The Bondage of Selfies

By Nick Dothée 12/13/16

The selfie that needs your approval from this article is one resentment away from a mind altering substance.

Image: 
A picture of Nick Dothee smiling.
Detox Smiling Selfie via Author

Upon arrival to the Van Ness Recovery House in Hollywood, California, new residents are required to write down their last twenty-four to forty-eight hours of using. This is called a snapshot and it’s to be read every morning so that us fellow alcoholics viscerally remember and then share the feelings of where drugs and alcohol took us. I never thought mine was nearly as exciting as my last twenty-four to forty-eight days of existing in an unmanageable mess of my own creating, but that is just one clue to the level of denial I had for my limitless examples of incomprehensible demoralization. Yes, there is alcoholism in my family and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, but I made sure to hit every branch on the way down. This last run of alcohol, methamphetamine, and benzodiazepines expedited my complete surrender. It was painfully clear, to those who could still stomach looking at my ongoing wreckage, that I had lost a losing battle and had hit more than one bottom in the process.

Broken only scratched the surface of how I felt and how I looked on June 2nd 2016. I was shuttled to rehab directly from the hospital; do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. I couldn’t go back to the studio apartment I was staying in, where my parents were paying my rent, because I knew where the vodka was hiding- (I hid it).

Lucky for me and my sobriety I won’t ever forget those final days because aside from the written snapshot, I found hundreds of selfie photos on my cracked-screen-iPhone 6. Anyone who isn’t a stranger to crystal meth would take one look at my screen and endearingly deem the whole device a “tweaker phone.” Anyone who isn’t a stranger to meth has five phones just like it. Two of them actually work; one receives local phone calls and the other can hook up to your wifi for amazon shopping cart filling, but never checking out-ing. The other three phones are organ donors, if you will, reserved for future tweaker projects. My tweaker phone was locked up for the four months I was in treatment.

When I made the decision to leave the Van Ness Recovery House, my phone was returned and each bottom I had hit was very specifically categorized and dated. In fact my iPhone photo app mocked my disease by automatically creating separate albums based on each location of nauseating havoc. All the winning shots were compiled and actualized in a 2016 best year ever movie trailer. It was literally called “The Best Year Ever” and had dramatic underscoring.

Have you ever done a photo burst on a phone where you hold down the button and the camera snaps a hundred or so shots in seconds so that you have some varying choices? Have you ever seen a few hundred shots of yourself in a row all with identical barren expressions? I have, and the reflection of the self I thought was getting away with something still haunts me today despite the pics now being in the trash.

Self-obsession pairs nicely with alcoholism, but a full year in a blackout visually spread out and blasted on social media, for all of my world to see, elevates the concept of the “selfie” to frightening heights. My true Hollywood story really took off with a tweet for help that landed me in the psych ward at UCLA creepily called Olive View. I literally tweeted “help me,” while wasted, and some NYC sober friends thankfully called the cops on me. A week or so later, after being institutionalized for six days, I figured two suicide ideation tweets were better than one and revived the “help me” tweet for one last showing before actually getting the help I needed. The second one didn’t take and so my alcoholic career peaked at one 5150 (a legal involuntary 72 hour psychiatric hold) which paled in comparison to my peers with over a dozen at the Van Ness Recovery House. Amateur hour, starring me.

The last selfie I posted before recovery was from detox. The caption was, “Who says I can’t instagram from the hospital? What am I supposed to do between Sleepless in Seattle and getting my vitals checked?” Cute. The discharge papers from Mission Community Hospital read: drug induced psychosis, lethal blood alcohol levels, and clinical major depression. My first few weeks in treatment I referred to the hospital where I detoxed as Memorial Community Hospital. Potato, tomato. The last 18 months of my life were a complete blur and even now the fog has barely begun to dissipate. More was revealed in the four months I thawed out in rehab, but it wasn’t until I finally made the choice to leave, and my phone was returned to me, that it became crystal clear where all of these illegal feeling fixers took me - one selfie at a time.

“Nick of the Mountains” awakened more mind fucking memories. Judging from the outdoor selfie album you’d never know I was barely living on booze, pills, and meth in a cabin in Guerneville (Northern California) for three months with a drug dealer of sorts.

The self I was seemingly trying to portray in these selfies was nowhere to be found in the vacant eyes lifelessly staring back at me. The ghost that I was dressing up as me for social media was designed to beg you to believe everything was okay. I wasn’t loaded, I was just in the woods, in a hot tub, living life very far from life's own terms. The last thing I wanted a selfie to display was the beaten self that was slowly losing functionality, not unlike the cracked screen phone used to capture my transparently grim image. How many selfies does it take for one that depicts something in the ballpark of my truth?

