...I’ve fallen, weak, but will not die
My tears will be my battle cry;
Though illness threatens to devour,
This will not be my final hour.
I’ll struggle on through fear and shame
And soar, a phoenix from the flame;
I’ve laughter, friendship, art to give,
There is a love-filled life to live.
Excerpt from the poem PHOENIX by Carmen Paddock
This is about two months that took place shortly before my thirtieth birthday. No other time in my life even remotely compares with this tiny fistful of weeks beginning in February of 1989. Among other things, George Bush had just been sworn into office as our forty-first president, and was soon to launch Operation Just Cause – the largest U.S. military invasion since Vietnam – in order to oust former U.S. ally, General Manuel Noriega, from Panama. Driving Miss Daisy would win an Oscar for Best Motion Picture, with Jessica Tandy taking Best Actress in the same movie, and, there were probably some other incidents of note…
In my world, however, you’d think my home base was on Mars. I had no idea who Jessica Tandy was, hadn’t heard of Driving Miss Daisy, was clueless about The Oscars, and knew nothing of Panama, except that I had a vague suspicion we’d dug a canal there because I’d recently seen the movie Arsenic and Old Lace. And although I knew George Bush had just been inaugurated (because the inauguration forced me to take a different route to The Pub that day), I wasn’t really sure of who had come along for the ride as Vice President of the United States. And I lived in D.C. for Pete’s sake. – Alex Moser, Spring, 1999
CHAPTER ONE – THE SET UP
“When I was little, Pop called me ‘Sponge Baby.’ He said I soaked up everything I came in contact with, good or bad. I guess that’s how kids are – they absorb everything, just suck it all in. People should be more careful about what they do around kids.”
– Eileen O’Keefe, Bartender and Budding Philosopher
I am Alexis Moser. I like the name “Alexis,” but I cringe when I hear it. I feel like I’m in trouble. So I go by Alex. The events of the day before I landed in the hospital don’t explain everything, but they are what led me to Jonathan Frank. Without him, I’d be dead, so it seems like a good place to begin. Events don’t occur in a vacuum, though. To understand why someone would decide to end her life often requires some background, so please bear with me as I introduce you to my world.
The Beatles’ song, Tomorrow Never Knows, refers to existence as a game, and implies that it is a game we play over and over again. I always liked that perspective. Reincarnation as a learning vehicle made sense to me. One lifetime didn’t seem long enough to learn everything – not for me, anyway – so I thought we probably just kept coming back until we got it all right. My Definition of “right” included honesty and fairness in one’s dealings, actively caring for the poor among us, avoiding judgment, excess, and greed, and certainly not murdering one another.
After we finally got through the existence game, we began something new. I had no idea of what that might be, but I felt certain that it was a good something, since striving to be a good person seemed to be what most people held as one of the highest ideals – even when they fell short of the mark themselves. I was also pretty sure the existence game didn’t allow for cowardly departures; if we cut our mission short, we might have to come back for the same lessons.
So I was more than a little hesitant to check out, although I wasn’t particularly afraid of dying. I had known a good deal of happiness in my life, but since pain and fear trumped happiness by about ten to one, I often felt somewhat inclined to end my existence. What worried me was that all of the pain I’d already lived through was supposed to teach me something. If I bailed out early I’d probably have to come back and repeat all of that misery. I often wished I could just figure out what I was supposed to learn, and learn it, so I could leave. No revelations ever came to me, though, and I was quite sure I did not want to come back for the same lessons.
In spite of my concerns, however, on Tuesday, February 4th, 1989, I felt that I could no longer play the current existence game; all I wanted was for the abundant, virtually ceaseless pain and fear that comprised my life to finally be over.
The night before, Nick Valenzano, my landlord and neighbor, had told me that neither the January nor the February rent had been paid, and he needed the January rent by the end of the week. I had given my boyfriend, Gunner, (yes, “Gunner”) my half of the rent, and didn’t know he hadn’t paid Nick. I felt furious with Gunner and frightened by the possibility of eviction. To add insult to injury, he hadn’t come home, and I fumed all night about both the rent and about a fact I’d been trying to pretend didn’t exist: Gunner was certainly cheating on me.
On Tuesday morning, with still no sign of The Gun, I was so enraged that I collected all of his possessions and, stuffing them into garbage bags, I hurled them over the landing of our second-story apartment. I didn’t think of myself as a vengeful person, but I admit I felt some satisfaction when I tossed Gunner’s leftover pizza into the same bag as his favorite suit.
