Living through chemistry

Two Reno men talk about what it’s like to “maintain” with a lifelong drug addiction

In a pay-by-week hotel in downtown Reno, Johnny leans over a wooden table, getting ready to fix. Laid out in a row are a spoon, a needle, a lighter and a candle. He lights the candle and fills the spoon with water and heroin. He holds the spoon over the flame until the heroin melts.

I get close to the spoon’s sizzling, dark brown pool and sniff. It smells like vinegar, but earthier—a bitter, pungent, organic smell.

Johnny dips the needle into the brown pool, and liquid slowly fills his syringe. He taps it. I follow him into the bathroom, where he takes off his belt, wraps it tight around his bicep and kneels at the sink. Slowly and carefully, he drives the tiny needle into his vein.

He asks me to leave the bathroom. He doesn’t like to have visitors past this point.

Returning a few minutes later, Johnny is wiping traces of blood from his arm. He gets ready to leave, putting on a long-sleeved, buttoned-down shirt to cover his veins in case the cops should stop him on the drive. He shakes my hand and thanks me. His grip is strong, and his hand is cold with sweat.

Johnny hates the word “junkie.” It’s got an ugly ring to it—the ring of coins jingling in a panhandler’s jar, the sound of sirens singing in the distance as ambulance units race to save overdose victims.

“Life is hard enough without being a heroin addict,” Johnny says. “They end up at the soup kitchen. I just consider myself a good person. … I don’t like to think of myself as a junkie.”

A construction worker by trade, this heroin user—who I’m calling Johnny for this story—lost his job a few weeks ago and has been doing odd jobs on the side while looking for steady work. But losing his job had nothing to do with his $25 a day habit, he says. Times are tough.

“It’s not a problem for me to work. I’ve got [fixing] down to twice a day.”

It’s a life of secrecy and doing what it takes to keep a bag within arm’s reach. But for thousands of addicts, it’s also a life of “maintaining"—of staying fed and sheltered, of holding down a job and staying connected to friends and family.

The stereotypical drug addict is one of the most powerful images in our cultural consciousness. Thanks to rock music, P.T. Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, most of us who get our drug education from rock music and the silver screen pay good money to be voyeurs of a lifestyle we will never meet face to face—a lifestyle that we somehow find both dazzling and wretched. Heroin addiction in particular gets painted in a cinematic style akin to the high itself—a warm shot of bliss, and then a long, hellish dive into the sewer of addiction, Trainspotting-style.

Real life, and the lives of real addicts, usually looks less glamorous. But it also looks less like a moral lesson. I talked to two men who have lived for 30 years with addiction—Johnny, a musician and construction worker who got hooked on dope at 21, and T.W.,not his real name, a Reno artist who started doing drugs at age 10 and who believed for years that he couldn’t paint without the high of heroin or the stabilizing effects of speed. Like many addicts maintaining a life of habitual drug use, they build, they paint and they make music. They’ve gone through hell to kick their habits and found that life with a habit is, in some ways, easier to stomach. They’ll be the first to warn kids to stay off drugs, but also the first to say that life can be livable—though not rosy—with a bit of self-medication.

“Withdrawals. What are they… like?” I ask.

Sitting across from me in the hotel room, Johnny is starting to sweat a little. Shiny liquid beads gather and camp on his broad forehead. His tattooed arms, propped on the table in front of his bed, are muscular and able-looking. They’re the arms of a man who’s been a drummer for most of his life.

“You’re pissing and shitting,” he says. “Your body’s literally falling apart. Diarrhea, sweating, nausea, severe cramps. Imagine the worst flu you ever had times 10. It feels like your insides are being twisted around. … It slowly escalates into a nightmare. But you know you can get a fix …”

I ask Johnny if he usually shoots up with others.

“No, I do it by myself. Once in a while with a friend, but I don’t share needles.”

He gets up to get a glass of water.

“I feel there’s something missing [without heroin],” he continues. “I don’t feel complete.”

The phone rings. He answers.

“OK … I’ll call you from the gas station by the Zephyr … OK, I’ll call you in a few minutes.”

