I'd gotten in the bad habit of scribbling down "Quit Dope" notes when I woke up freaked out in the middle of the night. When I woke up suddenly like that, I kind of surprised my life. I saw it as it was when it thought no one was looking at it. Looking up at my life from that angle way down deep in the night, I saw what was wrong. I knew I wouldn't remember the secret in the morning. I'd be back in it. I'd be it.
Lying awake in the middle of the night I knew the answer, and I knew I wouldn't remember it. Those deep night panics were moments outside of memory. Unconnected. The hyper-clear night thoughts didn't stick around. They evaporated at the first breath. Writing was invented for the thoughts you can't remember. Writing is an aid to memory. So I'd scribble down "Quit Dope" notes and "My Life Matters" notes and leave them in obvious places around my apartment.
Every morning I'd wake up and throw the notes out without reading them. Then I'd drive, steal, score, and pass out.
I knew how to write. Reading was the problem. It is easier to write than it is to read. In the middle of the night I started to wonder how to get myself to read the damn notes. I began to experiment with different colored ink, super big letters, super small letters. But by then developments had rendered this nighttime project obsolete. By spring, daytime things had got me thinking about quitting in the daytime.
First, there was the billboard, right on Charles Street near the train station. It had a picture of a stethoscope floating in a sunny sky. At the top it had a doctor's name and phone number in big block letters. And below that, in even bigger letters, it read:
Safe Painless Medical Procedure
That billboard rose right in the middle of the main street in downtown Baltimore for maybe a year. I saw it every day. So I started to figure there were some people who wanted to get off heroin.
I know it sounds odd, but back then that came as kind of surprise to me. I'd quit before, of course. But it was always a practical, short-term thing. No money. Habit too big. Gotta back off it a while so I can get high on ten dollars again. That kind of thing. But really quit? Quit for good? I wasn't used to thinking of heroin as something you wanted not to do. At least not in the daytime. It took me a little while to figure it out. It was a process of deduction. If there's a billboard advertising a way to get off dope, there must be a desire to get off dope. Where there's smoke, there's fire. And if it costs a thousand dollars to get off the shit, people have got to want to get off it real bad.
A thousand dollars. We're talking about junkies. A thousand dollars is fifty twenty dollar white-tops. So the presence of that billboard implied that there were some junkies—probably rich ones, but still—who were willing to trade fifty white-tops for no dope.
That didn't make too much sense to me. People said the doctor had a way of taking you off it with no withdrawal. It still didn't make much sense, but it was something to think about.
Plus I'd been kind of seeing my ex-girlfriend Eva again. She was living in New York with the guitarist for some band. She'd tell him she was visiting her parents and drive down to visit me. We got extra high and tried to have sex for hours. I'd tell her how great it would be if she'd just move in with me. Cat was a drag. Eva understood. In late May she came down for the last time.
On a humid Sunday afternoon we drove fast to cop. Then we drove slow through the dusk after fixing. Down route 40 through the east side of town. Deep Baltimore. It was my favorite Sunday drive. We stopped at a red light. On the left-hand side there was a glass-enclosed building. It looked like a car-showroom, with the raised floor and full-length windows designed to display the new vehicles. But instead of new cars, the building sold new wheelchairs.
Some were motorized. Some had red leather. One had thick armrests like a couch and an extra high back. It turned slowly on a mirrored dais. On the sidewalk in front of the building, an old man leaned on his cane and stared at the beautiful wheelchairs. The setting sun lit up the chrome spokes.
The light turned green. But we couldn't go because an old woman was slowly caneing her way across the intersection. When she was about half-way through the light turned red again. A car behind us beeped. I looked in the rearview mirror. It was a very old man in a Buick. I could see his angry lips moving in my mirror.
"I got a new name for old people," I said. "You want to know what I call them?"
"What," Eva said.
"Faggots," I said. I was joking around.
We drove a little more.
"I can't take this," she said.
"Take what?" I said. "I was just joking around calling the oldsters faggots. I don't have any kind of problem with real gay people. In fact, one time I did something kind of gay myself."
She began to cry softly.
"It was an accident," I said. "I was drunk."
"It's not that," she said, wiping her eyes and looking out the window.
"You want me to move in with you. But everything with you is so...makeshift."
For some reason that word seemed particularly damning. It was the worst thing she could have said to me. I didn't say anything for a while.
"Yeah, I know it's makeshift," I said finally. "But this is a special party time. Not makeshift, more like fun. A special occasion. Not makeshift. Don't leap to conclusions. Don't assume life together would always be makeshift or something. If you move down here the regular days will be...organized."
