I was a daily drinker, a frequent opium user, and a bona fide cocaine addict. I was a devotee of Demerol and a dabbler in Darvocet. I was a Percodan-pursuing, Seconal-seeking, codeine-consuming, 100 percent, fully certifiable, equal-opportunity substance abuser. But it was the tranquilizers that got me through the day. A lonely visitor to an alien and hostile planet, I needed those little blue pills. They were my lifeline, the atmosphere from which I dared not emerge lest my blood boil and my lungs explode. I was forever pouring them out of the bottle to fondle them and look at them. I would spread them out and count them, arrange them and pile them, many little piles and then a few big ones. I would finger them and feel them, snort them and chew them. I did everything but fuck them. Without them I was lost; with them I could carve out a little space for myself, a little breathing room.
I’ve heard it suggested by fellow addicts that tranquilizers are a candy-ass addiction, that you don’t know suffering until you’ve tried to kick heroin or crack. Well, I’m here to tell you they’re wrong. I’ll tell you what it’s like when the pills run out. It’s like a stuck phonograph needle wearing a groove in your heart.
Fortunately for me I was a slob, so when the pills got scarce I could always live for a while off the ones I’d dropped on the floor. I might buy three or four days that way, finding a few pills here and a few there, but eventually there would come a time when the apartment was picked clean, when, no matter how carefully and minutely I combed through the threads of the carpet or felt beneath the cushions on the sofa, there were no more pills to be found. The protagonist of Drugstore Cowboy asserts that “there’s nothing more life-affirming than getting the shit kicked out of you.” The same goes for running out of drugs. To want is to live, and you’re never more alive than when you’re crawling across the floor with your eyes rolling around in your head, looking for that one more pill that you just know isn’t going to be there.
One big problem with being a tranquilizer addict is that there isn’t much of a black market for them. Scoring heroin these days is about as challenging as buying eggs, but Xanax won’t ever carry much cachet as a street drug. They’re just not cool. So you take your seat in the waiting room with the agoraphobic housewife and the teenage girl with the eating disorder and the middle-aged guy in the three-piece suit who can’t stop washing his hands, and you wait for your name to be called.
“Mr. Neipris? Sit down. I’m Doctor Bainbridge. How can I be of help to you today?”
“Well, Doctor, I’m feeling very anxious.”
“I see. And what exactly are you feeling anxious about?”
What was I not feeling anxious about? How could I even begin to describe the raw, gaping wound that was all that remained of my psyche? I think the way I dealt with psychiatrists must have been very much like how a woman behaves in an abusive relationship. On the one hand, you hate the cocksucker with all your heart; on the other, you need him as badly as you’ve ever needed anyone in your life. So you try desperately to please him, and, above all, you never want to say the wrong thing.
“Yes, Doctor, I have tried Xanax in the past, and, yes, it did seem to help quite a bit.” Easy now, not too eager. “But, you see, I don’t much like the idea of taking pills for my problems.” That’s better. Make him come to you.
“Well, I understand, Mr. Neipris. But you know, you should think of this as you would any other medicine that might help you when you’re not feeling well.” As he speaks, he’s fishing around in the top drawer for his prescription pad. “How about if we start you out on the one milligram? If they’re too strong, you can always break them in half.”
Now here’s a guy who didn’t go through four years of medical school for nothing. “OK, Doctor. Whatever you think is best.”
At its peak, my intake of Xanax was in the neighborhood of ten to twelve milligrams per day — at least three times the recommended maximum dosage. Drug addicts are nothing if not conscientious, and I had a pretty set routine. I would wake up around 4:30 every morning and reach for the bottle of pills by the bed. I never used water, preferring just to chew them. I suppose they would be an acquired taste at best for most people, but not for me; I loved them right from the start. Besides, I thought they got into my system quicker that way. On those rare occasions when I had female company, I’d try to chew quietly, but every once in a while I’d get caught.
