Friday, April 13, 2012

Thank You Ronald Reagan for Saving My Life!

 Soprano, my dirty, matted, little Maltese ran ahead as I climbed the six floors. I had a few bags of dope in the front pocket of my jeans and a bottle of red wine in a plastic bag. Copping had been the usual cat and mouse game of waiting for the Dom Perignon heroin spot to open on East Second Street. Police cruisers and unmarked cars were out in full force. The second they left the block, junkies would file up both ends of the street, do the quick transaction and keep walking. When it was hot everyone worked together seamlessly, like a finely choreographed dance, like lanes merging into the tunnel at rush hour. I was part of a well-oiled machine that continued to run whether there was police presence or not.  On a scale of 1-10, tonight was a ten but often scoring drugs fell somewhere around a four. It could take up the entire evening and put an end to all my other plans. On these nights Soprano got a lot of fresh air and exercise even if it did put a wedge in my marriage.   

On the night of September 14, 1986 the streets were quiet. Every drug addict, drug abuser, and drug user in America was sitting in front of a television set. As soon as I entered the apartment I locked myself in the bathroom. I came out comfortably high and whipped together a gourmet meal. I carried the plates into the middle room which doubled as our dining/living room and painting studio.  We’d re-upholstered booth-style banquettes we found on the street and built a small table. Other than this dining ensemble, there was a 13-inch black and white portable TV propped on a footstool, a large sheet of plywood leaning against a wall covered in a plastic tarp, a roll of canvas, and cans of paint. I put dinner on the table and poured the wine while my husband adjusted the focus and volume on the television. As much as I despised Reagan for his lack of interest in the AIDS epidemic, I was curious about tonight’s speech.

A commercial preceded the President’s speech. “Crack cocaine hits the streets of New York City - news at eleven.” Ronald and Nancy came on next, inviting us into their make-believe living room. This falsified down-home intimacy was hard to swallow. I pushed my plate aside, grabbed my wine, and sprawled out on the floor in front of the TV.  Reagan droned on and on about the drug epidemic and the financial commitment he was putting forth to win his War on Drugs. Meanwhile the running commentary from the peanut gallery inside our small apartment rivaled Mystery Science Theater 3000. Every commercial break was filled with “Crack cocaine hits the streets of New York City. News at eleven.” One thing was certain - the network knew who had tuned-in for Reagan’s speech. I was in the bathroom shooting my last bag of dope when the President closed with a combination of political and biblical terms to declare the war on drugs “a national crusade.”

There have always been myths, legends, conspiracy theories, and truths. We’ve heard about heroin coming in on military planes during the Vietnam years, talk about corrupt cops who take all the stash but don’t bust the dealer, and countless questionable connections between drugs and politics. Whatever game was about to begin on the world stage, I knew the War on Drugs wasn’t going to affect much on the street level.

Just when I thought nothing could get more surreal than the “at home” chat with Ronnie and Nancy, the news came on.  Within five minutes, I knew what crack looked like, what it cost, where to buy it, and how to smoke it. News cameras panned intersections complete with street signs as they zeroed in on the hand-to-hand transactions. My husband and I looked at one another in disbelief. We’d just watched an advertisement for crack cocaine.

I’d been buying drugs in the East Village since the late 70s. I knew what blocks sold weed, heroin, and dime bags of coke. I’d never heard of anyone selling crack. Within two weeks, I could feel a new level of menace on the empty late night streets. I wouldn’t even walk on certain blocks anymore, day or night. Crack had happened.

One night I was killing time waiting for the spot to open when the wife of one of the dealers invited me to sit in her parked car. She pulled out a pipe and held a lighter to it. I took a hit. I'd never been a free-base fan. I'd rather inject my coke. Nonetheless, I took a second hit when it came around again. When it was time to go, I opened the door and thanked her for the base. “Honey, this isn’t base. It’s crack.” Immediately I saw the face of Ronald Reagan and the crack commercial disguised as news. Their connection was sealed in my brain. I knew I'd never smoke crack again.

It turned out I didn’t need crack to hit the depths of despair. Shooting coke did a fine job on its own. At a certain point, as I watched everything I cared about disappear, heroin stopped getting me high.  Coke came back into my life to fast forward my downward spiral. Without it, I may have never gotten clean. God only knows what horrors would have been in store for me with crack. Most likely, I wouldn’t have survived. Ultimately, I have Ronald Reagan to thank for saving me from becoming a crackhead. In my mind, it was always impossible to separate him from that drug.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

TRYING TO GET TO REHAB


As a child, I’d always imagined the day would come when, like Anne Welles in Valley of the Dolls, I’d pull my dying drugged self out of the ocean and return to New England. When I came to the end of my road it was far less glamorous than I’d romanticized. It was easier to remain curled in a blanket on the floor and fantasize about changing my life than it was to pack my few belongings and get to Port Authority.  

