I am addicted to anything that takes me away from my reality, be it food, men, sex, drugs, booze, shopping, danger, or chaos.
There’s nowhere left to run.
Addiction is a difficult thing to admit to. Since my case has not been as extreme as some, it’s been even harder to sit with. My mind feeds me excuses: “Oh, but I don’t do heroin.” “Oh, but I don’t black out every night.” “Oh, but I’m fine just having two beers and falling asleep.” “Oh, but I’m not like THAT guy.” And then, of course, there are some addicts who hear that I was addicted to something as docile as adderall or that I only smoke weed and drink to a minor point of fuckedupness and it becomes a competition. I started to convince myself that maybe they were right, maybe I am different, maybe I can handle the booze.
But it’s not their fault. No, if I was truly in touch with my mind and body, those sentiments wouldn’t have had the slightest impact on me. A lot of people knew that I had a problem, even if it wasn’t as drastic as theirs. A lot of people worried and crossed their fingers that I wouldn’t end up dead when I left the rooms. My ex-sponsor cried to me at Peace Coffee. My best friend cut me out of his life. I numbed every single feeling I was faced with. My vision blurred during these conversations — I tried to go somewhere else, to be someone else. I tried to prove to them that I was different.
I really struggled with the word “relapse” after I started using again. I made a plan with my therapist, had the support of Dustin and some of my friends, and was keeping track of my drinking habits. I was convinced that I was no longer an addict — that I had just gone through a little phase as a result of my PTSD.
But, as most addicts know, maintaining that lie takes a lot more suffering than it’s worth.
It doesn’t matter what or how much I used. What matters is what it did to my soul, spirit, boundaries, self-respect, and sanity. I was putting myself in danger on a daily basis. I had a subconscious death wish. I mean, I didn’t actively want to die, but if death came my way, I wouldn’t have given a shit.
I am done.
I had a spiritual awakening on a stranger’s couch in Prague. My gut said to go home. I talked to my sober ex and asked for advice. He said to make a pros and cons list. The primary “pro” was proving something to other people — proving that I was strong and healthy enough to make it on my own. Bullshit. I bought a plane ticket to Chicago for the next day. I spent the rest of my time in Prague on the same couch, watching Bob’s Burgers, coming down from cocaine, and attempting to silence the voice that repeatedly screamed, “I hate myself, I hate myself, I hate myself.”
My plane left at 6 a.m., but, since Cameron terrified me, I left for the airport at 10 p.m. and stayed up all night, withdrawing from drugs and chaos. It was a painful 24 hours home.
I have been clean for a week. I have gone to meetings every day since my jet lag wore off. My current plan is to live at my parent’s house in the suburbs of Chicago for the next year, as it’s the safest place for me to be right now. Minneapolis is home to too many temptations, both drug-wise and Dustin-wise. If I cut you out of my life, don’t take it personally. I need to be alone and/or with people in recovery until I’m healthy again, and then some.
I start therapy tomorrow. I start community acupuncture on Thursday. When I have the energy, I hope to start applying to MFA programs for next fall. I have a compulsion to turn my pain into something tangible. I need to write this fucking book.
The best advice I’ve gotten since returning is to disappear. I’ll be off Facebook indefinitely, unless I have a blog update. I may not return your phone calls. I’ll mostly be at this desk, writing my fucking heart out and trying to make sense of everything that’s happened in the past lord knows how long.
I’m so grateful to all of you who have stood by me. Seriously.
I’m so grateful that I reached my bottom.
I’m so grateful that I made it out alive.
Now it’s time to start living — really, fucking, beautifully living — again.
I’m wide awake.