Friday, February 1, 2019

Scissors by my face

I've been working on material for a new book. Would love your thoughts.- Love Tracey

That morning started like any other morning. It ended in the emergency room.
Copious amounts of caffeine washing down the remnants of last night’s lack of sleep. My blanket is covered in sweat. As I rolled over, I can hear my son let out a little sigh. He gets sweaty, too. A different kind of sweaty from a 200 pound woman. Small children look like cherub angels from Renaissance paintings or ceramic Precious Moments figurines. I look like an out of shape exerciser in too tight clothes on a hot summer day. I pull my yoga shorts up. I will have to tip toe past him to get out the door.
      I’m 48 years old resting on a tiny mattress on a bunk bed. The bunk is about as comfortable as it sounds but it is what I am working with at the moment. The springs sticking in my back are a minor irritation I consider worth the physical discomfort. I just need to get access to the fan on a nightly basis. Using my well honed powers  of manipulation, I’ve convinced my middle son to switch places with me. He gets the “opportunity” to sleep next to the roaring freight train of snores that is my husband. I get to sleep next to the fan. The fan in combination with cool drafts from the single pane window makes nighttime bearable. The white noise helps shut of the voices that spin around in my active mind. I have also started “borrowing” one of his stuffed animal. Regressing much? Frankly, I don’t have the emotional energy to question my current survival strategies. I am using what works for a decent night of sleep.
    There is a certain amount of irony in this. The bunk, of course, reminds me of jail. I used to fight hard to stay on the bottom. I want to be close to the toilet in case I was dopesick. There is a freedom at first when you are completely  addicted to drugs like heroin. You can lose yourself in the daily rituals as you become more and more detached. The things that used to matter slowly slip away- the opinions of others, the need to eat, the chains of modern society. There is no need for contouring or getting “the latest” anything. Materialism is replaced by an individual need to convert goods into nods. Then that comes crashing to an end one day.  Sigh. Jail sucks. (Rehab sucks too). Then comes the crushing responsibilities of a life out in the free world. There is one small benefit. Institutions have little in the way of practical life skills to offer but they do teach you to how to get up in the morning. Five am to be exact.
My square life routines these days are fairly simple. I’ll start at the end of the day. At 9:15 PM, I put the “do not disturb on my phone”.This is critical to my sanity. Years and years of frantic social media messages have taught me this hard won lesson. Nothing ruins a decent night’s sleep like “can you talk to me-I’m going to kill myself”messages from a person I’ll never meet.
My youngest son sleeps next to me, in his converted day bed he outgrew two years ago. I don’t try to make him my baby- he just IS my baby. The last of my hatched eggs, conceived on my 40th birthday. We play a few rounds of a game called questions. It started as a way for him to ask me questions about my past.
His tiny voice- “Mommy- what is it like to sleep outside?”
Me: “like camping with heroin!”
We both laugh.
Ok, maybe I didn’t say that- out loud.
Honestly, We’ve run out of painful material. I ask him questions like “would you rather be hot or cold” and “if you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?”
This cuteness is a buffer for my daily work. Death is a frequent visitor. How many people have I lost to overdose? I lost count before this “epidemic” even started. Between clients, friends, acquaintances, and lovers I’m now easily into the 300 plus range. I remember the fact that my son likes to “touch hands” before we go to sleep. He’s very sweet when he isn’t stabbing his siblings with a pretzel.
At 5:46am, I roll out of the bunk like a fleecy cowboy every morning in search of my next roundup. Thank you millennials for the avocado toast. Generation X traded this toast for our burgeoning anxiety. Like a blanket marinated in small pox.
I check my Instagram. Two more RIPs in the comments section under pictures of people I barely know. Misfortune has taken many of my close friends, the ones who are irreplaceable‍. My circle has been whittled down to a select few.
I finish my coffee and feed the cats on my way into the bathroom. They can’t wake me up in the fan room. That makes them meow more intensely. Like meow motherfucker, rather than a soft mew. The scissors on the counter catch my eye. Bang trim? Why yes.
Fuck fuck double Fuck. As I held the scissors against my skin, I caught a glimpse of myself. Wild eyed, certainly, detached from the world outside of this bathroom. The towels hang limply against the shower than should have been scrubbed six months ago. Black hair dye drips roll down the tiles like rain drops.
I’m distracted by disordered thoughts. The woman looking back at me has a familiar look of shock. My protective covering is  being peeled away to the rawness underneath. I’m anticipating a change- a release. “It’s only self harm if I’m capable of feeling pain…”What the hell am I doing.
  In these moments that I can only describe as the action cycle of my mental illness, anything can happen. It has been a staple in my life for over 40 years. There is the wallowing phase. This involves binge eating, depression napping, scratch off lottery tickets, or possibly online shopping. Then there is the action phase. This involves risky texts, showing up at a place I should not be, being progressively later and later for work, and altering my appearance radically with scissors, dyes, or depression garments.
Sharp objects and mental health issues go together like a two piece and a biscuit. Except the biscuit is dry. It gets stuck in your throat, taking away my ability to properly formulate words. As the scissors pass next to my forehead, I feel a stinging in my eyes. Stray hairs made their way under my eyelids. I strain to rub them out. I have already over plucked my eyebrows in a fit of anxious energy. Now there goes the bangs. I see the pieces fall like snowflakes into the sink.
Here I am trimming my bangs with fabric scissors before 6am. The grey cat is scratching at the door. MEOW! He wants wet food now but I’m not finished. This is very important business.  Better than cutting my wrists, I suppose. I feel myself slightly out of my body. After twenty minutes, the alarm on my phone goes off. Me time is over. Time to get up kids.

