Long before I got clean I made a trip back home to Boston.
I had spent time romancing thoughts of the familiarity of home, creating ideas about love from family and friends that soothed me. Armed with my imagination, I ran back. This is what I always did. When life got too big, when my footing felt unstable, when anxiety and insecurities threatened to swallow me, I ran.
I always ran. Eight years before my journey home I had run to California. There had been no plan then, either. No strategy. Just an obsessive desire not to lead the life my parents seemed to envision for me, and a reckless dash. Rather than fight to find a way in, it was simpler to find a way out.
I discovered heroin in Venice, California, and becoming a dope fiend was another way out. All my friends there harangued me about my addiction. They blamed heroin for the loss of my job, my home, my car, my character. Their disappointment weighed on me, though I had hesitated to believe their accusations.
Now similar thoughts had been looping through my head for weeks, a sadistic mantra bent on ruining me. You have no home, no job, no money, no car. You lost it all. You fucked up your life. None of your friends trust you. You have nothing. You are nothing.
The thoughts—naked, raw, accurate—were a persistent white noise, like whistles only dogs can hear. I raked my hands through my bleached, cropped hair and jammed my fingertips on my temples until they went numb, until I was able to reduce the volume. But it never ceased completely.
The only way I found to make the thoughts stop completely was to shoot heroin. But it was impossible to maintain the kind of high that stopped the thoughts altogether. I knew this because I had been trying for two years. The first few moments after a fix were blissfully silent. But eventually the cycles of thought remembered their job, and what began as a dull murmur increased in tempo and kicked into gear. I had no luck trying to out-high my thoughts.
I do my best thinking when I am moving. So one evening in I got on my bike. I rode along the Venice boardwalk to the swing set on the beach, south of Rose. Crackheads crouched in alleys firing up pipes, their profiles framed in an orange halo. Homeless men and women rustled in storefront doorways, gated for the night. On the street corners, gangsters nodded their heads and made silent cash transactions.
This was the summer of 1993. Venice Beach had been my home since 1985. When my boyfriend and I moved here from Boston I was barely twenty. We had struggled to carve out our lives and survive our volatile relationship. But our immaturity and misguided emotions, plus alcohol and drugs, messed up an already sketchy situation. My boyfriend moved on to Hollywood, seeking escape from violent arguments, broken windows, and drunken, remorseful phone calls. Now, eight years later, I was alone in Venice, left to sweep up the shards of myself. By this point I was accustomed to living my life in pieces. I was twenty-eight.
I spent my days crouched over tinfoil, smoking heroin. To go outside risked seeing people I knew. Having to talk with them and act as if my life was normal felt awkward, so I ventured out only at night. I rode my bike through neighborhoods, picking flowers and watching people through windows. What I saw in these homes already felt foreign to me: laughing, eating, drinking—It was if I was watching a television show.
With my bike basket full of stolen flowers, I rode to the swings at the beach. I tossed my bike on the sand, left my shoes by the back tire, and hopped on a swing. Back and forth, back and forth. I rose higher. The distance of the dark horizon and the enormity of the sea terrified me. I felt tiny and inconsequential. The swing jerked when I reared back and I let my hair drag on the ground. My days were comprised of repetitive actions, and different types of movement provided me with a sense of courage. Back and forth. This movement convinced me I had to make a change.
Still, though I knew there was a correlation between all my losses and all the drugs, I was hesitant to lay the blame on heroin. I kept telling myself that I had made the choices to quit working, to give up my apartment and car. It infuriated me when friends said drugs had ripped these choices from me. To me, it felt as if they merely slipped away, like unwanted pounds.
But I had nowhere to go. I was stuck and strung out. Such facts were acceptable, even fine, when I was high. They were abysmal when I was not.
I was incapable of making decisions. That night on the swings, I was plagued by a familiar question: What are you going to do? Usually I had no answer. But with the surf pounding in the distance, the blood rushing to my head as I swung back and forth, I had a moment of clarity, a brief epiphany in my heroin haze: You could go home. You could return to Boston.
A return would mean admitting defeat. But maybe the presence of family and friends and my old city would give me a chance—a slight chance, but a chance—to return me to my former self. My former self had succeeded at things: moving across the country and creating a life. I had worked at Slash Records doing college radio and press promotion for a few years. Then I had moved on to an assistant position, helping to manage bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Dickies, and Thelonius Monster. I had accomplished things. I was somebody. I told myself it was possible to recoup my losses.
I returned home, questing for love and redemption. I failed to realize I was already committed to a love that would trump all others.
In order to do the most accurate and thorough job with this piece of writing I recently contacted many people who were a part of my life during this period. Many are still a part of my life. Some chose not to return my calls. Some have died due to their own addictions. Some eventually made it out intact, like me. My parents obliged my requests for help during this period, although these are not times they are fond of remembering. Anyone’s memory is far from infallible. And through the lens of a dope fiend, memories and situations are often even more so murky.
But these are my memories, the ones that I own.
I rode my bike back to the couch where I slept and where I was tolerated. I packed the remnants of my life into boxes. I scurried to people’s houses and dropped things off. I called my friend, Tyron, to sell an extensive, diverse record collection that had taken many years to acquire. It was gone in less than an hour.
Tyron, one of my closest allies and an occasional boyfriend, was a deejay for clubs that we frequented in Hollywood. I had introduced him to the world of punk rock, and he had schooled me on hip hop. We made heaps of cash slinging weed to aficionados in both realms. Whenever he pulled up in front of my house his white van reverberated with the raps of Ice Cube or DJ Quik, and emanated the aroma of chronic green bud. Ty was original Venice, with sleepy light brown eyes, caramel skin, and thick dreads to his waist. He commanded respect and admiration from everyone in town. His physique was toned from daily surfing and his demeanor was reserved. I never saw him angry or judge anyone, which worked in my favor.
“Lisa, I could just hold on to these records for you instead of buying them?” Ty proposed. But I needed money more then I needed records. Ty palmed me $500 and drove away, uncomfortable with the transaction. He knew exactly where that money was going.
