American Junkie: An ExcerptBy Tom Hansen
February 27, 2010
November 1991. I stared out the partially fogged up window, my cheek pressed up against the cold glass. Down the street people at the grocery store were going about their lives, on their way home from their jobs. Walking into the store. Pushing shopping carts. Making choices. Standing in lines. Opening the backs of their Jeeps. Loading bags of groceries. Closing the backs of their Jeeps. Strapping kids into car seats. Driving home. It was raining.
I hadn’t left my room for three days, hadn’t slept in four. Most of the time I’d been at the window. During the day I watched the people down the street. At night I stared out into the darkness, seeing shadows move or imaginary rodents in the bushes. Every half an hour or I would drag myself from the window and over to the mattress to fix up another speedball, or two or three, or however many. I threw the used syringes on the floor. Every week or two Monica would come in and gather them all up and take them to the needle exchange, come back with a couple grocery bags full of new ones.
I heard the deep rumble of a Harley pull up outside the house. It was Shifty. Ordinarily I didn’t let customers come over to the house but I had been ignoring my beeper for three days and I was running out of money. These coke binges had been really screwing me up. As long as heroin was all I used everything ran like clockwork, but once or twice a year I would feel an irresistible pull to shoot coke and then it would have to run its course, usually a few days, maybe a week. I would shut myself in a room and not come out. I could hear Shifty’s motorcycle boots clomping up the stairs. He knocked.
“Come in,” I said.
He opened the door, took one step inside and froze.
A few days before this Monica and I had been on our way out to see a movie. The Addams Family. As I was pulling out of the driveway, Sharon, our roommate, pulled up. She’d just spent a week at her mother’s in Eastern Washington, detoxing. She rushed over and stopped me before I could back out of the driveway, an urgent look on her face. I knew what she wanted. Usually I would give someone like her the lecture, “You’re past the worst of it. Why do you want to get messed up again?” It had never worked, but I usually gave it a shot. And when they persisted, which they always did, and I relented, which I always did, I would say, “Be careful, your tolerance is down. Do it in two or three shots.” But that night I was in a hurry, Monica and I had to get to the movie. I ran into the house and sold her thirty-five dollars worth, then ran back to the car and headed for The Cinerama downtown. I thought the movie was dumb but Monica seemed to enjoy it. When we got home I went straight up to my room to do a shot. I had just finished when Monica knocked and stuck her head in.
“Sharon’s dead. She OD’d.”
I’d seen it before. People OD’d and died most often after they tried to quit. Their tolerance would be down, or they would get drunk and want to get high and that was that. People should just stop trying to quit, I thought. Then they would have a tolerance, some margin for error and this kind of shit wouldn’t happen. Sharon had been a nice girl, smart, quiet, not pretty enough to be a stripper like Monica and had struggled to get by with a regular job. I told myself that this is what happens when you choose this life. I told myself that where Sharon was now wasn’t so different from where I still was, that I was the living dead and she was just plain dead. I told myself, and Monica told me too, that it wasn’t my fault. All those things might have been true, or not. I wasn’t sure what my level of responsibility was. But I knew one thing, I had to get out of there. The cops would come, and the medics, and I didn’t want to be around for that circus. I cleaned all the syringes out of my room and packed up my drugs. As I walked out through the living room I looked over at Sharon’s door. It was open slightly. A picture formed in my mind, of her in there sprawled on the bed, her eyes open, staring, a needle in her arm.
Shifty stood there stunned, looking around the room. The entire floor was covered in syringes, two or three deep in some places, like hundreds of driftwood logs washed up onto a beach.
“Come on,” I said, “sit down.”
He stood there, staring at the syringes.
“Hey!,” I said, “come on.”
Finally, he snapped out of it and walked slowly and carefully over to the mattress, his boots crunching on the syringes. It sounded like someone walking on a gravel road. He sat down carefully on the corner of the mattress. Speechless, he looked around the room again at the hundreds of used syringes and the bottles of piss.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“A hundred,” he replied.