I imagined us holding hands in my bare apartment, with the sickening smells of home food coming in from the kitchen. I imagined me slowly putting on my shoes to go to some kind of job. I shivered. She did too. She went back to her guitarist boyfriend. That was something else to think about.
Plus if you owe and you don't pay, you get got.
Well, that didn't really apply to me. I always paid. I paid with bouncing checks and stolen credit cards and stolen cartons of cigarettes and stolen amps and emergency wires from every relative I had. One afternoon I even walked down the corridor of my own apartment building, knocking on doors and asking for twenty dollars.
"My wallet was stolen." How could I not pay you back? "Look at me," my face said, "I'm your very own neighbor. I live right across the hall."
I never ever paid anyone back anything. There were some awkward elevator rides with the neighbors. But money was basically free. I pawned my TV, for example. I still had a couch. There were even some quarters that had fallen under the cushions. So it was hard for me to see money as a really pressing reason to quit.
Still, I started to think vaguely that maybe this couldn't last. Even in the daytime I thought it. Not when I was going to get high, of course. But once I got high, and had a couple hours before I had to start looking for money again. It-can't-last-thoughts started to stick around.
"This can't last forever," I told my friend Todd one day. He was the last person from my graduate department still talking to me. He was a junkie too.
"What the hell do you mean this can't last forever?" he said. His little eyes jumped in and out of his simple, junkie, bare-bones face.
"I just mean that nothing lasts forever," I said. "Even the president can't go anywhere he wants. He has to tell his security guards for instance."
"I'm almost free," Todd said. "Eight days ago I did half a vial. Seven days ago I did a quarter vial. Six days ago I did one eighth. I did one eighth for three days in a row. Then I did a quarter vial by accident. Yesterday I did one-sixteenth. Same today." He paused and looked at me with unconcealed hatred.
"I'm almost done! I'm almost out! So fuck off!" He sat there gasping at me. A few days later I heard from Henry that Todd had been buying two white-tops pretty much every day.
Still, Todd's little outburst stuck with me.
"He doesn't even have to think about it," I said to myself. "He just totally wants to quit." I found this to be a challenging idea. Todd just absolutely wants to quit? With no doubts? I could hardly believe it.
Not that I thought he was insane for wanting to quit. Not insane, exactly. In fact, when I thought about it, I could think of all kinds of reasons to quit. Some of them were even obvious. Cops, for instance. A cop had stopped me a few days before, and I'd pushed my vials into the air-conditioning vents. He tore the car apart and didn't find shit. Cops can be stupid as hell.
But there were some other, vaguer reasons. Little things I'd noticed about myself lately. Little disturbing symptoms. A certain heaviness to moving and breathing, for example. The spooky feeling I got looking into the mirror. I started finding odd notes I'd written in the middle of the night. And there was a certain uncanny quietness to sounds. Even loud sounds. A certain...never mind. I was basically fine. What the hell was Todd talking about? I called him up.
"What do you want?" He sounded like he had a cold.
"Um, I was just wondering about what you said the other day. I know about all the bad stuff that can happen, and it can't last forever, etc. But is it true that you really want to quit? Really? I mean right now?"
He hung up. I decided that you can never really know what goes on in another person's head. I needed a second opinion.
"Hey Henry," I said.
"Whaddaya want?" he said. We were at Dom's. Henry was sitting cross legged on the floor. He was literally counting pennies.
"I'm busy tryyna count these goddamn pennies," Henry said.
"Henry, have you ever tried to quit?"
"Hell yeah," he said without looking up. He lifted the pennies one by one from the pile on his right side and dropped them on the pile on his left side. With his one arm, he looked like a crane. A makeshift crane.
"So?" I said.
"So what?" He looked up at me, annoyed.
"So how was it? How was quitting."
"How the hell does it look?" He grunted and resumed craning the pennies from the right pile to the left.
"It was impossible," he said. "I've tried, of course. Dozens of times. Give my right arm, like they say. Already gave my left. Didn't work. Hee hee."
"What do you mean, you can't quit?" I said over Henry's junkie giggle. "You can't quit? You want to quit and you still can't?"
"It's impossible, Mike," he said, straightening up and looking me right in the eye. "After the last time, I promised myself. I'll never try it again. Quitting chews you up and spits you out, and you are still hooked. It's impossible to quit. Just forget it. Waste of time to even try."
I sat shocked and sweating, right there in the middle of a forty dollar high. I looked at Henry's one-armed torso. It spoke to me.
"You must change your life," it said.
"Impossible for a junkie to quit," he said.
I didn't have a thousand dollars. So I couldn't go to the billboard doctor. But my friend Tony K. told me about another place. A certain Dr. Hayes ran a clinic on Maryland Ave., near the hospital. Tony said they gave you some kind of special medicine that cut the withdrawals in half.
