Wednesday, November 23, 2011


As a child, I’d always imagined the day would come when, like Anne Welles in Valley of the Dolls, I’d pull my dying drugged self out of the ocean and return to New England. When I came to the end of my road it was far less glamorous than I’d romanticized. It was easier to remain curled in a blanket on the floor and fantasize about changing my life than it was to pack my few belongings and get to Port Authority.  

I was on the floor of my room at the dismal Belleclaire Hotel facing the open closet estimating packing time for what remained of my worldly possessions: a few hanging garments, a pair of red and black stiletto heels, and old combat-style boots. Weeks ago a hole the size of a quarter appeared on the sole of my boot. I’d been limping from an infection ever since.  My ankles were so swollen from another illness that a cab driver carried me up the flight of stairs to my room the night before. I'd lost  sensation in two fingers, couldn’t hear out of one ear, and watched mysterious liver spots appear and disappear on my skin.  For a year I’d been writing down these various symptoms in the event that, should my body be discovered, someone would find this paper and autopsy me to find out the real cause of death  rather than assume it was a drug overdose. I kept the list on me at all times.

My reflection filled the security mirror as I boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Toronto, eyes the color of egg yolks. Fourteen hours later, I woke up in Toronto with no recollection of passing through customs.  At Women’s College Hospital my various illnesses were treated with several painful shots of penicillin. It was past midnight when the taxi pulled into my parents’ driveway.

My mom’s eyes filled with terror as she unlocked the door. I was supposed to be living in California not standing in the Canadian night. Three months earlier, I announced I’d started going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, not realizing how the news would affect my family. She didn’t ask why I was there; simply told me to sleep in my old room and went back to bed.

But I didn’t sleep. I didn’t sleep for the next ten days. Every night until dawn, I creepy-crawled around the dark house carrying plates of food.  The food combos were random – ice cream followed by kosher dills, peanut butter sandwiches, cucumbers in a bowl of vinegar, canned corn, cereal, an apple. I hoped I’d hit a food level that would put me to sleep. Instead, sounds of a battle being waged inside my stomach snapped me to a heightened alertness.

Guilt-ridden and fearful my late night mania would be misconstrued as drug use, I spent my days on the phone trying to find a rehab. There was one problem – in 1988, Canada seemed unaware that there was a drug epidemic going on. In the early 80s I didn’t know anyone using heroin in Toronto but by the late 80s it was everywhere. I explained this to every professional I managed to get on the phone. True, I was the only one in my crowd who had a desire to get clean but I knew there must be others. I’d attended a Narcotics Anonymous World Convention with thousands of recovering addicts in California.  Words like therapeutic community, rehab, sober living, and detox were common in the United States. In Toronto, one or two facilities existed to treat alcoholism but drug addicts were on their own.  I called the Narcotics Anonymous hotline. There were 5 meetings a week, each night in a different corner of the far reaches of the suburbs.

Hepatitis, compounded with other illnesses, helped my narcotic withdrawal pass without much notice.  I was amazed that bad health could trump the melodrama of kicking a dope habit. On the fifth day I drove to a meeting. The building was dark and the doors were closed. I guess that meant there were four NA meetings a week in Toronto. I was getting scared. I knew that if I couldn’t find help soon, the minute my health came back every cell in my body would pull me back to heroin. If I was feeling good enough to drive, it meant time was running out.

An old friend called to say that a huge shipment of dope had just come in and that I should drop by. I told him I was done.  If I really wanted off this ride, there couldn’t be one last time. I’d spared my family the reality of my life by moving to a different country. I’d deceived them with cheerful long distance phone calls. The morning after I’d arrived home, my mom said that I wouldn’t be welcome if I showed up like this again.  It broke my heart to see how much she was suffering. I would have gone anywhere to spare her this pain but the truth was - I was dying and had never needed her more.

The next day I struck gold. Someone I’d talked to found a way to get Canadian health insurance accepted by a treatment center in Louisiana. The guy sounded shifty on the phone and I’m sure was scamming the government in some way but with no other options available, I was grateful for his ingenuity.  He said I had to pay my airfare down and if I finished the forty-two day program, they’d provide my ticket home and $100.  I copied down the name of the treatment center, Bowling Green in Mandeville Louisiana, and my contact’s name and number on a piece of paper. They’d meet me at the New Orleans airport in two days. 

This news brought my parents back to life.  Being in Toronto in ‘88 and getting into rehab was as close as it came to winning the lottery. The house was buzzing with excitement. My mother took me to the mall to buy pajamas and jeans since the clothes I’d arrived in were rags. She held up various garments “Patty, there might be doctor addicts and lawyer addicts there. You should look nice.” She never gave up the dream.

The night before my flight I dyed my hair magenta. The purplish color did not complement my jaundice complexion and no amount of washing could remove this “temporary” dye. By the time I arrived at the airport, the best I’d managed was a dull shade of pink similar to flesh tone. I kissed my family good-bye and headed through the gates. Customs and Immigration greeted me on the other side. I’d forgotten in Toronto you pass through US customs before boarding the plane. Boney at hundred and five pounds, with yellow skin and flesh colored hair, I was far from inconspicuous. The first round of questions began. 
“Where are you going?”
“New Orleans”
He looked at my ticket.
“How long will you be gone?”
“Forty-two days.”
“Purpose of trip”
“I’m going to an alcoholism treatment center.”
“Can I see the return ticket please?”
I pulled out the piece of paper with the treatment information on it and explained that they give me a return ticket when I finish the program. I was escorted to an interrogation room. An official looked at my hand written note with the rehab information.

“I can’t let you into the country with no money and no return ticket. You must have something official faxed to you from this Bowling Green place. Did you know there is a law stating that known alcoholics are prohibited from entering the United States?”

I began to cry uncontrollably. It was a miracle I’d found a treatment center that would take me. I hadn’t expected to not be able to go. Surely he could see that I was dying. How could he deny me the right to save my life? He pretended to be absorbed in his paperwork while motioning for someone to escort me out. That’s when I lost it. I grabbed onto his desk and screamed “Take a good look at this face so when you open the paper tomorrow and read that a woman has slit her throat you will remember me. Think about that when you go to bed tonight.” Filled with indignation, I stormed out.

