Genetic Predispositions: Part 2
III: Joey Cunliffe
Little Joey was about five years old when he decided, to hell with his siblings, he was going to build a snowman with or without them. Wading through the nipple-high snow, he attacked his project with the single-minded obliviousness common among children of his age. He didn’t even notice his neighbors as they hauled ass towards him on their snowmobile—which is saying something, because they were both morbidly obese; it was a lot of ass to haul. They couldn’t see him through the blizzard either, and thought they had simply snagged their machine on a large rock as they plowed over his fragile body. Joey screamed as the treads skidded across his face, but his cries were drowned out by the revving of the engine.
“Everything okay out there?” my mother, Aimee, asked, emerging from her childhood home.
“No,” one of them huffed, “this damned thing won’t budge.” My mom rallied the babysitter and the rest of her siblings, and they all gathered around the snowmobile and started to push. Joey had ceased his screaming by the time they all arrived, and was overcome by a pervasive feeling of calm and peace. He was going to die, and it would be okay. Just as his consciousness started to drift from his body, his babysitter spotted a small mitten poking out from underneath the machine. In a moment of Herculean strength, she flipped the snowmobile onto its side. The fat lady who rode it sang, and Joey’s life was saved.
My Uncle Joe had several encounters with death over the course of his life, both his own and others. This was his first, and perhaps explains the false sense of invincibility he maintained for a lot of his life. Sometimes when a person witnesses or escapes death, they come to believe that they are above or beyond it. After all, if the sensation of death brought only peace, what was there to be afraid of?
A sane person
Would take a brush with death
And use it as fuel
To stay safe.
A person with junky blood
Gets a single taste
Of all-consuming adrenaline—
And finds within it the fuel
That makes life worth living.
Dear God, Go Dolphins
Please, please, please, God. Please let Dan Marino score on this drive. Joe prayed to himself from the safety of his bedroom.
“Stupid motherfucker!” Phil’s voice thundered from the living room. Apparently God hadn’t heard his prayers—or had, and had simply ignored them—and the Dolphins lost.
The entire family sat petrified at the dinner table after the game; the sound of silverware screeching against plates provided the only responses to Joe’s father’s sporadic cussing. Now the prayers were left to Joe’s siblings, who begged for some divine being to keep steady their clumsy brother’s hands. Please, please, please, God. Please don’t let Joe drop his fork or spill his fucking milk tonight. But again, the prayers fell on deaf ears.
Joey’s already-shaky hands trembled even worse when the thick white liquid oozed in and around the dishes. All eyes fixated on Phil as the puddle poured off of the table’s edge and into his lap.
“You dumb little motherfucker.” He said, murder mounting in the glare he cast towards his seven year old son. “I’m going to—“
“I’ll clean it up, Phil.” Penny interrupted, rushing frantically to find a towel. She sprinted to her husband’s side once she found one, and dropped to a knee to start sopping the liquid from his pants. H pushed her out of the way, and rose to his feet. “It was an accident Phil. Please.” She said softly.
“Can’t be an accident when it happens every fucking night.” He took a step towards Joey, but Penny caught his arm.
“Calm down.” She said, this time more forcefully as she grabbed his arm to stop the advance towards her terror-stricken son.
“Calm down?” He jerked his arm away from her. “Calm down? How the fuck is this for calm?” He grabbed the tabled flipped it towards Joey, who scrambled out of the way just in time. Spaghetti sauce painted the walls as shattered glass decorated the floor. No one else protested when Phil spanked his son in the center of the wreckage.
My Uncle Joe describes watching his father’s truck rumble down the dirt road that lead to their house after a long day’s work, and the wave of dread and terror it always brought with it. The second Phil stepped through the door, the entire family tiptoed on glass and eggshells. Spilt milk meant a flipped dinner table, Dolphins’ losses meant doors torn off hinges, and backtalk meant beatings. Perhaps Joe and his siblings had a more present father than my grandmother or great-grandfather had, but perhaps the mark of a “good” father is more than just his presence.
What makes a dad
Is he a protector
Or a purveyor of fear?
