If I had to name the god of The Addicts and The Crazy People, I would name it Acceptance.
Like writing about my time in China, these few weeks of my life could easily be stretched out into a standalone book/blog series. I’ll do my best to just give you “the good stuff” as it pertains to my self-identity and understanding of God. However, you’ll be missing out on a lot of beauty that I had to cut off of the story.
Pulled Up the Sleeves
When you imagine a mental hospital, you probably imagine strait jackets, people screaming, and a dude with a nervous tick talking about the impending alien invasion. I’m sure somewhere in NYC or Chicago there’s a facility like that. However, that’s not what I encountered when I admitted myself to Vermilion Hospital in Lafayette, LA.
I walked through the second locked door and was escorted into an assessment room with a pleather sofa and a pleather chair, both with rounded edges and no pillows. I was asked question after question –starting with insurance, of course– for hours on end. I sat and stared at the corner of the room when I wasn’t being asked how likely on a scale of 1 to 10 I was to kill myself if I wasn’t admitted (10). The question I found most interesting is when a man asked me “when’s the last time you’ve done something fun?” I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done something fun… probably going to Oklahoma with my boys a few months prior, when I was still married and thought I was loved. The thought of that fun time being tainted and cheapened made me start crying as that dude assessed me. Everything about the previous two years was starting to have the stain of unrequited love all over it.
I was finally asked to turn over my shoes, my belt, my phone, and everything in my pockets… I had been deemed crazy enough by my insurance company to be admitted. As all of my possessions were being cataloged and processed, a man walked out of another intake room and asked me, “What are you here for?”
I was caught off guard by the question and hesitated before answering, “I want to kill myself.” It was deeply embarrassing to say it aloud.
The man, wearing long sleeve silk pajamas, pulled up his sleeves and showed me cutting scars… deep cutting scars. He said, “Me, too, man.”
We Were the Stable People
I was escorted into the Group Room and I sat in front of the TV. There was a little quiet talking in the room but most people just sat in silence, watching TV. Someone walked up to me and said, “Hey man, my name is Rico.” (Not really, all names are changed other than mine.) I made a joke about his name being a Napoleon Dynamite character, which flew over his head. I was off to a great start.
A few minutes later, another guy, Nick, had an anxiety attack and was freaking out that he was trapped in the building and he wanted to get the fuck out. That threw gasoline onto my anxiety and fear. ‘What the hell did I just sign up for?!’ was my thought. I realized that there were multiple locked doors separating me from the outside world… and I didn’t have the keys.
A few minutes after Nick’s panic attack, we had a Smoke Break. The door was unlocked and we were let out into the patio area of the hospital. Since I didn’t smoke, I walked around the concrete square. I stopped at the “water feature,” an empty, sunken concrete pool with peeling blue paint. In the middle was one of those big molasses pots famous all over Cajun Country. It, too, was painted blue. It, too, was peeling.
“God,” I prayed, “that’s me. I’m dried up. There’s nothing inside anymore.”
Rico was awesome. I sat alone at dinner on my first night and he dragged up a chair to sit with me. (They were all weighted so that you couldn’t pick them up. You literally had to drag them.) He roped me into the community and, the next morning, he had me sitting with his little group for breakfast. Every morning and night we had to fill out these assessment sheets and share them with the group. Rico had something positive to say about every single person after they finished reading their sheet… but it wasn’t bullshit. You could tell he really meant what he said.
I got to know Katie, Jen, and everyone else over the next 24 hours. Katie was a former medical professional who took up heroin and then found herself overtaken by it. Jen was clean and sober for a while until her home flooded and she went back to the needle. I think she had taken up prostitution to support her habit. Rico had an anxiety disorder and checked himself in because he needed to get his meds balanced. Nick was in the same boat as Rico. June took legal drugs and her doctor fucked up the dosage, leaving her with a permanent tick, that she then used Meth to control… as you might suspect, that didn’t end well. One woman who talked about shame with me turned out to be a stripper with some seriously unbalanced medications. Cleveland was a homeless man that opened like a flower the more he was around people that treated him like a normal person.
There were plenty more wonderful people I met on the “West Wing” of the hospital… we were the most stable people. The “East Wing” was the genuine, bona-fide crazies. Like the lady who would strip naked in the blink of an eye (can’t. unsee.). Or the silk-pajama-guy who heard voices. Or the violent people.
