Finding Harry

An addict returns home.

Photo by Cliff Johnson on

My most recent overdose triggered mom’s stroke and death. I’ve been gone almost nine years, but now I’m back at the farm with Dad. I will stay here a bit, try to find my legs, figure out what’s next for me.

I’ve struggled with the black dogs of depression my whole life, but even at my lowest moments, even as I steeped in guilt, waiting for Howey to come out of surgery, then driving him to physical therapy every day for months, I never thought about suicide, not even once.

But by the time I turned 29, I thought about it so often that it became another addiction.

Anyone serious about ending things never uses drugs or pills. Anything other than a gun, knife, or noose is only a cry for help.

Yet I found my way to the needle on the anniversary of Gail’s overdose, intending to end my life. I was even in the same flophouse. How sad is that? I’d loaded the syringe with double my usual dosage.

Unfortunately, a jittery addict saw me collapse and found my obligatory note. I had addressed the envelope to Howey, my first victim and the one I most regret hurting. The guy, my would-be Good Samaritan, called the paramedics. They saved my life and committed me to a psych ward for a 72-hour observation.

Somehow they got my real name. Had I confessed who I was? After my brother’s book came out, everyone knew who I was; I was “that Harry.”

The medical staff contacted my parents. For years, they had feared that I was already dead. I had thought staying away was a kindness. Maybe it was, because by the time the 72 hours were up, mom was gone.

Dad tells me it wasn’t my fault, but his gaze floats away from me when he says it. I’m in a holding pattern here. After my long absence from their lives, from this place, I am hoping some stability will emerge during my respite here.

At nights, I pray to a God I don’t believe exists, begging him that killing my mother might be my last rock-bottom story.

In the morning, on the back porch, I sip my coffee, close my eyes, and continue my morning meditation. My routine is to whisper (or think) the Serenity Prayer repeatedly while trying not to cringe at the word God.

A heavy fog covers everything here. The barn (used only by Sam and about a million mice since Howey moved out years ago) floats on the thick gray clouds as the ancient John Deere sinks into the mist.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know..,”

The screen door squeaks open; I stop praying to avoid a lecture or an invitation to church.

“Morning,” I say.

“Ayuh,” dad says, settling into the rattan rocker across from the swing. He swivels the chair so that he faces out into the yard.

We hear the screech and look up; Sam has returned from her night of hunting. She lands on the barn and looks around. Her gaze seems to linger on me.

That seemed to be Sam’s way. She always seemed to take a particular interest in Howey and me.

Sam (or Samantha, we never did figure out the owl’s gender) first showed up shortly after Howey got out of the hospital with his new leg. I’ve always thought of Sam as being a she.

“He’s looking at you,” dad says.

“Or you,” I say.

“Nawp. I’m out here every morning, and Sam never spends more than a second on me.”

Dad’s words give me a warm feeling, but I do my best to brush it aside. After what I did, I don’t deserve to feel warm again, ever.

Dad turns to me, but his eyes float past me, out into the fields, and then he picks up the newspaper despite it still being too dark to read. After a few seconds of squinting, he lays the paper on the table, lifts his mug, blows once across the surface, and takes his first sip. That is our morning ritual now. The blow/sip has signaled that morning talk has concluded. Now, we will sit together in comfortable silence until one of us (usually me) gets up to start our day.

I think some more about Sam. I don’t know how long owls live, but I’m surprised that she is still alive. She looked old (to me) the day it arrived, and that was eleven years ago.

I look up again and see Sam duck under the eaves where she sleeps during the days.

I envy the simplicity in Sam’s existence and fantasize briefly about moving in with her. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if I set up my sleeping pad and bag in the loft.

Every addict has a story about hitting rock-bottom; some have two. Only a true addict, like me, can claim to have three. I first bottomed out when I was 17. There should have been room to make some course correction for that, but I was headstrong, immortal, and ready to grab life however I could.

