23 years

276 months

1199.29 weeks

8401 days

201624 hours

12,097,440 minutes

725,846,400 seconds, and counting…

These are the numbers representing the back-to-back time I have spent living in my own skin, for better or worse, without the bullet-proof shield of substances to kill the pain, kill the pain, kill the pain; or at the very least, obscure it some, so that I didn’t take myself off the planet.

I am not you, and you are not me, so what is painful to me, may not be to you, and vice-versa, though the experiences I speak of here, are in my personal and professional experience, a source of great pain for many, if not most. We all deal, or don’t, with these things, anything, in different ways, and many folks have barriers that the rest of us will never know about to accessing support, and/or, like me, have experienced more pain, in the pursuit of said support.

So please, read MY (abridged) list of pain, with an open mind, but more than that, use, hone the skill of critical thinking, listen with an open heart, and try not to paint my experience with the tainted and dirty brush, of yours, or others’. For when we do that, we inadvertently, or purposefully, judge another’s pain, measure it, against our own. But when we open our hearts, minds, and eyes to another’s context, the possibility that even the very same experience can be perceived and experienced very differently by different humans, we cannot help but have empathy for any given soul, no matter their circumstance or the ‘choices’ they have made; because choice theory, while a very useful tool, is limited, often severely so, but that is a digression I have neither the time nor inclination to pursue in any depth here. My point: we are not all born, raised, gifted with, the same set of choices, abilities, and ‘fairness,’ is a great theory, but an ill-fitting concept and rarely to never doable in practice, in far too many situations.

I wielded my shield to protect myself from these pains:

-The pain of losing my extended family and the most important pieces of my cultural heritage, to the Soviet invasion of my original home and native land in 1968, becoming refugees

-The pain of losing my hero just two short years into our new life as immigrants in Canada, and by direct extension, any remnants of a childhood

-The pain of watching my mother and barely older brother, take on the gargantuan task before them: leading our little family of 3 in this brave new world, with no money, little to no language, no extended family to speak of, and little to no hope

-The pain of watching a man take advantage of my mother’s position, and when she had had enough and sent him packing, the pain of losing everything we owned, because in vengeance, he set our home on fire

-The pain and guilt I watched her writhe in because she hadn’t understood a detail about our insurance, and we were uninsured

-The pain, the exhaustion, of constantly trying to fill the void, the one that only got deeper as I got older

-The pain of filling the void with boys, and later men, who looked only to their own wants, discarding me by the wayside like so much trash on the bottom of their often ‘well-heeled’ feet

-The pain of Lou, the wealthy ‘hobby pimp,’ with no actual need for the money, who professed to love me by turning me out and then kicking me out at the age of 18, because in his words to my brother, I was “all used up.” I had to force those words out of my brother’s mouth;  he did not want to tell me, to slay me with those words, and they did, slay me. Lou, at the time 32, didn’t possess enough man-balls to kick me out himself, so he summoned my brother to collect my things, but not many of the fancy things that stayed in his penthouse, payed for with my body. He loaded my brother’s valiant and sent him to my ‘day job,’ in a nail salon he (Lou) owned, to have my brother “let me know” that it was over. Chew on all that for a minute or two and imagine what it may have done to a hurt, already lost soul of 18. I was a hurtin’ little girl before I met this man, in one of his salons, getting my nails done, by a friend, who he had turned out… this series of events set the stage for years of choices, which for several decades I did not understand, did not recognize as being related more to Lou’s actions, and what happened in the course of my sex-work career, than to anything I had experienced previous to him. This is the Reader’s Digest version of less than 2 deeply and profoundly impactful years of my life, that unbeknownst to me, would serve as the fuel for too many years of suffering; suffering I acted upon, in a myriad of ways that simply caused more pain, to me and everyone I cared about, everyone who (truly) cared about me.

-The pain of violence; of physical, sexualized, verbal, emotional, psychological, intellectual, and financial violence. Vile and deliberate violences perpetrated against my person by various individuals, including some I loved, trusted, individuals who purported to ‘love’ me, who demonstrated their ‘love,’ returned mine, with vileness and violence.

-The pain of violence perpetrated against my person by individuals in the systems and groups I reached out to for support

-The pain of being pathologized, for THEIR violence and bad behaviour

-The pain of being patronized, invalidated, belittled, subjected to too many indignities, and victim-blamed and shamed, for my pain

-The pain of never being ‘enough,’ for anyone, least of all myself

-The pain of being ‘too much,’ for everyone, and conflicted about it, within myself

-The pain of doing the bidding of other’s dreams for me, rather than my own

-The pain of running, back and forth across several countries on two continents, only to find that where ever I went there I was, and there it was, the pain.

