turning your head and holding your arm out, as if for a blood test. You
feel a slight prick, you loosen the tie, and then suddenly this warmth floods
up, you feel a rush that begins at the base of your spine and surges up
until it explodes in your head, like light. Then, for hours, you float in
a bubble of warmth and well-being; dreams as vivid as movies drift before
your eyes. This is why people like heroin.
Imagine you no longer feel like an ordinary
girl, bland and vulnerable, but like a girl who is daring, an outsider,
a risk-taker, one of the guys. This is why I tried it in the first place.
But why is a question junkies never
ask. They know why. The question for a junkie, is why not? You
have to have a very good reason to give up that rush. After all, you’ve
come to love the ritual, even the smell of sulfur, the flame beneath the
spoon. You love the liquid lightning that fills your veins and blossoms
in your head. You love the dreams, more brilliant with color than anything
you’ve seen in life: a car so red its edges are silver in the sunlight,
poppies exploding into color, again and again and again, orange, purple,
vermilion, the dark velvety center. And then the psychic numbness that envelops
you for hours, where you have no worries, no fears, no anxieties, no guilt,
no other desires.
So why is not the question. You may as well
ask why people have sex—which, as we all know, can have as deadly side-effects
I was sixteen when I started. Thin, thin, always dressed in jeans and
a black t-shirt, hair long and wild, I imagined I was a bohemian. The
rules didn’t apply to me. I didn’t have to attend school to get
A’s and B’s. The year was 1970. Janis was still alive, I think, maybe
even Morrison and Hendrix. The Civil Rights Bill was six years old. Watts
had burned, so had Newark. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby
Kennedy had all been killed. Vietnam was old news. The Cold War was simply
a part of the landscape. We wanted out. Sometimes it seemed as if the
world were falling apart. The center was not holding. We were
kids, living in the borderlands of Arizona, in a town ringed by missiles.
We couldn’t imagine a future. Instead, we shot dope. We ran it across
the border. We were falling from idealism to despair. I’d fallen. Needle
to the vein. My blond boyfriend from West Texas was threatening suicide
and planes like dark predators were circling overhead.
By May of my twentieth year, I had not
only grown up, I felt old. I had quit using every toxic substance
I’d ever tried. This includes pot, hallucinogens, cocaine, speed and alcohol,
none of which required any effort at all to quit, as well as the two that
caused me difficulty, heroin and tobacco. I could claim that this makes
me an expert, not only on addiction but on recovery, but I am ambivalent
about everything: what constitutes addiction, whether physical addiction
leads to psychological or visa versa, and whether or not people can be
“cured.” Whether addiction is a disease—or a symptom. Part of me believes
I was never addicted to anything—and that may be true. I started smoking
at fourteen, for instance. Can I really say, that at twenty, I was addicted
to nicotine? Likewise, even though I started using heroin at sixteen,
I abstained for my entire senior year in high school—instead popping several
Percodan every few hours. (My boyfriend, true to his Texan roots, was
a Cowboy, but of the Drugstore variety.) Since I used opiates daily for
only a few years of my life, was I truly an addict? Perhaps I was on the
road to addiction and mercifully waylaid.
I have proof, at least, of physical need: I was cranky as hell whenever
I tried to give up smoking and felt withdrawals whenever I tried to quit
heroin. Yet physical withdrawals are simply the most obvious manifestation.
Addiction is the absence of choice. To illustrate, when I was sixteen,
I was sitting in a park when I realized I was out of cigarettes. Upon
discovering that fact, I really wanted one—which meant I would have to
stand up, walk a block home, scrounge for thirty-five cents (yes, thirty-five),
walk two blocks to the discount store, and buy the cigarettes. (This not
only gives you an idea of how lazy—or stoned—I was but of the oppressiveness
of summer heat in Tucson.) At any rate, I realized that if I quit smoking,
I could choose not to take the walk. What liberation! Ever since then,
addiction, for me, has meant that a substance compels me to consume it.
