According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 23 million Americans are hooked on drugs or alcohol, representing an annual economic loss of $524 billion. Millions more have become enslaved to other compulsive behaviors: overeating, sex, gambling and shoplifting. In his first book, Denizet-Louis follows eight average Americans-including an athlete and a grandparent- who are struggling with addiction. The author covers three years in the lives of his subjects, portraying them with candor and compassion, giving these compulsions a more human face by telling the story of his own sex and pornography dependence, for which he twice sought inpatient treatment. This book provides an intriguing glimpse into the brain of an addict and the new hit or miss treatments-dopamine blockers and antieuphoria medications. While the excerpted e-mails and taped monologues might test the reader's patience, Denizet-Lewis is a compelling storyteller, and his wide-range of stories of addiction, relapse and recovery far exceeds other books in the genre. (Jan.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Lifeby Benoit Denizet-Lewis, David Drummond
America Anonymous is the unforgettable story of eight men and women from around the country-including a grandmother, a college student, a bodybuilder, and a housewife-who are struggling with addictions. For nearly three years, acclaimed journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis immersed himself in their lives as they battled drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, and compulsive
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America Anonymous is the unforgettable story of eight men and women from around the country-including a grandmother, a college student, a bodybuilder, and a housewife-who are struggling with addictions. For nearly three years, acclaimed journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis immersed himself in their lives as they battled drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, and compulsive gambling and sexuality. Alternating with their stories is Denizet-Lewis's candid account of his own recovery from sexual addiction and his compelling examination of our culture of addiction, where we obsessively search for new and innovative ways to escape the reality of the present moment and make ourselves feel "better." Addiction is arguably America's biggest public-health crisis, triggering and exacerbating many of our most pressing social problems (crime, poverty, skyrocketing health-care costs, and childhood abuse and neglect). But while cancer and AIDS survivors have taken to the streets-and to the halls of Congress-demanding to be counted, millions of addicts with successful long-term recovery talk only to each other in the confines of anonymous twelve-step meetings. (A notable exception is the addicted celebrity, who often enters and exits rehab with great fanfare.) Through the riveting stories of Americans in various stages of recovery and relapse, Denizet-Lewis shines a spotlight on our most misunderstood health problem (Is addiction a brain disease? A spiritual malady? A moral failing?) and breaks through the shame and denial that still shape our cultural understanding of it-and hamper our ability to treat it. Are Americans more addicted than people in other countries, or does it just seem that way? Can food or sex be as addictive as alcohol and drugs? And will we ever be able to treat addiction with a pill? These are just a few of the questions Denizet-Lewis explores during his remarkable journey inside the lives of men and women struggling to become, or stay, sober. As the addicts in this book stumble, fall, and try again to make a different and better life, Denizet-Lewis records their struggles-and his own-with honesty and empathy.
"Benoit Denizet-Lewis writes with an impressive mix of transparency and compassion about the addict's eternal battle between will and action. He sees deep into the sadness of desperate people, and equally deep into the systems that redeem such sadness. This is an intimate, compelling volume." Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression
"This book reaches into the dark depths of the heart and soul of addiction by telling the stories of people who have struggled to find their way into the light of healing. I t is a collage of potent experiences from ordinary people women and men caught in the web of addiction whose fight for recovery will inspire anyone who reads Benoit's book." William Cope Moyers, author of Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption
"One of the best books I've read in the last year, and one of the most powerful I've encountered about addiction." Rachel Kramer Bussel, The Huffington Post
"A dazzling portrait of eight addicts and their intimate, sometimes heartbreaking struggle... Addicts will read this book; those who want to understand addiction should read it!" Susan Cheever, The Daily Beast
"An arresting, personal glimpse into the merciless world of drug and behavioral addiction. All eight of the people (Denizet-Lewis) followed are gripping subjects, and he describes their plights in seasoned, dexterous prose." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"A graceful, compelling book focusing directly on people, not on concepts or proscriptive ideas. Denizet-Lewis relates their successes, relapses, and struggles to stay clean with warmth, clarity, and a deeply refreshing, unpuritanical frankness." Kate Christensen, ELLE
"I was skeptical about another book about addiction, but Denizet-Lewis finds a fresh, provocative approach to the subject... I often felt like I was right there listening to the conversations. And, boy, was I paying attention." Rochelle Olson, Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Engrossing... Denizet-Lewis gives readers a sense of the ravaging power of addiction." Vikas Turakhia, Cleveland Plain Dealer
"America Anonymous makes for addictive reading." Johnny Diaz, Boston Globe
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I am an addict or, as my father prefers it said, I have an addiction. There's no need, he insists, to so thoroughly pigeonhole myself. I think I know what he means. If I have an addiction, then maybe one day I can throw it away, or misplace it, or refuse to be seen with it. But if I am an addict...well, that feels more permanent, more all-defining.
