0155: Boy Afraid

Content warning: the following story contains references to sexual assault, alcoholism, and depression, which may be triggering for some readers.


“Boy Afraid,” David Cave

I was maybe 10 or 11 the first time John held me up against a wall with the force of his body and rubbed me up and down, kissing my neck. His hot breath made me shiver, I felt violated, disgusted and impossibly tainted, paralyzed by fear and shock. Over the next few years, this would happen nearly every Sunday at the Baptist church my family attended three times a week. As I got older, I grew resistant to John's physical prowess over me, threatening to tell on him. I never did, I still haven't told anyone of consequence what he did to me. Every time I threatened him with action, refusing to play the docile deer-in-his-headlights he threatened me with violence, or threatened to do the same to my brother, instilling a terror that casts a long shadow over my life. In the same turn he would add more time to the clock that he counted out in his head while he felt me up violently and kissed my neck by the storage shed behind the church, often arbitrarily adding time to my sentence for the slightest transgression. I quickly tried to get out of going to church as much as I could, faking illness and trying to maximize time around the friends I knew I was safe around that might provide protection (because John's fear of being found out trumped his violent sexual urges).

John was often referred to as my friend, as we were constantly around each other, and eventually I bought into this lie (the truth was he wouldn't let me far out of his sight, terrorizing me every second he could just through his oppressive presence). He would refer to my brother and I as "pretty boys," something which my mother realizes the true gravity of in retrospect, but at the time came off merely as jealousy at my family's middle class existence. What he was really saying was that we were worthless and unlovable, just like him. I can't recall what eventually led to the end of John's reign of terror on my life, my memory of those years is hazy and missing large chunks likely due to the trauma inflicted on me. I understand this phenomenon as the activation of defense mechanisms within my mind shutting off sections to protect me, like sailors closing off bulkheads to keep water from spreading to different areas of a ship, threatening to sink them all.

It wasn't until my late twenties that I learned my brother, two years my junior, had been John's de facto victim when I wasn't around. My family eventually moved on from that church when we moved to a new neighborhood on the North side of Denver, but I heard that John, one year younger than me, had gone to juvenile court for assaulting his cousin. The story as I recall was that his cousin had been sitting on his shoulders and he had "accidentally" reached up her skirt and grabbed her inappropriately. Inherent in this was the insinuation and insistence that it had been an accident, that it was harmless and there's no way John could have committed such an act. I didn't speak up. I felt ashamed, I was speechless, and I knew exactly what he'd done immediately. I froze, and couldn't say anything.

There were rumblings around the time my family joined the church (that I would hear until years later) that John's grandfather, the former pastor of the church, had physically and sexually abused his grandchildren. This fact was rarely brought up, not even as an explanation for John's actions, but it has provided me some much needed context with which to frame my experiences. Hurt people hurt people. I guess. It doesn't excuse what he did, but it helps me to understand and maybe begin to empathize a bit. Is this how Stockholm Syndrome begins?

Regardless of this, it's clear the church and the community systematically failed us. The patriarch of the church abused his grandchildren (and very likely other people in his family), with no repercussions and no one did anything to stop him. He was even fondly remembered by his family, who I've been told knew what he did. How can someone look back at their abuser and feel fondness? Although I understand he too likely underwent his own abuse at the hands of someone, I find it hard looking back at that period of my life with any sort of fondness for John or even his family for that matter.

For years I kept these events locked up in the furthest recesses of my memory, threw away the key and refused to look at them. I found solace in video games, places that I could feel powerful, worlds where no one really got hurt (Pokemon Red was a favorite of mine around age 12, a joyful cartoony escape from what I endured outside the game). I took solace in punk rock, shouting along to all the words of Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Descendents. The pain, frustration, and boredom of suburban white teenage boys raised in stifled, emotionally closed off environments appealed to my internal need to be be heard but paradoxically not knowing how to vocalize how I felt. I was angry at my parents and the church for not protecting me. I was angry at society for the mere existence of people like John. Most of all I was angry at myself for not telling anyone and not stopping the cycle of sexual violence John perpetrated on me and countless others. I got it stuck in my head that it was my fault, that somehow I was culpable. I believed I was broken, damaged, I was a piece of shit. Henry Rollins was the only person who knew how I felt, so I drowned out the pain with Greg Ginn's wailing guitars and alcohol.