He hangs up. A friend of his will be over soon, he says, and they have to run an errand.

“So let me do this real fast now so I can go.”

On the table by the floral spread-covered bed, he’s getting everything ready. Needle, candle, lighter, spoon. Smack.

“I love it,” he tells me. “And if I were rich, I would do it all the time and just get off it once in a while. It reduces stress. That’s the reason I look so good for my age.”

He’s 49. And he does look good, tan and toned in a sleeveless white undershirt and jeans.

Maybe it’s the vitamins.

“I’ve tried to balance [drug use] by taking vitamins and working out,” he says. “Because I also love women.”

“What’s it like being high?” I ask.

“It’s a real cozy feeling.”

Johnny has lived in Reno since he was 28. During his early days in Reno, he was a drummer in a punk rock band and a cook in a casino. He first tried heroin when he was 17. When he was 21, a friend introduced him to China White, a high-grade heroin brought back from Asia.

“But when he ran out, I was in deep shit. I was starting to vomit and had diarrhea. [I called my friend] and said, ‘I’m in deep shit.’ He said, ‘Oh my god, you got a habit, bro.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be over soon.’ He got some shit and that was it. [The heroin] was a little different, but it sure as hell did the trick. … I was on my way.”

For Johnny, a trip down Heroin Road has meant theft, prison and the occasional stop at a methadone clinic, but never violence or serious poverty. When his habit was at its worst in 1996, he would fix at least three times a day, and sometimes as many as five or six.

“But that was unnecessary,” he says. “That was my own wanting to be numb. I was keeping myself medicated to the point where I was sitting around nodding.”

Johnny has been arrested several times for possession, and once for possession with the intent to sell. He spent a couple years in prison. He’s also occasionally stolen during his years of addiction, though he says he was always selective in his theft. He wouldn’t steal from individuals or small businesses. He’s only stolen from department stores and other chain establishments.

“And all my crimes have been non-violent.”

Now, when he can’t afford heroin, or he feels his habit is getting too strong, Johnny will go to a methadone clinic. Clinics dispense methadone, a synthetic narcotic that suppresses cravings for heroin or other opiates—without the euphoric effects—to addicts, generally for under $10 a day. Over the years, he’s gone to clinics sometimes to detoxify, and sometimes to maintain a dosage of methadone rather than give up drugs altogether.

But because clinics generally require weekly payment—and only dispense during business hours—he, like many other users he knows, would buy methadone on the street from time to time.

“I don’t have a large habit, but I have a little habit—$25 a day. … When I feel that I need to do more than one bag a day to get a good high, then I go back to methadone for a while. It’s a way to prevent withdrawal.”

Johnny tells me about his two daughters. Both are in their early 20s and in college.

“They’re smart and beautiful,” he says. He shows me pictures of the two smiling girls. They are beautiful.

“I don’t want kids to do it,” he says. “I don’t regret my life, but if I had to do it over, I wouldn’t have tried heroin, because I’ve wasted a lot of time.”

“Nobody has come up with a better way of feeling good for a short period of time than drugs,” explains Dr. Steven Hayes, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Nevada, Reno, in a UNR online news report. “And heroin is one of the ‘best.’ “

Hayes says that drug use stems in part from a cultural climate of escapism and dependency on quick-fix solutions. He stresses the importance of learning to deal with problems rather than drowning them out.

“We teach responsibility by getting into the lives of [addicts] and reconnecting them to what they really value: family, making a contribution, participating in society,” he says. “I’ve never met a drug addict who wants to be evil. They do evil things, but they’re usually doing it to try to feel good and avoid pain.”

A 1996 study by the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that approximately 2.4 million Americans had used heroin at least once in their lifetime. The NHSDA study found that among adult users, 33 percent held full-time jobs.

Mary Michael, director of a methadone clinic in Sparks called American Therapeutic Association, says that most of the addicts who come through her doors have jobs, albeit low-paying ones. They’re “functioning” addicts.

