At 3 AM my eyes snap open. It’s been about fifteen hours since my last fix, and I’m already edging into withdrawal. With a sigh I get out of bed and head down to the basement to make a cup of tea from my store of opium poppies.
I begin by washing each dried seedpod, then cracking it open and carefully examining the contents. Some of them contain a disgusting — and poisonous — black mold. If a pod looks suspect from the outside (an odd, swollen shape or an unhealthy discoloration), I cover it with a rag before hitting it with a hammer — to prevent any mold spores from flying into the air, where I might inhale them. Sometimes the moldy ones look perfectly normal, however, and I’ve had more than a few lungfuls over the years.
Next I grind the seedpods in a coffee grinder, which I wrap in a towel to muffle the noise so as not to wake my wife, Pam. By now I’m jerking and twitching from withdrawal. Once, my hands jerked so hard that I dropped the grinder, and the opium grounds went everywhere. Some got between the shelving and the wall, an area I hadn’t swept in more than a decade. There were dead insects and mouse droppings back there, but I gathered the grounds up and used them anyway, because the pods are so expensive and my supply is often dangerously low.
Though simple enough, brewing poppy tea twice a day becomes a tedious and distasteful task. I get just about twelve hours of feeling well from each cup. After that, the opiate in my brain drops below a certain level, and the withdrawal starts again, first as a wormy sensation in my gut that slowly spreads throughout my body. Next a terrible restlessness sets in, and I pace around the room while furiously whirling my arms. Every ten or fifteen seconds I have to pause and stomp madly on the floor to discharge the pent-up energy. I can no more ignore the need to pace and whirl and stomp than I can ignore the need to breathe.
I know I can’t go on like this, yet I can’t stop — which, of course, is the very definition of addiction.
I began drinking opium tea twelve years ago, in my mid-fifties, ostensibly to ease the pain of my frequent headaches: migraines that felt like a burrowing insect had set up shop in my sinus cavity, just below my left eye. No doctor had been able to help.
I was also a longtime addict. At one point or another I’d abused just about every class of drug there is, except inhalants like glue and gasoline. Though I’d been sober for twenty years, I was ready to give it all up just to get some relief.
My initial plan was to grow my own poppies in my backyard. I was thrilled at the prospect and seriously wondered why there wasn’t a poppy patch in a discreet corner of every backyard. But, then, I’ve never been able to understand people who are uninterested in drugs; who can take or leave a drink; who might forget they have a few loose Vicodin in a drawer. I suppose the nonaddict’s physiology doesn’t respond to opioids the way mine does. Either that or life doesn’t provoke in him or her the same fear and loathing it does in me.
A nonaddict probably wouldn’t have shown more than mild interest upon reading that you can cultivate poppies. To me the idea was intoxicating all by itself: free drugs! I greedily began calculating how much opium I might harvest from my yard, reading up on planting methods and varieties of seeds. It might well have been the most carefully planned relapse in history.
I’d read about how the opium collects on the mature seedpods, which can then be dried and ground to make tea. I’d also read that I could carefully cut the fresh pods with a razor blade and lick the raw opium, which had an almost sexual appeal. No way was I not going to give that a try.
As one might expect, it’s a crime to grow opium poppies, especially in large quantities, but I barely hesitated. For one thing, any law that criminalizes the growing of a flower is, to my way of thinking, absurd on its face and offends my libertarian sensibilities. The same goes for any law against ingesting part of that flower — or, for that matter, ingesting any part of anything I want. When it comes to opiates, I’ve decided it’s the laws against the drugs that cause most of the suffering: dirty needles, high prices, contaminated dope. Those fortunate few who, for one reason or another, can be assured clean and unadulterated drugs don’t have to worry about overdosing, since they know exactly what they’re getting.
With my new poppy garden I’d now have a steady supply of pure opium, courtesy of Mother Nature — assuming, that is, I could avoid discovery. Most of our backyard was plainly visible to our few neighbors. I began by planting tall ornamental grasses beside the poppy patch, to obscure the view from the street. Our yard is also full of fruit trees, and I skipped the usual fall pruning, hoping the foliage would be dense enough to form an effective screen. I would also be planting my poppies in the middle of our wildflower garden, where they’d be surrounded by echinacea, bee balm, and sunflowers.
