Chris Lemig’s The Narrow Way: A Memoir of Coming Out, Getting Clean and Finding Buddha
Even at twelve, Chris Lemig knew he was gay — he just didn’t want to believe it. Spurred on by intolerance, ignorance, and fear, he took his first steps into the closet, and so began twenty-three years of drinking, drugs, and attempted suicides. Finally, after being victimized in a hate crime, Chris knew it was time to make a change. He came out, and in part thanks to his study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism, got — and has stayed — clean.
Chris tells his story in his brave and harrowing new book, The Narrow Way: A Memoir of Coming Out, Getting Clean, and Finding Buddha. Here, in an online exclusive, is “Rebirth,” a crucial chapter from it, shared here in its entirety.
Time passes unhindered. When we make mistakes, we cannot turn back and try again. All we can do is use the present well. — H.H. The XIV Dalai Lama
Up, up, up I climb. Up into Rocky Mountain foothills; up into the heart of my fears and limitations. The whoosh of the highway is now far in the distance as the still air becomes thin and clear. Cool rivers of sweat pour from my temples running fast down my neck and back.
Today, six months before heading off to India, I am alive!
I walk a furious pace, over the craggy landscape, through awakening sage and scrub oak, bound and determined to conquer these seven miles that have turned me back a dozen times. But five months without cigarettes or liquor now and my lungs feel like new. I breathe in deep at the two-mile mark, the start of the long loop trail, and pause.
I will not turn back this time. I will not give up. I have come too far, too fast.
Five months old now. A newborn and delighted at the rush of senses only just discovered. I think back, remembering that first day, the day of my rebirth.
I can see myself coming home from the short vacation I took just after coming out. I thought I should celebrate. But now, standing outside the airport waiting for my ride, I look long and hard at the crumpled pack of Camels in my hand. My eyes follow down, down as they fall away into the trash and I dive in after them in my mind, trembling at the thought of walking the path ahead without my dear old crutch.
But then a shout from my cousin’s husband in the pick up lane and I hop into the truck.
“Whoa, you smell like booze!” he says.
“One last bender,” I say. One last desperate grasp at the old way. One last bout with the hammer over my head. But then I imagined my new life out of the closet, stained by the same old tired songs of abuse and shuddered.
I remember the vow. Never again. I do not speak it out loud. I keep it close and secret, afraid that the power of it will evaporate like a wisp of cloud in the wind. And so we drive home where I will live with my cousin and my aunt and the hope of one last chance.
Four days later without a drink or a cigarette and the cravings come in powerful Waves that threaten to bowl me over.
“Just one drag, just one drink and it Will all go away,” say the voices of old demons still squatting in a back room in my mind.
“Stay quit, stay quit, stay quit,” says another voice, a voice that I am just learning to trust, a voice that I’m beginning to recognize as my own.
I chant the mantra to myself when the bargaining and the drafting of new promises begin and the demons withdraw.
Stay quit, stay quit, stay quit.
I am in the doctor’s office cold and half naked as the skin of my thighs sticks to black vinyl. My heart beats a furious rat-tat-tat as the nurse takes blood pressure and pulse. Did he just whistle faintly through his teeth? Is he amazed that I am still alive?
I am. In fact, I am certain that I am dying. Two weeks sober and in the clarity memories flood back from two decades of abuse. No one could have come out of that unscathed. So I toss and turn for long nights, searching for lumps and tumors in my throat. I am certain that the numbness in my fingertips, the aches in my chest, the bulging veins I never noticed before, the muscle spasms near my left shoulder blade and above my right eye are all signs of an imminent end.
”Three-twenty-four,” a bright voice says. The doctor has appeared out of nowhere to read the mysterious number from his laptop chart.
“What?” I snap out of morbid fantasies of my funeral that I watch, disembodied from above.
“Cholesterol. Your bloodwork came back. Your cholesterol. It’s three-twenty-four.”
I feel faint, woozy as I feel my blood pumping hard and fast through narrowing veins. It sounds bad.
”Is that bad?” I ask.
“It will be if you don’t do something about it.”