If I feel like I have to have it—even if, physically, I don’t—then I am
In some fundamental way, then, it makes little difference if the precious
amber liquid is scotch in a glass or heroin in a syringe, if escape comes
in a vial of cocaine or is provided by little pills in a prescription
bottle. The underlying desire is the same. Perhaps each of us, given the
right (or wrong) substance and the right (or wrong) set of circumstances,
is a potential addict. After all, you don’t have to be an asthmatic to
suffer an asthma attack; you simply have to be exposed to something that
will trigger the reaction. And you never know what that something might
For this reason, I’ve never blamed my family. My parents were as typical
of their WWII generation, with its alcohol use and repression, as I am
of the Vietnam generation, with our drug use and penchant for openness.
To be fair, my father would never have considered a few highballs a “problem”
and my mother would insist that a stiff upper lip is an admirable quality.
When I was coming of age, we thought psychedelics would liberate our minds.
It never occurred to us that cocaine was dangerous; it certainly wasn’t
thought to be addictive. And heroin? Well, they had lied to us about the
dangers of every other drug, why should we believe them about this one?
But we should have. And perhaps because we didn’t, the Vietnam War helped
spawn a heroin epidemic—at least that’s what they called it when use crossed
the border from the ghettos and the barrios into the suburbs. Ironically,
my husband, who is Mexican-American, didn’t use when he lived in the barrio;
it was only later, after his parents moved the family into a white neighborhood,
that he hung out with anyone who was doing drugs heavier than marijuana.
All the guys we knew coming back from Nam were strung-out on China white.
In the four years I was shooting dope, sixteen people I knew died of drug
overdoses. Sixteen people just like me. Middle-class, white. Children
of doctors, lawyers, and restaurant owners.
Heroin is pernicious, but whether that’s
due to inherent properties of the drug or to the black market lifestyle,
we may never know. I don’t suppose there are enough independently wealthy
junkies for an accurate survey; I do suppose that bootleggers during Prohibition
led equally unhealthy lives. At any rate, according to my brother-in-law,
who has been in prison on drug charges three times and who is still on
methadone maintenance, many of the (mostly white, middle-class) addicts
we knew frequent the same clinic he does, still addicted nearly thirty
years later. Only four of us, my husband and myself included, were able
to quit in time to make “normal” lives for ourselves. Statistics are equally
frightening: only one out of thirty-five addicts will stay clean and sober;
some relapse after ten or fifteen years; most become alcoholics; in one
study, of the 10% who had “recovered,” half were counted as not relapsing
only because they had died. Death as a cure—imagine that! I fit
the profile of the addict most likely to stay clean: young, female, addicted
for under five years.
This suggests that the longer one uses, the more fierce the psychological
addiction, yet we also assume that psychological factors—childhood trauma,
history of family dependency, unhealthy living situations, poverty, etc.—make
some of us more vulnerable in the first place. A chicken or the egg sort
of cycle. Some research indicates that people who get addicted to opiates
may already have a deficiency of dopamine in their brains, which predisposes
them to addiction to substances like heroin. But whether you’re predisposed
or not, if you use heroin with any regularity, you will get addicted because
heroin takes over a natural function of brain chemistry: it replaces dopamine.
When the heroin stops, no dopamine, your nerves are screaming. Physical
addiction is simple. If you don’t do it, you experience pain; since you
did it in the first place to alleviate or avoid pain, you just do it again.
Basic Pavlovian theory. You know what cures you.
On the other hand, people who have abused drugs like metham-phetamine
or cocaine, which stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain, are always
left with a need to have that center stimulated. (Ecstasy, as I understand
it, like Prozac, increases the amounts of serotonin in the brain and thus
causes changes in brain chemistry, at least temporarily.) In other words,
even when there is no physiological predisposition to addiction and no
physical dependency, because the drug itself causes changes in the brain,
those changes can create a strong psychological addiction—in the case
of cocaine, to anything that will stimulate the pleasure center. Even
sex. So far as I know, cocaine is not physically addictive, only psychologically,
but, hey, monkeys will give up food, water, and sex for cocaine. Monkeys
will die for cocaine.
