My Y

Every morning after doing what I have to do on the computer I go to the Y. And today I’m in here and straight to the bathroom. Nothing unusual about that, except that today I sit down beside some guy’s wallet. At first I don’t know that’s what it is, because it’s very large, but then I absentmindedly open it (grazing for printed words probably) and I notice the cell phone, the credit cards, and the cash, Cash, CASH!

“I know him, I’ll call him,” says Bill at the Membership Plus desk.

“Yeah,” I say, and we smile at each other; about being honest Y guys. “Don’t you hate it when you lose your wallet.” Shake my head. Don’t know if Bill notices that I stagger a bit on my way back to the toilet. Almost dizzy. Sit down and my bowels explode: “Here we go; on track one, all aboard for The Cravings.”

There was no question was I going to take the money, any more than if I was still using would there be a question was I not. And I could use some extra cash today too; buy a new blank notebook for jotting down inspiring recovery thoughts. Yeah, okay, sure.

Walking to my locker is like walking to my desk through an office full of friendly people. Everybody saying hi; we all come here mid-morning every day. Retired men mostly, also arts-types and other differently-routined professionals, guys whose work is nearby and they can slip over in the mid-morning for a few minutes on the bike, read the paper, watch their money on TV and comment on that, or on the news, and sports, of course. Golf is a popular topic. Golf vacations coming up.

I put on the stretchy bright-blue zip-neck my very-favourite-niece gave me for Christmas last year. My only-and-excellent niece, and I’m gratefully wearing it nearly every day since and luckily it’s a nice piece, from Mountain Equipment Co-op; she’s a good clothes-shopper; runs in the family. Might as well get into my bathing suit now because I’ll go straight from the weight machines to the pool. Looks like regular shorts anyway and just a little damp from yesterday is all.

I do six exercises on five machines. Free weights would be better but I’m more likely to pull a muscle using them and I can’t afford to take time off. Each exercise, I’m doing three sets of fifteen reps. I was doing four sets of ten for the longest time, but my personal trainer — he’s great and although I can’t afford him anymore he still watches out for me — he recommended fewer sets and more reps when I told him I felt like I was in a rut. Weight training I do only upper body; takes me about forty-five minutes and I go at it three times a week. I chart what I do; the weight keeps going up and I keep on grunting. I don’t know whether I’m getting stronger or just getting more used to working right on the edge of failure. Both, I guess. Hurts; I find it very hard.

In fact, first few lifts are seriously painful here. I can’t believe I do this. Can’t believe it’s me doing this. I didn’t even see the inside of a gym until fifty-five years of age. Hurts like Hell. Why do I have to do it? I mean; being a disciple of happiness, shouldn’t be aching and sighing all the time; seems to me.

“That’s one.” One set done. Keep breathing, keep going. One set’s three thousand pounds for Christ sake. Total of six times three times fifteen times each weight; how much is that? Someday have to carry my extended family out of a burning building should be a cinch; do them all in one trip.

“That’s two…” Breathe. One more set of pull-downs and then it’s the bicep curls. Resting after the first set here; I do something I should not do: I trace with my finger along a raised vein on the back of my forearm, slowly, gently, slightly, thinly smiling — the blood’s rushing to my head already anyway — tap on that one good spot a couple times, and now here comes the idea. Ohhhh… and oh fuck that reminds me of the dream I had last night. Four years clean and yet this had to be the worst using dream I ever — it was so real; woke up couldn’t believe I hadn’t been using. My body saying I had, feeling like I’m catching a cold; beaten down, limbs all disconnected. Congestion. Laying there and when I moved I got a Charlie-horse, which explains the pain in my leg I got right now. Craving; fuck off; do another set.
Hanging from the ceiling above me is a dracaena and as I lift my forearms to my shoulders I look up at my reflection in the shiny-black half-sphere container. They say every man needs protection. They say that every man must fall. Yet I swear I see my reflection, some place so high above this wall.