The ensuing years went on, I didn't think about John or what happened to me, it was locked up deep inside and it never came up in my thoughts. It was almost like it'd never happened. Almost. Looking back now, it's easy to see that at least to some extent it helped fuel my alcoholism, my depression, my unending loneliness as I sought to find a real connection with other people (but failing miserably at every turn). I manipulated people I was in relationship with when they disagreed with me, when I felt insecure and afraid they would leave me alone with myself. These were tactics I didn't learn from my parents, they were maladaptive behaviors I learned through my abuse. Even when I got sober at age 20 the fact that years of abuse could have influenced my behaviors or my alcoholism hadn't occurred to me until I got to my fourth step inventory in Alcoholics Anonymous. I was working on my inventory, in which I chronicled my resentments, what had happened, my part in what happened, etc. John just flowed out of me and onto the page, along with all the parts I blamed myself for- not saying anything for years, not stopping him, not protecting my brother or anyone else he assaulted. I shared this with my sponsor, who remains until now the only person I've ever told at length about what happened to me. It was also the first time someone told me it wasn't my fault. Something in me broke open, and memories came flooding back. My emotional reaction was still muted, still disconnected, but I wasn't living with the trauma just under the surface anymore. Maybe I could live with it. Maybe I could be vulnerable without fear of being hurt. For the first time the possibility that I could be fixed occurred to me.

I spent years as part archeologist, and part palmist- examining what I remember of who I was before John, how what he did changed me throughout the years, trying to remember changes in my personality and moods; also trying to trace the lines of trauma in my daily life, who I am now, what I want, how I can be more like my original childhood self, and what sort of psycho-sexual effect the abuse has had on my long-term development. I was processing, trying to find the answer why so I could fix myself. I still don't like people being forceful with me in intimate settings for obvious reasons, but there seemed some possibility the complete eradication of agency in my life at a young age jumpstarted the depression and anxiety I've struggled with as a teenager and adult. If only I could think my way through it hard enough, I might solve my problems. Now I understand how futile an endeavor this was, no amount of thinking could undo what was done to me. It wasn't going to make me healthier or more adaptive in my daily life. I had to find a new way to exist, but what thinking did help me do was process.

I'm still at a loss for what I do with this now, I've had this horrible hex put on me by someone else, yet when I try to follow in the footsteps of notable men who've undergone sexual harassment and abuse like Terry Crews or Brendan Fraser, I'm often met with incredulity that a straight, white, able-bodied cishet man such as myself could have an experience many associate with women. I even had a woman in a multicultural social work class tell me that my experience was invalid because as a man I "don't experience things like that every day," as though the frequency at which I experience assault is a qualifier for being a victim. I talked about it in a journal paper that I had to turn in to my professor in hopes that maybe she might bring it up in class to show that in the social work field we can't make assumptions, but was met with silence. I was left wondering why I even bothered to share my experience in the first place, despite my professor prompting the discussion about sexual assault on men. Now I understand first-hand what it's like to have your experience invalidated by those around you, shutting down uncomfortable discussion with pointless qualifiers and platitudes that "it could always be worse." As though human suffering is quantifiable. All I seek is validation, a seat at a table where I can be vulnerable with others who've gone through similar experiences that I can learn how to heal from.

I've never felt I had a place in this world as a victim or a "normal man". I still don't know where I belong, as Jacob Bannon sings in the Converge song "Last Light":

"I need a purpose and I need a reason
I need to know there is trophy and meaning
to all we lose and all we fight for
to all our loves and our wars
keep breathing
keep living
keep searching
keep pushing on
keep bleeding
keep healing
keep fading
keep shining on
this is for the hearts still beating"

With tears in my eyes for the things I've lost, and resolve in my heart, I keep pushing on.

About the art:

David is one of my new best friends - we met in September and quickly hit it off. Since then, we’ve shared so much of ourselves in learning how to have a healthy male relationship. David is one of the most knowledgeable and insightful people I’ve ever met. For a story like this to come from David was a pretty big surprise for me.

When I first read his story, my heart sank - I hated learning about a struggle he’s lived with throughout his life. While he has this experience, I know this piece took a lot for him to write, but I’m so thankful he did because I know this piece will help many people heal.

So for the art, I went off his affinity for Converge’s “Last Light,” matched the colors from the artwork, wrote all of the lyrics in the background and focused on the last two lines as a symbol of motivation for David.

- Craig.

0105: On Moving Forward

Content Warning: The following story contains reference to loving someone with an addiction.

"On Moving Forward," Ali

Whenever I leave my girlfriend’s house in the morning, I always have to allot myself twenty minutes to get to main campus. 