But no amount of caution could guarantee secrecy. The revolutionary in me began fantasizing about what I would do if I got arrested for my poppy plants: the eloquent statements I would make to the press about the right of an aging man to relieve his pain after years of seeking medical help in vain. Perhaps I could mobilize a citizens’ uprising. I dreamed of addressing a throng of supporters on the day of my prison sentencing: God, in his infinite wisdom, has seen fit to give us the gift of the poppy plant, and mere humans have no moral authority to withhold that gift.
This would be far from my first time taking opium. In my early thirties I’d hit addict’s gold by finding a girlfriend with several chronic illnesses. She was kind, sweet, and generous with her prescriptions, including the precious tincture of opium she took for a debilitating disease of the bowels.
I, meanwhile, was young and reckless and almost always took too much of my girlfriend’s medication. The opium plant’s Latin name, Papaver somniferum, translates as “poppy, bringer of sleep.” A more appropriate name, in my case, might have been “poppy, bringer of hours of violent vomiting, followed by days of virtual paralysis.” But, oh, those marvelous opium dreams! They were easily the most intense of my life, always in vivid Technicolor, with tightly constructed plots that would be the envy of any screenwriter. What were a couple of hours of vomiting and days of near paralysis compared to such wonders?
Now I wanted to dream those dreams again — almost as much as I wanted to be free of my headaches. But was it really worth throwing away twenty years of sobriety?
I told Pam that I would likely become addicted. She agreed but also understood why I couldn’t go on as I had been. She’d been a loving, empathetic witness to my headaches, which sometimes came twice a week and could last as long as forty-eight hours. I had her support, she assured me, no matter what I decided.
Marrying Pam is one of the few things I’ve done right in life. I vowed, for her sake, not to lose control of my opiate use. I thought if I could drink my tea sparingly — just two or three cups a week — I could avoid physical addiction. Of course, my personal history argued against any ability to stick to this regimen, or, really, any regimen at all. Inside of a couple of months I’d likely be using daily while my tolerance rose higher and higher, until finally the drug would cease to alleviate the headaches, and I would be right back where I’d started — only now I’d have an opium habit to deal with, too.
So it wasn’t without misgivings that I drank that first cup of thick, muddy-looking tea, which tasted very much like dirt. It took a few minutes for the effects to kick in, and in the interim I remembered a story I’d read about a man who’d tried to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge: he later reported that, as he’d gone over the railing, he’d had the horrifying realization that every single problem in his life could be solved — except for the one he’d just created.
I look back on the early days of my poppy-tea drinking with wistful nostalgia. The highs were so intense I used to wander the graveyard down the street from our house, half crazed with pleasure, mumbling blissful prayers of thanks to the trees, the birds, the moldy gravestones.
I was not the nodding, strung-out junkie people tend to imagine. In fact, the effects were beneficial at first. I’d always been socially awkward — some might say downright socially phobic. But now I found myself on chatty good terms with the neighbors and started taking evening classes at a local university. On a wild — and, until then, unimaginable — impulse, I volunteered to teach immigrants English. Even my lifelong, obsessive fear of death was gone. Who cared about death as long as I could go out feeling like this?
My appetite was back, I was sleeping like a teenager, and the agonizing headaches were gone. It was as if I’d found a way to trade in my old body for a brand-new model.
“Who are you?” my dazzled wife asked one evening after I’d taken her out to dinner and a show for the second time that month.
In a twist on the classic tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I was an antisocial degenerate transformed by a seemingly magical potion into a decent, productive member of society.
But stories about fantastical potions generally end badly. Within six months I was drinking so much tea that my little patch of poppy plants wasn’t enough to keep me going, and I had to resort to buying the seedpods on the Internet at exorbitant prices. My suppliers sometimes abruptly disappeared — due to trouble with the law, I assumed — but new ones always took their place. Every once in a while I would read a story about someone getting arrested for buying pods online, such as the son of a prominent local businessman who’d been hauled off to jail. The feds had dressed up as DHL couriers and arrested him when he’d signed for the delivery.