Sitting on the curb outside of the terminal waiting for my parents to pick me up, I realized that even with the proper documents I wouldn’t get through customs again tomorrow. After the scene I just caused, they’d surely remember me.  I devised Plan B.

When my parents arrived I told them I had to be smuggled over the border. My father began complaining about the money, the tickets, and the trips to the airport. Now that he knew I’d been on heroin, he was remembering the times he’d gone to airports for flights I’d forgotten to take, money for emergencies that didn’t exist, gifts that were never bought. He was thinking of all the lies and all the money I’d cost him wondering if this time was any different.

“Please dad, I’m going to die if I don’t go to this rehab.”

At the Peace Bridge, my dad explained how we’d spent the day in Niagara Falls and wanted to go to the states side for good New York pizza before driving back to Toronto. I sat in the far back corner, deep in conversation with my fifteen-year-old brother about Ninja Turtles. As long as they didn’t open the trunk, it would go as planned.

I said good-bye to my family for a second time at the Buffalo airport. I had fourteen hours to kill and twenty dollars. Since I hadn’t slept for ten days, I was prepared for a night of pacing. By nine-thirty,  I caught a shuttle to a nearby hotel with a restaurant/bar to help kill a few hours.

It was a typical hotel bar, a cross between a dimly lit TGIF and a local tavern. A dozen people were spread throughout the room, some sitting alone, couples, the rowdier guys at the bar. I took a table by the window and stared out at the mountains of snow rising up at the far end of the parking lot. It was the first snow I’d seen, reminding me that it was December. I had no recollection of the previous Christmas in LA other than I was living in a hotel above a punk rock bar on Hollywood Boulevard. I’m sure I’d spent it alone.

A waitress materialized at my table and I asked for a glass of red wine. I’d meant to order coffee but the soft jazz, the snow, the desolation, and the feeling that I was inside an Edward Hopper painting seemed to call for red wine. The first sip went straight to my inflamed liver followed by a bile sensation moving toward my throat. I pushed the glass to the far side of the table beyond reach. I was overcome by intense and unanticipated fatigue. I looked around for a clock, hoping it was later than it seemed. Of the four men at the bar, one smiled. A moment later he asked if he could join me. I agreed, not because I wanted company as much as I needed someone to help me stay awake.

David offered a cigarette as the waitress brought over a second round. My liver throbbed at the site of it. For the next few hours, while I sipped wine, we traded stories. He described himself as a night club impresario from Hamilton Ontario (a working class steel town with no night life to speak of) and said he was on his way to New York to invest in a new hotspot. I said little about myself other than I was waiting for a 10AM flight to New Orleans. As time passed and our guard went down, we bonded on wild adventures involving drugs.

When they announced last call, I asked him to walk me back to the airport. “Patty, don’t be ridiculous. I have a room in the hotel. You are more than welcome to crash there until your flight or I can get you a room of your own.” There was definitely chemistry between us but I couldn’t have had sex with him even if I’d wanted to and said as much. I was too sick. He flashed a thick wad of hundreds inside his jacket pocket.  "It's not a big deal. I can afford a room for you.”

We checked in at the front desk adjacent to the bar and started our trek down the long hallway in search of my room. I carried my half filled glass of wine and David carried my suitcase – which contained new jeans, pajamas, and several dozen stripper costumes I’d been traveling with. I was grateful to have a bed and was figuring out how I could get rid of him at the door when, suddenly, we were surrounded by a swat team and I was shoved up against the wall. I couldn’t believe this was happening.

Apparently whatever David was really doing in America with his wad of cash, the border patrol and Swat team had been watching him. They believed I was his contact. I was too defeated to cry so I handed my little paper with my contact info and treatment center scribbled on it. Holding my wine glass, I looked into the detective’s eyes and said “If I don’t get to this treatment center, I am going to die.” He put his handcuffs away. Twelve cops escorted David out of the building while I unlocked the door to my room.

The next day, I landed at the New Orleans airport. It was my first day clean. December 10, 1988.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Death Defying Summer Vacation

A few years ago I became friends with a twenty-six year old alcoholic. With every whiskey, he’d reach a new level of maudlin and melodrama, pointing to the scar on his chest professing, “I can never love again because I have no heart.” Although it was wearing a bit thin on my patience, I’ll give anyone an audience to see where they will go if left uncensored. It wasn’t until he came to the “I won’t live to see 30” part of this semi-rehearsed monologue that I started to laugh. 
When we were young, my best friend Rick and I had a motto: Live fast, die young, leave a pretty corpse. This philosophy gave us license to take a lot of risks. Not to mention it sounded cool. When we reunited in 91, we were both over 30. Considering what we’d lived through, it was amazing we’d made it. I’m now 21 years older than I ever thought I’d live to be. 
Since the days of “live fast die young”, death’s been a recurring theme in my life. In ’88 I hit a heroin bottom that forced me to choose between life and death.  I've lost count of my friends who’ve died. Even in my fiction I’ve entertained suicide. And there was 9/11. Basically, since getting clean I've had many opportunities to contemplate death and come to terms with it. But you never know where you really stand until you face it. Recently, I had the most bizarre life and death experience to date.

 After forty years in the same house, my parents left Toronto and moved 90 miles east on Lake Ontario to a town consisting of four or five residential streets surrounded by farmland and forests. There’s a community center, hockey rink, and a general store.  Once I arrive, I’m basically stuck there.  Whereas before, I used to join friends after dinner, I now ride a bicycle for entertainment.

On my mom’s heavy ten-speed bicycle, I climb the never-ending hills up Community Center Road. My destination is always the same – one lonely horse in a corral several miles away. This is where I catch my breath and turn around.  Every summer I visit for two weeks. This year I arrived late July.

They were having the same heat wave I’d left in New York so I waited until evening before getting on the bike. The combo of natural beauty and endorphins put me in a state of tranquility and euphoria. I stopped at the top of the hill for the panoramic view before coasting past cornfields and another stretch of forest. Finally the land cleared to reveal a house, a small barn and corral. It had been a year since my last visit and I was anxious to see my favorite horse.