      I lost myself in the mirror. I disappeared behind the maniacal whish whish whish of the scissor. For a moment, my problems disappear. For a moment, I don’t see myself. All I can see is the task at hand. Whish whish whish.
Stress starts to slowly creep up my body. I feel it tingling. Like my brain is cutting off oxygen from my appendages and focusing its efforts on keeping the executive functions of the body working. It’s six am and a long day of being me awaits. I have to remain inside this body while carrying my essence around in this flesh suit known as Tracey Helton (Mitchell). Who am I anyway? This question can’t be answered now. I need to get out of this mirror. I brush the trimmings off my shirt. I snap back to “normal”.
Normally, I need at least thirty minutes to collect myself before the kids get up. I wasn’t born into motherhood. It wasn’t something that came naturally to me. I never had the desire to take care of dolls. The closest I came was taking care of emotionally unavailable lovers. Motherhood to me was the abstract idea that one day a little friend would be in my life. There was no thought to stretch marks or was I going to eat the placenta or what would the first day of kindergarten be like. I had no frame of reference.
I did not know what to expect from a child. I did not realize that carrying a life around in what I would describe to her as “My stomach” would make me cradle the same space for years after I was done having children. There is a certainly other worldly feeling of laying in bed alone knowing there is a person swirling around in there. I got pregnant on purpose yet I was naive to what happens when there is this physical change, that primal feeling that signaled I was no longer alone.
Now here I am. Tending to humans. Food. Dressed. Lunches. Three kisses later, the kids are gone in the blink of a sleepy eye. My makeup is starting to run as I pull on my shoes. At 48, I’ve started wearing fishnets, skinny jeans, and bright red lipstick. Two yogurts, a kombucha, and an apple I’ll probably forget go in my backpack. The gate is locked. I am on my way.
Food for the feral cats.
My money for the train.
I step off in a cloud of smoke. People smoking fentanyl on foil at the train station. Chasing it with what’s left of our city’s plastic straw. They will have to find an environmentally friendly solution to this drug crisis. The barefoot woman puts her head into her hands.
This is the places I see five days a week. There’s some blood on the stairs from whatever happened last night. The escalator is broken again. It was on the news people use the bathroom in it and jam the works. I touch my bangs thinking what the actual fuck did I do.
I pass by the man with one leg missing. He used to be a client. He had an infection that never healed.  “Hi”, I wave meekly. Why won’t I give him a dollar. Is it enabling at this point or just facing the reality that this may never stop.
Work is work. Listening to people talk for three hours. Attentively engaging in the back and forth that pays the bills. I decide to walk to a twelve step meeting at lunch time. The format is a meditation. Wash that down with more coffee. I feel the blood pulsing into my face. I don’t think this is normal. I’m having chest pains.
“I think I need to go to the hospital”

