Not long after I got sober for what I hope and pray is the last time, I heard that comment from woman in Houston. It struck me as apt a metaphor for the craziness of drug-taking as I've ever heard. Part of why I loved her line was that she threw no stones at drugs or herself. It was what it was. 77
She also said, "Drugs were created to help people. To heal us. Drugs can be our friend. But they weren't ever supposed to be our ONLY friend."
Gosh, it sounds so simple when she puts it that way...
Once upon a time, opiate addiction and fame curled up in me like poisonous snakes intertwined, awaiting the dawn: Neither was particularly fond of the other, nor did they want to be the first to stir. They were just waiting out the chilly night together.
In the lurching, lying phases of realizing the extent of my addiction, I once experienced a singularly rare moment of both bravery and honesty. Alas, though it was a bold stroke, it was also a doomed one, and I'm more than a little lucky to've lived through it long enough to make a real stab at recovery.
You see, I recognized that my my madness was entirely drug-induced yet still had an absurd desire to orchestrate survival on my own terms. This led to my decision to seek the services of a physician who was supposedly an "addiction specialist", one who treated "other famous people", one with a keen understanding of the peculiar nonstop scrutiny to which we, the famous - and often the infamous - are subjected. My contact spoke assuringly. "He works WITH you."
That alone should have sent me running for the hills. Since I had experienced actual "quality" sobriety, knowing just how gutted I was by that point, I should have looked dimly at any treatment plan that gave me any say.
Before the death march of my last relapse began, I had been sober for almost eight years. Yet, I'd somehow forgotten that short cuts don't exist. Flat out, the odds are vastly in favor of the drugs being the final victor. At least for those as far gone as I was.
It's taken upwards of eighteen years for me to see how pathetic it was to believe that might work, and at the same time, I finally have enough empathy for my own situation - and that's a long time to be dangling on a hook - to even be able to tell about it now.
A chorus of warnings were nearly audible from the moment I walked in that damn doctor's office: The oily smile that stayed put, even when I surprised myself by actually telling him the enormous quantity of extra strength Vicodin I took in a day. "I'm sick. No. I'm dying. I can't do this by myself", I admitted.
Without missing a beat, he began to recount for me his shiny clientele. Although I had a hunch some of these people were addicts, some were a shock. It should have made me feel better, I thought. All these huddled masses yearning to be free - of the same monkey on our backs.
Although anonymity is part and parcel of a certain successful program, apparently it didn't exist in his world, because, without naming names, I guessed every single person he mentioned without any difficulty.
As his assistant entered the room, this doctor began to scribble on a prescription pad, telling me, "You'll have to trust me when I tell you this medication will work for you, taken as directed."
A snorting sound left my mouth before I could stop myself. It was a laugh. It was also derisive and mostly at myself. Yeah, I thought. That whole "taken as directed" thing's really worked out for me, hasn't it?
I didn't look at the paper as he pushed it across the desk from me in exchange for an enormous amount of money agreed upon in advance. He continued, "This may seem like a lot..." I thought he meant the money and I resisted the urge to tell him I'd pay double. Instead, I glanced at the prescription to see the word "Oxycontin" written on the top line. As naive as this may sound, I was absolutely blown away.
I hissed the words, "Are you fucking crazy? This'll kill me."
Even as I spoke those words emphatically and sincerely, a little voice in my head was whispering, "Hear the man out. He might know something you don't." It's still astonishing to me that I responded with outrage. It's almost funny. Almost...
Still, the fact that his slippery smile actually broadened might have been a viable homicide defense. He seemed bemused which was only a hair away from being amused.
I recall being uncomfortable with being that outraged on my own behalf. I'd much prefer taking up for another. One of those faux heroic impulses that may, in some crazy way, helped save me on that particular day.
Maybe I sensed how miraculous it was that I even strolled in there that at all, willing to quit, asking for help.
As totally insane as I was, I was also feeling merging terror with that rage. The fact that he was still smiling bespoke his paltry credentials as a human. Screw the medical license.
But because true addiction IS true insanity, i capitulated just as quickly.