“Hey, what are you eating?”
“Nothing, go back to sleep.”
“I heard you eating something.”
“It’s nothing, just some pills.”
Pause. “You eat them?”
When I would wake up again several hours later, I’d usually feel well enough to face the day. There is a chart they show you in rehab that illustrates the stages of addiction. Basically, in the earliest stages the drug is very effective, and relatively small doses get you really high. As time wears on, though, the addict-to-be finds that he needs more of the drug to get the desired effect. As this happens, the sickness and depression that follow the highs begin to deepen. In the later stages it’s mostly crash and burn, all pain and very little gain. Essentially, the addict is taking huge doses of the drug just not to feel sick. Once you reach this stage, you’re pretty well screwed. The key is to try to stay ahead of it, to keep that lump in your gut from getting any bigger than a walnut. By the time I’d get to the office in the morning, I would already have taken enough Xanax to sedate a whole family of phobics.
One of the more unfortunate side effects of very high doses of Xanax is short-term memory loss. I would go home at night wracked with dread, trying desperately to remember if I’d called in this order, or scheduled that truck. Even worse, I would occasionally make the same call twice.
“Hello, Bob? Al Neipris here. Just calling to let you know that we’ll be in to pick up your load tomorrow around two.”
Pause. “How many times you gonna call me today with that? Whaddaya, drunk or somethin’?”
What can you say at a moment like this? You just laugh nervously and make some lame joke about getting senile. And then you hang up the phone and think about what a mess you are, how your life has become this creepy downward spiral, like that drop of cold sweat that just popped out of your armpit and is now crawling slowly down your side.
The weird thing is that, no matter how bad things are, the addict never catches on. Every weekday at five o’clock I would burst out of work and drive as fast as I could to Johnny’s Pub. By that time, despite all the Xanax, I would desperately need a drink. Typically, I would have two or three martinis in the space of about ten minutes, until the tightness in my chest and stomach loosened a little and I felt that I could breathe again. After that I would switch to beer, which I would continue to drink until seven or eight that night. This was more or less my routine for two years. One morning I noticed that my pee looked a little brown, but I had plenty of other problems at the time, so I didn’t let it bother me much. After all, what’s a little brown pee? It’s not like anyone is going to see it or anything. And after a few beers, my urine would clear up again. It would never have occurred to me to think about the long-term health consequences of my drinking, that my internal organs might be slowly dissolving in a marinade of alcohol. Better by far to consider the obviously salutary effects of beer on urine. The addict will turn his world inside out and upside down. He will contort and distort, deny and lie about the facts. He will do whatever it takes not to confront the true nature of his problem.
If you are a recovering drug addict or alcoholic, or both, the story of your addiction is like a basketball game: it’s the last two minutes that really count. My own personal last two minutes occurred one weekend in 1985, the year I moved in with Donna. By that time I was a full-blown addict inching my way along the thinnest of wires high above the center ring, doing my best to ignore the fact that a fatal plunge was just a matter of time.
I met Donna at a dance, the details of which were already erased from my memory by the time I woke up the following morning. I do remember our dancing together, and I have a dim notion that at some point during the evening I asked her to marry me. Although I never picked up that particular thread again, I suspected that the answer might have been yes. In any event, we were obviously made for each other, and by the following weekend we were pretty much living together.
Donna was the perfect girlfriend for a drug addict. She was sweet, devoted, and relentlessly accepting. Also, she had some drug problems of her own, although compared to me she was strictly an amateur. But what really set Donna apart from the rest of the field was her rather serious disease of the bowel, which required, once a month, a brand-new prescription for liquid opium. I loved that about her. I was never so happy as on days when we’d pick up a new prescription. We’d usually make a night out of it: first to the doctor’s office, then a quick trip to the pharmacy, and then out to dinner to celebrate.
