What's Left of Us: A Memoir of Addiction

What's Left of Us: A Memoir of Addiction

by Richard Farrell

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"Blunt and honest. . .A stunning piece of work." --T.J. English

"Deeply moving. . .What's Left of Us is a rush of blood to the head and heart, the kind only true art can deliver." --Andre Dubus

"An amazing story not just of survival, but redemption." --Mary McGarry Morris

Richie Farrell grew up in a working-class Irish…  See more details below


"Blunt and honest. . .A stunning piece of work." --T.J. English

"Deeply moving. . .What's Left of Us is a rush of blood to the head and heart, the kind only true art can deliver." --Andre Dubus

"An amazing story not just of survival, but redemption." --Mary McGarry Morris

Richie Farrell grew up in a working-class Irish neighborhood in Massachusetts. To overcome a birth defect, his father pushed him to become a star athlete, grooming him for Notre Dame. Sometimes, he would use a belt as a learning tool. Once, he used an electric carving knife. . .

The headline read Crippled at Birth: Farrell Now Grid Star. A month later, I tore up my knee and fell in love with pain medication.

By time he was thirty, Richie was a heroin addict, stealing from friends, shooting up during visits to his children, living in abandoned mill buildings, running from the shameful secrets of his family. Hopeless and in pain, he attempted suicide. When that failed, he was ordered to detox.

He looked at me. "Be honest," he said, "or you'll be on the street in 15 minutes. Jail, death, or honesty. You choose."

In this harrowing, astounding memoir, Richard Farrell chronicles a life of desperation, violence, lies--and the pure oblivion of heroin. A gritty, hauntingly written tale of a descent into hell and a slow, uncertain climb out of it, What's Left Of Us is a true story of redemption: of how low a man can get, and how hard he must fight to escape a shattered life. . .

"[Farrell] carries you on this rollercoaster ride of ugliness and beauty. Don't miss it." --Phyllis Karas

Richard Farrell is an author, filmmaker, teacher, journalist, and adjunct professor of English at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. His documentary, High on Crack Street, was aired on HBO and received Columbia University's duPont Award. He is the co-author of A Criminal and an Irishman: The Inside Story of the Mob-IRA Connection. He is the screenwriter for the upcoming film The Fighter, and makes his home in Milford, New Hampshire.

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Kirkus Reviews
Grim, unpleasant memoir of a junkie in a depressed New England city. Filmmaker and journalist Farrell (co-author: A Criminal and an Irishmen: The Inside Story of the Mob-IRA Connection, 2006) writes unsparingly of the lowest point in his life, a week of state-imposed rehab as a result of a failed attempt to overdose on his drug of choice, heroin. In an afterword, the author notes that he wrote this book in response to James Frey's A Million Little Pieces ("it is a damn shame Frey had the balls to lie about something that important to all of us in recovery"). In contrast to Frey's exaggerated self-portrait as a tough guy who could finally stare down a shot of booze, Farrell says that his vastly less glamorous story is more faithful to the truth about recovery-and it's not pretty. Acknowledging the unreliability of memory and admitting to some legally and ethically necessary name and fact changes, Farrell describes his method as trying to recover truth as though it were happening in front of him. The story is told in present tense-Lowell, Mass., in the late '80s. Born with a form of cerebral palsy, he was brutally molded into a high-school football star by his Notre Dame-crazy father, but a knee injury, he says, got him addicted to painkillers and then heroin. Farrell paints a decidedly unflattering self-portrait. He was a liar, thief, bum, arsonist and a rebel whose only cause was staying high. He was also the mostly absent father of two small children, an estranged husband and a mooching son of a devoted mother. His time in rehab was like a low-rent One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, shared with similar outcasts and misfits under the watchful eyes of untrusting wards. Though the book ispowerfully, even entertainingly, written, reading it is about as pleasurable as a week in rehab must be-which may be Farrell's point. But the author doesn't fully address how he was able to elevate himself enough to write this memoir. Not for everyone-probably best savored by addiction counselors and people in recovery. Agent: Emmanuelle Alspaugh/Wendy Sherman Associates

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Copyright © 2009 Richard Farrell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8065-3074-1

Chapter One

Breath of God

The Acre wasn't pretty. You'd never see it on the postcards sold at the corner drugstores in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts. The Acre wasn't big. Nobody had grass in their front yards-just black tar that formed the alleys separating the houses. The Acre wasn't rich. Most families had only one set of good clothes set aside for Sunday's Catholic Mass. The Acre was entirely segregated from the rest of my birth city. But it was still the best section of Lowell to grow up in if you were Irish.