No big surprise there. People
die for cocaine. I once met a real estate developer who had lost everything,
and he had quite a bit to lose, to that white powder. He said, “Cocaine
is God’s way of telling you you make too much money.”
But back to the monkeys with monkeys on
their backs: monkeys who have unlimited access to heroin gradually level
out their use. They still eat, they still sleep, they still have sex.
They simply do enough heroin to keep from going through withdrawals. This
experiment, which I read about in the Stanford Alumna Magazine,
was published in the mid-eighties, when cocaine was thought of as nose
candy, something one might indulge in at cocktail parties. (Please pause
for a moment to consider what that target audience might have been doing
in its spare time.) Whatever else the experiment’s purpose, it did prove
that there is no “just” to psychological addiction.
Physical addiction, no matter to what substance, seems to be the least
of an addict’s problems. There’s methadone for the junkie, Nicorette gum
for the smoker. Drunks, speed freaks, crack heads and their brethren coke
heads have no choice but to go cold, I guess—although researchers are
experimenting with new drugs which affect serotonin levels and seem to
reduce the addict’s cravings. But even if you have to take the old-fashioned
route and go cold, your body gets over it. People do kick. Some stay clean
for years before going back. It’s the psychological pull, the craving,
that’s so hard to overcome.
For some people, of course, addiction is a symptom of an underlying disease,
clinically known as a dual disorder. For example, many schizophrenics
or manic-depressives are addicts; prior to being diagnosed, they used
(and became addicted to) illicit drugs in an attempt to balance out a
brain chemistry that was naturally out of whack or had been thrown out
by trauma. For the rest of us, though, the question is how do you liberate
yourself from desire so intense it rules your life? I can answer only
One: I didn’t get sent to prison.
Everyone I know who’s been there, male or female, is still an addict.
I’ve never been there and I’ve been clean for nearly thirty years. This
is also true of other people I know who didn’t go. An unscientific survey,
perhaps, but revealing.
Prison does not cure addiction. In fact, there’s such an ample supply
of drugs in prison that a person could go in clean and come out with a
habit. After all, what do we think happens when a bunch of drug users
are confined in the same place and they have a captive market? They exercise
a little capitalistic know-how, that’s what they do. They’re familiar
with supply and demand. The guards and visitors bring it in. In the 70’s,
in the state prison in Florence, Arizona, the wars between the Mexican
Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood were over the drug trade as much as they
were about race. Legend has it that the head of the Mexican Mafia once
stood out in the middle of the yard, brandished a pistol, and dared anyone,
including the guards, to kill him: proof he was in control and fearless.
When I was nineteen, I met a guy just out of the joint who had a permanent
hole in his arm, hidden by his prison blue tattoo. He didn’t need a needle.
He just put the sharpened point of the glass bippy (made out of an eyedropper)
right in the hole and shot up. That’s how he’d done it in the joint and,
once he got out, even though syringes were easier to come by, that’s how
he preferred to do it. As I remember, he didn’t even have to register
to be sure he was in the vein. He put the point of the bippy in, the blood
just washed in and then, when he squeezed the little rubber bulb, the
dope backwashed into his vein. Now, I might be wrong about the physics
of the bippy because the whole open wound thing made me squeamish and
so I didn’t watch very carefully, but some of the guys I knew were endlessly
fascinated. They were impressed. They wanted a hole of their own; they
longed for easy access.
Two: My life began to resemble a bad movie
OR the illicit lost its allure.
Nirvana, chemically induced, cannot last.
Eventually you start using more. Several times a week. Then every day—this
is the point at which heroin addicts consider themselves strung-out—then
several times a day. Before long, you don’t get a rush, you don’t get
high at all. You’re shooting dope, now, to keep from getting sick. To
Scenes from how the illicit lost its allure:
Mr. Bippy shoves a gun in my face and demands
my wake-up. I am busy, at the moment, needle in my arm. Fuck you, I tell
him, you think we’re afraid of you?
