Awake sucked in those days—just as a general concept, I mean. It’s difficult to convey how thoroughly deadening the feeling of my eyelids parting to let in the first rays of the shitty morning sun was, the realization that no, that vaguely horrifying but muted like underwater dream you were just in was not your life: this piece of shit is. I generally found myself too paralyzed by all-encompassing morass of “blah” to even move for the first 45 minutes to an hour of wakefulness, bladder filled to bursting but without the wherewithal to move to the bathroom; if there was an empty bottle or cup or receptacle of some kind within reach often I would just piss in that and try to go back to sleep, but there seemed to be a strange connection between the day’s first pee and the onset of what’s known as “clucking” in the parlance: the early stages of Heroin withdrawal, the subtle tics that herald the all-consuming fiending that lies just ahead and will worsen steadily until the fix is procured and administered.
One of the worst things about the hamster wheel of dependency is the feeling—more than a feeling, really; more of a burning desire—not to move, just to be able to lie in the bed or on the couch and rest through the feeling of crushing emptiness, but being unable to because to be dependent on dope is to be perpetually on the clock and against the wall, conscious always of the need to secure the next fix; even with a new bag in hand, your peace of mind is measured in remaining shots, and each shot’s increasingly brief bliss is chased by an awareness of its fleeting nature. If, as I nearly always did during the worst periods of active addiction, you woke up on the verge of sickness and without any dope with which to “get off the island” to start the new day, there was no comfort or pleasure to be found in anything until safe passage from the island was booked, and every moment spent lamenting the shittiness of your miserable, blighted existence was further delaying relief. So in spite of the growing nausea, the crawling of your perspiration-slicked skin, the bubbling in your bowels, the deep, almost spiritual aching in your bones and the thoughts that raced a mile a minute in some sort of free associative orgy of depersonalized misery, you had to move, get up and go make something happen. Often that would, for me, involve flying a sign at a nearby highway off-ramp or begging for change outside 7-Eleven, but I also had dealings with the shadier side of Craigslist, shoplifted, middled, sold, pawned or traded the few possessions I had of any value, etc. One time I broke my window AC unit out of its mounted position in the wall and carried it by foot the seven miles to my dealer’s house in Church Hill, where he generously plied me with far more dope and coke than the crummy old AC was worth because he was some combination of impressed by my determination and saddened by my complete desperation.
I say all of this as a preamble to try to explain both the unfathomable depression and paradoxical drive that are part and parcel of addiction; the poverty and sickness that come standard with the condition are motivation to do things completely beyond what one would consider under even slightly better circumstances, and they become so routine that something like what I mentioned above with the window unit is far from anomalous (another time I carried my TV onto the bus and walked with it across MLK Bridge, through Mosby Court and up to another dealer’s house for trade)—this is simply the struggle of every day of your life, and sickness is so singularly unappealing a prospect that virtually anything is preferable.
Another thing that becomes routine is what could be described as “self-surgery” or “self-medicine”—tending to one’s own medical needs because you’re most likely some combination of uninsured, without means to pay for treatment (even if you have the money, technically, you aren’t “wasting it” on a doctor visit when there’s drugs to buy), worried the doctor will notify the police (as in the case of overdose, being found in possession of paraphernalia, etc.) and mindful of the time investment of seeking care when you need to put together the scratch for your pill of dope.
I woke up one morning with my guts rumbling and an unbelievable aching in my midsection; this was at a time when I was pretty well situated both with train and my living situation, so I didn’t mind rolling out of bed, fixing up and doing a quick shot, then making for the toilet to get down to business.
For those who don’t know, another source of consternation for junkies is the movement of one’s bowels; it is very common for heroin addicts to go 3-4 days without shitting, and for those shits, when they do come, to be what I’ve often referred to as “life-changing” because they can involve great struggle and discomfort. Dehydration among addicts is very common, diets tend to consist of junk foods eaten at irregular intervals (I could only eat when I was well and being well did not all that frequently coincide with having funds for food; I am eternally grateful to people I will identify only as D, B and M for making sure that I ate decent food as often as I did and for sharing food when they didn’t have to) and there is an inherent constipating property that opioids have that make the addict’s blue moon shits rock hard.