I did not consciously choose my particular manifestation of addiction (sex), nor did I make a concerted effort not to become enslaved to cocaine, or crystal meth, or craps, or any of the myriad ways addicts commit suicide "on the installment plan," as educator Laurence Peter once put it. For whatever reasons, my brain believes that sex is the best way to medicate loneliness, disconnection, shame, anger, and a core belief only recently challenged that I am inherently unlovable.
Perhaps my sex addiction was foreshadowed many years ago. When I was twelve, my favorite song was George Michael's "I Want Your Sex." In the shower I could be heard happily belting, Sex is natural, sex is good, not everybody does it, but everybody should!
Back then, it would have been inconceivable to me that one could think about sex or, better yet, have sex too often for one's own good. Sex was definitely not like crack, which I was hearing about with increasing hysteria on the news. Crack seemed very, very bad. Sex seemed like a great idea, especially as it was explained to me in the pages of the Penthouse magazines I found while snooping around my father's bedroom. (My parents divorced when I was six, and I divided my time between their houses.)
If you had told me when I was twelve that I would grow up to be a sex addict, I likely would have prayed you were right. My attitude at the time would have mirrored that of some grown married men whom I've told about my addiction. When I say that sex can "take over my life," I don't get much sympathy.
But lucky I am not. Like any debilitating addiction, sex addiction is about as fun as a self-imposed daily practice of water torture. What does sex addiction look like? It can take many forms, but for me a bad day in my active addiction looked something like this:
9:45 a.m.: Wake up later than intended (resolve to get up earlier the next day).
9:46 a.m.: Feel shame for having blown off my friends (again) in favor of spending five hours the previous night in a chat room on the Internet, followed by an hour of sex with someone I met there. Resolve to see friends that night.
9:47 a.m.: Think about eating breakfast.
10:02 a.m.: Decide that I'll wait until lunch to eat.
10:05 a.m.: Blow off checking my work e-mail. Check my other e-mail, to see who responded to one of my online profiles, some more truthful than others.
10:38 a.m.: Have phone sex.
10:59 a.m.: Remember that I hate phone sex. Resolve to stop having phone sex.
11:03 a.m.: Check my work e-mail realize that I missed an appointment.
11:05 a.m.: E-mail said person. Apologize, make excuse.
11:08 a.m.: Call a friend and make plans for that night.
11:20 a.m.: Try to work.
12:09 p.m.: Give up. Resolve to work harder the next day.
12:23 p.m.: Make a sandwich. Watch TV.
1:15 p.m.: Spend five hours online looking for someone attractive to have sex with. Ignore repeated calls from friend with whom I have plans.
6:17 p.m.: Call friend. Lie about why I can't meet.
6:19 p.m.: Feel shame.
6:20 p.m.: Go back online. Eventually find someone attractive to have sex with.
7:10 p.m.: Take first shower of the day.
7:20 p.m.: Drive an hour to meet the person. Wait. Person doesn't show.
8:40 p.m.: Drive home, angry and hungry.
9:40 p.m.: Get back online look for someone new.
10:02 p.m.: Mom calls (later than usual). Let it go to voice mail.
10:05 p.m.: Watch some porn.
10:45 p.m.: Have phone sex.
12:45 a.m.: Remember that I hate phone sex. Resolve to stop having phone sex.
12:46 a.m.: Feel shame.
12:49 a.m.: Finally eat dinner (leftover Chinese food).
