April 22, 2015

Eyes Wide Open: Joe Clifford's Junkie Love

Picture this. It was night two of AWP's annual conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I sat in the back of a cab with my friend, Renee Pickup (check out her gut-wrenching story, "The Grand Finale" here), as we headed out of Minneapolis' downtown to some creepy warehouse where a small publisher was hosting a small party.

Up front, beside the cabbie, rode Joe Clifford, a San Francisco-based author and, well...let me keep going.

I'd only known Joe for a few hours but felt pretty comfortable with him already. For one, he made fun of me almost as soon as he met me - Renee and I'd stood in an interminable line for food and coffee, and he (rightfully) pointed out that there was a much shorter line so close we could see it. I always appreciate a person who's not afraid to point out the obvious.

And for two...he was pretty comfortable talking about his own background and, well...let me keep going.

So Joe, Renee and I all have kid(s). Somehow, in that weird cab ride to the creepy warehouse, we got on the subject of gum.

"Yeah, when my son's done with his gum, he'll just hand it to me," said Joe, laughing. "I pop it in my mouth and start chewing."

"Ohmigod, that's disgusting," I said, choking on the thought of ABC gum. "I can't chew gum after Zoe. Too gross. Too many germs."

Joe cracked up harder, then turned and shot me a funny look. "Well," he said, shrugging. "I've put a lot worse things in my body."

"Oh. Good point."

And it was.

You see, Joe's an ex-junkie.

"Junkie" as in heroin. "Junkie" as in completely, hopelessly addicted. "Junkie" as in willing-to-do-anything-for-the-next-hit.

And I didn't even know the half of it...yet.

****

Let's back up a sec, okay? Let's take a look at me, and my own experiences. I trust you won't mind. This IS my blog, after all.

Two things you should know about me are:

1. I lost an aunt and an uncle to alcoholism, so I'm super-touchy about the subject of alcohol, drugs, and addiction. I worry about it - too much, probably.

2. I never really went through a major rebellious phase, and I've never done more than choke on a mouthful of smoke in my lone attempt to try pot.

In short, I'm SUPER-naive about most things drug-related, and probably wouldn't even know a meth-addict WAS a meth-addict if they hit me over the head with whatever paraphernalia it is that meth-addicts use to get high.

And yes, I've even seen Breaking Bad, and yes, I do know we're talking heroin here, and not meth, but whatever. I digress.

****

To sit and chat with Joe Clifford, then, was kind of a crazy experience for me. Because, dammit, he was just so nice! And aren't junkies supposed to be terrible people? Aren't they thieves and don't they live in squalor, and isn't it damn near impossible for them to ever get clean?

But there was Joe in the car, all normal and sweet and kind. And clean. He has a wife and kids and a growing writing career. He made me laugh over drinks later that evening as we sat at a table filled with my LitReactor family, and he was so down to earth I just...couldn't believe it.

Talk about a stereotype-shattering moment.

****

"Junkie Love is one of the few books I can honestly say changed my life," said Renee, either earlier or later that day. I honestly can't remember. I know we talked about Joe a few times, because he was her old friend and my new one.  "You need to read it."

I agreed. I did need to read it. It's Joe's memoir/autobiographical novel, the story of his descent into the depths of junkie-hell, and now that I knew him, knew what a sweetheart he is, knew the ending of a story that pretty much promised to break my heart...

....I bought it as soon as I got home.



I don't know if Junkie Love changed my life.

I do know it opened my eyes.

As I rubbernecked my way through the sometimes straightforward, often streamy-consciousy stories that made up Joe's life, I learned things. Like:


  • Yes. People who are addicted to heroin will lie, cheat, steal, and maim in order to find their next fix. Yes. In their eyes, this is normal. And yes. This behavior scares me. Because if a drug can take an ordinary person and turn them into some horrible version of themselves....that's a terrifying non-super power.
  • Yes. Joe has put things worse than his son's ABC gum into his body. Terrible things. Disgusting things. Extraordinarily harmful things. As a person who's spent many, many years trying to put only good things into my own body, this was incredible to me. Why would you do that? How could you do that? I can't even begin to understand. But addiction is funny that way, isn't it? 
  • Yes. Joe made some terrible choices. But he also made an amazing one. He made the choice to get clean, to turn everything around. That was probably the hardest choice he could have made, and by "probably" I mean "absolutely, 100% God yes." And though the odds were absolutely NOT in his favor, he did it. He made it. He survived, came out on the other end, and is sharing his stories, and hopefully helping other people.
I think the hardest thing I learned was that there has to be a distance between the addiction and the person. I've been struggling with this one lately - can a person be forgiven for those things they ruined while in the throes of addiction? 

And the answer is: I'm don't know.

When I met Joe a couple of weeks ago, he was clean. He was healthy and kind and charming and funny. I liked meeting him. I'm glad we're friends now, and will keep tabs on each other and our careers via social media. That's cool.

But had I known him then? Had I seen him, wasting away, barely surviving, hurting others and himself? Would we still be friends now? 

Gah. 

See? This is what (I think) Renee meant. Junkie Love, and Joe Clifford's very existence as a super-cool guy who turned his life around after living in the depths of hell for so many years...it'll make you think. It'll make you question things. It'll make you wonder.

****

Earlier this week, Charles came home with a guitar. None of us can play, but he and Zoe have been making plans to take lessons together. 

Zoe, without knowing how to play a single chord - hell, a single note - immediately embarked on a mission to become a singer-songwriter. Her first official song goes like this:

"Oh, dear America. How nice to see ya. Thank you for your kindness now...now...now..."

She strums on her guitar as she plays, and sings with an angry edge to her voice.

But the thing is? If you ask her, she wrote the song as an actual tribute to America. She means it when she says thank you. She's non-ironic in her use of kindness.

I feel a little like that was me, before Junkie Love. Sweet. Innocent.

And maybe I still am. Maybe I can still be non-ironic and maybe I can mean the nice things I say.

But man. I feel like I know so much more now. I mean, I've read all the Burroughs and the Kerovac and the Ginsberg. I've read the stories of drugs and sex and violence.

But this? Somehow this was darker. More dangerous. Scarier. 

And I feel like, now, if I were to write about contemporary life in America, knowing so much more about the seedier side of things....there just might be a legitimately angry edge to my voice...and I just might mean it.

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