So as I sat on the toilet thumbing through a tattered copy of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide (great toilet reading) I began to notice that not much was happening despite my best efforts. “The Browns” seemed less a team destined for the “Super Bowl” than an 0-16 club, or perhaps one that dropped dead en masse during the preseason. I strained hard and could feel movement, but still no real results. I was beginning to sweat both from exertion and the unsettling realization that despite “the troops being in formation,” they were not going to be able to “break through the enemy’s defenses,” so to speak.
My condition seemed too sensitive to venture out to CVS for laxatives/stool softeners—I felt, knowing my luck, if I ventured out I would somehow end up shitting my pants—and I was skeptical as to whether, if I did go get them, they would work as quickly as I needed. My mind began racing, entertaining thoughts of a bloated Elvis dead, the King fallen at the base of his porcelain throne, horrified by visions of “pink socks” and long, arduous, expensive colorectal surgeries that would have me laid up in the hospital recovering… and detoxing. Maybe this was how I died. Should I call 911? Was it a sign from God? I strained until I saw stars and my head throbbed and my ears pounded, then buried my head in my hands. Utter despair.
There’s really no delicate way of saying this so I’ll just go ahead and say it: I didn’t have any latex or rubber gloves and I wasn’t in a position, as I said, to get any, so I took my rubber-handled toothbrush and, gingerly at first, inserted the non-bristled end into my anus until it met resistance in the form of the hardened shit-cinder-block that was obstructing my bowels. I felt like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption as I began to chisel my way to freedom. The toothbrush handle acted as a sort of fulcrum as I leveraged off and out hard chunks of excrement, their splish-splashing into the toilet bowl like music to my ears. I was making Real Progress, I thought.
But this was like using an old-timey hammer and chisel where a jackhammer was required. I was going to have to roll up my sleeves, use some elbow grease and get my hands dirty (figuratively and literally, given the aforementioned lack of gloves). I’ll spare you the grislier details but suffice it to say pulling diamond-hard turds by hand out of one’s own—or any, I suppose—ass is not high on my rankings of ways to pass the time. It was grueling and took the better part of an hour to get to a point where I could deliver what was left of the butt-baby and feel real relief that my ordeal was over with. I washed up thoroughly and went about my day, resolving to try to eat more fiber, maybe start taking a stool softener, definitely drink more water.
IV drug use carries with it substantially more risks and complications than does sniffing or smoking the same drug. One such complication is the difficulty in obtaining and keeping a supply of sterile injection equipment—syringes, cotton balls or swabs, alcohol or hydrogen peroxide for cleaning the injection site, a clean “cooker” (the apparatus in which your drugs are prepared/mixed for injection) and, of course, clean hands. At some point in the crummy journey of addiction nearly all if not all of these becomes a luxury the addict cannot (or feels they cannot) afford; syringes designed for single use are reused until their needle tips become dulled and barbed and cause significant pain to stick into the skin, ravaging the user’s veins and causing track marks; cotton balls are reused and/or saved for the purpose of doing a “cotton rinse,” a process by which the user attempts to glean residual dope from old cottons (cottons being used as the means of filtering out potentially deadly particulate matter when prepping a shot) in order to stave off sickness, which can result in blood infections or a condition called “cotton fever,” which is an absolutely miserable ordeal involving a severe, banging headache, high fever, bone aches, and spasms coupled with teeth chattering and bitter coldness that can last anywhere from a few hours to most of a day. Unsanitary injections or simply missing a shot (injecting subcutaneously or intramuscularly rather than intravenously) can also cause abscesses.
