I just realized I can stop counting how many years I used heroin.
It’s a little confusing, anyway. I first tried it July of 2002 in Chicago, but didn’t like it at the time. It wasn’t until Thanksgiving 2002 in Portland when I was 22, when my 37-year-old neighbor Kurt, who was in love with me, relapsed on heroin out of heartbreak that I wouldn’t be with him, and gave me some… that was when it grabbed me. Trying it a second time was mostly because of that thing I used to have, that part of my personality I have had to carve off myself like a sickness… the part that used to make me try any drug that was in front of me, do anything that was possible, try to reach the farthest corners of experience. Unfortunately, the instruments I’ve been forced to use in order to become free of that thing were very blunt and I ended up carving off parts of my heart and mind as well.
It took me a long time to realize why I didn’t like heroin in July 2002: I was on a break from school, with my cousin and friends, generally happy. The second time I was back at Reed and buried in mountains of reading. I remember sitting on Kurt’s futon on the floor while he watched The Young Ones, reading the Communist Manifesto for my humanities class. At the beginning, then, I could still stay awake and read or be productive. That gave me this false sense that heroin was a good thing. I had done plenty of coke and meth trying to finish the hundreds of pages of reading I had to do each day, or the long papers about postmodernism and anthropology, but I didn’t like the jittery side effects and sleeplessness.
I can’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure what went through my mind as I read the Communist Manifesto flying high on heroin that day, the second day in my life I had ever tried it (and later Marx’s 1844 manuscripts, The Making of the English Working Class, Nietzsche The Genealogy of Morality, Flaubert, Kafka, Baudelaire, Woolf, and so many more), what I was probably thinking, was that I had finally found the magic substance that would help me painlessly finish all my reading without the hovering anxiety and panic that never left me no matter how much of my life I sacrificed to finish the work.
Another thing I realized years later, when it was much too late: the only students I knew who graduated at Reed fell into two camps. First, the ones who didn’t care as much as I did, didn’t mind not finishing the reading, chose their sanity over learning — it was still possible to get good grades and not do ALL the assigned reading, I was just fanatical about it, as I am with everything.
The second camp were simply better students than I was, less flighty, less prone to random acid trips and adventures, willing to sacrifice their personal relationships and other features of normal life. My ex, Byron, the religious studies major who speaks Arabic and a few other languages, who is a professor at a fancy college now, was like that. He was better at not having any distractions, never doing anything “for fun,” never going anywhere other than campus and home. He read on the bus, over meals, directly before and directly after we had sex, as soon as we woke up, even while walking. The only semblance of a social life he had was me, and his best friend from home, Mitch, who moved out to live with him in Portland from their hometown in the Deep South. Byron also had iron concentration and somehow his own free-floating anxiety didn’t hinder his ability to read during all his waking moments.
(Mitch was a classical music composer who would pore over orchestral scores at the breakfast table. If anyone was more committed to the intellectual life than Byron, it was him. He lived on raw oatmeal for a time when he was living in a hostel-type place with no kitchen, in order to save rent money, so that he could go to Cal Arts. He dragged his mattress down the sidewalk from one fleabag tenement to another, in the pouring rain in November, to save money on renting a moving truck. The tortured genius kind of commitment. Mitch introduced me to Anne Carson, one of my favorite writers, for which the entire relationship with Byron was completely worth it.)
I unfortunately fell in a middle group — not organized or focused enough to do what Byron did, but not pragmatic enough to see that the only way to graduate would be to relax my own standards.
My awesome writing teacher/mentor, Miranda, was talking to me about Reed one day, and was shocked to hear everything I just wrote. I told her if I had a child, I would never send them to college there. On paper, the only school in the country that doesn’t do grade inflation (google it), this bastion of intellectualism, sounds amazing. In reality, a lot of my friends ended up not graduating and a lot of us became drug addicts or picked up other mental health issues.
When I worked at reunions there for a few summers, they told me that Reed is the only school that allows anyone to come to the reunion, even if they didn’t graduate. I met people at the reunion who had only been at Reed for a semester and had dropped out or transferred to UO or somewhere else, because they couldn’t handle the work. And these were smart people, people who had ended up with amazing intellectual careers, were doctors or lawyers or professors or archeologists traveling the globe. The reunion organizers said that if they only invited graduates, the attendance would be so sparse that it wouldn’t be worth having an event at all. That should have made me realize I had to relax my own standards if I wanted to succeed there, but I didn’t understand until too late.
That Thanksgiving, 2002, I was immersed in my readings about communism, interspersed with watching Kurt cook up shots of heroin in his kitchen, then I would lean over the stove and look away so he could inject it into my arm. I was still terrified of needles. I didn’t learn how to inject myself until two years later. But after about a week, Kurt decided to stop. Even he was sensible enough to see that both of us were getting strung out (I was blissfully oblivious, didn’t even understand what withdrawal was or what addiction would mean). When I stopped, nothing happened, and I went on my merry way, assuming that heroin had no more power over me than any other drug I had tried.
The only difference was this lingering taste in my mouth, this faint pull, thoughts that would pop into my head, the desire to rhapsodize through several overwrought blog entries as I attempted to describe The Rush.