Opium was one of my favorite drugs. I would carry it around with me in a little plastic Visine bottle, and whenever I felt the need I would carefully squeeze out a few drops onto my tongue. The thing is, though, opium can be tricky: just a little too much can lay you up for days.
Donna would occasionally work forty-eight-hour shifts and be gone entire weekends. On one such weekend, I began hitting the opium even harder than usual. By Saturday morning I was throwing up violently, my stomach wringing itself out like a sponge. Eventually, I brought up a thick green bile, a kind of gritty sediment that felt strangely cold in my mouth. I knew it was something from deep inside, something that should normally be well out of reach.
When the nausea at last subsided a bit, I limped into the bedroom and lay on the bed for hours without moving. By evening I realized that I was genuinely paralyzed; I could not have moved if I had wanted to. At the same time it became apparent that what I had thought were shadows in one corner of the room were actually dead animals. They were hanging upside down from the ceiling, their long necks and sleek heads pointing toward the floor. I idly wondered what kind of animals they might be, but beyond that it seemed perfectly reasonable that there were dead animals hanging from the ceiling, and were it not for the fact that they were directly in my line of vision I would not have paid them the least attention.
All that night and all the next day, I lay on the bed without moving. At some point during the second night I began to dream. I dreamt that I was wrapped from head to toe in milky white strands, like a mummy. Then I realized that it was all one strand, and all I needed to do was unwind it and I would be free. Somehow, in the dream, I was able to move my hands, and I set to work, painstakingly unraveling each loop. But there was so much of it, and the more I unwound, the thinner and longer the strand became, so that my body continued to be bound by just as much material no matter how hard I worked. I labored on and on, but I was so weary, and the strand itself was a kind of infinite weariness.
I am in a large room with beds in it. It is night, and a man in a bed on the other side of the room suddenly sits upright and cries out, “Waitress!” A nurse comes running. A moment later the room is filled with the smell of his bowel movement.
The next morning, I overhear the old man in the bed beside mine whispering to his doctor. He wants to be transferred to another room. I think that it must be because of the guy who can’t make up his mind if he’s in a restaurant or a men’s room. But the old man says it’s because he doesn’t want to be next to a drug addict. Later, I hear the old man using his bedpan. This time the smell of shit has a sinister quality, as if it were meant just for me.
I am visited by a social worker. She tells me that I could easily have died, and asks if I think I may have a problem with drugs and alcohol. I tell her that I wouldn’t be at all surprised. She suggests that I might benefit from a stay in a treatment facility. Though I have no hope that anything of the kind will help me, I agree with her anyway. The next day I am taken to an ambulance for the ride to Woodlawn, which is half psychiatric hospital, half drug-and-alcohol rehab, so I guess I’ll be covered both ways. I don’t feel all that badly, but they make me lie down on a stretcher anyway. There’s an EMT guy sitting in the back, apparently with nothing better to do than watch me lying there. I have always had a certain genius for finding the awkwardness in a situation, and it turns out that a ride in an ambulance is no exception.
When we arrive at Woodlawn, they want to put me in the locked ward. I protest, but they tell me that it’s for my own protection while I go through what they cheerfully call “the detoxification process.” Apparently, I’m the first Xanax addict they’ve had, and they have to contact the manufacturer to see how to handle it. They decide that the best way to prevent seizures during withdrawal is to give me large doses of phenobarbital. The first day’s dosage is two full dixie cups of liquid every eight hours. At first I’m pretty happy because I figure I’ll at least catch a little buzz from it, but it does nothing for me at all. I might as well be drinking water. I’m starting to get a trapped, panicky feeling, and the steel door with the bars across the window is looking more formidable with each passing hour.
