The Hurt Artist

My Journey from Suicidal Junkie to Ironman

Shane Niemeyer with Gary Brozek

Thomas Dunne Books

ONE
 
 
I was born in Loveland, Colorado, in November 1975, but in a lot of ways, I could say I was born in the Ada County Jail in Boise on June 23, 2003. When I came to after the extension cord snapped and I survived my suicide attempt, I was in a world of hurt; my neck was stiff and abraded and my head was pounding and I was nauseated from not having done any dope or having a drink of alcohol since my arrest two days before. Worse than that though, my feet were throbbing. I’d fallen a good twelve feet or so and landed shoeless on a hard concrete floor. Birthing pains are tough on everybody.
Opening my eyes for the first time after I’d jumped—my ears ringing, my head pounding, and the anguished tears that I’d been crying moments before as I’d let go of the railing and let go of life still coursing down my cheeks—I was surrounded by a few people, including someone in hospital greens.
For the longest time, I’d assumed that I was going to die well before longevity statistics suggested that I should; either I would be killed by one of the dealers I had robbed, not wake up from an overdose, or perhaps another car wreck would end things. However, having somehow come through that jump, something inside me changed.
As soon as they determined that I hadn’t snapped my spine or sustained any life-threatening injury that necessitated me going to an off-site hospital, they took me to the medical unit. I was stripped down to my skivvies, examined, and then placed in what’s called a “security blanket,” a Kevlar garment that strapped my arms tight to my torso. They were trying to prevent me from doing any more damage to myself.
The thing is I didn’t need that. At some point in those moments shortly after I was reborn (no religious overtones implied or intended), I had a passing thought about being such a failure that I couldn’t even end my life successfully. I’d spent so much of my life thinking that I was a fuckup—and hating myself for that—that I couldn’t be completely free of self-loathing about another monumental and spectacular failure. This time instead of wallowing in that muddy sinkhole of self-incrimination and subterranean self-esteem, I let go after a minute of berating myself. Those negatives were immediately replaced by an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I was getting a second chance. Hell, I don’t know if I can calculate the number of second chances I’d received previously. Though I was very sick, hurting, and in a world of shit, I felt enormously unburdened. It was an intensely freeing experience to have come through that attempt alive. In a strange way, I had passed a test, endured a skewed rite of passage that only someone with my train wreck of a past could have seen as a positive.
That’s not to say that I wasn’t still dejected. The one feeling I wasn’t experiencing was fear. I had been scared shitless standing on that ledge and about to jump. Now, I wasn’t afraid at all. I felt like I no longer had anything to lose, and I didn’t. I had no personal belongings, no girl, no job, and no real future plans. I couldn’t and didn’t really long for the halcyon days of my golden past that I’d let slip through my fingers and could no longer return to. I had a blank slate of a life in front of me. If that metaphorical door had been opened, there was not a single thing I could see on the other side of the threshold.
That was such a liberating place to be. I didn’t hit bottom; I fell through its fucking floor. I got past that critical moment of despair. I had come to see in the hours and days that followed that I had come through so much that should have ended me. Once I lost my will to live I came to look at things completely differently. I had lost my freedom long ago and now I had lost my physical freedom as well. There was nothing left to lose; instead I came to think of things in terms of what I had to gain. It forced me to reframe my perception of things, and immediately changed my perspective. I was down at the bottom looking up at the infinite possibilities. My life could be a blank slate, and this was my point of origin. Freedom was mine. In that goddamn cell I vowed to myself that this was it, it was time to start living and cramming it all in because I had pissed away twenty-eight years of my life to this point, and the clock was ticking.
Fear holds us back from attempting so many things. I’d attempted what I think most people are extremely afraid to do. I’d done it, and regardless of the results, I could look at that suicide attempt and say one thing: I’d gone through with it; I’d pushed past the fear.
If I was experiencing some dread, it was rooted in something more immediate. I’d been dope-sick for a few days a couple of times during my various rehab stints or when I tried on my own to quit using or when my pipeline had somehow temporarily run dry. Detoxing and withdrawal were like having the absolute worst and most unrelenting flu symptoms you’ve ever had for hours and hours on end. I wasn’t looking forward to enduring those days. But even in those first moments when I woke up the next morning alone in that tiny cell, still in my less than comfortable restraints, with the red light of the surveillance camera and the bare cot and a black-bound Bible the only things breaking the monochromatic haze of white I was fogged into, I knew immediately that I was done with doing drugs.
I had to be.