Dating Gunner was one of my bigger mistakes. I should have been suspicious of a grown man who referred to himself as “The Gun,” but I felt like I was somebody because the great Gunner Rhodes was my boyfriend. I wasn’t anxious to let that presumed prestige go. He had seemed so perfect. Frankly, I was as surprised as my family to find myself going out with such a successful guy. But I’d always hoped that maybe I was better than my family believed. Better than I believed. I imagined that Gunner saw something good in me that I’d somehow missed.
He was a well-known sports reporter on one of the local TV news programs and my family thought he was wonderful. They were all baffled about why he would date me, although none of them actually said anything – except Grandma, who asked, “What’s he doing going out with you?” Everyone feigned surprise at her question, but they had obviously been wondering, too.
When Gunner finally arrived and saw his stuff all over the driveway (a few of the plastic bags hadn’t survived their trip) he stormed into our apartment and started getting rough, but I was so angry I didn’t care. Fortunately, Nick had been watching for Gunner’s return, and shortly after he arrived, Nick charged into our living room and ordered him to leave. I thought no one knew that Gunner knocked me around, but Nick obviously did and although I felt relieved to be rescued, I also felt ashamed to be living with a man like Gunner.
Nick wasn’t a large man, and towering over him, Gunner just sneered, but Nick wasn’t even remotely intimidated. He treated Gunner like a cranky toddler, calmly informing him that the police were on the way. A moment later, when the unmistakable sound of sirens could be heard, Gunner had a change of heart. Cursing us both, he headed downstairs, shoved his bags into the car, and roared off.
Nick suggested that I find a woman to rent the second bedroom. I was glad he wanted me to stay, even though I didn’t know how I could afford it, being two months in arrears on the rent already. But I loved the wood-frame house, and the second-floor apartment was beautiful. It would be good to find a way to stay. Nick was a great landlord and I enjoyed talking with him. Unfortunately, although I was still wound up, I knew I’d never make it through work that evening. So, reluctantly, after thanking him profusely, I told Nick I had to get some sleep.
But I couldn’t sleep, and here’s where the real admissions begin. An abusive boyfriend was just the tip of the iceberg. I couldn’t sleep because I was afraid to be by myself. I always had been. I mean, I’m not anymore, but this is after a lot of therapy. Back then, when I was alone, I couldn’t stop imagining someone was either hiding in my house, or was about to break into my house, and then rape and murder me. That fear took such control of my thoughts that I couldn’t sleep. During the day, if I wasn’t trying to sleep, I usually managed to hold in the fear enough to uneasily accomplish a minimum number of tasks, provided I was wary. But trying to fall asleep was nearly impossible.
After dark, whether I was ready for bed or not, I became utterly terrified of being alone, and no amount of logical reassurances made one bit of difference. I stayed awake and vigilant until exhaustion finally knocked me out – hours after I should have fallen asleep. I fashioned my life to accommodate this all-encompassing terror, and either lived with a boyfriend, or, more frequently, in a group house. As long as I was engaged with others, my fears took a back seat, and it wasn’t until bedtime that I ran into difficulties. At bedtime, though, it was just as bad as when I was a kid.
Between the ages of five and twelve I’d slept with my sister, Shelby. I was less afraid and fell asleep more readily. Although I was plagued by nightmares, it was better than when I turned twelve and Mom made me start sleeping in my own room. Every night was the same. I reluctantly left my family members, and, terrified, but without options, I began my nightly investigation of every place in my bedroom where a murderer might be hiding – even, I am not kidding, inside my desk drawers.
I then donned the following: two pairs of underpants, tights, leotard, tank top, long-sleeved tee-shirt, shorts, sweatpants, sweatshirt, and socks. It was an utterly miserable outfit but I felt safer, as if I were wearing armor. Then, instead of getting into my bed, I got into my closet, pulling shoes, comic books, blankets and other stuff over me, so that when the murderers came in, they wouldn’t see me. They’d figure I was just a pile of junk. But even then, the pile of junk couldn’t get to sleep. I was constantly hallucinating the sound of footsteps, breathing, even threatening whispers that were not quite discernible, but rich with evil intent. Roasting under the blankets, I read by flashlight until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.
This made for difficult times in school, where I slept more often than not. I always managed to move to the next grade, but I didn’t learn very much and was regularly humiliated when the teacher called on me. Being in school was a nightmare. With the exception of my very small handful of friends, none of whom were in my classes, being around other children was excruciating. I felt so painfully awkward, and was so frequently on the verge of tears when anyone talked to me, that I became an automatic target for the cruelest children in school.
