The first time I taught Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson’s collection of stories about drug use, I began by playing my students “Heroin” by The Velvet Underground. The book begins with an epigraph from the song which also lends the text its title. We sat in our small, ground floor classroom, a window-less space tucked against a stairwell and listened in silence. This also happened to be parent’s weekend, so among my twelve freshman students were sprinkled some middle-aged faces. I remember feeling nervous as the song began, embarrassed at the lesson I’d planned, the behavior I seemed to be embracing.
The song begins so simply, the drumbeat, slow and regular, and the strumming, the almost windy space of where it was recorded leaking through onto the track. Lou Reed’s voice with its staggered, “I . . . don’t know” coming in to tell the story of the trip that happens not once but again and again. His voice, plaintive at first, but you can also hear a wetness in his mouth, the salivation before ecstasy, the moored before the unmooring. And then, slowly, it begins to build, and to quicken and tighten and tense, and you’re up there, you’re really up there on the precipice of the sound and the joy and the high, and every time I hear it my own heart feels like it’s confronting a space familiar, yet un-breachable, and I’ve been here before, but I’ve never really been here, and it’s something—it’s something so exact and so precarious and so honest—and then, as quickly, it’s gone, and I’m sloping down, the rubber tourniquet falling loose around the upper arm and I’m sinking down, down, only to build again, slower this time but steady.
“Heroin, be the death of me / Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life.” We hear the small laugh, the self-conscious escape of ambivalent feeling from Reed’s throat. The melody an infection, and an invitation, or is it a warning? Can we love something awful? Something foul and dangerous and temporary?
I feel like we do it all the time. Chancing pain for pleasure, an act to the heart of being human.
I get the students to talk about how the song creates the feeling of high, of transcendence, how it builds to a blinding epiphany, a loss of the self, and that it also always drops you cold, screeches and whines and then ends. It ends. There is no permanence in this version of grace.
I was 28 at the time, and I can recall two of the parents’ reactions, the blonde, put-together woman who spent the majority of class, like her daughter, on her cellphone, and then the handsome father of a handsome son who told me after class that he had liked their music back in the day, that he thought it was good for the students to hear these things, and I remember feeling both shyness and relief, and yet still, the lingering pang of embarrassment, or was it shame?
It wasn’t the drug use itself that I was embarrassed at having broadcast for the students and their parents, but whether they could sense my longing for Reed’s experience. The grit and risk and precipice of being high, a feeling made holy by song, so far exalted from the baseness of my regular, everyday life filled with its PowerPoints, and dry erase markers, and well-brushed teeth. In this bland, unadorned classroom, could anyone see my desire for blood living? For ecstasy, however falsely imagined, however romantically wrong?
I have never shot heroin, and listening to this song, I cannot help but feel jealous. Even with the screeching guitar and discordant noise, I am jealous. See those who truly lived. The sound of Reed’s voice, an access point to all that I have lost by never trying.
The first time I snorted Adderall, it was the summer after my freshman year of college. Everyone was back in Maryland for the summer. I was 18 and with some friends at my ex-boyfriend’s house, hanging out in the backyard. His parents were out of town, and as part of a game whose details I cannot remember, we had all gotten naked and were sitting around on patio furniture, talking and drinking steadily.
At one point, another friend of a friend showed up, and he brought with him his prescription of Adderall. My only experience with drugs at the time was the occasional joint at a party. What compelled me to snort the crushed orange pills that day is blurry, but likely the result of being drunk and the fearless curiosity of youth. Any experience, I felt then, an experience worth having.
I snorted the lines and what I remember next is crawling through bushes sensing I was being attacked by bees. Then I was in the kitchen, alone, looking through the windows to the backyard, watching these people I considered my close friends but feeling great alienation and taking a knife and making two twin slices on my left forearm.