1:08 a.m.: Check mom's message. Realize that I forgot her birthday.
1:09 a.m.: Feel like killing myself.
Fortunately, I can take or leave drugs and alcohol. I drink wine often (I'm half French), but I stop after a glass or two. I enjoy marijuana, but not nearly enough to go looking for it. I tried acid once in college, but by the third hour I had convinced myself that my two chess-playing, acid-dropping friends were conspiring against me with every move. I tried mushrooms once, enjoying them very much until I thought I was a character in a television show I was watching and deciding that I would be happier curled up in bed listening to Enya.
I also tried cocaine a few times, felt very good for about forty minutes, and then felt very annoyed. What a stupid drug, I thought. It seemed that the only way to enjoy cocaine to avoid the depressing low that followed the short, exhilarating high was to essentially be high all the time, and that sounded silly and expensive.
The only drug I've ever used regularly was ecstasy. Over the course of four years in college, I took one or two ecstasy pills every few weekends. For me it was the perfect substance, because it seemed to help facilitate intense emotional connections with other people, something I was not good at achieving while not on ecstasy.
If cocaine is a selfish drug, ecstasy is its spiritual opposite a miraculous conduit for human compassion and love. Ecstasy has the astonishing effect of making you see the good in other people, even those you may not otherwise like. As Andrew Solomon writes in The Noonday Demon, on ecstasy you feel like "communicating enormous love to everyone within reach."
But there is some evidence that prolonged ecstasy use damages serotonin responsiveness in the brain, which can lead to long-term memory and mood problems. So on those rare occasions when I'm tempted to take ecstasy again, I simply choose not to. When it comes to drugs, rational thinking wins.
When it comes to sex, though, rational thinking loses in a landslide, and the consequences seem trivial. That's because my brain reacts to sex and pornography as a crack addict's brain responds to crack cocaine there's never enough of it, and it's the only thing that matters in the world. Poet Michael Ryan said it best in his memoir, Secret Life: "My primary loyalty was to sex. No human relationship took precedence over it. Not marriage, not friendship, and certainly not ethics."
My sex addiction has cost me many things friends, romantic relationships, a job, and, on many days, my self-respect. But it has also given me my recovery, and for that I am grateful. My recovery has been far from perfect (when it comes to relapsing, celebrities have nothing on me), but it has undoubtedly saved my life and, on many days, made that life worth living.
I tell you about my addiction not because it pleases me to do so (it doesn't), or because this book is about me (it isn't). America Anonymous is about eight men and women from around the country struggling with different manifestations of addiction. My story is relevant because it inevitably colors the way I conceptualize this topic. As someone in recovery from this disease or illness, or disorder, or problem, or bad habit, or moral failing, or whatever you believe it to be I came to this project with my fair share of biases.
First, I believe in an expanded understanding of addiction. That is, I believe that gambling, sex, food, spending, and work (to name a few) can, for some people, be as addictive and debilitating as an addiction to drugs. This is not a radical idea an increasing number of addiction experts and researchers agree with this but it is an important one that shaped the scope of this book.
As I searched for men and women to write about, I chose to define addiction broadly, immersing myself in the lives of a radio DJ addicted to food, a bisexual bodybuilder addicted to crystal meth and steroids, a college student addicted to sex and pornography, an eighty-year-old retiree addicted to alcohol, an unemployed former boxer addicted to heroin, a housewife addicted to shoplifting, a grandmother addicted to crack, and a drug and gambling addiction counselor addicted to in his own words "virtually everything."
I agree with Howard Shaffer, the director of the Division on Addictions at the Harvard Medical School, when he calls for a "syndrome model" understanding of addiction. Each outwardly unique manifestation of addiction, he believes, is likely part of the same underlying disorder. There is ample anecdotal evidence for this. Many addicts are hooked on more than one thing, and many will switch addictions if they give one up witness the scene outside some Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where recovering alcoholics clutch a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. (AA co-founder Bill Wilson smoked until his death from emphysema and pneumonia in 1971.)
Science also backs up the syndrome model. By studying the brain's reward and pleasure systems, researchers many of whom used to dismiss an expanded understanding of addiction as just another example of this country's addiction to calling everything an addiction are discovering that drugs and behaviors like gambling, sex, and overeating affect the brain in some similar ways as drugs.