At home, my insane mother was continually shifting between Good Mommy, Evil Mommy, and Absentee Mommy. Trying to balance my responses to the Mommy of the Moment was impossible. She might be going along in a pleasant, “I’m so happy to be your Mom” sort of a way, and then something inexplicable occurred, and PRESTO! She turned into Evil Mommy and sought me out as her target of choice. There were no clues as to what brought about the change, and like my father and sister, I learned to stay away from her as much as possible – quite a challenge since I had a powerfully conflicting desire to win her good opinion, which required that I remain in her sphere of awareness. The only respite I had was to bury myself in a book. I grew up inside of books, and usually read a couple of dozen each week. The local librarians loved me and always got up to hold the door for me as I marched in, or out, with borrowed books loaded from as far down as I could reach to just under my chin.
Fortunately, there were some exceptions to all of the miserable times. From the age of three on, I had a wonderful friend, Jane Rosenberg. Until we were seven, when I moved, we were inseparable and had many fantastic adventures – hunting butterflies, crayfish, and minnows, swimming in the creek, building a go-cart (we forgot about brakes), climbing trees, racing around on our bikes, plastered to her heated dining room floor on Sunday winter mornings, reading The Washington Post comics, (Peanuts and Ripley’s Believe It or Not were our favorites).
After my family moved, I was only able to see Jane about once a month, but I became close friends with the boy across the street, Chris Worth. He and I picked up where Jane and I had left off, and spent as much time as possible outdoors – building forts, attempting to reach China with our little shovels, turning purple picking mulberries, pretending to be space men, or whatever struck our fancy. When bad weather forced us inside, we meticulously built and painted plastic monsters from an endless supply of models Chris kept on hand. My favorite, and I still have it, was The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Chris was very bright and funny, always doing crazy stuff like sending away for samples of things, and following his name with “MD.” As a result, at the age of nine, he was receiving all sorts of medical samples, including thousands of tongue depressors and gauze squares, which were great for our numerous craft projects.
Chris moved when I was eleven, and although at first we spoke frequently on the phone, he made new friends and our conversations dwindled down to a couple of calls a year. When Chris was fifteen, he called me one day, excitedly telling me he had a girlfriend, and then again, several months later, to tell me he had leukemia. I didn’t know what that was. I visited him in Georgetown Hospital, and was brokenhearted to see my beloved friend so emaciated, pale, and hairless. Chris died shortly after his sixteenth birthday, and my world seemed to nearly die with him. When my father passed away soon after, I felt my life had ended. From that point on I was just going through the motions.
Before that horrible time I did have a reprieve each summer from the madness at home. Beginning in the summer of my eighth year, I was able to attend a wonderful overnight camp in West Virginia. Although I was still terrified when I was alone, I was rarely by myself, sharing a cabin with seven other girls. Inexplicably, I was not considered weird and in fact was fairly popular. The rigorous activities of the days left me utterly exhausted, and I slept well at night. I excelled in most sports and made friends easily. No one ever tried to make me feel awful about myself. I didn’t feel stupid or ugly, and there were even kids who looked up to me – mainly because I was good in sports, but also, to my surprise, because my personality actually seemed okay. I was funny, sensitive, sharp, and bold – all things I could hardly express at home.
It felt indescribably wonderful to be liked and to be a part of a group. Camp was heaven on earth. At home, apart from my friendships with Jane and Chris, the endless hours of school were sheer torture, nights were utterly terrifying, and the ongoing tension between my mother and me was nearly unbearable. Camp was so different – and I was so different – that I went by another name: “Fern,” a character from one of my favorite books. I never had to hear “Alexis” and I felt like a new, whole person.
The best thing about my childhood was the wonderful relationship I had with my father. We sometimes did yard work together, and every Sunday he took Shelby and me out for breakfast – without Mom. She viewed this as her time off, but the three of us viewed it as our time off – from all of her craziness and anger. Shelby and I always had fun with Dad on Sunday mornings. Between Mommy-less time with my father, and the many weeks I spent each summer at camp, I was able to experience what life was supposed to feel like.
Unfortunately, the good times didn’t outweigh the bad – as I grew older and was expected to shoulder greater responsibilities, I became more mentally ill, developing increasingly strange ways of handling the growing number of situations that I didn’t know how to cope with. I couldn’t admit to my problems, so I had to just allow people to think I was very stupid and/or unbelievably strange, which was very painful. Things might have been different, at least in school, had I been able to sleep at night, but while others slept through their nights, I was vigilantly surviving through mine.
