By Michael Workman
It’s a sunny early morning in Basel, Switzerland. I’m one of a pair of junkies standing in the heart of downtown near the Kunsthalle, beside a door in the alley that leads two flights up to the Gaslight. It’s a “vampire club” that opens at 4am, and caters to all stripes of service-industry people, including the brothel’s sex workers and professional hard-core partiers, when the other joints start to close. We’re with the pro partiers. It’s a pretty thick crowd tonight, and me and my friend Lukac, bald and decked out in his brown fur overcoat, have been at it since dawn the previous day. It’s not our longest run, either. I’d met Lukac through the Swiss Embassy here in Chicago, who referred me to him when I called researching some business interests in the country. I’ve never met anybody as into cocaine as he is, and it’s not just him, all of his Basel friends are into it. It’s always a drug binge when we’re together. On the first night we met, we downed better than ten bottles of wine, burned through a quarter ounce of decent kush, toasted with some shots. We’ve been working our way all day and night through a few grams of cocaine, feeling acutely wired by the time we share the massive spliff that a sex worker from Argentina hands us on the dance floor and, again later, as we’re walking out. We’re moving all night together, me, Lukac and her friends, talking, our brains completely restricted to rear-brain activities only. It’s a repeat of the narcotized back-room scene at the Lodge from “Fire Walk with Me,” everyone slurring, indecipherable, visibly swaying in a deeply altered drug haze.
We stand out front of the Gaslight, a small group of us, too fucked-up to realize where we are anymore, standing in a circle, the five of us. Lukac tries to talk to me, but I can’t make out what he’s saying, just can’t focus through the fog, so then he gets frustrated and abandons me at the club. We just keep standing there, zoning, feeling no pain, rocked out of our minds. One of the five, a short-haired blond French dude in Wayfarers and a leather jacket, turns and, looking directly at me, coughs once or twice, takes a drag from his cigarette and with a noise that sounds like he’s choking on a hiccup, suddenly starts to vomit profusely, exhaling smoke at the same time, letting it run down over his jacket and undershirt as if he doesn’t notice it, just standing there as he repeatedly gushes streams of puke up all over himself. It stinks, the smell of the stomach acid fills the air, and she must have caught a whiff, because the Argentinean starts throwing up too. I probably would’ve myself if I hadn’t stumble-rushed away, lighting another cigarette, at my limit for the time being. I couldn’t have had even one more beer, nothing. I was done.
Sad to say, this kind of scene had pretty much become S.O.P. for me and those I was socializing with. Everybody I knew had problems. Mental, physical, financial, relationship struggles. Once you develop these drug and alcohol dependencies, it’s tough to shake them, especially when everybody you know is struggling with them and you’re all mutually enabling one another as well. Not just tough, but for some people, actually impossible. And I truly sympathize with the dilemma: It’s a fact that, sometimes, the treatment can do more damage than the disease which, beneath all the layers of addiction behaviors, is all-too-often a mental illness of one kind or another, commonly depression or untreated trauma left free to gestate into any number of disorders, phobias, night phantoms. My own solutions certainly have often felt Sisyphean in their effectiveness, oftentimes deepening the burden, but not for one second, starting out, not for one blip of a second did I stop to consider how susceptible I was to getting hooked. Hubris, I guess.
Luckily, I was just young and still psychologically elastic enough to survive all this self-destructive acting out, but I did much of it without any social support to speak of beyond my Facebook feed. In my experience, it’s not just a struggle to communicate the complexities of addiction to those whose lives have never been touched by it, people in general don’t really understand it or have any desire to do so. Not really. They don’t want to understand addiction, or trauma, or the differences between emotional and personality disorders; people who aren’t directly affected by these diseases usually hear about them from TV or movies, or that odd family member who had to get help. It always felt to me like speaking openly was somehow bad for business, or generally just embarrassing somehow, a sign of mental weakness.
However, mental illness and addiction are openly socially stigmatized, and this has a chilling effect on those seeking out treatment options. People in general feel bad for those who suffer it, but for the most part, the vast majority of people I’ve discussed it with still somehow cling to received, shallow, pop-psych notions of rugged individualism, that somehow people with mental health and addiction problems just aren’t morally righteous enough to fight their way out of it. It is nearly impossible, however, to articulate the way in which addiction sneaks into your life—the way in which they manage to slither in when you’re at your least strong, when you’re down and out, hurt.
