You hate the hypocrisy of reformed addicts telling you that the dope will stop working one day, that it always does.
The following is excerpted from a longer work.
You post your picture on Facebook. It’s a close-up. Your long hair is dark brown. On one side you have strands of it curled behind your ear. Your eyes are dark brown, too, but they are also glossy and red. In your hand is a glass pipe, the bowl hot and alive, swirling with gray smoke. You’re holding it out to whoever is taking the picture, but it looks as if you’re offering it to me.
You must be about twenty now. I lose track of time. In the beginning, as a child, you probably wonder why, when I come to see your father, he always asks you to go to your room and watch TV. After a while, though, and I don’t suppose it takes more than a few visits, you must catch on. By no means am I his only friend, if you can call his many visitors friends, because truthfully we are not. Sure, we laugh and joke and talk too long, like friends do, but we always leave looking and acting differently than when we arrived. Sometimes we move in slow motion. Sometimes we’re fidgety and nervous. It depends on the drug, whether it’s heroin or coke. Or meth. Or all three for an interesting little cocktail. Other times your father’s friends come and go so quickly you must wonder why they ever bothered to visit.
Your mother, where is she?
When did you last see her?
I’m not familiar with this part of your story, knowing only that she’s not there for you at this point in your life. She’s an addict, too, this much I do know, and maybe she’s still using when your father is clean. Maybe that’s why she left. If this is the case, at least with your father you have a roof over your head and food in the refrigerator. At least you attend school instead of bouncing from one dope house to another, crashing on beat-up couches or dirty floors, and sometimes, when your mother wears out her welcome, having to sleep on the streets.
To be fair, your father has seven years clean from heroin and cocaine before he receives his disability settlement for an injury he suffers working as a heavy equipment operator. He undergoes spinal fusion surgery but the procedure is hardly successful in relieving his pain. Still, for those seven years, he refuses the Vicodin and Oxycodone the doctors prescribe, knowing it will trigger his old cravings, and even though he walks slowly, wincing often, he nonetheless manages to take you fishing off the docks in Lake Arrowhead. You remember he’s good at it, and teaches you how to be good at it, too, so that you both catch plenty of trout. You also remember him taking you camping and how comforting, how calming, how secure and safe and loved you feel snuggling up to him in your sleeping bags in the tent he shows you how to pitch, because he can’t do much of the work himself. You like helping him. You like knowing he needs you, as you need him, and you think of you and your father as a little team.
But money can be a trigger, weakening the addict’s resolve to stay clean. Why this is, I’m not sure, but I’ve seen it happen too often not to believe there’s truth in it — addicts and alcoholics struggling to make ends meet, and then, when the burden is lifted, finding themselves drunk or strung out again. A seventy-five-thousand-dollar disability settlement is a windfall when you’ve been living month to month on paltry government disability checks.
Ironically your father is my first sponsor, once a week taking me through the Big Book page by page, but after one too many slips I give up on myself and he gives up on me, too. I can’t blame him. We stop seeing each other until he calls out of the blue one day, asks if I’m clean, and when I tell him I’m not, that I’m drinking as we speak, he laughs and invites me over. He has it all. Heroin. Coke. Plenty of booze. From that night on we party hard and often, but your father is diligent, always cautious never to let you catch us in the act of getting high. He makes certain that his drugs and paraphernalia are always well hidden and never brought out until they’re needed. Syringes. An old leather belt with teeth marks on it. A couple spoons, the hollow part blackened, the handles bent for better control, easier balance.
You aren’t supposed to be there.
You are, instead, supposed to be spending the night with a friend. I don’t know the full story, if your friend gets sick or you have a fight and want to come home early, but I remember that you couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve years old, and that we don’t hear you unlock the front door. We don’t hear your footsteps on the stairs leading to the living room where your father and I sit on the couch beside a coffee table scattered with syringes and booze and little baggies of heroin and coke. I’m already deep on the nod, melting into the couch. Your father has just tied off his arm, biting down on the leather belt with his teeth, searching for a vein. He slips the needle in and presses the plunger. Blood slides down his forearm, and you drop the backpack that’s hanging from your shoulder. It hits the floor and a pair of pajamas with little blue flowers on them tumble out. Your eyes meet with your father’s and I lower mine.
“Baby,” he says. “I’m sorry. Come here.”