It was a cold, rainy, moonless night. The forecast called for freezing temperatures and rain turning to sleet in the early morning. The wind was a blade that cut through all three layers I wore.

But under the Miller Road bridge and full of beer, my buddies, Howie, and I were dry, warm, and out of the wind. My friends finished their case, then split. Howey and I stayed a little longer. After swearing him to secrecy, I had let him have two beers. I’d also swiped a mostly full bottle of bourbon from the liquor cabinet but had kept it hidden till my buddies took off. I decided that was the night I would see what all the fuss folks made about whiskey was warranted.

After his beer, Howey kept wandering away to howl in the woods or study the road above.

“We should probably head back, Harry. It looks like the road might ice over,” Howey said, ducking back under the bridge, rubbing his arms.

The first swallow burned more than I thought it would.

“What are you talking about, dork? Our house is less than three miles away. We’re fine.”

“How’s it taste?” Howey says, nodding towards the bottle.

“Awful,” I lie, but with my second swig, I noticed I felt a little less cold. I decided I liked bourbon.

I thought briefly about letting him try the whiskey but buried that idea. Even at 17, I knew I was flawed, wired differently. While I had let Howey try the beer, I would not be the monster that infected him with whatever was in me. As if there were a difference. Alcohol is alcohol.

The irony is, in just another hour, I will push my thirteen-year-old brother into the front seat and promise him I wasn’t drunk and then end every athletic ambition my baby brother ever had or would have.

“Let me drive, Harry. I don’t think you should..,”

“What’re you talking about, you goof? You’ll put us in a ditch in two seconds flat,” I said. “I’m okay to drive.”

Such lies mark the path of every addict’s life.

That’s a good rock-bottom story. Right? I told it at several newcomer meetings and made everyone cry.

That should have been enough for me to get my act together, fly right, walk the straight and narrow, find sobriety, the path to redemption, right?

You’d be wrong. I’m not a mere addict; I’m an addict’s addict, one who can turn anything into a mood-altering behavior to deaden all feelings. (The saddest part that non-addicts don’t understand is that we cover over our positive feelings just as readily as we do the negative, less desirable ones. In the end, there is only the object d’addiction. Your drug or behavior of choice. Anything that will pull your eyes away from the absurd condition that is life on this planet.)

To this day, Howey insists he doesn’t hate me, that he’s never hated me. He feels sorry for me. By the time he was eleven, Howey had shown real athletic promise in football and basketball. His big brother Harry put an end to all of that.

That acceptance should’ve been enough. Right? For me to stop. You might not believe it, but Howey’s love and forgiveness pushed me into an extended period of self-loathing and further acting out. If Howey would not hate me, I guess I had to do the job myself.

See what I just did? Blaming my screw-up on my brother’s loving-kindness? How messed up is that? The fact is, if Howey had hated me, I would only have hated myself more. If Howey hate me, I’d probably still.., well, I don’t know what I would have done. I can’t even imagine it.

Once, the treehouse had nestled on two fat branches that spread out at ninety degrees. It was a glorious thing, but thanks to the big storm in 84, it is now a wreck, resting slanted between tree and ground. The corner that had set against the trunk had slid a few feet down the trunk, carving a thick, ugly gash in the tree. The opposite corner buried itself into the earth several inches. The structure would sway and creak anytime the wind blew.

I do my best to sit cross-legged in front of the tree, facing it. The wreckage from the felled treehouse becomes a meditation on impermanence for me. The truth is this entire place is falling apart.

I close my eyes, slow my breathing, center myself on the rug I swiped from the laundry room. The ground is quite cold, and the weaved fabric offers minimal protection from the freezing ground.

I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with seated meditation since a sponsor introduced it to me years before; my practice waxes and wanes. When I practice regular meditation, my calm rises, my reactivity diminishes. When my practice goes lax, the opposite is true. Yet to this day, when I see my cushion and think I should meditate, my first reaction is usually, “but my back hurts.”

I hear steps from behind me. I turn in time to see my father’s eyes slide past me to the tree and the ruined treehouse that slants from tree to ground.

