A while ago Saturday Night Live aired a sketch about the growing heroin problem in America. The trouble was America was not laughing. Heroin use, abuse, and deaths have been steadily on the rise for the last 15 years and increasing at an alarming rate since 2010*. The politicians are calling it an epidemic. The headlines are calling it an epidemic. It kind of seems like heroin is everywhere. But it’s not….not really, is it? As close to home as this has reached for so many Americans to many other Americans it still feels like “someone else’s problem”; someone who’s poor, or not white, or not living in “my neighborhood”, or someone who’s a criminal or a street person.
But here’s the thing; heroin is a suburban problem. It’s an urban problem. It’s a rural problem. It’s an everywhere and everyone problem. In a report released last July the CDC found that “significant increases in heroin use were found in groups with historically low rates of heroin use, including women and people with private insurance and higher incomes. The gaps between men and women, low and higher incomes, and people with Medicaid and private insurance have narrowed in the past decade.” The fact is that 90% (yes 90%) of first time heroin users are white. Many are middle class or “wealthy” and 75% of new users have had previous addiction issues with prescription painkillers.
But that’s just where the story starts this time around. The fact is that heroin has been in my life for over a dozen years. I have seen what it can do and what it does to people first hand at an uncomfortably close range. And I use that phrase with great intention. Talking about this makes people wildly uncomfortable. Most of the people who are outside that small circle of folks in my life who know exactly how devastating heroin addiction can be, just kind of cannot believe that someone, in real life, in their life, knows anything about heroin addiction. It’s like people don’t believe it’s real. That it’s something that only happens in the movies. But it happens in real life.
I have heretofore refrained from talking much about Bo’s dad because I have tried to be respectful of his privacy. His story never felt like it was mine to tell. But it is also my story.
I was 24. It was December. It was always December. I knew something was wrong with Zach. I just didn’t know what. I would, in time, grow very familiar with all the signs and symptoms of his drug abuse. At some point all the relapses blur together. Other moments, the really bad ones, stick out. It wasn’t until 2 months later, when he was fired from the restaurant at which we both worked for leaving a needle in the manager’s office that I knew something else had to be done. He was using heroin…again. I had caught him, eventually, back in December. He tearfully admitted it, said it wasn’t that bad, that he didn’t need to go to rehab or anything and that he could take care of it on his own. I trusted that he was being truthful because I didn’t know any better.
After he got fired in February even he had to admit that the problem was more serious than he had been letting on. He agreed to get clean. His best friend and former girlfriend, Sagan, who had been through this with him many times before, offered her help. She was not working at the time and offered to be the babysitter for the better part of the ordeal. When I was at work someone had to watch him while he was going through the difficult and painful process of detoxing.
We gathered his things and went over to Sagan’s apartment where we would be staying for about a week. At that time, in Seattle, there was a doctor on Beacon Hill called Dr. Si whose specialty was helping ease heroin users through the detox process with a combination of several non-narcotic prescription drugs. A lot of muscle relaxers, sleep aids, anti-nausea and anti-anxiety medications, taken all at once so that the patient is basically an anthropomorphous blob of relaxed, sleeping, human skin who occasionally wakes up to pee and drink gatorade. Through this detox process the patient does not experience as much or as intensely the classic symptoms of detoxification such as vomiting, diarrhea, uncontrollable shaking, sweating, cramping, anxiety, or excessive screaming if you are junkie being played by Leonardo Dicaprio.
Sagan and I had to go fill his prescriptions and gather the necessary supplies (e.g. gatorade, consume, saltines etc). Before we left him in her apartment alone, we took the phone (kids, this is when people still had land lines) which was not a cordless so we just unplugged the receiver from the phone and took it with us, along with his wallet, his keys, his pants and his shoes. We figured those measures would at least be a deterrent; if he wanted heroin he would literally have to run down the street with bare feet in his underpants begging for money in order to get it. We thought we were so clever.
The rest of the week was, for me, going back and forth from my apartment to feed our new kitten, to work and then to Sagan’s apartment. At work, everyone knew why he’d been fired. No one even asked me if I was okay, or what I was going to do about it. It’s like they just assumed that I was going to dump him because of his drug use. Truth is, I don’t know what I would have told them had they asked. I was just doing the one thing that made sense to me; helping my friend, whom I loved, with his problem. I didn’t know what the future held, but I knew that he would still be in it with me.
The trouble with being a junkie is that even when you’re not on heroin you’re probably on something else. Maybe it’s alcohol or cocaine or the program or yoga or guilt or self loathing or whatever it is, the hole that heroin left inside of you is going to get filled with something. He always filled it with alcohol, guilt, depression and hatred.
I cannot remember how long it was until the next relapse. He got his job back after some time. And then lost it again after refusing to take a drug test that he knew he would not pass. He said it was too hard to stay clean working downtown, right next to the blade. The drugs were unavoidable. And every time he started using again and started lying to me about it a little bit more of my confidence would erode, not just in him, but in myself. Finding out about it each time was like finding out I was being cheated on and effectively I was; his mistress was heroin. It would always be.