New Year’s Eve I was on acid and convinced Kurt to buy more heroin. New Year’s Day 2003 I had my first overdose, and Eva banned heroin from the house after seeing me almost die.
Fast-forward to March 2003, I was wandering downtown with a kind-of-friend who was trying to buy meth (long story) and somehow we found a heroin dealer instead, and I bought some. I was in the midst of studying for and taking the qualifying exam to be an anthropology major. The qual was a series of essay questions you had to answer to get to your senior year. Sounds easy, but the stress it caused was similar to what grad students go through approaching their thesis. You had to write about 30 pages in a weekend, and it was the only thing at Reed where the deadline was solid, no late work allowed. Many people I knew who had been anthro majors since their freshman year didn’t pass. They had to take it again the next semester. I’m sure they were less anxious even after failing the qual than I was studying for it. My self-doubt knew no bounds and I was convinced I would fail and never get into grad school. Funny how those things become self-fulfilling prophecies.
I had only been an anthro major for about 3 months. I had a revelation in September 2002 that I didn’t care about art anymore (my original major). It seemed pointless, especially after 9/11, too inward-focused. I found that if I just added one extra semester and took four anthro/history/sociology classes for each of the next three semesters, I could graduate with an anthro degree. People advised me against it, told me that stacking up all those reading-heavy classes at once would be too much work, but as usual, I didn’t listen.
But by spring 2003 I was consumed with anxiety that I wouldn’t pass the qual. So much anxiety that I couldn’t finish my reading, I would sit there staring at the page, unable to read even a single sentence. After I bought heroin that day in downtown, I was suddenly able to concentrate. I got caught up on a semester worth of dense anthro and history reading in about two weeks. (I was taking Semiotics, Anthropology of Eastern Europe, Anthropology of Europe, and Humanities. The reading I was required to do was not humanly possible.) At first, like I said, the somnambulant features of heroin weren’t as present as they were later.
The weekend of the qual rolled around in early April. I picked up the questions on Friday morning. We had until Monday to finish it. There were four or five questions, some of them had readings attached. One of them was “What is culture?” That question is more complicated than it sounds. I was trying to not do heroin but I spend Friday and Saturday unable to concentrate or do any work. Everything felt dark and gloomy and sad. I was listening to Calexico and staring at my cup as my tea got cold and the sun went down. I realize now that the gloom was the first inkling of heroin withdrawal.
By Saturday evening I convinced Kurt to take me out to score some heroin. I wrote the entire 30+ pages on Sunday, took the bus to Reed on Monday to drop it off at 9 am. I remember walking back home, I realized that my skinniest jeans were falling off my body. I had to hold them up as I walked. These are jeans that I haven’t been able to fit into for about 10 years now (I have kept them just to remind myself of how tiny I was at the time). I weighed less than 110 pounds, 20 pounds less than I do now. I had lost at least 10 pounds just in the few weeks I had done heroin.
I didn’t stop doing heroin after that. I passed the qual. A lot of others didn’t. Was it worth it? Hell fucking no.
A month later Reed found out I was on heroin and forced me on medical leave, and my life was essentially over for the next decade. All the countries and states I traveled to, all the people I met, the assholes I dated, all the jobs I had, the books I read, the millions of words I wrote, the skills I learned, the wishes and dreams I crushed daily, none of it filled that hole.
I lost Eva, too. I probably lost her that day I overdosed and almost died on New Year’s Day 2003. Slowly, very slowly, she slipped away, even when she was right in front of me, even when we were living in the same apartment, the same room. Or rather, I slipped away.
I was never sure whether I should count my addiction from July 2002, Thanksgiving 2002, New Year’s 2003, or April 2003. As various months and years passed, I would hope and pray that my addiction would finish on a round number of years. Not that I cared about the number, but I thought maybe I had an internal clock that was forcing me to be an addict for two years, five years, eight years, ten years… once I passed ten years I lost hope. Funny that I got clean right after that. January 2014 was almost 11 years after April 2003. 10 and a half years. I guess I don’t count it from those first few times, because I was able to stop without withdrawal. But I would adjust the start date depending on what year and month it was. In July 2007 I thought, wouldn’t it be perfect if I got clean right now, exactly five years after I first tried it? Of course that didn’t happen. Every potential anniversary passed, some with more hope than others, all with the same result.
Anytime the month lined up with one of those start dates, I would write the story in my head, from my future self: “I finally got clean in April 2013, exactly ten years after my first withdrawal.” Or whatever. Ten years seemed like it would be such a nice number of years. I don’t know why I thought the number of years would motivate me to get clean any more than losing my best friend or losing my identity.
I was looking out the window this morning and adding up the years. I had this moment where I thought “Shit, it’s 2015 now — that means I’ve been a heroin addict for 12 years… or 13 years, if I start counting in 2002… what the fuck? I’ve been telling people 11 years… shit, not more years of failure.”
I had this moment of panic, that feeling I used to have of the clock running out, my life unfurling before my eyes as I sat handcuffed staring at a flame, a spoon, and a needle.
Like in Plato’s cave, I was forced to watch the shadows on the wall, while the Real was just out of sight, my lighter and glowing cigarette illuminating the apparitions that were my entire existence.
Then I realized I can stop counting.