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.

Curt Saxton--not his real name--is staring out the second-floor picture window that takes up most of one wall in his hotel's lobby. It appears that he's lost in thought, gazing absently over that stretch of downtown Minneapolis's Hennepin Avenue that's seedy masquerading as upscale--or the other way around. Then something catches his attention."Is that him?" he says, more to himself than anyone else.

Down a flight of stairs and across the street, a man is walking up the sidewalk carrying a Styrofoam leftovers container. He plods along slowly, propping himself up with a cane. "He's one of my dope dealers," Curt continues. "Looks just like him. I dunno if he had a cane. He did walk like that."

Curt's large, brown eyes seem to pop out of his head as he studies the man. Then he jerks his hands up and waves away the thought of the man. He's looking down at his hands as he lights up a Winner 100. Taking the first drag, he looks up again.

David Kern

"Motherfucking shit," he exclaims suddenly. The man has turned. He's coming back. Curt cranes his neck and leans forward to look back out the window. "I'm just going to pretend that's not him," he announces after some deliberation. His forehead wrinkles. "Now I can't think."

It's as if his mind has been flooded with a vision, no doubt of himself sprinting down the dim, narrow stairwell of the hotel and across the street to score something, anything, that will make him feel better right now. Make him well.

The fact that he doesn't have any money is a problem, of course, though that hasn't stopped him before. There have been times--as recently as six months ago, he says--that Curt has been out on the street begging for change. Or in Marshall Field's, primed to boost a leather jacket.

"I had a dribble of methadone this morning," Curt explains, then stops for a moment. "Or was it last night? Last night. And it's already like, wooo." He exhales loudly and rolls his eyes upward. "In a couple of hours..." he trails off, turning to look at the neon Bud Light clock on the wall. In a couple of hours he's supposed to be at work.

Time turns in on itself when you're an addict. And Curt is an addict. "I'm a Scorpio," he ventures proudly. "That means I'm into drugs, sex, food--anything that feels good." At age 31 he has been addicted to opiates--pain pills and heroin, mostly--for almost half his life.

"See?" he continues, holding out his right hand, lit cigarette dangling. "I'm starting to get really shaky." He lists the ailments that he knows will arrive with withdrawal, when his body figures out it won't be getting the substances it's accustomed to. Diarrhea, teary eyes, a runny nose, a congested throat, nausea, vomiting, headaches, pains. "Every hole in the body runs," he says. "The worst part is the anxiety. No matter where you are, it's like lightning is going to strike."

At five-feet-seven-inches tall, Curt is relatively slight, yet he's dressed in an oversize T-shirt and long, baggy shorts. His dark hair, closely cropped, is coarse and unkempt, as are his bushy eyebrows, mustache, and beard. It's mid-afternoon on an early September day, and Curt has only just managed to pull himself out of bed. His pace is off balance, as if he's fighting the flu. Yet he is still the picture of courtesy. "Coffee? A soda?" he asks, nodding toward the coffee pot and vending machine that flank one side of the living room. "I'm buying." Curt perches on a stool and explains his current conundrum.

He's scheduled to report to the workhouse next week, punishment for violating his probation in Anoka County for an old drug paraphernalia bust. He's afraid that if he does the time, when he comes out to go to work, he'll try and prevent withdrawal by using heroin. "I wouldn't make it," he says. "If I go back, I'd be thrown in jail. If I don't go back, they look for you."

The only answer, in his mind, is to get on a methadone program. But there's another problem. Curt attended such a clinic in Hennepin County for about a year (he was introduced to methadone by his girlfriend, also a heroin and cocaine addict), but was booted off in April for cocaine use. At the time, he says, his counselor gave him an option: either go to inpatient treatment for two months, or get off the program. Curt argued that he didn't want to go to treatment because he'd lose his jobs (light housekeeping at the hotel, a union gig cooking at a nearby restaurant). The counselor wouldn't yield; Curt was banned from the methadone program.

Since then Curt has managed his addiction through black-market methadone ("You hope no one's tampered with it, poured half of it out and filled it with water") and shooting up on average once a week--just to get through the rough patches, he says.

This week he was able to get only about three-quarters of his usual amount of methadone. "The other day I thought I'd be better off doing the full detox when I'm at home and can at least be comfortable," he begins. "I had the last drop and thought, It's better to go cold turkey. But now I'm sick, and I think a slower detox is better. Or maybe it would be better to do it in the workhouse, when I don't have a choice.

"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."

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."