There was the time I found the make-up he had hidden; foundation that he used to cover up his bruises and track marks. When I confronted him with it he said it was old, from the last time he relapsed and he had just forgotten about it. I told him I did not believe him and that he’d have better luck with concealer than with foundation. He used that excuse all the time; “I haven’t been using I just forgot about (insert whatever piece of incriminating evidence I found) since the last time!”
After losing his job, again, and kicking heroin again, in the midst of his job search I encouraged him to take some time off. I worked two jobs and we could get by on that for a while. He took a year off work. He wrote and drank and cried for a year, but he did not use heroin. For that I was thankful. When he started to look for work again I was scared. I didn’t want to start the same thing all over again.
But it was okay. For a long while it was okay. He got back in touch with his son from his first marriage. Things were going well. Then some shit happened as shit tends to do. His longtime friend, who also struggled with heroin abuse, came back into town. That was hard. They would continually flip this coin wherein its landing on one side they would try to lift one another up but the other side of that coin was their dragging one another down. His friend, Ronnie, was about to have a baby with his girlfriend, who also used. Ronnie was trying really hard to get away from heroin but heroin is a mad goddamn dog and it does not stop coming after you. I watched over Ronnie as detoxed on an air mattress on our living room floor. I watched him as he writhed and cried and begged for drugs. I watched him get clean. I watched him relapse. I watched him get clean again and it all felt like a microcosm of what I was going through.
One morning, a watery grey dawn, I woke to find that I was the only one in bed, save for my cats. The dog, Ronnie’s dog actually, who had been living with us while Ronnie was homeless, was gone and so was Zach. I did not even have time to lean into the full froth of my panic when the door of the apartment rattled. It was Zach, dogless and bandaged about the neck and wearing a hospital bracelet and a shirt that did not belong to him.
He had waited until I went to sleep, took the dog out for a walk and while out, decided to stop on a side street and shoot up. The paramedics found him lying in some bushes near the sidewalk, a needle hanging out of his neck…with no dog. The depth of what happened, the overwhelming weight of the situation was completely overshadowed by the lack of the dog. Ratchet was not just a dog, he was Ronnie’s child, his partner of over a decade. That dog meant everything to him and he was missing.
I pulled on clothes. It had grown lighter out now, it was around 6:30 in the morning. We walked the whole neighborhood, looking and calling for Ratchet. I walked until my feet were sore and my throat was raw from calling Ratchet’s name. I cried. Out of despair for the loss of the dog, despair for the whole situation. I wanted to scream.
Ratchet, as it turned out, upon Zach’s passing out in the bushes, ran back to our apartment building where he dutifully stood outside, leash dangling on the ground and barked, and barked and barked, presumably in an effort to wake me, but to no avail. When he finally gave up on barking and returned to find Zach no longer where he had left him, Ratchet went to the local drugstore up the road which was open 24 hours. There he sought shelter and companionship for the rest of the evening. He was returned to us around 10 am. I was so exhausted from worry, hopelessness and relief that I collapsed into bed with Ratchet and my two cats and slept all day, until I had to go to work that night. I was simply trying to run away from the thought that there would be another detox, another “starting over”, another broken promise, more fighting, more anger, more exhaustion, more pain, more pain, more goddamn pain, more consuming and unfaltering and inescapable fucking pain. Pain….for poppies. Just poppies.
I was completely alone to deal with this, too. How could I expect anyone to understand what I was going through? I didn’t even understand it. I was just trying to survive it. I remember confiding in a friend, at the time, about what was happening with me, with him, with us. She seemed bewildered. She did not know what to say or do…so she just stopped talking to me. What I was going through was too much for her to handle. I wish I could say she was the only one. She was not. After a certain point I learned my lesson and just didn’t talk about it anymore.
That was 2006. In 2010 our son was born. In the intervening years, after the last “getting clean” was all over, there were no more incidence of heroin use, at least none that I knew about.
It wasn’t Zach’s heroin abuse that (directly) lead to my ending the relationship after 11 years when our son was just 3 years old. It was a decade worth of things. A decade’s worth of my corrupted sense of self, a decade’s worth of alcoholism, a decade’s worth of mistrust, a decade’s worth of codependency. It was a death by a thousand cuts and I was quickly running out of unmarred skin. I felt like I couldn’t breathe under the weight of his hatred and judgement of me. After all HE had done it was ME who was never going to be good enough, never going to be able to repent enough for the past. He was always like that. He could never find the fault in himself but was a surgeon about finding it in others.
Of course I worried that the break-up would send him back into heroin’s sedative and tranquil embrace. But for a while he was okay. Then, at preschool orientation, he showed up high as fuck! He denied it when I confronted him about it because of course he did. I had no proof. I did not know what to do. I think that I secretly, and quite stupidly, thought that Bo would keep him on track. That the presence of this bright, coruscant, and breathlessly beautiful creature would somehow keep him out of the darkness.