He is stern but kind and soon I find myself pouring my heart out to him. I tell him my story in fifty words or less. I am gay. I have just come out. I am two weeks sober. I am living with family and I’m trying to stay clean on my own.
He doesn’t blink or roll his eyes. He doesn’t shift uncomfortably in his swivel seat. He is used to this sort of honesty, like a priest taking confession. He listens with all his attention then after the calm of gathering thoughts he gives me a prescription. He tells me about Twelve Steps. He tells me about medication. He tells me about vitamins and eating better and exercise. He tells me I can do it, but not alone. I take it all in, open now to advice and wisdom that only a few months ago I would have shooed away like a moth flapping by my ear. But now I have promised myself I will try anything.
So I do. In a week I get up the courage to go to an AA meeting. There is warmth there, and love and support but there is something missing, like there is something else calling to me from just around the corner. I read through the Blue Book. I tear out big fat strips of fearless moral inventory, making amends and taking ownership. I toss them all into a crock-pot and cook up my own nourishing stew of recovery.
Body. Mind. Soul. Spirit. These I have neglected and now they call out to me in unison. They call out for attention and healing.
First I declare war on the enemies of my body. They have been hiding in the tree line, camouflaged and disguised as license, reward, and freedom. But now I flush them out like spies and traitors, hunting down and driving out all their agents and co-conspirators. Sugar, caffeine, fast food, French fries, bacon, cheese, butter and grease, I rout them all out, send them retreating to the hills. I don’t give in to their cries for mercy. Instead, I eat good food, fresh food, green food from the good earth. I listen to my body and let it tell me what it needs. It knows, it has always known.
Every morning, I reach down to touch my toes. At first, the pain is unbearable, muscles flabby and unused for years. But I take it slow. Stretch, do not strain. Sit-ups then push-ups. An easy workout. Ten minutes a day. I hate it. I love it. I do it no matter what.
In two weeks my blood is tested again. Just like that I am back to normal. No drugs, no treatment, no pharmaceutical courtship.
It’s a tiny victory, proof that I can change.
I am still scared. I am on new ground that shifts and sometimes even crumbles under my feet. I do not even know how to stand, how to walk, how to run. But I put one foot out anyway, hoping it will touch solid earth.
I read old journals, my diaries of confusion and despair, filled with drunken ramblings and cheap shots at a self that cries out for love. The repression so obvious now, a life filled with so much turmoil and fear. But here and there, clues and glimmers of hope. I want to explore Tibetan Buddhism, I wrote in big, sloppy letters across the top of one page. I remember it now, The Calling, clear and ringing out of the fog of fifteen beers, cocaine, and a cloud of smoke. I just wasn’t ready to hear it.
But I answer the call now. I stride into the little bookshop that I have passed a hundred titnes, with purpose and certainty. I march down the aisle to the three shelves marked Buddhism, breathe in the aroma of old musty books stacked haphazardly on floor and shelves. I let my fingers caress their spines, close my eyes and read the titles like Braille, absorbing their essence through my skin.
I find the one. My breath quickens. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. It jumps into my hands from the shelf up above. I flip to a random page and read. Yes, this is the one.
I cradle it in loving arms all the way home, down the stairs and into my room. I am giddy as I read. The words resonate in my mind like a melody forgotten or a poem I once knew by heart. With each turn of the page, each soaring Ah—ha, certainty grows. The ideas and concepts seem so familiar. I can’t explain why or claim to understand it at all, but they ring in a high, clear note that shatters years of doubt.
The book is filled with stories of Tibet and they take me to the high places there. Tears run down my cheeks as I read the words of the Rinpoches, Buddhas in the flesh, who teach compassion with every breath. Impermanence, suffering, devotion, discipline, concentration, meditation, liberation. This is what Buddhism is all about and it is so much more than I ever imagined. I close the cover and all I want is more, more, more.
