Saturday, August 7, 2021
Painting of a fictitious dollar bill or currency.
Artwork by Jack Matthew Heard

from In My Own Skin: An Addiction, True Crime, Recovery Memoir


Oftentimes, a spider casts her silk to the wind––threading a route toward safety rather than architecting meal-snaring tapestries. 

I believe a measure of hope exists within her tiny arachnid mind, her silver strand stitching a parachute on the autumn’s breeze to the fabric of faith.

Self-preservation. This is the First Rule of Survival for all sentient beings.

Inherently our eight-legged aeronaut knows this perilous journey must be taken to ensure the destiny of spawning her young.

Conversely, the very thing she struggles with to survive will be her undoing, as her creation will in turn devour her in her own web.

Let me ask you what is perhaps the craziest question anyone has ever asked you: What if insanity was the norm?

Let’s go with the prozac variety and not lobotomy brand of cray-cray here. We don’t need to go full-on Dean Koontz, either, as I’m only arguing for a furlough to Bizarro World. I’m not trying to paint a global-scale loon colony picture, but it is going to be our norm along the course of this narrative; it’s just the world as you and I experience it and react to it, alright?

Einstein defined insanity (I’m paraphrasing) as “doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

Okay. That’s good, but here’s a gem I cabbaged a few twenty-four hours ago from a streetwise counselor’s tech at a substance abuse treatment facility: “Muthafuckas, keep doin’ what you’re doin,’ and you’ll keep gettin’ what ya got.”

It’s spot-on genius, as it not only applies to the sixty souls that were in the room, but to the twenty-three million Americans who are addicted to alcohol, drugs, or a combination of both substances.

The man also said, “Einstein’ll miss it, but Dumbo’ll get it.” It’s just another way of saying––keep it simple, stupid.

Occam’s Razor: The simplest answer is probably the right one.

Let me try to bring this into better focus for my own benefit as much as for yours. I’m writing this from a cell in what was, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Iowa Hospital for the Insane. Yeah, the irony isn’t lost on me, either. Real talk, there’s a picture of the place opposite the gym, c. 1876, just three years after a seventeen-year-old named Sigmund Freud started med school at the University of Vienna.

Full-on chicken skin here as my mind conjures up shock therapy, lobotomies, sexual degradation, and the blood-curdling screams that ricocheted off every square inch of masonry available. With no one to hear. In rural cornfield Iowa.

How is it that I am even serving my sentence here is beyond me––this place is a minimum-security prison in 2020.

Peppered over the past quarter century, I have been sentenced to more calendars in prison than I have been alive, as various judges in Illinois and Iowa have salted this seasoned convict with over sixty-one years of imprisonment. More than fifty arrests have earned me twenty felonies and that many misdemeanor convictions, landing me in the Big House a dozen times. Behind their stone walls and razor wire, I’ve served about nineteen years, “doing life,” as the locals say, “on the installment plan.”

Both the courts and parole system have ordered me to complete substance abuse programs that had my ass sitting on plastic chairs within circles of other alcoholics and addicts from all walks of life. Eight years of treatment. Four of those episodes were prison-based long-term therapeutic communities. In all, I’ve been to ten different rehabs eighteen times and if you crunched the numbers I am a product created by a host of sagacious professionals worth no less than half a million in tax dollars.

In the lexicon ballpark, appalling would be a term fittingly used by any one of my family members if they knew the specifics regarding my criminal escapades, as I come from what some folks call “good stock.”

In my family are writers, law enforcement, a financial advisor, a philanthropist, a teacher; my younger brother, who has a learning disability, has never touched alcohol or drugs and has been employed since graduating high school some twenty years ago. Successes such as these boggle the shit outta my mind.

My parents were not of the latch-key camp. They were not drug users and never once was alcohol served in their home. They are still married, one year shy of fifty years. They were disciplinarians and, in squaring away all four corners of fairness, I believe they did their best to instill good morals and to correct me along the way. They didn’t encourage so much as they demanded, against which, in defense of them as much as myself, I rebelled with vigor and a true sense of urgency.

At age thirteen, I thought I should be able to smoke cigars and run the town at two in the morning, eluding the police. Dressed in either army combat fatigues or black ninja costumes ordered from Black Belt Magazine, another friend and I would slip out of the house all in the name of adventure, about which Louis L’Amour is credited for having said, “I believe adventure is nothing but a romantic name for trouble.”

In academia, I’d accumulated so many detentions in the first semester of high school that when I once went an entire week punishment-free, the board of education, I’m not even bullshitting, sent me a congratulatory letter requesting that I “keep up the good work.”

The saying that a hard head makes for a soft ass would apply here. “Keep doing what you’re doing, keep getting what you got,” right?

Ubiquitous queries have been raised alongside my own hackles over the years, generally as a means of small talk as an ice breaker: “What do you do for a living?” and the more formal question raised by healthcare professionals and correctional employees, “Have you or anyone in your family been diagnosed with or treated for mental illness in the past?”