I used it to buy heroin for my trip. And I visited a shady doctor in North Hollywood. After a brief consultation I left his offices with a drug called Buprenex. It was supposed to stave off heroin cravings when injected into fatty tissue. It was not legal, not FDA approved. But then, neither was heroin.
A part of me knew that I was going to have to kick, that I couldn’t carry on in this fashion back in Boston. This is the odd duality that plagues an addict: I knew it was in my best interest to get clean and I believed I could actually do it—especially when I was high. But when the heroin was actually subtracted from the equation an insurmountable panic would kick in. Then my intentions would dissolve.
The idea of going home and the familiarity I believed would carry me was far from what I found. I failed to comprehend that it wasn’t where I lived, or the people that surrounded me, that was the problem.
I called my mom for a plane ticket. I blindsided her. She fired a line of legitimate questions regarding responsibilities and finances. “Aren’t you working?” she asked. “I thought you were cleaning houses for the bands you were working for? How are you paying rent? How can you have absolutely no money?”
I had recently received a substantial amount of money from a car accident in Hawaii that had occurred a few years earlier. Most of it had dwindled away—in $200 increments a few times a day—to my dealer. When the money started to run low, I grew frantic with greed to fund my growing habit. An acquaintance proposed a shady drug deal in Mexico. All I had to do was provide the initial investment. In desperation, I had loaned him my last ten grand.
So now I had no money. I couldn’t provide any logical answers for her. I could only muster up tears and desperate pleas. “Mom, you have to help me. I am in trouble. I will explain later,” I cried. But later was an incalculable distance away. I evaded questions about what my life had been reduced to. I never admitted to using drugs. And if the subject was even hinted at, I lied.
Lies and fabrications fell easily from my mouth. The lies were all I was made up of, and they moved my life forward.
So Mom bought the plane ticket and I ran from Venice. On the flight, while mulling over my current condition, I searched for reasons. I found fault in others and in situations and circumstances. I did not accurately tally the columns of cause and effect. I preferred to place the problem outside rather than inside. And drugs assisted me in this endeavor.
When I began to feel that maybe heroin and I might be the problem, I quelled the thoughts by shuffling off to the cubicle bathroom in the back of the plane to fix. Back in my seat, I nodded out. People moved away. It must have been apparent to everyone that something was terribly wrong with me, but a subject best avoided. I missed my connecting flight because I was intent on finishing my dope in the airport restrooms. I somehow believed that if I depleted my heroin supply, my problem would be eradicated as well.
My friend Curtis met me at the airport and whisked me off to begin my clean-up plan. Curtis and I had been close since the early 1980’s. I had revealed portions of the truth to him. Curtis had been a regular visitor to my home in Venice, so he had witnessed some of the debauchery, the drugs, and the chaos. There was always an element of wry aloofness about Curtis; he always appeared more mature and reserved than the rest of us. While we stage-dove into the writhing masses at Black Flag concerts, Curtis, in a trench coat, with his dark, hooded eyes, remained recessed in the back of clubs. Watching intently from the perimeter, he calculated and assessed the shifting gears and interlocking pieces of punk rock. Curtis had since managed to create an empire at Taang Records, reaping a fortune from music no one saw a future in. He was a keen observer who went after what he wanted with silent deliberation. I knew I could rely on him not to divulge my secret.
Neither of us were strangers to the excessive drug use that permeated our circle, but Curtis kept his consumption at bay. He often eyed me from the sidelines as I circled the late-night loft parties, drinking and using people and drugs. Many nights ended at a diner with me sobbing quietly about my behavior over a plate of bacon and eggs. Only to repeat that behavior over and over again.
The suburban estate of Curtis’s parents’ home seemed the perfect place to kick heroin. Under the afternoon sun, the emerald lawn stretched down the hills like velvet and into the woods beyond, not a neighboring home in sight. The silence was tremendous, encircled by a sentry of towering oaks with tawny, tittering sparrows in the branches. But the tranquility lay across me like an itch, woolen quilt.
Inside, the house produced more of the same reactions in me: Whatever seemed good and normal and right made me uneasy. The sand-colored couches in the sunken living room faced smiling family photographs on the walls. The evidence of normalcy—families on vacations or at holidays, spending time together—disturbed me. The rooms upstairs were numerous, with sumptuous beds to choose from, yet in every one I felt like an intruder. A fridge stocked full of food and alcohol was attractive, but the thought of eating repulsed me. Absolutely everything I would need to make this kick successful was at my disposal, but I felt as if I was turned inside out.
“We’ll just knock it out of you with a ton of weed and cocktails,” Curtis laughed. “You got this. The Lisa I know has crazy stamina. You will be back to the old you in no time, three days of hell, and we got this.” I craved to share his enthusiasm, but did not.
The physical effects of kicking heroin were vicious. Every cell in my body felt like an individual, tiny fire, smoldering separately, never in unison. My nose ran and my eyes watered. I alternated between freezing and boiling. Taking a shower hurt; my skin felt raw. The symptoms were like the worst flu imaginable, which wouldn’t be too bad if only I could sleep it off. But sleep in any form, or even just rest, was the last thing my body was willing to participate in.
It was as if my body was throwing a massive temper tantrum. I had stopped giving it the substance it needed, and it was fucking pissed.
Outside, by the pool, the sun above scorched my skin with an icy heat. I shivered uncontrollably, chilled with fever. Desperate for relief, I sunk to the deepest part of the pool. Lying at the bottom, I was tortured by reeling memories of who I had been before heroin.
There had been an invigorating freedom in the punk scene. Having had a fake ID since I was eighteen years old had enabled me to get into all the bars and clubs in Boston. I had waitressed at clubs like the Rathskellar and Jumping Jack Flash, drinking during day shifts and staying into the night for local bands like Ganggreen, SSD, Scruffy and the Cat. The Ramones and The Dead Boys would come down from New York or the Bad Brains and Minor Threat headed up from D.C, and the Boston punks always showed up in force. There was a unity of spirit, and no such thing as the party ending. After the bars closed, many loft parties lasted well into the next day. We roamed the city streets as the sun rose and it felt like the city was ours. The punk scene was brand new; our generation owned it. We weren’t re-inventing hippies or following The Grateful Dead. We manifested our own style and were loud about it. There was power and pride in our uniqueness. We refused to conform and we created our own set of beliefs to live by.