I remember the blood on my skin, and the excitement of seeing it all red and pure against the taut flesh. What was more honest than this, I thought. My animal self, unveiled. An intensity of feeling inflating my brain, filling the cavity of my skull nearer to bursting than ever before, and I was alive. I had never been more alive.
A couple months later, I was buying the friend’s entire prescription and every weekend, myself and one of my roommates in New York would swallow or snort 30-60 milligrams and let the adrenaline of euphoria light up our teenage hearts.
Together we would listen to music and smoke endless packs of cigarettes and sit in the window seats of our corner apartment that overlooked St. Mark’s Place and Thompkins Square Park. Friends would come over and we would play our favorite game which was to tell everyone (friends, strangers, acquaintances, whoever was with us) why we loved them. The gorgeous sculpt of their jaw lines, the soft skin of the backs of their hands, the tenderness and thoughtfulness and humor they exhibited daily—all qualities true but indistinct in our ecstasy—and our pupils would dilate like fishponds, and our hearts would rise and rise until it felt like they were just beneath our throats, ready to escape into the heavens, and we would tell each other how we felt so much ourselves it could not be real. Then the song would change, and we’d swallow the spit in our throats and begin again. Light the cigarette, gaze at the street, and glow, appear to glow, as the pills lit up constellations of joy in our brains.
To this day, I have two thin, white scars on my left forearm. These twin thin ghosts of my youth, I am embarrassed by how much I love them. I am embarrassed to admit the pride they can make me feel.
Idiot, I think to myself. You believe that you’ve really lived.
I have never written about drugs in my fiction or otherwise, and I think this is because, like sex, drugs invite a certain precarity. There is vulnerability in exposing experience, not just for the possible judgment of the uninitiated, but more so for seeming like someone whose most profound life experiences were manufactured, wholly neurological, a science experiment within the brain. If A then B, then B, then A.
I remember being at a party in my mid-20s, gushing about my experience with Adderall, and then going to get a drink from the kitchen only to overhear a boy making fun of me for what I’d been saying. A show-off. A fake. A loser. Listen to this woman brag, as if she’s been anywhere, known anything.
To talk about drugs, one must have credibility, have gone without something—food, home, family, trust—all in order to get the necessary high. One must have sucked dick or worse, and myself, the closest I came was making out in a bathroom stall with a dealer, inviting another dealer home in exchange for free drugs, and then changing my mind when he grabbed my ass and making him leave, and him leaving, not raping me when he so easily could have, and even this, later, my clean escape, enough to make my stomach twist in recall.
It’s also, I realize, not true that I’ve never written about drugs. I wrote a story last year about two boys who were friends, and one was in love with the other, and the boy he was in love with began using and the other boy let him. He let him because he wanted to stay close. He wanted to hold back the hair. He wanted to feel the skin against his own, even if that skin belonged to an emptied mind. The sober boy wasn’t bad, per se. He just wanted to be loved. There were ambivalent feelings. There always are.
Although I’ve never written down my memories with drugs, at times they form a flipbook in my thoughts. Like the memories of my sexual conquests, the scenes and images appear again and again. Synthetic happiness eclipses. Or maybe it’s all about desire. I want to feel it all. I want to be wanted with the pure abandon of a body succumbing, and I want to be the body changing, the heart filling up with blood, the pleasure seeping everywhere, the strings tuned in harmony, the soulful, tearing yowl.
When the Adderall or the coke or the x were good, it was always closely linked to the music that I would listen to, the immersion of the self in the moment, the way the heart would all of a sudden consume everything else, the notes rising from the belly to the face to the tips of the fingers to God.
It begins with a flushing of feeling, and then you are so ecstatic that there is little to do to contain this wave of brilliant care for each and every thing you see and person you know, friends or strangers, or the view out the window, or the texture of the brick ledge on which you sit, and everything is worth interrogating and you are invincible, there is no need to eat or fear because as long as there are humans and cigarettes and drinks to comfort you when the darkness appears, why what can this be if not the top of the world? Though to be honest, each next peak is ever so gradually shorter, smaller, more worrisome, and the heart, she will always holler for more.
