Writer’s Curse – passion, drugs and literature
by Christopher Flakus
Drugs and literature have been the two great passions of my life. For a long time they were inextricably bound. In my mind, I thought one could not exist without the other. I believed I had found a fierce sense of liberty in using drugs, a certain outlaw status that reminded me of my heroes: guys like Lenny Bruce, Charlie Parker, Hubert Selby Jr, Jerry Stahl, Hank Williams, Sid Vicious and just about every other famous druggie in the long line of famous druggies. I believed that writers who drank to excess and took drugs wrote the most interesting work. Their writing seemed dangerous, immediate, and relevant…or so I believed. In the Beat Poets I found a sense of personal adventure, a daring rejection of the status-quo which made me feel at home. I devoured the works of the beat movement, especially the writings of junky scribe, William Burroughs. Filmmaker John Waters once said of Burroughs, “Sure he romanticized drug use… Did anybody read Naked Lunch and try heroin? Probably.” Definitely, I was one of them. Doesn’t mean it isn’t a great book, or an important book…it simply means, that like all great art, it is not to be read with impunity.
My fascination with writers and drugs propelled me through College. I read and wrote voraciously. I drank and used drugs with this same fervor. I often spent whole nights with my coke-numbed nose buried in a book. I often read until the sun came up, my bottle and my bag of dope always by my side. Somehow, I made it through the first few years of School, just barely functioning enough to make my grades (at least most of the time). My Literature Thesis was a comparative look at Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana” and Malcolm Lowry’s novel “Under the Volcano.” Both books revolved around tragic alcoholic protagonists. Both books were written by tragic, alcoholic authors. I knew I did not ever want my life to reach the kind of misery that Lowry had endured in writing “Under the Volcano.” Despite myself, I couldn’t help believing that his pain somehow informed him…the book itself was a descent into the depths of addiction, an almost mystical voyage into a boozy heart of darkness. I wonder if I was aware, at that time, that I had already begun the first league of that journey myself.
I started using heroin at nineteen, my freshman year of college. I was mystified by what I saw as a philosopher’s stone which inspired writers since Thomas DeQuincy. I had been a heavy drinker, pot-smoker, pill-popper, and coke sniffer…but heroin was the game-changer. The trajectory of my ever increasing use will be familiar to any addict. I was the “I just smoke it don’t shoot it,” guy. Until of course the day came then I was the, “I only shoot it once in a while, special occasions” guy, until I ended up the “I am hopelessly addicted to junk” guy. My apartment quickly dissolved into the kind of junky squat I had read about, though now that it was real, the shiny veneer drug-use once held for me was quickly peeled off. As it turned out, junkies were not just social iconoclasts and pillars of hip…they were greedy, sick, disloyal characters who turned on each other over virtually anything. I was certainly not above scheming my dope for the day through any number of shady doings. Lying became part of my life, just something I did. It was second nature, as natural as breathing. I lied to myself, to my family, to the few straight friends I had left who were watching my quick descent. Sometimes I lied, just for the sake of the lie.
For the most part, I was a middle-man, always orchestrating buys and hanging around for hours in deserted parking lots waiting for my man. I cringe to think of how much time I rendered utterly useless, smoking cigarettes in my car and compulsively checking my phone every couple minutes to see if he had called or texted. As the Velvet Underground song had clearly warned me, “He’s never early, he’s always late…the first thing that you learn is that you always gotta wait.”
Scoring for a group of junkies was advantageous in that I usually had a chance to pocket either a little extra cash or an extra pinch of dope for myself. It didn’t feel dishonest. It was my finder’s fee.
I went on like this, for years. I didn’t finish school. I worked a string of dead end jobs, almost all of which eventually fired me. I couldn’t manage to show up on time, and when I did show up I was often so high I could barely keep my eyes open.