The Acre was nothing more than a two-mile triangle of Irish who had formed a wall of self-protection. The homes were mostly triple-deckers-cold-water flats. Irish families had settled in Lowell years before to work in mills or build canals. All of them had escaped the horror of starvation on the streets of Ireland and found their way to Massachusetts. Compared to the Irish Famine, Lowell offered a promise of prosperity.

Smack dab in the middle of the Acre stood St. Patrick's Church where my uncle Joe Farrell had hoisted the steeple during the Roaring Twenties. It was the same St. Patrick's Church that my grandfather, Richard Farrell, checked the doors of every evening at midnight as he walked his beat as a Lowell police officer, the same St.Patrick's Church where my father and mother brought me and my brother every Sunday as kids, where I'd received the blessed sacraments of Baptism, Confession, First Communion, and Holy Confirmation.

St. Patrick's School was directly opposite the church's parking lot. Two generations of the Acre's children had been educated there, from poor to poorest. It didn't matter how much money you had. There were only two prerequisites-you had to be Irish and Catholic. It was staffed by Notre Dame nuns who were known for their propensity to ask questions after they'd already used the ruler on your knuckles. The principal, St. Claire Joseph, expelled me in the seventh grade for entering after hours because my friends and I had to use the bathroom.

Adam Street cut a line down the center of the Acre and separated the school from the North Common. The North Common was the place where my father forced me to practice walking heel to toe so I wouldn't be a cripple. For the Irish elders who'd sit for hours on a warm summer night talking about the old days, it was more than a giant park. It was their St. Steven's Green in Dublin. In the early days, the North Common hosted football games on Sundays in the fall. Two to three hundred people would show up to watch the Irish kids play the Greek kids who had settled in the lower Acre. It was always a bloodbath. There was no football, just full-contact tackle with an old gray sweat sock stuffed full of leaves.

But by March 1987, the Acre that I remember was no more. The Irish moved out in the seventies. Some became educated and wanted more for their families. The majority was swallowed up by "white flight." They moved their families to predominantly white suburbs not more than a few miles from the Acre. Then Puerto Rico began importing their criminals to Lowell. The Acre was poor, old, and close to downtown-the perfect place for drug trafficking and prostitution.

I am a heroin addict. My life is limited to three concerns. The first thing I gotta figure out every morning is how to get a bag of heroin into my arm no more than ten minutes after I wake up. If I fail, I'm dope-sick. The cramps inside my lower stomach go on a full-scale attack. I can't stand. I can't walk. The diarrhea squirts out like a water hose. But I'm damn good at getting high now. I hardly ever stay dope-sick long.

The second issue is drawing a "hot shot" or a "beat-bag." The majority of heroin in Lowell originates from New York City. Puerto Rican gangs bring it here by the kilo. The drug dealers on Adam Street who package the heroin from one-pound bricks into grams and half-grams are no Einsteins. They cut the heroin or add fake shit to stretch quantity for profit. Some dealers cut it in half and double their money. Most use quinine, which gives the bitter taste, and an Italian baby laxative called Manatol because its fine white granules have almost the identical weight of pure heroin.

So picture this, four or five Puerto Rican males in a poorly lit room with the combined education of maybe the eighth grade, whacked on heroin or cocaine, drunk on port wine, with about fifty or sixty small piles of white powder lined out on an old door top propped on two twenty-gallon plastic paint containers being used as a cutting table. You don't have to be a fuckin' rocket scientist to figure out they ain't gonna be able to get the proper distribution of cut to heroin every time. Too much pure heroin in a half-gram package equals a "hot shot." You're history, because five minutes after the rush your heart stops. Too little or no heroin in a half-gram package gets you dope-sick.

But my major concern on Adam Street is "cotton fever." I'd rather be dope-sick all day than get what the Puerto Rican junkies down here call "cotton shot rush." It's when a dirty piece of cotton fiber used to filter the heroin makes it into your bloodstream. The sweats and shakes that ransack your body are nothin' compared to the fire under your skin. I've watched junkies do everything imaginable, cry hysterically, beg to die, boot two additional bags of heroin and overdose just to kill the sickness. A doctor in the emergency room once told me it comes from bacteria or fungus on the cotton, and not the cotton itself. To me the argument is pointless, you get "cotton shot rush"-it doesn't matter where it came from.

Heroin is not a cold-shake like cocaine. The impurities used to cut heroin need to be cooked off in boiling water before you shoot it intravenously. Down here we all do it the same: bite the heroin package open carefully, taste it, gag or dry heave on the bitterness, empty the heroin into a cooker (either a spoon or the bottom of a tonic can), draw 50cc of water into the syringe, fill the cooker until the heroin drowns, and light a match.