And for a period of time I had carried on with that mindset in Venice. The jobs I had placed me mid-stream into the punk scene in Los Angeles. Every night there was a show to go to: Fishbone, Tex and the Horseheads, The Cramps, Suicidal Tendencies, The Circle Jerks. I toured cross country with some of the bands and saw that even people outside of the big cities were onto this shit. Drug use was practically a requirement, and most of us indulged. But now I was shackled to a habit that I hadn’t even begun to know the intensity of.
Submerged in the deep end of the pool, I begged my mind to give up, to gulp water into my lungs. I simply wished for my life to be blotted out, for blackness. But too scared to actually kill myself, my body revolted from the lack of oxygen and I rose to the surface.
The word HEROIN was like a neon sign when I shut my trembling eyes. The one thing I was denying myself was the absolute only thing I could think of. Any random thought was immediately replaced with a relentless obsession to use. The power of my addiction was staggering. There were brief moments when I endured the physical effects stoically, but my mind continued to be my most violent enemy.
Curtis watched all of this in a detached manner. For three days he tried to feed me, turned down the covers of every bed in the house, and played records at top volume. There was nothing he could do to make it stop.
Frantic, I called my connection in California, pleading with him to relieve the pain, to send me dope, to tell me the secret of how to survive this ordeal.
“It is part of the shit you signed up for when you stuck a needle in your arm,” he said, without sympathy. “We all go through it, over and over again.” He hung up. I could never have imagined that something that once brought only relief could deliver an agony this intense.
Kicking heroin doesn’t take three days, I realized later. It takes a lifetime.
After the debacle at Curtis’s house I wobbled uncertainly through life in Boston. I continued to avoid my parents except for brief, stilted dinner dates. I inflicted most of my drama on my friends.
While the physical effects from heroin withdrawal eventually subsided, the mental part never did. My mind was constantly filled with fond recollections of the sense of ease and comfort that heroin gave me. They teased me relentlessly. They peppered my dreams. These memories caused a pining so intense that it seemed easier to give up and use again rather than continue to deny the urges. Even up against this paradox, I ceased heroin use for a short couple of months.
Denying myself heroin resulted in excessive indulgence of every other substance. My drinking escalated, an attempt to reach the oblivion I had achieved with heroin. Every drink or drug I ingested I did so with one aim: to forget heroin.
I set out to create a sense of normalcy. I landed a waitress job at the Rattlesnake Bar and Grill, minutes from the Boston Common. My friend Amanda left town and I sublet her studio in Cambridge. I gave the impression that I was pulling it all together. But it felt like I was wearing a costume.
One night while drinking kamikazes after my shift at the bar, I succumbed to the prodding urge to use. Fueled with the buzz of alcohol, I got up from barstool, walked the few blocks to the Combat Zone, and copped heroin.
The Combat Zone was rife with nefarious characters and shady nightlife. Drugs, hookers, or Egg foo young were available any time of the day or night. The drugs were always expensive and small in portion there, but this was the least of my concerns. There was no preconceived plan or forethought. There was also no hesitation. While I meandered through the alleys of Chinese restaurants and strip clubs I told myself I wouldn’t allow dope to control me again. I would only use occasionally. I calculated and divided my life up into increments of heroin that I believed I could afford and survive on.
But there was no once. There was no occasionally. That one decision to use would last through the rest of my time in Boston. I traipsed from bars to basements to apartments and lofts trying unsuccessfully to mask my addiction. I relied on the concern and love of friends to insert myself into their lives and take advantage of their kindness.
CK, a dear friend who had come to Venice numerous times, graciously offered her couch, with conditions: “I know you are using. I know I can’t stop you. But you can’t use while you stay here,” she said.
I nodded my head and paged my connection when she left for work. I pilfered through her albums and sold them for dope. I returned later to shoot up in her bathroom. I knew what I was doing, but my only loyalty was to dope.
As the days and hours and moments of that winter stretched endlessly along, I continued to pass boundaries I had vowed not to cross. And I dragged friends across with me, making them hostages. Never did I do so maliciously. But I did so nonetheless.
I hopscotched from home to home, spinning tangled webs of lies and deceit. And because of long-term friendships, love, and alliances formed in our close-knit circle, friends tried to believe my words. But my behavior grew worse and one by one they lost patience.
I avoided contact with my parents at all costs. I checked in with hurried phone calls, but rarely accepted their invitations to meet in person. Disappointing and scaring my friends was one thing, but doing so with my parents was unfathomable.
So I began to spend more time on the streets, which exposed me to dangers that I became enamored with. The chaos and the risks I experienced copping in the projects intrigued and excited me. People there didn’t seem to care if you spent all day chasing a high. People there never appeared concerned for your welfare or your future. And I found an element of peace and comfort in this. I never felt judged by the dope fiends in the projects. There was never a need to offer up an explanation for my behavior. My compulsion was understood and accepted.
One night I brought some random gangster from the Mission Hill projects over to my friend’s loft in the South End. A few days later, the bank called her about some blank checks that they believed were stolen. My “friend” had tried to forge them with her name printed across the top. Before, I had adamantly insisted that my behavior and actions affected only me. This was no longer the case.
My friends entertained notions of speaking to my parents. They tried to understand what had happened to the Lisa they once knew. The Lisa who had moved to California and made a name for herself. The Lisa who was intelligent, witty, and fun to be around. That girl was gone, and her replacement sucked.
I felt untethered to real life. In fits and starts, I tried to create a normal existence: I would waitress here and there. I would clean a house every once in a while. I was even hired at a pre-school, where I stole cash from the owner’s wallet. But I was shadowed by my obsession. I had to use before, during, and after work so jobs simply became a hindrance I chose to abort. People were avoiding contact with me. I wasn’t leaving them any choice.
My plan of returning home was failing. The emotions that had welled up within me when I initially thought of going home were not the ones that I was experiencing. I had only succeeded in confusing and disappointing everyone who cared for me. Soon that would include my family.