No acceleration of my heart. Nothing.
Franklin and Val come over to cop. She
has just suffered her third miscarriage and, perhaps because of that,
he lets her get off first. Almost immediately, her eyes roll up in her
head and she hits the floor. She is out. Franklin sits down on the bed
and ties himself off. The whole time we’re trying to revive her, Franklin
is busy finding a vein. We slap her, rub ice cubes on her, shake her.
Nothing. We consider shooting her up with salt water, which we’ve heard
is the antidote, although we’ve never seen it done. Finally, we drag her
to the bath tub and hold her head under cold running water. She comes
out of it. Franklin is sitting on the bed, nodding. He rubs his face.
Huh? he says, looking at his wife. That was some good shit, Babe. (Or
something to that effect.)
A few weeks later, having been evicted
from the apartment over gunfire—(I told you it was a bad movie)—I’m lying
in a bed in a motel so run down they’ve filled the swimming pool with
dirt. Fernando, my future husband, is lying next to me. We’ve saved a
tiny bit of dope for the next morning, but we have no money. Fernando
says, “It’s time to kick. Something bad is going to come down.”
At the time, this seemed to me a profound
statement and perhaps it was, implying as it did, cause and effect. Consequences.
Lying there next to him, I knew what I couldn’t articulate. The medicine
had become the disease. We had fallen into a kind of despair, where we
couldn’t remember how we were before. Where the things that happened seemed
to happen to other people and we were the numb observers. Where there
was no future, or if there was one, we couldn’t imagine it.
But this is what I remember most: the day
Val nearly died was a gray day, windy, dust and bits of dried leaves in
the air. After she came out of it, I watched them climb on their motorcycle,
Val so thin, Franklin, all big, tattoos on his arms. She put her arms
around him, leaned into him, and they sped off. I kept seeing her go out,
lips blue. What if she nodded out on the highway? She would slip, like
a rag doll, beneath the traffic behind them. He wouldn’t notice. He wouldn’t
care. Could this happen to me? Where nothing nothing nothing would matter?
Not Fernando. Not if I was pregnant. Nothing. Except dope?
Three: We took a vacation from our addiction.
Fernando and I went into a fourteen-day
detox program, courtesy of money the Nixon administration had set aside
for treatment. It was the first time I’d met junkies who were old, in
their thirties and forties. They were parents. Some were pregnant. Some
had school-aged children waiting in the car. Some juggled wiggling, pajama-clad
toddlers as they stood in the morning medication line. Waiting there behind
them, I felt like Miss Granola Girl herself. I remember thinking, you
mean this could be your life?
Tommy, our counselor, was small, quiet
with dark, dark skin, blue black. He used to say, I’ve had my jones for
twenty years. He’d been clean for the last two or so but he never gave
himself credit for that. He counted all the years, from the first time
to the present, as his habit. Any intervening years off dope didn’t count
either. Once a junkie, he said, always a junkie.
Questions Tommy asked us: are you two a
couple, do you love each other? or are you just spoon partners? who leads
and who follows? when? what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to get
it? have you ever betrayed each other? how did that feel? how far will
you go? what lines will you cross?
One day, Tommy told me I was a self-medicating
junkie. I didn’t understand what he meant. He said, “Something eats at
you, you want to cover it up.”
That seemed to me such a normal impulse,
I couldn’t believe it had anything to do with my having a habit.
Our last day, Tommy held his hands in front
of his face, his fingers pressed together, a black butterfly. “Look at
you two,” he said to us, “What are you doing here? You have a chance to
make it. You can fight this sucker, don’t give in.”
He sighed, “It’s going to be hard. You’re
used to hundreds of dollars passing through your hands every day, now
maybe you’ll spend $20, $10, that’s all, groceries, gas for your car.
