“When I grow up, I want to be a monster.” Part I

By Darin Barry

At age five, I wanted to grow up to be a monster, like Dracula, or Frankenstein. So I grew up to be a monster.  I then aspired to be a CIA agent. I was eight. That never happened. At twelve, I wanted to grow up to be in the movies. That happened. At seventeen, I wanted to be a veterinarian. That sorta happened; I became a certified veterinary assistant. When I was eighteen, I remember telling my Mom that by the time I was thirty, I would be a millionaire and drive a Jaguar. But when I actually did turn thirty, I had moved back in with Mom, and all I really accomplished in the span of my twenties was several failed attempts at various careers, and all I was truly professional at was drinking. I also had started to show signs of bipolar disorder in my early twenties, but my behavior, and failures were always chalked up to my alcoholism.

I put the plug in the jug for the first time at 32. That’s when life began to get interesting. I became a bartender, and server at a restaurant in Mariposa, California. I lived with, and worked for the Stayner family, who were known nationally for a couple of tragic reasons; their youngest son was kidnapped, and the eldest was a serial killer. During that time, Cary Stayner’s murder trial was going on a couple of miles from where I lived. As Lloyd Bridges famously said in the movie Airplane, “It looks like I picked a terrible time to quit drinking.” One day, drunk and disheartened, I ran away from it all, and rode my motorcycle up Highway 49 towards home, Nevada City, California. Yet again.

Then I moved to Colorado after I had, once again,  stopped drinking, and became a mortician. I didn’t see that in my future when I was a kid. Colorado was the only state in the nation that had no licensure in the funeral industry. It was a bizarre set of circumstances that pulled me into becoming a funeral director, and mortician. That is a novella in itself, and too lengthy, and irrelevant to the story I tell now. But I will tell you this; I was a Walgreens manager at the time I got hired as a funeral director, and I got the job in a Yahoo chatroom basically because I looked good in a suit. I had no desire at the time, nor the experience to become a mortician. But the starting salary of $60,000 a year, clothing allowance, and expense account, took me away from creating Chia Pet displays to embalming, and cremating people overnight. I even had my name on the door of the Boulder Mortuary: Darin Barry – Funeral Director – Manager.

It didn’t end well. I ended up being a whistle blower, going to the district attorney with serious complaints about egregious practices, and criminal negligence committed by my employers. I ended up on national news. Stunningly, the victims had no recourse as there were no consumer protections in Colorado to protect them from the funeral industry. Years later I would help to write new legislation with a Colorado legislator to regulate the state’s funeral industry. An accomplishment for which I was proud. And I got through it all still sober. I was proud of that too.

I had a brief stint as a counselor for at-risk kids in New Hampshire. I never saw that career for myself either when I was young.

Then, in Portland, Oregon, me and my little brother opened up a coffee shop, The Brews Brothers. I do remember fantasizing about being a business owner when I was a kid. I had arrived. I loved that new career. I loved the culture in Portland. We were hugely successful. Sadly, we had decided to sell when our parents began to fail. We moved back in with them, this time for unselfish reasons: to take care of them until they passed.

Shortly after my Mom died in my arms, my bipolar disorder threw me into the lowest of the lows, and I ended up hospitalized for depression. Manic highs would also send me off to mental wards. I had been struggling for five years to overcome my mental illness, trying different cocktails of medications with the goal of stability.

I had alienated, and distanced myself from all my siblings. My mania always ended in periods of rage – I was an insufferable monster during those times. My childhood dream came true. I was a monster wreaking havoc in other people’s lives.

  

I moved back to Portland where I got into the television industry. I started from the bottom again, getting principal background actor gigs in Grimm, Portlandia, The Librarians, and a Jeep commercial. One happy afternoon, I walked into a hipster bar in the Alberta Arts District and ordered a scotch. And then another. Grandiosity set in, and I had convinced a production company over the phone that I had the skills, and experience to become an assistant director; a profession that isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds. It was a huge opportunity. I slept in the next day missing my chance completely, and I had a terrific hangover. A month later,  I got kicked out of my apartment too.

I moved back to Nevada City, broke. I lived with a friend for few years growing pot for medical marijuana dispensaries.