Once, writhing in ecstasy on a picnic table outside of a house on Long Island, I cried out, “Welcome to the vainglorious world of dreams,” and do I remember this or was I simply told about it later? Then we drove to the gas station to buy cigarettes and we listened to the Skygreen Leopards and the song was a hurricane of joy and my fingers and hands were my own and no one else’s.
Another time during the summer in the peak of the Adderall bounty, a friend and I were in the Outer Banks, staying with my parents and we swallowed our milligrams and drove around the island in the dark of night and lay on a picnic table by the place where the ponies roam, and we left the car running, the door open so we could hear Holopaw and Ugly Casanova and mold Isaac Brock’s broken moans to the wet, black pupils of our eyes. Later, at dawn, we sat in the lifeguard tower and watched the ocean, and as fraudulent as my sober mind might say those feelings were, I cannot fail to believe that this was a height, a true experience, a dangerous dip into allowing the self whatever it wanted, however neon and sublime and untrue.
When I could no longer get my hands on Adderall, I switched to cocaine. This began when I was 19 or 20, still a student, and continued till after graduation when I was working as a production assistant for film and television. I cannot remember how this transition happened, or how I became acquainted with dealers though I would guess that it must have been through friends. I had two primary dealers through the three to four years when I was actively, albeit, recreationally, using. I would buy $20 bags because it was what I could afford. It was only on the weekends, except for the rare during-the-week occasion (on one of which I signed up for a gym membership that I never used), but it was mostly a thing I did at night with alcohol and other people.
The first dealer I used was a young, Latino guy, a boy really, whose name I cannot remember. I believe he was still in high school when I knew him, and we would meet in Thompkins Square park or on the street and I can remember asking him about school and about his love life. He had a girlfriend, and he was slim, short in stature. He was a child, I realize now, though I didn’t think about it then.
The coke was always shitty, but I didn’t know any better. I was a terrible companion when I was on it. Constantly in the other room, constantly shifting conversation, constantly asking questions and barely listening to the answers, licking my lips and biting my lips and wanting more and more. It wasn’t really fun, and yet it felt necessary. When I knew I was about to get some, before the first line, my body would mimic all of the sensations of having it in my blood. The eyes wide, heart racing, bowels active. The moments before using the same as the moments after, what should have told me my higher plain was pure physiology.
The second dealer I found was Wilson. I was living in Brooklyn at this point, and he would drive to my apartment and pick me up and we would ride around the block in his car. He was older than us, maybe in his mid to late thirties and he had a shaved head. Sometimes, his fiancé would ride along. One time I invited him to a friend’s house, and I asked him questions about dealing and what it was like, and how it felt, and he didn’t answer any of them, but instead said sexually explicit things to me in Spanish which my friend David translated for me later on.
No matter the risks I took, my privilege let me remain unharmed. Never charged, never caught, I slipped in and out of my experimentation unscathed. My great reckoning with ecstasy, on paper, nothing more than an upper-middle class white woman’s years-long playdate with uppers.
Even the memory of the high ought to be occluded by this reality. The authenticity I desperately sought, clouded by the knowledge that so much of the pleasure I exalted was chemical, was air, was crust caught in the pathways of my nose, was the willfully unacknowledged suffering of others. That of course the well-off, the protected, the white, experience drugs as everything else, most often warmly, safely, with an exit other than death or ruin.
And yet still, at times, my memory protests, swears, shouts that once I knew I was more than myself. That this is what drugs do, they make us more than ourselves, whoever we are, though maybe in the end, they show us we are less.