The best definition of addiction I've found comes from a pamphlet published by Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous: The use of a substance or activity, for the purpose of lessening pain or augmenting pleasure, by a person who has lost control over the rate, frequency, or duration of its use, and whose life has become progressively unmanageable as a result.
It's not a perfect definition. Cigarette smokers are hooked on one of the world's most addictive substances (nicotine), yet for those smokers who don't contract cigarette-related illnesses, it's a stretch to argue that cigarettes cause progressive unmanageability in their lives.
The same is true for someone hooked on the world's most abused substance caffeine. Four trips a day to Starbucks likely constitutes an unhealthy dependence on coffee, but does it cause severe negative consequences? Probably not. As writer John Ernest McCann put it, caffeine "intoxicates, without inviting the police." (In one large-scale study, it also proved to be a lifesaving coping mechanism. Nurses who drank two to three cups of coffee each day were significantly less likely to commit suicide than nurses who abstained.)
Still, it would be foolish to claim that people reliant on nicotine or caffeine to get them through the day don't suffer from addictions. They may not need rehab, but they are undeniably hooked.
So what happens if we scrap progressively unmanageable from the above definition? Does that mean that anything we do in excess to lessen pain or augment pleasure constitutes an addiction? Can we be addicted to things that are good for us? Further complicating any attempt to define addiction is that it is undeniably a cultural construct what's good or bad for us is in the eye of the beholder. Countries and cultures understand the problem of addiction, and propose dealing with it, in different ways.
In China, for instance, addiction is still widely viewed as profound moral failing demanding punitive action. Many Chinese drug abusers are sent to labor camps, where they receive little treatment. And until a few years ago, police in China would sometimes shoot heroin dealers in the head and send a bill for the bullet to their families. In recent years, the Chinese government has become fixated on preventing and treating Internet addiction, particularly video game addiction among its young people.
In France, meanwhile, "recovering alcoholics" are a rarity, and food and sex addiction are mostly mocked as silly American inventions. So are there fewer addicts in France, or is the country in deep, blissful denial? Having spent plenty of time there, my guess is that it's probably a combination of both. But it's difficult to say for sure, because the French have a staggeringly different (and, I would argue, generally healthier) relationship to food, alcohol, and sex than we do. If the French don't have a cultural framework for food or sex addiction, can we label their behavior addictive?
Here at home, we've been maddeningly inconsistent in our understanding of addiction and recovery. We've vacillated throughout our history on what constitutes an addiction, what causes addiction, and what can be done to treat addiction. We've also changed our minds countless times about which drugs are most problematic and addictive (we've been perhaps the most befuddled by cocaine, which has been considered everything from an addiction cure to the most addictive substance ever). Occasionally there was a scientific basis for why we stigmatized a particular drug, but just as often it was based on political or economic interests.
"Merchants, capitalists, and the political elites who tax them have long appreciated that drugs are seductive products and lucrative sources of revenue," historian David Courtwright writes in Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World. "The clash between opportunities for profit and concerns about health forms the central moral and political conflict running through the history of psychoactive commerce.... The growing cost of the abuse of manufactured drugs turned out to be a fundamental contradiction of capitalism itself."
For most of the 1800s, there were no laws in this country regulating drug use, even as many Americans were hooked on opium and its derivatives. We mostly tolerated drugs, just as we tolerated and sometimes celebrated our cultural inebriety. Americans drank more alcohol per capita between 1800 and 1830 than at any other time in our history. While some sounded an alarm (journalist Anne Royall wrote in 1830, "When I was in Virginia, it was too much whiskey in Ohio, too much whiskey in Tennessee, it is too, too much whiskey!"), few thought of perennial drunkenness as anything approaching a disease.
One man who did was doctor and Founding Father Benjamin Rush, who in 1810 articulated the idea that alcoholism although the word itself wouldn't be introduced until 1849 or used widely until nearly a century later was a progressive illness, and that the only solution was abstinence. Rush believed that lasting sobriety could be achieved through "religious, metaphysical, and medical" avenues, and that addicts seeking recovery should be placed in a "sober house" where they could be treated.