This immediately put me on the defensive as another adage precipitated coming into a Hubble-like focus, “If you spot it, you got it.” My lifestyle had long ago become shameful, but a necessary evil, as I saw it.

Survival. Self-preservation. Addiction. Criminality. Insanity. Shaken, not stirred. Three olives, please and thank you. Obviously, I had to eke out a living since I wasn’t earning one. OMG. LOL. FUQ2. I’ll just stroll in off the street, plop down my dossier on management’s desk, rifle through my illustrious career with my scads of felonious endeavors, just to hear “ . . . well, sumbitch, we’re awfully sorry, Chris, but as luck would have it we just filled the last position with an armed robber . . . ”

So, I gave up altogether on the gainful employment tip, hoisted the Jolly Roger and became a pirate of the prairie, so to speak. At least I bear the identifying marker: upper right shoulder––skull, red eyes. Chupacabra, the Mexicans called me. 

I was an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. I gave up before giving myself a chance and pushed all my chips to the center of Crime’s Table. Get in where you fit in, playa.

A criminal, as it’s been defined to me, is someone who impedes upon the rights and property of others with the intent to deprive without remorse. Or something along those lines.

A bodybuilder uses weights as a means to achieve a desired result––a well-developed body. As an alcoholic and a drug addict, I used crime to achieve maintenance of intoxication––primarily.

I committed many a crime for which I’m ashamed. In a headdress befitting a chief, the individual feathers aren’t worth bragging about. I also wanted adventure that crimes––felonies along the lines of burglary, robbery, home invasion, and drug purchases––provided.

In my full flight from reality, I believed my lifestyle, forged by character defects, was actually an asset. A feather in my cap, if you will.

I was the quintessential icon of the street. I’m relatively handsome, athletic of build, clean-cut and was not suspect––unless, of course, I’d been caught en flagrante delicto. My intellect, charm, wit, and looks were the perfect mask, and like our aforementioned eight-legged friend, my undoing was in my own struggle for survival––my creations devoured me in my own skin.

One time, while sitting in one of the many circle groups, a well-meaning counselor pointed out, “You might want to reconsider your current choice of career, Chris; burglary and crime don’t seem to be working out so well for you.” This earned a few chuckles around the ring. The acknowledgement on her end sounded the alarm of insecurity on mine, and not being one to concede to what I believed was weakness, I retorted, “Babe Ruth hit over 700 home runs and struck out twice as many times, but in his day he was known as the Home Run King, not the King of Strike-Outs. I’ve been arrested for four burglaries in my life. Do you think I’ve only committed four?” Smile, wink. Mike drop, I thought.

Crime that involved inanimate objects, like shoplifting, graduated to home invasion burglary, robbery, and extortion. I parlayed convict to con man. A veritable hustler as I created human victims, bing, bang, boom. No one was exempt.

Self-preservation. Shit. I was self-destructing.

Science-based studies conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse have proven that drugs of abuse alter the very structure and function of the brain. Simply put, alcohol and drugs disease the brain. Addiction has been defined as—I’ll paraphrase here, also)—“a chronic need for and use of a habit-forming substance, characterized by an increase in tolerance and well-defined symptoms upon withdrawal.” Keeping this on an “I” statement, this created a strange paradox of thought. I equated intoxication with survival. Keeping withdrawal and its attendant horrors at bay was priority numero uno. Maslow’s hierarchy order is air, water, food. My diseased hierarchy was Bizarro Maslow: alcohol, cocaine, food, more alcohol.

I’ve put hand to quill a few times in an attempt of sorts to write this memoir, but each time it wasn’t possible for me to give an honest account of my life, what my addiction has cost my family, victims, society, and myself––my disconnect floated somewhere in the synapse between reality and disillusionment. If I thought it so, it was absolute and nonnegotiable. The story I’d write or usually tell was true, but for as many ways as there are to relate it, there are as many ways to view it. See, in all honesty, here I tend to want to save my face and my ass at the same time. I’d spin my yarn in the prison yards, taverns, and trap houses. I was the True Boss Player, a crazy down motherfucker, man. Now, you see, the criminal, they’re very much the magician. They’ll show you what you need and want to see in order for the “illusion” to come off. Choosing volunteers from the audience––scouting marks to become victims in society. It’s like that with hustles. Some people, for whatever reason, as crazy as this sounds, want to be taken advantage of. I’m sorry if we can’t all agree on this––I can hear the chorus of dismay in my head now, but by God, it’s true. Get somebody to want a thing. Politicians do it in even-numbered rotation. One person’s election is another’s prison term.

Anyway, I myself shudder at some of the outrageous shit I’ve pulled. Like, as you’re reading this, set it down and look inside your closet––of course, you might want to grab a ball bat first, but check the locks on your windows and doors. Set your alarm. Many is the time I was in peoples’ homes while they were in Dreamland. While they slept, I crept. There are people out there who are not simply housebreakers. They are killers, rapists. I know, I’ve been their cellmate. I’ve heard their stories.