Craving. Seeing myself in reflection I don’t see no fit sticking into my arm. But yeah, no, this isn’t the cravings I expect to be getting thanks to the cash-full wallet and the dream isn’t causing this craving either; this is a simple, right-now trigger which gets pulled every time I do weights; veins and head-rush; I can deal with it. That wallet-thing’s a different matter, going to be two or three days before that something sneaks up like out of nowhere and it’ll be, like; oh man where’d this come from: suddenly I’m thinking about nothing but how much I’m dying for a hit. And that’ll be me experiencing the delayed reaction to handling the stranger’s wallet and seeing the cash. Somewhat unpredictably, can be subtle at first, because it’s not only that cravings will happen, there’s also distraction, irritability, dream-disturbed sleep, tiredness and sensitivity to stress; getting stressed and getting more stressed because I’m feeling stressed. This all might spin for a week or more, be an episode of what is by some people called post-acute withdrawal syndrome. Can be dangerous, but is less so if you recognize it. PAWS. My first clue to the delayed-action trigger being pulled was the explosive defecation. It’s all so abominably abdominal and so very psychoneuroimmunoendocrinological.

And from this I shall not any day now be released. But this other more immediate trigger here, which comes with doing weights, it’s easier. Just the blood-flow; seeing the popped veins, feeling the rush and the heat, and if I hadn’t have played it, it wouldn’t have gone to cravings. Why do I keep doing that? Don’t know. But lately I’ve been trying to play a little trick on it, and so now, moving on to the next exercise, the Chest Press, I will practice this trick; my New Thought. It’s all about reframing what I’m feeling and seeing when I’m here at the machines, to connect this felt experience to other memories, to make myself a new story. So as to not be dwelling on how much I’m really wanting to smash into that blue-red vein, but instead now trying to feel the hot-blood rush and see the pattern of veins on my arm and across the back of my hand as something entirely different. Same trigger, but new frame, displacing old habitual reaction with a new freedom and vitality.

My new picture is that the veins are the tributaries of a great river. Like drawn on a nautical chart. A lot of my life was around water and a lot of my passions: The Elora rapids on the Grand River in Southern Ontario, where we the Boy Scouts pretended to be the Indians; the banks of the Speed River in Guelph, where I smoked a thousand joints in the secret place I rode to on my ten-speed, sometimes with a girl, we hid from the light; the winding rivers etched into the Great Plains, from my seat on a jet plane, sipping coffee and cognac; the Red, in the Fall kayaking solo through the delta and great flocks of snow geese in migration, and in Winter ice-camping with Matt under the Northern Lights; the Danube, taking the hydrofoil from Vienna to Budapest, a student of music and culture; the Athabasca Glacier’s rushing melt down the side of the Great Divide, stopping for a gritty drink mountaineering; tidal currents in Dodd’s Narrows, Gabriola, Porlier and Active passes between the Gulf Islands and the Strait of Georgia, manoeuvring other men’s yachts; the turbulent mouth of the Niagara River under a rising moon at midnight, sailing with friends of a steamy Summer weekend on my old yawl Calypso. Bodies of water I have known and loved; and may all be free and unpolluted.

And yet they say everyman needs protection. From such as my desire to sail away on this readily accessible blood vessel, so I’m exorcising in my exercising here, with Great Moments in Flow aiming to cure this specific craving trigger here, in the beauty of the natural world recollected. On a current of energy flowing from my heart to the sea. Attempting with lots of puffing and grunting, to reclaim and re-apply.
It appears not to be working very well. Not so far anyway, in the couple of months I’ve been doing it three times a week. Deal I’m getting so far is to be an old guy deeply regretful about damming his veins and polluting himself and others, but yet just really wants to go back to getting stoned and playing with girls. Lot of my semen was shot into those oceans; now there aren’t no oceans left for me, nor other memories more powerful than those, not in me alone, given up sex and drugs and sailing too.

But okay, it’s not making the cravings any worse, so I’m planning to stay at this little cognitive-behavioural experiment a little while longer, a couple more months at least; see if there’s any significant improvement. The real trick I think is that you have to get into the reaction early enough, feel it when it’s just starting to come on. If right then you choose skillfully to take yourself somewhere else, with right intentions and kindliness, you’ll have no cravings then. And I expect that one day I would probably enjoy seeing the raising of my veins and feeling the rush of blood to my head without having to be watching “My Bad Habits” in reruns.

All the while building strong wings squeezing out three sets of fifteen on the Rear/Row Deltoid. Then moving to the last machine, the Gravitron. Doesn’t feel quite like the evolution of flight. But how would one know?