I’ve had numerous abscesses in my time but the one I remember most vividly resulted from botching a cocaine injection. Cocaine is easier to miss with because rather than causing a stinging, burning sort of sensation when the substance is injected outside of a vein, it is accompanied by a numbing quality, just like when it goes into a vein; the fact you’ve missed only becomes apparent when you either don’t notice the intense combination of bell-ringing, vision-whitening euphoria and extreme mouth-watering nausea that is IV coke, or the injection site or surrounding area begins to swell and redden (or swell and lighten, if you have dark skin). At the time in question in my life, I had a tingling in my hand, which then began to swell up like when some jackass inflates a latex glove for popping. Naturally I was alarmed, not least because I feared I’d wasted about .25g of decent coke; I looked at the hand frequently over the next several minutes, then noticed that my wrist and forearm were also visibly swollen—when I touched them with my left hand there was a “pitting” effect in the skin.
Many people in the US have died as a result of taking a “wait and see” approach to serious health issues; as I’ve alluded to, often the reasons for their doing so are rooted in fear of being crippled financially by the costs of treatment and there is frequently a sort of bargaining that one undertakes to justify not seeking care, something like, “Well, if it hasn’t cleared up by this weekend I’ll get it looked at.” That was more or less the tack I took with the present situation, which subsided into a more localized lump after an hour or two.
A week or so later it was a painful, discolored lump that more than a couple of people had pointed out and asked, “What is that?” and “Don’t you think you should get that thing looked at?” about. I was meeting a friend at the pawn shop—he was pawning his motorcycle and would need a ride home; this was before I’d sold my car to cover debts—when things came to a head. Literally, as it happens. Feeling feverish and with a throbbing grape-sized growth on the back of my forearm, it was now clear that the pustule was full of… something. While waiting for my friend, I pulled out one of my syringes and suck the needle tip into the head of the growth, instantly yielding an explosion of unbelievably foul-smelling green, chunky pus that splattered on the driver’s side window, steering wheel and column, and the dash.
At some point as I was working at cleaning up the smelly, disgusting mess, the passenger door swung open and my friend climbed in, settled into the seat, started, “They gave me—hrrgffh!” and projectile vomited out of and partly onto the still open passenger door. “Dude, what the fuck is that SMELL?!” he gasped between dry heaves.
By now accustomed to the rotten egg odor of my arm spew, I responded that I thought it was the pus from my abscess (I’d used Google to self-diagnose). Holding his nose he apologized for getting puke on my door and I passed him a bunch of the McDonald’s napkins I’d been using to clean up my own mess. In the process of cleaning and during the ride to score and to take him home he expressed as much concern as a friend jaded by these sorts of circumstances could muster and suggested I go to the doctor, if only for some antibiotics. I asked if he thought it was infected and he laughed sharply in response. “Goddamn it, I know,” I sighed, I suppose having been hoping he would lie to me.
As luck would have it I actually had some antibiotics left over from an earlier infection I’d had, so I took those over the next several days, but the abscess had started to swell back up. Having checked into a shithole motel for some peace and quiet for a few days, I got in the shower and went about washing down my arm and proceeded to stick a new razor blade into the bump, causing an even larger explosion than before of considerably less rancid though by no means pleasant smelling yellow-green sludge to erupt and splatter all over the shower wall and curtain; emboldened somehow by the relief and release of the pain and tension that had been ever-present in my forearm for the last 10 days or so, I grabbed my arm with my free hand and squeezed, wringing out the gnarly contents like a particularly shitty washrag. After some time, there was only blood and I figured it was safe to stop, letting warm water run over it for a few minutes before washing up again and exiting the shower. My fever abated completely in the next day or two and the pain along with it.
As I rehash these memories to write about them (perhaps in more or at least more graphic detail than some might like), I’m struck not by how horrible they are, but by how banal they seemed at the time and to some extent still seem to me, even with the restoration of sanity and some sense of normalcy that the intervening years, and the love and support of my family and friends, have given me. The great tragedy of poverty and addiction, I think—and believe me, these few anecdotes are just scratching the surface of the misfortune, criminality, foolish risk, lies/deceit, boredom, insanity, sickness, incarceration, misery, death and, very rarely, incredible acts of love and kindness I experienced during those years—is how accustomed one can become to even the most unpleasant circumstances, how those who are suffering become invisible not only to the world at large but expendable to themselves; if no one is going to tell me I can’t sleep in this ditch, I’d might as well get comfortable.