A memoir about marriage, methamphetamine & mental illness

By Stephanie Rosenfeld & Luciano Colonna

PART 12 — Greetings From New York

LUCIANO: I’ve got an idea for a picture, for the next section. It’s probably going to make you mad, though: Draw a man and a woman on a couch, slumped over in a heroin nod, with a city skyline in the background. With a caption like, Good Times.

STEPHANIE: “Good times?”

LUCIANO: Or something like that.

When Luciano started working in Northampton, I never gave a thought to his sobriety. I don’t have much experience with drugs, myself, and I’d never had any close, personal encounters with addiction or watched someone relapse. It wasn’t in my repertoire of things to worry about, and certainly not in any picture I had of my life — that it would be affected by someone else’s drug use. I believed Luciano when he said he had no desire to use drugs, again. Only, maybe he never said that. Maybe I just made it up — maybe I assumed that not wanting to have a drug addiction was the same thing as never wanting to do drugs again. That sounds like something that a person with no real understanding of addiction would think.

The fact that Luciano wasn’t worried, either, reinforced my lack of concern. He seemed totally in control of his sobriety. He drank non-alcoholic beer or nothing at all, and (as far as I knew) it wasn’t difficult for him to stay sober. He didn’t struggle with cravings, that he ever mentioned. He also didn’t go to meetings, anymore — though he talked about how important they’d been to his getting clean. He’d had a big party on the one-year anniversary of his sobriety; I knew that because he kept the engraved invitation on his bulletin board: “It’s difficult to slow dance with God when you’ve been slam-dancing with the devil,” it said — or something like that. The God part didn’t square with the person I was getting to know, but I knew it was an AA thing — some kind of spiritual juju you had to do for the cure to work. I was impressed with his commitment to staying clean, and, as I’ve said many times, now, also just glad that his addiction was over and done without my having had to have any contact with it.

Something else happened that reinforced my assumption that Luciano’s drug use was a closed chapter: A few years into our relationship, he decided maybe it would be okay to join me for an occasional glass of wine at dinner. He’d been completely clean and sober for four or five years, at that time. But even though AA and NA had played a big part in his getting clean, and in practice, he abstained, in theory, he didn’t buy the 12-step programs’ one-size-fits-all approach to abstinence. He talked about the Moderation Management model, sometimes — about how maybe that approach, which supports managing one’s drinking carefully and mindfully, made sense for some people. And, he said, alcohol had never been his drug of choice — he’d never had a drinking problem and was pretty sure he wasn’t about to develop one.

So, after talking it over, we decided that his having a glass of wine or a beer now and then sounded like an okay idea. And the experiment worked: Luciano became an occasional drinker, and alcohol use really didn’t seem to pose a problem for him. He didn’t drink often, he didn’t drink a lot, he’d go long periods without drinking, I never saw him drunk.

Stephanie and I had started spending time together shortly after I began my third year of sobriety and I had just begun working in harm reduction. Three years drug- and alcohol-free was a significant anniversary for me. It was the first time in my adult life that I’d been sober, and my sobriety was really important to me. I was healthy and funny and smart and handsome. I had a family. I was full of grace.

Then one day we had a conversation:

STEPHANIE: Do you think you might ever drink again? It would be nice to have a glass of good wine with you someday. It seems strange that you would take such a hard line when it comes to your own drug use while your attitude in your work is so much more complex and forgiving. Do you think you could drink moderately? I’m not talking about your using heroin! I think you should at least consider what I’m saying.

Luciano wrote that, as part of a conversation he claims we had. (There was more back and forth to the conversation, as he rendered it, but he responded to my editing note (“Incomprehensible. Clarify?”) by making the rest of it disappear, and now doesn’t want to reinstate it.)

I don’t think this conversation, or anything like it, actually happened — for several reasons, including that I would never have used the words “a glass of good wine,” back then, because I wouldn’t have known one if it hit me in the face. I think he’s just trying to get back at me for questioning his softball prowess, in the last chapter, and saying he didn’t have any non-white friends and making up a whole conversation that didn’t actually happen.* But, even though I have a good memory, and I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the way it went down — that I twisted Luciano’s arm so he could have a drinking buddy — in the name of equal time, and of not shrinking from the charges, and of being the least unreliable of the narrators in this story, I have to let it stand.

