(drugs, sex work, homelessness)
I’ve done heroin.
We’re just going to get that out of the way up front. I’ve done heroin. There. Now you can’t say you don’t know anyone who does hard drugs. You can’t say that every drug user you’ve ever met fits a certain stereotype. And you can’t say that every drug user inevitably meets the same tragic (yet totally deserved) fate, face down and forgotten behind a dumpster at a corner store.
Here’s how it went for me. In February, I met a charming guitar playing con man who spun me an extremely compelling story of redemption. The cost of that story was around $2000 – money I gave, thinking it was going for old traffic tickets and back child support, that was really going to feed his addiction to heroin and cocaine and/or crack. His drug of choice was speedballs, a 50/50 mix of heroin and cocaine or crack, mixed up in a soda cap with lemon juice, and injected into a vein in his arm, or later his hand, or later, his leg. That’s why he never nodded out, that’s why I never suspected.
I left my spouse and my home to join the con man in homelessness. I thought we were going to drive to Venice Beach. I thought he was going to teach me to play the guitar. I thought we were going to have an adventure.
Instead, I ended up supporting his addiction, but this time, without the safety net of my spouse, my mother’s house, or my own bed. I took to full service sex work when I got tired of standing on the side of the high way with a cardboard sign begging for change.
AND FUCKING YET.
I didn’t partake. He offered. After all, I was buying the stuff, and after a couple weeks of sex work, I had better connections than he did. People are always eager to give attractive women things – when I was a stripper, I occasionally got tipped in weed brownies. Full service sex work is similar.
But I said no. No thanks. I’m good. I just wanted to see him well and whole, which took twice daily trips to one dealer or another, $50 or $100 each time, and he would turn into a human being for a few hours. I tried to hang onto those hours. I always hoped it would last longer than it did. When work was slow, when the dealers kept us waiting, he was throwing up blood out the window of my old Taurus and I was positive I was watching the love of my life die right in front of me. When he was like that, nothing I could do would comfort him. Except make money faster, and get his fix.
It was his birthday, about 6 weeks into my homelessness experience with him.
He hates his birthday. Bad memories. Family problems. And here we were, squatting in an apartment, with no real friends to celebrate with. One of my sex work clients had taken me grocery shopping, and I brought home a tray of lemon bars in lieu of a cake, but he wasn’t much interested. He was just so lonely, he kept telling me.
OK well … what if I do it with you?
His eyes lit up. I was shocked. Would it really mean that much to him? But it did, it really did. He wanted me to see what he saw, feel what he felt.
My two conditions – just heroin, no cocaine or crack for me, thanks. And I wanted to snort it. I knew his needles were fresh and clean – I was the one buying them at the pharmacy with a bogus story about diabetes – but the very idea of a needle going into me, in the hands of anyone other than a doctor or a tattoo artist, made me feel ill.
From the product I had purchased earlier in the day, he broke me off two neat little rails. Barely longer than the first knuckle of my pinkie finger. Thin enough that they could have been traced with a pencil. A light gray powder, which, if I had it in an eye shadow, would be a great highlight color for just under my eyebrows.
He cut a McDonalds’ straw into a two inch length and proceeded to advise me. Put the straw as far back in your nose as you can. Do one nostril, then the other. Lean back. The drip down the back of your throat is going to taste awful. No, don’t eat anything right now, you’ll just throw it up.
I dove in. One nostril, then the other. I expected it to burn, but it didn’t.
Now lean back, he told me. In a minute, you’re going to feel a warm buzz in the back of your head.
And I did. If I had been standing, I would have been brought to my knees. As it was, I felt glued to the couch. There was a warm, creeping blackness right behind me, and it was slithering around me, holding me warmer, tighter, cradling me. It felt like love.
My con man was in fine form as my tour guide. To soothe me when I was hit by a wave of dizziness, he wrapped one of his t shirts around a pillow and laid me down against it. He was still fixing up his dose, easily 5 times the strength of mine, and that was just his maintenance.
But maybe he was living vicariously through me. He was loopier than I’d ever seen him, and soon, we were both lying on the ground, wrapped around each other, spilling out the worst abuses we had each suffered, our darkest misdeeds, our biggest mistakes. We each gave and received comfort, by turns. We cried and shushed and smoothed each others’ hair and started all over again. It went on for hours, and yet, I was barely aware of the passage of time.
12 hours had passed, and I was just starting to come down when he presented two more little rails on a DVD case. Did I want to keep it going? Of course I did. For 6 weeks, I’d been funding him, working hard on his behalf, taking jobs I didn’t want to go on because it was better than watching him vomit blood. And for 6 weeks, almost to the day since I had left my spouse and my home, he had been distant and cold. The past 12 hours was the most affection I’d gotten from him in weeks. I never wanted it to stop.