Long gone were my silly fantasies of leading a civil-rights revolution. I lived in fear: fear of getting caught, of running out of pods, of the inevitable return of my headaches, of going broke as poppy prices continued to increase. I lived from fix to fix, each cup providing an increasingly negligible sense of relief.
In college I bought a battered copy of Thomas De Quincey’s memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, but I quickly gave up on reading it. The writing was too dense and old-fashioned. I tried again in my fifties, and this time I had no such problem.
Of his first experience with opium De Quincey writes: “Here was a panacea . . . for all human woes; . . . happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail-coach.”
The trouble with happiness, ecstasy, and peace of mind is they can’t last. Even as I lay in our backyard hammock that first summer, enjoying the fruits of my labors and feeling as warm and weightless as an unborn babe, the fleeting quality of it all nagged at me. And as I wandered among those moldy gravestones, near to exploding with bliss like some Fourth of July firework, a small part of me was already beginning to mourn.
All my life I’ve been aware that the good times have to end — summer camp, weekends, stretches of good weather — and that impermanence has always spoiled things for me. What I really want is to stop time so that the pleasurable feelings can go on forever; which is another way of saying that nothing will satisfy me short of entry into heaven; which is another way of saying I long for a kind of death.
In some ways addiction isn’t that complicated. Reasonably contented, well-adjusted people rarely become drug addicts. I’ve never been reasonably contented or well-adjusted. Nor has anyone in my immediate family — discontented, maladjusted alcoholics and drug addicts all.
My father, who died about ten years ago, stopped drinking only when he got too old to stand the hangovers. My ninety-four-year-old mother currently has dementia, or I’m sure she’d still be trying to score Xanax from her geriatric physician and dreaming up clever ways to smuggle a bottle of booze into the skilled-nursing unit of her retirement community. My two brothers and I had little to do with one another growing up. Except at mealtimes, we mostly lived behind our closed bedroom doors. Yet our lives turned out remarkably similar: poor grades in school; two or three car wrecks apiece (all due to alcohol); failed attempts at college; menial jobs. We drank and drugged away our young manhoods, then limped into Alcoholics Anonymous within a year or two of one another, going miles out of our way to avoid attending the same meetings.
The only trait my brothers don’t seem to share with me is my interest in reading about drugs. In my early teens, while already drinking and taking hallucinogens, I came across the William S. Burroughs novel Junkie, which is but a thinly disguised memoir. Known for his association with the Beat Generation of the 1950s, Burroughs had a spare, hard-boiled, monochromatic style, and his often-loathsome characters, including himself, were always lurking in noir-like shadows. “Junk sickness is the reverse side of junk kick,” he writes. “The kick of junk is that you have to have it. Junkies run on junktime and junkmetabolism. They are subject to junk climate. They are warmed and chilled by junk. The kick of junk is living under junk conditions. You cannot escape from junk sickness any more than you can escape from junk kick after a shot.”
Another teen might have been scared away by such a grim portrait, but Burroughs’s take on the life of the junkie made me want to find out what it was like to shoot heroin, to test myself against the protracted agonies of withdrawal. I missed his essential message: That for the addict, there’s eventually no real pleasure. There’s only pain (junk sickness) and the relief from pain (the kick of junk). Addiction all too quickly becomes an exhausting, spirit-draining exercise in futility.
When I mentioned to an old junkie friend that my headaches not only had returned, but now seemed worse than ever, he had a ready explanation: “It’s your increased sensitivity to pain, courtesy of all those years of opiate abuse.” (The medical term is “hyperalgesia.”) I’m fast spending Pam’s and my retirement money on a drug that no longer has any benefit, except to stave off withdrawal. It’s been a long time since I’ve dared open our bank statements, which arrive with terrifying regularity. I notice Pam is not looking at the statements either, just quietly tossing them unopened into a drawer. She pays our credit-card bill every month, so she knows better than I do how much I’m spending — an obscene sum that is the nodding, strung-out elephant in the room neither of us wants to talk about. The elephant sleeps in bed with us and puts his smelly feet up on Pam’s coffee table. I’m the one who let this beast into the house, and now I can’t get him out.
