Doped up nation

All over America, I’ve seen posters warning against drug addictions. In Cheyenne, it’s “METHAMPHETAMINE / Don’t live this tragic story.” A few blocks away, I stepped over used needles on the sidewalk. In Buffalo, it’s an image of a beer bottle and a pill bottle, with “HEROIN addiction starts here . . .” Appended to it was a homemade sign, “SHOOT YOUR LOCAL HEROIN DEALER.” Also in Buffalo, it’s a photo of a seemingly dead man on the floor, with “Learn how to recognize OPIOID OVERDOSE and SAVE A LIFE.” In Cleveland, it’s a tagged toe in a morgue, with “DEATH BY HEROIN OVERDOSE IN CUYAHOGA COUNTY HAS QUADRUPLED,” and this was in 2014, before the prevalence of fentanyl.

In 2016, Philly had 277 murders and 907 fatal drug overdoses. For 2017, murders are up 21% and drug deaths, 33%. What’s your town’s drug toll?

A 33-year-old friend admits to popping street-bought Xanax every now and then to help her sleep. I suspect she’s on various pills, if not heroin, for she’s always broke and borrowing money. She has a spotty memory, sporadic hygiene and pinpoint pupils.

At Friendly’s, I sat next to my buddy Jeff, who’s in his late 40s and HIV positive. Each day, Jeff pops a dozen pills, including Klonopin, a benzodiazepine that can trigger paranoid or suicidal thoughts, as well as degrade your memory, judgment and coordination. Mixed with other substances, particularly alcohol, it can slow your breathing or even kill you. Jeff is always drinking.

“Jeff, man, you’re always so outgoing, so gregarious, I can’t imagine you having anxieties!”

“That’s because of the Klonopin, dude. Without it, I’d be a mess. Without it, I’d be up all night pissed off, you know, about some stupid argument I had 15 years ago, some fight with a hot dog vendor who gave me ketchup instead of mustard!”

“That’s serious.”

“Here’s what it looks like,” Jeff showed me some innocent looking white pills in a yellow bottle. “You want one?”

“No, thanks.”

Jeff took one out anyway and gave it to the bartender, 42-years-old Lisa. She stashed it away for later.

Lisa is prescribed Buspar, also for anxiety, but it’s weaker than Klonopin and slower to kick in. Lisa justified, “After eight or nine hours here, sometimes you’re, like, whoaaa, so the Buspar helps, but I don’t take it often.” She’s also swallowing pain-killers for a foot.

Down the bar was a new guy, Dominic. It turned out he’s a writer, with a book of stories coming out in 2018. “Congratulations, man!” I shouted. “It’s not easy to get fiction published these days.”

Dominic said he had a story online, “And it has pills in it, too. I’m a manic-depressive.”

Millions of people ingest pills unnecessarily, but this Dominic Viti was a bona fide walking hell. From his “Sick Little Man”:

That’s the core of psychosis, really: sickness. And since your knowledge of the world is filtered through that sickness, the whole world begins to look as grotesque and spoiled as you. And when there’s no good left to spoil, your sickness turns on you, it becomes you, and you the sickness turn on yourself, a black hole for which all things rot and disappear, like light lost in shadow. There’s nothing in this world that doesn’t sicken you to your bones, sad and dank and putrid animals that reek of death and stupidity, a stupidity so hopeless and consuming that you buckle over nauseated, sick to your stomach, sick to your sickness.

In my 20s and 30s, I had manic bouts where I thought God spoke to me, and everyone and everything just adored me. Finally, I was in the House of Light, and everything in the world was eager to help me. Unmolestable, at last, I had no anxieties.

As I walked across a bridge, all these hovering pigeons surrounded me and flapped their wings most vigorously. Fanning my face, they just wanted to bring me comfort and joy, you see, but you can’t be that batshit and not pay a price, thus the comedowns were infernal. Still, I visited no doctors, so took no pills. I don’t even like aspirins.

Once in Oakland, though, I bought a homeless woman a beer and a cup of coffee, so she reciprocated with a green pill. As she popped one, I did the same. It’s impolite to not eat or drink what’s offered.

