December 2013. Downtown Phoenix.
Lost. Broken. Emaciated. Sick. Gray December skies punctuate the morning as I climb the stairs to the emergency room doors. Banner Good Samaritan. Twenty-six years ago, I was born here. I snub my cigarette out with my shoe near the entrance, spitting blood flecked phlegm on the ground in the process.
The doors slide open. I cross the threshold. My eyes burn holes in the floor as I approach the front desk. A nurse takes down my information, asks for my symptoms, and directs me to an overcrowded seating area. I’m not here for my health, despite its rapid decline over the past several days, instead I’m here because I have nowhere else to go and the potential promise of narcotics and a place to be are all I have to hold onto.
A nurse finally directs me to a triage room. They X-Ray my lungs. They try and draw my blood, but the thick, ropey stenosis of my veins prevents this. They call in a specialist who uses a ultrasound to find a viable vein to draw blood from. I’m poked and prodded until the needle finds purpose – they start an IV.
I sit alone in a separate waiting area wearing a thin paper gown. Tears well in my eyes and I try to distract myself from the pain by watching the silhouettes of doctors and nurses shuffle by the fogged window of the room. I try to imagine what their lives are like – normalcy, self-sufficiency, and stability fascinate and elude me endlessly.
A medical student wearing a white lab coat enters the room and informs me that I’ll be admitted to the hospital today. X-rays show double pneumonia and a nodule on my left lung. Bloodwork indicates hepatitis C. I find myself being honest with the young student. There’s no obfuscation of the fact that I’m destitute, addicted to heroin, and completely lost. Tears spill over as the man talks to me like I’m a normal person even though I’m not. “Don’t worry, we’re going to take care of you,” he reassures me.
I’m wheeled to a room on the third floor, and I’m given an overview of my treatment process. I overstate my pain levels, so they’ll medicate me with oxycodone. They know the truth, but they smile and accommodate me anyway. The drugs don’t get me high, but they stave off withdrawal symptoms. A vancomycin drip is started to battle the infection enveloping my lungs. They give me medication to help me relax and I’m overwhelmed with a deep sense of gratitude for what feels like the first time in forever. It’s December 24th. I’ve been cycling between the street, treatment centers, and detox for over a year. I’m exhausted. I drift off – my current situation, slipping away to sleep.
I awaken to a late-night talk show illuminating the room. A strong inclination in my loneliness to reach out to my family overcomes me. Although shame permeates every inch of my being, I’m hoping a call will get them to consider stopping by the hospital. I ask the nurse to call my father. She does and has the doctor explain what’s going on. After the call, the nurse enters the room with news of the conversation. She has red hair and a kind smile. “Your dad says to tell you he loves you, but that they won’t be coming to see you. I’m sorry.”
I nod to the nurse in understanding, and she leaves unceremoniously. My apartness, my apathy in relation to my health, my life, the lives of the people that love me the most floors me, and I sit in a mild narcotized haze, but nothing shields me from the emotion. I sit in silence. Thirteen years of self-destruction, disease, pain, suffering, selfishness, and loss culminate in this moment, and I internalize my desperate situation more than I ever have before. The depth of my consequences lay before me. Excruciating clarity.
December 2022. Williams, AZ.
The dusky glow of Christmas lights illuminates the brick path in front of me. It’s 40 degrees outside. The cold, brisk wind biting my face as I hoist my swaddled 3-month-old son. Christmas music floats by softly on the crisp air.
My wife and my 7-year-old daughter walk with me, parallel to an old set of train tracks. We’re wearing comfortable, warm pajamas. Christmastime smells of cinnamon and pine assault my senses in the best possible way as we alight the train platform – the area bustling with smiling children and happy families.
I look across the crowded space and see my dad. Permanent 5 o’clock shadow, tall. A familiar smile these days. We make our way toward each other, link up with my mom and some others we’re meeting and get ready to board The Polar Express. We stand in line, kids eager with excitement and joy. The positive energy is palpable, infectious.
We board the train, take our seats on the worn wooden benches. I crack the window and breathe deeply the frigid December air. We take turns holding the baby, my daughter and her friends shuffling in the aisle, the benches, their enthusiasm untethered. They get to be kids, fully, in the moment.
The train leaves the station. We sing carols, sip hot chocolate, and listen intently as the fantastical tale is read to us. A story of doubt being replaced with faith, belief – the fantastical aspects of the world still existing for those who seek it. Their eyes glisten with wonder. The magic is alive in them, and I’m blessed with the opportunity to live vicariously, to experience this unbridled bliss – to be here, present, participating.
Santa visits the car. He gifts each child a shining, silver bell and asks them what they want for Christmas. He takes time to bend down and ask my tiny, three-month-old baby who’s staring blankly into his face. Maybe it’s my imagination getting the best of me, but I’d like to think that a faint hint of a smile graces the corners of my son’s mouth. My parents take pictures, capturing and creating cheerful new memories that we’ll all reflect on.
The train creaks its way back to the station. I sink into my seat next to my wife and wrap my arm around her. I am filled with gratitude. With meaning. With fulfillment. Years of self-reflection and action and healing have brought me to this seat on the train. This is a place I never dreamed of being. Practicing vulnerability, becoming teachable, acceptance of life on life’s terms, treatment, therapy. Steps toward a new beginning and eventual reality. It’s not easy but it’s possible. It is doable.
I think about a story my mom told me, shortly after my brother and I began this journey of recovery. One Christmas, while we were still mired in the darkness of our disease, she and my dad drove up to Williams. They wandered onto this same train platform, found a bench, and sat down. They watched. Smiling faces. Togetherness. Children riding on their father’s shoulders through the brisk evening, bright stars glistening above. Kids bundled up against the cold, teeming with anticipation for adventure. Sweet smells and cheer. It took them away from life for a while and reminded them of days past, and joyful living, in any circumstance.
I think on this, and smile. For all the dark days, the handwringing, the stress, the depression, the all-encompassing anxiety, the hopelessness. All those days lead us here. My parents and I taking my kids on the Polar Express.
Sean – In Recovery