My play “son” rode with me in ride share. Families are more than just blood. A family can exists wherever you find love and acceptance. He nervously scrolls his phone. I was too concerned about the cost to pay for an ambulance ride. I felt ridiculous yet unwell at the same time. I hated dragging a person along that was forced to worry along with me.
I had on my black Nike tennis shoes on the gurney. Like An outtake from a mass suicide. I only had to strip off the top layer, laying in the cold hallway waiting to see why my heart is breaking. I put my clean bra on this morning. “always stay ready then you don’t have to get ready”.  I hate being caught unprepared (by life).
After my EKG, The tattooed army vet that came to take my blood was into metal. He instantly commented on my Slayer socks. He looks at me calmly as I explain I used to shoot drugs into any vein I could reach. He tells me about his four children and I tell him about mine.
“I hope my heart is okay” I add cheerfully.
He stabs me. Ouch. Right through the scar tissues. In twenty years, nothing has come in or out of that space. They need to do two blood draws, he explains. It’s going to be five long hours with a dead cell phone laying on a cold gurney in the hallway. Can I have an extra blanket?
“Sure,” he pats my leg, never to be seen again.
I am forced to reflect on my situation. My phone has run out of batteries. I sent my friend home. It’s just me and my thoughts for the next four hours. Fuck. I try to cover my eyes.
I never imagined I would live this long. In fact, I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to guarantee I did not survive past 30 years old. Live fast, die pretty. Yet, that didn’t happen. The week long stimulant binges. The cocaine fueled nights. The heroin, ah the heroin. I am so old I am heroin BEFORE fentanyl old. When I talk about using heroin it’s like a teacher reviewing ancient drug history. There was cocaine in the soda, the housewives drank laudium, and there used to be heroin with no fentanyl. Nostalgia for times long gone.
My diagnosis? STRESS. Apparently stress can send you to the hospital. It doesn’t help that I’m actively trying to get new life insurance. Apparently, no one wants to insure a person with my history. Caffeine and stress can spike your heart rate. Have a nice day Ms Helton.
As I get in the van on my way home, the kids ask me what’s wrong. I don’t know if I can tell them. I don’t know if I can explain that my heart has been continually broken. I don’t know how to articulate that it isn’t today, it’s a collection of events weighing heavily on my mind.
My daughter asks me why my eyes are closed. I’m just so tired.
“Maybe you need to rest mommy”
That’s right baby. Maybe I need to rest.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Would you...?

This is my question readers- If you knew everything you know now about opioids- would you try them again? What role did they play in your life?

I ask this based on a conversation I had with a friend the other day. We were in a coffee shop that is semi well known for having steady traffic of both recovery people using the tables for step work and folks who are actively using that need the key to the bathroom to do their thing.

"I used to shoot so much dope in that bathroom..." he said. This spiraled into a whole conversation about mental health and substance use. I've said this before, I'll say it again. Opioids, specifically heroin, probably saved me from killing myself. This is simply because I had no access to mental health care. In fact, I wasn't even fully in touch with what was wrong with me. I would just wake up with an impending sense of dread. Yes, I chose opioids but in my young mind, there was nothing "addictive" about them. I 100% believed that feeling was "all in your head". No one truly understands the gravity of being underwater until you are drowning. That was me.

Now today, in 2019, I have progressed beyond many of the conditions that existed then. I have had many years of adequate mental health treatment. I have skills and a vocation I adore. I have positive people in my life. My drug and alcohol use may have been a "phase" or simply maladaptive coping mechanisms. I'm not sure. Either way, I can't change the past. I have to move forward with the decisions I've made. The important thing is I can't continue to ruminate on GUILT. These things are done. Today, I may still have cravings or negative periods. I have no control over my thoughts. I do have control over my actions. I have to continue to CHOOSE to do positive things for myself today. And trust me, it can be a struggle.