You’re used to excitement: you got to hustle for money.” He shrugged at
us. “Now you’re going to be bored. Watch TV. What can we do, you’ll say
to each other. How often can a person go to the zoo? What do normal people
do? What did we do before we got strung out?” He looked from Fernando
to me, back again, and then laughed, “You can’t remember what you used
to do, can you? Well, try. Because there’s going to be only one thing
you want to do and you can’t let yourself do it, not even once.”
He was right. Straight life was achingly
boring. Within three days, we were using again. But it was different.
It was no longer unconscious. After that, whenever I got off, or convinced
Fernando that we should get off, or was convinced by him, I had to admit
I was rationalizing. This sounds very simple, but it seems to me that
the ability to stand outside yourself and critique your own behavior and
have insights into your motivations is invaluable. You can no longer lie
to yourself. You find yourself disgusting. Weak. You are no longer comfortable
with your junkie self. You want to be strong, to have control. After all,
you probably started using because you felt invincible, outside anyone
else’s rules, daring, independent, and now, you have to admit it, you’ve
become pathetic, sniveling, dependent, the very things you despise in
the junkies around you. No thank you.
Four: Why not? A good reason to quit.
I got pregnant. Background details: It was 1974. I was almost twenty years
old. I had been clean, completely clean for over three months, when Fernando
and I got married. He had gone on methadone maintenance. We were living
in his parents’ house, along with his eight brothers and sisters. It was
a small tract house on the south side of Tucson. Most everyone in the
neighborhood, except for me, was Mexican. Even the Chinese people who
owned the neighborhood grocery spoke better Spanish than I did.
In memory, that was a time of light, yellow light in the kitchen in the
mornings as I sat with Fernando’s mother and his younger brother and sisters
at the breakfast table. A time of stories about La Llorona and the Mexican
revolution. This was when his mother began to initiate me into the family,
when I began to believe that dreams did mean something, they could tell
the future, for instance. Not only that, but two yolks meant twins. A
fork dropped on the floor meant company was coming soon. You should make
the sign of the cross when you salted the food. This was when I began
to see that there was another world beneath this one, a world of spirits,
a world where you made sense of the disparate pieces of reality by weaving
them together into a story, where you paid attention to vague feelings
that things “weren’t right” and, by doing so, saved yourself untold grief.
Why I started using again, in that time of healing, when the self that
had been dormant inside me—feelings, perception, my spirit—was waking
up, I don’t know. Maybe waking up was painful. Maybe it was the one last
fall, the one you have to take before you can close your eyes on your
old life, turn your back and say, no, that’s not me. That’s not who I
am. At any rate, I had started chipping again, was into a little recreational
use. I wasn’t strung-out but I was headed in that direction—even though
I had an inkling I might be pregnant.
One day we went to a friend’s house, a
pool party, and while the others were swimming and drinking beer, we were
in a back bedroom listening to John Barleycorn Must Die. I was
sitting on the bed, I tied off, and suddenly I was filled with the same
despair I’d felt as I watched Val ride away on that motorcycle.
After I got off, I went outside and stretched out on a lounge chair by
the pool, the light, a thousand flecks of white were bouncing off the
turquoise water. Fernando sat down next to me. I closed my eyes. Someone
opened the door and “Freedom Rider,” that saxophone, flooded out. Fernando
told me he wanted me to see a doctor. A doctor would tell me what I already
knew: a not-child but human nonetheless, was swimming inside, his eyes
bulging, his heart beating, the veins in his delicate pink brain pulsing
with the red veins on the insides of my eye lids. Fernando’s hand was
lying on my belly, curved, a dark shadow before the sun; maybe, from inside,
the eyes could see the shadow of his hand.
And this is when I realized the truth. The lie I’d been telling myself
was that if I didn’t know, I couldn’t be hurting it. I couldn’t be responsible.
But in that moment, I could see through the lie: the doctor pronouncing
some words would not make it so and it would not make it not so. My knowing
or not knowing changed nothing. If I was, I was. And, if I was, I might
be hurting it.
