In Search of His Own Story

by Dana Sitar

“The world that I’ve constructed in my own head where I’m better than everyone is so much better for me. I’m very bad at getting outside of myself.”

This is not a story about drug addiction.

I sent a text to Ian Dunlavy at one p.m. to confirm our phone interview at two. He confirmed, and I replied with a cheeky, “Cool. Start digging into your soul; I’ll call you in an hour.”

For an hour, he began to plan what he would say, picture the conversation in his head, run through scenarios of what I would say and how he would reply, nervously glancing at his phone and checking the time every few minutes. When two o’clock came, he stared at the phone and got worried. Then I called, before the clock rolled to 2:01, and it all dissipated.

“That’s what it’s like inside my head. It’s a dangerous place for anyone to be, and I live there a lot.”

“I don’t feel like I’ve lived that much,” Ian worries.

He relayed the story of his manager at Burger King years ago, a man from Chicago who had spent seven years in prison. Weapons, gang violence – the details are vague. He was living on “the gangster 401k plan” – he’d survived life and grown up despite the odds that should have killed him by the time he was seventeen.

“[I can't believe] the way he appreciated his kids, his wife, his terrible job. I’ve never seen anyone love life the way he did with such a shitty job. If you heard his stories,” Ian assured me, “You’d be blown away. [It makes me] kinda want to go get some drugs, because if he could make it that long, maybe I could too.”

Ian Dunlavy is a man still trying to find his story, curtailing the seedy details of his past and searching for the right path for the future.

“I don’t like looking at myself as a recovering whatever. I accept that part of me,” he assured me. “I am that. It’s all just part of my journey. I want to experience as much as I can about life.”

Months ago, he called me out on Twitter: “Write about me!” I thought, Sure, there’s always a good story in an old addict.

Once I got him on the phone, though, he said, “In another 5 years, I will tell you all kinds of crazy stuff – once I can’t go to prison.”

I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get Crazy Drug Stories. But I realized by the end of our conversation that I probably couldn’t handle hearing the stories he had to tell. They’re not party stories.

Nobody talks about the beginning, when it’s fun, the reason you try drugs in the first place. Recovery stories always start with rock bottom, go through recovery, and  make their way backwards through all of the ridiculous choices that led to rock bottom.

When I called Ian, he just “had to break through the barrier of what was bothering me today” before any bit of his story could even surface. He spoke sporadically, desperately, philosophically for an hour and a half without prompting, leaving little room for questions to guide the erratic tour through the unexpected depths of his mind.

I met Ian a little over a year ago at the Comedy Club on State in Madison, Wisconsin, but his reputation had preceded him. Everyone watched on with caution when he re-entered the comedy scene sober, wondering how he’d do. I heard the stories and looked at the kid in front of me and thought, It couldn’t have been that bad.

“The only thing I ever wanted to be was happy. When I was high I was happy, and I took that away. It’s hard to find naturally. Doing comedy is an incredible rush. Even when I eat shit, at least I did it. I’m not just staring at my notebook.”

The rush of getting on stage offers him comfort now. “When I get laughs at all my jokes , it gets quiet inside my head.”

This, after all, is all he’s really after. He’s even called his sponsor in the midst of those peaceful moments of silence, just to say, “I’m not thinking at all.”

When Ian was 15, he was diagnosed with depression.

“I asked a girl to a dance, she said no, and I started cutting myself.”

His mom made him an appointment with a therapist, where he was diagnosed and offered a prescription, but his parents didn’t want him to take the drugs. They didn’t know that, instead, he was able to self-medicate, filling the void with pot for a while, eventually with sex, drugs, alcohol, as he aged.

“Last week,” he told me, “I didn’t wash my hair or shave for a week. And I work two jobs. You can’t do that.”

He hadn’t been on stage to do comedy for four or five months, and he was “dying inside”. He finally got someone to cover a shift at work, spent forty dollars in gas to drive from Janesville to Madison, and went to the Comedy Club’s open mic, only to be cut because of limited spots.