I don’t mind this; I love walking. Whether it’s to music, or just to the life of the streets in Somerville, the act of walking allows me to energize my thoughts, and to feel their depth move in line with the incline of Summer Street. It’s almost as if they become a tangible thing, a knot I can work out just by choosing to step forward, again and again—but, sometimes, when things aren’t that deep, it’s nice to just stand at the top of a hill and think, “With my own two feet, I made it here myself.” 

May 12th brought the spring semester of my Junior year, and my final exams, to a close. I had woken up a little earlier than usual, setting a louder alarm for 9:00 a.m. in hopes for studying my Spanish II notes. There wasn’t anything I was sincerely concerned about, but I knew reviewing the material would give me greater comfort walking into my test. As I was sitting cross-legged on top of her yellow, floral-patterned bed, my partner nudged me in the side of my thigh, rolling over. “Try not to worry too much.” she mumbled. 

After a quick shower, I began to gather my things into my backpack, stowing them away for later in the day: my laptop, hidden behind my girlfriend’s bed; my extra, gray sweater, folded over the wooden chair of her desk; my shoes, which had retired underneath her pink towel, and elicited expletives that were whispered with fervency in their search. I only found my phone as it began to ring, its vibration humming loud enough for my partner to stir. “All good?” she asked, lifting her voice and propping herself onto her elbow.

I waved a hand, and in a single motion, she fell back to the pillow. As I looked to the screen, I didn’t recognize the number; it had a 617 area-code, and my phone said it was from Jamaica Plain. I normally didn’t pick up unknown numbers, mainly because I’m too anxious to make small-talk to somebody I don’t know, but this seemed local. 

Standing in the center of her room, I was so caught up in the act of making a decision that I actually missed the call. “Shit,” I groaned, and pulled the other strap of my backpack over my shoulder. Slipping out of my girlfriend’s room and through her front door, I started my trek down her street, crawling my way to Somerville Avenue. If I had left any later, I would actually be tardy for the start of my exam. 

Popping my headphones into my ears, I kept thinking about the phone call. Although I could not quite articulate it, there was something about this that felt hurried, and rushed. Even the way it rang seemed to have a sense of urgency in its tone, annoyance, almost, creeping into each bzzz, bzzz, the more I had ignored it. Who had called me from JP? And would they call—

I felt my palm vibrate as the number reappeared once more. White, stark digits against a darkened background, I tried to memorize their order, whispering them to myself once before answering. I needed to know I could call back, if possible. 



Although I could not place it immediately, I knew the voice from somewhere. It was a woman’s voice, and she sounded older. “Yes?”

“This is Mrs. Grane, your mother’s landlady. I’m sorry for calling you this early in the morning.” An accent accompanied this voice now, and it influenced the weight in which she placed her words. She spoke slowly. 

I had only met Mrs. Grane once, in passing, a few months previously. She was an on-call nurse at a nearby hospital in Dorchester, and often spent the afternoons sleeping. Even shaking my hand that one evening, I felt the callouses of her toughened fingertips and the deepened grooves within her palms. She was a woman who had seen it all—she was a woman who didn’t fuck around. 

I didn’t realize how quickly I walked until I found myself at the base of my girlfriend’s road, my knees trembling as I looked to my feet. The sun’s shadows were cast with the faint tracing of the morning light, and although the day promised beauty, my chest was beginning to heave a wreckage. I didn’t need to be the daughter of an alcoholic to know that this news, whatever it was, was not going to be good. 

“Please, don’t apologize,” I began, turning the corner onto Summer Street. I continued my route to class, my free thumb looping around the strap of my backpack. “How are you?”

Mrs. Grane answered honestly, and to the point. “I’m not too good… I’m not too good. I’m calling to let you know that your mother—she’s not well. She’s very ill.” 

As Mrs. Grane spoke, I kept walking. My phone was pressed to my ear as I did, and often, she kept telling me to calm down, or to take a breath, or to stop crying. She explained to me every, single, excruciating detail of my mother’s relapse—she spared nothing. She recited the words, verbatim, that my mother had used to plead with Mrs. Grane, crawling toward her on her knees as she begged for help. She told me how many empty bottles she found in my mother’s house when she was at the hospital. She told me I had to pack up her things soon, because she was evicting her two weeks later. 

Since I began college, my mother has relapsed once a year, and almost always around the same time. In the beginning of my freshman year, it was my father and then-partner who helped me move into my college dorm room that sticky, August afternoon. I couldn’t ask her opinions on the menial things, like room décor, what kind of stationary to buy, or even how to take effective notes in my classes, because she wasn’t there.