We all looked out for each other on the West Wing, even though we all had an exit date of about six days from our date of entry. (Six days was the end of the time that insurance would pay for us to be there. We were all miraculously healed and ready to reenter the world as soon as our insurance ran out.) We all adopted Cleveland and tried to keep him social instead of returning to his isolated, homeless patterns of existing. One day, Jen was drugged up heavily to help her get through the some kind of detox. I sat next to her at dinner that night and kept tapping her shoulder to wake her up… she would fall asleep with her head back and food in her mouth. She would wake up, chew, swallow, put another bite in her mouth and then we would repeat the whole process. Rico had an anxiety attack after he found out his dad was sick, so I sat with him and let him cry until he got it all out of his system.
I hid the fact that I was transgender from all of them. As the stubble all over my body grew into a condition I affectionately call “feral human”, Katie said, “Dallas, you’d look good with a beard.” Her compliment hurt so bad. I didn’t want to look good with a beard. My body hair was a curse and a plague as far as I was concerned.
A Compliment Stuck
I was prescribed Prozac by the on-staff Psychiatrist. All the patients told me that it was the standard, first-prescribed antidepressant. That was one of the things that struck me as odd- everyone knew every drug everyone else was prescribed. They all had experiences with them and stories about them. Rico made a joke about taking Seroquel and trying to eat ice cream when it kicked in that everyone other than me found hilarious.
Within a couple of days of being on Prozac, I felt different. (Aside for my fellow crazies, it might have been the Remeron, which is prescribed as a sleep agent but is also a mild antidepressant.) I noticed that the anxiety in my chest felt diminished. My mood was lifted a little and I stopped crying all the time. Actively planning my own death stopped happening. Even “Passive Death Wish” disappeared.
The thing I found most amazing was that, for the first time in my life, a compliment stuck to me when it was given to me. For my entire life they had rolled off of me, like I was immune to them or something. Someone told me I was smart and I realized, ‘hey, I actually am smart.’ It was a revelation to me.
No Idea How to Grieve
It dawned on me by the end of my time in the hospital that none of my problems were going to be fixed while I was there. The staff were just trying to stabilize people and help them find their next step as they walked towards health, relapse, or death. At my last meeting with my team of therapists/social workers/whatever else, I thanked them for saving my life. However, I also told them that I needed help. I had no idea how to grieve the loss of an 18 year marriage, live with being transgender, and start over with nothing at 40.
My “health team” set me up with something called an “IOP Program” that they said could help me with all of those things and told me as an added bonus that I was probably an alcoholic. I agreed and admitted it out loud for the first time in my life.
I got out of Vermilion Hospital on a Friday and got drunk as soon as I told the kids that me and their mommy were getting a divorce. (Yes, I’m skipping over that conversation. You don’t know pain until you have to tell your kids that their world is falling apart. What hurt even more was acting like the decision was mutual between me and their mom… the child therapist told us to have a united front.) I maintained a steady buzz the Saturday and Sunday before my IOP Program started on Monday.
A Beautiful Fluidity
I arrived at Visions IOP & PHP therapy too early on the morning of my intake. One of the therapists introduced himself to me and told me he ran the Addiction group as he started a pot of coffee. I told him I had “a few drinks a day” and found myself being introduced to his group as one of its members a couple of hours later. This therapist was a deeply spiritual man. Like, for comparison, I was a Padowan Learner and he was a member of the Jedi Council.
We only got one individual session in our IOP Therapy (it was focused on Group Therapy). In that individual session, I observed as this man saw the “transgender” part of my assessment, he asked me if I was going to transition. I told him that I wasn’t totally sure but that all options were on the table. His response surprised me. This man steeped in the Christian Faith, who spoke five languages, and was ordained by one of the greatest churches in the world, exclaimed with wonder and joy, “But you have such a beautiful fluidity and identity right now! Why would you want to limit yourself to one gender?”
I didn’t have an answer for two reasons. First and foremost, because no one had presented gender to me the way he did… I lived in an either/or world. That’s what it was like to be born with a Y chromosome in America. Secondly, I was expecting him to quote scripture at me and condemn me, not celebrate my being transgender and hold it up like a prize.
The last thing he told me was that it would be my decision when or if I came out to the group.
I No Longer Sat Above
During Morning Check-In, late in my first week in the group, as we went through our sheets, just like we had in the mental hospital, I told the group that I had gotten rid of the booze in the house.
“How,” the therapist asked me.
I told him that I had given it all to my in-laws.
“Do you know how I know you have a problem with alcohol?”
I shook my head.