 As the property came into sight,  the corral  appeared empty.  A black animal came into view crossing from the corral toward the woods. At first I thought it was a bear cub, which was exciting and shocking enough, but then I realized it had a long tail.  My brain did a quick run-down of all animals native to Ontario that fit the description but came up empty. The animal moved unmistakably like a housecat.  My brain started reconfiguring the way a GPS freaks out when you do a U-turn.  “ I knew it was a black panther but this was illogical. Something was wrong. When the cat disappeared into the high grass I walked my bike to get a better look at the corral expecting to find a bloody carcass. Thankfully it was empty. Maybe the house was sold and the new owners owned an exotic pet. That could happen, right?  Dusk was setting in so it was difficult to make out any sort of cat cage or fence from thirty feet. As I contemplated this, the panther walked back into view and we made eye contact. He immediately crouched in the grass. 

My brain screamed, “Look away. Don’t make eye contact!” and my eyes darted to the road without as much as a heartbeat moving my body.  I felt like Mia Farrow when she wakes up in Rosemary’s baby having sex with Satan. “This is really happening.”

I ‘ve had guns pulled on me and two attempted rapes, but nothing had ever prepared me for anything like this. It was like being on an African Wildlife Safari without a vehicle. At the same time, there was a level of disbelief. There are no wild panthers in Ontario Canada. I know this beyond a doubt. Yet, as darkness was blanketing the land, a panther was watching me from a short distance with nothing between us except a cheap short wire fence. There was a good chance that within seconds of getting on my bike, I would feel the teeth and claws of this animal. I could be mauled, or dragged into the woods, eaten or discarded. This could really happen.

I took a deep breath. “Take a good look around because this may be the last time you see it.” So I took in the cloudless deep blue sky and swept my eyes over the wheat field and the forest now dark with night and thought of how beautiful it all was and how lucky I’ve been to experience it.  I got on the bike and began to pedal, knowing I didn’t want to die and at the same time, not afraid of it. I knew I was powerless and had to just ride this moment out.

I  ran directly to my computer and Googled “wildcat sightings southern Ontario”. Nothing came up. My mom followed me in. “Patty, did something happen. You are white as a sheet.” I hadn’t planned to tell her but knew it would be suspicious if I sped off in her car. “Mom drive me so I can get an address. There’s a panther out there and I have to call animal protective services before it kills any of the horses”.   The field was almost covered by darkness but the panther hadn’t moved. Its profile matched every panther ceramic coffee table ornament I’d ever seen. My mom saw it too.

After describing my experience, the cop on the phone said “Well, you’re in the country>” as though I was some city asshole who’d never seen a deer before. “What country exactly am I in? I grew up here and to my knowledge panthers are not indigenous to Canada. Moose, deer, bears, beavers, raccoons, skunks yes. Panthers no” He grumbled before filing an official report.

The next day I stuck a detailed account in every mailbox on Community Center Road.  My favorite horse was back in the corral and a woman was in the driveway. She listened while I told my story.  When I was done, she was quiet. I felt like a psychiatric escapee. “This morning when I let him out of the barn instead of going to his feed his nostrils began to flare and he started running in circles. I’ve never seen him like that before.”

There is no way to describe the emotional aspect of this experience.  What lingered in my thoughts were the cloudless dark blue sky and the various shades of green at the edge of the forest. When I believed my life was about to end, my only thought was “It is so beautiful here.” and the overwhelming yet peaceful feeling of being lucky to have experienced life. I was not afraid to die.

This experience showed me that despite my occasional angst and life stresses, I’m at peace with myself, and that this has not come attached to any concept of afterlife or reincarnation or God.  I’m thrilled that my youthful ambition to leave a pretty corpse was never realized. Peace, for me, has come through living.

I once wrote a story where the main character has to find a reason not to commit suicide. In the end, she decides that it’s worth hanging on because you never know what crazy adventure is around the corner, who the next new person will be to make you laugh at something new.  I still stand by this.

In September my mother dropped in on the woman with the horse. The vet said there have been seven sighting of the panther. It killed a horse 35 miles away. A farmer on Community Center road said his horses were tangled in the fence as if they were running from something and he mentioned my letter. Every house in the area with small children is now for sale.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

Health Food and Heroin - Acquiring Culinary Skills - Part Two

By my third year of college, I was getting restless. The student life was no longer challenging or engaging me so I returned to NYC to raise funds for my “right of passage” student European vacation. By the time the new semester started, my heroin habit was impossible to replace with weed, wine and black beauties.  Debbie and I had gotten involved in a new dangerous lucrative career.  Once a month, I’d go to NYC, make some money I’d turn into heroin that I’d smuggle back so I could make it through my classes. When I met my future ex husband, it was time to go straight on all fronts. This meant getting a job.

Although my husband wasn’t an addict or a criminal, he was an artist and lived off grants and lived rent-free at a friend’s hotel.  Neither of us had much experience working a normal job. The best we came up with was sharing a few dishwashing shifts at a trendy French restaurant. The pay sucked but they fed us and we could occasionally steal food from the walk in fridge once the staff went home. On Sundays, my mother would give us a basket of tomatoes from the garden.

Our diet consisted of white rice and tomatoes. We were always hungry. It was during this time, I cracked open the box of forty-nine cookbooks. I spent countless hours, over my bowl of rice and tomatoes, reading thousands of recipes.  This was my culinary institute.

Eventually, I convinced Napoleon we needed to move to New York and devised a way to make it happen. My plan involved him working as a museum security guard long enough to be eligible for unemployment while I tended a friend’s bar.  In October, we’d find a cheap winterized cottage to rent, save unemployment money, and move to New York City by May. Since I’d memorized fifty cookbooks, I’d save us money by making everything from scratch.

Carless, we were dropped off at a cabin in the middle of nowhere with 100 pounds of flour, 50 pounds of sugar, powdered milk and eggs, dried beans, and 2 deep freezers full of vegetables and meat. A year earlier I’d announced we were vegetarians but when I noticed that he’d lost his edge, I put him back on a meat diet. Some people needed meat to feed their aggression and without it, he seemed to wilt.

It was six of the coldest months of my life. Time was spent baking bread, gaining weight, and snowshoeing to the mailbox to wait for hash to arrive. Chubby and stoned, we’d do TV aerobics with Jane Fonda and dream of springtime in New York.