Eventually, I came down and slept. Not badly, with beginner’s luck. Or maybe my years of college binge drinking experience came in handy. I drank lots of water. And there was a trick he told me. Sugar to make it last longer, salt to burn it up quicker? I think that was it.
I woke up and took a shower and posted a fresh ad. I needed to get back to work.
I got a job and I slid the cash under the door. My con man was waiting on the other side, to take the cash right away to one of his connections. I’d find him there after I was done with my job, all fixed up and good as new. He had saved me some, did I want any?
No, I told him. I’m good. I was going to go back and take another job, and try to get us a little bit ahead.
And so it went, for the next 6 weeks. We lost the squat-apartment, so then we were back to whatever cheap motel rooms I could get my clients to pay for. We usually only lasted a few days in each, before he would get paranoid about cameras in the smoke detectors. And sometimes I would ask him to share. Only a little bit, I figured the doses he was used to would probably kill me. And only the heroin, and I only wanted to snort it.
That picture at the top of this post? It’s from the one night I decided to let him inject me. I had saved up some money for a nice picnic dinner before work, and he carved an apple into the shape of a swan.
The job had gone bad. And my con man was having a bad day too. He hurt me, as soon as my client was gone. But I didn’t have the option to lay there and feel sorry for myself, I had to drive to my connection and get the next dose.
When we got back to the motel, I thought that letting him inject me would probably be the only way to get him to show me some tenderness. And I was right. He caressed my arm as he tied the tourniquet. He iced the inside of my elbow. And he whispered little encouragements to me. Called me his brave girl when he pushed the plunger in.
He could have injected me with dish soap for all I cared. All I really wanted at that point was to feel his hands on me, with love instead of hate.
And I laid there, in that bathtub, a baggie of ice wrapped in a towel underneath me, soothing injuries I had sustained earlier. And I felt the warm blackness creep up. But it wasn’t like the first time. It wasn’t as strong or as fast or as thick. Eventually I crawled out of the bathtub, put on some yoga pants, and went to sleep.
Ever since I left my con man, I’ve joked that capitalism saved me from becoming a drug addict. Because if I’m going to spend $100 with you, daily, multiple times a week, you need to show me some gddamn respect, and you need to deliver your product on time. I expect service and competency. If you can’t run your business like an actual business, I’m going to take my money elsewhere. And for all the enjoyment I got out of it, I would have rather had a cupcake most of the time.
BECAUSE WHEN I GO TO A BAKERY WITH $100 THEY FUCKING GET THEIR SHIT TOGETHER AND SELL ME SOME FUCKING CUPCAKES
I was 30 years old before I decided to try heroin for the first time. I was well aware of the dangers. People I went to high school with have died of overdoses. I had worked in a fucking homeless shelter where I had to drug test people before I could let them on the elevator to their temporary beds, and I had to throw them back out if they tested “dirty.” I knew damn good and well that drugs are bad.
But when I was with my con man? None of that mattered. I wanted to see him feel better. And I wanted to share his world with him. The first time I tried heroin, it was amazing. All the next times were drastically less amazing. I lost interest. Like I said, I’d rather have a cupcake.
Some research says that the best predictor of addiction is social ties.(http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/07/07/485087604/unbroken-brain-explains-why-tough-treatment-doesnt-help-drug-addicts) The stronger your social ties are, basically the more healthy friendships you have, the less likely you are to become an addict. So maybe what really saved me was the fact that I was tweeting, tumbling, and instagramming my way through homelessness, and I knew that at any given moment, I could cry out to friends around the world to say “I’m scared and hurt and alone,” and they could call back “We see you and we love you.”
My con man didn’t have those kinds of friends. He had a chorus of shame following him around, voices in his head, echoes of family members and old friends he had taken advantage of, telling him he was worthless and disgusting. I think when he did his twice daily speedballs, he was able to quiet those voices for a while. But the voices always came back, so he needed more speedballs to quiet them down, which lead him to continue taking advantage of people, which lead people to continue shaming him.
I’m not saying that everyone with an addict friend or relative should open their arms and their homes, throw caution to the wind, try to love the junk out of them. I tried that, and it nearly killed me.
But consider that if shame and fear were actually effective behavior modification tools, there wouldn’t be any drug addicts. If the fear tactics of DARE programs actually worked, no one would try drugs in the first place, since the side effect of every single drug is sudden exploding eyeballs and catastrophic hair loss. And if shame worked, my con man wouldn’t have been running from one mark to the next for 10 years, wringing all the money and love out of people, just to keep himself alive and fixed up for another day.
Shame is a push. Maybe, a few people get pushed and stumble into a shelter or a religious system that helps them. Or at least, re-directs their shame into a slightly less harmful activity.
But I believe that shame just pushes most people further along the path they’re already on.