A Junkie's Work is Never Done

Ever since his first jolt of painkillers 17 years ago, Curt has been meaning to get clean. Soon.

"The brain goes back and forth," he continues. "Anytime is a better time to be sick than now."

And suddenly getting sick in the workhouse doesn't seem like a viable option.

"It's coming down to me thinking about getting on a bus this week and leaving Minnesota," he says. "I know my girlfriend's not coming with me. I'm starting to see very little options. If I'm going to throw everything away it's going to be to get on a bus and leave. I'm not going to throw everything away to stay here and suffer. I'm not going to be able to sit in jail for two weeks. Very few people would sentence themselves to that kind of sickness."

David Kern

Directed by his addiction, Curt's thoughts are the essence of creative accounting, always paying for today's action with tomorrow's promise. One minute he seems to adamantly believe one thing, the next, the complete opposite. He'll do anything to get back on a methadone program. But he doesn't want to go to inpatient treatment. He wants to make amends for his numerous legal mistakes so he can go on and live a better life. Or maybe he'll skip town. He loves his girlfriend and wants to build a life with her. But he lies to her about getting high. It's an exhausting, distracting process of constantly bending a labyrinth's walls in order to connect areas that, to a "normal person," just shouldn't connect.

"It's hard enough for a normal person to do life. When you add this full-time addiction on your back..." he trails off, as if realizing for the first time that it's his addiction that makes the rules. "You pretend that other things come first--your work, your relationship. But it's gotta come first. It's gotta come first or everything else falls apart."


Curt was 14 years old when he underwent his first back surgery, to remove a large cyst he'd had since birth. (He lifts up his T-shirt to expose a six-inch-long diagonal ridge that scars his back, just under his right shoulder blade.) The doctors gave him Percocet, a strong painkiller. "I hadn't even started smoking pot yet," he recalls. "I remember I kept asking my mom, 'Can I take my next pill yet?'"

By his late teen years in suburban New Jersey, he had already experimented with drugs--smoking pot with friends, dropping acid at some 100 Grateful Dead concerts. He stayed away from heroin, however. "I thought I had to shoot it," he says. "I have a horrendous needle phobia. I've run out of the doctor's office in my underwear."

But one day he went to a friend's house and found the man snorting heroin. "I was shocked that you could snort it," Curt remembers. "But there was a peacefulness about him." Curt handed over $5 for half a portion of the drug, snorted it, and stayed high for a day and a half.

"It seemed familiar. It was the most incredible high I'd ever known," he reminisces lovingly, as if contemplating a first kiss. "Months later I realized it was the same feeling as the pain pills after surgery.

"And I loved it."

He learned from a friend where to go in New York to find the heroin, how to ask for the drug. "And I did it for two years in New Jersey," he remembers. "Over a year of using every single day."

Curt realized he was in trouble. He thought he could fight the addiction if he left behind the temptations of New York. He took off abruptly, leaving just a note for his parents before driving to northern Vermont to live with a friend. But it wouldn't be that easy. His car died when he got there, and by the time it was fixed he was in withdrawal and miserable.

He drove back to New York to get more dope, then immediately returned to Vermont. Over the coming months, he'd drive the 350 miles every time the withdrawal set in. If his car didn't work, he'd hitchhike. Anything to get more heroin. Once there, he'd stop at his aunt's house to beg for $5. Or he'd break into his parents' home and pass out on the floor. And then he'd head back to Vermont.

In lucid moments he understood that he should stop. More than once he thought of suicide. "I put the barrel of a shotgun into my mouth a couple of times to see what it felt like," he remembers. "I thought through what would happen if I did kill myself. Would my parents get over it quickly? Was it harder for them to see me as I was then rather than dead?"

Eventually he called his parents to ask for help. His father and brother drove to Vermont to pick him up. A few days later Curt was shipped off to Minnesota, to the Hazelden Foundation.

He stayed for 28 days ("the magical four weeks") and then was placed in a three-quarter home. There were group sessions by day, but on nights and weekends most of the staff went home. His first week there, he decided he wanted to get high. He and a couple of other people in the home drove around looking to buy some pot. "We didn't know Minneapolis at all. We were looking for a shady neighborhood," he says. "We pulled up to a guy and I said, 'Hey, man, know where we can get pot?' He reached into the back of the car and punched me in the head. We went home."

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