I was on the floor of my room at the dismal Belleclaire Hotel facing the open closet estimating packing time for what remained of my worldly possessions: a few hanging garments, a pair of red and black stiletto heels, and old combat-style boots. Weeks ago a hole the size of a quarter appeared on the sole of my boot. I’d been limping from an infection ever since.  My ankles were so swollen from another illness that a cab driver carried me up the flight of stairs to my room the night before. I'd lost  sensation in two fingers, couldn’t hear out of one ear, and watched mysterious liver spots appear and disappear on my skin.  For a year I’d been writing down these various symptoms in the event that, should my body be discovered, someone would find this paper and autopsy me to find out the real cause of death  rather than assume it was a drug overdose. I kept the list on me at all times.

My reflection filled the security mirror as I boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Toronto, eyes the color of egg yolks. Fourteen hours later, I woke up in Toronto with no recollection of passing through customs.  At Women’s College Hospital my various illnesses were treated with several painful shots of penicillin. It was past midnight when the taxi pulled into my parents’ driveway.

My mom’s eyes filled with terror as she unlocked the door. I was supposed to be living in California not standing in the Canadian night. Three months earlier, I announced I’d started going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, not realizing how the news would affect my family. She didn’t ask why I was there; simply told me to sleep in my old room and went back to bed.

But I didn’t sleep. I didn’t sleep for the next ten days. Every night until dawn, I creepy-crawled around the dark house carrying plates of food.  The food combos were random – ice cream followed by kosher dills, peanut butter sandwiches, cucumbers in a bowl of vinegar, canned corn, cereal, an apple. I hoped I’d hit a food level that would put me to sleep. Instead, sounds of a battle being waged inside my stomach snapped me to a heightened alertness.

Guilt-ridden and fearful my late night mania would be misconstrued as drug use, I spent my days on the phone trying to find a rehab. There was one problem – in 1988, Canada seemed unaware that there was a drug epidemic going on. In the early 80s I didn’t know anyone using heroin in Toronto but by the late 80s it was everywhere. I explained this to every professional I managed to get on the phone. True, I was the only one in my crowd who had a desire to get clean but I knew there must be others. I’d attended a Narcotics Anonymous World Convention with thousands of recovering addicts in California.  Words like therapeutic community, rehab, sober living, and detox were common in the United States. In Toronto, one or two facilities existed to treat alcoholism but drug addicts were on their own.  I called the Narcotics Anonymous hotline. There were 5 meetings a week, each night in a different corner of the far reaches of the suburbs.

Hepatitis, compounded with other illnesses, helped my narcotic withdrawal pass without much notice.  I was amazed that bad health could trump the melodrama of kicking a dope habit. On the fifth day I drove to a meeting. The building was dark and the doors were closed. I guess that meant there were four NA meetings a week in Toronto. I was getting scared. I knew that if I couldn’t find help soon, the minute my health came back every cell in my body would pull me back to heroin. If I was feeling good enough to drive, it meant time was running out.

An old friend called to say that a huge shipment of dope had just come in and that I should drop by. I told him I was done.  If I really wanted off this ride, there couldn’t be one last time. I’d spared my family the reality of my life by moving to a different country. I’d deceived them with cheerful long distance phone calls. The morning after I’d arrived home, my mom said that I wouldn’t be welcome if I showed up like this again.  It broke my heart to see how much she was suffering. I would have gone anywhere to spare her this pain but the truth was - I was dying and had never needed her more.

The next day I struck gold. Someone I’d talked to found a way to get Canadian health insurance accepted by a treatment center in Louisiana. The guy sounded shifty on the phone and I’m sure was scamming the government in some way but with no other options available, I was grateful for his ingenuity.  He said I had to pay my airfare down and if I finished the forty-two day program, they’d provide my ticket home and $100.  I copied down the name of the treatment center, Bowling Green in Mandeville Louisiana, and my contact’s name and number on a piece of paper. They’d meet me at the New Orleans airport in two days. 

This news brought my parents back to life.  Being in Toronto in ‘88 and getting into rehab was as close as it came to winning the lottery. The house was buzzing with excitement. My mother took me to the mall to buy pajamas and jeans since the clothes I’d arrived in were rags. She held up various garments “Patty, there might be doctor addicts and lawyer addicts there. You should look nice.” She never gave up the dream.

The night before my flight I dyed my hair magenta. The purplish color did not complement my jaundice complexion and no amount of washing could remove this “temporary” dye. By the time I arrived at the airport, the best I’d managed was a dull shade of pink similar to flesh tone. I kissed my family good-bye and headed through the gates. Customs and Immigration greeted me on the other side. I’d forgotten in Toronto you pass through US customs before boarding the plane. Boney at hundred and five pounds, with yellow skin and flesh colored hair, I was far from inconspicuous. The first round of questions began. 
“Where are you going?”
“New Orleans”
He looked at my ticket.
“How long will you be gone?”
“Forty-two days.”
“Purpose of trip”
“I’m going to an alcoholism treatment center.”
Silence.
“Can I see the return ticket please?”
I pulled out the piece of paper with the treatment information on it and explained that they give me a return ticket when I finish the program. I was escorted to an interrogation room. An official looked at my hand written note with the rehab information.