*But it could have.

I began drinking again shortly after we had that conversation. It was while we were out to dinner at the Green Street Cafe, where Stephanie worked as a pastry chef — I impulsively ordered an expensive (for us) bottle of wine. The waitress smiled. Good choice, she said. While I can’t recall what Stephanie and I talked about that night, I clearly remember looking forward to our next dinner and the next bottle of wine. I also remember our finishing the bottle and my wanting to order another.

I began drinking regularly after that night. I knew that I shouldn’t, but I did anyway. The exercise and willpower it had taken to stay clean were quickly replaced by a resolution to just let go. I was also relieved to be free from the burden of maintaining sobriety. I felt normal — not like a “normal” person who can drink. I felt normal like an alcoholic does when he’s drinking, or a dope fiend does when he’s getting high. I can drink, I told myself. But only drink. I remember getting into fights with Stephanie and sleeping in my office — usually after getting drunk at a bar I knew she would never enter. It would take fifteen years for the full impact of my decision to step away from sobriety to unfold. I wish Stephanie and I had never had that conversation.

STEPHANIE: Wow.

LUCIANO: Wow, what?

STEPHANIE: I never knew any of that. About the drinking: I mean, this is all pretty huge. But I guess it’s one of the points of writing this memoir. But. Wow. I mean, really? Like, you were a closet alcoholic, for almost all of our life together? Because I made you fall off the wagon? And I never even had a fucking clue?

LUCIANO: Well, I might have exaggerated a little.

STEPHANIE: Which part?

LUCIANO: Yeah — that didn’t really happen.

STEPHANIE: What didn’t happen?

LUCIANO: Any of it. I think I went to a bar once.

STEPHANIE: So, you didn’t have a drinking problem.

LUCIANO: No.

STEPHANIE: Let me ask you this. Do you think it’d be possible for you to write some actually true, high-quality thoughts about your sobriety, here?

LUCIANO: Jesus, Stephanie! Why do you –

STEPHANIE: No, seriously. Can you just go do it?

When I started drinking again, after a couple of years with Stephanie, I wasn’t worried about relapse: Despite all the drugs I’ve done, alcohol has never been my thing — I’ve never needed its disinhibitory qualities and I don’t like being around drunks. Looking back, though, I think it was a really bad decision. Though I talked a good game, I can see now that I was all over the place, in regard to my sobriety. Even after I first got sober — I went to meetings, but I wasn’t exactly doing it like I was supposed to. I had no desire to participate in the things that were supposed to teach me to have fun without drugs or alcohol, like pinball, or sober bowling. Instead, I went to clubs and hung out with people who were using drugs and drinking. And even though I stayed sober for a number of years, I wouldn’t ever have said that I was in the program or a friend of Bill or taking life one day at a time, or anything like that — I mean, I wasn’t actively working the 12 steps, or thinking about what I was doing as recovery.

It’s hard for me to describe — and hard to think about — what it meant to suddenly step away from sobriety. I’d wasted a lot of time, using drugs. My drug use had kept me away from friends and family; I’d missed countless weddings, birthdays and other celebrations. I stopped going to the beach, to concerts, clubs and galleries — things I’d liked doing, before. I locked myself in my apartment, wouldn’t answer my phone or the door. I stopped having sex and avoided all intimacy. Instead, I spent most of my time during those years trying to score something decent, avoid getting arrested, and trying to find a vein. I spent huge amounts of time in transit between my apartment and the dope spot. It was relentless and boring. Every shot was my last and every day was the same and every night ended with me meeting my goal of passing out one way or another.

The period right before I met Stephanie was the first time in my life that I’d ever been sober, and it was meaningful. I’d been sober for Tim’s death — that was huge. I was writing and making music; I’d started having sex and relationships again. And, if I hadn’t been sober, I would never have met Stephanie. Or, I would have, but she would never have become my girlfriend.

My decision to start drinking again didn’t feel momentous, at the time. One day, I was a person who didn’t drink. The next day, being that person ended. But, looking back, I feel like that moment was the beginning of a long, slow path to relapse: that even though alcohol itself wasn’t a problem, if I’d stayed committed to my sobriety, everything that followed would’ve been different, and my life would be different, now. I don’t regret many things in my life, but that’s a big one.