After you see tiny bubbles dancing in the cooker you place a small sliver of cotton or a piece of a cigarette's filter into the liquid. With one hand firmly steadying the cooker, the tip of the needle is guided into the cotton or filter with the other hand. The plunger is moved upward slowly by biting firmly on the tip and moving the head upward. If all goes well the syringe fills with about 20cc of heroin. The task of hitting a good vein is next. And nobody down here takes the time to wrap a belt around their arm and whack the skin over a vein. That's fuckin' Hollywood. If you make it to where I am-you're an expert at veins. After contact, you watch your blood snake into the syringe, you pull the trigger, hot liquid moves quickly up your arm, your heart tingles, and you feel an immediate rush of adrenaline guzzle your brain in one swift sip.

From there it's a crapshoot. Most addicts don't carry sterile cotton balls or Q-tips in their back pockets. If you're lucky you have access to a clean filtered cigarette. But most of the time you have to find a cigarette butt on the ground, in an ashtray, or a garbage barrel. "Cotton shot rush" is a perfect example of life as a heroin addict. You live for the moment. If it happens, it happens. But there is no mistaking it when it hits. Ten to twenty minutes after you pull the trigger it whacks you like you're in the third day of the flu virus. The ears give it away: if they start to ring, you're fucked. Pressure begins to mount on each side of your temple like a vise squeezing slowly together. Sweat pours off your brow, but at first there is no temperature associated with it. The shakes progress quickly to trembles. Chills hit immediately after and the body's temperature spikes to over 102. Sometimes the brain fogs and things appear that aren't there. I'm not sure why some cases are more extreme than others. On occasion it can last only an hour; most times it resolves itself within twelve to twenty-four hours. But if the bacteria takes up residency in your heart and you don't seek medical attention, you're dead. I roll the dice about a dozen times a day.

Each morning I do what all the other runners down here on Adam Street do: I lurk in the doorways, dodge the police, jones, and wait for addicts to drive up and buy their morning dose. Now Adam Street isn't safe. And only one rule counts-the strong survive. The drug trafficking goes on all night long without a break. There's routine police surveillance, nothing big though. Every shift the cruiser drives by to let us know they know. But for the most part the drug trade is in your face twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

I wasn't always a homeless, jobless, low-life heroin addict. Once I was a good kid, an altar boy for Father Muldoon right here at St. Patrick's. I went to the YMCA as a young boy and played basketball, baseball, and football. And I was a pretty fair student-but school bored me. I think it had something to do with the fact both my parents were teachers.

When I was thirteen, my family moved out of the Acre into the wealthiest section of Lowell: Belvidere. Dad wanted the best for his kids, and the Irish no longer owned the Acre. All the old Irish families had moved to the suburbs or better sections of Lowell. The Farrells had become engulfed by "white flight." My dad said the Puerto Ricans would eventually overrun all of the good old Irish neighborhoods.

Our house was very modest compared with the houses on the hill behind us. The view from the back porch of our brand-new home was a sixty-room castle belonging to a billionaire, Mr. Lions. He lived with his wife, a chauffeur, two maids, a cook, and a groundskeeper. To the right of the castle was a forty-room-plus mansion owned by Dick Donahue, a former legal counsel to President Kennedy. He lived inside with a beautiful wife and eleven children. Every morning, I'd look out the bathroom window as I peed. No, we weren't in the Acre anymore.

My brother, Sean, and I had it all-friends, a giant yard in which to play tackle football, and five-speed bicycles. Sean was ten and a half months older than me. We were Irish twins, born in the same year. I was born with cerebral palsy. Or that was what my parents had been led to believe.

Back in 1956, Doctor Griffin, a specialist at Children's Hospital in Boston, told Dad I'd never be able to walk normally. I'd been a breech birth; my feet came through the birth canal first. The doctors told my father and mother that several minutes without oxygen had caused permanent damage. They said the muscles in my right arm and right leg would atrophy unless I exercised them daily. They said I had cerebral palsy. Dad couldn't accept any kid of his being a "cripple." He forced me to run every day. And five days a week, I'd exercise with free weights in my basement-just to be "normal." By the time I got to high school the sport headlines of the Lowell Sun read, Crippled at Birth: Farrell Now Grid Star.

My parents were both teachers. Mom taught sixth grade at Edith Rodgers Junior High School in Lowell and doubled as a waitress, carrying trays in the evening at Valley's Steak House in Andover. Dad taught Honors English at Lowell High School, and every Tuesday and Thursday he taught English to the Puerto Ricans who had come here for a better life.