For a long time I thought I had two options—quit drugs or die. I had tried to quit many times over the years. I’d just tried to die, so that left me with one choice. No choice really. I had to do this thing. I’d actively struggled for years to control my drinking and usage to no avail. Suicide was a way of both taking control and surrendering it. Now, I figured it might be time to do the same thing about my addictions, to just release them, stop being so attached to whatever pains and pleasures they brought me.
Also, I no longer wanted to kill myself. I knew all the things people said about a “cry for help,” but that wasn’t what I had been up to that previous afternoon. Without a doubt, I did want to end my life that day. The thought of death gave me so much comfort in those hours after my arrest. Life had become unbearable and I had completely lost hope. The moment I hit the ground after the extension cord snapped, I no longer wanted to end my life. In trying and failing to end my life, I’d given myself hope.
I’d spent years doing the worst possible things to myself, and then I’d attempted the ultimate act of self-destruction and I’d come out on the other side of it alive. That jump had shaken something loose inside of me, something that I had tried to kill with chemicals, and it had proven stronger than them. It was as if I’d done everything destructive I could possibly think of, and somehow the life force inside me hadn’t been defeated. I’d tried to kill myself, and the self-loathing, pissed-off-at-the-world part of me had survived, barely. I realized that now it was up to me to consciously take the steps to finish the job, to really lay that old self to rest.
I wanted the pain of my new injuries to end, that’s for sure. But I even took some comfort from them. They were visceral signs that I was alive, active reminders that I was still kicking, in a better place than I had been before the jump.
In that medical unit, I literally and figuratively came to my senses that next morning. I don’t know about divine intervention, God’s plan for us all, or anything like that. Maybe those things serve as an explanation or as a comfort. I do believe that all along in my life—through all the addiction issues I had, all the crimes I committed, all the general mayhem I manufactured for myself, my friends, my family, and society at large, even when things were the bleakest—there was still a tiny part of me that wanted me to pull it together and do something productive with my life. Eventually, I’d come to accept that there was more of a connectivity and confluence to our life circumstances and our choices than I had before when randomness ruled. That was going to take some time and a lot of work to get there. For once in my life, I wasn’t going to ask myself why it was that something had happened to me. I don’t know if I could say that I’d cheated death; all I knew was that my heart was pumping, my kidneys were producing piss, and my neurons were still sparking.
There was something to be said for just accepting that, establishing some kind of homeostatic balance for the moment and just respiring for a few moments, taking it all in.
I still had a lot of anger in me; some I directed toward myself for the horrendous choices I’d made, some at other people and circumstances that I thought had led me to the point I was at. As long as I was alive, it was okay to be angry. I’d figure out some way to deal with that. I had so much to sort out, and I was grateful that I was looking at doing a stretch in prison down the line. That would give me some time and space to figure out what it was I was going to do with the rest of my life, how I was going to manage to not waste another of the many opportunities I’d been given.
My time in the medical unit was the same as it would have been if I’d been put in solitary. Twenty-three hours out of the day I was alone in that closet of a room, constantly under video surveillance. If I knew one thing about myself it was that even though my body was so sore and damaged I could barely make the walk to the shower I was allowed during my sixty minutes outside the confines of my cell, my mind was going to be on a feverish walkabout. I needed something to keep myself from going crazy. My request for something to read was ignored. Of course, the medical staff had done their part to help, putting me on a low-dose antipsychotic/antidepressant called trazodone. For the next seven or eight days I would remain on it, mostly to help me with my physical detox. I would continue to do the Trazodone Shuffle throughout, a stooped-old-man-stiff gait that you might see a Parkinson’s patient use to get around.
That dosage may have calmed me a little, but it sure wasn’t doing much to help me unwind from all the neurological wind sprints I was doing. Each time I lay down on that cot, it was like time stood absolutely still. Because of the camera and the county’s need to surveil me, the lights were on all the time. The dope-sick was getting worse, and one moment was just another ghastly and ghostly white reproduction of another. It was as if a Xerox machine were spitting out blank page after blank page, filling up the room.
For the last several years, my entire life had revolved around thinking of ways to get money to buy drugs, procuring them, doing them, and then cycling through that constant preoccupation for years on end. Day after day. Hour after hour. Twenty-four seven. I was an animal, primal in pursuit of what I needed to survive.
What was I going to do with my brain now?
I couldn’t just sit there with nothing to do but wait for the dope-sick to get worse. I couldn’t just sit around for the rest of my life being a drag on society. Something had to give.