When I was eighteen, and Mom kicked me out of the house, I moved in with a new boyfriend, Dorian Gallon – the first “love of my life.” Dorian turned out to be even more of a mess than I was, although I was ill-equipped to recognize this at the time. I had no other options, anyway. Mom had never allowed me to work, so I had no job and no money, and although Dad left money for our college tuition, Mom had informed me that it would be like flushing money down the toilet to pay for me to attend college. There was simply nowhere else for me to go – unless I wanted to try my hand at living on the streets.
What had not been apparent to me until I moved into his apartment was that Dorian was actually a terribly cruel man. The damage he did to my self-esteem took years to undo. There’s no point in getting into that relationship; suffice to say Dorian’s particular brand of sadism was designed to destroy women and he was excellent at it. The positive experiences I had from my relationships with Dad, Jane, Chris, and my camp friends, were completely undone by him. When I finally got away from him, every tenuous shred of confidence was gone, and a life that was already more than difficult became nearly impossible and utterly joyless.
I was so anxious to leave Dorian that I didn’t realize I was incapable of living on my own. In my new apartment I nailed all the windows shut, making the summer months unbearable, especially since I had to go back to wearing my bizarre nighttime armor. Each time I came home, I checked every conceivable hiding place, including inside the oven, and, after locking the four extra dead bolts, I pushed my ultra-heavy couch in front of the door. I couldn’t shower comfortably, convinced that in spite of my efforts, someone would break in, and I vigilantly kept my eyes glued to the locked bathroom door, often leaving shampoo in my hair as I anxiously dried and dressed as quickly as possible. The laundry room in the basement of the building terrified me, so I washed all of my clothing in the bathtub, hanging it on the furniture to dry, and then had to spend hours ironing stuff that would have come out of the dryer wrinkle-free had I been able to muster the courage to brave the basement. But with its winding hallways and numerous alcoves, there was no way that I would venture into that dangerous labyrinth.
As a result of my inability to sleep at night, I gave up day jobs and surrendered my life to nighttime waitressing and bartending. Although the choice meant that I’d never be able to have any of the jobs I’d dreamed of, at least I didn’t have to try to go to sleep until dawn, and fewer people were aware of just how dysfunctional I really was. To compound the problems, I quickly discovered alcohol, which didn’t help anything, although it certainly seemed to at the time. In high school I had smoked pot to get away from how awful I felt, but after high school, pot was harder to come by. Working in bars enabled me to drink regularly, which numbed my pain and made it easier to tolerate my intolerable existence. With all of the obstacles, there was never any reason to believe that I would ever accomplish anything meaningful, and I sank into a numb existence that, from the outside, appeared fairly comfortable and happy, but which, when the alcohol was removed, revealed its self to be an insidious form of hell.
Eventually I found a room in a group house which made many aspects of my life easier, but the Nazi nightmares that had plagued my precious sleep since early childhood were still a big problem. Fortunately, in group houses, when I awoke frozen with fear I could calm myself more readily, knowing that others were around. When a nightmare was particularly difficult to shake off, I tiptoed to each housemate’s bedroom door, where I stood silently, waiting to hear a sign that they were still alive. After moments of stillness, even the softest breathing became evident and I could return to my room and read myself back to sleep.
After that first apartment fiasco I had always lived in group houses until I met Gunner. And now here I was, alone, because I’d kicked him out. How stupid to prefer being knocked around to being alone. And yet I had preferred it because being hit occasionally was better than feeling too frightened to sleep. I was terrified of not getting enough sleep because the more exhausted I became, the closer I danced toward making that final decision to just end everything – a decision I didn’t really wish to make.
As soon as Nick left I brought my alarm clock, pillow, and blanket into the living room and burrowed into the couch. It made no difference that I hadn’t had any sleep, though. My mind was racing and each sound grew into something deeply sinister. After a sleepless and fearful hour, I decided a shot of scotch with some codeine would help me relax. The next thing I knew, the alarm was blaring and as I stared at the time, I couldn’t believe I’d slept for forty-five minutes through that racket. And, once again, I was late for work.
Rusty’s was a pretty laid back restaurant, and being tardy hadn’t seemed to matter very much. On this particular occasion, though, my manager had a new take on my apparently casual attitude toward punctuality. He said that anyone who lived only two blocks away ought to be able to get to work on time. When he fired me, I was furious, but in retrospect, how could I blame him? I was frequently late and he’d put up with me for nearly a year. Burning with shame, fear, and anger, I wandered down Wisconsin Avenue, not really sure of where I was heading. I rifled through my mental rolodex, searching for anyone who might be able to lend money to me.
