September Seventh: GHOST

Ryan Heller
I’ve got this cat – his name is Bastian. A fifteen-year-old, stoic, Merlin-type with a childlike need for affection. A snowball of soft, pure-white fluff with spots of light gray like continents. His eyes are celestite marbles that vibrate when looking at you. Bounce side to side like one of those alarm clocks in a cartoon.

Not a digital one, the old-school kind that’s round with two bells on either side. In the cartoon, the character is always asleep when the alarm goes off. He jumps up in bed all comic-like. Followed by a tight frame of his hand hitting the clock, those two bells vibrating rapidly back and forth in a continuous brass colored blur.
Take that visual.
The one of the alarm clock.
Then put it in Bastian’s crystalline eyes.
Surround those eyes with freshly fallen snow.
Inject this snow with a cross between Gandalf and Merlin.
And you’ve got my cat.
The cat who sneezes a minimum of six times consecutively, spraying saliva and snot all over me. Who gives my arm or cheek a sandpaper lick immediately after. Who curls on my lap while I watch TV. Who is asleep next to me whenever I write. Like this very moment.
I have no idea where this is going or why I’m talking about my cat.
But I thought you should know.
I thought you should know as I reread those words just now, a video played in my head. From five and a half years ago. A video my husband – my then boyfriend – shot on his iPhone. The quality sucks. It is very dark. Looks like a Blair Witch Project reinterpretation.
A video of me.
In part due to pixilation, but largely because it’s someone I haven’t seen for a long time. A blank face, features hang to the floor. An unforgiving t-shirt shows the stomach of an out of shape, defeated body. Long, plaid shorts below the knees. Hair, a mess. Wiping my face with a hand I’ve lost control of.
And Bastian. On the far end of the couch. A prop in the scene. Just there in the background. Somewhere.
Me, hunched over. A deflated balloon barely able to sit upright. My dog runs over and jumps on my lap, licks my face. I push him away. He comes in for another attempt – a puppy with an insatiable urge to kiss. His name is Max. I push Max harder this time. To leave me alone. To leave me –
I fall backward.
Wipe my face again.
And Chris, my husband, my cinematographer. Chris says, “You’re telling me you’re not on drugs right now?”
I can’t lift my head enough to look at him.
Can’t formulate the words to say much more than, “N’Imjus’ tird.”
I’ll translate for you: No, I’m just tired.

As I type, Bastian has woken and is licking his paws next to me. Curled against an oversized gray and white Southwest-style pillow, which he matches perfectly. I can smell his old man cat breath. An oddly pleasant smell, even though I know it’s probably a mixture of wet chicken-flavored cat food and years of needing a proper tooth brushing. Sometimes I walk past a dumpster and realize I love the smell, or find myself sniffing my shoe. His breath is one of those scents that fall smack center of the Venn Diagram. A good kind of gross.
Thunder builds outside, heavy clouds darken the sky. Fiona Apple on the playlist. She sings “A Mistake” off her album When the Pawn…, which is arguably one of the best albums. I listened to it on repeat through high-school, dissected the lyrics and wrote poetry in her style.
Rainy day moods. My favorite.
She sings:
And when the day is done and I look back
And the fact is I had fun
Fumbling around
All the advice I shunned and I ran
Where they told me not to run
But I sure had fun

So I’m gonna fuck it up again
I’m gonna do another detour

Back to the video.
To Chris asking me if I’m on drugs. To me saying I’m just tired. To a few frames later when I stand up with a ceramic bowl, stumble to the counter where I attempt placing it down. To me dropping the bowl, it shattering on the floor. To me unable to look at the camera. To Chris once again asking if I’m on drugs and me denying it.
Sort of denying it.
More just mumbling words.
In the kitchen, a stainless steel refrigerator and chestnut cabinets. Everything swallowed by rich black shadow. Darkness engulfs the scene. Except for me. A ghost-like figure, face erased. An aberration. The visual is one of those Polaroid photos from the ‘70’s or ‘80’s when a paranormal investigator snaps a shot in a dark home. A blurred room draped in black, the glare from a flash just enough to reveal a frightening motion of light with indecipherable facial features.
I’m the aberration.
I had no idea at the time how scared Chris was of me. Of what I was doing to our life. No idea the affect I had on those around me. My parents, family, friends. The animals. The ones I pushed away and forgot to feed sometimes. Or didn’t play with. Because I could barely take care of myself.