But that other thing, the psychoneuroimmunoendocrinological, PNI, that’s the biggest word again and I reckon also the bigger obstacle to curing my addictions. Because my experience indicates that addictions are not all in my head; they’re also ruminating and proliferating in other parts of me; doing their mischief in places I can’t bring to mind. I expect that I quite often get cravings and other side effects delayed by two or three days. From triggers like finding that wallet and touching the cash; or maybe I run into an old flame or see a drug dealer on the street and then my phone rings from an unknown number in the night; coincidences like that set me off; maybe just I’m singing a certain song to myself all day (should not make matters worse by doing that). Of course it’s in my head, in the brain, but I believe it’s also in my guts, and my, um… pelvic region. (And then what if it turns out that addictions are symptoms of some new species of parasite; mutated ringworms or some such? That I have to watch porn stoned for their sake. LOL.)

I’m just wondering the extent to which addictions are not only behavioural and cognitive; how much of it is visceral and for all I know maybe even cellular, too. Don’t get me wrong, after the work I’ve done these past four years, the day-after-tomorrow’s effects from today’s found wallet won’t be terrible. But I will be paying special attention for a few days, watching out for the signs of PAWS and if that happens, well, fine, I’d rather have that than catch a cold. It’s not that bad as long as I don’t do something stupid to make it worse. But one year clean; the cravings I’d get from touching that cash would have been brutal. Shock and awe.

People don’t get this. They don’t understand how deep our addictions can run and how small their accessibility to awareness. How addictions infiltrate what passes for normal life. You see the guy in the movie; he sweats out a few days of withdrawal, walks out of rehab into the embrace of family and all good things. Credits roll. Well, let me tell you: anybody can stay clean for a few days, a few weeks or months, addicts do it all the time; it’s called running out, even when we want to call it quitting. But I want to see what the guy’s doing in six, twelve, eighteen months. Five years even; see where he’s at emotionally, in relationships, spiritually. See where you and everybody else is at, too.

But staying on the topic of cravings, delayed cravings and PAWS, I remember one time in the summer of my first year clean I found drugs in a forgotten pocket. I had just stepped out of meeting with my therapist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and was getting into a rented car to drive to rural Ontario to help my mother with something. I’d hoped that maybe after I took care of her I’d get to go to a riding stable and take out a horse. Which I have never done, by the way, but I always wanted to and thought I would that day. I’d driven past the place a number of times, on the Niagara Escarpment near Milton. Looking forward to this, I had pulled a shirt out of storage; a perfectly innocent Patagonia shirt: grey-blue plaid, pearly snaps, deep yokes. And chest pockets, in the left organic-cotton of which was a hundred-dollar piece.

I got into the car; was paralyzed afraid of making a single move that was other than my original plan for the day; drove down the 401 to Guelph like an automaton. Had all the windows wide open; not sure why; trying to blow my brains out I suppose; but also thinking that if I tossed the dope I’d most likely end up stopping and tearing the rear seats apart because it might have blown back into there. So it stayed on me over an hour. Finally I hugely had to take a shit. Swung off the highway into the parking lot of the Guelph YMCA. Took refuge at the Y. When you belong to the Y you can go to any Y in the world. The contents of my bowels went down, and also with a right overhand pitch between my legs what was in my pocket went down too, all down the tube in the same flush. Can still see the pure white piece swirling away in the brown swamp. Remember wanting to dive in after it.

Must say that no success was felt. No willpower triumphant in the Guelph Y’s can. Just nothing. No me at the end of the day waving good-bye to my innocently-yet-symbolically grateful old mother as I ride off into the sun setting over the Bruce Trail.

Just fucking not. For fucking hours every minute the toilet’s flush’s white noise rolling crescendos of craving. Was all I could do to attempt a score in Guelph — unfuckingbelieveable — actually thinking about buying drugs in the town I lived in and got busted in when I was a teen-ager in the sixties!? No, what I’d do is ditch the day-plan stand my mother up and hammer the gas pedal back to Toronto — Fuck It!
Okay, I didn’t do any of that. And gradually the cravings subsided. Naturally. But, a day or two later, my situation was gradually getting more dangerous. I could recognize and handle the cacophony of the initial cravings, but I had to apply the most basic coping skills for weeks after finding that hundred-piece: empty my bank account, keep my schedule very full, call my supports ten times a day, make myself fully accountable for every step I took. All the while fearful of the overwhelming urge that would steal me away in the night. Beaten down by feelings I couldn’t bring to my awareness. Had to watch out for what I could not see happening to me. Not to mention you go out and take that big hit after a lengthy abstinence there’s much greater risk of a fatal overdose than when you’re taking drugs all the time. There a piñata around here somewhere?

