Content Warning: Discussion of addiction, including the specifics of using drugs, and smoking.

I struggle to pull my coat onto my shoulders. The gesture makes a popping sound from my elbow, which I follow with a preprogrammed joke before anyone can ask if it hurt. It did. It always does. That’s why they call it chronic pain.

It takes some time to put on my shoes. My left ankle doesn’t rotate anymore, and neither foot will point their respective toes. Turns out that’s a useful thing for a foot to do in order to put on boots. I try as much as possible to make sure no one’s paying attention as I push my sluggish feet into them, because it’s not fun or funny. It hurts, and it’s humiliating to feel unable to put on your own shoes. I don’t have a joke for these moments. Just angry tears I shove down past the laces and tongue.

I pull on my hat, throw a scarf around my neck in such a way I know it will sluff off my shoulders as I shuffle out the door. Fixing the long length of fabric isn’t worth the motion; I can tell if my elbow pops out again it’s going to mean keeping my arm bent in a pretend sling and pressed against my side for a good 40 minutes to keep it from getting worse. It’s not worth the ache. I let the tassels drag across the doormat, getting damp and heavy.

I already have my cigarette behind my ear and a lighter in hand. The second my curled fingers hit the cold air they begin to grow stiff. I waste precious mobility digging through my pockets for the box and light. So I’m always ready in advance. I’ve perfected the actions, as much as I can, so as to save as much energy and avoid the worst of the pain. The only thing to pity is the temperature, and that I’m depressingly low on my cigarette count.

Out in the cold, I turn my back to the direction of the wind and flick the lighter. I take a deep, steadying breath. Sometimes the things that are bad for you are better than going without. But that’s logic that’s gotten me into trouble in the past.

I think about ritual. Some people say there are ghosts built solely from repetition–imprints of the daily motions of a lifetime onto a space. Women in colonial gowns walking through the hall. The sound of heavy work boots endlessly climbing the stairs before thudding back down them again. Congregations walking the aisle to take their waiffers, kneel, cross themselves, and disappear until the next communion. The rituals continue long after the person who made them.

Image Description: A close-up of someone wearing a pair of tan work boots and dark pants, standing in the snow.

I’ve let go of a lot of rituals over the years. I’m an addict, so there’s a lot of them. I’m trying to cut back on smoking, and my crippled body would be pleased by the follow through if I manage. Suiting up for the Minnesotan winter is no small effort, and, turns out, cigarettes are pretty bad for you. But there are worse drugs, worse rituals. The kind I hope died with the person I was while using.

A lot of folks at AA or NA meetings will tell you that you’re already high when you’re getting ready to use. The anticipation makes your skin warm, pushes down through you until you’re flush and giddy. As you call your dealer, push open the door of the liquor store, open that brand new prescription bottle– you’re taking part in a ritual. One that you will perfect over time. It soon becomes as heady as the drug itself.

I used to smoke after my first fix in a while. I’d feel the tension in my shoulders unspool, and the constant pain in my knees and hips would sink down with it. The nicotine and opiates would hum through me until I was euphoric about nothing and everything. It was wonderful to be alive, for life to not mean– at least for that moment– I must be in pain. But those moments grew shorter and shorter, and to reach them took more and more, until I was trading my breath for empty promises.

I disagree with those who say the ritual is as bad as the communion. I think about the ghosts that haunt houses without knowing. There’s no sentience behind the phenomena, only the sounds and signs of life playing out, day after day. No one planned for those footsteps or practice scales to be the only evidence of their having existed. I didn’t plan for the familiar ache of putting on my coat to carry the weight of a painful memory–the memory of not being in pain–but the motions are remembered, imprinted onto my cracking joints and fumbling fingers.

I’m Not a Good Person and So Can You!

An Introduction

Content Warning: This piece contains discussion of addiction, but no explicit descriptions.

I originally wrote this as a Facebook post at the beginning of November 2018. I decided to make it my first piece for this blog because a) it was the inspiration for its title and b) this piece broadly frames what it is I wish to explore through my writing here–messy things, the stuff (and people) we’d rather not talk about. The focus of the mess will mainly be on my own experiences as a queer, trans cripple with autism and one heck of a drug problem. I feel like that’s enough to cover. While I talk mainly about addicts in this piece, I think it’s easy to replace the stereotypes and adages to reflect how many different groups of people are talked about and relegated to the category of Bad People (with, of course, some token exceptions to prove the point). I’ve left the text as posted, except for some copy-editing. The picture I’ve included is a more recent one as well. In the essays and other works to come of this blog, I hope to further illustrate there’s no such thing as a bad person, and that no, I’m not a good person either. I’m just doing what I can to get by, and minimize the collateral damage in my wake.

