The debate we are having is over the efficacy of free healthcare, safe-injection sites, state-funded detox and rehabilitation for drug addicts. It is the middle of the afternoon and we are sitting in our apartment, on opposite ends of the couch, my right leg draped over his left, the dog at our feet. The couch is modern, the neighborhood is quiet.
I’m reading an article about Seattle’s plan to be the first U.S. city to implement a safe injection site. Did you know, I ask him, that there’s over 300 overdoses a year in King County?
It’s wild, he replies, gravely.
He thinks safe injection sites are a good place to start, a working solution to the high overdose rates, a way for addicts to seek treatment and counseling if they so decide.
I want to tell him it’s not enough. That street outreach and free clinics and safe consumption spaces (SCS) and church programs are not enough because we still view addiction as a criminal justice problem and not a mental health crisis. I want to say the problem is systemic and what we, as a community, are doing to prevent and care for those struggling with addiction is ineffective and ultimately enabling.
And then I have a memory that stops me short.
Here is a scene. Carlos is in the next room with Z— cooking up a shot. The stench of black tar heroin wafts through the room, an acrid mix of acid, coffee, smoke and tar. In one hand is an aluminum tea light holder held in place by its makeshift handle, a bent twisty-tie; in the other hand is the slow, steady flame from a clear disposable cigarette lighter. His arms fall away from his body, the flame of the lighter dropping closer to his lap as he nods off, head and hand falling forward in sync.
In the bedroom nearest to me, Daun’s slumped body mirrors his, except her left hand holds a blackened glass pipe, shattered at one end, the flame from her right hand licking at nothing. Her eyes are heavy-lidded and lined in black, a stark contrast to her pallid complexion that reflects the light of the small television set at the foot of the bed.
The apartment is in Daun’s name, but is paid for by Section 8. The food in the pantry has been purchased with food stamps and her methadone-maintenance program is state funded as well. Carlos and Z— rent the other two rooms in the apartment and the rent she collects pays for her habit. The building is 100 years old and sits perched over the Panhandle, that thin strip of Eucalyptus that extends east from Golden Gate Park. The air is crisp and bright, but doesn’t reach us here.
I am writing on the floor, clutching my arm in agony. There is a knot the size of a grapefruit on my upper left bicep, throbbing and radiating heat where the muscle has abscessed. The pain reaches from my wrist to my collar bone and back down again, pulling and pounding along the way.
FUUUUUCCCCCKKKKK, I moan, crying out to no one in particular.
Daun’s face appears in the doorway. Her face is deeply lined and the skin is sallow. Her body sags beneath an oversized tunic, puckered and bruised by years of intravenous drug use.
You want some? her voice croaks, extending a shaky handful of pills.
What is it? I ask, throwing my head back like a baby bird.
Eight milligrams of Dilaudid, she answers.
I smile weakly and wait, but nothing happens. I already have a gram of heroin and a Percocet in my system, but nothing is touching this pain.
After a while, Daun re-emerges from her room and takes another look at me. Baby, she drawls, you need to go to the clinic.
I don’t want to go. I don’t trust doctors, I have no money or insurance, I am afraid of what they will say and how long they will keep me there. I can’t bear the thought of getting up off this floor. I look at her. Daun, who has been in the game for a lifetime and survived things that most people shouldn’t. She stares back at me with a look of pity and foreboding.
What time is it? I groan, giving up the fight.
Four o’clock, she replies then adds, They close at five.
What happened? he asks me, tracing the scars on my left bicep. We are curled on the couch, telling each other the stories of our lives. This is maybe our third date and the smells coming from his kitchen are roast chicken, butter, peppers, asparagus.
There is so much of my past I am afraid to tell him and I pull each piece out carefully, lay it neatly in the space between us.
Heroin, I explain, and then go on, When I couldn’t find a vein to hit, I would muscle the shot; I would shoot it straight into my arm. I didn’t usually have clean needles, which didn’t help either.
His face is open and empathetic. I keep going.
The scars are from where they drained the abscess, but I didn’t learn from the first time, so that’s why there are two. There’s a needle exchange in San Francisco called the Haight-Ashbury Clinic and when I went there they told me that I needed to go to the E.R. and that if I didn’t I would lose my arm.
He puts his arm around my shoulder and gives it a squeeze. His breathing reminds me I’m not alone, that he sees me and that it’s okay.
I had to lie to get in since I had no money, I continue. I gave them a fake name and address, told them I had lost my I.D. They kept me there for three days hooked up to an I.V. of antibiotics because I also had a staph infection. Carlos brought me dope while I was in and I kept forgetting the name I had given the hospital because I was so high. Eventually one of the nurses just wrote it on the white board in my room.
The timer goes off for the oven and we both look toward the kitchen. You should write a book, he says, smiling, knowing already that I am working on it. Don’t edit yourself though. Your story is yours and it’s important. If people can’t accept that part of you, then, well, fuck ‘em, he says as he stands and makes his way to the kitchen.
From the couch I watch his body move, wide-shouldered and lithe, expertly transferring pans from the oven to the stovetop to the counter and back again, while his dog, a black Spaniel-Labrador, shifts her weight against me.
I watch the neighborhood where we live become overrun with tent cities and trash, blooming beneath freeway overpasses and creeping along the sides of abandoned parking lots. I see addicts active in their addiction and am overwhelmed with a feeling of repulsion and disgust. I find myself crossing the street to avoid the very same people I used to share needles and beds and my body with.
It is easy for me to forget where I’ve been.
Toward the end of my addiction, I lived in SRO’s — single room occupancy hotels — for ten dollars a night in the Tenderloin of San Francisco. They were filthy and run down with pimps, prostitutes, and dope dealers, but it was safer than sleeping on the street. I took advantage of needle exchanges and free clinics and because of that, I still have my arm when I shouldn’t.
Most addicts don’t ever get clean and most of them die active in their addiction. There are no easy answers. There will always be people who will take advantage of things like free healthcare and housing, but those resources kept me alive long enough for me to get here.
In the years I’ve been clean, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of women, helping them build a life in recovery. One woman was seventeen when I first met her and she couldn’t stop using. Once, I found her shooting up in my bathroom. She later told me the most important thing I had done was never to judge her for being an addict, for not being able to quit.
Three years later, I ran into her and barely recognized her. She came barreling through a crowd and threw her arms around me, then gushed forward with her life. She told me the story of how she had finally come clean, then held up her phone to show me a picture of her two-year-old daughter. A beautiful baby girl.
Sometimes the effect we have is tangible and linear and immediate; sometimes it is subtler, more gradual and abstract.
There is nothing anyone could have said or done to get me sober any sooner than I did. I was met often with contempt, pity, judgment, and disgust. There were friends who walked out of my life, doctors who sentenced me, lovers who left. I was told I would never live long enough to make anything of my life; I was told I would die. There were those too, who welcomed me into their homes and hearts and waiting rooms with kindness and grace. Without them, I wouldn’t be here.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Steve Nimmons