 In New York we found jobs in the art department of a popular nightclub called Area.  It didn’t take long before I began using all of our money for drugs. To rationalize this, when we’d walk the dog, I’d show him prices at the trendy restaurants then replicate the meals at home explaining how what I spent on heroin was less than we’d have spent if we’d gone out for dinner.  Eventually, my cooking skills became so sophisticated, I started moonlighting as a cook for a caterer.

Throughout our years together, Napo and I were always seekers. We’d gone through a Carlos Castaneda phase, had a moment of shabby shamanism, crystal dowsing, vision quests, and built a sweat lodge. We somehow arrived at homeopathic remedies.  In the mid-80s a few health food stores began popping up but were still considered oddities by the mainstream. The patrons included old hippies, holistic drug-addicts, and people with terminal illnesses desperate to ward off death.  I was interested in all forms of detoxification from fasting to volcanic ash enemas. Anything, that is, except stopping the poison I was injecting into my body several times a day. I guess you could say I was trying to find balance between health food and heroin.

Eventually the nightclub closed, my husband went back to Canada, and I moved to LA. Which began the spiral into the eventual desperation to get clean. In 1988 I found a rehab in Louisiana that would accept Canadian Health Insurance. When I returned to LA, I was truly a stranger in a strange land.
After 18 months of sofa surfing, sleeping in cars, and living in vacant buildings, existing on vanilla cake mix with milk or chocolate chip cookie dough, when I finally got clean I really was starting my life from scratch.

I got my first apartment just before I celebrated my first year. Detached from my domestic skills, I ate all my meals out. My refrigerator was always empty with the exception of coffee creamer. It didn’t occur to me that I could feed myself.  

I had no connection to my past whatsoever and my new friends had no idea of what had come before them. To them, I was this unusually articulate single stripper who’d taken a greyhound bus to LA with 70 days clean with a duffle bag of G-strings. I’d talk about my outrageous life before recovery and even I wondered if I was making it all up.   Whenever I’d mention living in a cabin baking bread, how easy it was to make cinnamon buns from scratch, or the type of herbs to take for whatever was ailing them, the room would fall silent. Eventually I discovered all the knowledge accumulated during my health food and heroin phase had not been lost.  

A lot of recovering addicts talk about how they started using drugs in search for something of a spiritual nature. To me, any quest for knowledge that helps us to treat our bodies better is spiritual. Food, meditation, exercise, breathing, fresh air, even drinking lots of water promotes sanity and wellbeing. Participating in these things is, to me, living a spiritual life. It means, essentially, that I believe I am worth caring for. On a simpler note, it is self-respecting behavior. To this end, I always incorporate all of the above into my work as a sober coach.

Of course, clients always ask where I learned about nutrition and diet, or how I learned to cook. I’m sure they expect me to list certification programs, places of formal training.  Instead I think of how none of it would have come about had I not met Marty. Or maybe not come about the way it did.  


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Health Food and Heroin - Acquiring Culinary Skills Part One

WARNING TO PEOPLE IN RECOVERY: This post is about acquiring skills I use as a sober coach - in this case diet/nutrition/holistic practices. I always include recovery topics with my real life story blogs but because part one heavily drug using-centric, it may not be suitable for newcomers until part 2 is posted later this week.

Unconventional training. Acquiring skills I use as a sober coach - Culinary Skills : PART ONE of TWO

Alphabet City 1979. Operation Pressure Point was in full force in New York's East Village. For heroin addicts this meant waiting in dark buildings to get frisked for a wire tap and showing satisfactory track marks in order to get served. It also meant endlessly circling the block trying to look inconspicuous while local news camera rolled down the street and police were everywhere. Of course, in a neighborhood consisting of dilapidated vacant buildings, it was obvious why anyone was there.

You couldn't get a cab to take you in and you definitely couldn't find one to take you out of Alphabet City. Although Debbie and I lived at 14th and 3rd, anything could happen on the way back from Avenue D. Taxi Driver had been filmed outside of our building a few years earlier and pimps and underage hookers still prowled 3rd Avenue from the parking lots at 9th Street to the Peep Show at 15th. In our punk rock attire of spandex pants and 5" stiletto heels, who knows what the cabbies thought we were when we flagged them down but we never had trouble getting them to take us deep into the heart of the action day or night. To sweeten the deal, I'd leave Debbie in the car as eye candy. A six foot tall blond beauty, she could have been as successful a model as Jerry Hall or Patti Hansen had she the ambition. Instead, Debbie was satisfied with the simple life: shopping, TV, heroin and a fiance in the Clash. We'd pull onto the dope block and I'd jump out of the car spewing my well-rehearsed "She's going to wait in the car while I run up and borrow some records. be right back." We thought we were so slick - until a driver turned around and handed me forty bucks "Get some records for me too." This is how I met Marty.

One afternoon, I was waiting in the front seat of Marty's taxi while he scored for us on Eldridge Street. Suddenly, all the parked panel vans surrounding me burst open and dozens of armed men wearing Swat Team vests ran around the cab, heading in Marty's direction. The next month, that bust appeared in Life Magazine complete with glossy photos. Soon after, I moved back to Canada, enrolled at the University of Toronto and started driving a cab.

I drove before crack. Had I waited a few more years, I probably wouldn't have done it. With crack came a new level of violence. As it was, in 1980, I was the only woman of any age driving a taxi in Toronto. I truly believed my street smarts from two years in the lower east side drug culture made me invincible. Really, I was just lucky that the shock factor of seeing a cute 20 year old in the driver's seat unnerved everyone - including would-be bad guys. No one could sit down without engaging me in conversation.

People love tipping cab drivers with drugs. Mostly weed. And every joint was prefaced with "Don't smoke this until you get home cuz it will fuck you up." but we're talking Toronto Home-Grown (before hydroponics) so I'd usually light up as soon as they got out. One slow Sunday afternoon, I pulled the car onto a deserted street and smoked a joint someone had just given me. My skin immediately felt like it was covered in a thin coating of rubber cement or cold smooth wax. I became afraid to look in the mirror and started to hyperventilate. The radio dispatcher started calling out car numbers and locations. It was getting busy. I practiced saying my number out loud but my voice sounded distorted and monotone. I didn't even know if I could hold the microphone. I shut off the radio and sat in eerie silence.