Despite the shaky beginnings, Curt managed to stay sober for two years--his longest stretch to date--before another back injury put him on painkillers again. For the half-dozen years since, he's bounced in and out of sobriety, putting together a year here, nine months there. "It's hard to put this all into exact chronological order," he says. "There are periods of time that are just a blur."

But he does remember the big things: falling in love with his ex-fiancée, the birth of their son, the suicidal bender he went on when they left him. The disappointment of waking up after he tried to kill himself by overdosing. Living on the streets--in shelters, under loading docks, in a cozy, hidden stairwell at the hospital--begging and stealing the money for drugs. Meeting his current girlfriend at a support group for heroin addicts. Getting on methadone. Getting kicked off it.

"Every time I get clean, I get a home, a job, start dating someone really sweet," he says. "Then I relapse and flush it all down the toilet again."

"There is no way to fix an addict," Curt declares flatly. Just last week, he offers, he got up one day at 5:00 a.m. to do his chores at the hotel and make it to the county's chemical dependence assessment center so he could apply to get back on methadone. He arrived at 6:15 a.m.--already the tenth person in line--and was there until about 10:30 a.m. As he was walking back from his assessment, he passed a corner notorious for pot and cocaine dealing. He figured it might be his last chance to score before going to the workhouse. "I had money. I thought I'd buy some coke to shoot," he admits. "I went back, talked to someone, then eventually left. I'm getting better. It's more likely that I'm not going to use. But there's still no guarantee."

 

Curt whispers goodbye to his girlfriend as he closes the door to their room. He is excited as he spills happily out of the hotel onto Hennepin Avenue. At first I'm guessing his cheeriness stems from the good news: It's not confirmed yet, but it looks like he'll be allowed back into the methadone clinic after all. He will, however, have to go to treatment for three weeks. Even so, he says, that's better than two months.

But that's not why he's so chipper today. He's been thinking about scoring since 1:00 a.m. Only nine hours, he thought while looking at the clock. "I have the money," he explains. "And I really want to get high.

"It looks like I'm going to treatment next week, and after that I really want to get my shit together," he pledges, then offers an addendum to the oath. "I'm not going to say it's the last time."

He has already called his dealer in north Minneapolis to let him know he's on the way. On the drive, Curt rolls down the car windows. "Don't worry, I'm not going to throw up," he insists. "I have very good control over my vomiting."

Once he arrives in the designated neighborhood, Curt strolls over to a pay phone. It's out of order. "There's another one over there," he says, pointing across a parking lot. As he strides toward it, he taps an unopened pack of cigarettes on the palm of his hand. "I think I do pretty well for an addict," he boasts. "Most people just spend all their money and fuck the rent. I still manage to bring my girlfriend flowers sometimes. Buy food, get cigarettes. It's a miracle. Only through 13 years of doing this have I figured out how to manage it."

At the pay phone, his fingers glide across the buttons in a pattern that's obviously familiar. "You sit with your fingers crossed that he hasn't turned the phone off or sold out," Curt says.

He's instructed to walk to a corner a couple of blocks away. There's a man pacing there, and Curt wonders if the dealer is there already. But no, it isn't him. Curt crosses to wait at the bus stop. A young man strolls to the corner, says hello to Curt, and then notes a police car coming up the street. At the same time, a bus is pulling up. It opens its doors just as the police car turns the corner. Curt pretends to ask the driver directions, but before he can get a word out, the doors close in his face. The young man walks away. The police car pauses at the end of the next block before turning another corner.

After a few minutes, Curt walks up to a man on a bicycle coming toward him. "Is $45 okay?" he asks the rider. When he steps back he's got the heroin in his hand, wrapped in paper like a tiny piece of saltwater taffy. If cops showed up, he says, he'd shove the heroin in his belly button. No one has ever searched him there, he says with a puffed-up bravado, letting loose a dissonant, brash laugh that sounds like Harpo Marx honking his horn.

Now he just needs a place to shoot it.

He can't go back home because his girlfriend called in sick today. She doesn't use anymore, and she doesn't like it when Curt does. She doesn't know he's getting high today. "Nobody can take brutal honesty from a junkie. It's just too much," he says, as if to convince himself of the nobility of his lie. "If she asks, I'll tell her." Meanwhile there's a coffee shop he knows, just south of downtown, where the bathroom is easy to get into. But first he stops at a nearby needle exchange to get a kit--some syringes, a rubber tie, cotton, water.

At the coffee shop, he asks to use the bathroom, but it's being cleaned. He stands in front of the door, crossing his legs and acting as if it's urgent. "I really need to go," he cajoles. The man cleaning the bathroom shuts the door. "Fine," Curt snaps bitterly. "I'll spend my money someplace else."