Psychosis is a common symptom of meth use. It wasn’t until I was safe at the Van Ness Recovery House and I learned more about how powerful psychosis is that I realized that I was alone in that cabin with that drug dealer for months. I was under the impression there were others and they would come out from trap doors and false walls. I would scream at the drug dealer for lying to me and having sex with these others while I wasn’t looking. I asked him to drive me to LA at some point so I could start to rebuild my life free from active addiction. He drove me the eight hours, then left me in a motel high on crystal without resources to either get more drugs or get help.

On my phone the reality of the situations I had gotten myself into were unapologetically documented; missed messages on my Grindr and Scruff accounts that prevented me from meeting up with yet another tweaker sex partner. I have since deleted all of this and been tested for HIV and STDs. I am lucky to be alive let alone disease free. I found countless videos of me high on crystal meth having sex with strangers and putting myself in every unimaginable high risk scenario. There’s one video in particular that grabbed my narcissistic attention, in which I am videoing myself attempting to go to an AA meeting, but I’m crying and can barely walk, let alone speak. I kept it. I don’t ever want to forget how bad it got. I could easily disassociate and say that’s not me. I’d tell myself that I don’t know the guy who lets self pity run the show. It’s selfish and hard to look at, let alone live. But that is me — self-centered in the extreme.

If I was willing to put the effort in I could remember, without the help of a selfie, that I had been living in a utility closet under a porch in a garage with a drug dealer moonlighting as my boyfriend for more than just a few months before upgrading to the cabin with a different dealer. I was forty pounds lighter. I know that I totaled my mother’s brand new red Prius and ended up in jail for three days for driving under the influence. I don’t need a selfie to remember that, although I did find one from that day. That crash was a consequence of the crystal meth I had swallowed earlier to keep me awake that day while I taught drama to kids. After work I got lost trying to find my way back to my mom’s house. I passed out at the wheel, crashing into the center divide, spinning into traffic, and rolling over past the opposite shoulder. I was told that if it weren't for the Prius’ side air bags, I’d be dead.

While in jail I hallucinated a performance of Hard Knock Life from the musical Annie, performed by the staff there. That landed me in a private cell in the psych unit of the facility. I still believed that the performance took place when I got in the car with my parents after being released. It was their facial expressions, caught in the rear view mirror, that told me the story I was telling was not reality. You’d think I would stop using after that. No. I struggled to recall that I had passed out on GHB and been taken advantage of while coming to in a strange apartment with no idea how I got there or how to get out. There are surely many GHB nightmares that I woke from without the punishment of a memory.

As a child actor in the San Francisco Bay Area, I always imagined I’d do Broadway and NYC theater first and then end up doing TV and film in Hollywood. When I was a singing waiter on Broadway in Times Square we used to say over the microphone to all of the guests, “Growing up, I always dreamed of singing on Broadway, but I should have been more specific.” The Hollywood sign is very prominent from the backyard of the Van Ness Recovery House. Most days I would stare at it and think, “I should have been more specific.”

Now as I’m sober and trudging the road of happy destiny, so to speak, I have different thoughts. I take contrary action because I’ve seen where my best thinking takes me. I know, if I play the tape all the way through, that social media and apps such as Grindr equal death. And so just for today I ask a power greater than myself to relieve me of the bondage of selfies. It’s not enough for me to not pick up a drink or drug, the selfie that is unwilling to be rigorously honest wants me dead. The selfie that needs your approval from this article is one resentment away from a mind altering substance. The selfie that is too fearful to feel feelings, all of them, will be thrown away unless I can stay honest, open-minded, and willing to change. My self-will run riot. I have to get out of my selfie and get present in the here and now — out of the selfie and into the solution.

The day I left the Van Ness Recovery House I carried a plastic garbage bag, stuffed full with donation clothing I had acquired over the months, to an acquaintance from my sober support group’s studio apartment. I humbled myself to ask for help. I used my words this time, not Twitter. All I had was that bag and a fucked up tweaker phone filled with triggering social media nonsense. Leaving rehab I thought finding housing and a job would be the hardest part, but that proved much easier than the Hollywood mean streets of my iPhone. I’ve deleted most of the pictures, but now they are perpetually imprinted in my mind. There is no airbrush app to smooth out the blemishes or a bright Instagram filter to wash out the darkness. The memories are uncomfortable, but they won’t kill me — forgetting will.

All images used with permission of the author.

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Nick Dothée was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and currently lives in Hollywood, CA. He has been published in OUT magazine and had a successful podcast, Dirty 30 Somethingthat iTunes named new and noteworthy while he was living in NYC as an actor slash singer slash singing waiter in Times Square. Nick still writes and performs, but now his recovery has become number one because his life depends on it. You can follow Nick on Twitter.

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