I look down at Bastian, again asleep at my side. He wakes for a moment, stretches, licks my hand. His left ear twitches as he curls back to sleep.

In recovery it can be easy to look back and realize how far we’ve come. After years of sobriety I have clear reference points to track my growth. But it can also be very difficult. We can just as easily hold on to those old ideas of who we are, the things we’ve done. The people we’ve hurt. Down to the animals we may have neglected. Sometimes it can be just as easy to see myself as that same person in the video. The same aberration. Days when I get lost in my head and dark thoughts burn with the fervor of a freshly greased flame. When I want to throw my hands up and be done. When jumping off a bridge becomes a romanticized dream again.
And that’s after five years of sobriety.
Days I still see that ghost in the kitchen. But maybe the difference is I’m on the other end of the camera this time. I’m watching. Watching him drop the ceramic bowl, hunch over, mumble incoherent nothings. The difference is this time I’m aware of the ghost and he can’t scare me.
But I can scare him.
Because now, now I have the strength to fight back. The will to stay strong. And the faith to keep moving forward.
“Wild Horses” by The Sundays comes on. My heart melts.
The rain outside trickles against the roof.
I close my eyes.
The song ends.
Then Amy Winehouse, “He Can Only Hold Her”.
Amy Winehouse.
She passed away while I was in rehab, a few weeks after that video was shot.
It’s okay to see the ghost. To wanna jump off the bridge. It’s okay to throw my hands up and cry like a baby. These are thoughts, they are feelings. Not fact. And what matters is the action. Eventually, if I am honest with myself, I’ll ask for help. Communicate. Write about it. Go to a meeting. Something, anything, other than numb it with a substance and welcome the ghost into my home.
Because when he comes, when I am one with the ghost, I know what happens. I know who I am.
The boy with an itch he can never scratch, a craving he can never fill.
The boy incapable of loving anyone, anything, but himself.
The boy who hides in shadow.
The boy who disappears.
The ghost.
And as much as I want everyone around me to see who I am today, the truth is some still see the reflection of who I was. The murmur of a tornado still trickles through an open window.
I was at dinner with Chris and my parents a few nights ago. We got lost in a heavy conversation when eventually Chris’s fears surfaced. Fear I could travel backward, that I’m still an irresponsible child who can’t take care of himself. He still sees the ghost after all this time. For years I assumed the past was the past. I made amends to Chris, have proven myself an equal in our relationship, work hard and stay sober. But I failed to realize everyone has their own wounds to heal, and even then some wounds leave permanent scars. Scars we only hope will become more faint over time.
My sponsor offered an analogy:
A boy has become enraged, taking his anger out on those around him. His father says every time the boy becomes angry, hammer a nail into the fence outside. So the boy does this day after day, some days he hammers multiple nails. Eventually his anger begins to subside as he tires of repeating this action over and over. He learns to control his temper. The father then tells his son to remove a nail for every day he is able to maintain control over his anger. So each day the boy removes a nail until finally there are none left. The father tells his son to look at all the holes in the fence. All theses holes left by his actions. These are the holes we leave in other people, and no matter what we do, no matter how much we apologize, the wounds remain.

I look down at Bastian.
This cat, this sleeping ball of snow, has silently witnessed the ghost. The hammering. The mending. The healing. He used to hide from me, or at least keep a comfortable distance. And I barely noticed. But slowly this stinky breath, old man cat with celestite eyes and yellow fangs has become my writing buddy. His affection is relentless and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Bastian purrs and adjusts his head.
I think he knows I’m writing about him.

This blog was written for I Love Recovery Cafe as a guest blog feature. It is an awesome recovery site and support community.

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