I am scheduled to meet with my psychiatrist for the first time. I think perhaps one of the attendants in white uniforms will escort me to the doctor’s office in the main building. But it turns out the psychiatrist comes right to my room, as if he’s making an old-fashioned house call. The first thing he tells me is that it’s not healthy to stay in my room all the time; I have to spend at least part of my waking hours in the day room. I tell him that I would have nothing at all against the day room were it not for the fact that there always seem to be other people in it. He is not amused, and something in his tone of voice suggests that I had better do what he says if I ever want to get out of here. Then he gives me a test. After explaining that vocabulary generally remains intact no matter what you’ve done to yourself, he asks me the meanings of a list of words. There is a colorful term for this: “premorbid IQ.” Then he shows me a series of cards with stick figures on them. Placed in the proper order, they form a little story. I do the best I can with them, but I always seem to have one card left over. When we are finished, he tells me that I may have “organicity.” I ask him what that is. “Brain damage,” he says matter-of-factly. That’s just great, I think.
Over time, I take several more tests. One of them is a psychological profile in which I’m asked to draw anything that comes to mind. I am the world’s worst artist and have only one picture in my repertoire, a little man whose head is shaped like a peanut. I have been drawing the peanut man since I was about eight years old. I draw him now. I finish so quickly that I think I had better add something, so I put a hat on him. My picture still looks a little meager, so I draw a pipe with smoke coming out of it. Later, my psychiatrist tells me that the picture is evidence of my repressed anger. The hat is the repression, and the smoke coming out of the pipe is the anger, he explains. This strikes me as so ridiculous that I want to kill him. Perhaps there’s something to it after all.
I remain in the locked ward for ten days. When I get out, they take me to my first AA meeting. One of the drug-and-alcohol counselors drives eight of us in the hospital van. It is summer, and I can’t help thinking we look like a group of retarded adults being taken out for ice cream. I know very little about AA, but I’ve heard that it can work, so I am hopeful. When we arrive at the meeting I look at the Twelve Steps of Recovery hanging on the wall at the front of the room and read, “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” My heart sinks.
By the time my last day at Woodlawn rolls around, I feel as rotten as I’ve ever felt in my life. It’s as if the earth has suddenly stopped spinning, and forward momentum has sent me hurtling through space. I try desperately to slow down, to match everyone else’s pace and rhythm, but I cannot. My thoughts race, and my movements are quick and jerky, like an out-of-control puppet. After lunch, I have my last appointment with my psychiatrist. Feeling desperate enough to try anything, I tell him that I’ve seen the error of my ways and now understand the dangers of tranquilizer abuse. If he could just see his way clear to perhaps letting me have a few pills to get me over the hump . . . My voice sounds hollow and insincere, and I am so hot with shame that I cannot finish the sentence. I’m sure he’s going to throw me out of his office.
Astonishingly, he reaches for his prescription pad. I don’t dare look at what he’s written until I’m safely outside. It’s for twenty-five milligrams of Xanax. With a refill.
The unopened bottle of Xanax sits on the kitchen table in my apartment, where I lived before moving in with Donna. I want the pills badly, but it’s such a small supply. I carefully consider: If I watch myself, maybe I can get by on five milligrams a day. With the refill, that’s ten days. Then what? I know that if I start in again I’m going to have to go out and find a new psychiatrist to write prescriptions for me. My last doctor has caught on — they all do sooner or later. Maybe I can continue to see the guy at Woodlawn for a while, but how am I going to explain to him that I’ve gone through his whole prescription in just ten days? I’m so sick of lying, of struggling to keep my stories straight. I just don’t have the energy anymore. But there’s no way I can resist the temptation of those pills. I see only one way out. I take five pills and, at the same moment, flush the rest down the toilet, plastic bottle and all. Doing the one has given me the strength to do the other.
Soon I crave Xanax so badly my teeth hurt. I bitterly regret throwing those pills away. I’m crawling around on the floor again, combing through the fibers of the carpeting. I find nothing. I think about calling the pharmacy to tell them I lost the bottle and need the refill right away, but somehow I just can’t bring myself to do it. I look to the sofa. There’s a crack in the back where I’m sure some pills must have fallen. Maybe a lot of them. I reach into the crack again and again, but it’s just too narrow to get my hand down to the bottom and feel around. I go to the kitchen and grab a knife. I’m about to start cutting when I catch a glimpse of myself in the strip of mirror attached to the bedroom door. I put the knife back into the drawer. I can always cut the sofa open tomorrow.