My mother had once been my closest ally, an understanding confidante. She comes from an uptight, well-to-do family, and had obediently followed their strict ideals. Always a stunning beauty, thin and regal, she dressed impeccably in the latest fashions. In third grade, I remember clearly, she delivered a report on panda bears to my classroom. My mom breezed into the classroom in a belted, blue plaid pantsuit with bellbottoms and enormous dark sunglasses. A hush descended upon my chattering classmates. She didn’t appear old enough to be someone’s mother. She didn’t even look like a mom. In the same instant I was proud and mortified at her uniqueness.
Trailing the scent of Chanel No. 5, my mom planted a butterfly kiss on my damp cheek, and left my classroom. It was hard to find a correlation between the two of us. I was drab and scrawny; she was rare and extraordinary. She was highly intelligent, well-spoken, and artistic, and these were qualities that she made sure people were aware of. It felt pretty obvious, even at that young age, that I was far from measuring up.
Yet she applauded my individualism. In the late 1980’s, when I was on tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I dragged the band Faith No More to her doorstep. Unfazed by the grime, the stench, and the dreadlocks, she ushered us in and made macaroni and cheese. That same evening, mom welcomed the opportunity to attend her one and only punk rock gig, in a floor-length raccoon coat. The show wasn’t a music experience she would have chosen, yet she rallied in support of me.
My current condition baffled her, though. I ghosted in and out of her home. During phone conversations I was vague and noncommittal. Friends of mine she had known for years lowered their eyes, averting her questioning looks. I didn’t appear to be able to work or support myself for any length of time. I muttered incredible, angry excuses under my breath when money went missing. Any confrontation culminated in me leaving, slamming doors.
“Not a lot was made clear to me,” she told me recently, when we spoke. “I couldn’t figure out why or what you came home for, since you were never at home. I knew something was not right. I was puzzled. It wasn’t yet anger. And I was clueless about drugs.”
Mom had every reason to be puzzled. I was incapable of being honest with myself so it was impossible to be honest with her or anyone. On Christmas Eve of 1993, with me seated in one place, she hoped to find a way for us to connect. We did not.
Her house was in Wellesley, about twenty minutes east of Boston, a snobby enclave of wealthy, blueblood Bostonians, originally settled in the 1600’s. My mother had been raised there so in my junior high years we moved there to be close to her family and within a prestigious school district. Most neighborhoods in Wellesley consisted of stately mansions, proudly solemn in their history. While quaint and tidy, with a back yard brimming with lilacs, mom’s house was backed up to the train tracks and was on a main thoroughfare. But it was still Wellesley.
Although I had spent my final high school years in this house it held few memories. We had relocated so many times that no home held a special place. Scenes from my childhood resembled a flip book—the pages moved rapidly in succession, each an incomplete sketch, each separate.
A few years back my mom had built a small, glassed-in greenhouse off the back of her house. In the black of that Christmas Eve night, snow blanketed the back yard and piled on the roof, stars sparkled through the glass. The perimeter of the room was ringed with all of her plants draped in tiny white lights. Lit candles dripped in the middle of the table around a poinsettia in full bloom.
My guest, Molly, was stunned by the beauty and handiwork of my mom’s simple home. Molly was my latest hostage. Younger than me, she wasn’t part of the older punk rock crew I had run with before I left for California, so my current tainted reputation hadn’t reached her yet. Plus she was game to try heroin, and I was happy to oblige. I had always been boastful about the fact that I only got myself strung out. Now that became another lie.
“I had cooked all day, our favorite holiday dishes,” my mom explained. “I had polished the best silver that I rarely had occasion to use. I anticipated a special, quiet meal for us to enjoy together.”
But expectations and hopes traveled in the opposite directions. I recall barely being able to eat. I nodded out in my plate, piled high with roasted turkey, vegetables, and homemade stuffing. The sounds of clinking silverware ceased. I admonished myself silently. I willed myself to hold it together. Once again, I had overshot the mark and was too high to function. The lies I had to tell, the conversations I had to cease, and the people I had to avoid to protect my addiction were exhausting me.
That evening we drove Molly home in a car filled with embarrassment and rage. Back at my mother’s house, instead of sleeping, I fixed on the floor and wove in and out of consciousness. I smoked cigarettes out of the upstairs window, which she had vehemently forbidden. No one could tell me shit. Somehow I had formed the notion that it was my life and therefore my choice to fuck it up.
Rarely did I consider anyone else’s feelings on the matter. When family or friends attempted to approach me with care and concern they were met with hostility and resistance. Being back in Boston was backfiring. Too many people cared and I was not one of them.
The following Christmas day exploded. My extended family witnessed a horrific showdown between my mom and myself. Nasty words volleyed between us over the festive dinner, about my demeanor and my lack of concern for other people. My mom was still smarting from the previous night’s disaster. She made a snide comment about my behavior and demanded to know what was wrong. Aunts and uncles busied themselves cutting food on their children’s plates. My grandfather looked at her threateningly, and Nana, my grandmother, kept her head down. Driven by guilt and courageous with dope, I flipped out.
“You are such a fucking bitch,” I shouted, “You think you are so smart, that you know everything! So that whatever you are hinting at you believe must be right.”
My accusations held an element of truth. She was right. There was something terribly wrong with me. But rather than admit to anything; I reversed the charges. I stormed off to the bathroom and got high. The incident was never spoken about and I was never questioned directly by the rest of my family. They refrained from discussing ugliness. But my grandparents took pity on me, and chastised my mom for upsetting me. This was precisely the reaction I had sought.
Later that night, the battle raged on. Mom was poking and prodding and needling me, intent on finding evidence from the few clues she had gathered. I laid my final card on the table.
“You want to know where I go? What I do? What I am hiding? Why I always wear long sleeves?” The words thundered out of me.
I yanked up my flannel. The length of my forearm was streaked with fresh red scars. Tears ran down my hollow cheeks. It was out.
Now that my problem was revealed, mom was bent on getting help. She stopped giving me money. She stopped allowing me in her home. She began seeing a drug counselor. I didn’t do shit.