She was finishing the last month of her three-month rehabilitation program, which she had begun in the previous May. The last time I had seen was in a Marshall’s parking lot, wishing me well for my first semester as her ex-husband drove her back to New Hampshire. With my mother moving to Boston a year later, I thought there would be a change. I thought, and hoped, that this would be the part of her life where this ends, where she can find balance, and her own definition of normalcy again. But it’s still not like that. 

By the end of Mrs. Grane’s phone call, I had arrived to campus, five minutes before my exam. Steadying my voice, I thanked her; her response was flat, but sincere before she hung up, the sharp click of the other end’s disconnection echoing in my head. Shoving my phone into my backpack, I sunk into a patio chair and wept, because there wasn’t a way to put it beautifully: this hurt me. A lot. 

When I collected myself, I stood in the center of my campus with a lingering sense of confusion, wondering how I managed to arrive here when I thought of it: choosing to step forward again and again was my strongest way of survival. It’s difficult and frustrating and downright heartbreaking when someone you are supposed to love seems to turn to their addiction more than to you. It’s especially hard to admit that out loud, to hear the ring of its truth sing past your lips. But I think my sanity has come in knowing that the more I choose to move forward, the less inclined I am to allow her behaviors influence my actions. By doing this, I have been able to find goals to move toward, passions to pursue; my love for writing, my yearning to always learn more. I found these things all on my own, and there’s a comfort in that. I’m an entirely different person than my mother, simply because of the steps I took by myself. 

My exam was supposed to start in two minutes from then. Rubbing the backs of my hands beneath my eyes, I chose to step forward. I took the test.


About the Art:

For this piece, I wanted to create an image that would represent what this survivor does to keep moving forward every day. Lacing up her Vans, and taking life one step at a time. 

I hope this can serve as a reminder for Ali that even when the going gets tough, slipping on your shoes, and putting your best foot forward is what you need to do to survive. I'm so proud of her resilience, and I know that even in times when family is stressful to her, she has created her own family of friends who will help her through anything.

086: In the Darkness

Content warning: The following story contains references to alcohol and alcoholism, which may be triggering for some readers.

“In the Darkness,” Tat Hatase

Eight years ago, I was wasted. In every sense of that word. Wasted. One particular day—August 27th to be exact—I believe I started out that afternoon by ordering two pints of beer and three shots of tequila for appetizers. Who knows what I ended up eating. I probably didn't. But I made sure to have a full serving of alcohol. Probably had some dessert too. And that was just the beginning.

The rest of the day was just dreadful just like my mindset was that summer. I had to drink to help me ignore the voice in my head. Or in my heart? Where does that voice even come from? My past, perhaps?

Anyway, I was spiraling out of control. I hated myself. I wasn't sure why this was happening to me. Why was my life doing this to me? Why must everything be so painful? That was pretty much how my thought process went around that time. Or for years and years leading up to that day.

I was so selfish.

Anyway, I kept on drinking that night. Well into the night, I drank. In the darkness, I drank.

Later that night, I came to realized that I had locked myself out and in at once. Literally and metaphorically. I got home, and I had the key in my hand, but I was not able to use it open the door. (Note: the house is a metaphor for my inner self.) A part of me was locked outside, and a part of me was locked inside. If I were a better writer, the whole metaphor would be worked out and presented in an amazing way, but revisiting that time of my life makes it difficult to concentrate, so you have to excuse me. The point is that I had lost control.

I don't know if I had hit the rock bottom, but I sure did not enjoy the way people were looking at me. I was being judged. I was being pitied. I was being a complete fucking idiot. But there was nobody watching me.

Eight years ago, I woke up and hated myself as usual. So... I said no more. I am stubborn enough to maintain that stance this entire time. It hasn't been easy, but it made sense. I had that logic thing on my side which is nice.

Am I a better person for it? I don't know. Probably not. I'm still not all that great. Still an asshole; that didn't really change. But I feel more functional. Even when I am pissed off and/or being an ass, I feel that I am doing those things with good reasons and some sense of purpose.

It was never about fun or anything like that with me and drinking. It was more about my past and memories and following the family tradition. Alcohol made me feel free from many of those things for a while, but the pain comes back. It comes back stronger, or maybe I was just weaker each time the pain came back to visit. And you can never trust the way you feel while you are drinking because... You are drunk! Either way, it was that whole downward spiral thing which was getting out of control. 

It was the shitstorm tornado of fucking up.

So, you know, I quit.