Beyond that, the basic problem that you face with addiction, and how to solve it, is pretty straightforward. Your body manufactures a soup of chemicals, with a range of ingredients that make us feel good mentally and physically, and when it’s doing its job right, you achieve a state known as “homeostasis,” wherein all of our processes are functioning and our system is operating in harmony and balance, and life in the world is good. Then trauma of some kind comes along—the larger the trauma, the larger the potential for self-medication. When we start doping, artificially replacing the work done by our bodies naturally when it gives us “reward” chemicals like dopamine, then, when we stop providing our bodies these chemicals it needs to keep everything in harmony and balance, the pain of withdrawal we experience is our system’s response to that lack of balance, to the absence of that essential chemistry. It’s wrenching—whether you’re withdrawing from cocaine or Vicodin, it doesn’t matter.
Actually, it wasn’t until after my psychiatrist friend suggested I was suffering from Complex PTSD (or C-PTSD), that I really started to develop a framework for finally coming to grips with my own addictions. It was obvious why I’d gone off the deep end. My successful nonprofit business had gone south (loudly) with the Great Recession, and I was fighting off a rabid, merciless legion of creditors, along with churlish bottom-feeding and spotlight-hungry blog-gossips. All of the droves of fair-weather friends I’d had when there were seven figures in my bank account suddenly weren’t answering phone calls or emails anymore. My marriage was falling apart on account of both my substance abuse, mental health problems and my wife’s own litany of issues. In these perfect-storm moments, when we have simply lost too much, when the relish at our own pain is all we have left, I turned to whatever comforts I could find, especially at the beginning of the crash, while everything was still coming apart at the seams, and I got highly motivated, if still closeted and daytime-functional, about my self-medicating.
And it wasn’t just the aforementioned cocaine; it wasn’t ever just one thing. Turns out I was slipping into polysubstance dependencies, and scaring up a whole lot of co-morbid factors right along with them. I’d got into the habit of downing, at least, a six-pack of tallboys and two-to-three shots of whisky a night, just to get to sleep, along with a minimum pack-a-day smoking habit, cannabis whenever available (the only substance I still indulge in today, since it helps ease my clinical depression), cocaine and a pharmacopia of pills: Xanax, Fentanyl, Ritalin, Ambien to sleep, Adderall to wake, a post-surgery handful of Percocets for walking-around pain. Of course, there was also a long list of drugs I was ingesting just for recreation that I wasn’t hooked on: Psilocybin, LSD, Mollies. It was crazy how readily I was using pretty much anything. I just couldn’t stop. And no amount of pain or sickness was ward against my appetite. I’d suck on an Albuterol inhaler to dilate my bronchial passages so I could smoke more cigarettes without the panic-inducing shortness of breath. And I was always experiencing panic from my shortness of breath. It wasn’t even a matter, since I’m laying it all out here, of actually even wanting to do most of the drugs I was self-medicating with, especially the coke. Coke is fucking awful. I’d never touched the stuff until I started putting time in with Lukac, who was doing a gram a day or more, depending on the social calendar. I met his dealer in Manhattan one night when he was delivering to a dinner party we were at, and he thought it necessary to warn me, since he’d only brought us a couple grams. “It’s not going to be enough for Lukac,” he said, palming me the baggies full of white rock. “I know that guy, and this is a snack, not a meal.”
I chop up the rocks in the bathroom, and we bar-hop, bumping in the restrooms everywhere we stop. Later that night, back at his apartment where I’m crashing, feeling like I have a scab forming in the wrinkles of my brain matter, I sit in his living room uncontrollably talking to myself for three hours, crying hysterically, tweaking real hard, until my nose starts bleeding. Not just bleeding, but pouring a mixture of blood and brain fluid, and doing so as if it is running out of a kitchen faucet from my nostrils, filling my cupped palms, running over the sides and dripping a trail as I shuffle across his apartment to the bathroom where I hold my head over the sink and the blood just keeps running. It goes on for so long, and I splash so much blood everywhere, that I can’t avoid slipping in it and fall hard on my shoulder against the tile. I lean my head back, still laying strewn across the floor, and it runs out across my cheeks into my ears and hair. I truly believe I am going to bleed out and die right here on Lukac’s dirty bathroom floor. When I tell him about what happened later, he tries to convince me it’s because of the dry heat from the radiators, rather than the obvious fact that I’ve burned through the delicate mucosa lining of my nasal passages.
