By the end of the binge, there was nothing left. There was nothing left of me or my money. My pockets were as empty as my stomach, which had been making sounds for quite some time. I was strung out and pale. My jaw was clenched and my nerves were frayed like the tattered end of a rope. This of course was the chemical reaction to the substances in my bloodstream, yet, there was nothing left of me but the absence of the substance. Everything was gone. I was surrounded by tiny empty vials and little tinfoil packages. I was hidden away from the world and still hearing the paranoid phantoms that whispered to me.
“Try this,” they told me.
“This’ll help you.”
This is no life for anyone but yet, if you’re in this life — then there’s no other way to live but this way. Nothing else makes sense; you want the inner turmoil to stop. You want the twitchiness to go away. You want to rest but the after effects will not let go. At times like this, I swear, anything will do. Anything that quiets the demons; anything that settles the mind or stops the echoing of your own heartbeat — anything at all, no matter how crazy it seems — do you see?
This is what no one talks about. Everyone thinks about the gangster, the tough guy or the shoot’em up stick up kids with pistols at their hip. Everyone talks about drug cultures as if there is something sexy about this — but no. There is so much more than the crazy concepts we think are true. There are more misconceptions than truths. The vehicles of how we find ourselves at the bottom may differ. But in the end, there is no one around. All that’s left is the emptiness and the pit of despair that can only be filled by one thing, which, in an fairness; goes back to the old saying that “One is too many and a thousand is never enough.” You wished you got out before this began. You wished you thought or felt differently. Maybe you wished you were someone totally different — but either way, this was me or this was us or you or who knows? This could be absolutely anyone because in the end, the bottom is the bottom (just be mindful of the trap door).
I swear, I’ve downed bottles of cough syrup, morphine, Tylenol with codeine and booze just to take the edge off. I did whatever I could to stop the whispers but after a while, the chemical takes hold. I admit to who I was and where I was. And I do this without shame because to hell with the stigmas. I’m watching the whole world die from avoidable deaths in record numbers.
By the way; you never think that “This can be you.” And you swear to yourself, “That will never be me,” and you barter and you trade, you borrow and you steal, you lie and you rationalize; and all the while, nothing fills the hole. Nothing stops the pain, Nothing settles the disputes. Nothing stops the voices, which is why people begin to give in. That’s how the beast wins. That’s how people find themselves doing the things they once swore they’d never do.
I remember when someone asked me, “Ever try heroin?”
I never thought that I would ever be in a place where this would even be a question. Yet, there I was in a shooting gallery near 134th Street. My last “Tour of duty,” so to speak was April 1, 1991.
So a few years back, I was working on a police initiative and meeting with people after their arrest. My job was to sit with the “Client” and offer an alternative. My job was to introduce something other than the standard procedures of arrest and process. In a joint effort, my objective was to offer the options of treatment, recovery, follow up and the navigation of care. Maybe it was here that for the first time I truly felt as if I were paying something back.
It had been decades since my last trip into the old brownstones. My life had changed in ways that I never thought were possible; and yet, my life was so removed from this way of living. It was amazing for me to see that although there have been changes; the lifestyle is still the same. The roots, the cause, the symptoms and the so-called epidemic is not different from when I was sick. Trauma is still trauma. Life is still life and the heart and the mind still respond to stimuli.
The one thing that I remember most about this initiative is my curiosity about who I’d see. I wondered what my clients would look like. We were taught to call the people our clients to give them dignity.
Would you like to know who I saw?
I saw everyone. Perhaps the most heartbreaking was a 70 year-old woman. She looked like the typical sweet grandmother. She was caught and brought in, no differently than anyone else that was picked up during this operation. I saw people of all colors and backgrounds, beliefs and cultures.
But this one . . .
One would never look at her and think she was on heroin. But she was. She was on a first name basis with withdrawal by the time I entered the room. She was bitter and angry but we were able to work things out together.
I did not look at this woman and think of the word, “Junkie.” She did not look like the street type. She looked like a frail little old woman. I did not treat her as if she were worthless or weak. I treated her as if she was the only thing she could possibly be: Human.
It turns out that she had been on pain management for a very long time — and due to new restrictions, her doctor changed her prescription. She said the pain wouldn’t stop.
“I’d have never gone this way but the pain was too much for me.”
“Pills were expensive,” she told me.
“But heroin is cheap.”
And just like that, the little old grandma was hooked.
I thought about the places where this woman was. I knew the drug spots and the neighborhood. In a million years, I would never expect to see a woman like her at the “Spots.” But she was there. She was there on a daily basis too.
The old woman agreed to services. However, she was not a fan of the other clinicians. I suppose this created too many challenges for the old woman. And I myself am not a clinician. I was an acting specialist, a person who is in recovery and an advocate. But more, I was the son of a Mother who found herself on the poor end of pain management and for the record; I too had seen the effects of pharmaceutical mistreatment.
I told the woman about me. I told her how my Mom was on pain management that went wrong and what happened to her spine. “Mom had five diseases in her spine,” I explained. The truth is, I have seen some ugly things in my life. I have seen bloody things. Gory things. I have seen violent things, up close and personal. But of all things I’ve seen, nothing was as hard to see as my Mother on opiates, sick from withdrawals and begging for God to take her because the pain was too much.
When asked, “Why do you care?”
I answered, “This is why.” and told her the story.
I do not claim to relate or have the same background as everyone. Instead, rather than struggle with the ideas of comparison; I look to find similarities. I look to the root of the problems and the background because to hell with the symptoms. As I see it, substance and alcohol abuse disorders do not care about color, race, religion or creed — even if we do, mental illness doesn’t discriminate.
By the way, I lost touch with the little old woman. It is doubtful that she is still around. She agreed to services but she left treatment (AMA) against medical advice.
That’s all for now, Mom.
You once told me, “You didn’t raise me to be this way.” At the time, I was pale as ever, sickly and thin. I had a habit. I had cuffs around my wrists and the smell of a tiny jail cell was reeking from my skin.
That was then.
I once told you no one ever expects this can happen to them. But life happens to everyone. It certainly happened to me. It happened to you. I always wished that I could have protected you better. I wished there was another way to keep you comfortable but the pain was so bad. I was helpless and I’m sorry.
But this is now.
I made a promise. And I can’t just turn away. I’m going to see this through because I’m good at this Mom. I really am. Maybe I am better at this than I have ever been at anything else in my life. But, if I’m being honest — it hurts to see what happens. It hurts to see the tragedies. I see these things from both sides now — I see this from the addict’s side and the other side too. I see all of my old friends in the eyes of people whom I’ve never met before. I see your sense of helplessness through the eyes of other moms whom I had never seen before. I have spoken to fathers who wanted to shake their fists. I’ve seen it, Mom. I really have.
I just hope you see this too.
There are things in my life that I can never pay for — at least, not really. There are things I can never give back. So I give back this way.
I hope you see this. I hope you’re proud. And I hope you know how sorry I am for what happened, for what I missed and for what you had to go through. But don’t worry, Mom. Your baby boy is working hard.