The addict’s punishment — my punishment — has a karmic quality to it: by foolishly attempting to cheat the gods of my given allotment of suffering, I’ve doubled that suffering. The biblical phrase “Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind” comes to mind. Also: “How could I have been so fucking stupid?”
I understand I have no right to feel sorry for myself. It’s not as if I didn’t know — at least, in my more honest moments — how this was going to end. I spend half my time savagely beating myself up and the other half trying to devise ways to put money back in our account. But a part-time job at Walmart or Home Depot is the most I can handle these days, and that isn’t going to be enough.
Seeing my growing panic, Pam asks why I don’t find a way to quit. That she asks so sweetly makes me start to cry. “It’s a disease,” she reminds me, tears of her own appearing. “You need treatment.”
I’ve always been skeptical of the idea that addiction is a disease. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I can’t buy the idea that I’m as blameless as a man with cancer. There’s an undeniable moral dimension to addiction. No one held a gun to my head. I made a choice twelve years ago, and I have to take responsibility for it. But Pam’s right that I could seek treatment. Addicts clean up every day. Some even stay clean. I keep hearing about a medication called buprenorphine that’s supposed to suppress the desire to get high. I can’t imagine living without that desire — would I still be me? — but I owe it to Pam to try.
After making and canceling two appointments at buprenorphine clinics, I finally keep the third. This particular clinic recently opened in the basement of a seemingly deserted professional building on the low-rent side of town. New ones pop up almost daily across strip-mall America. Given the current opioid epidemic, they might soon outnumber nail salons and karate studios.
When I make my appointment, the man on the telephone instructs me to bring $180 in cash to my first visit.
“Why cash?” Pam asks.
“Do you really think they’re going to take personal checks and credit cards from a bunch of drug addicts?” I reply. “These are people who’d trade their own dog for a fix.”
On my way out the door I give our two Italian greyhounds a few extra pats, telling myself that I’d never do such a thing. The hard truth is, though, that were I to find myself dope sick enough, I can’t say what I would or would not do.
At the clinic a solemn-faced woman of around twenty takes my money and slips the bills into an already bulging envelope. The waiting room is jammed. Unable to find a seat, I lean against a wall. At almost seventy, I’m the oldest person here by at least two decades.
Every five minutes or so a name is called, and the lucky addict gets up and walks down a hallway. Meanwhile fresh patients continue to trickle in. I take a stab at figuring out how much money the place must make: It’s open only fifteen hours a week and has just one doctor. At a rate of, say, ten patients per hour, that’s $1,800 dollars an hour, or $27,000 per week. Can that even be right? I’m checking my figures on my phone when I hear my name.
The doctor is a portly, sad-eyed Pakistani man of around forty. I find myself resenting his relative youth and the vaguely disreputable way he’s making so much money.
“How can I help you today, sir?” he asks tiredly.
I’ve been talking with psychiatrists and psychologists and addiction counselors almost all my life, and I want to impress this doctor with how much I know. I want to tell him that I began reading Freud when I was fifteen and Jung when I was sixteen; that one of my college professors gave me a recommendation for graduate school in which he wrote that my work showed evidence of a “fine and original mind.” (Pathetically I still have the letter and take it out from time to time.) Most of all, I want the doctor to know that if I’d stayed away from drugs and booze and other self-destructive behaviors, I might have done something of value with my life.
As I open my mouth to speak, however, I’m horrified to feel hot tears in my eyes. With a shaky voice I tell him that I’m an opiate addict, that I’m hooked on poppy tea, and that I can see no way out — except, perhaps, for buprenorphine.
He nods and smiles with genuine sympathy and tells me he’s personally convinced buprenorphine (most commonly know by its trade name, Suboxone) is the best option for those who are unable to get clean without medical assistance. Unlike methadone, which requires daily visits to a clinic, buprenorphine is prescribed monthly, thus freeing the addict to live a normal life.
Then comes the bad news: I will have to be suffering at least mild withdrawal symptoms in order to take buprenorphine for the first time. In fact, severe withdrawal would be safer. If the patient takes the medication before withdrawal sets in sufficiently, it can cause “precipitated withdrawal” — an intense dope sickness that can involve days of sweating, shivering, shitting, heart-racing, legs-and-arms-flailing hell. A recovering addict online writes, “You won’t die [from precipitated withdrawal], but you’ll wish that you had.”