One of the other group members, a former military guy and admitted alcoholic, spoke up, “Because you didn’t dump it down the sink. Shit, man, that’s a valuable liquid as far as guys like you and me are concerned. We wouldn’t dump liquid gold down the drain.”
It had never occurred to me to dump it down the drain.
The therapist gave me a handout that I read on the different stages of alcoholism and acceptance. As I read through each stage, I was seeing my story, albeit without OWIs, Detox Symptoms, or people telling me I had a problem. I was a “high bottom” alcoholic. I remember reading that the last stage of alcoholism & acceptance was trying out different substances to see if we could stop drinking and use those instead… that was me and pot.
I walked into group the next day and, during morning check-in, admitted that I had a problem with alcohol. A few minutes earlier, another guy in my shoes wasn’t ready to make that jump… he just said that he “drank a lot”. I looked at him and said, “That’s cool for you, but I’ve crossed the line into addiction. I’m an alcoholic.”
I no longer sat above anyone in that room. I was one of them. M with his alcohol and painkiller addition, E & J with their meth addiction, T with her meth, sex, and alcohol addictions, S, N, & J with their crack addiction. M & J with their alcoholism.
My name is Dallas and I’m an alcoholic.
Without Batting an Eye
I was wearing women’s jeans and mascara as I read my morning check-in sheet. I told the group that I was transgender. I didn’t know what to expect. They had known me as a dude for the first week and now I was telling them that what they saw wasn’t the whole story.
The former military man spoke up, “Shit, that ain’t nothin’, man. I know a cop up in North Looziana who wears a Teflon vest and police gear at work and mows his yard in a dress. No big deal.”
The redneck military guy with PTSD and a drinking problem was the first person in the group to accept me. The rest did as well. There were no words of condemnation… how could there be. There was no ego in that room. We were all fucked up addicts with fucked up lives. We were all just trying to make it to bed that night without using our drug of choice.
They welcomed me –the real me– without batting an eye.
Before It Gets Better
The therapist handed out books for us to read like that Wand Dude in Harry Potter discerned the perfect wand for his wizards. He let his pointer finger pass over certain books, using a magic touch to find the one that resonated with his client. When he did this for me, he tossed a book by Richard Rohr at me. The title was Everything Belongs.
Every morning I would drop the kids off at school and stop by the Catholic Church in Scott. I would read a section of Everything Belongs while I sat on the back pew and write a quote worth chewing on at the top of my journal page. Every section of the book had one of those really profound quotes in it. After reading, I’d sit in meditation for a while in the church, contemplating the art, or praying with my breath. I kept finding myself drawn to the female statues in the church. How had I never noticed their feminine energy before? After meditating, I’d practice what my therapist talked about every day in therapy: Page 86. (If you aren’t familiar with it, google it. Of all the books in the world, page 86 of a very specific book pops up as the top result. That’s pretty damn impressive.) I would lay out my day ahead, praying not for myself, but for the people I would interact with, asking God to show me how to serve them. That list for the day always started with the same item: Stay Sober.
The thing I didn’t realize when I stopped drinking was how boring life is. Your life, my life, everyone’s life, is filled to the rim with boredom. I would occasionally see someone drink or see the liquor in the grocery store and feel a lust rise up in me. Alcohol cried to me like a hawker at his booth, “The cure for what ails you lies within my tent! Step in! Be satisfied!”
As if the mundanity of life wasn’t enough, I was having to rewire my brain. I quite often found myself staring into an empty liquor cabinet without even knowing I had opened it. For example: My favorite drink had been the post-meal-prep drink and my brain walked me right over to that cabinet as soon as I finished prepping supper. According to my brain, the drink was part of Meal Prep. If there had been any booze in that cabinet, I would have relapsed before I even knew what I was doing… that’s how strong my memory’s pull to drink was sometimes.
The therapist taught us all kinds of mantras that he probably got from Recovery Programs. The one I remember the most was that “All of the problems you have when you start to use/drink will be waiting for you when you come down off of the high.” I can still hear it in his voice, in his cadence, with his head shaking slightly side to side the way it did when he was saying something profound.
While it wasn’t the saying I thought about the most, my favorite saying of his was The Tsunami of Shit.
“So you started using your drug of choice. And problems began to pile up behind you. So, you used your drug of choice to keep those problems away, which just made the pile of problems get even larger.
And now that you’re sober, you’ve got this tsunami… of… shit… crashing down on you.
“It’s going to get worse because you got sober before it gets better.”
