Luke tells me it is the rush that draws you in. It makes you forget the darkness.
He flicks a lighter under a spoonful of syrupy brown liquid and says he is ready to die. Fumes rise from the potion, filling the room with the scent of vinegar. It is sickly and sweet at the same time.
We are sitting side by side, Luke and I, on his unmade bed in a sober living house in San Juan Capistrano, a seaside town in southern California where I am reporting a story on the epidemic of pill and heroin abuse. We have just met, but he lets me in, lets me close to the poison that has taken over his life since he became hooked on prescription painkillers eleven years ago, at age fourteen. And he’s right: there is a rush. There is something exhilarating about the poison in his hands, just in its presence, the way that it swirls and bubbles in the spoon. I wonder about the strange seduction of these little bits of crystallized black tar swimming around in circles. I wonder what my brother felt like as he stared down at them three years ago.
Since Pat’s death, I am like a madwoman crazed with the silence he has left behind, the questions I should have asked of him years ago. I now seek those answers from others like Pat. But not the Pat I knew—a different Pat, a stranger, someone compelled by the darkness and at the same time repelled by it, but unable to leave it behind. Someone like Luke.
Luke binds his arm with a belt and cinches the noose with his teeth before plunging the fluid into his vein. It is his own form of death, a temporary suicide he commits every few hours.
Nothing will steal your soul like heroin, he tells me.
“Heroin will take your heart,” he says. “It will take your looks first, it’ll take your possessions, it’ll take the people around you that you love, and after it can’t take anything else, it’ll take your life, man. It’ll fucking take your life.”
Luke says this as he releases the belt. His eyes roll back in his head and he flops backward onto the sheets beside me, nodding off. The palm trees outside his window nestle their leaves against the panes of glass, making a swishing sound that lulls him to sleep, riding the waves of morphine, escaping from the light. I sit motionless, a sanctioned spy, but wanting so badly to have sat like this with my brother. If he had let me in like Luke, perhaps I could have changed the outcome, spoken the magic words that would have reversed fate.
When Luke wakes up a few minutes later, he tells me again that he is ready to die. He’s not suicidal exactly, but when you’ve been doing heroin for so long, you’re ready, he says.
The only fun time is when you’re about to get high, he adds, but then he takes it back.
“No man, it’s just not fun anymore,” he says, slurring heavily. “It’s just to get well. It’s just not to feel the feelings that you feel, because they suck, man. The feelings suck.”
I ask him if he really wants to die, and he blinks hard and rapidly, as if trying to understand.
“No, I don’t want to die, no,” he says.
“Let’s just put it this way,” he says. “If I had a chain on, a gold chain on, and someone put a gun to my head and said give me the chain or else I’m going to pull the trigger, honest to God I’d be saying do it, you’ll be doing me a fucking favor. Fucking shoot me.”
The afternoon light wanes as Luke lights a cigarette, filling the small room with smoke that now smells oddly dry and crisp after the pungent sweetness. He falls back against the pillows again, inhaling and exhaling sluggishly, like a marionette in slow motion. His friend Anna is coming over, and he needs to be coherent enough to convince her that he’s all right: she got clean a few months ago, and she hates it when he’s high. She worries about him. But she gets mad too, and when she’s mad, she doesn’t want to be around Luke, and right now he needs someone to be around him, or the loneliness will kill him.
He tells me he feels beaten down. He wants to stop doing it, but he can’t. He does it because he doesn’t want to feel.
The first time he got high on pills, he thought, This is what’s going to help me not think about everything that has happened.
The feelings are what make you want to start. The feelings are what make you want to forget.
We go to sit outside at a patio table under the palm trees that frame Luke’s window. The house manager waves as he gets out of his car but doesn’t come over. Luke tells me his name is Jack and he used to be a doctor, before he lost his medical license.
“He sold pills,” he says quietly, so Jack can’t hear.