Can he be both?
Can PTSD spring from the same source as love?
“Are you sure this safe?” Ted asked from below, watching his brother ascend the abandoned oil rig.
“Are you sure you’re not a little bitch?” Joey yelled to his brother Ted, placing one hand after the next while the wind whipped snowflakes into his face with enough force that they felt like dozens of little razorblades. “Of course it’s safe. This is the deepest the snow’s ever been.”
“Awh, fuck it.” Ted sighed, before following his brother up the frozen metal tower. The pair reached the top of the forty-foot structure in no time. “So now what? Do we just jump?”
“You can just jump, I’m a little bit cooler than that.” He smiled, turned around, and launched himself into a backflip as he fell into the snow drifts below.
My uncles started jumping off the oil rig after large snowstorms from the time Joe was about ten years old. Needless to say, he was an adrenaline junky from day one. Another one of his favorite epinephrine-inducing hobbies was jumping from the Snake River Bridge in Alpine, Wyoming, where he would often attract crowds to witness his eighty-something foot drops. Most of the time his stunts would end with minimal bodily harm, but once when he was twelve he took the motorcycle his grandpa had bought him off of a ramp that launched him across both lanes of a small road. He botched the landing, and his handlebars speared him directly in the esophagus—an incident that he describes as his “life’s most excruciating moment, in a life that was full of excruciating moments.” But you’re crazy if you think such a moment kept him off of his bike for more than a few days.
The lust for a rush
Some are simply born with.
It’s not that
They live without fear
What lives on the other side of fear
Breathes beauty into existence
The faster the heartbeat
The more beautiful a moment becomes.
After graduating high school, Joe built a fine life for himself in the military, climbing the ranks until he became an officer. On this particular day he oversaw a training exercise at a fort in Washington.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck! Oh my god, oh my god!” One of the cadets screamed at the top of his lungs. He had cut himself trying to breach the two-foot-diameter tunnel of katana-sharp wire they call “concertina.” He had cut himself bad. Really bad. Joe was the first officer to reach him, and knew at once that he held the young man’s life in his hands.
“It’s going to be okay,” he told him. “Try to stay calm while I work. It’s going to be okay.” He untangled the kid from the wire, and set about stopping the blood that shot from the man’s leg like Old Faithful. It takes, on average, three minutes for a person to bleed to death when they’ve severed their femoral artery. Joe applied the tourniquet in less than two, but it was still the most blood he’d ever see—or be covered in—in his entire life.
The kid survived, and Joe was awarded.
Even though my Uncle Joe never saw combat, he still witnessed more brutality and gore in the military than most people will encounter in a lifetime. During his basic training, one of his friend’s died from heat exhaustion in a foxhole. A little bit later, faulty hydraulics on a cannon would cause the barrel to fall on top of another friend’s head, “crushing it like a fucking watermelon.” Still, Joe says that his one regret in life is not sticking with the military through retirement. Which I suppose makes sense. Even outside of the military, Joe couldn’t escape death’s gaze. He barely survived when he punctured his lungs in a traumatic car accident, and he was the first person to arrive on the scene of an even more destructive car crash that claimed two lives. He remembers the man screaming to take care of his dead wife first as my uncle pulled him from the wreckage, and he remembers not knowing how to tell the man that his wife was, beyond a trace of doubt, dead already. The man himself died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Maybe familiarity with Death
Equips a person to defy It.
But maybe such defiance
Has more to do with luck.
Are the people my uncle saved lucky to be alive?
Are the people he couldn’t lucky to be spared a survivor’s pain?
And is my uncle lucky to know Death on a first-name basis
Without having danced His dance?
No more heads exploding like melons, no more kids bleeding out on concertina wire, no more structure, and, paradoxically, no more craziness. No more purpose. After Joe quit the military, all of the color in his life dissipated until only a blur of grey remained—and what is a life without color?
Joe was up $75,000 dollars at the blackjack table. It was enough to pay back the bookie debts he’d accrued in the weeks prior, with enough left over to pay off his student loan debts and his next few months of rent. “Hit me,” he said.