So I read. I read like I’ve never read before. In five years I’ve choked down two airport horror novels. Now I read two books a week. Life after death, quantum physics, Vedanta. I read the life stories of the Buddha and the Dalai Lama. I read the story of a western Zen student who spent six months in a monastery in Japan and was changed forever. I read Robert Thurman, Shunryu Suzuki, Milarepa, Sommerset Maugham, Jack Kornfield, Alexandria David-Neel, Peter Mattheissen, Santideva, Thomas Merton, Walpola Rahula, Herman Hesse and the Dalai Lama.
I read anything that stirs my curiosity but always I come back to Tibetan Buddhism, like a compass needle pointing north or a stream rushing to meet the big river that leads to the sea.
I fly high on the wings of the spirit, spin and glide free in the heavens. But when I look down and see the ground far below, I become afraid again. What if I fall? My heart is still heavy, weighed down by the unresolved past that threatens to send me crashing helplessly to the hard earth.
I have so many wounds. Most of them self-inflicted. I cannot heal them all by myself. So I get help. I find a healer, someone who will listen. It is slow and unpleasant and difficult work, digging through the layers of the past. But we work through it together, this kind elder and 1. Slowly and patiently, she guides me to my own wisdom, teaches me how to love myself again.
I stand in front of the mirror day after day following her simple instructions.
“I love you,” I say to myself.
At first I feel foolish. I don’t believe it. So I look deep into my eyes and say it again. Then again. Then again. Then again. I love you, I love you, I love you! Weeks go by then months. Soon it doesn’t matter how silly this is or whose ears might be pressed to the door. I look into that mirror and deep into those eyes every morning, every night. I love you, I love you, I love you!
Then slowly, very slowly, I start to believe it.
Soon, I find myself sprinkling little acts of kindness towards myself throughout the day. A kind word or a smile as I pass my reflection in a window. A gentle caress when I feel overwhelmed. A deep breath. A massaging of tired shoulders. A wish for happiness for myself and everyone I know. And then, without even noticing that it’s happening, I begin to realize that I am my own best friend.
But this is only the beginning. There is still one last dragon to slay, snarling and gnashing its teeth right there on the path in front of me. I know I can’t go any further unless I face it. So finally, standing on solid ground and trembling only a little, I take the next step.
We round the lake at Memorial Park for the third time and the storm clouds over Pikes Peak are held at bay by the power of our conversation. We have been talking deeply for almost an hour, this after barely speaking for a year. Three hundred and sixty five days of carefully orchestrated avoidance. Bristling at the sight of one another. Walking on eggshells.
But now the walls are down. The truth has been freed from its cage and there is nothing left of me that can be hurt.
“Mom, I’m gay.” There. I have said it. It is done.
Droplets of rain begin to fall, Welcome cool in the hundred degree heat of July summer.
“Ya know,” she says. “I’ve never told anyone this.”
I smile down at her, my mother, who used to loom before me and terrify me.
“When you were born, the hospital was out of blue blankets. So ya know what they did? They brought you to me wrapped in a pink one. I should have known then.”
I exhale a little laugh through my nose and smile wider.
“Signs and portents,” I say. “Signs and portents.”
I wake up grateful. I am here; I am alive. It’s been five months since my last drink and I am out of the closet and free.
I face the batik wall hanging of the Buddha I have placed above a simple altar of candles, incense, a single flower. I fold my hands. I bring them to my crown, my throat, my heart. I drop to my knees then stretch out my body, accordion-like, on the floor until my forehead touches the ground. I reach out my arms as far as I can, lift up the fingertips in one last gesture of reverence. Then I get back up and do it again.
I am nervous. This feels awkward and strange. I wonder if anyone is awake and can hear my breathing getting faster and faster as I prostrate over and over again. What would they think if they could see me? I do a hundred and eight repetitions and when I am finished I am panting and pouring sweat.
Then I stack the pillows from my bed one on top of the other, a makeshift cushion. I recite the words of the Refuge Prayer even though I only suspect what they mean.
I take refuge until I am enlightened in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha.
By practicing generosity and the other far reaching attitudes: ethics, patience, joyous effort, meditative concentration, and wisdom,
May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.
Then I sit, back straight, not proud but with great dignity. I clasp my hands in my lap, thumbs pointing upward and lightly touching. My eyes are full of sleep and I yawn.