Funding for drug abuse prevention and treatment programs is low in the state of Nevada; only $40,000 is allotted annually, says Stephanie Asteriadis, director of the Nevada Substance Abuse Resource Center. Other funding comes from the federal government or from private organizations. Asteriadis says that nationally, however, the amount of research conducted on effective programs is rapidly increasing, particularly for prevention programs. As a result, prevention programs are growing nationally and becoming more and more innovative in their outreach methods. In northern Nevada, Asteriadis adds, prevention programs have traditionally targeted at-risk youth, but these programs are expanding to serve neglected demographics.

Mary Michael, director of a methadone clinic in Sparks, says that most of the addicts who come in for help have jobs.

“The Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Abuse is looking at populations that have been underserved,” she says. “They have funded a grant to do prevention on the UNR campus. I know that they are trying to look at areas that haven’t been addressed.”

Asteriadis says that in the past, many working in the drug prevention field have taken an “if it sounds good, let’s try it” approach. But with more federal and private funds being directed toward prevention research and programs, the tide is turning. Drug treatment simply isn’t going to solve the problem.

“Prevention is kind of a new and upcoming field,” she says. “I like to tell the story of a river. You see someone drowning and you pull him out. You see someone else drowning and you go in and pull her out. That’s the way treatment is done: You stand there and wait and pull them out when they’re in trouble. But prevention is like going up the river to see why people were falling in in the first place, because it’s really hard to get them anywhere near where they were before they got involved.”

Asteriadis says that she went into the field of prevention rather than treatment because she wanted to address the problem at its root.

“I didn’t want to stand at the river all day,” she says.

“It is actually the easiest place to be a junkie.”

T.W. is talking about Reno. His hand rests on the windowsill of his sunlit studio apartment and smoke from his hand-rolled cigarette drifts into the air. The buildings of downtown Reno swell above his third-floor balcony. The sky is bright blue. He takes another puff.

“The dealers in Reno all drive and deliver. The dope here is half what I was paying for it in England 20 years ago, and just as good.”

He takes another puff.

“I was just medicating. I wasn’t doing it to blot out my life. I was just doing it to mask some of the emotions, [to mask] pain from youth, which is still really vivid. I mean, my first memory with my dad is with a belt. … [My parents] used to beat me for not making my bed fast enough.”

The room is quiet, but the world outside seems loud. A woman next door yells and shuts a door. Traffic sounds intrude from below. The single bed T.W. sits on seems like little more than a cot with a bedspread. His bare feet rest on the paint-splattered hardwood floor.

“I wasn’t a bad kid. That pain is still with me. It’s been 40 years, and some say, ‘Yeah, get over it.’ But it’s still with me. … I should have gotten over it a long time ago, really, but easier said than done.”

He shrugs and stares out the window, turning the thin cigarette between his fingers. Everything about T.W.'s bearing spells intelligence—and kindness. He listens well and laughs easily. His sense of humor is deft and subtle.

I ask T.W. if he’s ever been to a methadone clinic.

“They want to keep you strung out,” he says. “Methadone is far more addictive than heroin. I’ve tried to come off methadone … I was just sicker than shit for three weeks. I actually went back on heroin and kicked that.”

But heroin has been one thing for T.W., and speed has been another. A bored and hyperactive kid with an IQ of 175, doctors put him on a drug he now believes was Ritalin at age 5. That set the stage, he says, for years of speed use.

“Speed slows me down so I can focus. … When I did speed, I wasn’t peeking through the blinds, bouncing off the walls.

“I’m sure they rewired my brain. I have no doubt about it.”

T.W., a 40-year-old Reno artist, is in a period of recovery. But being clean is never easy, he says. During his years of speed use, he was able to slow his mind down long enough to sit still and give his full attention to the canvas. Without drugs, he says, it’s tough. Almost impossible.

“I’m thinking about going back on Ritalin. If I’m chasing a bag in 10 years, I’m going to start to regret it.”

T.W.'s story begins in Los Angeles in the 1960s. His parents, who divorced when he was young, were both physically abusive. His teachers complained about his attitude. Doctors were involved.

“So they put me on speed, and lo and behold, I developed behavioral problems,” he says wryly.

When he was 10, officials found out about the physical abuse, and he was sent to live in a group home.

