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.

But if you ask Curt, he'll say his life today is pretty good. In treatment, Curt explains, they try to teach you tools that can help you when the urges come. But they aren't always enough. After two years clean, he reinjured his back in 1996 and got a taste of the pain pills again.

"Once I got dope in my body, it was just overwhelming, overpowering," he offers. And then a few years back he managed to stay sober for a year, hoping to reunite with his ex-fiancée and their son. "I would stay sober with the expectation of something happening as a result of my sobriety. When that didn't come through, I said 'screw it' and started getting high."

After all these years, even Curt doesn't understand his addiction when he looks back on all the times he tried--and failed--to quit using. "I thought I was crazy," he begins. "I moved to Vermont to stop using, but I'd keep going to New York. I'd come back with all this dope and coke. I shot up so much my arms look like a pincushion. Why did I do this?

David Kern

"An addict has a good memory but is a better forgetter," he says, answering his own question. "I can't quite remember how bad the pain was."

And besides, he adds, it's possible to turn any situation into an acceptable reason to use. "If you're living on the street, no job, your family and friends have left you, what does it matter if I shoot dope today?" he says. But it's just as easy to say the opposite. "I've got a girlfriend, two jobs, clean clothes. I'm healthy, I'm in good with my family. I can get high. I'll be okay.

"By the time I get into an argument with myself about whether or not I'm going to use," he concedes, "I've already lost the argument."

Sometimes he wonders how this happened to him. He mentions on more than one occasion that he was a straight-A student who got a 1300 on his SAT. "I'm smarter than this. I'm worth more than this," he says. "It's hard to come to grips with the fact that this is where I am at 31."

Still, if one minute he's taking responsibility for his mistakes, the next he's pointing the finger elsewhere--at inflexible employers, unfair social services bureaucrats, parents who never taught him to cope without drugs, ex-fiancées who gave up too soon.

Or he'll think wistfully of that afternoon a lifetime ago when he stopped by his friend's house and learned you could snort heroin. If he hadn't gone there, he probably never would have been introduced to the drug.

"You just kind of learn not to live in regret," he says. "You look forward. I did my best to turn it around. There is no rhyme or reason to addiction. It's a sickness. People ask, 'Why can't you straighten out? Why can't you stop using?' It's like, you can't."

But this time he's really going to do it. If not for himself, for his girlfriend.

"It's hard to maintain any sort of decent relationship when you're an addict," he says. "She gets the money after I spend what I need. A lot of times she comes in second place. I don't like it. That's a lot of why I'm doing what I'm doing. I want a better life, with better relationships. I want her in my life. I want to be in someone's life. I want more kids."

He seems to feel remorse for hurting her, and lying to her. "Trust is all or nothing," he muses. Well, maybe not all or nothing: A moment later he's talking about how well he treats her sometimes. "Just one time in two years I didn't show up where I needed to be," he notes. "That's really good for a junkie."

He says they both dream of leaving all this behind. The turquoise walls and cramped corners of the hotel room they've lived in for months. The drugs, the lying, the fighting. They could move to New Jersey--get married, have a baby. Curt's girlfriend's parents have offered to help with a down payment on a house. Curt wants to open a restaurant, maybe a deli that caters to a lunchtime crowd.

But first he has to get on the methadone and go to treatment. He has to keep it together. "I want a better life, but it's hard to say that I'm never going to use again, because I like it so much," Curt says. "But I really want to get it together, and that doesn't go with getting high whenever I want."

Nonetheless, Curt says, his girlfriend has already told him it would be okay if, once a month, he wanted to spend $20 on dope or speed or cocaine. "Some people like to go clothes shopping or jump out of airplanes or go out to eat at nice restaurants," he says. "If I'm gonna get high once a month, I don't think that's such a big deal."


This morning, Curt went for his intake appointment at the methadone clinic. The nurse asked him about his history--family, health, drugs. She asked about his intentions for the program. She tried to draw blood but wasn't able to find a vein. They gave him a "little dribble" of methadone.

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