Someone I’m Learning to Forgive

Someone I'm learning to forgive
Image Description: A picture of me, a young white trans man, smiling and leaning towards the camera. I’ve got a shaved head, wear black plastic glasses, a black and white striped shirt with black suspenders, and black jeans. There’s a grey and black scarf around my neck.

I took this picture a few days ago. I’ve been struggling in a number of ways the last few weeks, but for even longer I’ve been anxious to take pictures of myself, let alone post them. 

I don’t think it’s unusual to post infrequently. In fact, I’ve found it’s been helpful for my mental health to keep a distance from Facebook and other social media in these strange times. But I know in my heart that I haven’t been taking pictures because I hate what I see. Some of that is gender dysphoria, internalized ableism, mental illness, and a bad self esteem I try to hide behind humor. The rest of it? Well, I haven’t been a person I can be proud of for a while.

Addiction changes our brains, makes awful actions seem like reasonable choices. On the outside looking in, others think that, surely, they’re not the same person anymore. They can’t be, because they’re a good person, and good people don’t do bad things. This simple moral arithmetic turns an addict from someone struggling with a disease into someone who willfully wants to do bad things. Dirty, freeloader, deadbeat, criminal. There’s plenty of go-to names when one delves into the stereotype. That notion– the idea that addiction is a character flaw and not a complicated illness– becomes internalized by addicts, so much so that it can isolate them even more from recovery:

“If everyone Already sees me as a Bad Person, what’s the point?”

I’ve internalized that puritanical bullshit. Even now, [13 as of this blog post] months sober, it festers in me, and keeps me hostage from moving forward. It’s killing me.

Guilt is a teacher. It helps show us what we know is wrong and what is right, and what we wish to be able to do to uphold those values. Shame, though. Shame is a tool of control. Shame is there to hold you down, to make you submit to its demands of isolation, obsession, regret. I’m tired of the tiger’s claws in my back.

I did a lot of fucked up things while I was using. Things I’m learning to apologize for, even now. I hurt the people who mean the most to me in this world and was too far gone to let myself care. I was a bad person, because I’d done bad, bad things. So what was the point to stop using, to face what I’d done?

I’m sorry I never saw through that bullshit when it mattered, when I could have recognized I deserved help even as I continued to make bad choices. Perhaps, especially then. I’m sorry I’ve been keeping people at arms length because sometimes I can’t help but believe that it’s true, and it’s better to stay away than risk harming them. I’m sorry its influence has kept me from reclaiming who I am. I’m sorry that even as I type this, I know I’m going to be fighting this feeling for a long time, and that so many others are too.

But I’m not going to apologize for being a bad person. There are only bad actions, and I will not define myself by my mistakes. And I’m learning how to do the same for others.

Human beings are too complicated for binary categories. Bad and Good are so reductive that we must carve entire parts of ourselves off to fit into their narrow boxes. I’m done denying entire parts of myself to please a false category.

I am an addict, now in recovery. I am not a bad person. Nor am I a good one. I am a human being capable of great love and great harm if I’m not careful. Just like anyone else. Shame will try to tell me otherwise, but maybe little acts of love towards myself and others will ebb away at it. So here’s one: a picture of a person I’m learning to forgive.


[Posted the next day.]

To be clear– I’m not looking for anyone to tell me I’m a good person. My post from yesterday was an attempt to show how we define “good” vs “bad” people is hopelessly flawed and dangerous to the safety of addicts like me. In fact, it’s a notion that endangers many people of all walks of life from seeking transformative change.

I’m not a good person “despite” my addictions, nor am I a bad person because of them. The same goes for every single person struggling with addiction. The same goes for everyone.

It is our actions that matter. I’ve done some bad things, and I’ve also striven to do good. No one’s humanity depends on a calculation of the average net good. People deserve their humanity no matter what. Does that mean they’re owed your kindness, your compassion, your time and energy? No. Those things are earned based on your individual relationship to them. But they are still deserving of basic human decency.

I am still earning back the respect and trust of people in my life. And it is more than fair that I must do so. I’m not lamenting this, but rather sharing my efforts to show that thinking in black and white terms of good and bad pushes addicts further into their addiction. That is when they need your decency most if you can afford to offer it to them.

I’m still working through the aftershocks of my using. But I’m not convinced I’m bad because  of it, nor good because I’m lucky to have a second chance to try and make things right.

You don’t need to call me a good person to show your love or support. I challenge you to disregard those terms so that maybe we can show others who are struggling that there’s still hope in recovery. They aren’t automatically a bad person, and they deserve recovery as a basic right– not because “underneath” their addiction they’re “still” a good person.

I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for your kind words and support. I ask only that you show the same to addicts you don’t know–or perhaps those you do–when able.