At that very moment, the rear door opened and an elderly man stuck his head in.

"Are you available?"

Speaking was out of the question so I nodded and started the engine. It took a few minutes for them to get seated. I began driving. This couple didn't speak and didn't move. I was sure they could smell the weed and were memorizing my name and license to report me. When I finally pulled myself together, I didn't know where I was. Nothing looked familiar. My head started up, "Where am I? Fuck - what street is this? Those people know I'm high and lost! They think I'm running the meter up on them. That's why they're so fucking quiet. They're probably terrified." I glanced in the rear-view mirror. Hand in hand, heads bobbing, they were hard to read. I was in nervous breakdown mode until I saw a street sign at an intersection in the distance.

"Excuse me - what's the address again?" My voice reverberated in a sort of made-for-TV drug scene distortion. I hoped they didn't notice but at this point I didn't care. I just wanted them out of my car. When I finally got to their destination, I almost wept. After that, I saved all my tips until I got home.

After work, I'd unwind with a joint and television. At 4am my choices were limited to religious programming or anti-drug public service announcements. Some times they were ironic and other times all they did was fuel existential despair. Stoned with the munchies and no food at home, I became engrossed in a Better Homes and Gardens cook book offer. "Order now and receive your first book for free and we will send you a new book every month. If you're not completely satisfied, cancel your subscription and keep the book." It was a win-win book deal so I made the call. A few days later when my first cookbook arrived, I'd forgotten I'd ordered it. A month later a large box arrived with the other 49 books and a bill for close to two hundred dollars. I'd meant to cancel the subscription. The box remained unopened for another year.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 Blog

I was in Toronto for my summer family visit, awake early for my first ever mammogram.  Outside was a perfect day: cloudless sky, slight breeze, and no humidity. The procedure was curious and oddly amusing as I was hoisted onto my toes by a machine vise-gripping my breast tissue.  Welcome to the world of middle age, I thought. I was still wearing wraparound glasses from the Lasik surgery I’d had two days prior. It wasn’t even 9am when my mother and I returned home.  I called my writing partner to see if we could meet earlier. “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center” he said when he picked up the phone. ”Turn on the television.” 

Despite protests from my mom, I drove home the following night.  She couldn’t comprehend why I would leave the safety of Canada. My relationship to New York City has always been too profound to put into words.  In 1977 after a long night of driving, the trees parted on the Palisades Parkway revealing the George Washington Bridge. Manhattan came into view and my life changed forever. I knew I had to get home.

I waited behind long lines of trucks at the Rainbow Bridge border crossing, the only car going into New York at 9pm.  On the other side of the line, hundreds were fleeing for Canada.

It was around 4am when I got back to the city. The FDR had lanes set up for emergency vehicles. Other than fire trucks and ambulances, I was the only car on the road. My exit, 15th street, was closed because of the power plant. Security had tightened.

The East Village appeared untouched. I found a parking spot on Avenue B next to the park. When I stepped out of the car, I was hit by a smell unlike anything I’d ever encountered. It went beyond chemical and my body was repulsed by it. What had been shock and disbelief quickly turned to darkness in my soul.

I threw my bags in the house and jumped on my bicycle to head downtown.  Every post was covered with paper flyers for the lost and the missing. As more signs appeared in store windows, what had been a news broadcast became real for me. Small clusters of people gathered in front of fire stations acknowledging the alters of candles, flowers and photographs. Exhausted firemen, eyes still vacant with disbelief, nodded to the cheering bystanders as their trucks returned once again to ground zero.

At Canal and 6th Avenue I was turned away because of restricted access.  I stood with the others whose voyage had met a similar fate and that’s when I noticed it – everyone’s eyes were hollow.   

The next day I wandered streets aimlessly.  People walked past carrying shopping bags from designer stores, sat in cafes, entered movie theaters. I wondered how they did it – carried on with life.  Everything felt meaningless to me. I scrutinized my own life and all I could see was self-indulgence. I’d spent the past year reworking the Oedipus myth for a screenplay. It had consumed me. In the scope of the current events, my project seemed trite.  Was art even relevant?  If not, I was fucked because writing was the only thing I aspired to do.

This line of thinking cast me further inside myself and I started slipping into an existential void that would have normally frightened me but I was numb. Everything around me became pointless. Friends would want to get together, to act as if their lives hadn’t been impacted by the tragedy. I didn’t want to play.

On the third day I rode my bike across the Brooklyn Bridge and signed up as a Red Cross volunteer.  My only qualifications were that I was a recovering addict and had survived many traumatic events. I said my life had been full and if it was to end that minute I wouldn’t feel like I ‘d been cheated. What I didn’t mention were my years in strip clubs making men laugh and forget their misery. I knew this was something I could handle.

I reported for duty at 1030pm and was taken to a room where I was told that there would be therapists waiting to de-brief me when I returned. “These men have suffered a great loss and have been working around the clock. Do not speak to them unless they speak to you, and do not ask them anything about their work or about any personal loss.”

I boarded the van with the other volunteers. We passed through a half dozen security checkpoints along roads that were unrecognizable. As we approached Ground Zero, entire city streets were eclipsed by debris rising seven stories high.  Finally, we entered the FBI security check and were lead into a building next to the river.

Once we made FBI clearance, a National Guard lead us along a tarp enclosed path to a respite which had been set up in a high school. I was stationed in the supply room. “Hi guys, come on in.” I smiled and waved to anyone who would peek into the room. I joked and made frivolous small talk with everyone who entered, and handed out donated items. Soon the room was packed. These men needed a break from the heaviness in their heart and I knew all it would take was a smiling face and a playful attitude.

When I returned to the Red Cross, I skipped the debriefing and biked home. My own heart had lost its heaviness.

A few nights into it, guys would stop by just to say hello, not in need of any supplies. By now, even secret service agents dropped by the respite while making the rounds. One night I came across a fireman who seemed more withdrawn than the others. I asked where he worked. When he said the Bronx, I made a joke about how the crack fires must keep them busy. He stared at me expressionless. This line always got laughs from fireman in the bars but this time I felt I’d overreached. When he asked if he knew me, I thought, “There goes my Red Cross gig.” 