Now, the pain hurts in the right way. Now, I get sad, and it feels awful. But it's real. It's all real, and I'm living with it. It feels like shit.

I really don't know what will happen to me in terms of drinking. There is a good chance I will go back to it. That's just statistic; we always go back. I am not going to deny that. I think it's dangerous to look away from what is basically a certainty. Know thy enemy or some shit.

But, for now, while I am clean, I will continue to... Yeah, I still don't know how to finish that sentence. After eight years, I still don't know where I am. I have a vague idea on where I am not, and I know where I don't want to be. The only things I feel certain about are not entirely in my control. Because life sucks like that, and I have to live in this real world and face all of that without giving myself excuses.

What goes up must come down... Is that really true? Sure, if you throw a rock, it will come down. Because of that gravity thing science likes. But if you blast the fuck out of something with enough momentum, it can leave this planet forever, right? We've done that. There are some stuff we've shot out into the space and that shit's never coming back. Things that go up do not necessarily have to come back down. It's just basic rocket science.

And I'm still going up. Going up strong, baby! (Doing my best George Costanza impression.)

Maybe I will come back down. Maybe I will head straight down to the bottom again. Stay tuned, because if that happens, it will be a great show. I guarantee it.

Or, you know, I will just keep going up.

And I didn't get this far on my own. I did most the work, but some people helped. There are always some people who care for reasons I have not yet fully understood.


About the art:

Tat is one of my best friends. We met a couple years into his reclamation of sobriety, so I never knew THIS Tat. But I know a Tat. And the Tat I know is exactly this contemplative, witty, and self-critical. I learned much of how to be self-critical from observing and interacting with Tat. The constant desire to do and be better than how you were actually performing as a human being.

And the Tat I know is pretty private, but I reached out to him in hopes he would be willing to share. I asked him to share his story because, 1. I knew his sobriety anniversary was coming up, 2. I know a few of his stories from when he used to drink, 3. I knew that he'd present his experience in an incredibly clever, artistic and reflective manner, and 4. I know how proud he is of himself for remaining sober - even if he doesn't say those exact words!

So for this piece, I wanted to combine two artistic aspects that I know are near to Tat's heart, as far as influences are concerned - Ralph Steadman's art and the gonzo writer himself, Hunter S. Thompson. So I tried some splatter and water colors as an homage to the great Ralph Steadman, and I used a Hunter S. Thompson quote, "Morality is temporary, wisdom is permanent." It's a quote that certainly reminds me of Tat's approach to life.

And while he might not understand why some people might have helped and cared about him during his journey to sobriety, I can at least say that on my end, it's because he's a dude that always looked out for me. Even after we first met, he treated me like someone he had known for years. And that's something I love about this man, he treats the people he truly cares about like they are family - a family of which I know he has had to create on his own since moving from Japan nearly two decades ago. That's no easy task, but he's definitely created a great life for himself over the past few years.

And while we aren't in the same state together anymore, I always know that he has my back when things get rough, and I KNOW that he is often the first to come up with a witty retort to any of my tweets or comments online. Because that's how he shows his love - with wit and humor.

I'm proud of Tat for sharing this piece. I'm so happy that he did. I think it will help a number of people understand what it's like to get sober and stay clean. 

- Craig. 

084: Roseann

Content warning: The following story contains references to drug use, addiction, associated loss, and murder.

“Roseann,” Jessica

I’ve known my fair share of people who have lost their lives as a result of drugs, alcohol, or the lifestyle associated with such. There was Casey, who overdosed on heroin in a halfway house; There was Derek who tried to rob a drug dealer and was shot in the head. There was Anthony who died from falling off a roof – and no one is quite sure if he jumped or was pushed or just fell. 

None were as impactful as the death of a woman I hardly got the chance to know.

Roseann was 49 years old when she died.
Stephanie was 13 years old when she found her.
Robert was 29 years old when he murdered her.

On Monday, August 14 2006 I cheerfully walked into my home after returning from a hardcore show in New York City. I was a pipsqueak, just fifteen; My dad had driven and picked up myself and my buddy Zack. We felt like grown-ups at a concert in the city by ourselves. We were invincible.

I walked into the kitchen to let my mom know I was home before retreating to my room; That’s where I saw her hysterical at the table. I initially assumed my great-grandmother, Nana, had passed away. After all, Nana was ninety-something and the family somewhat awaited the still-dreaded phone call. 