Then, something happened that I never possibly could have imagined as a kid. I became a hopeless alcoholic. My mental illness was also off the hook. I don’t know how I got a job at a local natural foods Co-Op, but I did. Then of course, I lost that.

Then, yet another career of sorts I never saw coming as a kid developed quite naturally. I became a homeless.

After several nights staying in my car, I answered a friends message on Facebook inviting me to come stay at her restaurant in nearby Camptonville, California. I lived above a bar; a fantastic place for a practicing alkie. Soon after, I moved out to their fifth-wheel trailer on the property, where I could drink with impunity. Nobody would bother me with seemingly self-righteous warnings, and concern. I drank the winter away in that cold-as-ice trailer. The bar had become lowered; it was ok for me to be homeless, drinking away in a trailer in the boonies. Once a week, I would drive drunk into nearby Grass Valley to attend class. I had hopes to become a peer support specialist; something my psychiatrist, and my therapist had set up.

One icy night in November of 2016, I fell off a porch while drunk off my ass, and broke both my wrists, and damaged my shoulder so badly that months later, surgery would be required to correct it. Another lowering of the bar occurred that night. It was ok to be a homeless drunk, and to severely injure myself while drunk. I was ok with that.

I was a shaky, sweaty, anxiety ridden mess without my booze at this point in my life. I had graduated to 1.75 liters a day of cheap vodka that I would run to the store to purchase, every morning, as soon as it opened. I never let myself become a shaky, sweaty, anxiety ridden mess. I needed to drink to keep that at bay. When you are an alcoholic of my variety, you know, or have known, what it like to NEED a drink. And at that point, it becomes vital: to withdraw without professional help is deadly. This was another lowering of the bar. I was ok drinking the party size bottle of vodka every day, over a twenty-four hour period.

Then yet another lowering of the bar occurred. On another icy night, this time in February of 2017, I slid my car into a ditch on my way to get vodka. I got a D.U.I, and was arrested. I spent the night in jail in Yuba County. When I was released early the next morning, I promptly found myself ordering long island ice teas at the closest bar I could find, a dive called The Silver Dollar Saloon. So I totaled my car, I got arrested and charged, and I was ok with that.

I moved into town, leaving my belongings behind to pick up on another day. I couched surfed at friend’s homes until I was asked to leave, one by one. I still managed to attend class once a week, although I was stinking drunk. My instructor took pity on me, and even thought it was charming when I broke into song during class singing Depeche Mode songs.

I was taken in by my friend Jen, who was the crisis worker answering phone calls for those who were suicidal, days after my arrest. During the last few days in February, I walked into a convenience store near Jens’ home, and collapsed. I was taken to the hospital by ambulance. I stayed for seven days, being treated for alcohol poisoning, alcohol withdrawal, heart monitoring, and severe chemical imbalances.

On day four, while connected to and I.V, and machines that go “ping,” my first moments of clarity began to shine through. Everything changed. A stranger who had been following my journaling on Facebook came to visit me in my hospital room, telling his own tale of drug and alcohol use, his own experiences with mental illness, and his eventual recovery. He offered something I didn’t have, and something I desperately wanted: hope.

I had lowered the bar, digging to the lowest depths of the earth, almost to the molten core of the Earth, before my rock bottom was reached. I was in a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body, and hope come from a total stranger. I was an atheist. I had long tossed off what I viewed as the constraints, and judgements of organized religion. But in retrospect, I believe this was divine intervention. It was a spiritual experience, not from any deity of a religion I knew, but of something undefinable. And I’m not holding the man who brought me hope up to the pedestal of divinity, but I did dub him my guardian angel.

Months went by. I had been through a 28 day drug and alcohol program, where I discovered a promise of recovery from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body through the beginnings of work in a twelve step program. I had been given a place to live. I was given employment. I was given continued support. All from my “guardian angel.”