STEPHANIE: If it makes you feel any better, I’m not so sure about that.

LUCIANO: About what?

STEPHANIE: I mean, I think your mental illness would have found a way to lay you low, no matter what you’d been doing.

LUCIANO: Stephanie! Why do you always have to call me mentally ill?

STEPHANIE: Um, because you have a diagnosis of mental illness? It’s not an insult.

LUCIANO: Well it feels like an insult!

STEPHANIE: Well, Mr. Anti-Stigma, maybe you need to take a closer look at your attitude toward mental illness. And b) I am not the cause of your feelings. Therapy 101.

LUCIANO: You’re just so impossible.

STEPHANIE: Yep. I told you that, going in.

When Luciano decided, a little after we moved to Utah, that he wanted to become an occasional pot-smoker again, I was more concerned. Maybe because of the way smoking pot seemed so linked to his drug-using past, the thought of which always made me uneasy — but also, surely, because of my own relationship to drugs (as mentioned, none, if you didn’t count the artificial dividing line I put up between drugs and alcohol). Pot just seemed like a bigger deal to me — like it might carry more risk.* Like, maybe it would make Luciano remember how much he liked being high, make him miss the good old days; make him think it might be okay to do just a little hit of this or a little taste of that, since he had all this clean time under his belt and was so good at keeping his use under control.

*Another way I could always make Luciano really mad — and still can — was to say anything implying that marijuana might be a possible “gateway,” for some people, in some circumstances, to other drug use; or to question the line that it’s categorically benign, since people can’t get “physically addicted,” overdose, or die from it.

But, like before, we discussed and deliberated and, based on the success of the alcohol experiment, agreed that his smoking some pot occasionally didn’t seem like a big deal.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure I got played, on this — I think he’d probably already started getting high at conferences, with his colleagues, when he asked for my permission. I know now that what he chose to tell me about what went on at those things, and his participation, was very selective. And I suppose the sequence of events doesn’t really matter at this point in the story — it’s just another chair sliding around the deck of the Titanic — though as a point in the larger arc of Luciano’s lying, it’s part of a bigger picture that will come into fuller view, by the end, and that, for me, recast the narrative of our life together.

I’m already wondering how I’m going to draw that.

As with his alcohol use, Luciano’s pot-smoking didn’t seem to pose a problem. He’d mostly do it in his room, late at night, when Callie was asleep. Though there was something peculiar about it. The first time I saw him high, I was stunned: I’d never seen him act so “normal” before. Even-keeled. Not manic or skipping from idea to idea or uncomfortable or irritated or about to tip over any sort of edge. This was before the concept of self-medication had become mainstream in conversations about drug-use, so my thought was only intuitive, just a glimmer of understanding: This is why some people use drugs. Accompanied by a less clear, correlative thought: Maybe this proved what I really already knew but didn’t have words or a framework for, beyond: Something was wrong inside Luciano’s brain.

What it looked like was, whatever was glitchy in there, the pot temporarily fixed it. But it also made him slow and stupid and inane, so I didn’t really want to be around him when he was high — which disappointed him: He wished I wanted to hang out in his room and watch him guffaw at sit-coms, or listen to him try to tell me stories he couldn’t quite order the sentences of, or relate rapidly incoming epiphanies. So that, and also the fact that he needed to be on his game for work and didn’t like feeling fuzzy the next day, meant that he didn’t actually end up getting high very often; and all-in-all, Luciano’s forays into social drinking and pot-smoking turned out to be sort of a non-event in our life.

It wasn’t only working with the drug users that I liked about harm reduction. When I started going to harm reduction conferences, back when I lived in Northampton, I was just a former drug user working in a small-town needle exchange. I didn’t have any experience in the bigger movement, and I didn’t know anyone. Soon, though, after we moved to Utah and I opened my own agency, I began to meet a whole network of interesting people doing important work nationally and internationally around drug policy, HIV prevention, and human rights. This was around 2000 — a time when people with HIV/AIDS and people actively using drugs were even more stigmatized and marginalized than they are now, and AIDS deaths in the US had yet to reach their peak.