Every day I go to an AA meeting, sometimes two. People talk about how they go to AA meetings because they feel safe there, but I don’t feel safe anywhere. I go because I don’t know what else to do, because I’m not capable of doing anything else. Meanwhile, Donna keeps calling me, and I keep explaining to her that I need time alone. I should probably tell her that it’s over for good, but I just don’t have the heart. Besides, I don’t want to burn any bridges, in case I start to take drugs again.
When I’ve been sober for three months, John, my sponsor, says it’s time for me to get up in front of the group and tell my story. I’m ashamed to admit how terrified I am. At meetings I often hear people talking about fighting their feelings of low self-esteem. That’s all well and good, but I’m convinced that feeling lousy about myself is perfectly reasonable. You can’t have an inferiority complex if you really are inferior. Somehow, though, I do get up and tell my story — or try to, at any rate. I get about three sentences in and then freeze up. I manage another sentence or two and then freeze up again. And so it goes. In ten minutes I have managed maybe a dozen sentences. Finally, my sponsor takes pity on me and leads me away from the podium. The applause is tepid. I am sick for a week.
I meet a woman named Linda, a heroin addict from New York who looks very much like a young Sophia Loren. She is the girlfriend of Carl, my best friend in AA. When Carl has a relapse and goes back into rehab, Linda asks if I wouldn’t mind taking her around to meetings. I don’t see any harm in it. A week later, I do see the harm when I find myself sleeping with her. She really is quite beautiful, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what she sees in me. Around this time there is a lot of talk about a new disease called AIDS: AIDS and needles. AIDS and blood. AIDS and unprotected sex. Linda is a heroin addict who always seems to be bleeding, and I’m having unprotected sex with her. Hmm. I vow to break it off.
When Carl comes home, though, I’m still sleeping with Linda. Carl has never impressed me as a violent fellow, but it has not escaped my notice that he is a very big man. Also, I’m convinced that I must have AIDS. I think about the craziness of my life when I was drinking and drugging, and I think about the craziness of my life now. To be honest, I don’t see much difference. When Linda confesses to Carl what’s been going on between the two of us, he tells her to tell me that if he ever sees me again when he’s not sober, he won’t be responsible for what happens. At least he’s not going to beat me up right away. I feel terribly guilty of course, but perhaps not quite as guilty as I should. It surprises me, but I’m able to cut myself some slack: I’m hanging on by my fingernails here, I think. Expecting me to resist the advances of a beautiful woman on top of everything else is asking just a little too much.
One night I dream that I am flying low over a black-and-white landscape. I begin to fly a little higher, then suddenly I’m soaring. As I soar, the world becomes suffused with color. When I wake up, I feel rested and whole. It doesn’t last, of course, but it’s a nice moment all the same. That day, my sponsor, who has been taking a new antidepressant and acting strangely for weeks, calls me up and exults for two hours about the difference between an ex-alcoholic, which is what he’s decided he is, and a recovering alcoholic, which is everyone else in the program. I guess I have to face the fact that, for some time now, I’ve been taking the advice of a lunatic.
After much hand wringing, I finally muster the courage to ask an old-timer in the group if he will be my new sponsor. We meet for coffee, and I tell him my theory on why twelve-step programs are the only treatment that really works for addicts. When I finish, I realize that, in my intense effort to explain this, I have broken into a sweat. I can feel the little beads of perspiration lining up across my forehead. Still, I’m sure that I’ve impressed him. He takes a long drag from his cigarette and asks if I would like some advice. Sure, I tell him eagerly; that’s what I’m here for. “If you don’t think too good,” he says, “don’t think too much.”