I wasn’t taking drugs to kill myself, or so I thought when I wasn’t being honest. Maybe I was, I’d think, maybe I am. That was basically the point in spacetime that I’d date as the beginning of the end, though it took a good long while for me to get my head around how to make it happen. All my roads, however, from that point on were going in one of a few distinct directions, and they all basically boiled down to me either controlling my addictions, or my addictions controlling me. It doesn’t take long for my anti-autocratic nature to kick in like a ton of lead bricks; I find the idea of anyone or anything else controlling me anathema, and something inside me just couldn’t connect who this person was with who I know myself to be, it just didn’t make sense. Where did I go wrong? How had it gotten so out of hand?
I had to ask around about this guy I’d become to find out more, since I appeared to have missed his visits. I sat down with my soon-to-be ex-wife to discover what I could about this shadow self, and she was indignant. “You remember when you threw a bottle against the wall and said you’d cut off my legs?” she snaps at me. I did not. “Or when we were in Miami, after leaving our friends we went back to our room. Remember that night with Tom and Holly? Do you remember that night?” she asks me, and that one I did. “Yes.” I say. “You told me, ‘Michael’s not here right now,’ and I remember thinking that I believed you, that there was someone else inside your mind, you were acting so different. You said that you liked to tell me lies, and that you were just doing all this in order to make me listen. You said you hated everyone, then…and then you went and filled a glass with piss and drank it, drank all of it. I mean, why would you do that? It was scary being in the same room with you.”
It gave me great pause. I call and meet up to ask a sex-worker friend about it, and she’s nonplussed, doesn’t want to say anything bad about me. I hold her hand, sit down next to her. “Okay, well, there was this one night. It was the night before your son’s birthday party,” she recalls. “You came in and fell like a plank. I’m surprised you didn’t break your nose, you went limp in the arms and I couldn’t drag your dead weight so I covered you with a blanket.” It takes a few seconds, then I see it all coming together. “Eventually, you roused yourself and clambered into bed, and I thought you were fine and going back to sleep. Then about half an hour later, you woke me again when you started throwing up in your sleep. You threw up all over in the bed, ‘cuz at first you were sleeping, then you woke up, and you leaned your head over the side. You slept the rest of the night on the floor in the bathroom throwing up. Very early in the morning you came back to bed and said ‘I’m so cold,’ and wrapped yourself around me, your breath in my hair was so thick with the smell of vomit.” She describes, covering her nose with her hand.
After talking to enough people, I started to piece together this portrait of myself as a person living as much of their life in blackout as possible. It’s funny, I think I’d always known, but without any consciousness of it. I was handling it. Coping. Still making things happen, still paying the rent. I wasn’t hurting anyone other than myself, I’d think, and that’s hurting no one. I’d never thought to include myself in among the list of people I should strive to treat with any decency. It got me to thinking, and I spent a lot of time recalling my trip to Tokyo with my friend Lawrence. We had this crazy idea just to drop everything and fly halfway around the planet and back for a weekend in Tokyo. We were young enough and had enough time and money, and thought we just might not ever get the chance to see Tokyo ever again. So, we flew out on a Thursday and back on the Monday, taking us each way across the International Date Line, which would give us an extra twenty-four hours on the way back.
It’s a crazy trip. We spend all of our first night in the city at a popular nightspot called Gas Panic with a platoon of Marines visiting from Okinawa and by the time we leave, we’re both so drunk that we stumble into an Irish pub (in Japan? I think to myself, amused) at around 7am, and meet a woman with long red hair sitting a few stools down next to us at the bar who we have a beer with and end up tagging along with her to an illegal underground casino. It’s dark inside, and there’s a line of people waiting at the door when we arrive, lights flashing from the main room, spinning diamonds, shards of color flashing across the walls. I have enough money, so I get us a VIP table and watch as Lawrence dances with the redhead, wearing his mirrored Aviators on the dance floor at 8am. Then I dance with her and notice, after a few minutes, that Lawrence has fallen asleep, slumped back into the cushions of our banquette. It’s when I go to check on him that I notice my wallet is missing, and called the waiter over. He guides me into a back hallway where four guys are sitting around a card table, smoking. One of them with long hair and a pinstripe suit comes over to me and says “Mr. Workman?’ and hands my wallet back to me. “You don’t blame us do you?” he asks. I look at him, look at all of them in this dark back hallway, and say, “It’s only dirty paper.” Everybody laughs.