*   *   *
The surveillance camera’s dead eye never blinked, never acknowledged my presence.
The next morning, Deputy Freeman and another CO walked me to the shower. I know what a water closet is, and I know that describing this thing as a water closet might make you think of a bathroom, but really it was about the size and shape of a closet with a dripping nozzle poking out of the ceiling. A whore shower, I remember someone else calling it.
On the way back to my private accommodations, I asked again for something to read, this time adding, “What am I going to do? Paper cut myself to death?”
A little while later, I heard footsteps outside my cell. Next, I heard and then saw something slide under the door. I scooted along on my ass, pissed as hell that I had to use my already aching heels for traction, to see what had been delivered. The reading materials that lay there courtesy of Deputy Freeman consisted of a single magazine.
Being bound up and muscle sore like I was, it wasn’t easy to flip through that thing. I’d received a dog-eared copy of the June 1, 2000, Outside magazine. I scanned its cover and saw that the issue contained an article called, “Could This Be Love?” Given my desire to find anything to occupy my mind, I scrunched my toes across the glossy paper until I got to the one piece that had initially caught my eye. A photo of a very fit-looking man dominated the opening page.
The first thing that arrested my attention was the writer stating that guys like him raced in competitions that consisted of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. Besides the numbers, the other thing that struck me, so much so that I can still quote the words today, was that they accomplished all this, “like Zen masters, enclosed in bubbles of unremitting effort.” The crazy dude pictured was Dave Scott.
As I read on, I got more caught up in what was involved in pushing yourself to complete such a grind in a single day. All the hours of training. All the obsessing about what to put into your body to fuel it. All the planning you had to do in order maximize your performance so you could physiologically peak at a precise moment.
After I finished reading, I sat there thinking about all those questions I’d been asking myself about how I was going to occupy my time and my mind if I wasn’t doing drugs. The guys in that article seemed to be as obsessive about their routine as I had been about mine.
I also thought about the abuse that I had heaped upon my body. Not only was I a twenty-eight-year-old drug addict and an alcoholic, I smoked a couple of packs of cigarettes a day for years, and if it weren’t for the security blanket, I would have been oozing rolls of fat out of my clothes. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that I was a physical wreck as well as a moral, spiritual, and emotional one.
Looking back on it now, I can see that my decision to pursue the sport that Dave Scott had reigned over made absolutely no sense logically. I’d never really been an athlete. I’d had to run from some Honduran drug dealers (we’ll get to that), enraged security guards, and a few police officers in the last ten years, but that was the extent of my physical fitness regimen.
I do think it’s possible to be both lucid and delusional simultaneously. I may have only been a few days free of drugs, and I was suffering from the aftereffects of a kind of hangover that no one should ever have to experience. But I was completely lucid when I set my sights on the first worthwhile outcome I’d had in years—to qualify for and eventually compete in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
I had to ignore the fact that I faced a significant hurdle right out of the starting blocks.
I was in jail and headed for prison.
I was likely to be behind bars somewhere for an as-yet-to-be-determined but probably lengthy amount of time. Boise ain’t Kona, and I’m all for purposeful delusion, but even I could see these initial environmental limitations. I had no pool. I had no bike. I had no roads to run.
For at least the previous ten years or more, my future had consisted of getting the drugs I needed by any means necessary to get me through the day. Those days mostly involved me being a drag on society, on those who I came in contact with directly, and generally tearing myself and the world down. Post-suicide attempt, I was looking for something to achieve, some way to make a positive move. For years and years, I’d been in a kind of static state at best but mostly regressing. I wanted to move forward, to push myself, to finally after all the years of just being a complete energy suck to test my mettle and see what I was really made of. I knew that this would be a case of self-denial and discipline to the extreme. Extremes were something that I was good at. I always wanted to be the craziest motherfucker in the bunch. I had to drink more than anybody, take the most risks, defy most fervently whatever strictures those in authority placed on me.
For me, there never was a middle ground. To borrow a cliché, it was always go big or go home. Trying to kill myself was just another example of that. If you’re going to punish yourself, then that was as big a way to do it as there could be. Now I was going to punish my body to the extreme, but with a critical difference. I was going to achieve something, make some kind of positive contribution.
I finally had an outline for myself and my future that didn’t include winding up as another in a very long line of dead junkies.

 
Copyright © 2014 by Shane Niemeyer and Gary Brozek