“It’s my sister Roseann,” my mother managed to get out between tears. I did not immediately reply. I did not know my aunt well, or at all really. I did know she was the “black sheep," for lack of a better phrase, of the family. I knew that she had struggled with drugs and alcohol, and had left the house she shared with my mother, her siblings, and their mother, at a young age. I wondered if this distress was a result of the end of those struggles.

Over the next few minutes I learned that this death was not attributed to an overdose, or a drunk driving accident like I, and perhaps some others may have initially thought. My aunt was struck and killed by her boyfriend with a baseball bat the night before. He later noted alcohol and anger as the driving force for his crime, reporting that he drank a 12-pack of beer as well as most of a bottle of vodka prior. After killing her, my aunt’s daughter entered the bedroom. She was initially told that her mother was sleeping and not to bother her. After he fled the house, my 13-year-old cousin entered the room once again to find her mother bloodied and lifeless on the floor next to her bed. 

A few days later my family went to my aunt’s apartment to gather belongings and clean it out. Her daughter was there, as well as her older children. Many of the family members did not have a close relationship with my aunt, likely because of the path she took in life. Robert took away my aunt’s chance at ever repairing those relationships. 

Robert stole more than my Aunt Roseann’s life that night. He also stole her daughter Stephanie’s life, who has never remotely recovered from this trauma. She entered the foster care system after her mother’s death, and went from home to home. She was aggressive, belligerent – she was traumatized, and always will be. Robert stole a child from a mother, a mother from a child, a sister from a family. 

He was charged with third-degree murder, also known as voluntary manslaughter. This crime is often referred to as a “crime of passion.” It is described by its lack of intent to kill prior to the time of the crime, an on-the-spot killing, and states the crime is committed under such circumstances that would “cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed.” The intent to kill is present, however is not considered before the action. While I am aware alcohol and anger can certainly cause a lack of judgment, I cannot believe or understand the idea that his actions were reasonably provoked to the point that murder should be the intent. 

He did not address my family in court. News articles say my family agreed with the plea and the sentence. I think they were worried he could get off completely. I would hardly say the family agreed that his sentence was fair. He was sentenced to 10-20 years in prison.  When he gets out, he will be younger than my aunt was at the time of her death. He was recently denied a chance at parole; My mother was told he lacked signs of remorse. 

My family is strong, and has very seldom discussed the pain this loss has caused. My grandmother, a rock, sometimes recluses around the anniversary of the death, however remains stoic throughout the rest of the year. My mother, the strongest person I know, almost always holds her own. She does not discuss the impact this loss has had on her, but every year around the anniversary of her sister’s death, she struggles a little bit more. This year I expect the impact to be greater, as it is the 10-year anniversary. 

My family will never overcome the loss of Roseann, but will forever remember the time they had with her. Ramble on baby, settle down easy. Ramble on Rose. 


About the art:

This painting was inspired by the song "Ramble On Rose" by the Grateful Dead. This song is one of Roseann's sister's favorites and it has really resonated with her. Jessica wanted a traditional red rose because roses have become symbolic of Roseann to both her and her mom.

I started this painting by pasting dictionary pages to the background of the canvas to give it dimension and depth. The color splash behind the rose symbolizes the instability of her life with drugs and alcohol. But the white in the color splash surrounding it represents her purity and kind spirit. As this is the 10th year since Roseann has passed, I hope this painting will be a comfort to them as well as help keep the memory of Roseann alive.

- Emily Silkman

083: Survival Isn't Pretty

Content warning: The following story contains references to drug use, drug overdose, and recovery, which may be triggering for some survivors.

“Survival isn’t Pretty,” Andrea

My friends started dying my freshman year of high school, and it hasn’t stopped since. My grandmother used to call the obituaries the “Irish funnies,” and it was amusing until she had to hide the Herald when I visited because I’d immediately turn to the death notices to see if I recognized any names. 19 years later, I don’t even need to do that. My Facebook feed has become a roll call of the dead and barely-alive. I deactivated social media and, still, my phone lights up with texts asking, “Did you hear…?” 

I always know what it means: Another person I know has succumbed to the disease. Another coma that may or may not offer a second (or 92nd) chance. Another 911 call that doesn’t require sirens because it’s already too late. Another needle, another line, another cocktail of chemicals that an exhausted and broken body couldn’t sustain. Another one bites the dust.

Sometimes, though, we survive.