Rush conceded that he had few backers in these beliefs. In an essay, he wrote, "I am aware that the efforts of science and humanity, in applying their resources to the care of a disease induced by a vice, will meet with a cold reception from many people."
But by the mid- and late 1800s, Rush's beliefs were gaining currency. Addiction was increasingly being understood as an illness that wasn't necessarily the result of vice (heredity probably had a lot to do with it). Many called for a compassionate response, prompting treatment centers to sprout up across the country.
Speaking at an 1842 meeting of the Washingtonian Society (a short-lived fellowship for alcoholics seeking sobriety), Abraham Lincoln argued that addiction should not be viewed in moral or criminal terms. "In my judgment," he said, "such of us who have never fallen victims [to addiction] have been spared more by the absence of appetite than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have."
But the winds of public opinion shifted again early in the twentieth century. As the word "addict" came into common usage, it resonated "around stereotypes of the opium-smoking Chinese immigrant, the 'cocaine-crazed' and sexually threatening African-American male, the marijuana-smoking and violent Mexican youth of the Southwest," Janet Farrell Brodie and Marc Redfield write in the introduction to High Anxieties: Cultural Studies in Addiction. "Medical professionals, police and criminologists, government bureaucrats, policymakers, and social reformers harnessed the mass media, the language of statistics and academia, and harrowing descriptions of newly discovered 'deviant subcultures' to mount campaigns against the perceived threats of racial minorities, the urban poor, and the foreign born. Anxieties about addiction meshed with wider American anxieties about lost autonomy and the dangers of the un-American."
In 1914, the federal government began regulating the sale and possession of narcotic drugs. Sixteen years later, the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics prompted the first of the century's drug wars. By then, most of the treatment centers founded in the 1800s had long closed. "The country eventually fell sway to the argument that, if alcohol and other drugs were effectively prohibited, there would be no need for addiction treatment programs," William White writes in Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America.
How wrong we were. Today, nearly 23 million Americans 9.2 percent of the population twelve or older are hooked on alcohol or drugs, another 61 million smoke cigarettes, and millions more are slaves to gambling, compulsive overeating, and sex and pornography.
Those men and women who don't die from their addictions clog our hospitals, courts, and prisons, and the neglected and abused children of addicts overcrowd our juvenile justice and child welfare systems. (More than 70 percent of abused and neglected kids in family court and child welfare agencies have substance-abusing parents.)
In 2007, the economic cost from alcohol and drug abuse alone was estimated to be $534 billion. But as Joseph Califano Jr. makes clear in his book High Society: How Substance Abuse Ravages America and What to Do About It, the real cost of substance abuse is practically incalculable: "What funds terrorism, spawns crime, drives up health care costs, breaks up families, spreads AIDS, promotes unwanted teen pregnancy, and frustrates so many efforts to eliminate poverty?" The answer, he correctly points out, is "substance abuse and addiction."
Remarkably, while untreated addiction triggers and exacerbates many of our country's most pressing problems, we seem uninterested in tackling it or even talking honestly, intelligently, or compassionately about it. And, sadly, politics and profit seeking continue to have more to do with how we combat addiction than does science or rational thinking. (How else to explain that the two deadliest substances in America nicotine and alcohol are legal, while marijuana, which kills virtually no one, remains the obsessive focus of our staggeringly ineffective drug war.)
But effectively combating addiction would require more than a complete rethinking of our drug policies. It would necessitate nothing short of a radical cultural shift of consciousness. In his book Addictive Thinking: Understanding Self-Deception, Abraham J. Twerski points out that curbing addiction would demand that American culture establish a "tolerance for delay" and "ultimate goals in life other than sense gratification."
In 1948 author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, "We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible."
Sixty years later, as we find more and more ways to distract ourselves and as we obsessively search for new and innovative ways to escape the reality of the present moment and make ourselves feel "better" we've created a schizophrenic culture where nothing is ever enough, where stillness is equated with boredom, and where we need increasingly intense experiences just to feel alive.
