Curled up beneath the toilet in a public washroom, P.J. could smell the old urine-stained concrete floor.
He was soothed by the sound of waves crashing onto Huntington Beach, just south of Los Angeles.
A meth pipe cured his emotional baggage.
This was home.
For several months between 2004 and 2005, P.J. Patten was homeless and lived on the beach. Drug addiction had made him leave his family and settle for life by Tower 25, a lifeguard tower.
Now an artist living in Burnaby, B.C., Patten has titled his new graphic novel-style memoir after the tower. He says Tower 25, which reveals the challenges of trauma, isolation and becoming sober, has allowed him to process his past in hopes of inspiring greater empathy for those struggling with homelessness and addiction.
“I was so deep in meth addiction. I just, I didn’t know what to do. I felt overwhelmed by everything and I just wanted to be away from everybody,” he said.
‘I didn’t want to feel anything’
Patten had become a full-blown drug addict by age 15.
This partly stemmed from watching his parents divorce at a young age and often feeling isolated.
“I was just looking for drugs because I didn’t want to feel anything … And crystal meth just did that for me,” he recalled.
After leaving home, he found the washroom near Tower 25 was a relatively safe place to sleep. He says he would often fall asleep around 11 p.m. and wake up at 4 a.m. to prevent being caught by the guards or police.
Living in isolation was one of Patten’s biggest challenges, but it also led to much journaling and reflection, as he realized he had nobody left to blame for his situation.
“All those emotions that I had just buried for so many years just kind of came out all at once.” he said. “I spent a lot of time screaming at the ocean when no one was there.”
Patten says his first turning point came as he desperately searched through garbage cans looking for foil so he could smoke meth.
“At that point there was no more lying to myself about it … mentally, it was time to stop,” he said.
His path to becoming sober was draining, but one opportunity significantly changed his circumstances.
Growing up, he had had a fascination with Buddhism. So when he saw an ad from a Buddhist retreat centre hiring people with a background in construction and art, he knew he couldn’t let it slip away.
He says he spent his last $2 at an internet cafe printing out an honest application about his life.
To his surprise, he was accepted.
“I was so happy and so relieved, I’d actually been able to do it … I was, I guess, just in shock,” he said.
From relief to despair
But that same night, his feeling of relief turned to despair when he was caught sleeping in the washroom. Although he begged the guard to understand his situation, Patten was ordered to attend court in three weeks’ time.
The emotions were gutting, he said, and he recalls being moments away from making a call to get drugs to ease the pain.
But he stopped himself.
“That was the biggest turning point for me,” he said. “I can throw away everything I’ve done to get to this point because this one thing happened to me, or I can figure out what to do.”
Out of desperation for change, Patten trashed the ticket and left the beach. He later wrote a letter to a judge about his situation. The charges were dropped and his father helped pay a small fine.
Patten ended up spending nearly 10 years at a Buddhist retreat in northern California, working in bronze casting and printing. He practised meditation and being away from the drug scene helped him become sober.
In 2014, he met the woman who would become his wife while volunteering at a meditation centre in Whistler. They eventually moved to Burnaby and, with her encouragement, Patten began writing and illustrating Tower 25.
A gesture of empathy
Embracing his Japanese heritage, Patten was inspired to create his memoir in the style of haiga, an old Japanese art form that combines images with small verses beside them.
The “graphic memoir,” based on Patten’s journal entries while he was homeless, features a character whose face is never seen. It’s a gesture of empathy for people who have gone through something similar, or their loved ones, he says.
“If you had been through a similar experience, you could see yourself in that book,” he explains.
Patten says he is one of the lucky ones — he had friends who checked in with him — and acknowledges that addiction and homelessness are no easy escape.
He hopes his memoir encourages people to treat those struggling with compassion — and check in with them, too. Even if it just starts with a smile.
Tower 25 is available online.