Things got progressively worse. I lost friends, my girlfriend, a good job, and ultimately my own sanity. The bottom really came flying up on me once I began using intravenous methamphetamine. I was trying to stay off heroin, but unwilling to give up the quest for an immaculate high…my search for alternatives to heroin brought me crashing down. I smoked crack, synthetic marijuana, snorted bath-salts…anything that I could get my hands on. I had an open-door policy when it came to drugs, I simply did not discriminate. If it changed the way I felt, I took it. Within a few months of shooting meth, I was locked in a mental health hospital after a psychotic episode. I had not slept in days, and was hallucinating shadowy figures breaking into my house. I was so
convinced my life was in danger that I leapt out of my bathroom window. I lived on the second story. I plummeted down fifteen feet, crashing into a thorny bush. I spent a month with the loonies in a schizophrenic ward of Houston’s Harris County Psychiatric Center. As soon as they discharged me I was back on the streets and my drug use only escalated. Pretty soon, I was on heroin again, still shooting meth, and drinking from the time I woke up (assuming I had even been to sleep) until I collapsed onto my pillow more dead than alive. I had always been a beer drinker, generally speaking, but now I was onto hard liquor as well and lots of it. I was prescribed a narcotic triumvirate of vyvanse, suboxone, and alprazolam at this time. I swallowed the speed (vyvanse) to boost my meth high, and smoothed it out with downers (alprazolam) and heroin. It didn’t matter to me if the drugs were purchased on a street corner or in a pharmacy. I still see no distinction between street drugs and pharmaceuticals. Dope is dope…the end result was always addiction.
I had been using suboxone as a maintenance program for three years. During that time I would sporadically come off the suboxone and get back on heroin. I would sell my strips to other junkies, turn around, and spend the money on dope for myself. At this point, the writing had been completely replaced by drugs. It felt like I had not read a book in years, and if I had, I either forgot entirely or retained very little of what I had read. Everything in my world existed in the shadow of my junk habit.
I had begun using heroin seduced by the myth that it lead to creative wonders. I began shooting speed, inspired by Kerouac’s Benzedrine-fueled marathon writings and the spontaneous prose of “On the Road.” I foolishly thought that on the right drugs, I would unlock secrets to internal poetry which would have otherwise have been out of my reach. Of course, that didn’t happen. The little I did write was tired and lifeless…more whimper than words.
I am sure I would have died. The way I was using, there didn’t seem to be any other outcome. I had given up hope of ever getting better until another, more violent and unpredictable bout of drug psychosis landed me in jail. My detox was agony. I shivered out the poison on a steel cot with nothing to keep me warm but a thin wool blanket. It was winter, and the air from outside seeped into our 24 man tank through vents along the walls. During the summer, not enough air got in through these same vents and the heat was stifling. During winter, there was no keeping the cold out. Maybe it was designed that way to make it an even more hellish place for us.
My withdrawals seemed to last that entire first month I spent in jail. The first couple weeks I spent in my bunk, just holding on to anything I could. A fond memory, a warm thought, a joke…anything I could cling to in my mind that took me away from where I was and what I was feeling. The third week I started stretching my legs, walking around and getting to know the other inmates I was locked up with. Ultimately, it was these men I credit with my decision to get clean. I had suffered dope sickness dozens of time before, only to slip up and use again. Although this cold-turkey jailhouse detox was by far the most miserable kick I had ever experienced, I knew I wouldn’t stay clean because of it. The other inmates, their stories, and their encouragement…these things provided the springboard I needed, not only to get clean, but to start writing again.
The man I call my first sponsor was an inmate named Jonathan, a speed-freak from Dallas. He had been picked up in the Midwest and driven cross-country in a paddy-wagon back to Texas to serve out his sentence. The charges were old, and he had already gone into recovery by the time he was stopped by the police. Jonathan had a certain sense of serenity. He remained calm in his situation. We were all losing our minds with uncertainty, but Jonathan managed to take it all in stride. He conducted his own informal NA meeting in the tank, and I began attending. He would brew a warm coffee for me, and we would spend an hour or two discussing my addiction and potential recovery. The men I met in jail had suffered a hundred times what I had. Many of them were in and out of prison, unable to shake the disease even after years of incarceration. I saw in them the dreadful future that awaited me if I continued to drink and use drugs.
I began reading in jail. A few good friends still wrote letters to me, and bought books online to send to me. I read the Russians, authors I had always wanted to read in depth but was only superficially familiar with. I read Gogol, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Solzinitsyn, and Dostoyevsky. I also caught up on my Borges, and another wonderful Argentinian author, Julio Cortazar. Their words became my only means of escaping confinement. Dostoyevsky had spent time in a Siberian Prison, and Solzinitsyn’s novel “A Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich” described his life in one of Stalin’s Gulags. I read these stories, not as lofty literature, but as the voices of fellow prisoners whose strength served as an inspiration to get through each long, hard day inside. As long as I was reading, writing, and exercising…keeping busy, staying out of trouble, I felt I was getting somewhere. Would it sound funny to say, I even began to enjoy life again? Even in a place like a county jail in Texas, I was able to laugh and relate to the people around me. There were many dark days as well. There was violence, ugliness, there was abuse of power and degradation…it was still jail after all, but for the first time in years I felt like some kind of man inside.