As much I would’ve liked to be clean and free of my addiction, previous experiences at doing so had terrified me. I had little interest in cleaning up. But to appease her, I half-heartedly strolled in and out of a state-funded detox center at Cambridge City Hospital.
The presence of the doctors and nurses there comforted me. The white coats, the clipboards, and the silent shoes made them appear capable and efficient. In the sterile atmosphere with the echoing tile floors, I swallowed their meds and maintained hope for a cure. By this time, I had tried to kick on my own a couple of times, prone on a friend’s couch. Enduring the agony of my thoughts was always too much, though. Healthy foods and lots of liquid were a joke pitted against dope. Dope won every time. So in my mind, the seriousness of my condition necessitated hospitalization.
When I went to this detox center for the third time, I arrived with a scheme. My parents didn’t know I had gone this time, and neither did my friends. My Columbian drug dealer, Elias, did. I had met Elias and his partner on the outskirts of the projects in Jackson Square. Since I appeared more sane and trustworthy than most of their customers after many straightforward drug deals, they allowed me into their apartment to help package up dope. Elias was sloe-eyed, with the gait and stature of a heavyweight boxer who hadn’t been in the ring for a while. His wide open face was splayed with acne scars, and a moustache draped over his thick lips. Over a faux oak table full of heroin, Elias and his partner mumbled in broken English with traces from their native Colombia. They cut the dope and packaged it while I stamped names on glassine envelopes. Names like Deaths Door, Brown Sugar, and Lethal. This was how dealers differentiated their batches. The name of the strongest one could be heard hissing through the projects 24-7. If someone OD’ed on Lethal it was guaranteed to be the most sought after.
It soon became apparent that it wasn’t only my stamping skills that were going to be required. I was going to have to sleep with one of them to further our partnership. As was my tendency, rather than avoid complications I tended to invite them in. So I chose Elias. The one with a wife and a baby.
After a few weeks of carrying on this illicit affair, Elias became horrified at the amount of dope I required to maintain. He was just as strung out as me. But Elias was never sniffling and dope sick. And my use of a needle mortified him because he only snorted it. He was a dealer so he always had it. I always needed it, and my need reeked of desperation.
Regaling me with promises to continue my job as soon as my habit decreased, Elias hauled me off to detox. I only agreed to allow Elias to drop me off as long as he brought me one glassine envelope of dope a day, at visiting hours. Between the detox meds and that small amount I believed I could taper off and get some rest. It was the inability to sleep that had sent me packing every time. When I was awake, so was my head, and all it talked about was heroin.
Anyone who enters a detox harboring a plan such as this really has no business taking up a space. Getting clean always seems most possible when you are high. But once the brutal reality of the kick sets in, the temptation to use becomes monstrous. And most addicts just say fuck it. I always did.
The staff was pleased with my false progress. I was on Day Three. By this point, in the past, I was usually gone. During these stays, however, I had made a friend—a grizzled, diminutive Irish gentleman with a grandfatherly air who was a volunteer counselor. And a recovering alcoholic. As I lay in the plastic bed, he clasped my one hand between his two.
“Lisa, you are not done until you are done. Once addiction takes ahold of you, you will never be able to control it, to manage it, and live a free life,” he said in his lilting Irish brogue. I felt bad that I was being dishonest with him, that I was using a dime a day. But I also thought that perhaps I could prove him wrong. A life completely clean and sober like his was incomprehensible to me. It seemed drastic and absurd. I never even entertained the notion of doing completely without.
The hour before afternoon visits I always panicked at the thought that Elias might not show. I would pace and fret and create arguments in my head to justify my leaving if he didn’t arrive, with my dope in his pocket.
And then Elias showed up at the hospital. With his loping gait and sideways grin, he brought relief. I felt happy, my attitude bolstered by the fact that soon I would be high. Not high enough for the staff to notice, but high enough to last until visits the next day. Elias had brought his baby daughter, and I held her, cooing, after snorting half of the dope.
Elias glanced around, his hands stuffed in his Levi’s. This place made him nervous. My plan made him nervous. I made him extremely nervous.
Standing at the window, his back to me, he muttered in heavily accented English, “Mija, I won’t be back tomorrow. I came for three days. That should be enough.”
My fury was so great that I felt blind. I wanted to beg and plead, but I couldn’t make a scene. He took his daughter and left. I didn’t even think about staying. I didn’t think about being honest or asking for help. I packed and I left.
As I got on the Red Line in Cambridge and crossed over the Charles River I was devoid of emotion. I was in pursuit. I planned and plotted and schemed. I swore to myself that I would only use one bag of heroin and another at night, to sleep. I wanted so badly to believe myself that I ignored any other facts that I had been presented with in the past.
I transferred to the Orange Line in Boston and exited the subway at Roxbury Crossing, the housing projects at the base of Mission Hill. Copping heroin in the projects was tricky at best. I never knew who had the best dope or even the real dope, a gamble every time. As soon as I scored from the same dealer a few days in a row, he would get arrested and the cycle would repeat. I missed the safety of Venice, where I paged my connection and he would meet me. Never bad shit. Never ripped off. Never a shaming exchange of sex for drugs. No hassle. No drama.
But none of these thoughts deterred me from my primary purpose. I slunk through the towering brick buildings, in and out of the courtyards, scowled at by older black women watching their kids play in the dirt. They knew exactly what I was up to. They watched the parade of dope fiends all day and all night.
Cops rolled by in unmarked cars and I ducked into alleys. I was not an unfamiliar face. “What’s a nice, young white girl like you doing down here?” they chuckled. “Get the fuck outta here before something worse than dope happens to you.”
The dealer cycle had shifted, and I recognized none of my usual guys. I settled for some skeezy, relentless youngster who looked and acted just like me. Except his skin was black and mine was white. Our insides were interchangeable.
He promised the good shit and knew a safe place where we could fix. Finding a corner in the projects to fix in was always challenging. No food marts or liquor stores allowed access to their bathrooms. The subway station was taboo; T police roamed them, kicking in doors. In this neighborhood, no one used bathrooms to use the bathroom.
