Bonus Time is the story of Brian Pennie, who went from being a heroin addict to a neuroscientist. In this inspirational memoir, Brian discusses how he overcame the depths of his heroin addiction to his newfound appreciation for life, living in bonus time…[restrict]
On October 8 2013, Brian experienced his first clean day after 15 years of chronic addiction after he experienced a perspective shift. He calls this Bonus Time – the ability to overcome fear and anxiety, take big risks, embrace failure and lean into every moment. Following his realisation, he quit drugs cold turkey.
As the coronavirus pandemic goes on, people are understandably frustrated, tired and yearning for things to go back to normal. Bonus Time reminds us how resilient we can be and shows us that change is always possible, no matter how lost we are.
The Life of Brian
After Aiséirí, I spent my first few days adjusting to life and reconnecting with family and close friends. The first thing that struck me was how small our house was, the one I owned with my brothers. ‘This house is like a matchbox,’ I kept saying. ‘How the fuck did I not notice this before?’ I was even angry about it, blaming my brothers for not telling me. It was a little manic, and my brothers thought I was being a bit weird.
At the same time, my brothers weren’t too smart either. There was nothing malicious in it – they had their own issues – but on my first night back in the house, they both smoked weed in front of me and Kelvin drank a six-pack.
That same night James handed me back my phone – the one I had given him while I was in treatment. The lads threw several parties while I was in Wexford. Nothing wrong with that. But with a fridge full to the brim with Heineken, James thought it would make a cool photo. He also used my phone to take a picture of a pile of cocaine that had accidentally spilled on the floor.
So there I was, my first night home in over ten weeks. Clean for the first time in fifteen years. And I was surrounded by drink and drugs. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but what could I do? I decided to flick through my phone, and that’s when I saw the photos of the cocaine and Heineken.
I’m not sure how I was supposed to react, but I just broke my heart laughing. I was never more grateful for my shift in perspective. Instead of wanting to use, I felt sorry for my brothers. When I tried to explain how stupid their behaviour was, they just sat there looking at me. As I said, the lads had their own issues, and in hindsight, they were probably afraid of losing me. They knew the old Brian, and we got on, despite my madness, but the new me freaked them out.
‘Seeing the world through new eyes’ came in many forms. It started with food. I was obsessed with healthy eating after my time on the farm. We grew our own vegetables in the fields and got our eggs straight from the chicken coop. I also picked fresh strawberries from the polytunnels every morning. They tasted amazing, as if I was eating food for the very first time.
Now that I was back in the real world, I wanted everyone to taste strawberries as I had experienced them in detox. To do this, my Jack Bauer bag came back with a vengeance. The more I retell this story, the crazier it sounds. I went up to the shops and bought three large boxes of strawberries. Each day, I put one of the boxes into my bag and continued on my rounds visiting family and friends.
Anyone I met got the same line: ‘I’m sure you’ve tasted strawberries before, but have you ever really tasted them? You need to forget about your worries, or whatever is going on in your head, and focus on the strawberry.’
This is actually sound advice. I was asking them to get out of their head and into the moment. But these people had watched me destroy myself for fifteen years. Who was I to give them lessons on life? How I said it didn’t help either. People described me as excited, enthusiastic and bouncy during this time. A former manager even used the word ‘evangelical’. Positivity is a powerful thing, but it made me look a little manic, and without the right language to describe my experience, ‘Seriously, have you ever “really” tasted a strawberry?’ came across a bit twisted.
A combination of worry and bewilderment were the expressions on people’s faces. I couldn’t see it at the time, though. I thought they were confused and simply misunderstood me.
My brothers got the worst of the new me. I was reading ferociously about subjects such as awareness and self, and I was dying to talk about it. So every evening, I’d corner them in the house and tell them everything I had learned. It wasn’t all about me, though. They were struggling with their own demons, and I wanted to help, but this was not the way to do it. As I later found out, it only made them reject what I was trying to explain.
No one in my family escaped the onslaught. My parents were delighted I was happy, but they also thought I was mad. My sister got it too, but she wasn’t willing to listen to my latest insights, especially after the letter. She was also the only person to challenge me about my behaviour. This included the strawberries incident, but also my bizarre realisation about scarves.
I bought a new scarf to match my Jack Bauer bag – God, I loved that bag. Like everything after treatment, if I liked it, I wanted more, and I soon became obsessed with scarves. My sister’s issue had nothing to do with the scarves, but more with my realisation that scarves actually keep your neck warm. ‘Scarves are great, aren’t they? Do you know they keep your neck warm?’ To this day, I’ve no idea what was going through my mind. I’ve struggled to live that one down, and my sister, in particular, loves to remind me about it.
I was excited to chat to all my friends when I got out of treatment. But it turned out I didn’t have many friends. So much for being popular. Another little story I told myself. I was blessed with the friends I did have, however. Despite the wedding incident, and several other scenes that haven’t made the book, my best mate Gar stuck with me throughout my addiction. Bridges had to be built, and he was definitely weirded out by the new me, but we’ve grown very close over the last few years. In December 2018, Gar and his wife Lynsey even asked me to be godfather to their beautiful daughter Penny.