Anyway, I'd like to hear from you. What role do drugs, alcohol, and anxiety play in your life?

Wednesday, January 16, 2019


Hi friends- I’m working on material related to grief. I’d love to hear from you- how you are coping with loss in the middle of the overdose crisis.

In the meantime, here’s an interview I did today Here

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Depression, Opioids, and Isolation

It is dark outside. This is the time of year when the darkness swallows me up from all directions.

My friend Korri and I went out to brunch this afternoon. We hadn't really seen each other in a few weeks. I got three pieces of bacon, two eggs sunnyside up, dry wheat toast with smuckers jelly added for sweetness. He got the same combo with a side of pancakes and sausages. His coffee had the typical too much cream and heaps of sugar I try to avoid. I like my coffee like I like my shots of dope- dark. The conversation went from potential Christmas presents for our respective kids, to what we are reading, to debate about whether cordoroy ever went out of style.

As we head down to finish our work related business, I see a flicker on the sidewalk. There is blood dripping down a wrist. I would love to say I saw the details in the man's face but I did not. All I saw was him switching his fluid from one to syringe to another. I imagine him fishing for a vein in this cold weather, waiting for his opportunity to rocket to the fourth dimension. I imagine myself licking off the last bit of my blood. Korri stops me "If I could only just have one". I chuckle to myself. "You just finished off 15 years of just one". He nods in agreement.

We discuss what that one would be like- Him high as fuck discussing how it is almost Christmas time and what will the kids thinks and the instant regret. Yet, we both have trouble focusing on the task at hand. It isn't the guy holding the drink at a party that intrigues me. It's the dude on the sidewalk shooting random drugs in the cold.

We swing by Target to get gift cards for a client event next week. People trust me with money now. It is awesome and scary at the same time. As we get down the street I tell him: "here's the plan. You are going to hit me in the eye. Then I am going to get some kind of police report. We can says these gift cards are stolen and split these 50/50." This makes HIM laugh. "Tracey we are so fucking square now, we would probably spend that $150 on things we need around the house." I'd probably also be pissed if he ACTUALLY hit me.

As we go our in opposite directions, I start to think about what I am going to make for dinner instead of what I can put in my arm. It helps to talk to another person. It helps to spend a little time outside of my bubble of isolation.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The predicament

The fan is whir-whir-whiring.
The slow breeze is traversing the room, hitting my toes.
I have them sticking out of the sleeping bag.
I am overheated. I am cold. I am stuck to the bed.
The springs of the mattress are poking into my leg.
I reflexively turn my body away from the light.
A passing car is illuminating my predicament.
It's 2:35 am.

I feel myself slightly sticking against the plastic sheet.
It's the kind they use for the kids that wet the bed.
There is condensation slipping down the window pane.
There is a little snore a few feet away from my head.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Prelude to Addiction Part 1- Longform story

As an educated young woman, there were many things I imagined for my future.
I was a nerdy, mostly chubby school girl that walked out of high school with idea
I was going to make it in the world. Never did I imagine that I would spiral into an
entirely different life. With a copy of a book by Dorothy Parker tucked under one arm and my Walkman in the other, I moved out of my parents' house just shy of my 18th birthday.
I had always been overweight and awkward, the center of negative attention.
When I drank those first few beers of freedom, I felt relieved of these burdens,My parents, while sympathetic, had no idea how to deal with cycles of eating and chronic depression. In some ways, I was ahead of my time. I was a cutter before I even knew that was something other girls did when they needed relief. I discovered binging and puking with the help of a school friend. I also knew about laxatives and over the counter diet pills. I would spend hours reading books, watching movies,stuffing my face with food- anything to pass the time. I lived in a small community where nothing seemed to happen. Or so it seemed.
I took my socially awkward ass to the big city. There was living to catch up on. Drinking and fucking and drugs and shows and life. I started to feel alive for the first time in my life. I could reinvent myself, a skill I mastered in my life as a barfly. Listening intently over cheap vodka,. I became a great companion. I would help walk you home. I'd keep you awake if you swallowed too many pills. I went to some shitty poetry readings that smelled like clove cigarettes and squeeze into plaid skirts that might have been too short. I would stagger drunkenly with you to taco bell at 2am and eat leftover food from the tables when we had no money. I learned to be a friend.