Unfortunately, I’d borrowed money from just about everyone I knew who had any, and I really didn’t feel I could ask for more – even from the few people I’d already paid back. As I walked, I began formulating a plan. Mom had never been willing to help me, but I thought she might loan me the $400 I needed for the rent if I could guarantee her that I’d pay her back within a month. It’s taken me a long time to learn that this was totally delusional thinking – on two counts. The first was that I almost never seemed able to earn enough to pay loans back, and the second was that Mom wouldn’t have thrown me a rope if she had had one in her hands and I was drowning.
My regular stomping grounds included a bar – a dive, really – called “The Pub.” It was about four miles from my house, and many of my friends were either employees or ex-employees. Lots of them had tee-shirts proclaiming, “I Finally Came to My Senses and Stopped Working at the Pub!” Of course, they still drank there because it was the greatest bar in D.C. It was an Irish bar, not far from Capitol Hill, and the place was a total hoot. Above the front door, Kieran, the owner, had painted, “Thirsty? Hungry? Confused? Come On In!” and installed a rusty mechanical winking eye over the door that periodically got stuck, making an awful grinding noise.
The Pub was not a meat market, like most of the downtown bars, or an upscale yuppie hangout like the other two pubs on the block. It was a neighborhood bar with many regular customers of all ages and from all walks of life. Congressional reps rubbed elbows with sales clerks, and nurses and med students came in for shooters on their Friday night “liver rounds.” But the core contingency of regulars was formed by those who were simply drifting through life, like me, and to us, The Pub was Home. There were a few raging alcoholics among us, but the vast majority were there for the familial camaraderie. Although there were some sad cases, The Pub was filled with many vibrant, talented people, and I felt more alive there than anywhere else.
I’d never applied for a job with Kieran because I didn’t want to risk ruining my favorite watering hole, but I began to consider the possibility. I could make decent money if I worked the bar with my good friend, Eileen O’Keefe. And if it became unbearable I could presumably come to my senses, too, and look for work elsewhere. Walking toward The Pub, I gradually convinced myself that a job opening did in fact exist, and that I wouldn’t have any trouble getting hired. I was attractive and engaging, and landing restaurant jobs had never been difficult (keeping them, of course, was another story). Buoyed by my plans for immediate gainful employment, and spotting a pay phone, I gathered my courage and dialed Mom’s number.
“Hello?” Ugh. I could not suppress a shudder when I heard that voice.
“Hi, Mom,” I managed a casual tone. “It’s me.”
“Alexis?” Hearing her say my name always made me want to crawl into a hole. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this call? Is that traffic I hear? Where are you? Are you in some sort of trouble?”
This response did not bode well, and I should have changed gears immediately. When she responded to my “It’s me” with “Hello, me” she was in Good Mommy mode, and though she wasn’t really a positive force in my life, at least at that moment she seemed to think we were the best of pals, and I could pretend right along with her. Ignoring my “It’s me” and jumping right into “Alexis?” as if she wasn’t sure she was speaking to her own daughter, should have told me to high tail it out of that situation. Granted I’d been adopted, but she’d had me since I was just a few days old. She ought to have known my voice after twenty-nine years. The fact that she wasn’t sure was enough to let me know I should back off. But I was both desperate and dumb. And, I was so comfortable with the discomfort she engendered in me that I hardly recognized it as a warning signal.
“I’m calling from a pay phone. I’m on my way to a new job.” I didn’t like lying to her; it was a self-preservation tactic. She used the truth to tear me to shreds.
“A new job? What was wrong with the old one? You change jobs more than anyone I know. You weren’t fired again, were you?” She was right but it was still really rich, coming from a woman who’d never been able to hold a volunteer position, much less a job, for more than six months in her entire life.
“No, Mom, I wasn’t fired. I can make more money at The Pub. I’m starting there tonight, and I’ll be bartending instead of waiting tables.”
“Bartending? When are you going to get a real job, Alexis?”
“Bartending is a real job, Mom. Listen, I’m calling because Gunner moved out and he owes me several months’ rent. I don’t think he’s going to pay me back, which is why I got a better job.”
“What did you do to make Gunner move out, Alexis?”
“Nothing, Mom, I told him to leave. He wasn’t as nice as he seemed.”
“Oh?” It was obvious that she thought my intrinsic worthlessness had finally become apparent to the great Gunner Rhodes, and he’d jumped ship.
“It’s a long story, Mom, but what I wanted to know was if you might be able to lend me $400 until the end of the month. Gunner didn’t pay his share of the rent, and –”
“Alexis! Stop! This makes me very uncomfortable. You turned eighteen years ago; I would not be doing you any favors if I bailed you out. I’m sorry you’re having problems but you’re an adult, you’ll have to solve them yourself.” And she slammed the receiver down.