Survival isn’t pretty. It’s painful and non-linear and dirty. Survival isn’t just waking up from an overdose and breathing again; some of us never overdose. Some of us hit our bottoms in glass after glass of wine, or waking up and needing to smoke some weed before facing life. Some of us graduated from top-tier universities and got impressive jobs and then blew all that potential on prescription pills we didn’t get at the pharmacy. Some of us had families who cared, with resources to spare, and we ended up in therapy with counselors who said things like, “You’re growing up in a war zone.” Some of us lived in that war zone at home with parents who were also addicts. Many of us eventually lost every home and person and dream we’d ever had. Many of us ended up incarcerated, or in detoxes and mental hospitals, or dead in a train station bathroom.

But some of us survive. 

The people I survive with gather in dirty church basements, in police station conference rooms, and on the beach on Friday nights during the summer. We share our experiences: the places drugs took us, the feelings we suppressed in active addiction and have to face in recovery, and the ways our disease manifests when we stop using. But we also share our strength and our hope. We learn that whatever happens, we don’t have to go through it alone. We learn how to process trauma and loss, trust ourselves and others, and become responsible members of society. We form and develop our values, and begin to understand and apply the principles we want to guide our lives. 

We fuck up – frequently, and in catastrophic ways at times. But we welcome one another back with unconditional love.

We understand recovery is a process, and that we don’t get to graduate. We put an empty chair in the middle of the room to represent the addict who died before finding recovery. We laugh at really dark jokes and sit in silence while men cry for the first time and go out for ice cream to celebrate milestones. We find joy in life again and hold each other up during the really hard moments. We cheer each other on as those dreams we squandered turn back into possibilities, and we practice rigorous honesty and intimacy with people whose last names we may never know. We answer the phone during crises and when we put some time together, we help others. Service has become crucial to my survival; when I help others I also help myself.

Survival isn’t an upward trajectory, at least for me. It’s more like a heart monitor – there are going to be ups and downs, but as long as it keeps moving I’m going to be OK. Without drugs clouding my thoughts, I now have a lifetime of pain to address. I’ve been sexually assaulted. For years I blamed myself for the death of my boyfriend. I still struggle with self-harmful behaviors like cutting. I’ve caused others harm and don’t know how to forgive myself. I’m learning how to negotiate my sexual identity and define what being queer means to me. I’m responsible for the life and safety of a child as I do all of this. There are times when I think I’m starting to figure it all out, and the next day I’m so overcome with fear I can’t move from my bed. 

But I keep going—I don’t have any other choice. In recovery I’ve learned to begin letting go of some of the guilt and shame that kept me using for so long. I’ve started turning those lost dreams into reality. I found a career I love, I’m in graduate school, and I plan to pursue a PhD. I am the best parent, friend and partner I can be. I’m not perfect and much of the time I’m unsure I’m even worth the effort, but I’ve surrounded myself with people who remind me I am.

Survival isn’t pretty, but I was never big on traditional beauty standards anyway. There’s something to be said for landing in the gutter and crawling back out, for wiping the dirt off and remembering how bad life can be if I turn around. There isn’t a finish line. It’s either survive, or don’t. Today I choose to survive.


About the art:

This survivor’s story emanated resiliency, and so I wanted to create a simple piece that would remind them of this. Throughout their story, I heard the repetition of “I survive” and thought of a heartbeat, as they describe in their writing.

With every heartbeat, I hope this individual is reminded of their joys, their struggles, their progress, their community, their resiliency, and most importantly their survival.


082: Addiction Doesn’t Let Go

Content warning: This story contains references to drugs and alcohol that might be triggering for some survivors.

“Addiction Doesn’t Let Go,” anonymous

Note: All survivors who reach out to The Art of Survival are given the option to remain anonymous in sharing their story. Any specific details about the survivor are shared at their discretion, and not the creators of the page.


You know the quotes people share about their sisters? One I see a version of often is this―"Having a sister is like having a best friend you can’t get rid of. You know whatever you do, they’ll still be there." ~Amy Li

These quotes always make me wonder what my relationship would be with my sister if her relationship with Meth had not started. Sometimes these quotes are nothing more than a painful reminder of the relationship I still wish for, but do not know how to create.

My sister’s addiction started young, at age 13/14 with a plethora of different substances before she picked her drug of choice, Meth. As a sibling of someone with addiction I don't want to tell you her story, only she can do that. I do think often siblings of addiction are in a hard spot. Watching your parents relationship bend and almost break time after time over what to do, and how much to support, enable, or let go of their child. Watching the sibling you love fall deeper and deeper into their addiction, logically knowing they are sick, emotionally being so angry, scared, hurt, and even at times jealous. Not hearing from them for months, even years at a time. Being so afraid to answer the phone after a certain hour. Knowing it could be the hospital again, and this time not to release a live person.