“Going to town; need anything?”

I shake my head and turn back to the tree.

In a few seconds, I hear my father returning to the house.

I study the wood in the treehouse. It was weather-treated, good wood. The reason it had fallen wasn’t because of the materials we’d used, but because neither Howey nor I knew what we were doing when we built it.

That wood could be used for something, but for what?

I look at the 4×4 post we’d used to support the fourth corner of the house. We had nailed a dozen 2×4 steps to the side to provide a ladder up to our shelter. Now it leans away from the tree and points to the barn beyond the slight swell in the ground where the willowing grasses always grow the best.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I feel an idea begin to push itself into my consciousness.

After what I’d done to Howey, I couldn’t stay home anymore. My parents met with Jared, a counselor, several times. He patiently walked them through the painful process of showing them how debilitating a mental disease addiction can be. But it was too late for me. I’d already begun planning my escape.

We adjusted to Howey’s new prosthetic device. We made room for it, in our little farmhouse, moved furniture apart, widened walkways, downsized a bit. Not once in the six weeks between Howey’s homecoming and my departure did I ever see the brushed aluminum thing or hear the tiny squeak of its rubber tip on our linoleum floors without feeling shame.

So I did the only thing I thought I could do under the circumstances; I ran away.

Five years later, I was not only drinking but using and selling heroin in the city. By then, I’d learned how to operate in a perpetual high. My memories of that time are someone else’s, a series of blurs that occasionally pop up in focus in dreams or random waking thoughts.

Gail was my second rock-bottom story. She was the love of my life, or so I thought.

“Baby, you got to tie it tighter, or it won’t work,” I told her as she helped wrap the elastic cord around my arm.

The needle prick did what it always does. Selfish idiot that I was, I should have helped her first.

She’d tried to mimic my actions, but there wasn’t a how-to book to guide her. I was sailing away by the time she’d tried to reproduce my actions. Her overdose was tragic yet inevitable.

My body count at 23 was already two: my brother’s lower leg and Gail, a woman who loved Audrey Hepburn, The Honeymooners, and dreamed of someday owning goats, a woman who swore to me she would love me for the rest of her life. I try not to think about the irony of that.

Sometimes at night, I remember her talking to me as I lie against a pile of dirty, damp blankets. Gail said something to me. Did that happen? Or did I only imagine it once, and now I can’t tell what is real?

“That’s okay, baby. I’ll watch you this time; I’ll keep you safe here.”

Flash forward eight years. By then, my baby brother Howey had written and released a bestseller book: FINDING HARRY. A lovely book, I am told, about our lives, the accident, and me. Now I had the sympathy of a nation and their judgment. Howey never hated me, but it might’ve been better if he had.

Maintaining my anonymity was never a problem for me. I was rocking a long bushy beard and floating from place to place. Couch surfing and crashing with various women who still thought I had something to offer.

Good for Harry. He made it. The sales from the book had set him up for life. Good for him. I’d still pay any price if I could take it all back, but that’s not realistic; that’s not how life works. That’s magical thinking; addicts are good at that. What they are not good at is the mundane work or recovery, showing up day after day and doing the small things. We all want that one heroic action that will redeem us instantly. Run into a burning building, save a child? Yes, please. Be kind to others, show up day after day, work the steps, go to meetings, wash the dishes, help a new arrival. Boring, what else you got?

Dad still hasn’t called Howey. I’ve asked him to give me a few days. Once Howey arrives, I fear things will fall apart, that I won’t know how to react to my baby brother, the famous author, that I’ll lose myself again.

I’m a regular at the methadone clinic in Raleigh and an attendee at nearly every 12-step meeting in town.

“What are you doing?” dad says, sitting with a groan and an exhale on the porch swing.

I feel something pierce my finger.

“Ouch,” I sling the board toward my pile and pull the splinter.

“I thought I’d build a house for Sam. Or Samantha. Did you ever figure which it was?”