In essence, we've created a culture that supports and encourages addiction while at the same time shames, ridicules, and criminalizes those of us afflicted with it. As writer and addiction psychologist Stanton Peele once said, "Addiction is not, as we like to think, an aberration from our way of life. Addiction is our way of life."
But recovery is the American way of life, too. We are a nation of anonymous Twelve Step soldiers in a war against our insatiable appetites. Unfortunately, the collective recovery of these millions of men and women has had little impact on the stigma and confusion that still shape our cultural understanding of addiction.
Although the American Medical Association first defined alcoholism as a disease in 1956, a series of recent focus groups sponsored by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, and Faces and Voices of Recovery, makes clear just how far we are from accepting addiction as a true medical disorder.
Half the participants called it a personal weakness, and even most who saw addiction as a disease put it in a special category, along with AIDS and lung cancer, that people get by making poor choices. In a 2004 poll of the general public, two-thirds said they believe that a stigma defined by the pollsters as "something that detracts from the character or reputation of a person, a mark of disgrace" exists toward people in recovery.
Even the family members of addicts seem conflicted. In a USA Today/HBO drug addiction poll of adults with an addicted family member, 76 percent called addiction a "disease," but a majority of those same respondents identified "lacking will power" as the main impediment facing addicts. If those closest to addicts erroneously believe that willpower is their loved one's main problem, then it's no surprise that nearly half said they felt shame over having an addicted family member.
Ironically, people in recovery, many of whom have been sober for decades, are partly responsible for our cultural confusion and apathy surrounding addiction. By keeping our recoveries private and anonymous at all costs (except for the addicted celebrity, who often enters and exits rehab with great fanfare), we have unwittingly excluded addiction and recovery from the national conversation and cemented the popular belief that being hooked is something to be ashamed about.
But that may be about to change. Across the country, a growing number of people in recovery from drugs and alcohol are coming together to speak out. They're holding marches, lobbying Congress for more research and treatment funding, challenging a federal law that barred young people convicted of felony drug offenses from receiving federal student loans, and otherwise coming out of the closet as people in recovery advocating with anonymity by not naming the specific recovery fellowship they belong to, in keeping with the Twelve Step traditions that have been so critical to the success of groups like AA.
"Can you imagine the power of millions of recovering addicts walking on Washington, demanding that the government devote as much money to addiction research and treatment as they do to breast cancer and AIDS?" wonders addiction expert Patrick Carnes. "I predict it will happen, but I wonder how many more addicts will have to die before it does."
I share Carnes's frustration. But I also worry about the millions of us who won't die, who will live out our lives convinced it's the only way to live, medicating our pain and trauma with whatever substance or behavior best does the trick. "Like a cattle prod jabbed into someone who is exhausted and dazed, an addictive hit jolted us into a temporary illusion that we were alive and really living," reads the main text of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. Those same words apply to active addicts suffering from many manifestations of addiction.
For the most part, the addicts I followed for this book aspired to a different life. Not an easy life, to be sure, but a life free of cattle prods and shackles. Sometimes they faltered, and sometimes they really faltered, but most never lost sight for long of the life they aspired to. I am privileged to have witnessed them on a portion of their recovery journey, and I am honored by the opportunity to tell their stories.
Copyright © 2009 by Benoit Denizet-Lewis
The drug is at once pain and relief, poison and medicine; to be an "addict" is to live this circularity, with nothing at the origin but a sickness that strengthens itself in curing itself.
Janet Farrell Brodie and Marc Redfield, High Anxieties: Cultural Studies in Addiction
The main flight path into Boston's Logan Airport takes air travelers over the eastern edge of South Boston, an insular Irish Catholic community best known for its gangsters and addicts (and for its nickname, Southie). Today, the gangsters are mostly gone, but the addicts are as stuck in this neighborhood as they are on the drugs that make living here bearable.
"Sometimes I think God could do us a favor and crash a 747 into this fucking place," Bobby says, standing barefoot in the kitchen of his parents' Southie brownstone, smoking a cigarette and loading dirty glasses and plates into the dishwasher. A thirty-four-year-old heroin addict, Bobby didn't want me to come over until he got high. "I got some about twenty minutes ago," he shouts from the kitchen. "That's all I've been thinking about since I woke up. How am I going to get what I need? That's all I ever think about anymore."
