A memoir about marriage, methamphetamine & mental illness
By Stephanie Rosenfeld & Luciano Colonna
Chapter Eleven – POOR EDDIE
LUCIANO: Hey I know what you should draw for this section! Draw me like one of those fishing-trip guys, but an outreach worker! You know, in one of those vests with all the pockets?
STEPHANIE: A fishing vest?
LUCIANO: What’s a fishing vest?
LUCIANO: Fine, Stephanie! A fishing vest! Whatever! But with syringes and condoms and lube and bleach kits, and information cards all overflowing out of them. And I could be holding a butterfly net —
STEPHANIE: A butterfly net?
LUCIANO: You know — with the long handle, and… No?
STEPHANIE: Do you mean a fishing pole?
LUCIANO: Butterfly net, fishing pole — whatever! And one of those helmets –
STEPHANIE: A helmet? Like, on a safari?
LUCIANO: You are completely exasperating, Stephanie! A hat, okay?! You know what I mean!
STEPHANIE: I do. But only because I know how to speak Luciano. Anyway, eh. Maybe we could just tell people to picture that.
LUCIANO: What? You don’t like it?
STEPHANIE: Tell you what: If I draw that, will you go write your section?
After Tim’s death — after the memorials and the reunions and after everyone had returned to their real lives — I was left standing alone in a stolen suit, without a ride or a destination. It didn’t feel like the right time to move back to New York and I had no desire to stay in LA, so when Tim’s family suggested that I move to Western Massachusetts, where he had grown up and most of them still lived, I did. I rented a studio apartment above the independent video store and movie theater on Pleasant Street in Northampton, where I spent most of my days working on my novel or sitting on the bench in front of my building, chain-smoking cigarettes, flirting with Smith coeds, and talking loudly over a Palm Pilot; and most of my evenings being fed and looked after by Tim’s brother and sisters and their families. I didn’t like Northampton, though. I’m not sure if it was the preponderance of white faces or the mock quaintness of late 20th century New England, but I felt like I was in the Federal Witness Relocation Program while living there. I didn’t like living among WASPs or playing softball or going out for ice cream. I hated the food. I hated the weather. I hated anything to do with the Revolutionary War.
STEPHANIE: Can I interrupt? a) You already said most of this, back in the beginning; b) Palm Pilots weren’t even invented until 1996. Don’t even bother arguing — I googled it. Also, not that it matters, but I don’t think you actually talked into them: Didn’t you just tap on it with that little stick, as you used to call it, that you used to lose about twenty times a day?
LUCIANO: My god, Stephanie, could you be any more annoy–
STEPHANIE: Wait. I’m not finished: c) Can you even call students of an all women’s school “co-eds”? I mean, irrespective of the fact that it’s kind of a gross, outdated term with sexist connotations that a person like you wouldn’t have any honest reason to use? And d), e), and f), What are you talking about, with the white faces and the quaintness and the WASPs? Are you saying you just feel better in a place with some racial diversity, even though, do you actually even have any non-white friends? And, softball — seriously? Why am I having a hard time picturing that? As for the food: You lived on Chinese takeout. I know: It wasn’t as good as in the City, but it wasn’t like anyone was trying to stuff baked beans and apple pan dowdy down your throat. Or drag you out to Concord and Lexington. You can’t just make shit up! I need you to be a reliable narrator!*
*Full Disclosure: Luciano and I didn’t actually have this conversation.**
**But we could have.
LUCIANO: Well, what do you want me to write, Stephanie?
STEPHANIE: About your Harm Reduction career. You said there was a natural connection from Tim dying from AIDS to your getting into the field. Remember? You wrote this, in a draft: “At the time, it was the AIDS pandemic that drew me to harm reduction. Reducing its spread and helping to get people diagnosed and treated was the priority. There was an urgency to the work: it was criminal not do something.” Then again, you also wrote this:
In addition to working for REDACTED during my time in Northampton, I also got by thanks to the loyalty of another old friend. Celeste was a dealer who stayed on top of her kickbacks. I’d worked out a deal with her: In exchange for introducing her to my connection, she agreed to send me $25 for every pound of Mexican that passed between them. With hundreds of pounds being moved every month, I was doing okay. Her FedEx envelopes full of hundred-dollar bills arrived regularly, seeing me through Tim’s long nightmare, my move to Northampton, and the beginning of my relationship with Stephanie.