Fortunately, I was not physically addicted; I did not have to go through
withdrawals, which can be very dangerous for a fetus. In fact, with heroin,
the withdrawals are more dangerous to the fetus than the drug and so a
woman who becomes pregnant while physically addicted needs to keep using
or to go into a treatment program so she can be gradually withdrawn. (Good
luck getting into one. Waiting lists for treatment programs in New York
City are eight months long, not much help for a fetus.) I was lucky. I
had only to fight the cravings, and that was hard enough, but it was as
if those months of pregnancy put me in a place where I was forced to remain
drug free. Much like a rehab program might do. It gave me a hiatus from
physical addiction where, I convinced myself, I couldn’t do any drugs.
In a way, the craving was like grief: it could still overwhelm me at times,
but at least it wasn’t constant. I felt like I was moving out of darkness
into light. My senses and feelings had begun to wake up. Being pregnant
made me realize my body was important. Addicts tend to think of their
body as “other” in a strange way. The body is not who they are. It is
nothing, then, to stick a needle into it.
This mind/body split really isn’t so unusual, of course. It’s a fundamental
dualism in Western philosophy. We think of it as normal; we learn to deny
our bodies from childhood. I’ve heard the psychology of it explained this
way: when you are a child, your feelings are who you are and when you
are not listened to or are told to deny your feelings, you are learning
to deny yourself. The message to you is: if my feelings are not important,
then I am not important.
With addicts, though, the split must be magnified. I remember, when I
was strung-out, staring at my arm, the blonde fuzz and the freckles, and
puzzling over the fact that it was my arm, that somewhere inside this
body, there was a me. Feeling Michael move inside me, watching my breasts
and belly swell, feeling the uncomfortable twinges of pregnancy, even
morning sickness, made me aware of my physical presence: my skin, my veins,
my breathing, my heartbeat. I had become essential.
It took me a long time, though, to realize that the spirit isn’t separate
from the body; the spirit is of the body. The spirit needs the body to
feel, to grow, to be with others, even to see and hear the world. The
spirit is of the body, not separate from it, which is why death, any death,
is a kind of violence.
Five: So it’s connection that’s important.
Not only to your own body, but also to those around you. When you’re strung-out,
nobody else much matters. Oh, you might tell yourself they do and, to
a certain extent, they do, but drug addiction is the ultimate form of
solipsism. Even drinking is. There you are, wrapped in your own little
chemical cocoon. Protected. Disconnected.
Even strung-out, I had loved Fernando. After he went on methadone maintenance,
he issued his ultimatum: we couldn’t see each other unless I went on maintenance
or got clean. I got clean. I chose him, so we were already connected,
but my being pregnant deepened our connection, committed us to one another,
to Michael, to the family we were creating, in a way that marriage vows
Living with his family mattered, connected me to his mother and brothers
and sisters, made them my chosen family. Choosing to have Michael, to
stay clean for him, committed Fernando and me to something larger than
us, than even the three of us, to something indefinable. We chose to put
our connections to one another and to others above our own desires. This
was not conscious, but it is what drew us back into life.
Six: I stepped out of the continuous present.
I’ve heard that living in the moment is
a good thing. There are books devoted to it. But, for a junkie, there
is only the moment, the continuous present. There is no cause, no effect.
No memory, no hope. No consequences, no foresight. You are suspended completely
out of time. It’s kind of like prison in that way: you go in, time stops,
you come out blinking your eyes.
An example: when I got so pregnant I could
no longer fit in my clothes, I gave them all away. It never occurred to
me I might need them again. I bought no baby clothes, no crib, no bottles.
About three weeks before I delivered, my mother and sister threw a shower
for me. I remember holding one of those little gowns up. The baby became
almost tangible. I embroidered two tiny tee shirts. My only preparation.
Yet pregnancy is the perfect metaphor for
the future existing within the present. How can you be pregnant and not
imagine a future? After all, once the kid gives you a swift kick in the
bladder or swings from your ribs a few times, you have a sense of him
as a separate being. My life went from being lived completely in the moment
to being focused on the future. I couldn’t imagine him, but I couldn’t
wait to have him.