His younger brother, Dan, sits on a red couch in the living room clutching a copy of the book Boyos, a novel set in Southie's criminal underworld written by a former state trooper who started robbing armored cars. Dan can relate to good guys doing bad things. A few years ago, when Dan was twenty-five, he was arrested for holding up a pharmacy for OxyContin, although the charges didn't stick.
High on Oxys (as he is now), Dan, who is boyish and handsome, likes to read. "I can read ten books in a row on Oxys!" he tells me proudly, sitting upright on the couch in baggy blue warm-up pants and a blue-collared shirt. Oxys make Dan feel smart. On them, he's not some Southie loser with no college degree, no job, no apartment, and a daughter he never sees. On Oxys, the former two-sport varsity athlete is a Southie intellectual, even if he doesn't always have the vocabulary to back it up.
"You know, when Oxys first came out, a lot of people around here thought heroin was voodoo," he tells me. Dan says "voodoo" a few more times before his brother can't stand it any longer. "You mean taboo," Bobby shouts from the kitchen. "Not voodoo. Taboo!"
Dan ignores him. "So the kids that would never dream of sticking a needle in their arm, they thought Oxys must be okay, because a doctor made it, ya know? What they didn't realize was that it's basically heroin in a pill. And then when they ran out of money and couldn't afford the Oxys anymore, they switched over to heroin, because they needed something. So kids either went to treatment, or they started using heroin."
"Or they killed themselves," Bobby says, walking purposefully into the living room and scanning the area for any dirty dishes. He scoops up a half-empty glass of Sprite from the top of the television and sits down, his hulking body (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) sinking into a beige sofa. He's wearing jeans, a gray long-sleeve shirt, and a red beanie over messy blond hair. He looks like an out-of-shape professional football player.
"I remember when I first saw an Oxy pill," Bobby tells me. He pauses, then takes a drag from his cigarette. "It was '96 or '97, and I was down in the projects when this kid came up to me and had these rough-looking pills. They were forty milligrams of OxyContin, but I didn't know that at the time. He didn't know what he had, either. He had taken them from some old guy who was dying, and he had a whole fucking container of them! So I was like, 'All right, I'll buy a few of those.' So I bought like ten for $4, which is so cheap, because now they're $40 a piece. So then I did them, and I was like, 'Oh, shit, what the fuck is this?' I started calling them super-perps. So the next day I went back and bought every single one off the guy for $4 a piece. He found out later what he actually had, and one day he saw me and he was like, 'You fuckin' motherfucker.'"
OxyContin a controlled-release pain formula approved in 1995 by the FDA amid the heightened awareness that millions of Americans were suffering from chronic pain was supposed to be less addictive than other painkillers. But by the late 1990s, people in Massachusetts and in many other states had figured out that if they crushed the pill or dissolved it in water, it created a staggeringly powerful high.
Dan never drank or used drugs until he was twenty-two, and for two years he resisted offers from friends to try Oxys. But when his relationship with his longtime girlfriend soured, Dan moved back into his parents' house and worked odd jobs. With seemingly little to live for, trying the drug didn't seem like that big a deal.
"It started as a weekend thing, but then before I knew it I was craving it, and then I needed it to function," he says, in perhaps the most concise and accurate description of the progression from habit to addiction I've ever heard.
Dan stands up and then sits down again. He does this often when he's high occasional bursts of movement without really going anywhere. Bobby gets up, too, although he shuffles back to the kitchen.
"Fuck!" Bobby screams a minute later, kicking the dishwasher in frustration. "Fucking thing won't work. Did you put the dishwasher stuff in the dishwasher?"
"Yeah, Bobby, now let me talk to him, will ya? Relax, we can do it later."
"I want to do it now," Bobby says, hunched over at the waist and frantically pushing buttons on the machine. As is his pattern, he goes from calm to enraged in the span of a minute. He grabs the cordless phone and starts jabbing at the number keys. "It won't work! It won't go on! I'm trying to tell you it won't work!" he screams to someone on the other end of the line. I'm curious to know who he's talking to, but I'm afraid to ask. I've been warned by several people who know Bobby well to stay out of his way when he's angry, or when he's desperate to find drugs.