One day Celeste called me from Anguilla, where she was living. I could barely make out her words through the sobbing.
“They killed him, Luciano! They fucking killed him!”
“Killed who? What are you talking about?”
Eddie was Celeste’s dog and constant companion — a cute toy poodle. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been sporting a blue mohawk to match Celeste’s. When we’d meet for our weekly brunch-slash-business-meeting, Eddie would get his own chair and a steak. He was a happy boy, well-groomed and polite to the waitstaff. When I asked her what happened, she told me that some guys — she didn’t say who or why, but given her abrasive personality and general outrageousness, it wasn’t hard to imagine — had broken into her house and dragged her and Eddie to the beach, where they’d beaten Celeste up, and dug a hole in the sand and buried Eddie alive.
That was it, for Celeste. Shortly afterward, the FedEx envelopes stopped coming. When REDACTED closed up shop and stopped paying me, too, I sold everything of value that I owned, and when that money was gone, I started looking for a job.
OUTREACH WORKER WANTED, read the classified ad in The Daily Hampshire Gazette. Experience with HIV and AIDS required. Knowledge of injection drug use a plus.
I applied and was hired to work at Family Planning, a sexual health non-profit in Northampton, in the Harm Reduction Services program. Our services included recruiting people into the clinic for HIV testing; handing out condoms and bleach kits; and providing referrals for housing and drug treatment. We had a food pantry and an AIDS Hotline. Shortly after I was hired, we also started doing needle exchange.
I’d known of a few needle exchange programs when I was using, although I hadn’t cared enough about my own health or anyone else’s to take advantage of one. I’d almost entered one, once, when I was walking around the Lower East Side looking to cop. As I stood in line, an outreach worker came over and told me that I needed a card to use the exchange, and that getting one was quick and anonymous.
No thank you, I said, and left. Walking toward the dope spot, I told myself that if I started using an exchange, I would be surrendering to my heroin habit. I had a nightly ritual: Before the last shot of every day, I’d draw the sign of the cross across my chest, to guard against overdose, and promise myself this is my last shot, ever, as I dug the needle into my arm. Making the effort to use safely, my reasoning went, would weaken that resolve — and would mean that I’d never stop. It made little sense then and makes even less now.
Our program in Northampton was one of the first legal syringe exchange programs in the country, tucked into a small suite of offices in the basement of an old building across the street from a police station and a church. Our shelves were stocked with cotton pellets, alcohol wipes, and bottle caps, clean syringes, and printed how-to guides on finding a vein. A big part of my job was to help the clients learn to use safely. I showed them how to differentiate a vein from an artery, told them never to inject into their heads, necks, groins, genitals, or the inside of their wrists. They told me things, too: that a lack of availability of powered cocaine had started them shooting crack, and that mixing heroin with “crick water” wasn’t a good idea, and that milk wouldn’t bring back an overdose victim. A sex worker showed me (using a banana) how to get a condom onto a john without his knowing.
While it may have been the lure of free, unused syringes that brought clients in, many stayed around to talk — and they especially liked talking to me. At the time, I was the only former drug user on the staff. So, we could identify with each other, and they knew I wasn’t judging them. I also think I represented hope: If someone like me could get clean, they might be able to, too.
I liked the clients. While I’d always loved using drugs, the connection with other users was one of the most important parts — maybe the most important part — of the experience. Growing up, I’d never felt much in common with anyone: I didn’t enjoy playing army or doing the things other boys did; I didn’t play baseball or any other sports. When I started doing drugs, I finally found a group in which I felt like I belonged.
The intensity of the connection is hard to describe. I could land in any city, in any country of the world, at any time of the day or night, and find other drug users. And when I did, I would breathe a sigh of relief — there’s something about the gravitational force of drugs and drug use that brings all manner of users together in amity.
