A few weeks ago, I told Luciano that I’d realized he hadn’t really talked about rehab, for this story.
His response: “Yeah, so?”
I told him I thought it might be an important part of the story to tell, and maybe we ought to backtrack. My mentioning it was spurred by a book I was reading: Clean, by David Sheff — which was giving me all sorts of things to think about, and which I was hoping to be able to talk to Luciano about. (Sheff has interesting and insightful things to say about drug use, addiction, and treatment — backed by science, research, a strong sense of compassion, and his experience of being the family member of someone who suffered from a serious addiction; I strongly recommend it to anyone who’s looking for information, resources, practical strategies, and hope in the face of addiction, or who just wants to increase his or her awareness about drug use and its many and complex accompanying issues.)
On the subject of rehab, Sheff writes at length about the difficulty of finding effective treatment; about the multiple attempts people typically have to make to achieve sobriety; and about the importance of continuing to work, afterwards — many people say forever — to address issues that could lead back to relapse. Which was part of my specific interest: Though I know Luciano did the “aftercare” part for a while after he got clean, it wasn’t a part of his life anymore, by the time I him. He never identified himself as someone “in recovery” — and didn’t like the term. And though Narcotics Anonymous had been part of his process of staying clean, for a while, his work in harm reduction gave rise to increasing skepticism about 12-step recovery programs as a one-size-fits-all solution.
I told him that people might be interested in how someone with as intractable addiction as his had gotten clean after so many years and so many attempts, and then maintained his sobriety successfully for twenty years. Also, that it was a pretty big part of his story to leave out, and that, anyway, it was going to be a part of this narrative later on — with me, at least, wondering in retrospect whether his cavalier approach to self-care and his confidence in having conquered his addiction, way back in the past, might have contributed to his relapse.
He made a visible effort not to sigh loudly and roll his eyes.
“Yeah, okay,” he sighed. “Maybe. I don’t know what there is to tell, though.”
Soon, though it started to be too much work for too little return, as that same old narrative began to show up — the one that went: I’ve always known there was something wrong with me. Basically, my mental problems were ruining my high — though I didn’t call them that, back then, thinking what I had was just a case of good, old-fashioned existential angst. As soon as I’d shot enough dope to stave off sickness, the assault of my mind upon itself would start up. I’d sit there one-third stoned, one-third crazy and one-third sober — and pissed off that I couldn’t just enjoy the high. At that point, I decided I had only two choices left: to stop using and try to work on whatever was wrong with me, or to stop using and not work on whatever was wrong with me and kill myself. As, apparently, I wasn’t ready to do the latter, just yet, I decided it was time to kick dope.
Also, right around that time, a couple of good friends of mine got busted. James and Sonya were big-time dealers who’d give me twenty to thirty pounds of pot to sell, every now and then — basically as an act of friendship, since, given the scale of their operation, my contribution wasn’t of any benefit to them. One day, when Sonya went to meet the van that was dropping off a shipment from Arizona, she was met by the DEA, instead.
James called to give me a heads up.
“The worst possible thing that could happen just happened”, he said, then he hung up. Understanding this to be code for The cops are closing in, I took a suitcase with $20,000 worth of pot in it from under my bed, ran down the stairs, took a taxi to 59th Street and Lexington Avenue, threw the suitcase in a dumpster behind Bloomingdale’s, and went back to my apartment to wait for the police to arrive.
The police never showed, but James did. He came over the next morning and we talked about the details of Sonya’s arrest. The DEA had busted her with a hundred pounds of pot and $100,000 in cash. Her bail was set at one million dollars. There was also a warrant out for James’ arrest. He was going to meet with his lawyer later in the day to turn himself in. Not knowing what to do or say, I asked him if he wanted to get high. He declined, and instead reached into his backpack and handed what would turn out to be $20,000 to me, with the stipulation that I use it to check into Sierra Tucson, a high-end drug treatment center in Arizona he’d once gone to for some non-drug-related problems.
Sonya ended up doing five years in prison. James did two. And I went to rehab.
I had tried to get off heroin many times before, through different methods, including going cold turkey; enrolling in a methadone program; trying self-prescribed detoxes using homemade elixirs of benzodiazepines, cocaine, vodka and lots of cranberry juice; traditional Chinese medicine; and the famous Black Box (aka the Neural Electric Transmitter or “Brain Tuner”) — a device which claimed to stimulate the brain into producing endorphins by putting a weak electro-magnetic signal into the body, which came with a set of high-quality ear clips, batteries not included, and promised to make your craving for drugs disappear in three to ten days with no withdrawal symptoms. I’d enrolled at Phoenix House for a few hours, once; and another time, had made it through three-quarters of a 12-step meeting.
My friend Mary had recently called me, though, to tell me that she’d gone to a clinic in Tijuana that did a heroin detox using Laetrile, the same experimental drug that was being used to treat desperate American cancer patients looking for a miracle cure. Because the drug wasn’t approved by the FDA, patients would go over the border to get treated at a clinic during the day in Mexico, then go back over the border to stay in an American hotel at night.