One day, I went to pick Bo up for preschool at the apartment I had moved out of in favor of living in the back of my bookstore. At this point Zach and I were splitting the weeks with Bo. He was with me 4 days and 5 nights of the week and with Zach on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This was one of the days that Bo had stayed with him and it was a work day for us parents at our Co-op preschool. I approached the door, opting to knock out of some sense of decorum despite my having a key. No answer. They should have been up and ready to go. I did not hear Bo inside. I did not knock again. I opened the door and it was quiet. Bo was still in bed. I looked at the couch and there was Zach, passed out with his sock rolled down and his foot and the needle still in his hands, his works spread out on the coffee table. I chocked on my own horror. I could not believe that he would do this…with our son asleep just feet away in his bedroom.
I did not scream. I woke him up. He tried to play it off like what I had just witnessed was, in fact, not at all what it looked like. I still did not scream. He scooped up his things from the coffee table, finally regaining his wits. I calmly assured him that I knew it was EXACTLY what it looked like. He tried to make more excuses. Then, finally, I screamed; “WHAT IF I HAD NOT FOUND YOU?!?!!! WHAT IF IT HAD BEEN HIM?!?!” I screamed, gesturing toward the hall down which my son’s bedroom lie. He started to cry. He was out of excuses and out of heroin and the reality of what he had done and what he had narrowly avoided began to hit him.
I told him that he would never see his son again unless he got help. I also told him that, this time, I could not be the one to give it to him. After all, I had a child to raise and a business to run. I woke Bo, gathered his things and we left. We did not go to school that day.
It took Zach a little while, and after exploring other programs, he got on methadone. I was not particularly pleased with this course of action. As far as I was concerned it was really no better than being on heroin. While it was not illegal, there was virtually no chance of overdose and it was free he was still going to “be on drugs” and quite dependent upon them too. And that is what eventually lead to his getting fired from yet another job. Even on methadone he could not hide the fact that he was a junkie. His decline was just too obvious, to me, to his employer and to everyone else around him. And of course, his losing his job meant his losing his home (when he realized he could no longer afford the apartment without my income, although he, ironically, always insisted that I did not contribute to the household financially as I was a business owner and did not “bring home a paycheck”, he was forced to take up at an “hotel” that rented rooms by the week).
After getting fired, just about a year after our split, he could not even maintain his room at the hotel and was forced to move out, seeking the succor and infinite patience of Sagan, once again. She was compliant with his presence in her home for as long and longer than anyone could expect. He had started using again, street drugs. It was too difficult to get to the methadone clinic each day, apparently, but not too difficult to steal money (or whatever could be sold in exchange for money) in order to buy heroin. It becomes really difficult for me to recall the timeline of events with much accuracy at this point. I had gotten a new job and in lieu of putting Bo in daycare, a step I was very reluctant to take as he had never been in any sort of childcare previously, Zach would take him during the day. At this point I thought he was still on methadone. He was, however, pretty much homeless, staying with friends when he could.
It was September when I was cleaning out my car, which I would leave for Zach and Bo to use while I was at work, that I found something under the diver’s seat. It was the small metal dish, the kind you get from the needle exchange, that is used to cook the heroin, an unfolded paper clip for stirring the drug while it cooks, the lot of which were charred and stained with the drug’s sticky, black residue. I was enraged but not surprised. I immediately made arrangements to put Bo into a school near my work. That Monday when it would usually be time to meet up with Zach before I went to work, Bo and I went to his new school/daycare. Bo was so excited to be in school, with other kids, it was like he didn’t even know he was supposed to be upset about my leaving him. The next day, however, was a different story. When it was time for me to leave him at school he cried and then I cried and I hated every decision I had ever made as a parent.
Zach actually had the fucking nerve to not only be indignant that I made the unilateral decision to put Bo into daycare and remove him from his care but he also fucking denied that what I found was his!!!! THE FUCK!!! Even if it were not his (which, DUH, it totally fucking was) the best case scenario is that he let one of his junkie friends use my car, drive my car, whilst on drugs and/ or use drugs in my car, and where was my son when all this was happening? Who the fuck knows? I could not let shit like this continue. I was pulling absolutely no punches this time after a fucking lifetime of giving him the benefit of the doubt, he was decidedly out of benefits.
It was November, the first time he was arrested. In between then and the first of the year he would be arrested and jailed more than 5 separate times. He would get released and then go right back to using and stealing to support his use. At his age it’s a damn miracle he hasn’t died from the physical stress of detoxing in jail. He was arrested for the last time in mid March. He’s been in jail ever since. It’s the best place for him. At least in jail there is a roof over his head and no heroin. We’ve spoken a few times. I still don’t think he realizes how much everyone around him hurts because of what he’s done. He’s never been good at looking at himself with a critical or even realistic eye.
He will get released soon. He sounds hopeful about his future. I want to be too, so that Bo might have his dad back someday. But I am not optimistic, for I’ve far too much sense and too much experience to have much room left for optimism.
That’s it for now. I realize the strokes, although measuring nearly 3,500 words, were indeed quite broad, this is all I have the mind to put to print at this point. There’s more, so much more, and maybe someday I will get around to writing it all down. For now…XOXO.
*what had been a steady increase in overdose rates, 6% a year, from 1999 to 2008 took a HUGE leap as overdose rates skyrocketed with a 37% increase in 2010.
P.S. As for the title, I have always said that if you cannot laugh about it, it WILL definitely kill you.