Drug use was a never-ending cycle, with all of us working together to find drugs, keep from getting sick, and stay out of jail. We would tell each other where the good dope was, and who, what, and where to avoid. We’d walk around and around the block, sometimes making hundreds of trips, waiting for the dealer to re-up, waiting for the cops to leave, sharing stories about better days and better drugs. Later, we’d patiently work at guiding a syringe into each other’s collapsing veins as we so badly wanted to get high and we could no longer inject ourselves. And we’d visit one another in the AIDS ward when no one else from our families would show up.
There was another piece of it, too — the shared experience of being so marginalized. We were crack heads, junkies, and speed freaks — people who made you want to avert your eyes. The police hated us, store owners cursed at us, even the dealers loathed us; and we worked together to survive — always hiding, trying to stay out of the way until we could get our drugs and go somewhere safe.
I’m guessing that for anyone who knows a former drug user, their giving up drugs seems like the most important part of their story. But for me, remembering my last shot was in no way as significant as thinking about the people I’d used with that day; the counting of sober days was nothing compared to the memory of days I spent in the company of those friends. I missed those friendships, though I didn’t want to live as a user, anymore. In many ways, working in Harm Reduction was the perfect job for me. It was the nearest I could get to drugs without using them, the closest I could get to crime without committing one, and it reconnected me to a community that I’d once felt so comfortable being part of.
The topic of Harm Reduction dominated our dinner-table conversation, especially after we moved to Utah and Luciano opened his agency and started going all over to conferences and consulting and collaborating on projects around the world. In the beginning, it really was all pretty exciting. Luciano’s work was interesting, his ideas were smart and his enthusiasm was infectious. I liked it when he bounced ideas off me — when we sat around brainstorming about how to make a dent in the problems he was working on, strategizing about how to raise funds and open hearts and minds in conservative Utah, spinning visions of how to connect threads and bring his efforts to scale to really make a difference.
I liked the policy discussions less. If I ever disagreed with any of the theories behind the work, or even said I could see both sides of an issue, Luciano would instantly bristle, get scornful and defensive, try to cast my thinking as ignorant, closed-minded, and conservative. Our conversations would quickly devolve into argument when I’d balk at what I saw as a fundamental problem: That a lot of the ideas, while they made sense in theory, didn’t seem all that applicable to people’s real lives — didn’t take into account the risk factors and glitches and conditions and complications that beset most actual human beings, most days, and that thinking and talking about drug-use the way he was increasingly doing was kind of a rarified exercise.
“No drug is inherently bad,” he’d say — an idea popular among his circle of colleagues, and I think in the field of harm reduction in general: that the problem with drugs lay not in the drugs themselves, but in the way people used them. “Drug, set, and setting,” he’d recite, referencing a school of thought that holds that the negative effects of drugs are more a societally-shaped construct than a real danger — so, safe drug use is completely possible if people just choose to do them under the right circumstances.
Circumstances like what?, I wasn’t allowed to argue. (Though I did, anyway.) What was he talking about? One of his colleagues studied the effects of drugs on the brain in the neuro-lab at the university where he taught — like that?
Luciano would get really mad at me when I’d question the practical usefulness of his position, when I’d ask how often, in his own work — with, for example, people who were living on the street, people who had just gotten out of jail with no money and nowhere to go, people who were drinking mouthwash on Sundays because the liquor stores were closed — those controlled conditions could be achieved. Were they all invited to the neuro-lab in New York? What was he actually proposing?
I understood the right and wrong of it — that the criminalization of drugs and villainization of drug users and emphasis on law-enforcement solutions were ineffective and ruined lives; I agreed about the need for policy reform. But in the meantime, what use was it to go around saying that the observably terrible effects of drug use on so many people and families didn’t have anything to do with drugs?
These conversations were taking place at the beginning of the meth epidemic — a term Luciano always used in scornful quotation marks as an example of the latest demonization of drugs and drug users perpetrated by the mainstream media on ignorant, conservative dupes like me. And it’s true: The stories I’d heard and the pictures I’d seen made meth seem scary — this new (or, newly popular) drug that people said would hook you if you even tried it once, irreparably mess up your brain chemistry, possess you to the point that you’d wreck your own life, just to keep doing it.