I began weighing up his piece.
“Man….,” he said, looking around, “this is….wow.”
I chuckled. “Yeah.”
It was shocking, I suppose, to him, to other people, even ordinary junkies. But to me it was simply the natural landscape of my world. I finished weighing up his piece, he thanked me and left, his boots crunching on the way out. As soon as he was gone, I began cooking up some speedballs.
My veins had been gone for a couple years. They’d simply dried up, run away from the onslaught of needle pokes. It’d happened quickly, over a few months, it seemed, with the big ones. Then the smaller ones went as well. I wasn’t about to do what my friend Nikki did, sit in a hot bath for hours trying to raise a vein to the surface of her skin, or mess around forever stabbing myself a thousand times. Some junkies got all wack about the ritual of shooting up and would sit there playing with their dope and needles for hours. They were half-asses, part-timers, dilettantes. Minor leaguers. It wasn’t some gas-powered radio controlled model airplane, it was heroin. You do it, you get strung out, it ruins your life and you die. End of story. Get the drugs inside your body so you can get on to the next thing, even if it was just staring out the fucking window. Even if it was just dying.
I lifted up my pant leg and unwrapped the ace bandage from my calf, then removed the wad of soaked paper towels and tossed it onto the floor. The wound was about six inches long and three inches wide. It was deep. At first I’d used little veins in my calf, ones that didn’t take too long to find. But eventually, they’d gone too, and I began injecting the heroin right into the flesh, into the muscle. Not skin-popping, shooting with the tip of the needle just under the skin, but deeper. It wasn’t the same as hitting a vein, not by a long shot, but it did the trick. I felt it. First a black spot appeared under the skin, about the size of a quarter. Then the skin on the surface just sort of dissolved, peeled, melted away. I could rub it with my finger and it would just sluff off. Then the black flesh under that melted away as well and left a wound, a hole. I figured it was the high potency of the shots and all the crap they put in black tar heroin that caused the flesh to die.
The wound didn’t bleed, or hurt, it only oozed a liquid the color and consistency of olive oil. The heroin seemed to cauterize the flesh and kill the nerves, so I shot there again. I would have left it alone, moved to another place but I soon discovered that I felt the shot a lot stronger when I shot into the wound, almost as strong as before when I had veins. I figured it was all the tiny capillaries trying to repair the flesh that carried the heroin to my heart and then my head faster. And so it went. I continued shooting into the wound until it got bigger and deeper. It didn’t affect me at all, I watched the flesh dissolve away, as if driven by some weird desire that if I could just get to the center of myself I might be able to find out something about myself. I began trading for and gobbling antibiotics to keep the wounds from getting infected. It didn’t smell bad and it wasn’t draining pus, so no worries. I packed it with paper towels and wrapped it with an ace bandage to keep my pant leg from getting wet.
I went to stick the needle into the wound and it stuck. I let go of the syringe and it stayed there, wobbling. I got a firm grip on it, pulled back and it sprung free. I felt in the wound with my finger. I had noticed this hard lump in the wound before but hadn’t thought much of it. It didn’t look like bone, I thought maybe it was a tendon or something. There was a little edge that I could get a grip on with my fingers. It was sort of loose, and I moved it back and forth, then more rapidly, jiggling it.
Suddenly it came free with a sucking sound, like a stuck boot pulled out of the mud. I held it up and examined it. It was about two inches long and a half an inch wide, and looked like a little piece of rotten driftwood except it was blood red in places. One side was smooth and rounded, and the other was porous like a sponge. With a paper towel I rubbed it. I could still see red in places but now some of it was off-white. I was pretty sure it was bone. I sighed, and decided I had better find another place to shoot, the other calf, my buttocks, shoulders, something. But that would have to be next time. Right now I needed to get the heroin in me. I injected the shot into the wound, away from the area where I had pulled the bone fragment.