We walked down the length of the projects to the last building on the right. As we climbed the stairs to the alcove beneath the roof, he asked if I had an “outfit.” I did. I had smuggled one with me into detox, just in case. By this time, I had shared needles with a lot people. There was no reason to be picky.
Elias had brought me about twenty bucks every day that I was in detox, money for sodas or candy or cigarettes—or to stash away, like I did. Now I had enough to buy about half a bindle of dope with a bit left over. Maybe I would eat something.
We cooked the dope on the bottom of a torn off beer can. Used some cotton from a cigarette filter to draw the dope up into the needle. And fixed. I had bought the dope so I went first. I remembered peace and silence and oblivion. And nothing after that.
I woke up on the stairs alone. The side of my face was flaked with dried spit, and under my chin was a small puddle. My eyes felt leaden. I could see cigarette butts mashed into the corner of the stairwell, and blackened scuffmarks ran along the bottom of the walls. I rolled onto my back. Gang graffiti riddled the ceiling above. I sat up, spooked by the silence. The sun had sunk a bit lower, and a chill was in the air. My packed bag from detox had been rifled through. My crap was strewn up and down the stairs. My shoes were gone. And the dope I had carefully hidden in my sock was too.
That kid had boned out when I ODed. He took my stuff and my dope. One of the dangers of detox is that your tolerance plummets: It became difficult to calculate how much to use without overdoing it. Many people died from the first shot, fresh out of rehab or jail or prison. Maybe he thought I was dead. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he didn’t care.
The remorse and despair I felt, with the detritus of my life tossed around me, swallowed me whole. My rage was so supreme I couldn’t even bear to cry or scream of feel. Despondent, stumbled down the stairwell and into the courtyard below. Rather than drag my ass back through the projects I headed out in the opposite direction; the thought of seeing people high when I was not made me retch.
I couldn’t tell my mom any of this shit was happening. My friends didn’t want to hear it; they already knew. So I moved onto my final victim in Boston, who knew nothing about what was going on: My father.
My parents divorced when I was nine. In yellowed wedding photos a telltale bump could be discerned beneath the cream colored and beaded wedding gown. They were nineteen and twenty-one when I was born, so the relationship was never mature. And often violent. They were children raising a child.
During the marriage my father and I were distant at best. The air in our home was close with his seething anger, of which I was usually the target. After the divorce, our relationship became even more strained and remote. Now, sensing an advantage, I began to play upon his guilt. I also knew that communication between my parents was practically nil, so I ran with that opportunity.
In Boston the months of February and March are agonizingly cold. The entire city is sick of freezing weather, sick of snow, sick of sleet, and sick of slush. I was no exception. But I was sick with much more. The sky was always shrouded in gray and the streets shone with slick black ice. Car tires roared, spewing dirty chunks of snow.
Sitting on subways, lulled by the motion of the train, I refused to look at the commuters densely packed alongside me. I could no longer conceive of how people led normal everyday existences. They had jobs and homes and friends and family. I used to have all that. Now I had dope.
My eyes watered and my nose ran; my addiction felt transparent and my need palpable. I never wore makeup anymore. Dressed in piled layers of leggings and T-shirts, an oversized flannel under my leather jacket, a beanie, and scuffed Doc Martens, I wiped my mittened hand across dry, cracked lips and lowered my eyes. The homeless people posted up in the station haunted me. I knew I was close.
I began to insinuate my way into my father’s life. I would call him with a fabricated problem and ask for help. We met on subway platforms because he didn’t want his wife, Carole, to know he was giving me money. On the way to meet my dad I attempted to act normal, but I was always dope sick and fiending. In my reflection of the subway window, I practiced wearing a casual face. It was always difficult to look at my father straight on even when I wasn’t loaded. Standing at slightly over six feet tall, he had the bearing and countenance of an ex-military man. Which he was.
The CEO of a prestigious insurance company, dad dressed in tailored suits and silk ties. He possessed a reserved, distinguished air. His olive complexion was etched by the sun from years on the golf course, and his dark hair grayed at the temples. With penetrating, ice-blue eyes dad peeled crisp $100 bills from his money clip and handed them to me. Dad was a man of few words and guarded emotions. He refrained from questions and felt most comfortable expressing his love in financial denominations.
My father and I were virtual strangers. We had always been awkward and wary of each other. There was no confiding in him. I stepped tentatively around his new life. When visiting his home, I never knew if I should take my shoes off or not. As the oldest child of his four, I had witnessed the worst of my parents’ tumultuous marriage. I could recall sitting at the top of the stairs, six or seven years old, chin in hands, listening to them holler and smash and cry. The gap between us had only widened with time.
I knew he felt guilt regarding those early years, and I set about reaping the benefits of his shame. I also knew that he wanted me to love him and to not alienate me any further. With this knowledge, I trapped him financially.
“Lisa, you would call with the most bizarre, outrageous stories,” he recalls. “Your bike was stolen or your clothes were gone or you owed people money. It was always money you needed. Did I know they were lies? I knew they were not the truth, but you were my child. What was I supposed to do?” My father did what he believed best during this time. Cash was all that was accessible from him, and all I really wanted anyway. Against his better judgment, he met my demands reluctantly.
“Lisa, a father should never have to live through watching his child go down those dark roads,” he said when we spoke recently. “In Okinowa, I brought guys back in body bags. But you were a different type of terror. I would prefer not to revisit these memories. I will only have this conversation with you this once. I will not discuss it again. I want to put it all behind me.” My family finds solace in silence.
The mere thought of me terrorized not only him, but his new family as well. His children, Andrew and Sarah, lived sheltered and insular lives. They attended exclusive, private schools in wooded suburbs. And they definitely had never run across an individual such as me.
My half-brother, Andrew, was twelve years old during this time. His younger sister, Sarah, was born in 1984, the year before I had left for California. They felt like my dad’s real family. My younger brother, David, and I had been the practice run. What was going on with me was never discussed openly, but rather whispered about in hushed tones. I was something these children had to be protected from.
