Overdosing on Natural Causes: Some Reflections On Addiction, Life
A lot of my friends and family members have been addicted to drugs. Mostly opiates, but not always. Some of them got clean, some of them died. As for me, I think I should have been an addict. Statistically I’m right in the sweet spot. I’m a downscale, lower-middle class white male, who served in the Army and has a raft of pain issues. In the war I was constantly around the CLS (Combat Life Saver) bag, which had all kinds of bennies in it, like fentanyl lollipops. I’ve had two surgeries to repair a war-related injury, both of which necessitated morphine before going in, and then Percocet during recovery.
Even as a civilian my doctor prescribed me Percocet for several years. And of course, like everyone else, when I took them I would feel my body perfused with a warm glow. Hot nettles would prickle the back of my neck as if it were being massaged by a lover’s hands. That hole that gapes from the stomach—that cold, unfillable gulch—was finally filled, for a time, at least. But then the magic glow waned, and after the high receded I felt even duller and colder than before. And the new synaptic connections in the brain laid down by the drug didn’t only now scream out for dope, but amplified the pain (physical and emotional) already there.
And yet I didn’t try to recapture the glow when the dullness and the pains returned. When the new synaptic connections—created to kill pain but now hungering for dope— screamed out, I didn’t heed their call. Because I knew it would lead to the kind of hunger that I wouldn’t be able to dull with a whole bottle of pills. I knew it was a hunger that would widen the hole until it was a gaping, all-consuming chasm.
I would probably end up stealing, abusing the trust of friends and family, rolling the dice every time I copped and every time I shot up.
Why didn’t I end up an addict?
Others took that first dive, and rather than flushing their pills down the toilet (as I eventually did) they graduated from pills to the needle.
I can’t really attribute my success (or whatever) to willpower, or circumspection, or intelligence, or anything else that might allow me to pat myself on the back. Nor, exactly, can I just put it down to a matter of brain chemistry. That said, I’d guess some luck of the genetic draw explains why I’m still here and so many others are not. That where discernment gets lost in a chemical storm in one person’s frontal lobe, mine remained unclouded enough for me to fear the danger dormant within the dope.
Joe Rogan talked about this a bit on his podcast, in his interview with self-destructive funnyman Artie Lange.
Artie said that once he took that first hit of dope, something in his brain screamed out for more. Artie then asked Joe about his own limited experience with dope and Joe told him about his main brush with opiates involving an IV preparatory to some surgery. Rogan said that when the euphoria hit him, he shelled up, frightened of the narcotic’s joys as if they were the fists of an implacable opponent.
“I guess it’s like being in the womb,” Rogan said, warm and safe, without pain or even full consciousness. Sounds good but if it’s ephemeral, transitory, every time you come down it’s going to mean that much more agony. A baby ripped from its mother’s body only has to endure the harsh surgical lights and the doctor’s slap on the ass but once. Do you want to feel that every day, every few hours?
Someone who kicked a habit that could have downed a black rhino told me that giving up dope was like ending their greatest love affair. Eviscerating emotional agony (along with the more prosaic but admittedly unpleasant withdrawal pangs and nausea) washing over their body and waylaying them at unpredictable moments for months, years.
Getting back to this blog entry’s main point, my lack of addiction bugs me. It induces a guilt in me similar to that of a man who survives a battle in which most or all of his comrades perished. I have enough friends and family dead now from dope that when I remember them, I can feel that ghostly twining of presence and absence called haunting.
And though I know it’s Manichean foolishness, there’s a voice in the back of my head that’s been growing steadily louder with its constant, inalterable refrain. It’s gotten hard enough to ignore now that I have no choice but to address it in its own damn blog entry. And here, in essence, is what that voice is saying: “The world is divided between the hurters and the hurt. Those who cause people to use drugs, and those who use drugs to escape the pains imposed upon them by people in the former group.”
It's nonsense, of course, but the thought won’t stop coming, spilling on repeat from the record player lodged in the center of my brain.