-The pain of a large, intensely wild, creative spirit, wounded, broken, silenced.

These are the primary reasons, I say primary because they all had extensions, nuances, bred offshoots, but I digress, how odd… these are the primary reasons I needed a shield. The shield’s chemical make-up and methods of delivery to my traumatized brain and spirit, changed as my needs did, depending on the circumstances of the physical and psychological spaces and places I occupied. The chemical make-up and methods of delivery encompassed an ever broader spectrum, ranging from mild, to wow and fun to holy fuck and almost lethal. All of it, did what I intended for a while, saved my life, and believe it or not, in some ways my sanity. Because the only other choice I felt I had at various points in my life, was to end it.

And at some point in 1997, I stopped making decisions that were related to anything but the procurement and use of the shield, any shield, and my coping strategy, my survival mechanism, my best friend, became my worst enemy, took the meager remnants I had left, of me, and every.single.human I loved in the world, every.single.human who loved and needed, the me now buried so far below the detritus of the pain, that the void had swallowed me up.

Fast forward to September, October, and December 1997, several stays in detox, and a 16 week residential treatment program. And then, April 22nd, 1998, I picked up and wielded that shield for the last time. In the course of those detox stays, and a fairly brutal treatment program (now there’s another story), I had experienced tiny fragments of myself, real hope around becoming a mother again to my child, and at least enough belief in myself that I could build some kind of life for us, to start over yet again, so on April 25th, 1998, I started counting days, and have not stopped since.

I did so with the help of a number of counsellors, a compassionately brutal and very effective day treatment program which went to heart of the matter, the traumas listed above;  went to my very core, helped me start the arduous process of resurrecting a Marcela I could not only live with, but one who would eventually stop caring, so much, about what anyone else thought about her. It was a ground-breaking program really, in its time, pre- the joke that has so sadly become most trauma-informed practice in the ‘helping world, which unless used with the greatest of care and attention to language and human dignity, does nothing but ladle a bunch of pathological symptomology onto people who have been violated in the most horrific ways, and attempts to ‘treat’ them, coming full circle to: it’s on you/me. Watch The Keepers, in its entirety, if you want a painful look-see at an example of that… but there I go, digress again, look, shiny-shiny Unicorns… stop! Revise: I digress because nothing, nothing about any of this, for me, for the women I once mentored in the BaNAclub, for the humans I have supported in the course of my work, for the countless humans struggling with all manner of trauma today, and its related responses (read: coping mechanisms, survival strategies), nothing, nothing at all, about it, is straight forward, no matter its roots and causes.

I did so, kept counting the days, primarily with the support of a group of people I have lovingly called the BaNAna club. I did so by attending countless meetings, and with very deep involvement in its service structure, thousands of hours of volunteer work sitting on committees, supporting people in various institutions, mentoring other women, and a handful of gay men.

And as the years wore on, I did so while trying to remain loyal to some of the individuals responsible for some of the pain, and living, trying to stay ‘part of,’ with an ever increasing, ever more disquieting discomfort, with most of the club’s basic tenets, principles, and a constant push to believe in something I cannot, have not, since I was a small child. Though in all fairness, I tried, really really hard, for many, too many years. False loyalty has been an Achilles’ heel, a constant companion, in the complexity that is I.

And then at some point, I just kept counting them without significant involvement in the club, but for too long, with the ever-present internal struggle of false loyalty, and more and more harmful (to me), attempts to maintain my ‘membership.’  I kept counting the days not because the club told me I had to, not because I believed the rhetoric that I would re-erect the shield if I didn’t practice what had become stifling rote, and an act of psychological and spiritual violence against self, every time I crossed the threshold into one of ‘the rooms,’ every time I heard myself or someone else repeat the tenets.

I kept counting because somewhere along the way, I had come to the conclusion that I did not wish to ‘filter’ my life, my view, my experience of what Salty likes to call ‘damned reality,’ had no desire to filter me, with anything, least of all with the shield, any shield.

I could not, knowing everything I know about my life, about myself, and a great deal about the lives of others, buy into something which insists that I view myself as someone with “defects of character,” as “powerless,” and as “self-centered” to the core. I cannot buy into a disease model of substance use or the contradictions in the club’s literature about our ability to recover but to never be cured, healed. I cannot stomach any longer, the notion that I do not have enough power to make decisions for myself, as related to a resurrection of the shield, or maintaining my back-to-back count, and I cannot, will not, have the entirety of my person and the entirety of my life, defined by something that I stopped doing 23 years ago. For that matter, I will not have it define any part of my life, prior to, or following April 25th 1998. I will not define myself, the entirety of my wildly creative spirit and my 19 lives in one skin, by any one aspect of my life, any more than I allow Lyme disease to define all of these things about me. I don’t call myself a ‘Lymie,’ I abhor terms like ‘survivor,’ and the word ‘victim’ has been hijacked for purposes of judgement, so I will not use that one, either. I will not label myself an addict for doing something that saved my life, for as long as something like the shield can, before it turns and consumes one’s life and being.