Once outside, he practically skips up a couple of blocks and crosses the street, toward one of the bigger hotels in downtown Minneapolis. He's buoyant, excited, purposeful. He dashes through the large hotel's hallway, oblivious to the conventioneers with their nametags, chatting on their cell phones. He scampers into a bathroom.

"I love these baby things," he coos as he locks the door. He swiftly slides over to the plastic baby-changing table and lowers it from the wall. He dumps the contents of the small brown paper bag from the needle exchange onto the table, then reaches for a couple of paper towels and spreads them out.

"You've got to be realistic about how disease crosses lines," he lectures. "Hepatitis C can live on a thorn bush on a hiking trail. Like, if you walk by and scratch yourself, someone could come by the next year and scratch themselves and get Hepatitis C."

He produces the spitball-size wad of paper that's wrapped around the heroin. His fingers, with nails cut to the quick, clumsily try to undo the bundle. "It's hard to get these unwrapped. But it's worth it in the long run," he says, chuckling.

He places the heroin in some water in a container that looks like the base of a tea candle. He holds his lighter underneath the tin and cooks the concoction, to kill the bacteria. "At least you destroy the stuff that gets you biologically ill," he explains, as he sucks the amber liquid up into a syringe.

He looks up a moment. "If I drop, go tell someone. And leave and don't come back," he says. "But I've never dropped before." A high-pitched giggle flits from his smiling lips. "It's kind of sick that I can say that about dropping and then laugh."

Picking up the rubber tube in his left hand, Curt shakes out his right arm and ties it off at the bicep. He looks for a vein in his right hand, near the wrist. He inserts the tip of the needle into his hand, then pulls back a little. Blood rushes into the syringe, so he knows he's hit the vein. He pushes the plunger, unties the tie, and grimaces a little as he feels the sting of the drug entering his bloodstream.

He backs up a step. "Oh man. Oh yummy," he murmurs. He closes his eyes, rolls his head back and to the side, and a grin washes across his face. It's as if he's tasting something sweet after years of blandness, experiencing warmth after a lifetime of cold. "It's a really full feeling in your head. Your stomach feels like a dull stomachache. When I first started to feel it, I got a half of an erection. It's gone now."

His movements are noticeably slower now, more fluid. His voice has deepened, his eyelids are suddenly droopy and pink. He starts to clean up, noting that he always likes to leave the bathroom the way he found it. Usually, he adds, he can be in and out of there in 45 to 90 seconds.

Outside, his steps are languid, as if he's melting into the sidewalk. He lights a cigarette. "Are you hungry?" he asks. "Once I get well I just want to eat." A few minutes later, the high is already starting to fade. The pleasure he feels now is simply the absence of sickness.

 

Curt's addiction has cost him over the years--cost him material possessions, homes, relationships. He lives in a tiny room in a dingy hotel. He's in debt and in trouble with the law. He's got physical problems: The enamel on his teeth has been eaten away from the substances (sometimes quinine, aspirin, chalk) used to cut the heroin; he's more depressed than he used to be; he's had painful abscesses and infections on his hand from shooting up.

He has lost plenty of jobs because he's been sick from withdrawals one too many times--or simply walked out during his shift in order to get dope. His girlfriend, aggravated by all the lies, has threatened more than once to move out. He hasn't seen his son in two years. His parents have a closer relationship to Curt's son than he does, and often they seem more interested in spending time with their grandson than with their own son.

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?

"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.

Tomorrow he'll check himself into rehab.

"I made it by four and a half hours," Curt says, sitting back on the bed in his room at the hotel. If he hadn't gotten on the program by noon, he would have had to report to the jail in Anoka County. "I would have had to be in lockup. I would have been very, very, very sick."

Curt seems dazed as he sits sucking absently on a cigarette. His left eyelid is completely closed, his right droops down, lazily. "Excuse my eyes," he says, brushing a hand across his face. "My girlfriend said, 'It's your last day, feel free to get high if you want.' So I did."

But he's changing his tune a little. He no longer plans to take advantage of the getting-high-once-a-month permission his girlfriend offered. Today, he's thinking of it as his last time. "When I got back today, I was coming up the stairs, and I wasn't that excited," he explains. "I was almost a little nauseated. Kind of like I'm sick of it."

This time, he says, he has the best intentions of sticking to the program. "It's not like anything's gonna be new and exciting anymore," he says. "I want to be clean and get my shit together."

"This time," he says, relaxing behind his sagging eyelids and drifting down into what's left of his high, "this time I really want to make this work."

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