I had shoulder surgery in Spring of 2017. The recovery time allowed me to focus on doing my work in completing the twelve steps that I had dove head first into working. More clarity came to me as the time passed. I began to develop renewed interest in talents I had laid down for years: music, art, photography, and writing. I had begun to volunteer for homeless organizations, and spoke about my experience, strength and hope at institutions. I had graduated from my peer support specialist class, earning my certification. I earned my 90 day sobriety chip in June. I became the secretary (host) of the Young People’s Meeting within the twelve step program that kept me sober.  I had regained the trust of friends I thought I had lost, and made a host of new friends.

July came with the sunflowers I helped plant reaching 15 feet tall. It was then suggested that I was a good fit to become manager of clean and sober house in downtown Nevada City. I felt it was time to move on from beneath the wings of my guardian angel.

I hung my peer support specialist diploma on the wall of the house I began managing. Yet, another position that I never could have seen coming. Just a half a year earlier,  there could be not be a way I could see myself in the future as being a peer support specialist, and manager of a home supporting those who were formerly homeless, with co-occurring disorders. I would have been extremely focused on getting my next bottle of vodka, and that is all there was to my life back then. Now I am service to others in one of the most unselfish ways I have ever had to pleasure to know. Who would have thought?

I have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. Although, I will never be cured, I get to remain recovered from that state, so long as I seek to stay spiritually fit. This is something I have gained from the Big Book of the twelve step program that saved my life. I haven’t found God. I seek him. Daily. I do not believe for a second I could have got sober, and remained sober without the intervention of the God of my own understanding.

When the sun rises in the mornings, and if  I am awake to see it, I see something new. I see the sunlight of the Spirit. But with or without seeing the sunrise, I am constantly bathed in the sunlight of the Spirit. I feel eternally grateful to be able to pass what I have been given, to those who still suffer. I feel grateful to be able to bare hope to those who feel they have none; to those lost, and alone, and afraid.

When I think back to what I wanted to be when I grew up, none of it seems silly in retrospect. I thought those silly career choices would make me happy, and after all, that was the ultimate goal. It took exploration, and fruition of many of those fantasies I had as a kid to discover that, ultimately, those particular paths wouldn’t bring me happiness. Self-seeking has wrought for me grief like only other alcoholics know. This may seem crazy to those who are non-alcoholics, but I am grateful to every drop of alcohol that got me to this point where I am today. To work with others who suffer, to see the light come back in their eyes, is like having a front row seat to watch God work – it’s a joy I’ve never known until now.

The Happiest I’ve Ever Been and the Joys to Come

darin and gordon

“I am the son

And the heir

Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar

I am the son and heir

Of nothing in particular

You shut your mouth

How can you say

I go about things the wrong way?

I am human and I need to be loved

Just like everybody else does” – The Smiths

Nothing in this world could change the misery that I knew, when I woke up this morning. A small joy in my life wasn’t having it as she purred on my chest, rubbing her head against my face during her daily prelude to being fed. Her large innocent eyes know only peace. If only my cat, Isabella knew how I was feeling. Maybe she did. I knew and know this day has to be all about taking steps towards healing; my psychiatrists doors can’t open soon enough. I keep telling myself all those things I hate hearing from other people when I am in deep depression; be happy, you’ll snap out of it, and just get over it. I didn’t turn on the radio because some d.j. might say it’s going to be a nice day reminding me on how it’s not. I sat in my big comfy chair in my room at 3:00 A.M. staring at nothing in particular thinking about what steps I can take today to help lift me out of profound sadness. The warrior in me is still kicking through the walls of depression.

I began thinking about what in my past has brought about happiness.  I  had a breakthrough moment about a mistake I had been making – that is I was comparing moments and elements that made up that happiness to what’s going on now. I realized those were futile thoughts bringing me down further.

You can’t bring people back from the dead, those who were the bright spot in my life. Nor can I ask others who are on their chosen paths to stop what they’re doing and come back to me. I can’t recreate the circumstances that brought about euphoric times, not with any authenticity. But I can look back at those moments and smile. I can think about when my mom, my brother, my dad, close friends Mary and Saint when they were still alive. I can think about times in the sun with my living brother never being an arms length apart from each other. I can reflect on them and the times in life we shared, but I can’t bring them back.