It comes as no surprise to me that the very thing I relied on to ‘save’ myself, ended up turning on me at some point, too, at least it felt that way. Although when I really think about it, I find that it simply reached the end of its utility for me, and I could no longer ignore the contradictions inherent to it. And it began, at some point, to stunt my growth. I know for certain that it began to harm me long before I walked away, but I believe I was a bit trapped, by the previously noted false loyalty, and by fear.

And that, is what I believe to be at the core of my disengagement from ‘the program’ and most of its members. It, they, limited me to living in fear, which is completely contradictory to that which I believe for myself, have demonstrated over and over again, prior to, during, and post, the BaNAna club years: I have long chosen faith, in my ability, with the help of others I choose to have in my life, when needed, to figure shit out; without having to dig the shield out of its musty, dusty closet. I am quite happy for it to stay there, with the other skeletons I have picked through ad nauseam, and chucked back in to rest in their jagged, now useless to me pieces. For I categorically refuse, to keep flogging the rotting flesh of long dead horses.

It is important for me to articulate that I have the deepest gratitude for some of the people I have crossed paths with in the course of my involvement in the BaNAna club, and for its utility in helping me find enough of myself, to help me figure out that the way, for me, is about healing my wounds, both self and other inflicted, and for moving on. It does not mean that I don’t continue to support people looking to find and heal themselves, it does not mean that I actively dissuade others from trying/using ‘the program(s),’ it does not mean that I stop my own personal work, and it most certainly does not mean that I’m going to run out tomorrow, or the next day, or when Bitch-Slappy decides to deliver her next blow, because she slaps whether or not I am a member, to pick up the shield, it never means that, unless I choose, decide, that it means that. And whether I choose to or not, at the end of the day, there exists no permanent affliction, in any event.

So I continue to count days, because I am loyal to myself, and to a decision I made 23 years ago today, to refrain from picking up the shield, no matter what. At this juncture, that choice is a subconscious one most days, but it is a choice, and despite feeling very limited in the choices I had, and they all felt equally shitty, it is a choice exactly as it was to wield a shield, in the first place.

And if I should choose to pick up any of the legal and/or illegal substances I have long put down, it is because I made a decision to do so, and not for a lack of gratitude or a lack of tenets and dogma in my life, any dogma.  And certainly not for a lack of some of the people who populate the rooms of the program(s).

Francis Mallman is one of my food and philosophical heros, and I’ve had the hots for him for a good long time now. If you watch the episode of Chef’s Table that tells his story, you will understand more about why this me, in so many ways, and you will understand my break-out of many boxes, including the relationship (any relationship) box I lived in for way too long, and you will understand why me and the Sailor… all that said, one of the unequivocally most beautiful things about growing (up), without constraints, into my own skin, is that I no longer need any of you, to understand any of it; though in all honesty, it is still heart-warming when you do. So thank you for the souvenirs and most especially for the deep and lasting bonds that continue to flourish in my life. I am acutely aware that they would not have occurred, without my membership in the BaNAna club.

“I can’t spend time with people I don’t enjoy. I can’t do it anymore as theater. I make choices, and that’s a beautiful thing about growing up, learning to say no, in a nice way, just say no. I have this friend…we just went different ways in life. Once he came to me and said, “Francis, you don’t like me anymore.” and I said “No, it’s not that I don’t like you, we’ve chosen different styles of life. I still have beautiful souvenirs of all the things we did together and how close we were, but the truth is it’s not that you bore me, but I don’t enjoy talking to you anymore and I don’t want to fight with you but there’s nothing in common between your life and mine nowadays.”  I would have never said that but he asked me. So what could I say? I said the truth. Growing up has a bit to do with that, to be able to tell the truth, to show who you are, even if it hurts.”― Francis Mallmann

With all the love I have, and a wish for smoother sailing for all of us, here’s to the next 365, of whatever we are counting, or not…

~Marcela: still counting…

April 25, 2021

Writing and Photo: All Rights Reserved, because sharing is great, plagiarism is not. Things like quotation marks and attribution, are a great way to avoid that…