It was the same thing every night. Come 11 o’ clock, one of the overnight techs would come in the room to bid goodnight to we princes of Washington, we kings of the pacific northwest, before turning off the lights and telling us that we seriously needed to go to sleep and stop acting like jackasses. There was then a customary 5 minute pause before we would hear Max gingerly untuck himself and slink off into the bathroom. After the door had clicked shut, Max would flip on the lights and turn the faucet on full blast for a good 10 minutes or so before returning sheepishly to bed. Once he had gotten settled, one of my roommates or I would ask him how it was and he would mutter expletives at us in return and then we’d all actually go to bed. Since this routine happened on a nightly basis, I always wondered why Max continued to masquerade his “alone time” as legitimate bathroom activity. Just because someone is living for months at a time in the communal environs of a rehab or a halfway house, it doesn’t preclude them from needing to tend to their baser urges, especially if the person in question is a 17-year old boy like Max. (1)
Max would have turned 23 this January. I am forced to write “would have” because Max took his life nearly 4 years ago. By that point we had both long left the halfway house where we spent 4 months as roommates. I had gone back to Cincinnati to finish my bachelors at Xavier University while Max went home to Texas to finish high school. The last time I spoke to him on the phone he had gotten into a community college and wanted me to edit one of his papers for Freshman comp. I ended up re-writing practically the entire paper for him as it was a 3 page monument to grammatical ineptitude and after he offered to pay me (I said no) we didn’t speak again. Some of the other guys from the house who were closer to Max went down to Houston for the funeral told me most of what happened. I was told there was a car, a note and a handgun. I was told that no one saw it coming. And I was told he was supposedly clean and sober when he pulled the trigger.
Every so often I’m reminded of Max’s death, usually when his name and picture pop up while I’m on Facebook. It turns out that Facebook’s policy on the deceased is that they won’t shut down a person’s profile unless a loved one presents them with a birth/death certificate or proof that they represent the person’s estate. Their default policy is to “memorialize” the account of the deceased, leaving their profile floating in the internet ether, open to comments for all eternity. It’s as if Max has been crystalized in amber, forever preserved as a 19 year old with a future that will be lived without him. Being in recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism in this day and age means an ever-expanding list of these mummified lives. Some will commit suicide like Max. Others—opiate addicts in particular—die from an overdose.
From what little has made it to me through the grapevine, I know that at least two of the young men I roomed with with died of heroin overdoses shortly after going through treatment. Both of them died on their first time back out, trying to find that sweet spot in-between what their tolerance used to be and what they thought it might be after a fresh chunk of sobriety. Of the two, the guy I spent the most time with was a potbellied juggalo-in-training named Cody. He came from up near the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota, and had been initiated into the land of misfit addicts after he broke his spine trying to do a flip on his snowmobile. He was given one of those self-controlled morphine drips where the patient can get a fresh injection of opioid goodness every 10 seconds or so to treat his pain as he saw fit. Of course, Cody quickly became wholly dependent on the morphine and the fentanyl patches and the oxy they were giving him. At some point, Cody crossed that invisible line between dependence and addiction and he was off to the races, as the good book says. Inevitably, Cody decided to dabble in heroin either out of curiosity or financial necessity, he discovered just how much better heroin was than the oxycontin he’d been snorting and never looked back.
Had I started down the same path as Cody, I would not be writing this right now. In fact, it’s a coin flip as to whether I’d even be breathing. My anxiety and smorgasbord of mental health issues led me in the direction of Klonopin and Xanax while Cody’s back pain took him the way of Percocet and Vicodin. The only time I ever abused opiates was when my live-in girlfriend broke her wrist after she ate pavement on her shiny, sea green moped and got a script for some hydrocodone, which I was only able to squeeze a day’s worth of fun out of because she flushed the pills down the toilet almost as soon as she had gotten them. Apparently they had made her nauseous and she wasn’t about the leave them lying about for my benefit as I was supposed to be “sober” at the time. Had I been given my own prescription, I have absolutely zero doubt that I would have abused the ever loving hell out of them like I did every other chemical compound I came across that made me feel like I wasn’t me for a few hours. God knows I would have switched to heroin if I got too high a tolerance with the synthetics and was presented with the opportunity. Once you’re already addicted to opiates, moving to heroin from oxys isn’t a lapse in judgement; it’s common sense.