My new colleagues were passionate, brilliant, and slightly off. The work we were doing was exciting and cutting-edge, the energy palpable, and the camaraderie was intense. When we met up at conferences it always felt like we were about to take over a building or capture a city — it was the closest I’d felt to being in a band since I was in a band. And, like being around the clients, being around my new colleagues made me feel reconnected to that subculture that was once such an important part of my life.

Like me, many of my new colleagues were former users. Surrounded by active drugs users, syringes and sometimes drugs, we worked hard at keeping one another healthy and out of the line of temptation. We checked in with one another, created impromptu 12-step meetings at our conferences and trainings, and sealed ourselves in our rooms once the sun went down.

STEPHANIE: Is that true?

LUCIANO: What do you mean?

STEPHANIE: I mean, you make it sound like everyone was a teetotaler — which isn’t how I remember you talking about it at the time. Wasn’t there more of a spectrum?

LUCIANO: Yeah, you’re right. That wasn’t what I meant.

STEPHANIE: So…?

LUCIANO: So, what?

STEPHANIE: Just go do it.

There was a pretty wide spectrum as far as people’s drug use went — from people who were committed to total sobriety to those who were actively using, and all the shades in between. There were people who were active, hard-core drug users who were also going to school, getting degrees in public health and law, doing advocacy work — I don’t know how they did it. Once, during a conference call about advocacy that I was attending from a New York colleague’s office, I turned around to check for my colleague’s response and saw that she’d overdosed: She’d gone to the bathroom and shot up with heroin without my even knowing it. I immediately gave her mouth-to-mouth and kept her awake through the meeting, and after it was over, we attended a work dinner with some other colleagues to come up with a strategic plan for creating overdose and education strategies.

There were also a number of actively-using colleagues who weren’t as respected: Even in a Harm Reduction context, people judged them — they were underdogs, kind of — and I was drawn to them because of that. So, even though I was known as someone who didn’t use, I ended up spending a lot of time with people who were using. I’d speak up for them when the situation called for it, and became sort of well-known and well-respected for that. In fact, I was even made the temporary chair of the North American User’s Union. Which, I have to say, was a very disorganized organization.

Looking back, I can see the way I always managed to place myself at the center of these marginalized groups — or any group, really. A constant theme in my life, from childhood, was how hard I always worked to become a part of any group or family that I wasn’t really a member of. Tim’s family. The Harm Reduction “family.” The Delusions. The kathoey in Thailand who I hung out with and photographed, who gave me such intimate access into their community. Stephanie and Callie — that one wasn’t easy. It goes on and on — how hard I worked to prove to different groups and people that I was worthy, that I belonged in their inner circle. Oh yeah: And Peggy — my dad’s girlfriend — and her kids: Suddenly having this whole second family I never knew about, and having to get them to like me. Maybe it all started then.

STEPHANIE: Now we’re getting somewhere, Watson!

LUCIANO: Yeah. Huh. I guess that’s pretty obvious.

LUCIANO: You know, I could see myself joining a rodeo — as the head rodeo clown. Hey, draw that! Draw a picture of me with a barrel on — you know how they send the clown out there to attract the bull? So it doesn’t kill the cowboy?

STEPHANIE: That’s brilliant, in its own fucked-up way. See? — this is why we like each other. That’d be hard to draw, though. Who’s the bull? Who’s the cowboy? Or is it the crowd, that’s the point?

STEPHANIE: Or hey! I know! I could draw the little one-man-band. Isn’t it kind of the same thing?

When I first met Luciano, one of the stories he told was about how his father — who both wanted to instill a love of music in him, and also managed to drain any confidence about his capabilities out of him, by the time he was an adult* — brought him home a miniature organ and taught him to play it.

“You should’ve seen me!” Luciano told me. “It had two keyboards — one on top and one on the bottom — and foot pedals, and I’d play and pump the foot pedals and sing at the top of my lungs, like a little one-man band”– and the image was always striking, to me: I had a lot of empathy for that little boy — performing like a trained monkey, either to accompany or draw attention away from the ongoing adult insanity around him, was how I pictured it.

*This is totally my interpretation — Luciano has never said this. What he says, whenever anyone asks if he plays any instruments, is, “Yes. Badly,” followed by, “My dad’s a professional musician.”

After working in harm reduction for a few years I began asking myself if I could use heroin again without developing a habit. I had come around in my thinking from the idea that hard drugs were inherently problematic and that I was an incurable addict to believing that drugs were neither good nor bad, but that they just existed, waiting to be used either responsibly or irresponsibly.

