December 21st, 1995, was pretty much like every day was back then. I woke up, dragged myself out of bed after not much sleep, made myself the absolute minimum of presentable, walked into my backyard, and went through the gate to my neighbor’s house two doors down to go to work.
My neighbors were a lovely lesbian couple named Mary and Mary Jo. They had a dog named Freedom and a band called Destiny, and they owned and operated a balloon store. I sat in the store-front selling balloons to folks that came in, and answered phones and sent Mary and Mary Jo out on singing telegrams and parties as clowns. I began each day by creating a “balloon rainbow” that arched between two parking meters in front of the store (now impossible thanks to the kiosk system the Philadelphia parking authority uses). Once that was done, I began to eagerly await the days customers.
Not because I liked selling balloons. Because I needed to steal the money to buy drugs.
I was twelve the first time I got drunk. I still remember it vividly. My best friend Stephanie Harper’s mom was having a party, and Stephanie and I managed to get our hands on a big glass of Wild Turkey. After drinking it, we were both giddy and drunk, and eager to join in with the grown-ups doing country-western dancing on the salt-covered dining room floor. I remember learning to two-step with a man beyond old enough to be my father, who held me entirely too closely considering my age. I didn’t care. I felt smart, and pretty, and delightful.
I chased that feeling for the next fifteen years. By 13, I was drinking nearly every day. When I moved to Philadelphia at age 18, I discovered drinking in bars, which was awesome because it meant guaranteed “friends” and some of those folks bought me drinks. I also fancied myself a writer, and soon began to hang out with poets and writers, where drinking was not just a past time but a requirement and a definining character trait. In fact, the group of poets that finally emerged from these adventures were so romantically fatalistic we called ourselves The Dead Pool — yes, really — betting on who would die first (Sarah and Charlie of course were part of this group, and Sarah celebrated 15 years sober back in October).
In 1995, things changed in my little group of writers. While we’d all smoked pot on occasion, drugs were becoming commonplace. It wasn’t long before we began sharing cocaine regularly, and not long after that heroin crept in. We all just snorted it at first, of course. But I worked as a veterinary technician, and had access to clean needles, and it really didn’t take long before those two things came together and by the summer of 1995 I was shooting cocaine and heroin every day.
But that fall a series of events happened that changed things. First, my roommate realized just how far down the rabbit hole she’d fallen and went to rehab. This inspired me to quit heroin. Which I did. Cold turkey. At home. (Just a tip, by the way: if you decide to quit heroin on your own, don’t invite your mother. I did. It was a mistake. Because it will take YEARS for her to forgive you for demanding, somewhere at the end of day two, that she drive to North Philly and get you some dope already. Just so you know.)
But I didn’t get clean after quitting heroin. Far from it. I just switched to JUST shooting cocaine. Which was far more expensive. And far more addicting and demanding. And made me MUCH sicker.
So that morning, on December 21st, you can imagine my joy when the owners of the store left to run errands, leaving me alone when someone bought a huge bouquet of balloons. I immediately paged Mike, my dealer, who showed up soon after with the BIG bag of coke for me.
When I got home from work, I could hardly wait to get started. I shot up a few times in secret, (I was still fooling Charlie into thinking I was drug-free; this involved an elaborate dance of lies, long-sleeved shirts, and low-lighting). Halfway through the evening, though, the house grew cold because we had run out of heating oil. Well familiar with this problem, we turned on the oven, put pots of water on the stove to boil, and started running the shower. I dashed upstairs again and was setting up a hit when Charlie yelled from right outside the door, “Hey, where is that space heater?” I jerked, sending a HUGE clump of coke into my spoon, and for a moment I thought “uh-oh.”
But then I went ahead and mixed it up and shot it all up anyway.
Then I ran down the stairs to help him find the heater.
The next part I don’t remember. But Charlie has told me about it. About how I fell down and began having a massive seizure. How it didn’t stop for over ten minutes. How he called 911, sobbing, and how I then stopped breathing unless someone pushed on my chest. How he paced in front of our house waiting for the ambulance.
What I do remember is waking up. I was flat on my back, naked (I’d been wearing a robe which apparently came open) and I was circled by my boyfriend, three police officers, my neighbors, and two paramedics.
I remember them helping me stand up. I remember them telling me to get into the ambulance, because they wanted me to go to the hospital. I remember putting on my boots so my feet wouldn’t be bare, without socks, meaning I was leaving the house wearing a purple satin bathrobe and black cowboy boots. I remember lying in the back of the ambulance, watching a Christmas ornament above the rear double doors bounce as we drove to the hospital. I remember the doctors telling me I’d overdosed. I remember Charlie telling me that our partying days were over.
We were going to get help, and get sober, and we were going to do it now.
December 21st is our 15th sobriety anniversary. It will also mark the point at which we have both been sober just as long as we drank. And December 22nd will begin the time when I’ve been sober longer than I drank.
It’s an amazing thing.
It might be the darkest day of the year today, but it is the brightest day of the year in my heart. It’s the day I celebrate life. It’s a happy anniversary indeed.