I placed the piece of bone in a little wooden treasure chest, the one I’d kept firecrackers in as a kid. A couple of days later I took it out and examined it. It had dried. I tied a string to it, made a necklace and wore it around my neck. A medal of honor. Something I had picked up on the battlefield. A trophy, a memento. A souvenir of the enemy.
This made my veins cry.
From the crunching to the soaked paper towels, I was right there with you. Never thought Burroughs would look like a pussy.
“They were half-asses, part-timers, dilettantes. Minor leaguers. It wasn’t some gas-powered radio controlled model airplane, it was heroin. You do it, you get strung out, it ruins your life and you die. End of story. Get the drugs inside your body so you can get on to the next thing, even if it was just staring out the fucking window. Even if it was just dying.” – love this.
I can’t help but to think of the scene in Requiem for a Dream when he shoots up in his infected arm. It gives me the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it. Brilliant excerpt, I can’t wait to read more.
Hey thanks both of you. But I think there’s been some sort of communication breakdown, this stuff wasn’t supposed to go up till March when the book comes out.
Then we’ll hopefully get to read it twice. And I look forward to the book itself.
Yes! Yes! We can read it again. I can’t wait for the book, too.
That just means I have something to look forward to reading in March!
Oh god, Tom. Frightening and skin crawlingly raw. This hits you like a hammer.
Amazing stuff. Pre-ordering now….
Sorry if this went up by mistake, but…holy shit, man. This is powerful stuff. I can’t remember the last time I read anything that made my skin crawl the way this did.
And yes, I, too, saw Requiem a bit when I read this. But if possible it was even darker. Wow.
Gack. Man, this is one of those things that just gets under your skin and sets your teeth on edge.
Yeah, I’m not going to be eating for the rest of the day.
does your bio
& I mean that as high
I worked in rehab a long time
& this is true
& it is terribly uncomfortable
but that’s what truth is
& people need to see it.
Powerful writing Tom. This must be like opening the wound once more…
Thanks all. Simon, I hope you can eat again soon. BTW, I had this idea, of handing out American Junkie barf bags at readings. LOL
It’s important that you write this. It’s important that it’s disgusting and gritty and raw and unflinching.
I have a young friend – a girl who isn’t even legally an adult yet who grew up with my daughter who is teetering on the line between “occassional user” and “strung out junkie.” I’m the only sober person in her life that she’s shooting straight with. No pun intended. The other night, I took her out to dinner and brought her to my house and listened to her play her guitar and sing her songs and listened to her talk about the internal struggle she’s dealing with. Then we Googled “Heroin addiction” and I read aloud to her all of the stuff her brain is doing, the science, and some anecdotes from former users about how tough things got before they cleaned up. I read to her about the potential threats, including overdose. She listened. I haven’t heard from her since then.
If I get to see her again, I’m going to read her this.
yeah, if you read the self-interview on TNB I talk about the process of writing this book. I’ve always been more into fiction and the big question was “Why do we need another drug memoir?” because there are lots out there, but so many of them seem to be written by people who seemed to have something going on in their lives before the drugs, and I hadn’t seen one written by someone for whom the drugs were everything. Sometimes we have to punish ourselves for a long time before we stop. Change happens slowly, that’s the truth, it’s not like ‘Intervention’ three weeks, find god and voila, but even so, it’s worth it.
PS-the book’s available on Amazon if you want to get your friend one
BTW Tom, that’s a great photo that’s featured.
God that was difficult for me to read. Brings back too many memories of where, how and what I grew up with. Makes me realize how fortunate I am in that that lifestyle seem like ancient history. Thanks for sharing.
Tom, this was hard to read – but at the same time, hard not to read. What an amazing thing you’ve broken free from. Thank you for sharing this.
I really enjoyed this I look forward to reading your book.
I feel you about not having any veins left…it’s shit to watch all these other people do their dope and an hour later your still a stabbin’ around….fuck I’m glad I got forced to kick in a jail cell bc the cushy rehabs were only a vacation and a place to meet new customers dealers and people to scam….