The clinic was called the Center for Addiction Medicine. When I called them, they explained I had to pay one hundred and fifty dollars up front, cash, for the treatment. The rest, they'd bill to me. I happened to have two hundred dollars left from an insurance check I'd gotten to fix my car. I'd run it into a light pole a while back. Too slow on the turn, too slow on the brake. I resolved to go to the clinic and get clean.
The next day, when I woke up, I threw out the "No Dope Today!" sign on my dresser and went and spent twenty on a final white-top.
"You're bad," I said as I poured those last magic grains out of the vial.
"You little devil," I told the dope as it went away into me. It was gone. I drove over to the clinic. There were four or five people in the ratty waiting room when I got there.
"Oooh, ooooh, ooooh." A young black woman rocked back and forth moaning on the thread-bare couch. A white guy with a red face and a yellow happy-face t-shirt was talking to the receptionist.
"I. Need. My. Medicine," he was saying. I shut my eyes and listened to the dope whispering sweetly away inside me.
After twenty minutes or so they called me back. A tired-looking nurse asked me some questions and filled in my answers on a chart.
"How many dollars, on average, would you estimate you spend on heroin per day?"
"Two hundred," I lied. It was more like eighty, unless I got lucky. But I figured if I said it was more they'd give me more medicine.
"I will now take your payment of one hundred and fifty dollars," she said. She actually held out her hand. I was surprised. In regular doctor's offices it's a clerk who takes the money. I had a couple sneaky ideas about what to say to avoid paying. But the nurse looked tired. She didn't look like she was in the mood for sneaky. Plus she had the secret kick dope medicine right there. I wanted to quit. I was still a little high, and I still remembered. I gave her the money.
Later I realized the reason they made you pay in cash was to discourage people from coming back so many times.
"The medicine we use here is called bupenephrine. It is an opiate agonist. This means that it has both opiate properties—which will help to reduce your withdrawal symptoms—and opiate blocker properties—which will make it hard for you to get high while you are taking it."
"Yeah, well, I'm not planning to get high. That's why I'm here." Duh.
"The program lasts for ten days," she continued. "We will give you the Bupenephrine for three days. That's the maximum allowed by law. It won't take away all of your withdrawals, but it will help. We will administer it here, so you need to come here every day to get it. Patients typically like to arrive as soon as we open, which is 8:30 a.m. We will also give you other, non-opiate medications. A high blood-pressure medication, a muscle relaxant, an anti-diarrhea medicine, and Tylenol."
She handed me a small baggie with the Tylenol and the other worthless pills. She then gave me a small, square, green lozenge and told me to put it under my tongue and let it dissolve. I looked at it doubtfully. I put it under my tongue.
By the time I got to my apartment I wasn't feeling so hot. It was about six in the evening now. The windows were open. Soft evening light lit the floorboards; soft summer air ballooned in the thin curtains. They looked so cheap to me, so poor. I felt a sudden twinge of sadness.
"Here we go," I thought.
On my coffee table I had two big bottles of water, a bottle of Gatorade, and a little pile of Tylenol and anti-diarrhea pills. I hadn't gone more than twelve hours without dope in over nine months.
I looked at my watch. It had now been eight hours. The electric tension in my legs, the pinpricks of sweat coming out all over my skin, the twist in my guts: I recognized the eight hour symptoms. I even kind of liked them. In the mornings I'd relish these symptoms, sometimes even putting off my first hit for six or seven minutes. I'd savor the eight-hour burn. It made that first morning hit all the sweeter. Four minutes, five minutes. Bam! That morning dope was like rain in the desert.
But now the pain was different. It wasn't the pain that comes before a hit. I'd quit. Dopeless. I had the morning pain without the morning hit. That future hit was missing, and the pain was naked without it. I looked at my watch. It had now been eight hours and four minutes since my last, my final hit.
I lay down on my makeshift bed. I pressed my naked burning foot to the cold plaster wall. I got up, swallowed all the pills on the table and lay back down.
Sounds of laughing voices rose from the street below my window. The breeze moved in the thin curtains. The curtains wrinkled with sadness. The sunlight went away on the sounds of the voices, on the bare wood floor of my apartment, on the sad, wrinkled curtains.
Sometime after dark I moved into a new level of withdrawal.
Now I realized that the eight-hour burn was just an inkling. A premonition. I didn't want to know anything about this.
I shoved myself up against unconsciousness, trying desperately to get in. Sleep. Dreamless, motionless, senseless. It was like the cold plaster wall. I could feel the good absence of feeling on it. I pressed my burning limbs against it. But it was closed. A wall, not a door. I pressed up against it, awake at fourteen hours.