I think of what John Frusciante, the guitarist of Red Hot Chili Peppers, said about dope in the depths of his addiction. “It’s my way of staying in touch with something beautiful.” That’s just a junky rationalizing his habit, maybe. But still, there’s the sense that for the addict life is not enough, that one most go outside of life, to a transcendence hidden in some substance. At least, this lack that drives the need is felt by those sensitive enough to yearn for some return to childhood’s innocence, or the womb’s warm oblivion. Those who don’t yield to the dope—the punctilious, discriminating, fastidious—are the martinets, the early risers, the postmen, vice cops and meter maids. We don’t need drugs because we stopped feeling so long ago that we can no longer remember Eden’s lost charms.
Life is not only enough for us, with its tedious rhythms and drudgery. We relish its unoriginality, its lack of color, its rules and constraints and our little semiautonomous fiefdoms within the larger prison whose walls we’re too unoriginal to see.
Ours is the strength of the pusher who gets his high from counting his capsules filled with dope in the morning and his bundle of cash in the evening.
William Burroughs, as brilliant as he was, may have been wrong when he said junk wins by default, that for those with no strong attachments, it fulfills a need. If it were just about filling a void present from the beginning (rather than filling a void growing where once warmth dwelled), he might have been right. But there are plenty of people who became addicts who achieved the sublime via their art prior to using dope, and only started using stop literal pain. The musicians Charlie Parker and Kurt Cobain both found their way to dope as a way to alleviate undiagnosable stomach ailments, before getting waylaid by its spiritually analgesic effects.
Did you ever see Trainspotting, that movie about the Scottish heroin addicts who spend their days snatching purses and slamming dope in their veins in decrepit council estates?
There’s a scene near the beginning where they’re all in a bar. Most of the group is dope fiends, except Tommy, who’s a football fanatic (and eventually succumbs to the needle), and Begbie, who steadfastly refuses to do heroin. I can’t even remember why Begbie remains with this lot, as addicts are tedious to the sober, especially to those who are ornery and “up” by natural disposition. Maybe it has something to do with this group all growing up together. Maybe the Scots are like Italians in that they don’t outgrow their childhood friends and family members even when they’re a pack of ne’er do wells and terminal fuckups.
Anyway, they’re in the bar, on the second floor, at a table at the edge of a balcony overlooking the tavern’s main room. Begbie, after drinking the dregs from his pint, tosses the empty glass over the side railing.
There’s a crash and a clatter and a scream, and it turns out that Begbie’s stein has cracked some girl on her skull.
Begbie and crew go downstairs to see the damage wreaked by his careless tossing of the empty piss pint from the railing.
Blood is pouring down the young lady’s face, and her date is understandably seeking vengeance. But Begbie, undaunted, lets go with a savage roar, enraged that someone would attempt to hold him to the petty laws of civilization and decency. He has mad Rasputin eyes and the energy of a bantam gamecock equipped with cockspurs and ready for the pit. His is the energy of a man with Napoleon complex who’s learned how to assuage his insecurity over his smallness with violence. Preferably by beating the shit out of men much bigger and more musclebound than him.
As Begbie prepares to mete out punishment (or maybe a few seconds before) the frame freezes, Scorsese style, and the narrator speaks over the frame (also Scorsese style): “Begbie didn’t do drugs. He did people.”
And that’s it in a nutshell, the problem with which I’m grappling at 3:45 am on a Wednesday, getting ready for an early appointment with my doctor.
Ridiculous, I know, as there are no doubt plenty of wonderful people out there who do neither drugs nor people. And there are just as many, no doubt, who do drugs and people. But it bothers me on nights like this one, when I think of my friends dead, and me alive. And I think of those who must fly from life toward dope’s transient and ultimately illusory mercies.
The writer Harry Crews once said words to the effect of “Find what you love and let it kill you.”
I guess, ultimately, I don’t love anything enough to let it kill me, except life itself. And even though life’s a drug with diminishing returns, I’m addicted to it, and need it now just to feel normal.
Maybe death is the ultimate high, but I only plan on finding that out in my own time. I’ve got it all planned out:
I’m going to overdose on natural causes.