First, many thanks to the many people who took 45 seconds over the weekend to connect with me. Lots of great suggestions and feedback, which is valuable to any writer. Will take me some time to process—meanwhile, more always welcome.
Today I’m thinking about eyes.
Someone was telling me the other day about her adult daughter, who she said is living at home with her and is addicted to painkillers. First morphine, now Vicodin. “Now we have to get her off the Vicodin,” she said. Her nose was running. She kept taking a tissue out to blow her nose. A cold, I thought.
“Is she truly addicted? Is she acting out?” I asked.
“She sometimes gets violent,” she said. Then her eyes snapped to my face. “How do you know about this kind of thing?”
“I’m a drug addict,” I said.
“How?” she asked. She looked at my face, my clothes. I don’t “look like” a drug addict. So I told her “how.” She started to cry.
After she blew her nose the third or fourth time, I frankly looked into her eyes.
I’m used to looking at people’s faces and figures. I’m an artist and always on the lookout for subjects. I’m also a writer. In most of the stuff I’ve written or painted, I’ve focused on seeing inside people. Buildings bore me. Landscapes bore me. They don’t have eyes. They don’t have bones.
In my second book, I was hired to see inside a person who had died at a young age of cancer. To do that I interviewed people who had known her, including her parents and husband and surgeon, and I also studied many photographs of her face and figure.
To create an effective portrait or profile, you have to notice things about people. Seeing inside people can feel like an invasive act; it can in fact BE an invasive act. You have to be careful you don’t bring your own projections to the process of seeing. But total objectivity is a myth, and it’s impossible to leave yourself entirely behind.
What I saw when I looked into her eyes was: her pupils were pinned.
The light was by no means bright.
Right away part of me wished I hadn’t looked. Her family life was falling apart, she said; and I didn’t want to know that she herself might have a drug problem.
Pinned pupils are a sentinel indicator of opioid ingestion. A runny nose is a sign of opioid withdrawal. You can hide many of the rest of the signs of opioid drug-use—itching; mania; somnolence (sometimes you can hide this); lack of appetites for food, exercise, sex. You can hide some of the signs of withdrawal—sweating; gut cramps; goose-bumps. You can try to hide a runny nose, but you cannot hide pinned pupils.
Here are my pupils in August 2008, two weeks before I detoxed:
I look desperate, lost. Dull. Fading away.
When we “get clean,” when we detox from drugs or alcohol, when we recover from any illness, our bodies show the effects.
Last week my friend Dawn shot some photos of me. She has a big-ass camera with lots of pixels. One of the first things I noticed when I looked at the proofs was my pupils. Big, dark pupils. Also: healthy skin. No amount of money can buy these when you’re wrecked.
There are a few things about people’s bodies that tell their stories without their speaking. I look at a person’s mouth. I look at hands. (The nails, the shapes of the bones, the skin stretched across hands say a great deal about a person’s physical and emotional life. I love looking at hands.) And of course, the life of the eyes is extremely difficult to control. They are almost literally windows. If two people look long enough into each other’s eyes—in real life (“IRL”)—even without speaking, they will break down in tears or some other expression of deep feelings, because the act is so intimate. That intimacy of eye-contact is hard-wired into us. It’s easy to avoid online.
If you look closely enough at the photo of my eyes (click image for full size) you can even see a reflection of Dawn.
I was thinking over the weekend that many of us addicts and alcoholics get tired of admitting our addictions. “It’s not all I am,” people say. “My addiction is not my whole identity. There’s more to me besides.” True. But I was thinking about how there’s a certain freedom for me these days in being “out.” In not hiding. It allows me not only to help others, but also to accept who I am more fully.
Which means I can move more readily toward the person I am becoming.
What does your body say about you? How much do you try to hide?