Later that night, he came back and asked why I’d said the thing about crack fires.  I explained that I was a recovering addict and, to me, it was a no-brainer that there would be a lot of fires in abandon buildings in a heavy drug area. A look of relief swept over his face.  “I’m new in the program and when you said that it freaked me out. I thought you knew I smoked crack.”  He had 90 days clean, had lost a lot of friends in the department, had been functioning on little sleep, and of course, had not been going to meetings.

They held numerous religious services at Ground Zero but no Twelve-Step programs were represented. Before my shift was over, I left a letter for the person in charge. When I returned the next night, there was an AA room upstairs. The blackboard was covered with the signatures and home groups of at least a hundred firemen. I sat at a desk and wept.

I’d originally come to Ground Zero because I’d felt lost. That night, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.  Within days, I believed again in the value of art.  Once again being of service had put me back together.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Finding One Day at a Time

Snapshot_2011-09-03_10-17-07My mind has a way of illuminating certain moments in time and elevating them above others. Usually it takes years for me to realize why.  These memories replay in my head like scenes in a movie. They are my “act breaks”, where the direction of everything changes.
I remember standing at 14th and First Avenue with my ex-husband and my dog Soprano in the mid-80s. I was saying something about wishing we could afford two apartments so I’d have somewhere to go to write (which he heard as “I don’t want to live with you anymore”). Years later when this footage rolled before my eyes, I realized that it was at this very moment he emotionally exited the marriage. He left for real a few months later.

We’d been living on Ludlow Street when I learned our $700 apartment had been $170 before we moved in. I was outraged and indignant.  The fact that we were illegal aliens with no rights, had an extension chord running into our apartment off our neighbor’s electricity, and all our collective money going into my arm, didn’t matter.  I wanted to fuck the landlord by banning the tenants together. When human shadows began appearing at our fire escape window in the middle of the night and death threats came by way of the phone, we did a midnight move.

A cab driver sublet us his uncle’s apartment in the projects below Grand Street by the river. We arrived with our stuff and discovered the uncle hadn’t begun to pack. In silence, we watched the cab driver throw every object inside that apartment into a dumpster before handing us keys. For the next month, we would wake up with a very drunk seventy-year-old Puerto Rican man crying in our kitchen.

A call came in offering my husband his first art show in Europe. As he packed, I knew we would never live together again. Another call came in. It was my friend Cindy in Toronto. She was saying something about trying to hang herself in the shower and how the curtain fell. She joked that she couldn’t even kill herself right and asked what was new with me. My marriage was crumbling, I had a crying old man banging on the door all day long,  our former landlord continued to threaten me on our new number, my heroin habit was out of control, and Area, the nightclub we’d worked at, had closed. I was too fucked to take her suicide attempt seriously. Besides, I had a ticket to visit Christmas day and wanted to surprise her.

Frenchie had been a poet during the ‘68 Paris riots, a Krishna in India, and played in the No Wave band The Contortions before dealing dope on East 2nd Street. On his way home from jail, he swung by the new apartment and found me living alone. “Patty, when you are caught in the gusts of the tornado it's exciting but once you get sucked into its eye all you can do is watch everything disappear”.  I didn’t know it then, but I was about to get sucked in.

In 1980, after a couple strung out years, I’d returned to Toronto to get my shit together and go to school. I found 3 very cute young Yugoslavian coke dealers to get my mind off heroin. Without thinking, I hurt the one I was dating by going to Montreal with his brother. When I ran into him at a club, he tried to make me jealous by introducing me to Cindy. An hour later we left him at the bar and she moved in with me. We were now six years older, both of our marriages had failed but we still had each other.
I arrived in Toronto Christmas morning. After Cindy left her husband, she moved in with a rich yuppie coke dealer. “Patty, I wish you’d told her you were coming” he said as he took my number.  “I don’t know when they are letting visitors in.” The previous evening they’d had a party. Cindy calmly rose from the sofa, walked to the balcony, and jumped six floors. She was in a coma. 

The hospital floor was filled with people who thought they would get free coke by supporting the grieving boyfriend. I stepped off the elevator and saw someone doing lines in the waiting room.  I was disgusted. Cindy was twenty-four and beautiful. She could have been sleeping if it hadn’t been for all the tubes and machines surrounding the bed.    The scene was too surreal and numbing.  I was withdrawing from dope as I always did when I went home for a visit but even that didn’t seem to have any effect on me. I couldn’t cry.

Cindy died in February. My husband had never returned to New York.

In the early spring I was walking up Avenue B next to the park.  It was sunny and birds were chirping. The season seemed to renew my optimism. I carried a notebook and was trying to write something other than bad slit-your-wrist poetry. I wanted to write a novel. I had plans to move to LA. Surely a new city would make anything possible.

I was standing between 7th and 8th street when one of those illuminated moments struck me.  All my plans for the future, how everything was going to be alright one day, how I would do this and that and get my shit together, I suddenly understood these things were not real. I thought of Cindy and had this realization: the only thing that mattered was what we share of ourselves with one another human being. What I shared with Cindy was real and all of this – the birds, the baby leaves opening, the blue sky, this was real. The noise in my head, the endless fantasizing and planning about the life I will have one day only stops me from living in the moment.

 I jotted into my notebook  “Life is made up of moments like this and the people who touch me. Everything else is bullshit.”

Little did I know that two years later I would get clean striving to live “one day at a time," a concept that I'd discovered through Cindy's death yet had never been able to implement into my own life.

When I'd gotten the news that she'd jumped that morning, I'd understood how she felt; high on coke believing there was no way out except through death. We’d never heard of recovery. We didn’t know anyone who'd ever gotten clean. 

People have asked why I blew my anonymity by being on television calling myself a recovering addict.  

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Canada to copping - August 24 blog

I admit, like most impressionable kids, my earliest influences came from film and television. I bet if I were an adolescent, given today’s choices, I’d be a ghetto-fabulous, booty shaking, gangsta bitch dreaming of meeting my own Avon Barksdale.. Makes me grateful I came of age in the 70s.  We didn’t have guns – only punk rock and heroin.