“Bust.” The dealer grinned. Joe was up $70,000.
He didn’t care if he won or lost. In every single moment he spent with $5,000 dollars riding on a hand of blackjack, his life’s colors were fucking exploding. The rush was stronger than the strongest coke he’d ever snorted, and the high fleeted with speed relative to the strength. The comedown was comparable, too. By the end of the night he was down a few thousand bucks, and the grey returned in a hue that more closely resembled black. It took every ounce of his mind’s strength not to swerve off of the road and kill himself on the drive home.
Along with his finances and mental health, my Uncle Joe asserts that his self-burial in the gambling hole destroyed his character as well. The Uncle Joe that I grew up with is the kind of person that’s so soft he’ll cry at Disney movies and sunsets (maybe an exaggeration, but not much of one). He’s spent most of his life as one of the biggest empaths imaginable, and it’s all but impossible for me to picture him any other way. But when he grew addicted to gambling, he swears that that part of himself withered close to extinction. He couldn’t feel anything towards anything—or anyone. He didn’t give a fuck who he hurt or what he lost, as long as he could feel the color flood back into his life if only for an instant. If that’s not addiction in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.
The higher the heights
The more euphoric the euphoria
The more vibrant the colors
The more catastrophic the crash
The more depressing the depression
The more seductive the sound
Of Death’s soft singing.
“And what about now?” I ask my uncle as our interview draws to a close. “Now that you’re clean, now that you’re healthy, do you feel like you’re just living your life in shades of grey?”
“You know, it’s funny Tobester. It used to be the mundane, the boring day-to-day activities that compose the vast majority of this thing we call life that made me feel like mine didn’t have any color. Now it’s within the mundane that I find all of my life’s color.” I ask him for examples. His beautiful wife’s smile. Preparing a new, goofy “weekend dance” every week for when he picks up his son from school on Friday. Seeing his daughter’s reaction when she gets her first car. Evening meals. Being with the people he loves, no matter what it is they’re doing.
A few months ago, a lifetime of reckless behavior finally caught up with Ol’ Joey. His kidneys failed, and he almost died for the umpteenth time in his life. The event forced him to quit nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana once and for all. But he’s beyond okay. He tells me he never sweats the small stuff; he never lives in the past or future, because the moment is all he is really has—all any of us really have. And the moment is so unbelievably beautiful, when we have our eyes open to it. He has a beautiful house, a beautiful family, and is as clean from addiction as he’s ever been.
Still, when asked what his first move will be if he’s fortunate enough to receive a new kidney, he says, “All I know is that you better have that bong packed and ready to rip the second I step out of the hospital.” It takes more than a little kidney failure to kill the Mahon-addiction tradition.
My father built a massive fence around about half of our land, next to my childhood home out in the country. It separated our dogs’ territory from our own, but each morning I would violate the border in order to refill their food and water. A single yellow thread ran along the top of the fence, an electrical deterrent against our athletic canines’ leaps—an inviting taboo to a curious child’s touch.
I don’t know what came over my six-year old self, but one morning I impulsively laid my fingertips against the wire. An immediate wave of tingling pain rushed through my fingertips, coursing throughout my entire body in the span of a single moment. My heartbeat spiked; it exhilarated and thrilled me. The next day I laid my hand on it again, this time a bit longer, and learned that the contraption unleashed its fury in bursts instead of a continuous stream. Bzzt. Bzzt. I let it shock me twice. The pain felt so good. Determined to see how long I could withstand the voltage, I wrapped my fingers around the wire and squeezed as hard as I could.
It shocked me once, and I drew my breath.
Twice, and I exhaled.
A third time, and my whole body contracted with euphoria.
The fourth, and I felt nauseous.
After the sixth or seventh wave, I lost my vision, my body fell limp, and I collapsed. My heart thrashed as if it wanted to shatter my spine. I felt dizzy. I felt alive.