As if reprimanding an errant child, I got busy chiding myself for assuming the worst. I mean, was I really in a position to judge the guy? Maybe my crazy had gone full circle: Maybe I was so crazy, I was missing something.
The rest of the conversation was a blur.
Some nutty Lucy/Ethel plan had taken hold in my little head and I barely recall my exit. I somehow found my car beneath the big gleaming Beverly Hills medical building - one that catered almost exclusively to elective surgery and addiction treatment for people with enough money to kill themselves one way or another several times over. Then, I managed to navigate, it seemed, to the opposite side of the world to the hole in the wall pharmacy where he said I'd have to fill the prescription.
Again, this was almost twenty years ago.
Oxycontin was fairly new but, even then, touted as heroin in pill form. No wonder he didn't want me gallivanting into any old chain pharmacy with this wonder drug.
The cast of characters I had to wade through at that drug store was another cue that all bets were off. The good news was that most of the people there were too far gone to notice the famous blonde with big fake tits and a Jaguar conspicuously parked in the 'fifteen minute' space out front.
When the pharmacist met me at the crowded window, I was actually shaking. Without regard to my homies standing nearby, my fellow junkies awaiting their own miracle doses of God knows what, my blurter-outer was working overtime that day. I spoke clearly enough to get everyone's attention. I don't know. Maybe I was hoping someone would waken me.
In full voice, I said, "This IDIOT prescribed Oxycontin for me. To get me off Vicodin. Hell, the Vicodin is killing me. Unless this son of a bitch is in my will - and he's not - why on earth would he give me this?"
This caused a bit of consternation behind the counter and the boss came from behind the cash register to speak in low tones. Before he got very far, I exclaimed, "You guys have to call the police!"
I've had some bright ideas in my time, but rarely timed that well. Parrying my thrust with reason, the man in the white coat, not missing a beat, reminded me in the most soothing of tones, that pressing charges may not have the outcome I desired and that, at any rate, my privacy would not be a thing worth mentioning should this occur. I saw the picture. I was much too IN it, too.
The second pharmacist looked over at me, with a grin identical to the prescribing physician, and simply asked, "Would you like this filled?"
Miraculously, I turned and left the prescription there.
It would be my distinct pleasure to tell you, good reader, that I marched right out of there and into a program of sobriety. As my namesake, Lady Brett Ashley, said at the very end of, "As the Sun Also Rises", "Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?"
My recovery happened eventually, several months later, but not before I suffered great losses, privately and publicly and the public ones, the material ones were, by far, the least of these.
Now then. My level of fame and national treasure status was nowhere near superstar level then or any other time. And if it ever approached it, it was strictly B level, sitcom star stuff. That's neither to elevate or disparage myself. I only bring this up to relay how easy it is to be dying in front of everyone while the fooling yourself mantra repeats endlessly.
The great Steve Earle, who's quit more bad habits than even I can shake a stick at, once said - and please pardon the paraphrasing: "I'm not so arrogant that I think God saved me for something special, but I'm a curious son of a bitch and I wanna know what that is."
Not forgiving oneself is grandiosity in reverse, but it's still there. Imagining that you're the biggest phony, fuck up and worst disappointment of others are just wrenches - albeit heavy and impressive ones - to throw in our own path.
Addiction becomes stealthier, stronger and more cunning the longer it's left to its own devices. Only God and other addicts know what it's like to feel the effects of a single drug so intensely that you swear you'll never "waste" them on actual pain again.
As I lay dying, so to speak, and this may be where this post becomes relevant, I recall the first person who walked out of my life. I loved her very much and she was also the one who stood the most to lose - financially speaking. She just said, "I'm not going to watch you do this to yourself." I'll never forget how much I l cherished her when she turned to leave and then the other feelings I had when I saw the others who stayed. Some genuinely didn't want to desert me, I'm sure. And others, as they say, knew which side their bread was buttered.
My disease brought out the worst in others and if you're half an addict, you can make the same dreadful claim.
Although we fear abandonment, it's exactly what we pray others will have the courage to do, in order that we're pushed closer to that moment of reckoning.