This meant I had to project my self into
the future, to begin to imagine myself as a different person, a mother,
no less. This was not easy. To go from complete solipsism to always
putting the baby first.
Imagine the shock.
Seven: The faith of others.
Nothing is more annoying than people reminding
you you’ve fucked up. Hey, you think, tell me something I don’t know.
Their nagging provides the perfect excuse: well, if that’s what you think,
I may as well do it.
Tommy had said, you two can beat this.
He believed it. We came to believe it. He said, if you slip once, it’s
okay. Just pick up from there. We believed that. Our parents believed
we could do it. Not once did I hear them question us. They knew we could.
They knew we would.
Not only did they believe in us, but they
acted out of their faith. Fernando’s parents took me in, gave us a place
to live. Later, my parents helped us buy a house. These were real, tangible
ways of helping us get started in the world, of helping us put the old
life behind us so we could start a new one. They knew we could be strong.
The first time I told my parents I’d been
using and quit, my mother had said, “So it’s over then.” Punto final.
As if it were as simple as making up your mind.
And, of course, it wasn’t. And, of course,
Eight: Windows of opportunity.
Sometimes quitting is agony. Sometimes it’s a piece of cake. That’s what
I mean by a window of opportunity. And that’s what I’m looking for right
now, a window of opportunity so I can quit drinking. Now I don’t drink
with the same desperation as I did drugs. In fact, I think of myself as
a moderate drinker. Besides, my doctor tells me to have a glass of wine
every night. Of course, he probably means four ounces, not half a bottle,
but I look at one of those little glasses and think: Right. Like I could
stop there. Why bother?
My friend tells me, “In Europe, everyone has a glass of wine with lunch.
Two with dinner. They don’t think anything of it.”
But my daughter insists two drinks a week is moderate drinking for a woman
which makes me a heavy drinker. Plus, because her best friend’s mother
died of breast cancer, Kathryn is worried about the increased risk. It’s
good for my heart, I tell her. She just shakes her head. It’s why you
can’t lose weight, she tells me.
The other reason? I’ve had a glimpse of my future. Alzheimer’s, like breast
cancer, runs in my family, only Alzheimer’s has hit both sides. For some
reason I don’t quite understand, Alzheimer’s causes your brain to produce
less of the chemical that transports impulses from one neuron to the next.
Obviously, this would slow down your thinking. Alcohol use, then, widens
the synapses between your neurons, which means that the impulses we call
ideas, memories, and thoughts have a greater distance to cross. Put it
together, wider gaps, less chemical for transport: not good.
Still, I can’t imagine myself without a
vice. I like being a woman who enjoys indulging. I don’t eat low fat anything.
I like my prime rib bloody, my oysters raw, and my chili hot. I think
sweaty sex on a summer afternoon keeps your marriage alive. I love to
walk around my house late at night, a glass of wine in my hand. I like
a cold tsing tao with my yu shiang eggplant. It’s hard
to eat camarones al mojo del ajo without a few margaritas on
the rocks. (Yes, with salt.) And who can imagine steamed mussels, roasted
garlic, and fresh sourdough bread without a good cabernet?
Not drinking makes me feel like a Calvinist. Like a grinch. Like I should
clean my house and wear nylons.
On the other hand, isn’t worrying about
it a sign? After all, it is common for ex-addicts to become alcoholics.
Why, every summer evening, do I feel compelled to drink a gin
and tonic? Does the fact that I can’t pass by the wine section of the
grocery store without salivating mean something? Is it significant that
I love to look at the bottles of wine and try this one or that? What about
the way I love the ritual of using a corkscrew, pouring the wine into
the goblet, twirling it around like I know what I’m doing?
But what would bring about the window of opportunity?
My only insight so far: I need to think of myself as a hedonist, not an
addict. Instead of spending thirty bucks a week on wine, I’ll spend sixty
every two weeks for a massage. In other words, I haven’t quit drinking
but I don’t keep any booze in the house.
Nine: Avoid plunges into despair.