Like my Uncle Joe, my affinity for adrenaline manifested at an early age. It started with tests of pain tolerance, like grabbing electric fences or hovering my palm over lit matches, but quickly spread to other activities. I loved jumping from heights, volunteering for fights, and pushing the limits of motor-powered toys. I crashed three ATVs before the time I turned thirteen, always the result of too much speed or too risky of jumps. The third time the vehicle rolled two-and-a-half times, and would have crushed me had my body’s autopilot not forced me to leap from the machine at the last second. No one was surprised when I totaled my first car a few years later.
Does addictive personality
Really a disease?
Can a person who picks
Speed over Safety
Blame anyone but themselves?
Do normal six year olds shock themselves?
My little stepbrother and I had begged my dad for weeks to buy us boxing gloves, and today he finally caved. Unfortunately, I was sick with the flu and in no condition to punch Macoy in the head or take any shots myself. But my dad was determined to put the new toys to use.
“Who wants to take me on?” The 6-foot-4-inch-260-pound giant bellowed at my siblings and me. Colby, who was ten years younger than me at three years old, volunteered first, thinking he was in for an exciting new game. My dad slapped the headgear on him, tightening it all the way so that it still slipped off of his toddler head and obstructed the better portion of his vision. Then he dropped to his knees, and told Colby to start whenever. My baby brother started to advance, and was met with a light jab the second he stepped within range of my father’s wingspan. He stumbled backwards awkwardly, then moved in again and met the same fate. After a few rounds of this he gave up. Then it was Gannon’s turn, who was five years younger than me at eight. My father fought him using the same formula, but increased the power behind his punches relative to the increase of age between his opponents. Gannon ate a few more shots than Colby, but eventually threw in the towel as well. Macoy, who was one year younger than me at twelve, decided he liked his brain too much to throw gloves with Goliath.
“Come on, Toby, you have to fight him!” My siblings begged me. “You’re the only one who has a chance.” Being my 5-foot-6-inch-120-pound self, I was pretty sure I didn’t, in fact, stand a chance. Throw into the equation the flu and the fact that I had already puked twice that day, and my odds grew even more abysmal. I guess I was just more sick of watching my siblings get punched in the face.
Strapping on the gloves and headgear, I knew my plan before the fight started. Stepping within arm’s length, I caught a jab to the nose; stepping in again, I caught another. But the third time I was ready for it. I ducked my father’s sledgehammer of a fist, and in one swift movement positioned myself underneath him so that our toes were practically touching. Then I bent my legs, leapt upward with all the might they could muster, and threw my mallet of a fist against the bottom of his jaw. The impact exploded with the rage of an abusive childhood, and his head snapped back so far that he stared down the ceiling fan. He gathered himself, took one step back, and threw a hook that exploded against the side of my head with the rage of an abusive father. My body crumbled to the floor, and after an ephemeral moment spent between darkness and consciousness I crawled outside and puke.
When I came back into the house, my father raised his arm into an L shape and flexed his bicep at me. “That will teach you not to fuck with dad.”
My father raised my siblings and I to believe that winning (especially sports) was everything. Literally everything. The fear that we felt when we saw his car coming down the dirt road after work would often give way to a desire for his attention—for his admiration. We would end every night with a round of family sports, which would more often than not descend into him kicking the shit out of us or us kicking the shit out of each other. Anything in the name of victory. A night of family sports that didn’t culminate in bruises and bloody noses was almost as rare as our dad asking us what book we were reading or how school was going—almost.
For a long time
I believed my dad was God—
Was the most perfect specimen
To ever bless this earth
He told me he was
And kids are fucking gullible.
I wanted to impress him
To live up to his own glorious heights
Or at the very least
To prove to myself
He was not immortal
No one can land an uppercut on God
But I did
And I suffered for it
Not the wrath of God
But that of a broken man.
My best friends and I had just received our ACT scores, and the average between the three of us was a 29—91st percentile. Kenny got a 27, Donovan a 29, myself a 32. This called for a celebration. We met at an empty parking lot on the outskirts of town, and the two hopped out of their cars and into my own.
“Well boys, what did you bring to the party?” Kenny asked, removing a Ziploc baggie from his pocket. “I have Percocet and tramadol.”