* * *

11 thoughts on “My Y

  1. Marc October 29, 2012 at 7:34 am #

    What a beautiful piece! A truly professional piece of writing, with all the coolest elements of background, mood, suspense, flashbacks, intertwined story lines, even Dylan lyrics, and SO personal and honest and raw. I was really moved.

    For other memoir contributors: please don’t think you have to send in Pulitzer Prize material like this. This memoir is pure art, and we don’t all have the time or the talent. But I’m proud to start our memoir page with this entry.

    Mr. Anonymous, You say the craving was not only in your mind but also in your body, in your cells — right you are. You mention regions of your body that are dark or inaccessible. Well, yes. I won’t speculate about your pelvic regions, but I do know something about the brain. First, it’s very dark in there. All the holes in your cranium are stuffed with things — eyeballs, nerves, stuff like that. No light gets in, so you can NOT look inside.

    But seriously, what is going on in your brain when cravings resurface like that? So incredibly suddenly, and powerfully — after four years clean! — that you have to beat them back with a stick, and even then barely succeed. The “overwhelming urge” as you call it. “Shock and awe.”

    This is a REALLY REALLY important question — probably the biggest question people in recovery ever have to face.

    It’s all about associations of course. You find a wallet, you suddenly have a lot of money in your pocket, last night you dreamed you were shooting coke, you suddenly notice the bulging vein on the inside of your forearm….

    Here’s what’s going on:

    We are composed of our memories. Memories are a lot of who we are. Memories are mostly strings of associations. Associations form in the brain according to “Hebb’s Rule”, proclaimed back in the 40s — “What fires together wires together.” This is the classic explanation for associative learning. When neuron A fires (more rapidly than normal), and it activates neuron B as a result, then neuron A and neuron B are firing together. If that happens time and time again, the synaptic connection between the two neurons is strengthened. That means that EVERY time neuron A fires (rapidly) in the future, it is likely (at least more likely) to activate neuron B. A bond is formed. Thing A is now linked with thing B, maybe for a couple of weeks, maybe for a lifetime.

    How many times when you were using did the thought of money lead to the thought of scoring coke? A thousand? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? Probably a lot… And touching the vein in your arm obviously led to thoughts of shooting — and vice versa. And in the dream you had the night before, these images were already connected up. Think of that as a quick refresher course.

    So, you find money, and a coke-scoring image is right there: wham! Nice bulging vein: wham! The associations are pouring together like streams into a dark lake. Also, these are sensory-emotional associations, in other words, not of the 2+2=4 variety. They get wired up in the amygdala, the organ that stores emotional memories. The amygdala fires up and colors perception with emotional meaning in under 50 milliseconds (1/20th of a second), way before other, smarter, brain parts have a chance to get on board and deflect your thinking.

    Your amygdala says “COKE, COKE, COKE”, but so far it’s just a memory, an association. The thing is that the amygdala has rich one-way connections to the ventral striatum, the brain part responsible for drive, desire, forward-thrust motivation. I WANT IT NOW!!! (if you read my book, you know all about this.) And then you are in the throes of the master motivator, deep, deep inside the dark recesses of your brain! You poor helpless sod!

    And then you provide us with the solution:

    “It’s all about reframing what I’m feeling and seeing when I’m here at the machines, to connect this felt experience to other memories, to make myself a new story.”

    Exactly what you had to do: connect your present-tense FELT experience (which will already include some cluster of associated images) to another string of associations, e.g., I’m the guy who knocks down cravings and walks out of here a strong, happy man, on my way to…wherever it is you’re going. A new story is needed.

    You also say:

    “The real trick I think is that you have to get into the reaction early enough, feel it when it’s just starting to come on. If right then you choose skillfully to take yourself somewhere else, with right intentions and kindliness, you’ll have no cravings then.”