There is a paradox in believing that abandoning oneself to drugs, to heroin, to want and to ache is the truest kind of living. How can something which alters our brains offer real truth? And yet, it is the abandonment. The utter betrayal of normative existence, the ruddy and the disgusting, the men and women I see creeping through the busted-out windows of the abandoned building on the end of my block here in Texas, and are they really living, or am I? Or is it Lou Reed offering us the euphoria in sound, the vicariousness of his experience, and not dying young, but getting to grow old? Or is it Cobain, burning up so we can listen to the artifact, thrumming our bodies against the sound, trying to lick a taste of what it feels like to be that alive from his ecstatic and staticky corpse?
The black cloud began to appear even during the first months of using Adderall. The black cloud was what we called it when the peak was waning, and you knew that a depth of sadness was coming and that each time the depth got deeper and lonelier and that the joy you were chasing was a ghost, vanished in the endorphin-less sobriety of the next day. Just one more song, one more drink, one more smoke. Anything to stave off tomorrow, anything.
Here was the science again, the reality that the buzz of good feeling was only as real as the chasm that it left in its wake. And yet, what the black cloud obscures is that the devastating waves of sorrow and shame are not only chemical in nature, but sometimes brought on by the rational awareness of what I’d done, or who I had been, or what gruesome shapes my desire had hammered into the night, into the dawn.
One such dark night, my roommates and I held a party at our apartment in what would have been our junior or senior year. Later, as the Adderall wore off, my friend and I walked through the empty streets of Ave A and B for what purpose I cannot now imagine. We passed three young men, and hazy memory serves that they said, coke to us, and we, or I, said, yes, please. And then we were following them back to an apartment a few blocks away.
The young men were our age likely, or even younger, Black, and the apartment they took us to belonged to an extremely thin, white man, likely in his fifties or sixties who, at the time, I simply assumed was dying of AIDS. The apartment was filled with things, furniture, boxes, lamps, statues, cluttered, so it was difficult to walk through, and everywhere you looked there were roaches. Every surface littered with them, they crawled and encroached everywhere, and I remember one of the young men told us sometimes he slept on the floor in this place, and that it was something you got used to, like everything else. The man who lived there and these boys had an arrangement, and I cannot tell you who was exploiting who or even if there was a way to tell amid the squall of desperation and lack and lust.
We went out on the fire escape to smoke a cigarette, and I remember flirting with one of the boys, thinking to get something for free, and only when realizing I wouldn’t, buying a small amount of coke and leaving, walking the blocks home, no longer in the mood.
It was weeks, maybe months, before I could bring myself to touch the drugs (though in the end, of course I did). There was no paradise in this purchase, its visual scar of memory, my longing for the grit of experience received, a reality that cannot be unseen, and yet, wasn’t this what I longed for, the true dankness of want?
The cymbals crash, the noise gets into the track, and all of our desires reap their human cost.
The summer after sophomore year of college, back in Maryland, I worked at a restaurant called the Olney Ale House, and one shift, after the lunch rush, one of the other waitresses there, a woman in her mid-20s, petite, lovely, told me that she had lost the ability to feel natural happiness. She’d had a friend who was a chemist, and for a few years he went about making her perfectly pure molly, and she would take it and take it and take it, and now she cannot feel joy and she must take anti-depressants to get through each day.
That summer my friend and I would drive around our suburb, take New Hampshire Avenue until it became a one-lane road in the country, and we’d listen to The Mountain Goats, and “all you tweakers with your hands out” and we’d feel this was our anthem and it meant something, it really did. But what did it mean, this secret we’d stumbled upon—that real joy could be swallowed in neon gulps? Or were we simply spoiled children, swaddled ugly in manmade waves of unselfconscious desire? Of course, I cannot know the truth because there isn’t one. Only memory, only perspective, only thin, white hieroglyphics carved on the body, familiar routes of memory carved into the mind, raising the pulse, easing the bowels, making harmonic rhythms through the blood.