Twenty-seven-years old, Loudmouth Mike was addicted to just about every drug for eight years. In rehab for the last two, he takes Methadone. “It’s also a drug, man, so when I’m walking down the street, it’s like I’m watching TV. Nothing is real.” A maintenance guy for an apartment building, Loudmouth is getting married soon. He’s straightening his life out.

After working eight years for a doctor, 32-year-old June became so depressed over always giving opioids to patients, she had to quit. She now toils in a kitchen.

Twelve years ago, Linda got sick so the doctor gave her pain killers, which increased in quantity and intensity until she was prescribed time-release morphine. Sedated, she became ever more reclusive, to the point of being confined, nearly all day, inside her dark room. She won’t even sit on the porch, much less leave the house.

Five years ago, her husband, Ted, got an inheritance of $120,000, so he suggested, five months later, that they and their two boys take a much needed vacation. Nothing fancy, just a trip to the Jersey Shore for a few days. Working a dirty, physical job, Ted was exhausted. Calmly, Linda said that the money was all gone. Worse, she hadn’t paid their rent for seven months.

Most foolishly, Ted not only let it go, but continued to allow Linda to handle the family finance. When Ted got into a minor car accident recently, it turned out Linda had also ignored his car insurance payments, so he may lose his driver’s license, something he needs for work.

Ted’s life insurance had also been nixed due to non payment. The cable television bill, though, was always promptly paid, for Linda had to watch Criminal Mind, Law and Order, Blue Blood and 48 Hours, etc. Television and drugs define happiness for too many Americans. That, and spewing venom online pseudonymously.

When Ted insisted they have a serious conversation, Linda went berserk and called 911, twice. He’s now living in a group home run by a blind nun.

“She’s acting like a typical junkie, Ted,” I said to him over the phone.

“I’m afraid you’re right, Linh. My wife is a different person. We’ve been married 28 years, and for most of that time, I was the happiest husband alive. Even after that inheritance disappeared, I’d not have traded Linda for any wife in the world. She settled me down, cooked, had my friends over for parties. They all envied me, Linh. My wife would rather plant tomatoes in the garden than go shopping. When my dad got sick, Linda took care of him for a couple of years. I’ll always remember that. My wife was perfect, Linh, and always very frugal.”

“Now, she’s lying to you, kicking you out of the house and suing you for support!”

“At 65, I’ve become the AARP poster boy for the opioid epidemic!”

Linda’s nephew has been on heroin for 25 years, so perhaps he’s getting her drugs, with hefty commissions for himself. With infinite sadness, Ted is filing for divorce.

Yesterday, I found out at Friendly’s that Lisa had been fired. On her last shift, she was so doped up, Lisa looked all groggy, spoke very slowly, rung up many orders incorrectly and neglected to charge several customers. A week earlier, she was in the same condition, and at church on Sunday, dazed Lisa was also seen dropping the Host during Holy Communion.

Dom, Friendly’s owner, related, “The contractors that come in here tell me they can’t even get help these days. All the kids are on drugs!”

Strictly speaking, only Linda and Lisa are in physical pains, but even psychological or spiritual torments, if severe enough, are felt physically, and the American solution to any discomfort is chemical in increasing dosage, so even our toddlers are drugged.

What we have, then, are two problems 1) a society that subjects so many people to extreme psychological pain, 2) a culture that solves everything with addictive distortions.

Linh Dinh’s Postcards from the End of America has just been released by Seven Stories Press. He maintains an active photo blog.

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One Response to Doped up nation

  1. Modern society requires us to make stressful compromises then sells us chemical treatments that we become dependent on to deal with the distress. We all react differently to stress and respond differently to treatment but these are psychosocial issues. Circumstances are not always easy to change nor adapt to so distress is greater amongst those with less freedom I.e the poorest. We call them losers and they are but such an epitaph could be sympathetic rather than contemptuous. When we individualize we also depoliticise. The cause and the cure are both social but it is as individuals where the decisions are made as to how to act. It is as individuals where we experience. Learning to articulate that experience through culture is vital and why people such as the author are so useful and inspiring. Thanks Linh