They both worked two jobs so Sean and I would have more than they'd had in the Acre. Sixty hours a week for each of them so we could live in a white split-level home with a brick front and a two-car garage-Dad's side had an automatic door opener-all sitting on a quarter acre of land in the best area of Lowell.

I cannot pinpoint any one incident that brought me back to Adam Street. I'm not entirely sure how I went from being a well-off Belvidere kid to a homeless addict. All my dad ever wanted out of me was to play football for the Fighting Irish at the University of Notre Dame. It was his dream that drove me from my early teens into my last year of high school. I became a football star for my Dad. But an illegal chop-block one Saturday afternoon in late fall ended that dream. My team was about to defeat the state champions. There were under two minutes left on the clock. They had possession of the ball. My coach signaled me to blitz the quarterback, not allow him to set up and complete a long pass downfield. I anticipated the snap of the ball, shot the gap, and was in their backfield untouched. But three things happened at the exact same split second: my left hand reached for the quarterback's shoulder, my right foot planted firmly on the turf, and the helmet of the fullback trying to block my clear path cut out my right knee from the blind side. Pop! Like giant overstretched elastic, the insides of my knee exploded.

After that day, I had seven knee operations to remove torn or floating cartilage, one operation after another, in an attempt to correct complications from the previous one. Those surgeries introduced me to prescribed pain medication. I fell in love with what those little pills accomplished inside my head. All my pain, emotional and physical, disappeared.

I had let my Dad down. I had let myself down. But it didn't matter while I was high on pain medication. My mornings began with pain pills and my days ended with them. I was physically and mentally addicted.

From there, my life aimlessly bounced around until I fell into an exploding real estate market of the early '80s. In no time at all, I was worth half a million dollars by the time I was twenty-one-owned a two-family rental unit, a two-family owner-occupied in Belvidere, and an eight-acre farmhouse in Pelham. It seemed I had everything, and no excuses. But the injuries from football got me addicted to drugs, and the night I watched my father die, and everything else that happened, sent me on a path to heroin.

"Yo, yo! Heroin, cocaine. Dimes and nickels."

Ten or twelve Puerto Ricans surround an oversized, sparkling-green, new pickup truck. I sit, too dope-sick to fight through the crowd. At this point I know my addiction is overtaking me. No longer can I get by on shooting two or three bags a day. Now I need a bag of heroin every two to three hours just to keep my muscles from cramping into a thousand small knots. Everybody's pushing and shoving to be the first to sell a bag. The competition is cutthroat. You see, the dealers sitting comfortably upstairs in the houses give us a free bag of heroin for every five bags we sell. A bundle of heroin, ten bags, costs the dealers one hundred bucks. The runners sell it on the streets for thirty dollars a bag. I once saw a guy stabbed smack-dab in the middle of his eye in a pushing match to sell a thirty-dollar bag.

"Richie Farrell? I'm looking for Richie Farrell!" A little round squash of a head pops out the window of the truck. A white guy.

"Richie, man, the man axen for youse," one of the junkies yells.

I stand up in the doorway, a little shaky. My eyes don't want to focus.

"Beaver?" My eyes adjust slowly to the light. "You crazy bastard. What you coming down here for?"

Robert Billson is his real name. He's maybe fifty-five-a skinny, bald, tough little prick with pointy buckteeth. He played hockey at Boston University and then some professional in Canada. He and my dad taught together at Lowell High; that's how I know him.

I know why he's come and I'm kind of glad to see him. But I have to act for the boys. I have to pretend I'm angry. This is my turf, my life, and Beaver's new truck and white skin threaten my survival.

Beaver is a born-again Christian, but not really. I mean he believes in Jesus Christ and all, but swears like a Hells Angel. He's the complete opposite of what you think a born-again Christian would be. Beaver is more like a guy you'd meet on the corner bar stool of a local bar complaining about everything that's wrong in the world. His wife, Inga, is Norwegian and the sweetest person I know besides my mom.

He has two grown sons. I'm convinced that after my dad died two years ago, Beaver took me on as some kind of penance for the sins he committed raising them. He and my dad were a lot alike really, cut from the same cloth. Both of them could explode in an instant. One second you'd see a saint; blink your eyes and there'd be Lucifer.


Excerpted from WHAT'S LEFT OF US by RICHARD FARRELL Copyright © 2009 by Richard Farrell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Richard Farrell is an author, filmmaker, teacher, journalist, and adjunct professor of English at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. His documentary, High on Crack Street, was aired on HBO and received Columbia University's duPont Award. He is the co-author of A Criminal and an Irishman: The Inside Story of the Mob-IRA Connection. He is the screenwriter for the upcoming film The Fighter, and makes his home in Milford, New Hampshire.

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