I try to remember the instructions again, so simple yet so elusive. Don’t force anything. Don’t intend anything. Sit and watch the breath. Then the thoughts rise like high, cresting waves in a storm. But I keep trying to come back to the breath. Breathe in… one. Breathe out… one. Breathe in… thoughts, thoughts, thoughts. But it’s ok. I sit for twenty minutes, foot asleep. I sit until I can’t sit any more.
When I get up I write in my journal, I write about how happy I am. I write about how difficult it still is, how I will never be able to say with certainty that I will never fall back. I write myself love notes, and words of encouragement. I forgive myself. I am gentle with myself.
Then I go to the mountain. Today, I will finish the trail. I haven’t felt this good in years. I will make my way to the high point. Eight thousand feet. It will be cold and the wind will bite even at the end of winter. But I will still feel warm. I will look around, seeing that I am alone in the great expanse. Alone but not lonely. The mountain will rest in front of me testifying to its own weight and presence.
Then I will skip down the narrow path shouting out loud, “I am going to make it!” Almost seven miles when only days ago a flight of stairs left me winded. When I get to the trailhead I will leap up, click my heels and cheer. I will look back up the mountain and then, smiling, heart soaring and breathing heavy, I will know that it’s the little victories that are the best.
I have decided. I am going to India! There is nowhere else that I wish to go, no other goal that would be more worthwhile. I am afraid, afraid that it is too big a task, afraid that I might fail or falter or fall. But I don’t care. I refuse to let my fear rule my life for one more minute.
Now is the time to study and prepare. All the money and energy that I used to spend on getting high are now available to me. All the restless energy of addiction can now be funneled in a new direction: Forward!
I go to work at the restaurant everyday with this burning purpose and resolve. The shiny bottles of booze are no longer a temptation, just baubles and widgets. My coworkers and my boss cheer me on. They like the new me and want him to stick around.
Goals and the possibility that I might actually attain them keep me awake at night. I lie there with eyes.wide open imagining all the challenges that await me. Malaria, heat,sickness, culture shock, language and giant insects fill my mind with a delightful terror.
”What?” say the guests at the bar.
“I’m going to India… for two months!”
Blank stares and confusion. I am getting used to these. I try to answer the question “Why?”
To live for two months by my wits and with no more than I can carry on my back. Isn’t that reason enough?
But there’s more. There is the call of pilgrimage. Sarnath and Bodhgaya, Lumbini and Kushinigar, the four holy places of Buddhism call out to me. But of these I do not speak, afraid that I will break the spell.
I hang a calendar above my desk and begin to tick off the days. Six months to go. I have all the time in the world but still, there is not enough. There is so much to plan, so many thousands of little things to get done. It becomes my new obsession, my great problem and I wear it down like a boulder blocking my path with a piece of silk. I read, I study, I watch, I listen. I talk to those who have gone before me and make new friends. Can I actually do this? I laugh. Yes, I can!
Where is the man who used to rage and cry and beg for death? He is gone but not forgotten.
Rejoice in this life right now! Every moment is a gift, every breath an opportunity to be aware and to wake up. Time is slipping away!
Only a year ago a shameless, hopeless drug addict. Only a year ago drunk and blacked out. But now I look at how far I’ve come. If I pat myself on the back everyday then so be it. I know my weakness. 1 know that I could fall back into that life at any time.
So I congratulate myself to remind myself how far I have to fall, to remind myself how much I have to lose and to remind myself how important it is to love and respect myself.
I needed the discipline of sobriety, of meditation, of compassion to bring me here. But most of all I needed the discipline of self worth. Everyday I look at myself in the mirror with love and I know I am worth the effort.
Now all has been forgiven, all sins admitted and confessed. This is purification, nothing left to regret. The past has happened but now it is over and done. All this time I thought I had an eternity to live. But I don’t. None of us do. So I promise myself I won’t waste anymore time. It’s time to live today. It’s time to go on pilgrimage…
Reprinted from The Narrow Way: A Memoir of Coming Out, Getting Clean and Finding Buddha with permission of the author and Mantra Press. To learn more about the book and its author, visit Mantra Books online.