“I remember being scared of you,” Andrew recalled recently. “Your appearance, what you wore, the dyed hair, the tattoos, and the piercings; I had never been exposed to anyone like you. But I definitely felt you were a bad kid, and being around you made me nervous.”
My father and Carole allowed me to clean their home on occasion. I rode to the Alewife subway station where my dad would pick me up and drop me off at his house. My father’s house was at the summit of Belmont Hill. On the left side of a small cul-de-sac, his mansion was obscured partially from view by a vast forest of pine trees. Inside, their home was tastefully decorated with stately antiques, Oriental carpets, and an enormous grandfather clock that chimed every hour, reminding me I was an infiltrator in someone else’s home, where order and perfection reigned.
I did clean, but I also shot up in their cavernous, blue tiled bathroom. The first few times they invited me to stay for dinner. That ceased when it was discovered that I had rifled through their wallets and stolen any and all bills. The cash they paid me to clean their house wasn’t enough to cover my habit. There was never enough cash.
After I stole their money, visits with my father were relegated to train stations, hands stuffed in our pockets, our breath in the frigid air the only part of us that ever touched.
Even though I never outright told my father about my addiction, he exchanged terse phone calls with my mother. They argued about how to deal with me. They resented the fact that they were forced to communicate. As I roamed around projects in Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain copping heroin, my parents consulted doctors, counselors, and facilities that specialized in substance abuse. Never a united front, they separately gathered resources and information to deal with a problem that had materialized in their world: me.
Scoring dope in the projects was getting harder. Sometimes I would hand my money off to a guy who never returned. Sometimes I would buy fake dope; heat it up in the spoon and realize it was fucking baking soda. What made it all the more so annoying was that cash was becoming harder and harder to come by. I had sold off almost everything of value I owned, my dad was ignoring my calls, and friend’s record collections were now off limits. So when I ran into Elias one day in late spring and he proposed a trip to New York City I was elated.
Our contact since the fiasco at detox had been sporadic. His partner was adamant that Elias cut ties with me. So my ride along to the city was kept a secret. That was fine with me; all I cared about was that I knew I would be high all day and walk away with dope to spare.
I was not made privy to all the details regarding the trip. I knew we were bringing heroin to a “cousin,” and picking up a large quantity of methadone to sell back in Boston. Buying and selling methadone on the street is big money. Dope fiends on the methadone program received “take homes,” which they often sold to supplement their habit.
I met Elias at the base of Mission Hill, outside of a liquor store, before six in the morning. When he pulled up in a beat-up, red Honda, there was a young boy in the back seat flipping through a comic. Elias greeted me, lightly kissing my cheek: “Hi, mija. This is my sister’s boy, Armando.”
The boy nodded solemnly and went back to his comic. Elias informed me, sotto voce, that he thought we would look like a family traveling to New York with a kid along. I didn’t really comprehend this logic, but I was only in it for the dope. I didn’t care who was in the car.
The ride was uneventful. While Elias took care of business in Queens, New York, I played with Armando. The sounds of street vendors and mariachi music wafted through the open windows. After the logistics were handled, we drove off towards Boston, hoping to beat commuter traffic on our way home. In Westchester County, only about thirty minutes outside of the city, we were pulled over. At that moment, I knew we were fucked: Both of us extremely high, a car full of heroin and methadone labeled with other people’s names, and me with my stupid needle.
And Elias was a major drug dealer. He had numerous outstanding warrants. They hauled him away and I never saw him again. Armando was snatched away, sobbing, and turned over to social services. I was thrown into a local holding cell, charged with holding drug paraphernalia and being under the influence.
This was my first arrest. I was stricken with a premonition of what a life of addiction might be comprised of. Alone in the cell, I snorted a tiny amount of heroin the cops didn’t find when they searched me. I had squirreled it away, under the Adidas label in the tongue of my shoe. This erased my fears for the time being. I sat in the cell and listened to snippets of what was happening with Elias. From what I overheard his fate seemed dismal, but the cops really had no reason to keep me around. I received a fine, a court date, and was released on my own recognizance. They pointed me in the direction of the local bus back into the city.
A plastic bracelet with my arrest information was my lucky ticket home. I had no money, no food, and no dope; just a seething desire to return to Boston. I showed the bracelet to the driver of the bus, and rode for free to Penn Station. At the Amtrak window there, I again showed the bracelet, shed some tears in desperation, and landed a seat back to Boston.
This arrest planted a seed to plot my return to Venice.
On the five-hour train ride back to Boston that seed germinated and grew. Never did I attempt to modify my behavior or change my actions. I only tallied wrongs in the columns of family, friends, and location. I craved the anonymity of being strung out back in California. And I was more than willing to do whatever it would take to make that happen.
As the humid summer months crept in, more than just the weather caused me to sweat. News of our arrest in New York had hit the streets in Boston. My presence in the projects was frowned upon. I darted in and out on occasion, but my paranoia ran deep. Each time I went into the projects to score I was convinced that I wasn’t going to make it back out again.
Driven by a nameless, undefinable fear, I called the detox at Cambridge City Hospital, begging to be readmitted for a fourth time. I was denied. I had left too many times against medical advice. They needed to save the bed for someone who really wanted to be clean. Fuck detox then. Heroin was the only thing that quieted the fear.
My mom had made an appointment with a drug counselor for me, herself, and my father. She was finagling housing accommodations with the Cambridge YMCA. I could not stay with her. My father consulted with doctors about treatment options. I could not stay with him. And my friends were burnt out, done dealing with my drama, my chaos, and my lies. I didn’t want to stay with anyone. I could not bear the haunted, distressed looks everyone wore around me. It sucked to be too much for people, especially when I was comprised of so little. Heroin accepted me as I was.
My world shrank. Even my parents’ concern irritated the hell out of me. “Mom, look,” I told her, exasperated at having to explain myself. “Some people have jobs at banks and others work in stores or offices. I am a drug addict. It is what I do, who I am.”
I remained awake through the nights, my thoughts knitting and clicking, trying to formulate an out. I drifted through the days from one sporadic fix to the next, as events and appointments were being arranged regarding the problem that was me. My mom met with a counselor at the YMCA. She was going to pay them to house me so I would not live on the streets. The counselor, my mother and father, and I had arranged a time to meet in Cambridge and discuss the facts. My father never showed.