One of my friends who is in recovery from heroin addiction once described the first time he shot up as being like lying in a warm bath while experiencing an hour-long orgasm. Anyone who says they wouldn’t want a full body bath orgasm for an hour is full of shit. The reason why everybody and their mother doesn’t use heroin is because the rational mind tells us that the intense short term pleasure of an opiate high is not worth the risk of overdose, crippling addiction and death. With that being said, the reason why an estimated 22.5 million Americans a month used some type of illicit drug is because humans aren’t always rational creatures. In many ways, drug use is a natural extension of that marshmallow experiment child psychologists do to test the capacity kids have for delayed gratification. For those of you who have never seen it, the idea of the experiment is that an adult places a marshmallow on a table in the room and tells the child that he/she is going to leave the room for a few minutes. While the adult has left the room, the child can do one of two things: a) the kid can go to town on that marshmallow as soon as the adult slams the door and enjoy an instant, fluffy sugar high, or, b) the kid can wait until the adult comes comes back and be given a second marshmallow. The kids who have more self-restraint realize that two marshmallows are clearly better than one and make a conscious decision to put off the enjoyment of eating the one in front of them so they can be rewarded with another one. However, most kids can’t be forced to bear the torture of staying in the same room as an unguarded, rogue marshmallow and either scarf it down or try taking tiny bites out of it so that the adult doesn’t notice (spoiler: they always notice).
Within this little experiment is the core of what addiction is and why it’s so hard to address. Replace that marshmallow with a bottle of valium and switch out that bright-eyed toddler with a run down junky and the song remains the same. An addict knows that if he can just stop using, that everything will be alright. Instead of getting twice as many pills for waiting it out, they’ll get their life back. The reward is his sanity, his children, his spouse, his bank account…once he can slog through the waking hellscape that is detox and just get a few weeks under his belt, things won’t hurt as much. But, those pills are there—just waiting for him. As his body drains itself of the drugs that have come to sustain him, he starts getting dopesick and those pills begin calling to him, the siren song of a modern day death wish. He knows that as soon as he puts those pills in his mouth the unshakeable and absolute misery he’s feeling will go away, if only for a second. It takes every strained fiber of his being to not take another loan out on the agony that eats away at his insides and when he tries to leave the room and get away from the pills he finds that the room has no walls and no doors. There is no leaving. There’s just waiting.
If any you who have never experienced substance abuse issues ever find yourself in an open meeting of a 12-step program like Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, you will inevitably hear someone say something to the effect of, “if I ever go back out there, I pray that it kills me quick.” This might strike you as an absurd or even melodramatic thing to say. After all, if you got better once you can always get better again, right? Why would somebody want to die when they could just wait it out and enjoy a sober life later? These are all perfectly valid questions for someone who has never been subject to the rigors of active addiction, but ask them to people in recovery and you’ll likely get a different answer because they know that, while sobriety is the only other option besides death, there’s no guarantee as to where it will happen and when (or if) it will come. If a guy relapses tonight, he could go back out for 24 hours, 24 days or 24 years. He has no idea when it might end and neither do you. If you doubt me, go some AA meetings and start putting money down on who will come back and who won’t. I guarantee you’ll be bankrupt within a year. It’s the waiting that’s insufferable. Max ended his wait with a handgun and Cody ended his with a needle, but they both were trying to get away from the shaking, crippling uncertainty of addiction. They couldn’t see a white light at the end of the tunnel, so they made their own.
(1) All names of those mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their anonymity.