    Absolutely true: you have to do it quickly. You are racing against a synaptic chain that will complete itself in under a second. You damned well better be quick. But nobody can mount a serious campaign in that amount of time. So here’s where the real test comes in: you have to beat ego fatigue. You have time to fight back, at least until the smarter parts of your brain — especially the dACC — start to loose steam, as they will inevitably do within 5-10 minutes. The dACC (dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) will be able to switch off choice #1 in favor of choice #2, but if you spend too long on the fence, struggling with these alternatives, the dACC will run low of neurotransmitters, and its power will quickly be diminished.

    So you know what to do, and you did it, hard though it was. I think we can all feel a bouquet of relief, hope, and happiness at the way you handled your rebellious brain.

    One last note: about the defecation situation. When I used to break into medical centers, I often had to shit. I’d somehow jimmy open a window or door, plop down on the other side, feel myself in this dark, peaceful cornucopia of drugs, ready to take, take, take, and suddenly I had to find a toilet. Quickly! I think it’s a simple matter of adrenalin. The excitement is HUGE. Your nervous system is pumped, maybe with the availability, the sudden opportunity, and maybe also with the fear of fucking up…which of course you are just about to do.

    The body is a strange, complex, and yes, mostly inaccessible vehicle. We have to hang on tight to stay on the road.

  2. Janet October 31, 2012 at 4:21 pm #

    I was so intimidated by the power of this piece that I felt I could not possibly comment but I keep going to this with the need to connect. To the author, I am in awe of the physicality of this writing. It is a force of nature that leaps off the page. I could hear your heart beat and the voice of the psychic struggle. The battle, the battle ground. Thank you for writing that. I have always been at a loss to imagine such a physical battle… you have shown me something I could not have seen on my own. And I was not afraid.
    I want to ask the author about how he feels about his body? You wrote in such a raw and honest way about your veins, it made me want to understand more about an addicts relationship to/with his physical body? I hope you don’t mind me asking.

    • Charlie November 4, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

      I couldn’t agree more with Marc and Janet. What a gripping story! I critique writing for a living, and this piece is outstanding. Anonymous, you really ought to write a book, or perhaps short stories. Your piece does indeed have all the elements of professional writing, and the sheer physicality of it, to use Janet’s word, makes it come alive for the reader. Please write more!

    • John Becker November 6, 2012 at 9:29 am #

      Hi Janet — The way I had to learn to relate to my body was as a lover, and it has taken a very long time and it’s been arduous. Because in my addiction I’d been my own pimp, exploiting my body.

      For five years I have ardently trained, at the YMCA – two to five hours every day. ION good company and alone. I could go on forever about my program: I do about a dozen yoga classes and two or three Pilates classes per week, for alignment, balance and core strength; I learned to swim, finding that breathing into water helped to heal a respiratory system which in abuse had become a fleshy connection between a crack-pipe and genitals; I spin, because I’m still a brain-chemical slut and I like doing it to music with healthy people; I do other kinds of classes, just trying new things all the time; I lift weights too, three times a week (ouch and grown suspiciously much I think for a supposed disciple of happiness ((my friends are gone, my hair is grey and I ache in the places where I used to play))); and it’s all part of making so many changes physically (bio/psycho/socially) that, maybe, for some spiritual transformation, I have created a redemptive platform, so that I can blossom and fall into this life, like fruit falling from a tree. So, what was a dysfunctional relationship for maximum pleasure harvested off my body; is now a new and creative relationship that is all about love. I can’t control it, but I am from the bottom of broken heart eternally grateful that I get to do this every day.

      I could go on forever about this, but I have to go to the Y now. No kidding and I wouldn’t have got five years clean (last Saturday night!) if I didn’t do this.