“Nah. Your ma thought Sam, at least the first one, was female.”

“Still..,” dad says, trails off.

A familiar conversational pattern that always irked me.

I stand and stare. My father is careful not to meet my eyes. Good. He should look away. I maimed his youngest son, killed an innocent girl, and then my mother, his wife, died of grief over my selfish actions. His hating me seems right. He should hate me. He should loathe my very existence. I know he doesn’t. His reluctance to look at me is something, though. Maybe I can measure my progress by that?

“Still? Still, what, Dad?”

He takes a slow sip from his heavy ceramic mug, sets it down, wipes his lips with the back of his hand.

“Ayuh, don’t reckon Sam will ever go into a birdhouse, is all. Doesn’t seem like something he’d do.”

Again I want to scream, wander away, lose myself in the foggy woods, sit against a tree, wait for death to find me. I stopped believing in an afterlife years ago. That only contributed to my struggles with the “higher-power” language at my 12-step meetings.

“Screw it,” I think. Either Sam will or she won’t; I can’t not act because I fear how my efforts might be received.

I drop to my knees and begin sorting through my good pile of planks, plan my approach, stopping to pull the few nails I find, dropping them in my leather apron.

Owls are nocturnal, so out of some inter-species consideration, I limit my construction activities to in front of the house, as far from where the owl sleeps as I can manage and still have reasonable access to electricity.

For three days, I lose myself in the thing’s construction. In the end, I’m pleased. But will Sam turn up her nose at it? I don’t know; maybe dad’s right.

“The owl will do what the owl will do,” I say to the nesting box.

I realize I’ve changed something here. And that had taken courage. That’s what Phil, my first sponsor, liked to say.

“And the wisdom to the know the difference,” I say to myself.

It is lovely. I’ve mounted it on the post from the treehouse. All that’s left is to dig the hole near the barn, where the owl sleeps, plant this thing, pour some concrete, and hope that Sam will migrate the five yards to this new home.

In the end, the owl will do what the owl will do, I remind myself, lying to myself that I don’t care about the outcome.

I wake early, brew the coffee, find my way to the back porch much too early. I grow nervous and pick my fingernails until they bleed.

I lean back in the wooden swing and whisper the Serenity Prayer. The fog is dense again this morning, and I squint so I won’t miss the owl’s return.

I’ve always loved this swing. Dad had underestimated how much chain he needed, so he mounted it

high. I have to point my toes to touch the porch flooring. It squeaks and creaks but never falters.

The screen-door squeaks. Dad, carrying the newspaper and his mug, emerges from the house.

“Morning,” I say.

“Ayuh,” he says, looking past me.

I try not to stare at the birdhouse. I’m sure dad can read me as plain as day.

“Today’s the day, I guess,” he says.

“The owl will do what the owl will do.”

“Reckon that’s true.”

From west of the barn, a stray dog barks three bored barks into the gray, foggy morning.

Dad puts the paper down and joins me out of some vague solidarity, to wait without waiting for the owl to return from his night of hunting.

I hear her before I see her. The luff of her wings as she alights on the roof of the barn.

Sam scans the area; it notices the birdhouse and waddles several feet to the left to get a better view; I guess.

I glance at my father. I think I see a nervous smile trying to rise on his face. He watches the owl.

The owl lifts off the barn and lights on the birdhouse perch.

Dad is biting his lip now. I push a fist to my mouth.

The owl enters her new dwelling backward, her head swiveling side-to-side as she backs into her new home.

“Well, I’ll be,” dad says.

I look over, and, for a second, he catches my eye. Later, I will tell myself that he was smiling as well.

“Well done, Harry,” my father says, turning his attention to his newspaper and coffee.

My dad looked me in the eye, and now I’m terrified. This thing I feel blossoming is a dangerous, fragile thing, but without it, I’m one stressful event away from a needle or a noose. I swing back in the seat. The chains groan and creak but support me while I contemplate how best to nurture this new foreign thing I feel, hope.

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