Dano, another close friend, was in recovery when I got clean. When he quit his own madness in 2006, we went our separate ways, so it was great to catch up with him. I thought he was crazy when he got clean so we had a good laugh about that. Barry, my partner in crime, was still in the depths of addiction. We met up a few times, but we live in different worlds. I tried to talk to him about getting clean, but he was just like me when I was deep in addiction. Anytime my family and friends tried to talk to me about getting help, I was having none of it. I’ve since found out that everyone has to walk their own path.
People often ask me how I stayed away from my addict friends, but besides Barry, and Dano in the early days, I didn’t have any. I had many acquaintances, but the gift of delusion – thinking I wasn’t a real addict – stopped me getting too close.
Another one of my close friends, Clarky, now lived in Australia. We chatted on the phone quite a bit, which was great, but Australia is a long way away. That’s when I realised that the world didn’t stop while I was falling deeper into my hole. And it didn’t really care now that I was clean. Apart from Barry, all my friends were married with kids, or planning to have kids. They had got on with their lives. What else were they supposed to do? It would have been the same if addiction had killed me. It was quite a shock for my ego. The world didn’t revolve around me. There was no ‘Life of Brian’.
This realisation didn’t faze me, however. If anything, it fascinated me. I had so many questions. How did I twist my mind to believe these things? Why did I think the world revolved around me? Why did I feel so alive, but at the same time not be able to see other people’s perspective? Why do people suffer? How can I help others escape their suffering?
These questions drove me forward. I was obsessed. I was on a mission. But I was also starved of social interaction. I’m a people person at heart, and I’d spent so many years alone. Even when I was around people, I felt alone, disconnected and completely detached from other people’s reality. This made my desire to be around others even stronger.
The problem was, everyone was busy, and I was going to have lots of time on my hands. I had no job – not officially, anyway. I was still technically employed by Kenilworth Products, but they weren’t paying me, and they had no plans to take me back. The union advised me to go back to them when I sorted myself out, to see if I could secure a pay-out, so that was the plan.
So, fuelled by my desire to be around people, and to work on myself, I decided to take Aiséirí’s advice and I began attending Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I spent the next few months going to meetings, reading books in coffee shops and rebuilding shattered relationships. I continued with my meditation practice and constantly worked on myself, always digging deeper into my mind and always trying to grow as a human being.
I also joined the gym at the National Sports Centre. I wanted to improve every aspect of my life, and exercise was a key feature of that. I began going to the gym at six every morning. This was a masterstroke for several reasons. To go to the gym that early, you need to have a certain mindset, so I ended up meeting a fantastic group of people there, many of whom I now consider friends. We work out from six to seven, and then have the craic in the Jacuzzi for half an hour. What a way to start the day.
Of all the books I was reading, two were life-changing for me. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle left a mark that will never fade. Perspective shifts are more common than you might think, and that’s what happened to him too. His was much grander, however, and he didn’t have the delusion of addiction following him around.
The story at the start of his book was particularly striking. One night, not long after his twenty-ninth birthday, he woke up in the early hours with a feeling of absolute dread. He had previously battled with anxiety and depression, but it was more intense than ever before, and he began to question his reason for living. As he played with the idea of suicide, the same thought kept repeating itself in his mind: ‘I cannot live with myself any longer.’
He suddenly became aware of what a peculiar thought this was. ‘Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the “I” and the “self” … maybe only one of them is real.
Stunned by this bizarre realisation, his mind went quiet. He was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Upon waking the following day, the world seemed different. Although he recognised the room, he had never truly seen it. Everything looked fresh and alive as if it had just come into existence. He knew that something profound had occurred, but didn’t understand what it was. It wasn’t until several years later that he realised what had happened. The intense suffering of that night had forced a split in his consciousness, and his deeply fearful ‘self’ fell away.
Three lessons from this book, which I’ve since called my pillars for life, hit me so hard that I inscribed them on a medal around my neck as a daily reminder.
The first lesson, and possibly the most important practice in my life, involves objectively observing my own body and mind. I struggled terribly with overthinking when I was younger, always worrying about my family dying and fearing my own heartbeat. These negative thoughts would fuel my anxiety, which drove me towards a life of addiction. I don’t struggle with negative thoughts and feelings any more. Instead, when they do arise, I take a step back and objectively watch them float by, without engaging. Just like clouds floating through the sky – I let them pass, without engaging.
The second lesson is tricky to explain. It’s related to the one above, in that instead of becoming entangled with your thoughts, you just be. Think about it this way. Have you ever heard of a jealous racehorse? Or a frog with self-esteem issues? Of course not. Why? Because they are not tormented by their minds – that’s a human quality. However, this book showed me that we Bonus 2.indd 218 13/02/2020 15:28 the life of brian 219 can let that stuff go, and just be. In other words, if you’re sitting on the grass, you just sit on the grass. If you’re looking at the stars, you just look at the stars. You take your mind out of the equation, and just be.
The third lesson was a complete game-changer for me. It involves accepting reality, accepting what is. This might sound obvious, but how often do we regret past mistakes or agonise over missed opportunities? I could have easily tormented myself about losing so many years. ‘Oh, I wish I never done heroin’; ‘Why was I so stupid?’; ‘I wish I seen sense in my twenties.’ This is called resisting reality. The past has already happened. It already is the case. I cannot change it, so why dwell on it? I never torment myself with what might have been or agonise over lost years. Fully embracing this lesson is the reason why.
Bonus Time by Brian Pennie
is published by Gill Books and
available now in bookshops
and online, priced at €16.99.
Image credit for author photo: Richie Stokes[/restrict]