Now is the time to explain about heroin and what it did to my soul even, and especially, during the saddest, most painful moments of my life. I welcomed the numbness that heroin brought and the illusion that everything would be all right. The high would last four or five hours, depending on the strength of the drug, which varied from source to source. The need to escape what was chasing me, all the wreckage, shame, guilt, and fear I had accumulated, was so powerful that even after a couple of years in prison without heroin, the first thing I would do when I got out was “cop” some dope and shoot it. Once the high was over, I felt anxious, angry, and desperate to get more to stop feeling the feelings I had, so I could stop hating myself. The low opinion I had of myself would stay with me and influence every aspect of my life for many years to come.
(p. 47, Double Helix))
I wrote that paragraph after telling the story about what I did when my mother died, something I felt more than very ashamed about. And knew that if I was going to keep writing about and revealing those types of incidents, some of which felt unforgivable, that I needed to draw on what I have learned about myself during my years in recovery and explain why my addict-self had such a strong hold on me for so long.
Addiction is about having no solution. I often felt so lost and worthless that shooting the drug was the only relief I could find. It took away the fear. And because it was such a short and dangerous relief, I nearly died many times from overdosing.
All my life I had thought about my purpose and felt I could do something pretty good. But when I got into that drug everything went south. Then I really couldn’t follow the path I wanted to be on, even though doing drugs fixed nothing for me. Even worse, I had to lie, cheat, and steal to get the drug I needed to keep the terrible feelings I had about myself at bay. It’s an awful thing to be trying to accomplish something, having to do it through lying, cheating, and stealing, and then pretend that it wasn’t true. It's like climbing a mountain, over and over and over.
I always ask people in my classes to answer a series of questions about themselves: who are you? what’s your purpose? what kind of people do you want in your life? what kind of help do you need? I wish someone had asked me that when I was in treatment. But I don’t know if I could have answered that basic question, “who am I?” until I stopped using.
I already knew that I was a person who didn’t want to be doing what I was doing. I loved somebody but she didn’t want to be with me because I was just crazy. I had talent I couldn’t even touch ─ the time I needed to make it work, I used chasing the drug. Each time I left San Quentin, I said I didn’t want to go back, but the choices I made meant it was just a matter of time before I would go straight back there. I didn’t know how to stop doing what I was doing to myself. But that was the time I should have been asking myself: what am I doing in the penitentiary again? What am I trying to accomplish? How come it’s not working? (And if it was working, what would that look like?)
I started to believe change was possible at the beginning of my recovery, when I was going to AA meetings every day. I was listening to people who were sober, some for 30 years and others who hadn’t been clean for longer than a week and those newcomers were sticking with it. I watched people be better than when I saw them the last time. And I started talking about my own demons. All that made me think, yes! I can do this.
My 35 years in recovery have been extremely productive. I’ve worked with addicts, found my passion in singing again, and have lived a pretty decent life. There is so much for addicts and alcoholics to learn. It took me many years – the heartbreak, shame, fear, and guilt kept the door to continuing my addiction open, and kept me caught up in the need to escape myself. Only after getting into recovery and beginning to work at it did I discover that for all that time, it was always and only about me, not the drug.