I don't know how far Prince was down that road. Now that the mainstream media is discussing possibilities like a decade old addiction to opiates,
doctor shopping and even the possibility of accidental overdose, in a way, a too familiar way, I marvel that he lasted as long as he did.
Because Prince had a long history of being NOT out of control, I'll venture to say he must've been bewildered as increasing doses were required to get minimal effect. Ah. The betrayal of it all.
Secret keeping doesn't start out to be the dishonest mechanism that fuels active addiction, but it's a learned instinct to anyone who's ever been famous for any reason. Betrayal crops up when there is nothing at all worth hiding. But when actual skeletons begin to inhabit actual closets? It becomes a skill you think you'll die without.
Because Prince had a mystique that morphed fairly easily into hiding what was really happening. After all, this wasn't like Michael Jackson's death which seemed more like deja vu than anything by the time we heard the news.
The wolves are at the door for a long time before most of us realize it. They want to cull the herd of its sick, its weak, its most infirm and what are addicts if not those things, regardless of the songs we write or the jokes we tell?
There is always talk about how these painful, public deaths may shed light on such hidden problems. Perhaps momentarily, that's true, but it rarely seems to last long enough for real change.
The drug companies, for all the kudos and vilification directed at them, have been criminally slow to come up with alternatives to massive narcotics abuse.
Demonizing either end of drug use is an understandable knee jerk reaction, yet things like Ibogaine and other hallucinogens have borne rather impressive results both in and out of clinical settings. Progress coming from strange places is still progress.
We read about how the prison population in the US is at untenable levels. Like New Orleans before Katrina, we can all look up at the ships passing over our heads, muttering about the levees won't hold. But more that that, sadder by far, is the burgeoning number of 'check ins' at our cemeteries.
I haven't got a nice hem on this post. Instead, just a couple of random asides that may or may not stick to the wall I'm hoping we will all look at very soon...
A multi-billion dollar industry devoted to recovery largely relies on recidivism to procure its next batch of clients. I'm talking rehabs. Too many of them are like this.
It literally pays to send folks home with a few months under their belt, and very few of these places have Life Plans. It's worth looking around if you're serious about not dying.
Shame weighs a lot: Fear of losing relationships, jobs, public standing - these seem like silly things to fret about when you're dying of addiction, to say nothing of the fear of detoxing without chemical support.
If you're spinning the chamber and figure the odds low with one bullet making the rounds, I have been there. But know this: I'll bet at least two beloved musicians whose passing broke the heart of the world, thought the same thing before it was their turn.
You'll meet people on the way whose job it is, you think, to help you and they'll let you down beyond your wildest, most paranoid imagining. But I can promise you, too, that you CAN get help from some extremely unlikely places.
I used to think alcoholism/addiction was a disease if someone else had it and nothing short of a moral failing if I did. That, in itself, is a tantrum-level hubris.
It's that rarity among diseases in that, to ensure adequate treatment, it must first be self-diagnosed. But by the time most of us are wondering if we have a problem, chances are that we're well on our way.
Not incidentally to all of this do I need to mention the person who, at the beginning of this post, told me about the Doctor Feel Good from whom true angels delivered me: He was famous, too, and universally loved.
He had never made a real run at sobriety. I think it enticed and frightened him simultaneously. But every now and then, he'd ask me about it. How crazy is this? You see, we met at one of those fancy, kill you thirty grand at a time rehabs and both of us left, determined to do it our way.
Between us, we might've had ten days sober, but, by God, we had big plans.
He died of an overdose before those beautiful plans came to be.
Like Steve Earle, I know I'm not still here because I'm anything like special. But maybe I'm afraid of ending like Lot's wife: I'm in no mood to turn around and look behind me. It's enough to know I got out of that burning building alive.
I'm sure this disease has killed better people than I can dream of becoming. Nothing here has been written to compare myself to them or anyone else. I have written this in hopes that even one person might simply identity.
And if any of these words pull one person closer to staying in this life after all, if it gives one person hope that it can be done, then do me a large: Just give me a heads up. But mostly? Pass it on.
So one kind of circle, the kind that only stops when it's taken our last breath, can finally be broken.