“I don’t look forward to anything but that,” he said.

Things like that will set him off. At times, he still just gives up when he can’t get that fix, worried about life, that he’ll end up in Janesville, work a shitty job, die there.

He shouts into the phone, “I don’t want to be a cook, Dana! I’m not even good at cooking. I want tragedy to happen so I can escape.”

I’m not even sure what that means, in retrospect, but the words still ring in my mind a month later. A cry from somewhere deeper inside than this interview meant to go, as the man sat on the phone with me an hour past the time he should have left for work.

He pulled me inside his head.

“If you don’t do something to fill that hole in you, you will either drink again, go insane, or kill yourself. My entire life I’ve been trying to fill this hole.”

Ian’s dreadful dance with Oxycontin began when a friend introduced him to a woman he refers to affectionately as “my chick”. She was his solid drug dealer for a long time. She had been stock-piling the pills for years, even though she was in real pain.

“She has cancer. She’s gonna die,” Ian said flatly.

Despite her pain, she didn’t take the Oxycontin because she hated the high. The way it goes with pills, Ian explained to me, is you buy as much as you can, because they aren’t easy to get. Oxycontin never lasts forever, so you take what’s available. But her supply never ended.

He was making $600 a week, but he lost his apartment because he couldn’t pay his $550 month’s rent.

“But I was SO happy.”

He finally found himself staying with old friends at places around Madison. “People I’d known since I was twelve, wondering when I would get the fuck out.”

Every Friday night, a friend from Janesville would pick him up from Madison and take him to Janesville for more pills. At one point, he shot up 30 Oxycontin in three days (I didn’t even know you could take Oxycontin like that). He didn’t sleep for three days. Everyone in the house he was staying at went to work on and off, and he finally found himself alone.

“I thought that I would just kill myself, but we didn’t have anything … I couldn’t find a rope.”

He contemplated it for a long time, sat in the bathroom, crying, tripping on two hits of acid, high on three days of Oxycontin.

“Once you realize that you’re not even smart enough to kill yourself, you know you need help.”

To me, he listed a few things he could have done, demonstrating how stupid he’d been not to figure it out at the time.

“I didn’t know you could get sober. [I figured you] either stay alive and slowly die, or just do it at once. Give your family the pain all at once.”

Ian had a grandpa who hadn’t had a drink since about 1974, but as a kid, he’d never understood why or how his grandpa would do that. He gets it now.

“So I called him. He said ‘Do you want to go to rehab?’ and I said yes, not knowing what I’d signed up for.”

The first time Ian ever drank, in high school, his friends were busted by the police. Nine kids got tickets, but he made it out without getting caught. The next day, his dad said to him, “There are two paths in life, and you’re on the right one. Last night you got a taste of that other one. It’s up to you which path you want to take.”

When Ian talked to him after getting sober, his dad asked, “Did you have enough of that other path?”

Ian asked me if I believe in God, and accepted my tentative admission of atheism without judgment. But he wanted to explain:

“There has to be a reason that [guys like me] are still alive and that we get a second chance. For me to still be here and not do drugs today, there has to be something out there keeping an eye on me. When I was all alone I wasn’t keeping myself alive. I wasn’t looking out for me. I feel like I didn’t deserve a number of chances. Certain people, God just gives them one more.”

He’s done well, he said, for the past year, with his most recent go at life. “If I fuck up again, I don’t expect anyone to give me another chance.”

In the end, though still searching, Ian gets a glimpse now and then of a real understanding of himself.

“Whatever you do … just do what it is you want to do,” he added emphatically before letting me go. “Something I always do is compare my pain to somebody else’s – Don’t. Whatever pain you’ve been through is enough. However you view yourself, you are just exactly fine the way you are.”

He is likely speaking as much to himself as to us at this point, reassuring the various parts of his mind that would try to disagree. But, it’s getting somewhere. The conversation that began with, “I don’t feel like I’ve lived that much,” ended with,

“I’m right on time for my journey.”

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