I was riding out some of that tsunami of shit. I had to go to my lawyer’s office with my wife so that we could formally file for separation and, on top of signing papers for a divorce I didn’t want, I had to try not to drink. The entire group was worried about me. The therapists made me come up with a play-by-play, city-by-city plan for how I was going to get home from the lawyer’s office sober. They made me make a list of who to call if I really, really wanted to drink.
I didn’t drink.
I rode that wave of the tsunami out and felt all of its nightmarish undulations and currents. My therapist was right. It most certainly was getting worse before it got better.
Forcing Them to Pick Up
I refused to be one of those people that just disappeared from their church when something embarrassing happened. I went back to my church one Sunday and sat between a couple… they had volunteered to protect me from anyone who might want to say something mean or judgmental to me. (No one did but their presence helped calm my fears.) I wanted to start crying when it hit me that I was in that building as myself for the first time ever. That moment is when I realized that the Prozac wasn’t just cutting off the bottom of my depression… it was cutting off the highs and lows of everything.
I wrote an email and sent it to the leadership of my church. I owned up to being Trans, told them that I wasn’t planning on leaving, and asked them what they were going to do with me. I asked them if I could come to church dressed as a woman. I asked them if I could ever remarry in the church. I also asked them if it would ever be ok for me to lead a bible study for the LGBTQ community.
I wasn’t making it easy for them nor for me. I was forcing them to pick up their theological weapons and hit me with them. I’d been a believer in and practitioner of non-violent aggression and this was, most certainly, one of those acts on my part.
It was also an act of contrition. This felt like part of my penance for standing apart from my LGBTQ family instead of standing with them. This was a blow I was willing to take for anyone else in the church who still hid in the closet.
For those of you looking to villainize these men, let me stop you. These were my friends. I knew each of them personally. They loved me as much as I loved them. I was always amazed by the maturity with which they led my church. What I was forcing them to do no doubt hurt them as much as it hurt me.
But that was the point.
Someone once taught me that Values aren’t ‘taught’, they are ‘caught.’ I was making these people act so that their values would be exposed. I was making them admit that they cared more about being ‘Right’ than being ‘Loving’. I was making them see the consequences of their LGBTQ policies. I was making them confess that they thought that my sin was different than and worse than their sin. I was making them tell the truth and was making myself the target for their confessions, no matter how badly it hurt me. This value set isn’t unique to that church. This could be said of almost every Evangelical Church in the world.
As a former practitioner of the creed “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin,” I can tell you that it doesn’t work. That’s a message of tolerance, not acceptance. That’s a message of man’s conditional love, not God’s unconditional love. It’s a hypocritical teaching that sets apart any group that makes you uncomfortable as dirtier, more broken, and less usable by God. For those of you digging through your bibles for verses to defend your position, I would remind you that all of the Torah (as well as Paul’s Letters) hang on two commands: Love God with everything in you and Love People just as much.
Getting back to this specific church, I would insist that this is one of the healthiest communities in the evangelical sphere. If someone in my hometown was looking for a church, I’d still put this community high up on the list… with a qualifier that anyone who is LGBTQ will be smiled at but, when push comes to shove, they will not be accepted as an equal in the Body of Christ.
I sat in my pastor’s office one afternoon, not long after getting out of a day of Group Therapy. I had a made a plan for maintaining my sobriety no matter what I was about to hear. I might have been reading into it but I still feel like my pastor was speaking more from what was he was told to tell me than what he wanted to tell me. Nonetheless, he told me that Deuteronomy 22:5 forbade my gender expression and that it was sin. He told me that it would be unwise to have me lead anything in the church, considering this sin in my life.
I took my key to the church building off of my keyring and left it on his desk. I started crying and thanked him for everything good he had done for me. I thanked him for really seeing me in Premarital Counseling. I thanked him for teaching me that God wanted his goodness to shine in the muck of my life. I thanked him for marrying me and Carrie. I thanked him for sending me to China as a missionary. I thanked him for supporting me through Vox. I thanked him for letting me teach in his church and show them Jesus. Lastly, I thanked him for helping me see God more clearly.
“When I got here,” I told him, “God was an angry man in the sky. Leaving here, I know him as a loving God.”
My now-former pastor thanked me and asked me if our friendship was over, because that was what I was making it sound like. I told him it wasn’t and that I would like to continue getting coffee with him.
I got up and left the community that I had known for 20 years.
And I didn’t drink.
Read the next chapter: A god named Higher Power