All the attention of your parents and family are going to save the life of the sibling you love. At times it felt like there was nothing I could do to redirect. Every phone call from family revolved around my sister’s addiction. I moved to Michigan, and no one could visit me, my sister was pregnant and all the time, money, and energy needed to go to supporting her. My brother got lost in the shuffle. I started avoiding phone calls because I couldn’t handle hearing them complain about my sister, or hear about the most recent disagreement between my parents about what to do for her. Worse was when there was a good day, I knew would be followed by disappointment.

Watching your parent’s hope crushed over and over is a hopeless feeling. 

Every time my sister got pregnant the hope would come back to my parents. This time! She will get better, because of the baby! And she did try every time. But her addiction also made it hard for her to remember others.

Leaving for a trip? She is likely to have a crisis and need you.
Birthday―no, addiction makes people some of the worst versions of themselves.
Holidays? Great time for a breakdown.
Death of a beloved grandmother―addiction meant stealing from your grieving mother.
Over and over again.

My mother was going to help me move for graduate school one summer, we were supposed to leave on a Monday, the hospital called Sunday night, she was there, we hadn’t heard from her in months. Instead of leaving for graduate school I got to help my mother find a rehab center that would take my sister and our insurance. I told my sister you either need to go to rehab or I am taking you to a women’s shelter because you can’t stay here anymore, my parents couldn’t do it, not to their daughter. While my mother sobs in the room next to us and while my father is outside speaking to the officer who came to let us know she was wanted by the police. Her one year old son toddled in and out of the rooms confused by the tension in the house that day.

Addiction doesn’t let go.

Have you ever resented a baby? It is a horrible feeling.

But knowing the child is enabling your addicted sister because no one will make her have to take care of her child, for a real fear for the child, and seeing the loss of your parents golden years to raising another child, sometimes two - is infuriating. Don’t get me wrong, I love my niblings like they are my own children, heck one or more of them is likely to come live with me at some point. Every time my sister is pregnant it is not the socially constructed celebration on a hallmark commercial.

It’s a devastating blow:
Will they be healthy?
Who will feed them?
Where will they live?
How will they live?

And since I work in higher education I go further and wonder―
Will they continue in the cycle of teen pregnancy and addiction?
How can we educate them and support them?
Will they have mental health support and opportunities?

The list goes on.

Sometimes her addiction has meant crying in an airport coming back from a work conference begging my parents to call child services. Sometimes it meant avoiding going home for holidays, or knowing holidays would not be restful but stressful. It meant throwing myself into positions where I could learn as much as possible about addiction and substance abuse.

It means working with students on college campuses around these topics and being able to watch people overcome and work within their addictions. It means wishing I could give my sister the same resources my students have. It means knowing all the right things to do, and still being helpless. Sometimes knowledge is power, but it also creates an understanding of when you are absolutely powerless to help someone. 

Recently someone told me―a mother can only be as happy as her least happy child. Nothing has ever made more sense to me and described our family dynamic over the last 7 years of my sister’s addiction. As the child who wants to make her parents proud and happy, it feels impossible at times with the overshadow of addiction.

After two different rehabs, Child protective services taking away one of her children for six months, three children, and countless sleepless nights as a family―my sister seems to be in recovery. She is asking for help, and using it. She is actively seeking what she needs to care for herself and her children.

She recently called me. The first time in 5 years. She asked what kind of dress I wanted her to wear to my wedding. After the phone call I broke down in tears, it was like having someone come back from the dead, well really worse than death since I believe when people die they are in a better place and I could see she was not in a better place. Sometimes I think I might get the sister relationship all the quotes talk about, but I always worry that addiction will come back to take it away.


About the art:

The painting I made for this survivor is based on how addiction has changed their family's lives forever.

This painting is not my usual style but is much more messy and chaotic because addiction is messy and chaotic.  The darker colors at the bottom represent the isolation and depression felt during the dark times of addiction when it comes back and takes hold.

The trees growing at the top represent how something great can emerge even from the darkest times.  There's a quote at the bottom right that says, "Sometimes when you're in a dark place, you think you've been buried, but you've actually been planted."

I like this quote because even when life is especially difficult, great things always emerge out of them.  Often it's not easy to see at first, but takes many many years to show (much like how a tree grows).  I hope that whenever things are looking dark, this survivor can look at this panting and know that eventually, growth will arise out it.

- Emily Silkman