I met him when I was on vacation. The first thing that struck me about him was his syrupy sweet Southern accent. “Hi y’all”. He shook my hand and gave it an extra squeeze. He offered to carry my things inside the house. As we sat down to have a few get to know each other beers, I felt his leg rub against mine. Did he do that on purpose? From that very first moment, he had me on edge. I was not used to a man being so forward. It was almost as it he knew what I liked as if he was studying me. When I would walk past him, he would touch my back so lightly with his fingertips as if he had never been there. He saw something in me.He would turn his head and smile while he talked to me. I knew something was going on. Then, in casual conversation, he dropped a comment that he liked a “bigger woman”. Suddenly, I  realized this was a blind date, not a barbecue. Apparently, my southern gentleman had an idea that I was on the menu for dessert.
This man seemed to want me in a wayI did not know could even exist outside of novels. Sex had always been something I avoided until recently as it never seemed to come to any benefit for me. I was raised to believe sex was dirty and I should cover up my body. This man taught me the exact opposite was true. My body was beautiful, sex was to be enjoyed, and there was no shame. Our initial time together was a revelation. After a few days, I returned home a different person. Never in a million years, did I imagine he would follow me back to Ohio a few weeks later. My fling had turned into a legitimate "thing". I think in the first week he stayed with me, we must have used every bit of floor space and furniture for some new type of erotic adventure. I really believed that great sex must equal love. Little did I know, he was just great at sex because he had lots and lots of practice.
One night, he showed me a picture in his wallet. It was an infant, maybe four or five months old. He had a son with a woman, a child that was now much older. How could you have a child you don’t see? He pushed my head off of his chest. I was naive. I did not understand what a bitch she was to him. As he went on and on with his expletive laden rant about her, I got a glimpse into the future. If only this woman would not have been a certain way, he would not have had to mistreat her. He put my head back on his chest and wrapped his arms around me tightly. That would never be us, he assured me. I knew how to treat a man.
          It was nice to skip a class and have someone to come home with him there. Many days, it was if my time away from him set him off somehow. Subtly, he diminished my accomplishments. When he would ask me questions like “Do you think you are smart?”. I was caught off guard by his anger. There was no where for him to let off steam- it was my place, my city, my money that supported us. It was clear this made him bitter towards me. The honeymoon was wearing off. Our daily life became a cycle of highs and lows that matched his moods. The high points were so much better than anything I had ever experienced that I was willing to work through a few issues. He assured me things would improve as soon as he “got on his feet”. Yet I loved him. I felt like I was loved for the first time in my life. This man was not perfect but he loved being with me. His cards, his letters, and the way he made me feel alive drew me back every time. He needed me. I never had a pet or even a plant before him. For the first time in my life, someone needed me. That need was intoxicating to me. I had gone from invisible to important because now someone loved me.
One night, we had a heated discussion about moving back to his hometown. This meant transferring schools, leaving my family, and a handful of friends. Our argument was punctuated with the stinging observation that “no one else wants you anyway”. That was always my deepest fear- not being wanted- but to have him point it out, made me both angry and afraid of him. Why would he say these things to me? He got on one knee and told me that he loved me. If I would only go back home with him. He agreed to leave for a few days so I could “make up my mind”. His phone calls, his letters drove me insane. Imagine all the things you always wanted to hear repeated back to you in an intimate voice. He also punctuated his love with creating doubt. What if he was with someone else? What if he decided he did not need me anymore? I "needed to make this change for love". It always worked in movies.