I’ve never understood how people could believe that one shot of dope,
one drink, one hit off a cigarette meant you were addicted all over again.
That is a myth, as far as I’m concerned, designed to scare you. It’s not
like, one time and you’re hooked again.
No. It’s that, if you slip, it could plunge
you into despair. Despair that you didn’t really quit; you promised yourself
and broke the promise. Again. You’re weak. Despair because the craving
is renewed and you have to face it again. You are going to have to stand
in the grocery store and stare at those shelves filled with beautiful
bottles of perfectly good wine and know you can’t have any. Despair because
you know that giving in would make you happier than not giving
in, because you know that a bottle of wine, a paper with heroin in it,
could bring you joy.
What is wrong with you that a chemical can bring you joy?
Avoid plunges into despair like the plague they are.
Ten: But never say never again.
This is what terrifies the addict. The idea of never again. You have to
admit, there might come a time when you really need to do something like
heroin. Or have a good stiff drink. The word never is too final; it sets
you up for failure.
When I was eighteen, I fell in love with
Keith Richards. I was reading an interview with him in Playboy
and he said he’d quit using heroin for the time being. He figured when
he was eighty and sitting on his porch in a rocking chair, he could start
using again. My sentiments exactly. It gave me hope. Made the prospect
of life without dope easier.
I need to feel that, on any given day, I can walk into a restaurant and
order a glass of cold fume blanc to go with my figs and prosciutto. I
can see myself there at a table in the sun. Ecstatic.
Eleven: Eleven steps only: I can’t leave it
up to God.
The Higher Power I believe in gave me free
will. Just as He didn’t put the needle in my vein, the glass in my hand,
or the cigarette between my lips, neither will He take them out. He is
not going to give me a magical fix where I don’t want it any
more—and, truth be told, that’s the only cure any addict wants.
For someone like me—and, unfortunately,
I’m not all that unusual—who began smoking dope and drinking at the age
of fourteen, my whole sense of self, of who I was in the world was formed
while I was under the influence of one substance or another. I saw myself
as someone who was adventurous, a risk-taker. I wasn’t afraid of anything.
But then I got pregnant. Suddenly I was someone who would poison her own
child. Someone who was not powerful but powerless. This juxtaposition
caused me profound dissonance, a state that, according to Piaget and other
theorists, is conducive to insight and therefore change: Who was I? I
had to choose, to create a new sense of myself. And so, with help, I did.
Still, I sometimes wonder: which was the
defining moment? The moment I first felt chemical nirvana? Or the moment
I chose to stay clean for Michael?
When I was in my twenties and thirties,
I never would have admitted publicly to using drugs. Out of fear, I erased
that girl, denied her, believed I had transformed myself completely. Now
I can admit I am not so different from her. Both moments defined
me. After all, a heroin addict is not so different from an alcoholic and
neither is so different from the rest of us, or from those among us who
need prescriptions to keep the darkness away. There are people who can’t
survive, without help, the circumstances of their own lives. Is it any
surprise that 85% of all women heroin addicts were sexually abused as
children? And, of course, because all cycles are cyclical, there are men
and women so broken they haven’t been able to raise their own children.
Lives so damaged, so hopeless, that self-destruction is a relief, that
the idea of hitting bottom—or of “bringing the bottom up”—is a perverse
joke. There’s always another bottom to hit. There is no voice so scathing
as the one inside your head.
If I’ve learned anything from addiction,
it’s compassion, of the liberal variety, and so I have to ask: if my “cure”
implies a cause, what constellation of forces would have to come together
to help people like my brother-in-law, who for years self-medicated, first
with heroin and then with methadone. He’s only recently been diagnosed
as schizophrenic but he probably had those problems when, at twenty, the
state threw him into prison for selling about twenty dollars worth of
heroin to an undercover cop. Whatever happened there, we don’t know. But
he never recovered. He hears voices. He rarely leaves the small studio
apartment we rent for him. He doesn’t qualify for disability. He’s the
big guy at the grocery store, the one you don’t want to look at.