“Oxicontin.” Donovan produced an orange medicine bottle with a defaced label, causally rattling around its contents. “And promethazine. Toby?”
“Fluoxetine and dextroamphetamine.” I replied, revealing my own stash.
“Why the fuck would you bring a Prosac?” Donovan laughed at me.
“Eh, why the fuck not?” Kenny chimed in. “Death soup time?”
“Death soup time.” We agreed in unison. The three of us arranged our assortment of pills into a small mountain and wrapped it in a few layers of paper to avoid spillage. Then I used the bottom of my phone like a hammer to grind the pile into an inextricable, powdery drug amalgamation. Kenny used his debit card to divide the dust into even lines, and on the count of three we simultaneously inhaled our share through the dollar bills inserted in our nostrils. After that we all melted into my car’s seats. We didn’t speak. We didn’t think. We barely even existed—at least for the next hour or so.
I started drinking when I was twelve, smoking pot at 14, railing Percocet by the time I could drive, and inhaling blow by graduation. I wish I could say that the Death Soup incident was a one-off occurrence, but the truth is that it was a full-blown phase. The number of times I snorted, smoked, or simply gummed a potentially-lethal combination of pharmaceuticals during my junior and senior years of high school is absurdly high. My friends and I would joke that we all suffered from hands-on disorder—we would ingest any substance we could get our hands on. However, despite literally naming our one of our favorite habits “Death Soup,” none of us ever considered death as a probable consequence to our idiotic actions. We thought that we were literally invincible. After all, we were smarter than the nine-of-ten-kids who probably weren’t snorting mixtures of anti-anxiety and ADHD medication.
You wouldn’t believe the lengths
A person will take to escape their body—
To feel like someone else, something else
Even if the escape
Makes the body to which one returns
More despicable than the one
They fled in the first place.
There have been so many times in my life
I thought I would have been okay
If I escaped
And never returned.
It was my first semester of college and I’d been eating, on average, at least three hits of acid daily: one when I woke up, one at lunch, and one when my classes ended. I snorted coke pretty consistently throughout the day too, and generally finished my nights by splitting a bottle of Tennessee Honey with my roommate. But today, none of it worked. I was as high as I’d ever been—as high as I’d been every day since coming to the university, I suppose—but I felt lower than the dirt beneath dog shit. It was three in the morning, and I was losing my mind.
“Stupid,” I said, banging my head against the mirror in the dorm’s bathroom, “Piece.” Thud. “Of shit.” Thud. I paused my skull bashing just long enough to assess the face of the man that stared back at me—the man whom everyone back home thought was thriving because of nothing more than his straight A’s, the man who could do whatever the fuck he wanted without his mom or siblings ever being the wiser to drugs he sold and snorted. His bloodshot eyes and cartoon pupils were unmistakably my own. Windows to a sober soul would have been unrecognizable, but this was definitely me. I didn’t want to be me.
Impulsively, I resorted to the only addiction I knew would remove me from my body without fail. Rummaging frantically through the belongings back in my door room, a screwdriver was the only tool I could find suitable to the task at hand. Once I had it in my hands, I returned to the community bathroom and locked myself in the stall.
“Here goes nothing.”
I raised the screwdriver above my thigh, and, with all the force that my body would allow me, plunged it downwards.
Again and again and again, until the pain overwhelmed every ounce of thought and emotion stored within my head. Then I stopped, slumped against the wall, and basked in my own blood until my consciousness reentered a body in much worse shape than the one it had ephemerally abandoned.
I don’t think many people conceptualize self-harm as an addiction, especially not when compared to substances like cocaine or opiates. Which is funny because it’s as addictive a release as they come, for several reasons: it’s cost-effective and permanently available, it’s an easy habit to conceal from the public, it’s a powerful means of escapism, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s crazy fucking intense. The frame of mind a razor drawn across skin puts a person in is indescribable; the self-loathing of the comedown and the shame of a permanent reminder is much more effable. While there have certainly been times where I cut myself after a traumatic event, I feel as though the screwdriver episode best illuminates the addictive properties of self-harm: sometimes I destroyed myself because there was simply nothing better to do, and the “real” drugs just weren’t cutting it for me—no pun intended.