My brother Gordon in his teens and early twenties was and is the bright spot in my life. I do miss the times  we spent coloring with crayons as adults, stoned, out in the middle of the woods. I miss the epic bicycle trips we took together in the warm months of summer. I miss being in business with him, owning a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon. I miss the moments in the sunshine, skinny-dipping at our favorite swimming hole at the South Fork of the Yuba River in California. Most of all, I miss having him go with me everywhere, even grocery shopping. He’d automatically jump in the car no matter where I was going. I loved that. We did most everything together. Then, after my Dad died, Gordon went off to college, and to pursue a career as a musician aboard a cruise ship – a profession that takes him away from me for long periods of time.

Mary was always laughing. We got along so well that we moved in together as close friends. She was always up for adventure, especially off-the-wall crazy ones. Concerts, morning coffee rituals at our favorite haunts, midnight movies, underground plays and performances; she was up for it all. I lost her to alcoholism. She bleed out in our apartment in 2006.

I thought of them all this morning; those who brought me great happiness. I tried not to let the overshadow of them passing tragically or going away.

The breakthrough I had this morning is that I need not replace those I’ve lost with exact duplicates. That’s what keeps me pushing quality newcomers in my life away. I need to be open to new experiences and pastimes that might unfold a great new triumph of happiness. I need to think of the joys that will come if I let them.

In the big book of a twelve step program I am in, there is a passage, a promise that reads, “ We are going to know a new freedom, and a new happiness.” It is the newness of things I feel I need to embrace. For too long I’ve looked to re-create history and to replace others. I need to stop looking for qualities that those in my past have possessed and realize and explore the inward beauty of newcomers to my life. I need to embrace new experiences and not shun them.

I am sad and know a great tiredness that is enveloping me today, but I know this is a temporary predicament. There is great joy ahead if I let it be, if I let it unfold.

Why I Am No Longer a Mortician

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Dawn was streaking between the towering buildings of downtown Denver as I drove under them on 17th Street on my way to work. The music in my car was loud and I sang along. I’d be directing a funeral in Boulder that morning and I was dressed for the part. Amanda, my favorite barista at St. Marks, a blue-haired girl with a big smile and a pierced face would be handing me my morning Americano while asking for the gory details of my job. Sometimes I obliged her, and although unprofessional, I didn’t really care because Amanda was my de-facto therapist.

I was operating on three hours sleep. In the early morning, I was called to do a removal as the guys that usually did so could not be aroused. All the funeral homes in the Denver metro area took turns dealing with unclaimed remains of the homeless and that morning was our turn and I worked alone. The hospital morgue held the body of a man whose family basically said he wasn’t their problem and that morning he was mine. He weighed close to four hundred pounds. A couple of security guards instead of orderlies were summoned to help me slide the body on my gurney, but I had no help on the other end of town where the gurney gave way, spilling the bodybag onto the ramp of our mortuaries back entrance. I tried, but there was no way I alone could lift the body. I made several telephone calls for help. Again, no-one could be woken up to help me. I resorted using a cherry picker to get the man off the ground before I could wheel him into the icy atmosphere of our cooler with the other bodies awaiting cremation. But before I did all that, I had to franticly build a makeshift barrier using cardboard from the recycle bin to shield the body from view of passengers aboard an oncoming Amtrak train. That’s the last thing tourists and commuters needed to see on their way into Denver was a body bag laying on the ground outside a mortuary. Sleep wouldn’t come until around 2:00 A.M.  Amanda would have a story that morning, that was for sure.

Once in Boulder, I was alone; found a note that said I would be working alone because my young boss decided to go skiing. I didn’t know much about the family I would be counseling so I did a little research on them, reading their file before I would meet with them later that morning. It was all typical.

Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, as I will name them, were surprisingly well composed. Earlier, before they arrived, I had set all the floral arrangements sent by family and friends out where I thought they looked best and placed the cremains of the decedent near the alter of the the church at the rear. Mrs. Bradford said everything looked beautiful. I was pleased with myself. I thought the funeral would be simple and smooth. Then a group of the decedents’ class mates entered the room with their teacher. They were all special needs kids wailing like teething toddlers. They were around the sixth grade level. Several were downs syndrome children. They could not be consoled. I wanted to hug each and every one of them but that was considered unprofessional and not allowed.