I’ve heard of sober houses that aren’t really sober; this is clearly one of them, and the reporter in me has the urge to dig. But right now I’m more interested in Luke, the way his fingers tap on his knees, a thin line of grime tracing the half-moons of his uncut fingernails. He has a baby daughter, and though he rarely sees her since his ex-girlfriend moved to the East Coast, his arms are fatherly: strong and protective. He faces me head-on, resolute, with eyes deadened and pupils as small as pinpoints.
I ask him if he feels desperate, if he’s anxious about getting his next fix.
“What time is it?” he asks.
I tell him it’s 7:15.
“Then no,” he says. “I’ll sleep it off and wake up tomorrow morning sick, but I know I got more, so I’ll get high. Then I’ll start the wild goose chase. I’ll do whatever I gotta do to get money. Commit some crimes.”
When I ask him if he wants to get clean, he sits up earnestly.
“Yeah, I do wanna get clean so bad, so bad, real bad, I wanna get clean,” he says. “But it’s just so hard. When you’re full-fledged kicking, it is unbearable, un-fucking-bearable.”
He lists the symptoms for me: Your stomach hurts. You can’t go to the bathroom because you have a buildup of shit. You can’t get it out because there’s too much, so you have to take a laxative. You get the chills; you’re always cold. Your bones hurt. You’re excruciatingly uncomfortable in your own bones. You get cramps, aches. You start burning, so you take a cold shower, you take four showers because that’s the only time you feel a little normal. But as soon as you get out, the feeling comes back.
But, he tells me, the physical withdrawal is nothing compared to what happens inside of your head.
“The dope sickness, that is nothing, that is 10 percent of the problem,” he says. “I mean it fucking hurts and it’s horrible, but the feelings that you feel, man, that’s what gets you. That is what fucking takes you down. The guilt, the shame. The guilt will fucking kill you, man.”
Pat felt guilty too. I know this, not because he told me, but because when I was picking through the boxes of his belongings, I had unearthed his rehab papers. “One thing that is very important to me is my family,” he had written. “I have my family motto tattooed across my arms, and yet I lied and deceived them all. I was in jail on Christmas and everyone in my family knew about my problem. This saddens me very much because I can’t stand hurting those I love.”
The diamond studs in Luke’s earlobes catch the light of the dusk. His hair is fine and straddles the border between brown and blond, like my brother’s. I ask him whether he thinks he’s a good person. He thinks for a minute before answering.
“I don’t know, man. Because I don’t really have a chance to show that side. I do think I’m a good person, I’m just …” He trails off and starts nodding.
His hand seems to have forgotten its cigarette, which smolders sadly, nearing its end. I think of Pat, smoking on the balcony of my apartment, breathing luminescent wisps into the black sky as I watched the slump of his shoulders. I remember the sickening gnaw of being out of control, and hating myself for not knowing what to say to him.
“I think you’re a good person for doing this,” I say to Luke, meaning sharing his story, but he doesn’t respond.
He comes back to life suddenly, his head snapping upward from his chest, remembering that Anna will be here soon. He envies people like her, who are in relationships, who have someone to care about them.
“Sometimes you look at your life and if someone cares about how you’re doing, it just feels good to know that,” he says. “For someone to wonder what you’re doing during the day and hope that you’re okay. That’s all I’m chasing is companionship.”
Right now, he says, he has very few friends left. He has nothing. He thinks maybe getting a girlfriend would help him out.
“I can’t take care of myself,” he says wistfully, before heading back inside for one more hit before Anna arrives.
ERIN MARIE DALY was a senior reporter for Law360, a New York City-based legal newswire where she covered the pharmaceutical industry and product liability litigation for the past five years. In 2007, she was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Daly has also reported in countries such as India, Bosnia, and Russia. She holds an MA in cultural reporting and criticism from New York University. Her feature writing has appeared in a myriad of publications. Erin also started Oxy Watchdog, a website for opiate addicts:
Excerpt taken from Chapter 2 of the book, titled “Just Let Me Forget.” Copyright © 2014 by Erin Marie Daly from Generation Rx: A Story of Dope, Death, and America’s Opiate Crisis. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.