Would you believe me if I told you
That, at my most vulnerable,
I felt the most invincible?
How can I describe the feeling
Of having total control over the physical self
While having no self control?
I am the master of my escape.
The power to leave forever
Meant only a 90 degree rotation.
What made me choose to stay?
Is Death really as simple as they say?
My bad habits finally caught up with me the night before.
I got pulled over for speeding on my way home from a concert, and the cops inevitably smelled the weed that permeated the vehicle. Then they inevitably found the acid hidden in my hat. Then they inevitably took me to jail. Have you ever, while tripping on roughly four tabs of LSD, had a grown man ask you to bend over and spread your buttcheeks so he could stare down your asshole to make sure you weren’t hiding anything up there? Let me tell you, it is not fun.
My mom bailed me out of jail the next morning, exposed, for the first time, to the severity of her son’s bad habits. She took my car, and talked (rightfully so) like she would take my life too—assuming I didn’t beat her to it. And that—that was still not my all-time low.
The first thing I did once my mom left me alone to ponder the previous night’s events was call my girlfriend.
“What the fuck do you mean you threw the rest of it away?” I screamed at her through the phone when she told me she’d disposed of my massive stash. “How the fuck am I going to make money now?” I yelled, as if I hadn’t blown the several-thousand dollar stipend my full ride afforded me on drugs—as if the position I put myself in were somehow her fault.
“I’m literally walking into an exam right now. I can’t do this.” She hung up.
“Stupid fucking bitch.” I walked to her apartment complex and bee lined to the trash compactor. Then I climbed inside of it. For at least an hour I waded through waist-high trash, tearing open bag after bag after bag, in pursuit of a sheet of serrated paper and a bag of blow.
“Hey man, what uh, what are you doing?” I hadn’t even heard the security guard roll up to me on his golf cart, but his question snapped me out of a trance that I’d been stuck in for years. Oh my God. What the fuck was I doing?
I left and wrote my suicide note, then found the place where I was going to do it. Where I was finally going to escape. And I would have, too, if my mom hadn’t called me at just the right moment.
Even though at the time it felt like the world was ending, in hindsight getting arrested was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was proof that I wasn’t invincible; it was a wake-up call to the despicable person I was becoming. I am beyond blessed to be alive and free, when there’s so many times I could have ended up dead or in jail. Sometimes it takes an all-time low to propel a person to unimaginable heights.
To my mother
To my now ex-girlfriend
To the cop who arrested me
To the apartment complex employee who caught me rummaging through the trash
I wish I could end this piece by telling you that I’m clean now, but I’d be lying. I am, however, doing the best I ever have been. I rarely drink. I don’t do coke. I haven’t self-harmed in more than four years. Hell, I don’t even smoke nicotine anymore. Sometimes I’ll still smoke the occasional joint, but fuck if I’m not moving closer to complete sobriety every single day.
In terms of relationships, the one with my dad is as strong as it’s ever been. I’ve forgiven him for everything, even though he’ll probably never say sorry—that would be an admission of defeat. There are no longer any secrets between my mom and I, and she continues to be a beacon of light in my life. I am still friends with Donovan and Kenny, but the nature of our relationship—and the way we choose to spend our time together—no longer centers around hardcore substance abuse.
As far as coping mechanisms go, I’ve enrolled myself in biweekly therapy sessions with a counselor whom I adore. I read and write and draw with a passion that borders on obsession. And I run. As fast and as far as I can, I hope to forever leave the demons of my past in a trail of dust. But they will always be following me.
The curse of a “clean” addict is that the monkey is never fully off of their back. There will always be a part of me that perks up at the word “cocaine,” a part of me that stares at the blades in my shaving razor with lust in my eyes. But there is a larger part of me that wants nothing more than to live up to my full potential, to be my best self—to break my family’s vicious cycle once and for all.
We decide enough is finally enough.
Or we die. Poor and drunk.