Later, a little downs syndrome girl took to the podium. I lowered the mic so she could reach it. She started speaking with her impaired, downs syndrome voice, “Joey was a friend of mine. He helped teach me to ride a bike. He good guy…good friend. He’s my best friend…” Then I heard a little boy ask his teacher a little too loud, “When’s Joey coming back?” I lost it in front of everyone in the church audience. I was balling. The little girl was quivering, saturated in despondency. Her voice was shaking. I grabbed her hand and lead her to her teacher. After a moment, I walked back to the podium and asked the crowd if there was anyone else who wanted to speak.

Back at the funeral home, I gathered my thoughts in the office. Why oh why am I doing this?  I asked myself. It was clear the children could have no concept of death, or the afterlife if there was one. After all, how could a God do this to the children, much less a very innocent child and his friends? I decided if there was a God, he must have a very sick sense of humor. The little boys’ question haunted me the entire day, “When is Joey coming home?”

My boss came in drunk just then. I had scolded him over the phone earlier and he left the ski slopes to get back to business. I yelled at him for the lack of support lately and the omission of facts I needed to mentally prepare myself for the services that took place that morning. I had gotten used to scolding my boss. He was a young idiot. I sent him home. His own employee told him to take a taxi home, and to get out that instant. He was only 23, the child of a mogul who owned a drug store chain in the Midwest whose Daddy bought him several funeral homes in Colorado and Wyoming. I managed his Boulder location. I was hired with no experience or schooling in mortuary sciences. In Colorado at the time, one needed no license to be a mortician. I had been a Walgreens manager prior to be hired at Boulder mortuary and was pretty much hired on the basis that the owner thought I looked good in a suit. Days after I left Walgreens, I was embalming and cremating bodies. It’s unconscionable that he thought this was a good idea. This was an example of his professionalism and how seriously he took his work. He was a morbid little male bimbo. But it was also crazy on my part to take the job.

That day just kept getting better. A man entered my office without notice. I apparently left the outside entrance unlocked. He was visibly upset.

“This is not my mother. She was taken away in a nightgown.”, he said, red-faced with a tinge of anger. He then unscrewed the top of the urn and pulled out an ashy, destroyed mans watch. He laid it down in front of me on my desk. And then, from his pocket, he produced a ziplock bag with a couple of buttons in it. “There were also Levi 501 buttons in there.”

I didn’t know what to say for the longest time. I just stared at him. It was all I could do. I had nearly cremated my boss over not labeling people before. I really didn’t think it could ever come to that level of horror. I thought my boss had gotten it together. I seriously did not think that would ever happen. No human being could have let that happen.

It took me about ten minutes to come to a deliberation. I decided to take this incident and other complaints to the district attorney. I also went to O.S.H.A over the fact that we were breathing in formalin during the embalming process without being provided masks, and the eyewash station blocked with books, and showers were being used as storage.

“I’m sorry Mr. Barry. In the state of Colorado, the consumer has no recourse. According to the law, Mr. Stevens has done nothing wrong other than violate some consumer protection ordinances, a misdemeanor. However, there is a woman on the state legislature who wants to talk to you. She’s been trying to get the funeral industry regulated for years.” the district attorney stated.

I worked with representative Debbie Stafford, testifying on the floor of the Colorado State Legislature for two years before the governor finally signed the act to enact regulation for the funeral industry.

I was inundated with phone calls from the press. News stations were outside my house for days on end. I did several interviews on television, and the newspapers were full of headlines about the story.

But with all that drama, the most haunting part of that whole experience were the people, soaked in inconsolable sadness -peaces of their wholeness dead – over the loss of their loved ones. That would get at me most. And then there was the mentally retarded little boy, “When is Joey coming home?” The bewildered wife whose husband was killed days before in a car accident. The list goes on. I was saturated in despondency myself.

I remember sitting out on the patio of a Denver ice cream parlor the day after the bill was signed into law, staring out into the air thinking about the whole experience of being a mortician. These memories would soon be formidable ones in my psyche. They would be key players in the start of a future drinking career. One that would last a long time.