He tries to get up from the couch but falls back. He tries again and succeeds this time, though he’s shaky on his feet. You run to your room, slam and lock the door. Your father weaves down the hallway, calling your name, and when I hear you crying, I pick up my cigarettes and leave. There is no excuse, accidental or otherwise, for an adult to use narcotics in front of a child, and my presence alone that night makes me complicit in your addiction today.
I am and am not guilty.
I am and am not responsible.
Jump in time. Fast-forward a few years. Your father is pulled over for a broken taillight and ends up arrested for possession and distribution of narcotics. By no means is this his first run-in with the law. Once, traveling through Texas, he’s busted with two kilos of heroin and spends four years in the state prison in Huntsville. This time the judge sends him to Glen Helen in San Bernardino County. One day, in another life, I will find myself speaking to the convicts here about drug and alcohol abuse.
In his mid-forties, he is, like myself, no longer a young man, and while serving the first of his two-year sentence he suffers a massive heart attack. The doctors save him with bypass surgery, and I’m sure they warn him that if he uses drugs again it will be his last heart attack. But when has the fear of death ever stopped an addict? Certainly it’s an answer to the end of the misery called addiction and all the shame and anguish and self-loathing that’s killing us anyway.
Your father used to say, “You can always put more in but you can’t take it out,” which means the wise addict, if there is such a thing, is cautious. You know when you buy Jack Daniel’s that you’re getting eighty proof whiskey. On every bottle there’s a government seal stating exactly that, but there is no quality control when you buy dope. One day your dealer might sell you weak or bunk product. A week later it might be stellar, so the same amount you shot last time might kill you now. What happens, though, when you have a weak heart and any dose, even a small one, is enough to put you under? That’s the case with your father inside of a month after he’s released.
Here’s the ugliest part.
Here’s the scene where trauma gives you a choice. Break the cycle or join it. I can’t and won’t blame you, as I have no right, because I made the wrong decision, too, when I was young and lost my brother. My sister did the same and also found herself an early grave.
That little team, just your father and you, it’s true. He had only you. All other family ties had been severed long ago, and so who do his so-called friends phone when they can’t revive him? Not the paramedics. Paramedics bring police and police make arrests. Take him to hospital? That’s also risky. Besides, by then, he’s probably stopped breathing. Instead, like good junkies concerned only for themselves, they phone you and then grab their dope and get out of whosever house or apartment they’re in. I’m told the message is brief.
“Come get your father.”
They give you an address and hang up. I have a hard time believing the caller would tell you he’s dead. I don’t suppose it’s fair to generalize, but junkies are notorious for being liars, cowards and thieves.
So let me add it up.
You’re just a kid the first time we meet and your father and I go on a run. Then he spends two years in prison while I begin the arduous struggle to get clean and sober. That should make you about seventeen or eighteen when you pull up to the house or apartment in your father’s old truck, the one he gave you after he lost his license and went to prison. Maybe you’re thinking that he’s passed out drunk. Possibly you detect the panic in the caller’s voice and already suspect the worst. I doubt it, though, and it has nothing to do with your youth. Old or young, clean or dirty, even the most jaded among us cling to hope where we know there is none.
I understand you go there alone.
I understand the door is left unlocked, so all you have to do is turn the knob and walk inside and this is how you find him, sprawled out on the couch in the living room, his face blue, his limbs already stiffening. I don’t know if you drew back in horror or kneeled by his side and cried and held him and kissed his cold skin. That’s as far as I let imagination invade this private and heartbreaking moment of your life.
Under your picture on Facebook, in the reply box, I write that it doesn’t have to be this way, knowing full well my words mean nothing. I can hear you laughing. I can see you shaking your head and saying:
“You motherfucker, of all people, slamming dope with my dad and now this shit. Fuck you. Of course it has to be this way. How could it be any other?”
And maybe you’re right. Maybe this motherfucker might as well have snapped your picture. Fuck his laments, you think. Fuck his apologies. You hate the hypocrisy of reformed addicts telling you that the dope will stop working one day, that it always does, and in the end you’ll be left with nothing but misery. That you’ll do things you never imagined yourself capable of doing. Sell your body. Rip off friends and whatever family you might still have left.
This is only the beginning.
What the older recovering addict has to offer the younger, active addict is the hope and promise of change through example and really nothing more.
I despise him, too, but at least for today he is as dead as your father, and hopefully he will remain dead, this old junkie staring into the photo of your glossy red eyes, who long ago might just as well have passed that glowing hot pipe to you.
From Apology to the Young Addict by James Brown. Used with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2020 by James Brown.