Even if I escape precipitated withdrawal (in fairness, the vast majority do), given the size of my habit, there’s a decent chance the medication won’t be strong enough to bring me out of withdrawal right away, which by itself could lead to several days of milder dope sickness while my tolerance slowly drops to a level the medication can handle.
“It’s your age I’m most worried about,” the doctor finally tells me.
Buprenorphine binds so tightly to the brain’s opiate receptors that it creates what’s called an “opiate block,” meaning no opiates will work on the patient. On the one hand, this is the goal: the addict is protected against his or her own worst impulses. On the other hand, it’s a problem, because if the addict needs surgery or has an accident or contracts an illness that causes acute pain, opiates won’t help — unless prescribed in amounts most doctors don’t feel comfortable with. And older people like me are more likely to need surgery or develop a painful illness such as cancer. The doctor urges me to think it over carefully before committing and to be sure I’ve given myself every chance to clean up on my own. If I do need buprenorphine, I should assume I’m going to be on it for the rest of my life.
So where does that leave me? Do I try 12-step meetings one more time? I imagine returning to my Monday-night group. As recently as ten years ago I might have had it in me, but I feel too old to get on my knees and resume a deeply uncomfortable conversation with God. The same goes for baring my soul in front of others, which I find akin to stripping off pieces of my skin and lighting them on fire.
Methadone is always an option, but the thought of waking up early every day to go to some shabby clinic is deeply depressing.
Which means I’m right back where I started, only worse, because my best hope is gone.
Pam looks heartbroken when I give her the news. I quickly assure her that I have a plan: if I can’t wean myself off the tea in two months, I’ll go into a detox facility and then rehab. I half believe this when I say it, but there is absolutely no chance I will accomplish this. I just barely made it through detox as a much younger man. I don’t believe I’m strong enough to do it again.
Another friend to whom I recently confessed my opium addiction asked why I had gone back to illegal drugs after some twenty years of sobriety. There was no judgment in his tone, only genuine curiosity.
He might as well have asked a compulsive gambler how he could have wagered away his children’s college fund, or a sex addict how he could have had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive prostitute. It’s not that they didn’t know better. We all know better. I’m guessing even the white lab rat who can’t stop pressing the bar that dispenses hits of cocaine knows better. The poor, helpless rat is probably saying to himself, I really need to get away from this bar and grab a meal and a good night’s sleep, but he keeps right on pressing that bar until he’s dead.
Every morning, before choking down my glass of sludgy brown liquid, I’m seized by the wild hope, based on absolutely nothing, that the drug will once again hit me as it used to. It’s a common delusion among washed-up addicts: chasing that first high. I can’t think of anything more tragically moronic.
I suppose this is why doctors have decided that addiction is an illness: because such compulsive, self-destructive behavior makes no sense otherwise. It must be a sickness. What else could drive us addicts to ruin our lives and the lives of those around us for something that gives us virtually no pleasure anymore? When sober, I’m a decent person. And yet one could argue that my life has been distinguished chiefly by the long list of people I’ve hurt, from parents, to friends, to coworkers, to casual acquaintances, to perfect strangers. And now I’m hurting Pam, the woman who saved my life more than thirty years ago by encouraging my newfound sobriety. She’s been both the love of my life and my best friend. And how do I pay her back? By looting our retirement savings and making a fool of her with my lies.
When Pam asks whether I’m still cutting down on my tea consumption, I tell her I’m making progress.
She points out that I spent the usual amount of money last month — maybe a bit more.
“Oh, well, that’s just to make sure I won’t have to worry about running out. Next month you’ll see a big difference.”
If I can’t accept that I have a disease, perhaps I could buy some other scientific explanation. Maybe someday doctors will be able to locate on an MRI the neurological defect that renders me unable to properly weigh the consequences of my actions: a sort of drug addict’s blind spot, entirely physical in nature. It would be nice if this were so. Because otherwise it must be my monstrous selfishness that drives me to cause so much suffering. And for that there is no cure.