"He has mood swings," Dan explains. "He's just a totally different person on heroin. You should see him when he's sober. He's a great guy!" (I already have. I met Bobby a few months ago at a community meeting about addiction, where he was a few days clean and said he was finally ready to stop using for good. But when it came time for him to get into a friend's car and be driven to a local treatment center, he changed his mind.)
"Fuck!" Bobby screams again from the kitchen.
"Bobby, relax," Dan says.
"I hate this stupid thing. I'm trying to fucking clean, you know? Why won't this thing work? All I want to do is the fucking dishes."
And then, a miracle: The machine starts working. Bobby hangs up the phone. "Okay, now who wants food?" he asks, opening the oven where he's been heating up a frozen pizza. The rage is gone as quickly as it came. He tosses the pizza on a plate and joins us in the living room, plopping himself down on the sofa again.
"You can't really keep a job on Oxys," Dan says, picking up where he left off before Bobby's tantrum. "So now I don't do anything all day, really. And I'm stuck in this fucking town."
"Our parents are in denial about Dan's addiction," Bobby tells me, coughing loudly. "I'm the addict, I'm the fuck-up of the family. They must know about Dan, but it's like they don't want to know. You gotta understand, there's a lot of dysfunction and denial in our family. I can't think of any family around here where there isn't addiction. Parents are alcoholics. Kids are alcoholics and drug addicts. Look around Southie. What do you see? You see a fucking liquor store and church on every other corner. So people can drink their life away, and then they can go and pray and ask God to make it all better."
While Dan has never been to treatment ("It's just not my thing"), Bobby estimates that he's been in and out of some seventy detoxes and residential treatment centers. Space in treatment centers isn't always easy to come by, but Bobby has an advantage. His godmother, Margaret, works for a local anti-addiction community group. Margaret spends her days counseling Southie parents, shuffling their kids to treatment and drug court, and making sure her own kids don't start using.
Bobby's longest periods of sobriety have come in jail. He's been convicted of drug possession and assault, serving a total of three years. "In jail, I'm working out, I'm eating right, and I'm clean," he explains. "When I get out, I end up back in Southie, around the same people, places, and things. But I don't want to leave my kids." (Bobby has two sons they're seven and ten who live with his ex-girlfriend.)
I ask Dan and Bobby if it's possible to stay sober in Southie. "It's hard, but it's possible," Dan says, standing up and pacing around the couch. "Some of my friends go to AA meetings all the time, and they're clean. They're always like, 'Dan, you should come to a meeting. Dan, you can change your life. Dan, come on.' But there's a lot of cliques in AA and stuff. I'm not a person who deals well with cliques and phonies, you know? Plus I've probably had a run-in with half the people in the room at AA. Some stupid fight over drugs, or a girl. But I can talk to people I know in AA and basically have a meeting like I'm doing right now with you. You know what I mean? This is sort of like an AA meeting right now, but without the fucking cliques. You know what I mean?"
I don't know what he means. This is far from an AA meeting, and while Dan desperately wants me to agree with him, I'm uncomfortable supporting his rationalizations. "I don't know," Dan continues. "Maybe in the future I'll go. I want to get into the Marines, and I'll have to be clean for that. But if I don't do the Marines, I'll probably start going to AA."
Dan sits down and squeezes his book tight. Bobby takes a big bite out of his pizza, smacking loudly as he chews. I ask Bobby if he has plans to return to treatment. "I'll go back soon enough," he says. "I'll get sick of this life, like I always do, and I'll go."
"When?" I ask him.
"I'll go when I go. I don't know."
Copyright © 2009 by Benoit Denizet-Lewis
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Meet the Author
Benoit Denizet-Lewis is an award-winning contributing writer for "The New York Times Magazine". Formerly a senior writer at "Boston Magazine" and staff writer at the "San Francisco Chronicle", his work has also appeared in "Sports Illustrated", "Details, Slate, Spin, Out, "and others. A former Alicia Patterson Fellow, Denizet-Lewis lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.
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