There wasn’t a shred of evidence showing that Laetrile worked as a treatment for cancer or anything else; unfortunately, there was no internet back then to check out the claims. Its side effects are said to mimic cyanide poisoning — perhaps not surprisingly, as one of its main ingredients is cyanide. And while I’ve never had cyanide poisoning, if it’s anything like Mexican detox, I hope never to get it.
While not claiming Laetrile was a miracle drug, Mary said the detox hadn’t been too bad — and she’d been clean for more than a month. Mary and her boyfriend made their living backing a pick-up into the front windows of electronics stores and hauling away whatever they could. I liked her and respected her opinion. I took Dr. Rodriquez’s contact information and called to make an appointment.
My plan was, I’d detox in Tijuana, then continue on to Sierra Tucson for a thirty-day stay.
Not knowing when I would be in a safe enough place to get high again, I did a big shot of dope to see me through my next few hours of traveling. Then I threw some clothes, the money, my works and enough dope to make it to the Mexican border into a gym bag.
Since I only had enough to pay for thirty days of treatment, and I had already spent so much of my time going through withdrawal, I was released into the general population of Sierra Tucson before I was fully ready. Still suffering from withdrawal, I was introduced to my fellow “Casa Segura” housemates during the daily five p.m. meeting. I was the only heroin addict in all five houses, and the other patients weren’t happy to have a junkie in their midst. During the period when everyone expressed their feelings, a few people said that they felt “afraid” because this was their first time being around a heroin addict. Some didn’t feel “safe.” Others were “sad.” A number of them reported feeling “angry.” The only person who didn’t appear to have a problem with me was the 70-year-old grandmother from Scranton, addicted to Xanax, who was going through benzo withdrawal and suffering as much as I was. She said she felt “glad” to have me there, and took me under her wing
A recovery center built around a combination of the twelve steps and soft-core spirituality, it truly appeared that the staff didn’t know what they were doing and that the patients weren’t sure why they were there. Everyone seemed to be working on fixing something that had been broken inside of them — by someone else: A parent, a sibling, a stranger, a spouse. And that seemed to be the center’s over-arching philosophy: Nothing that was wrong was organic in origin. In a way, though, it made sense to me that I’d ended up there — if only to reaffirm that focusing on external causes as the root of my emotional problems had probably always been a dead end.
I could write pages and pages about how bizarre, amusing, and annoying I found my time at Sierra Tucson. It all seemed so absurd: The bataka work; the 6-inch high labyrinth, which seemed pointless; the “12-step path” you were supposed to walk through. I didn’t like the therapy. I didn’t want to beat on anything with a foam bat, talk to an empty chair, write a letter to myself from my inner child, using only my left hand.
And, yet, I stayed. And, about fifteen days into my stay, I started worrying about what the counselors were telling me, which was that if I returned to New York, I would certainly start using again. With all the time and money I’d used up traveling, detoxing, getting high, and detoxing again, I really hadn’t made much progress toward addressing any of my problems.
“You should consider a half-way house. Or moving back in with your parents,” they said. They also told me that “everything would work out” and that I “needed to let go and let God.”
Of course, none of those things were going to happen. My only plan was to move back into my apartment in New York, stop dealing drugs, try to stay clean on my own, and take a job working for The Sociopath, which he had promised me, if I ever got clean.
The day after I was discharged from Sierra Tucson I checked into a hotel, ate some Mexican food and went to tour Biosphere 2, a giant dome-like structure, which had had a handful of researchers sealed and living inside of it for a couple of years, and was just a few miles down the road from the rehab.
Though conceived as a self-enclosed, self-sustaining world, Biosphere 2 was generally agreed to be an elaborate and expensive failure — problem-ridden from the beginning, plagued by bad management, faulty science, and strife: As the facility began to run out of food and oxygen, the crew members — hungry, suffering from lethargy, suffocation, and the effects of confinement — turned on each other. Some started smuggling food in from the outside; some, then eventually all, left and went back to their lives.
I bought a ticket, but after waiting ten minutes for the tour to begin, changed my mind, got a refund, went and checked into a hotel in Tucson and made plans to return to New York.
Sierra Tucson was kind of like my Biosphere 2. Locked away without money, without drugs, with a bunch of people who didn’t know anything about me, it was indeed miserable, expensive, and not as advertised. Bonds formed and broke, people smuggled in contraband, failed to complete their commitment to the program, had forbidden sex with each other, ran away in the middle of the night.
But it had the effect of getting me clean — and I did want to get clean and stay clean. Together with the time I had spent in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Tijuana, Sierra Tucson reminded me of how much I needed and wanted to straighten up: If my decision for setting out from New York wasn’t reason enough to kick, the thought of turning permanently into a wandering, junkie ghost surely was. I knew this very well might be my last chance to get clean, and this time, I was able to stop using.
Of course, things weren’t easy after I returned to New York. I had to get a “real” job. I had to get tested for AIDS. I had to stop selling drugs. I found a therapist, who I began seeing individually twice weekly, and attended group sessions once a week. I also went to 12-step meetings every day for ninety days, though I’d eventually fade out of the program. And when all was said and done, I would stay clean for almost twenty years.