“I started smoking pot, sniffing glue, taking pills,” he says. “They put me in a home with 18-year-olds. It was the Vietnam War era, and [we had access] to opiates, PCP, Thai sticks …”

By the time he was in his early teens, T.W. had done “basically everything but the hard drugs.” For the next few years, he bounced between his grandparents’ house in Hollywood, juvenile hall and the group home. He dropped out of high school just before he was supposed to graduate.

“After I dropped out, I started to get into punk rock,” he says. “I was living in the San Fernando Valley. I was actually homeless, living underneath a building, and I started to shoot up because it was the Sid Vicious thing to do. I did dope first.”

Then he began seeing a girl.

“She pulls up in this ‘63 Lincoln and pulls out a hundred dollar bill and said, ‘What kind of drugs do you want?’ And I said, ‘I do.’ I ended up marrying her. … We decided to go to England because it was the punk rock thing to do.”

Though he divorced the girl, T.W. ended up living in England for six years. He did heroin there for a while, then kicked it and stayed off it for seven years. Soon after he came back to America, he received a sizeable inheritance from his father. The money went largely to drugs.

“I did drugs all the time. … I would go to Hollywood and see bands and get fucked up. I started doing heroin once a month. At this time, I was probably addicted to speed. In 1988, I probably slept 11 or 12 times total. I’d do 30-day runs [without sleep]. I was young, resilient. Then, when my inheritance ran out, I didn’t want to be poor in L.A. anymore, so I got out.”

A friend suggested he move to Reno. He did. He got a job in a coffeehouse and hooked up with a punk rock crowd. One coerced him to head up a band.

” ‘Can you sing?’ he asked.

‘No,’ I said.

‘Can you shout?’

‘I guess so.’ “

Things went fine until T.W. was stabbed in the gut at a punk show. He was on his back for a month.

“The bottom just fucking fell out. I couldn’t find a shoulder to lean on. All the people who were down for me were no longer down for me. It was a good lesson.”

T.W. moved back to L.A., where he took up painting, and then to the Bay Area. But after an epiphany—or a vision—he felt drawn back to Reno. Back in town, he began to sell some of his paintings.

T.W. focused his energies on art, but even though he had staunch supporters of his work within the art community, galleries wouldn’t accept his work. He was encouraged to apply for grants but never received any. After being rejected for grants, cheated out of payment for his artwork and snubbed by members of the arts community, T.W. grew discouraged. He started using heavily again.

During that time, he had developed an illness that would cause random episodes of swelling and, at times, anaphylactic shock. Because of the illness, he couldn’t get a steady job and began drawing payments from Social Security.

“I can sit in a chair and paint, but I can’t work. I swell up. I’ll get it in my lips. I can’t even look in the mirror.”

T.W.'s studio is tiny, and art covers nearly every inch of wall space. A painting, almost completed, rests on an easel. The work is amazing—intense, vivid and eerie. T.W. tells me that he hates keeping his work in the studio.

“It’s like having wall-to-wall mirrors,” he says.

“Yes,” I reply, staring at the paintings. “Only worse. They’re psychological mirrors. Emotional ones.”

“Yeah,” he says, studying his latest work.

“I know I’m more organized and productive [when] clean, but it’s really scary,” he continues. “I’m not a mechanical painter; I’m an inspired painter. It’s me doing the painting. I recognize that. I guess speed showed me what I can do, but at the end of the day, I realize it’s me who did it.”

“So it’s not about inspiration?” I ask. “It’s about equilibrium?”

“Yeah … I can’t even control what makes me paint well. I can have all the dope in the world and paint like crap. It’s like—what’s my muse, and where the hell is she? I’d like nothing more than to be a 9-to-5 painter, but it’s never been like that. Sometimes, [while] fucked up, I would paint really well for a month. Sometimes for a minute. I don’t know what governs it.”

T.W. looks down at his paint-speckled pants. He sprinkles tobacco onto a strip of thin white paper and carefully rolls it into a cigarette. The room is quiet again.

“I can have one foot on the floor and walk around in circles," he says, twisting the cigarette between his fingers. "Or I can get my shit together."