The first time I ever heard the name "Phoenix," I was in grade school. There was a children's book out about a boy who befriends a Phoenix, the mythical bird which regenerates every five hundred years or so by torching itself on its own funeral pyre, then is reborn out of the ashes. I adored that book. Then, comic book fanatic that I am, I wept when the Xman Phoenix destroyed herself because her own power consumed her. She's been reborn countless times since then but that's what Phoenixes do. They burn up and come back strong.
I have a friend who's in jail right now. She's the daughter of someone very close to me. I'll call her Alice. She's a young kid, very intelligent, who was the apple of her parents' eye back in the day. Advanced Placement classes, cheer leading squad, prom court; the whole nine yards of the golden child. Then, in her words, she "went to one party." She got a little drunk, played a little hard, and tried drugs for the first time. Peer pressure and the indestructible cockiness of youth wove their deadly web. A year later, she was a train wreck of a human being and her parents were in danger of losing their home from all the legal costs and stolen credit cards.
This isn't the only person I know who's in jail right now on drug-related charges. I just got a letter yesterday from another kid with a similar background, and I know dozens of others through my acquaintance with their parents at my son's old rehab center. I myself have been the victim of coked-up drunk teenagers who thought it would be a hoot to violate a second grader while high. Of all the things on earth, there's nothing I hate worse than drugs. Absolutely nothing. I watch the news and see all these drug cartel wars; kids getting shot on campus, politicians and police being beheaded, gangs and their turf wars. I don't get irritated with the obvious villains, I get irritated with their unseen financial backers. In all the anti-drug campaigns on TV, why has it never been put out there - the real costs of a "little selfish fun," as one addict scoffed to me the other day? The most popular excuse for drug use is "it's my life, I can do what I want with it." But it's not just your life. It's everybody who gives a damn about you and every stranger who gets shot, raped, beheaded or rolled up in canvas and set on fire by these horrible people who make their money, overwhelmingly, by the casual user. Lives are destroyed, neighborhoods are ruined and whole generations are put in peril, all for a little selfish fun.
The good thing in all these maudlin musings and grisly statistics is the individual. There's nothing I hate more than drugs and very few things I admire more than an addict who struggles to get clean. It is a lifelong task because it's so fucking indescribably difficult. I talked to a young addict a few months ago, back when he still insisted he wasn't an addict and could "stop any time he wanted to." In the same breath, he admitted that the longest he'd ever gone without using was three weeks. "But I'm not an addict," he insisted. I looked at him and said, "If I came up to you tomorrow and had a football-sized tumor on the side of my neck, one that bent my head completely sideways, what would you think?" He just looked at me, laughed and said, "I'd think you had a big fucking tumor on the side of your neck." "Of course. But I keep telling everybody it's just a zit, and nothing you can say to me will change my mind. So, am I delusional when I tell you you're an addict, or is that just a big fucking zit on your neck?"
A using addict is the lowest of the low. There is nothing they won't do for their drug, very little they won't do while high on their drug, and that's simply a literal and depressing fact. When they're using, there is nothing good, or kind, or thoughtful, or even decent about them. They are low down dirty dogs. But my God, what an accomplishment to crawl back out of that pit. It is a miraculous thing. One of the blessings I've gleaned from all these crappy memories of mine is the fact that I can see beauty in a pile of shit human being, just so long as he or she tries to crawl out of their own filth. I always think about the prodigal son story in the bible, the one Jesus told when he was trying to suggest the unheard of idea that bigotry was wrong. Youngest son, party animal, leaves home, blows his inheritance on "riotous living" then begins to starve to death. He decides to go home, tail between his legs, Dad's happy to see him, clean living eldest son gets pissed. Not without cause, either; the youngest son was an asshole. But look what he accomplished just by asking for help. He found his humanity again. The first thing drugs do is cut off your metaphorical balls and make you a dickless wonder. It's hard to control a person who's brave, so courage has got to go. After that, anything awful becomes acceptable. Don't get me wrong; there's a threshold a person crosses where I think it's pretty much impossible to go back: pedophiles and brutal murderers being top of the list. I'm not talking about overcoming those kind of atrocities. I'm talking about burning off the self-inflicted decadence and filth of a negative life. Paying for your crimes and going ahead. Becoming a human being when before, you were a scuzzball.
I've been many things throughout my life; loser, weeper, warrior, suicidal, brave hero and bitter hag. One of the cool things about all of that experience is the fact that I can always change. I can make an effort to become something else and actually accomplish it. Only a few years ago, I was miserable and stuck in a rut of my own making. Self-hatred and fury kept me there. Subconsciously, I think I wanted to punish myself for being such a stinking loser. But I gathered some wood and built a pyre, crawled on top of it and set myself ablaze. I was consumed. Everything in my life was burnt away in that clean, fierce, brave fire. And I crawled up out of the ashes of my existence and began again, fresh, new and alive, with pretty, shiny new feathers. We've all been through shit in our lives, and will doubtless sometimes be knee deep in it in the future. I myself have been shit. But look what we've survived. Look what we're capable of. Phoenixes, rising from the ashes. No matter how low, no matter how disgusting a skank we've been, we can all pay for our past and start new. Believe in yourself and take flight.