He had unearthed some experts on his own that he consulted about my condition, a Dr. Maloney, a well-respected physician at Mt. Auburn Hospital on the outskirts of Boston and a specialist in the field of substance abuse. He had suggested a treatment facility at MacLean Hospital. My father had ceased meeting me at subway platforms to dole out cash, at this doctor’s suggestion.
“Lisa, he told me by giving you money I was simply supporting a heroin addiction. He asked me to stop immediately, and promised to help me get you into a program where they could deal with you,” my dad said. “A live-in, absolutely locked-down facility where professionals could treat your addiction with care and expertise.”
My parents had no frame of reference for my addiction. This was unknown territory—territory best handed over to experts. This was not supposed to happen to people like them. So everyone set about separately devising parallel plans of capture.
Myself included. Escape from their smothering clutches was my driving force. In desperation, I turned back to my friends. I pleaded with them to help me return to California. While they doubted it was the best course of action, it would get me out of their hair. I was a pain in the ass. It made them uneasy to see me.
Ariel was a demure and compassionate girl who had always been on the periphery of the punk scene. She had chestnut hair that swung below her waist and dark, thoughtful eyes. Ariel possessed a serene quietness that was often mistaken for innocence. Months earlier, when I hadn’t been able to maintain Amanda’s sublet, Ariel had taken it over. I arrived there unannounced, grimy from the streets with soiled, sunken eyes. Sitting on the threadbare carpet, I leaned against the bed and twisted the facts regarding my current situation. I distorted the truth in order to justify my desire to leave. I threw my losing hand of cards onto the floor: Help me get out.
“Lisa, you were so bizarre by this point; no one could believe anything you said,” Ariel told me in a recent conversation. “You claimed people were after you, yet you refused to elaborate. You were genuinely frightened of something, but the truth was never forthcoming. All of us felt we had done everything we possibly could for you. From what you told us, your parents weren’t willing to help you. They just didn’t want to deal with you, and it seemed as if they were just writing you off. I remember feeling conflicted. I wondered if we were doing the right thing.”
A plane ticket was out of the question: too expensive. But the Greyhound to Los Angeles was barely more than $100. Ariel garnered the support of our friend Harry and a plan of action was set in motion.
“There was no way we were going to give you the money so Harry and I met you in South Station, bought you some snacks and cigarettes, and put you on that bus,” she said. “ I never saw you again.”
Harry and Ariel assumed I would endure a brutal kick on that seventy-two hour bus ride west. That notion was absurd. I had planned accordingly. Due to my lack of funds in the days before my departure, I had scurried rapidly in and out of the projects trading my leather jacket and knee-high oxblood Doc Marten’s. These were the two most coveted items in my limited wardrobe. My uniform of sorts, standard issue. But now my standards were obsolete.
That early fall morning in downtown Boston felt crisp with a cool snap around the edges; the winter of 1994 threatened its arrival. The leaves of the trees were slowly turning. Commuters bustled about South Station with their heads bowed, folded newspapers tucked under their arms.
Those of us boarding the Greyhound looked downtrodden. Small, sticky-looking children gripped the hands of their mothers as they seated themselves up front. The driver chucked battered suitcases beneath the bus. I kept my bag locked to my side and headed to the back. The smell of the restroom permeated the last few rows with the stench of urine. Resting my face against the glass, I stared out the window. The image that was reflected back at me was not how I had remembered myself.
In California, I had arranged to stay on my friend Audrey’s couch. She would pick me up at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles then drive straight back to Venice. But first, as we pulled out of the station, 2,989 miles of road stretched ahead. My stomach fluttered with conflicting emotions. What I had done in Boston landed with a sickening thud by my feet, but I refused to allow my thoughts to drift over the past year. The taste of my own heartbeat, caught in my throat, was metallic.
I wished that I had the power to rewind and erase that past year—power I hoped to glean by shooting as much heroin as I wanted, unencumbered by the concern and stifling love of friends and family. How I was going to accomplish this was yet to be determined. But addicts are insanely resourceful, precise, and deliberate. I was no exception.
Heroin was my best friend. My only confidante. My road dog. My lover.
As the years began to slip by, the relief that heroin delivered would begin to dissipate. I would begin to question my loyalty to it, and to think about getting clean. Because drugs absolutely work—until they don’t.
And I eventually would get clean, and have remained so for fourteen years. But that unshackling would not arrive for many more miles, many more years. On this seventy-two-hour cross-country bus trip it was the furthest thing from my mind. I did not use the time to reflect on my squandered life. I did not kick, as my friends had hoped I would. I did not plan to contact friends or family back in Boston once I arrived, to explain my abrupt departure.
I surrendered. I felt relief at my decision.
The other people on the bus were ghostly apparitions. Nobody rides across the country on that bus to make friends or enjoy the scenery. I spoke to one person on the entire ride, an older biker who once may have looked threatening, but now looked only weary. All his body parts drooped, heading south because that was the only way to go. He sat behind me in the last row with lank, greasy hair and a knotted moustache.
During our time together on the bus, we maintained a silent acknowledgment. We both knew, without saying so, that we were willing to sacrifice anything and everything on behalf of our relationship with drugs. Addicts share this sixth sense with each other. We also refrain from attempting to deter the course of addiction. Because we know there is no point.
In the triangular bathroom on board, I tried to fix. Setting up a spoon to cook, tie off, and hit a vein was near to impossible. Lurching over bumps I kept missing and making a mess.
The biker behind me noticed my agitated manner and my numerous bathroom trips. Wordlessly, he slipped valiums through the space between our seats. He had a mayonnaise jar full of pills. We had barely made a dent in them when he exited the bus in Las Vegas.
Pulling out of that Greyhound lot in Las Vegas, I smudged a circle into the dirt of the window with my shirtsleeve. I watched that old biker walk away. I felt envious of his anonymity. He lived a life free of emotional attachments. He answered to no one. He existed in a certain realm where invisibility was practically a requirement. I believed that what he had was all that I wanted.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.