Yeah, I’d check the door and shut if I were you.

But back to our regularly scheduled madness. I’m just gonna take a wild stab in the dark here and guess that the people who knew me knew I had issues. You know, like I wasn’t wrapped right or something. Say you make an observation and pay a compliment to such a character. “Wow, you’re over forty years old? What do you do to stay in such condition?” Then “Not Wrapped Right” solemnly answers, “I smoke cigarettes, crack, drink lotsa beer, and do time.”

It finally dawned on me why the alcoholic, addict, criminal, and mentally ill person is, as “they” say, the “last to know” their condition. But had I paid attention on Day Number One of Treatment, the answer is: denial. So, going back to not being able to tell an honest story with integrity, it was due to embarrassment. Can’t save the ol’ derriere and visage simultaneously, ya know. It isn’t the darkness to be fearful of, it’s what’s in the darkness. Remember when Luke was on Dagobah and he’s afraid of a cave there? He asks Yoda, “What’s in there?” and the old master replies, “Only what you take with you.” 

Now—check it out—my grandfather was given to drink. Whether he drank like an alcoholic, as I did, I don’t know. It was revealed in his later years that he was manic-depressive. Of the three or four whiskey brands that hunkered on the kitchen counter, their volume never diminished so fast as to alert a whispering committee. Of course, they may have been the “dummy stash”––a misdirection. Or, they may have been the maintenance wrench with which to tighten a loose nut every now and so.

While we’re here, one of the well-used maxims he’d employ was, “Kids are meant to be seen, not heard.” (Everyone knows that kids and crazy people are honest to a fault.) No doubt this saying was concocted by an asshole who wanted to keep the focus off the “elephant” in the middle of the room. What’s understood ain’t got to be explained. Like the time I asked an uncle, “Did Aunt Carolyn really chase you around the house with a butcher knife?” Listen, we piled into the car and vamoosed as if we were fleeing the book depository in Dallas circa November 1963.

And Grandma, God bless her. A soft-spoken lady who spent some time on Nut Row at Shady Acres. She’d never grab anyone’s attention as a stark raving whacko, but when I was two she threatened suicide. I don’t know what set the bats to flight in Granny’s belfry; as I said, she didn’t seem to be as mad as a March Hare. The gobs of pills she took made her head tug and twitch toward her right shoulder, as if a taser was held without respite to her neck. It sort of summons in my mind someone who’s worked at a biohazard facility for years, and, when asked if there’s harmful toxic substances, he flat-out admits it, while spasming, “Yeah, it’s harmless––me and the kids swim out here every Sunday.”

Trying to be honest about myself while in fear and denial was like trying to put a puzzle together, except some asshole had flushed a handful of pieces down the commode.

Trying to write an honest story about my life without all the pieces was like climbing into the attic of a long-abandoned house and panning the beam of ego over the trembling geometries cotton-candied by spiders. It was the shit that made my hair stand on end, yet all I had to do was turn on the light. I guess we’re our own bogeyman sometimes, spiders ’n all.

As far as the insanity plea’s concerned, let’s take care of any shadows of doubt. It’s time to do that “thing,” the mind’s hamster gets to troubling his squeaky wheel of indecision––“If I pull this burglary and get busted, I’m looking at double digits in the joint––probably.” And? I did what any mentally unstable, soon-to-be-plagued-by-the-hounds-of withdrawal person would do: I’d commit the crime.

Because I was the Babe Ruth of what I did, and it was absolute and nonnegotiable within my own mind, and to be a good magician you first have to convince yourself before you can volunteer from the audience.

I do believe a measure of good can be meted out here for us both. By being able to tell an honest story now, as I’ve faced certain truths about myself, I’m able to be responsible for my recovery. This has empowered me to be charged with the responsibility to carry a message of hope to the hopeless, for self-preservation in my case is to admit my faults to others and, in turn, this empowers others. It creates community and unity in weaving a web strong enough to support us all.

If I was strong enough to victimize and have two to seven police officers dispatched to arrest me, then I’m strong enough to empower others.

I’ve done the homework. We are going to go into the trenches, and I’ll show it to you––for what it’s worth. It is ugly and scary crazy, but we’ll come back.

This isn’t a priori. It’s empirical.

Keep in mind that just because the monkey is off our back it doesn’t mean the circus has left town.

One of my favorite introductions, a hook to a story called Night Shift by Mr. Stephen King is, “Let’s talk, you and I. Let’s talk about fear.”

What a brain-watering ambrosia, that line is. It’s like a pickle that gets you right behind where the jaw locks. You can feel it upon suggestion––you know where that man is fixing to take you.

All I’ve got is, check it out. This is what got me the T-shirt and bumper sticker.