I decided that I could use again without getting my habit back and that I could use responsibly. I made a plan to use during a conference weekend in Atlanta. Or maybe it wasn’t premeditated — I don’t remember. I shot up with Angela, a friend and colleague who worked at the Lower East Side Needle Exchange in Manhattan. I made sure to use clean works and pay attention to the dosage. Not having used in a long time, I got very high, falling into a deep nod. It felt right, familiar — just like riding a bike.

Angela was found dead in her apartment from an overdose less than a week later. We had just celebrated her nineteenth birthday in Atlanta. She shouldn’t have died — and I wished we had spent that weekend in Atlanta talking about things other than dope. I’ve never used heroin again. However, it wasn’t Angela’s death that made me swear off heroin for good. It was that using dope wasn’t fun without the lifestyle that went along with it.

I can’t remember when, specifically, Luciano told me he’d shot up heroin with some woman in a hotel room at a conference — but I do know that it was long enough after the fact to earn him no points for honesty. There was also something about the way he came clean — spontaneously, is my memory (as opposed to in a conversation, or under questioning) — that felt off, to me; that seemed more like an act of unburdening his conscience than of acknowledging that there was a problem that needed to be talked about, a breach of trust that needed airing and repair.

I used to ask him, sometimes more suspiciously than others, depending on how things were going between us, about what went on at those conferences. He’d talk about the colleagues; some names had started to come up frequently, and I was curious about this parallel life he was developing. As I’ve mentioned, there sure were a lot of women, and I was pretty curious about that. I don’t remember being pointedly worried about his getting high and drinking, though — I still really believed that Luciano’s stated desire to never have a drug addiction again was all there was to know — though I could also picture him partying too much, out on the road — and I remember it being a confusing, uneasy thought. It’s not like I had a picture of him going quickly down the road to wrack and ruin, exactly. My uneasiness was more about his impulsivity and his penchant for excess, along with his love of being the center of attention — and the gratification I knew he got from people’s admiration of his legendary outrageousness.

I thought I could picture any of those things, alone or in combination, leading him off-track. But since there wasn’t anything I could do about it, I just tried to put the uneasiness and the pictures out of my mind. I guess what I hoped was that if any issues around his sobriety came up, he’d tell me — because we were a team; and because honesty (I believed at the time) was an implicit condition of our relationship; and also because we had an established channel for talking frankly about those kinds of things.

I do know for sure that I never asked him if he was shooting heroin, on any of his out of town trips. That thought was nowhere on my radar, nowhere in the suitcase of suspicions I’d furiously unpack when my mind took a spiral — that’s how completely out of bounds his choice to do that was.

When he told me about the thing with Angela, I was a lot of different things: I was stunned. I was pissed off; I was suspicious; I asked every question I could think of, and then — this made him so very weary — I asked them all again. But I was also cool. I didn’t cry or yell or melt down or threaten to leave him or kick him out. I tried to put it in perspective and figure out the way forward. This happened. Now what?

He swore he’d only done it that one time, and I decided to believe him. I told him it was shitty of him to have lied, and asked him how, if Callie and I really meant everything to him, it squared that he’d put his life at risk. I also told him that, harm reduction measures aside (he’d used a clean syringe, used with a buddy, and paid attention to his dose), I thought it was a really bad idea for him to use heroin. I thought that if there really was such thing as “an addictive personality,” chances were good that he had one, and I definitely didn’t want to do a heroin addiction with him — that wasn’t what I’d signed up for. So, if he wanted to stay in a family with me, it was important that he not do anything like that again.

All in all, I thought I handled the whole thing pretty reasonably. Where we left it was: If he decided he wanted to use any drugs, again, he’d bring it up and I’d hear him out and we’d talk it over and he’d factor my opinion and desires into any decision he made.

Again, pretty sure I got played. He got to get things off his chest, and I got a false sense of being in control of that part of my life. Which, yes, I know now, was faulty thinking — his drug use belonged to him, and wasn’t mine to control.

Also, I should mention that when he made his big confession about having (carefully and responsibly) used heroin with Angela, he left out the part about her being dead. That’s something I only just now learned about, in the process of writing these pages.

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