I was so angry at how easily I felt like I’d been made a mark, whether it was the bar staff or the girl or Kublai Khan in a bunny suit, it didn’t matter. I’d gotten so overwhelmed, was under such constant pressure to manage our slow-motion apocalypse of my company coming unraveled and the struggle with the debilitating effects of the stress left me just barely able to maintain. I’d lost track of the movements of my own soul, the flow of my own emotions in the flood of this stress, almost purposefully, not just because I didn’t want to know, but because during the crisis, I simply couldn’t. I had families, mortgages that our payrolls paid for, more than a dozen employees who were most of them supposedly friends of mine. Everything would have stopped, I would have stopped, and I couldn’t cope with the sheer intensity of the anxious shock I was experiencing. In the end, they all took the life rafts and didn’t think twice. I had failed everyone. I had failed them, I had failed myself, I was a failure. I was a failure. I was happy to throw myself into this eternal feedback loop of constantly servicing my addiction.
Why not take it all the way? And, of course, that notion had critically maimed my ability to experience and contend with this mesocyclone storm cloud of negative emotions, of self-hatred that had been fueling it all. When you’re into an addiction and bad shit happens, you just don’t want anything to fuel the addiction; I would always knee-jerk distance myself from it, try to get away from any kind of negative situation rather than face it head-on. I couldn’t handle anything more, things were as bad as I could bear, and I thought that, at last, I’d found it, I’d found my limit for heartache and trouble.
Or so you’d have thought. Things remained pretty terrible for a while, my social circle jam-packed with enablers and fellow junkies. It isn’t until 2014 that I finally come clean with my physician about the problems I’m having, and tell him I want something to help tackle the underlying cause, which I believe is my depression. My doctor takes me through the list of available meds, and we decide to go with Escitalopram Oxalate, otherwise known as Lexapro, a serotonin reuptake inhibitor (or SSRI, for short). “Your sex drive will deteriorate,” he explains to me, from among a mile-long list of side-effects I’m likely to experience. “You won’t be able to cum as often. You’ll have nausea, vertigo, myalgia, insomnia, though you’ll also yawn a lot and feel somnolent. Akathisia, anorgasmia. Paresthesia.” As he scrolls through the list, the only thing I can think is that it’s all better than death. Ten years ago, in my early thirties, the scary-sounding side-effects might actually have been enough to dissuade me from starting a regimen. Not anymore. Now it’s a matter of life and death, health and disease. Equilibrium and insanity. “Okay, give it to me.” I say, cutting him off, feeling like I don’t really have any choice. I’d got myself into it, and I was going to have to get myself out of it. All of it.
Turns out, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Once I was on the Lexapro, I took baby steps: started running, a few miles a day at first, then up to five miles (this has lapsed because, you know, Chicago winter); took a look at my diet and started eating more health-consciously, incorporating more fruits and vegetables, and trying to only drink zero-calorie carbonated waters. Everything with sugar in it is now categorized as a rare treat, everything, including soda, cereals, everything.
Then, I put my social circles on notice and started friend-dumping all of my other narcissistic, nihilist alkie and druggie friends, cleaning up people like Lukac and my pill-popping girlfriend at the time out of my life. I’ll admit, some of them I miss. Some of them I really, really don’t. Rules, rules, rules, however, have made the difference. Structure. No more pills unless prescribed, and no more narcotics at all, none, zero. Period. Coffee is okay and sometimes, well, sometimes you just have to eat cake and cupcakes and chocolate truffles and all that kind of stuff, and if I feel like I just have to, fine. I draw a range of other hard-ish boundaries for myself, based on what I think is reasonable, each time testing the fences as it were, and nowadays I say that I don’t drink except for a “special occasion” clause, when there’s something worth celebrating, and then I keep an eye out that I don’t binge. It works very well, and has been key to getting control over my alcohol consumption.
Then, the hardest of all, I blocked out a week on my calendar and made a special promise to my son, for his tenth birthday, to quit smoking permanently. As part of the ritual, we videotaped my making the promise to him, and the two of us crushed my last two cigarettes into a bowl together. Then I put it up on Facebook for all my friends, family and “friends” to see. I haven’t touched a cigarette in two months now, after smoking every day for nearly the last thirty years. Eventually, I hope they’ll find a cure for depression. There’s a lot of discussion right now about neuroplasticity and the FOSB protein in genetic study fields, for its involvement in addiction, and maybe eventually they will actually crack the code to this societal, psychological and medically complex disease. But until then, I’ll take this anti-depressant, a drug out of all the drugs I was open to that I feel as though I may have dismissed somewhat too out of hand. I would have not been capable without it of getting control over my life again, were it not for the shift in focus from treating my addictions to treating the underlying cause in my depression. After that was under wraps, I no longer needed the emotional crutches so completely, and could finally stand on my own two feet again.
Some names and details have been altered to protect those involved.