          Once he had me on his terms, the verbal abuse quickly escalated into taunts about everything from the sound of my voice to my weight. As he constantly reminded me “Who would want you anyway?” and “I can leave any time I want” as he had proved a many nights by walking out of the apartment we shared with roommates. He had started embarrassing me in public by pointing out my faults in front of others. The thing I found so surprising was how little people reacted to this, as if it was normal. Is this how love is? I had never had it. Slowly, I began to wonder what he saw in me.  I could not make food correctly, I could not fuck him correctly, he got so angry at me, and no one reacted to it. It was only because he" loved me", or so I was told so many times.
          After a few months, he turned a threat into action.He had began telling me he would kill me or kill himself if I left, whatever got me to stay with him.  After an ordinary argument, he hit me in the leg with a billy club he had laying around the house. Since we moved in together, he had started collecting weapons.He said it had been to keep other people out, but more and more, I had suspected it had been to keep me in. I don’t remember what I had said to set him off that time. I had become tired of the constant threats of him leaving me. I may have even threatened to leave that time.I ta was the same pattern over and over- threats, fights, abuse, apologizes, then sex. Now, even the sex had stopped. It was just fights. I had suspected he was ready to break it off because he had found another woman. I found out later, it was our roommate. He swatted my leg then repeated told me it was an accident. “That did not hurt, it is just a tender area Tracey “ he assured me as he rubbed it. In reality,  It was strategically placed on a section of my body that was not obvious, some place that could be easily written off as an accident. I believed at that moment, he had been through this before. Soon after, I was given "permission" to visit a mutual friend—something that was ordinarily completely out of question. Yes, a twenty year old woman asking for permission. That was the end of that relationship and the start of a new chapter in my life
          With no money, no dignity, and no value with or without this man, I embarked on the world of homelessness.There was no “Lifetime” television moment where I called the hotline and moved into a shelter. I did not even know what at shelter was at that point. There was no valiant effort to help me among my friends. Most of them were completely oblivious to what had happened to me. My humiliation had occurred in secret, as it often does, which makes it so easy to return to the abuser. What else were my options? I had become so isolated I was unsure where to begin. I started out couch surfing with friends, but I quickly wore out my welcome. I had started consuming heavy amounts of alcohol to drown my sorrows. I was that girl sneaking drinks at the bar. I was the girl crying in the bathroom trying to fix her mascara.
   After around a month of staying with friends ended, my next move to find a place to stay was allowing strangers to pick me up in bars. I had had quickly learned that without a stable address or phone number, it was nearly impossible to get a job. I began to depend on the men who took me home to look after me.  I would wake up in the morning- where am I, who are you, where are my clothes? I am not sure if they knew I was homeless the people at the bar noticed I only had a few outfits. Sometimes I would find clothing on the street corner. I imagined a man similar to the one I left had dumped out these clothes in a fit of rage just like the ones I left must lay in a pile somewhere. I learned to trust no one. When you are a homeless woman, you are seen as vulnerable. I learned not to look anyone in the eye to keep them from conversing with me. In sober moments, I would start to feel the weight of my situation- What if one of these men decides to hurt me? I would leave their homes in the morning.  I would whisper aloud “I hate my life” as walked miles in the heat instead of paying for the bus. I just could not figure out how to make it without help. I had burned through all my options when I begged my mother to let me temporarily move back home. She said she barely recognized the daughter who had left home just a few years earlier.
For many years after, the drugs and the and bad relationships went hand and hand. The "I want to get fucked up" switch had been flipped. I briefly went back to college but I was not the independent minded young woman who had started a years earlier. I now had a deeply held believe that I was somehow broken. The message that replayed itself in my mind was I was fat, stupid, lazy, I was never going to be anything because no one would want it. It was simple and powerful. His voice had become my voice in my own mind. I would be out in the public yet one knew I was there. I escaped inside a world of fluffy opioid clouds and pints full of bitter kisses. I  became the invisible woman, living in the shadow of what could have been.