“I can’t let you into the country with no money and no return ticket. You must have something official faxed to you from this Bowling Green place. Did you know there is a law stating that known alcoholics are prohibited from entering the United States?”


I began to cry uncontrollably. It was a miracle I’d found a treatment center that would take me. I hadn’t expected to not be able to go. Surely he could see that I was dying. How could he deny me the right to save my life? He pretended to be absorbed in his paperwork while motioning for someone to escort me out. That’s when I lost it. I grabbed onto his desk and screamed “Take a good look at this face so when you open the paper tomorrow and read that a woman has slit her throat you will remember me. Think about that when you go to bed tonight.” Filled with indignation, I stormed out.

Sitting on the curb outside of the terminal waiting for my parents to pick me up, I realized that even with the proper documents I wouldn’t get through customs again tomorrow. After the scene I just caused, they’d surely remember me.  I devised Plan B.


When my parents arrived I told them I had to be smuggled over the border. My father began complaining about the money, the tickets, and the trips to the airport. Now that he knew I’d been on heroin, he was remembering the times he’d gone to airports for flights I’d forgotten to take, money for emergencies that didn’t exist, gifts that were never bought. He was thinking of all the lies and all the money I’d cost him wondering if this time was any different.

“Please dad, I’m going to die if I don’t go to this rehab.”

At the Peace Bridge, my dad explained how we’d spent the day in Niagara Falls and wanted to go to the states side for good New York pizza before driving back to Toronto. I sat in the far back corner, deep in conversation with my fifteen-year-old brother about Ninja Turtles. As long as they didn’t open the trunk, it would go as planned.

I said good-bye to my family for a second time at the Buffalo airport. I had fourteen hours to kill and twenty dollars. Since I hadn’t slept for ten days, I was prepared for a night of pacing. By nine-thirty,  I caught a shuttle to a nearby hotel with a restaurant/bar to help kill a few hours.

It was a typical hotel bar, a cross between a dimly lit TGIF and a local tavern. A dozen people were spread throughout the room, some sitting alone, couples, the rowdier guys at the bar. I took a table by the window and stared out at the mountains of snow rising up at the far end of the parking lot. It was the first snow I’d seen, reminding me that it was December. I had no recollection of the previous Christmas in LA other than I was living in a hotel above a punk rock bar on Hollywood Boulevard. I’m sure I’d spent it alone.

A waitress materialized at my table and I asked for a glass of red wine. I’d meant to order coffee but the soft jazz, the snow, the desolation, and the feeling that I was inside an Edward Hopper painting seemed to call for red wine. The first sip went straight to my inflamed liver followed by a bile sensation moving toward my throat. I pushed the glass to the far side of the table beyond reach. I was overcome by intense and unanticipated fatigue. I looked around for a clock, hoping it was later than it seemed. Of the four men at the bar, one smiled. A moment later he asked if he could join me. I agreed, not because I wanted company as much as I needed someone to help me stay awake.

David offered a cigarette as the waitress brought over a second round. My liver throbbed at the site of it. For the next few hours, while I sipped wine, we traded stories. He described himself as a night club impresario from Hamilton Ontario (a working class steel town with no night life to speak of) and said he was on his way to New York to invest in a new hotspot. I said little about myself other than I was waiting for a 10AM flight to New Orleans. As time passed and our guard went down, we bonded on wild adventures involving drugs.

When they announced last call, I asked him to walk me back to the airport. “Patty, don’t be ridiculous. I have a room in the hotel. You are more than welcome to crash there until your flight or I can get you a room of your own.” There was definitely chemistry between us but I couldn’t have had sex with him even if I’d wanted to and said as much. I was too sick. He flashed a thick wad of hundreds inside his jacket pocket.  "It's not a big deal. I can afford a room for you.”

We checked in at the front desk adjacent to the bar and started our trek down the long hallway in search of my room. I carried my half filled glass of wine and David carried my suitcase – which contained new jeans, pajamas, and several dozen stripper costumes I’d been traveling with. I was grateful to have a bed and was figuring out how I could get rid of him at the door when, suddenly, we were surrounded by a swat team and I was shoved up against the wall. I couldn’t believe this was happening.

Apparently whatever David was really doing in America with his wad of cash, the border patrol and Swat team had been watching him. They believed I was his contact. I was too defeated to cry so I handed my little paper with my contact info and treatment center scribbled on it. Holding my wine glass, I looked into the detective’s eyes and said “If I don’t get to this treatment center, I am going to die.” He put his handcuffs away. Twelve cops escorted David out of the building while I unlocked the door to my room.

The next day, I landed at the New Orleans airport. It was my first day clean. December 10, 1988.