      Thanks for asking,


  3. Janet November 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    Thank you, John. And once again, I am blown away by the force of your writing. The honesty, the bandaid being ripped off. No prisoners. You are an amazing amazing writer… And your journey is brave.
    “Maximum pleasure harvested off my body…” All of it stunning. I love what you have shared and from the “bottom of my broken heart I am grateful” to you. What made you stop using? How did you get well? Do you feel well?
    Thank you.
    I am glad that you are treating yourself with love. Janet

    • John Becker November 16, 2012 at 8:30 pm #

      Hi Janet — I didn’t notice your further question; sorry, I would have got back to you sooner if I had.
      For the last five years I often wondered why I quit. I mean, there were lots of good reasons, but they were all the same reasons as for all the years before, and they never much influenced me to stop for any length of time, so why this time?
      Well, amazingly, I think I’ve finally figured it out, but it’s comes with a huge catch 22. Because I reckon it’s the same reason for why I started using!
      Which is: I won’t live in world without love.
      What passes for normal in this society just doesn’t work for me. I tried a sort of uber-sub-normal (LOL) and there were times when I was truly fooled (you too, eh?), but I’d have to admit now that I’ve tested it fully, and I can’t endorse it. off and on I tried normal, too, and liked it even less.
      So that leaves no choice but to try for optimal, and that’s the experiment I’m running now, with great effort, all day every day…
      And now honesty, Janet, Five years into it and I’m encouraged by the results. Keep watching this space. This next year might be the best.
      But if it doesn’t work, to recover, in love. I mean, not just for me, but for any and all of us; then… what?



  4. Janet November 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    I like that word “optimal” and I get it in the context you used it. But don’t forget.. the “middle path” as the Buddha says, is good too. It doesn’t have to be vanilla or boring or a sell-out. It does not rob you of your spendor. Just the act of breathing is splendid. My son did the” uber-sub-normal ” as well.
    “An inverse achievement” my father said. And your comments really helped me see that. It was herculean, just the “wrong” direction.
    I greatly admire your terrific achievement coming up, and through, the
    lows. Every step a celebration in my opinion.
    And “normal”? That is a setting on the washing machine. !
    Keep soaring… but rest, too.
    And yes, love is why we are here. Janet

  5. Nik November 19, 2012 at 10:43 am #

    Thanks for this account, John. It’s very powerful, and its exactitude (I infer, not having been there) and insight are impressive.

    It raises an issue I’ve given some thought to (as of course it’s a perennial topic related to AA): the maintenance of ‘recovery’ or sobriety (or whatever it’s called–staying clean).

    It seems to me, that for some people, and some ‘addictions’, the new learning retains a degree of fragility (not sure of what word to use); I surmise it’s the biochemistry that’s a continuing problem; the ‘cellular’ level you spoke of.

    To put it another way: As much as one can throw stones at or critique the continued compulsive patterns that are evident in some cases of sobriety (e.g. attending AA meetings 10 times a week), perhaps only these (but not necessarily within AA) can deal with the problems of continuing cravings, that you mention. I’m not sure. Does carefree, healthy living [flexible, non compulsive] remain elusive, for some? I include myself here, so please do not feel pointed at.

    Thanks again.

    • John Becker November 20, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

      Thank-you, Nik, for you comments. I’m going to take the liberty of making a further brief remark here in response. When we think about the idea of maintaining sobriety perhaps requiring many years of continued efforts, we often associate that with sacrifice and suffering. But is this necessarily true? You mention “flexible, non-compulsive living” as “elusive for some” but my view of our society today, not just looking at addicts, is that “carefree, healthy living” is very elusive for most people, not just some people. In recovery, when a little vigilance may be the price we have to pay for freedom, we may actually be getting a better-than-average and better-than-normal deal!
      My mother was an addict all her long life, until in her eighties she lost her memory. No more addictions after that.
      Let’s be careful what we wish for here.


      • Marc November 21, 2012 at 9:01 am #

        John, you ended by saying that your mother had no more additions after that. I changed it to “addictions” assuming a typo, but she probably wasn’t much good at addition either.

        I agree that flexibility and spontaneity are rare gifts in our era and probably most others. In fact other great apes don’t often look entirely flexible in their life styles, mind you I’ve only seen them in zoos. Well, maybe that completes the comparison.

        Anyway, you’re so right: we are getting a better-than-average deal if/when we finally end up in that state.

  6. Persephone November 21, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    This is a truly amazing bit of writing! Thank you for sharing, especially about the PAWS. That is one of the most horrible aspects to getting off of drugs, and so rarely discussed. I can scarcely comment further, I’m still just enthralled by your writing, but thank you.

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