I was seven or eight when I first saw Bonnie and Clyde. There is a scene where Faye Dunaway turns to Michael J Pollard as he pumps gas and says, “We rob banks.”  She was beautiful, sexy, confident and lived outside of society. My favorite game became “Bank Robber’s girlfriend”.   

I even loved the idea of drugs long before I ever picked up; loved the coming-of-age anti-drug propaganda films of the early 70s: Go Ask Alice, Maybe I’ll be Home in the Spring, Lenny, Lady Sings the Blues.

When my dad said, “He’s a dope addict” Johnny Cash immediately took on a mysterious edge that made me pay closer attention. I was eight.  Not to mention 60s rock stars on drugs were fabulous, sexy and exciting. The very words “counter culture” had an authenticity to my pre-adolescent ears. It seemed there was something to rebel against “out there” and I wanted to be part of the revolution.

I was a child in a country without Vietnam, without racism, without ghettos, without glamor, without rock stars.  In 1968, I couldn’t have felt further removed from mod, swinging London, Warhol’s New York, or San Francisco’s Summer of Love. There wasn’t a Canadian version of Go Ask Alice.  Canadian teenagers weren’t running away to the counter culture revolution. We didn’t really have a need for the Black Panthers or the Weathermen.

We moved into our house when I was four, an only child. If I stood on my toes, I could peer over the window ledge and watch children walking to school, longing to be old enough to join them. But when I finally got there – to kindergarten – it was a letdown.  The problem, I decided, was my age.  My childhood was spent waiting to become a teenager.  

“Patty, stop trying to grow up too fast. Enjoy your childhood.” My parents didn’t understand.  There was an exciting world out there waiting for me to be old enough to join it.

I loved getting high. The people, the lifestyle, the risk, the thrill, the crazy situations, the glamor, the image, the dramatic suffering, the euphoria, the absence of pain, the false confidence, the not giving a fuck what anybody thought, the distorted perception of my own cool, the way it separated me from others and from society as a whole.

I loved getting high and it worked, as they say, until it didn’t.  This wasn’t the bottom that made me get clean. It took a few years of trying and failing to get drugs to work again.  “Not working” can best be described this way: when I had money in my hands and was on my way to cop – it was working. I had hope that relief was on the way – relief from the physical withdrawal and relief from the voice in my head   criticizing and blaming me for the disaster my life had become; relief from the devastating loneliness, not only from the separation from my family and friends, but a loneliness for myself, for my soul (for lack of better word). So with money in hand on my way to cop, all was right with the world. This would last until the final drop of heroin was injected into my veins. Then my first thought would be “You fucked up” and the self-hatred would begin again.  I’d be swallowed by my own personal hell until, once again, there was money in my hands and I was on my hopeful way to the dealer. I never found that peace, the fun, the pleasure drugs had seduced me with ever again. It always felt like the dope was too weak or I should have done more. I could never get high enough to quiet my head.   

It took several years of getting no relief, of wanting to stop and not being able to, when the need for money and drugs completely consumed my life before I was ready to consider getting clean. I always say that if I could have figured out a way to use one more day, I would have.

Complete abstinence and a program of recovery was my way out.  For about a year, I grieved the loss of that once dependable relationship I had with drugs. It was like a death or a break up but thankfully, it was not difficult to stay clean once I made the commitment – and it is a commitment because to be honest, some days life is hard and it is a drag to have to feel ALL of it without the luxury of taking the edge off.  

For me, nothing is black and white. There are many shades of grey. I am not anti-drug and I don’t think everyone who takes them needs to be clean. At the end of the day, I have no opinion on what another person should do with his or her life. We are free to make our own choices. My experience with complete abstinence is that once drugs were out of the picture, my life got bigger. I am never bored.  For all the early years of thrills and bigger than life excitement I found in drugs, the final years were the most boring of my life.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August 16, 2011 - Butter Tarts

“Wow, you were an authentic 1950s-style juvenile delinquent.”
I said this after hearing stories about how at twelve he was buying loose cigarettes for a nickel, was shooting at people with a BB guns, sneaking off to drink the priest’s wine when he was an alter boy in the 1940s, 

“Not at all. This was what boys did”, he explained, offended. Then his memories took over and a twinkle came into his eyes.  “It wasn’t about getting drunk so much as it was the rush of getting away with something. That old priest had no idea.” It still made him laugh. He’s been sober for forty-one years without AA. Had he gone the AA route, he would have heard stories similar to this a thousand times.

In many ways it was no different from my story – being fueled forward by the “rush” of breaking rules, of being bad, of intense feelings. Hell, I still like a good rush wherever I can find one.    

It got me thinking about own early thrill-seeking behavior; of all the ways I sought out a “rush” long before I ever had my first illicit drink, before drugs were in the picture. It got me thinking about Butter Tarts. For those not “in-the-know”, Butter Tarts are a national Canadian foodstuff. Japanese have sushi, Eastern Europeans have pirogues, and Canadians have butter tarts.

I was a teenager trapped in a child’s body, at least that’s how I felt. Parental supervision horrified me. That was for babies and, god help me, I was NOT going to look like a baby. I demanded personal space. When I was four, our backyard opened up to the school playground.  This house was an ideal set-up for my parents. They could keep their eye on me from the window.  

Winter in Canada is brutal and the 1960s were no exception. A few times each winter, the chain-link fence surrounding the schoolyard would get covered by beautiful, sparkling ice.  Each link coated like a candy apple, twinkling in the sun, like diamonds, seducing me.  Traumatic memories of last years’ fence experience shot through my Being like a warning bell but I WAS POWERLESS.   I couldn’t stop myself from sticking out my tongue and licking that fence. The consequences were immediate. My tongue instantly stuck to the fence and I’d be racked by terror. The fear that my tongue was going to get ripped  out of my bod. All I could do was scream. There were at least ten of us hanging by our tongues every winter day. (Ha – I wonder what path their lives took?)  Eventually my mom would spot us from the window, come over and pour something warm on our tongues to dislodge us.

By the fifth grade someone turned me onto a new kind of high and it was the only thing I thought about.  I would wait impatiently for the recess bell, start counting the minutes until 330 when school let out so that I could run to the playground with my friends and we could knock ourselves out. Here’s how it worked: one person would spin around until they were completely dizzy and then hold their breath while another kid would lift them up and squeeze their diaphragm until they passed out. My blackout never felt long enough to satisfy me.  I was ravaged by jealousy when a friend would pass out for three or four minutes. I suspected they were faking but I was dying of envy nonetheless.