When I first began to draft this essay, I succumbed to the shame, so that by the end, I was once again embarrassed in the kitchen, lingering red-faced, listening to my idiot-self ranting about the power of the e chord, the way that endorphins can make it hard to breathe, like all the goodness in the universe has lodged itself into the wet place where the body gains a throat. But now I wonder, isn’t this all a question of experience? Of what we tell ourselves life experience need be, or the juvenile dream of it, from which some of us escape lucky and the lucky ones, unsure what to do with the remembered oranges and reds and greens, we lie in the rocky bed of ambivalent memory and count the available stars above us.
The bible proof of this shimmer is Jesus’ Son. The car crash, the crushed bunnies, the mangled football players, the endlessly squalid hotel rooms, the black eyes, the death and death and death and suffering and all of it so bright and specific and lived, and tell me, can anyone read this book and not feel a tinge of shameful jealousy that this dayglo and fortified living was survived by another and not themselves? Can we tell ourselves that one kind of living is the same as any other? Or is the secret of it the survival. What some, not all, mark as achievable.
Lately, I’ve begun teaching poetry to incarcerated teenagers at the Denton Juvenile Detention Center. Last week, I had the kids write poems using a series of rhyming words, practicing rhythm. When it came time to share, one boy explained that he couldn’t share, and instead, he slowly ripped out the page of penciled text from his notebook and tore it into little pieces. When I asked what he’d written about, and why he destroyed it, he said it was glorifying bad behavior, and they’re not allowed to do that. “We’re not allowed to glorify selling drugs. Drinking,” he said. The reasons why they’re inside. Of course, I said. But there’s a way to write about your experience without doing that. He balled the little scraps of paper into his fist. He nodded. But I was lying, wasn’t I?
In Johnson’s story, “Happy Hour,” the protagonist, Fuckhead, wanders seeking absolution, a beautiful teenage belly dancer, money for drinks, he reflects: “The weather outside was clear and calm. Most days in Seattle are grey, but now I remember only the sunny ones.”
Is it our fault that we might remember both at once? A lingering joy in shame. A smear in what was then our happiness. That even if we understand the falsity in a fresh line’s glory, we might also remember its peak?
What is the difference between true sunshine and the artificial dayglo light of four am? What we’re so often drawn to, the gray line at the border between all things righteous and unclean.
Eventually, my friends began to think that my usage was a problem. Not that they didn’t go for the occasional high, but there was something persistent and desperate in my desire, and it became increasingly worrying and less fun to be my friend. At one point a letter was written to me with cutout photos of my close friends, telling me they thought I needed to stop, that they were worried I was taking things too far.
My last six months in New York, before I moved to Austin, I lived in a two-story loft in Bushwick with seven other people. There was one night when one of our roommates began doing lines of coke, and when I tried to join, our other roommates would not let me. I remember being furious at them, telling them I would rather have speed than friends and meaning it, and still they didn’t give in to me. The following day, what I’d felt and what I’d said became clear to me, and it was then that I first decided maybe I should stop. Leaving town helped, of course. As did recognizing the overwhelming pain of the comedown. The shame of the self that I was to others, if not yet visible to myself.
In the years since, those times when I’ve slipped up, let drunkenness and opportunity take me away, I find myself in the moment grasping at the guitar, the memory of the waver of Reed’s voice, the insane dream of Fuckhead’s painted living, and each time, the reality, whatever was beautiful and stunning about that initial feeling is gone. At least for me. The bad creeps in so quickly. The wet shame of my pounding heart and head. My intense mourning of how a cigarette used to taste and no longer does.
Still, nights I’m drunk, lonely, feeling old, walking the dog in the dark alone, letting the cold keep me moving, headphones in and Jason Molina’s alcoholic croon razoring the tissue of my heart, I’m young again and reveling in the glorious sadness, so different from the sadness of real life, the sadnesses of adulthood I’ve come to learn are true, unbending, physical.
In the end, what am I left with but my sober daydreams of what was. The fantasy of human frailty as a thing of beauty. The song that sounds like heroin, and the romantic dream of suffering that I still, even now, can’t help myself on occasion from believing.
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