But he’d scoff at me if I mentioned any of that, or even asked questions; I’d get blasted if I persisted in questioning him about something I honestly didn’t understand: If it was true that meth wasn’t a particularly bad drug, what about all the stories coming out of the hard-hit places — all those people on the ground (to use a term of art that he liked) and the horrific things they said they were seeing? The home labs and toxins; the child neglect and weird sex stuff and psychosis and violence and abuse? There was no way to get him riled up faster than mentioning a hypothetical social worker in the Midwest: Are they all just making it up? Are they brainwashed by the media too?
I wasn’t just being contrary — I wanted to understand. And, admittedly, I also wanted to push Luciano a little: I thought these were important questions for him to be able to speak cogently about, in the likely event that he found himself in a room full of people who didn’t all think the same way he did: He was increasingly being called upon to speak publicly about these things as a local expert — a bit of a trick in deeply conservative Utah. I could never get him to see my point, though. He’d just get furious at me — accuse me of intentional obtuseness, of failing to respect him professionally, of being difficult just for the sake of being difficult.
And, okay: Sometimes I did persist mainly out of orneriness and frustration. I was sick of being bullied. I was sick of our life being ruled by his emotional dysregulation, of the quality of our interactions being limited by his lack of behavioral self-control, of all of our good times being so fleeting and fragile. I was sick of a dynamic that bored and frustrated me: Luciano was smart and interesting and informed, and sometimes I just wanted to be able to have an intelligent conversation about complicated or challenging stuff that didn’t end with him losing his shit. That was a brick wall I beat my head against for almost the entire duration of our marriage, because I didn’t know that the thing I was fighting with — his bipolar illness — was never going to make sense or give me a break.
There was a real disconnect between some of the Harm Reduction movement’s most prominent leaders and the reality of drug use. Because they weren’t real users — they did drugs like pot and ecstasy — and tended to be the funders and heads of policy agencies — and really didn’t seem to understand the chaos of living with an addiction. Here’s how one conversation with a colleague — a prominent researcher at Columbia University and an expert on methamphetamine — went. He’d asked me about my history of drug use.
I had a serious problem with cocaine, I told him.
No, you didn’t, he said. You didn’t have a problem with cocaine: You had a problem with money: You just didn’t have enough money to buy cocaine — and that’s what caused all the other problems. Right?
I was never sure what our fights at the dinner table were about. I knew we were talking about drugs, of course. But it felt to me like Stephanie was challenging me, like she just wanted to let me have it. Though I also remember being very aware, back then, of all the support she gave me. One time in particular: It was during the first national conference on methamphetamine I put on, and there were some local reporters asking me questions. And I could see her, sitting behind them — sort of communicating with me and trying to help me get through it. And — this probably isn’t right; it probably didn’t happen this way — I have a picture of her writing on a pad of paper. Taking notes, outlining ideas, and telegraphing them to me, somehow, so that I would say the right things and not embarrass myself. I can also remember the look on her face . She was smiling. She looked happy. She looked like she was proud of me.
STEPHANIE: You’re out of your mind. That never happened. That conference was a complete nightmare. And me as smiling Girl Friday — I don’t think so.
LUCIANO: It did too happen! I remember it very clearly! It’s one of the best memories I have, from that time!
STEPHANIE: You have a good memory from that time?
LUCIANO: That’s not very nice.
STEPHANIE: Nice doesn’t have anything to do with it. That whole, long period of our life was gruesome. The beginning of the end: You slowly losing your mind from the stress of the first conference — and then deciding to do it all over again.
Shit. We’re going to have to write about the conferences, aren’t we?
LUCIANO: So is this the way it’s gonna be? If you remember something differently than I do, then I’m just wrong?
STEPHANIE: Okay — maybe I’m conflating the two conferences. For you, one was less bad than the other. But for me, they’re just one long, bad memory.
LUCIANO: So, what? We put it in your way? You just win?
STEPHANIE: Nooooo… I think we put both things in, and let the readers work it out.
LUCIANO: I’m starting to feel really bad about this whole project.
STEPHANIE: Well, that’s problematic. Given that we haven’t even gotten to the meth part, yet.
LUCIANO: The meth part. Fuck me.