“Patty, why were all the kids laying on the ground like that?” my mom would ask when I finally came home. “  I’d come up with  a full description of a fictitious game.  Nothing was going to get in my way of blacking out the next day. I knew she wouldn’t have gone for the truth.

The constant high throughout my childhood, though, was corn syrup. It was a bit more opiate-like than the adrenaline-fueled thrill-seeking.  I was a chatty, restless and often bored kid. I wouldn’t be surprised if my mom discovered it as a way to calm me down – sugar coma style. I would fill a cereal bowl with corn syrup and spend the entire episode of a TV show dipping and licking my spoon until it was gone.  It was my way of unwinding. When people talk about using sugar as a drug I recount my corn syrup childhood.  It took 20 years of telling this story before I started to wonder why we always had corn syrup in my house.  I personally have never had a reason to buy it. In fact, I avoid all foods that contain it.

Last year I asked my mother to send me a recipe for butter tarts after realizing my American friends had never heard of them. Butter Tarts, this delicious combination of butter and brown sugar filled tart pastry that oozes with sweetness as soon as you bite into it. The secret ingredient it turns out is corn syrup.


While we were filming Relapse, I was invited to several speaker events put on for the cast and crew of both Relapse and Intervention. Researchers, scientists, policy advisors, treatment specialists, therapists would bring their latest findings. One topic was how to recognize the potential addict and how to intervene before they ever pick up. I saw a chart and words jumped out at me Thrill Seeking Behavior.

While writing blog, this I thought I’d google corn syrup for the hell of it.. I found this:
1.  In early times, they tried to treat alcoholism by substituting corn syrup for alcohol while weaning off.  2.  High fructose corn syrup is as damaging to the liver as alcohol.
Although you might consider this a controversial statement, understanding it is actually quite simple:  Both corn syrup and alcohol are metabolized by similar pathways in the liver. 3.  It is very damaging to the body's metabolism and biochemistry which makes it a major contributor towards alcoholism and relapse.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

August 2011 blog

 Now my thoughts are on the Internet there will never be a delete button. 

Over the years I’ve published borderline scandalous personal essays. I even penned a humorous sex advice column. Writing a blog frightens me. The above writing appeared in the early 90s seminal Zine world. I knew who was reading it. The Internet, however, is another story. The Internet can haunt you.

In real life, I hold nothing back.  Truthfully, starting a blog feels weird and unnatural to me. Do I give you parts of myself and withhold whatever may be deemed controversial? Or do I lay myself bare? My inner-blogging voice whispers,  “Let it rip!” while another cries, “Once it’s on the internet, there is no delete button”.        

Here’s the backstory:

I was recently part of a new mini-series on A&E called Relapse. The story of how that came about is bound to turn up here sooner or later.  The premise of the show was that a Sober Coach would have one week to help a bottoming-out using addict get clean and place them on the path to recovery. In real life, my coaching experience has been quite different. I’m often with clients anywhere from 2 weeks to 60 days, depending on their needs. When I learned that I would have one week with the addicts on this show, I knew I would be squeezing every bit of life out of me and into them to make it work. If I’m given the chance to help someone who is bad shape, I am giving it everything I’ve got – it’s my nature – whether that means one week or 60 days

My life always has a way of surprising me. It’s not that I don’t make plans or have goals. Often other things get put in my path that send me in new directions in spite of myself. When the show finally aired, my plan was to finish a long overdue screenplay. Instead, I found myself 5 weeks into responding to email from viewers of the show.  It just sort of took over.  And the letters were heartbreaking: people suffering from addiction with no one to talk to, no idea how to find help, no financial resources. People who never thought to call NA or AA. I spent endless hours walking people through baby steps on how to find a meeting, what to expect there, what detox will feel like, how to hang on, trying to instill hope.  I took what I could from my coaching experiences and tried to fit it into words that could reach people I never met. Some would take action and many were playing a mind game of thinking that they were doing something about their problem simply by emailing me but who disappeared when it came time to take actions on their own. They wanted recovery if it was easy and they didn’t have to leave their desk. Hell, I used to get high and call the NA help line and try to keep them on the phone until they could give me what they had so I could stay clean and all they ever said was “Go to a meeting” so I recognized what was going on.

I decided to continue reaching out to strangers, even while working with clients, by starting a PattyPowers SoberCoach page on Facebook. I could post link on recovery, new research, healthy lifestyle, and infuse it with some snippets of practical recovery tips that I use with clients. It would be a place that people can share their experience and hope and start discussions.  My page went up at the start of July.
 My assistant has been incredibly helpful in finding links and keeping the page alive when I am on the road. When I looked at it though, I felt a weird embarrassed feeling come over me. It felt very “recovery guru” with the absence of my personal voice. Today I woke up and decided that the only way to move away from the generic tone is to get this blog up and running.

 Once you get to know me, you will realize that although my commitment to recovery is solid and strong, my personal philosophies and life experiences are a bit off the beaten trail. This has been the crux of my blogging dilemma.

It may be a rocky start for me to find my voice on this page, but be patient. I will get there.  Some days, I will address recovery and other days I may fill this space with personal stories, or completely unrelated material.

A few years ago, my mother accused me of cursing like a rapper  - which sounded strange coming out of the mouth of a 70 year-old woman. My mom’s a long-time gamer and has played Grand Theft Auto, so what could I say? My language is out of control so be forewarned –in the future this blog may include adult themes and language not suitable for all readers.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Stay tuned for my blog!

I am with a client until late July but keep checking back at my sobercoachnyc sites on posterous, blogspot, tumblr and wordpress for upcoming writing posts.  Following me at @sobercoachnyc on twitter is a great way to stay in touch.  Better yet, if you haven't done so already please friend me at PattyPowers SoberCoach on facebook!  See you there.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Patty Powers - Sober Coach

This is the blog site for Patty Powers, writer and sober coach as seen on A&E show Relapse.

Please follow me on twitter at

Check me out on facebook

Blog posts coming soon.