I was released from jail under the condition that I go directly to rehab. That sounded fine to me. It had been nearly four months locked up, three of which I had spent sober (There was a little jailhouse hooch going around that first month) making it the longest uninterrupted period of sobriety in my adult life. I knew rehab was the best decision, and I arrived at Houston’s PaRC (Prevention and Recovery Center) with a newfound sense of freedom and determination. I made friends quickly. At first, the transition from jail to rehab was a little overwhelming…there was a cafeteria with great food, and snacks, and I didn’t get woken up by guards in gloves shaking down my bunk. Instead I was greeted with warm smiles, could eat as much as I liked, and was welcome to spend time in a “Serenity Garden” where patients congregated to smoke cigarettes and share stories. I found it laughable when I overheard a couple girls over by the salad bar (yes, there was a salad bar!) describing the food as “inedible” and the counselors as “fascists.” Honey, I thought to myself, you wouldn’t have lasted a day where I just come from…
As a pretty staunch Atheist, I was concerned that the 12 Steps wouldn’t work for me. Luckily, I found a very open and understanding environment in rehab, and I was encouraged to take what I could from the program and leave the rest. I do not use a “higher power” in my recovery, but volunteer work (Service Work, as it is called in AA) and helping others is not only a wonderful way to give back to the community, it is also a healing experience which I have found enforces my own sobriety. I forged new and lasting friendships in rehab. So many of the stories I heard so closely mirrored my own. I felt accepted…if anyone had earned their seat, I had. I discovered that for all my fascination with drug literature there is in fact, only two universal stories of addiction: “I used, I got hooked, and I got clean…or I used, I got hooked, and then I died.” Even if the drugs don’t kill you outright…a life spent perpetually addicted is no life at all. And let’s face it, we junkies aren’t exactly known for our longevity.
There are three quotes by great artists who got clean, that have helped carry me through these first months in recovery. The first is by the great Hubert Selby Jr. (Who struggled with heroin addiction and health complications for most of his life, and managed to get clean and even refused Morphine on his death bed) who said, “Once you quit the drugs and booze, that’s when you find out how dark you really are.” This was important to realize, as a writer. I still had a fear that without the drugs, I would lose some of my eccentricity, or edginess. Tom Waits said it best, when describing his own experience with early sobriety: “One is never completely certain when you drink and do drugs whether the spirits that are moving through you are the spirits from the bottle or your own. And, at a certain point, you become afraid of the answer. That’s one of the biggest things that keeps people from getting sober, they’re afraid to find out that it was the liquor talking all along.” The truth is, my addiction punched a great big hole in my creativity. For years I hardly managed to write or perform at all…I used to sing in a punk rock band, I did spoken word, and even appeared on television for Austin’s Poetry Month. That reading of my poetry on TV was a memory I used to cherish, though it brought me great sadness as well during my many years spent isolated and using. I felt I had blown it. It hurt to remember my success, as much as it hurt to realize I had failed.
I have found, the only real way you lose, is if you die. If you are struggling with addiction, keep struggling…there is a nobility in the fight, even the days it kicks your ass. Especially on those days. Which brings me to my final quote, from the author of ‘Permanent Midnight,’ Jerry Stahl:
“This was the history of the world. Recovery and collapse, despair and relief. The dialectic of clean and dirty. Every time is worse than the time before. The bad things come, days and nights and days and nights get so unbelievably fucked up, unbelievably fast, but in the end– if there is an end– everybody’s best self just slogs forward, one stagger, one fall, one day, one ‘what the fuck just happened?’ moment of oblivion and soul-broken joy at a time. All we have to do is not die.”
For the first time in almost fifteen years, I can enjoy life without a joint, a drink, a pill, or a needle in my arm. It has been a decade since I first smoked heroin as a 19 year old freshman poet…here I am now, ex-jailbird writer living in a sober house with eight other addicts. I have been out of jail and in recovery four months…making it nearly eight months since my last taste of dope. I have a relationship with my father and mother. Many of my truly good friends have re-entered my life and seem proud of me. I’m still fighting and the fight isn’t easy…most days it is damn hard. In the end, it is worth everything to me. I finally found my own story, one worth telling, and worth living.
Christopher Flakus / Writer’s Curse – passion, drugs and literature