"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I never thought I’d be writing a “just say no” essay. All my life I’ve just said yes. I said yes to open marriages, to once-a-month benders in exotic locales, to peeing onstage, all of which I celebrated in writing that was unapologetic and uncensored: My life was an open book, and my books were an open life. I never felt shame, like an addict, or hid things like one. But I never told anyone about my addiction to pills — until this very moment, telling you.
For a long time, I didn’t even tell myself. There’s nothing glamorous about prescription medication. No outrageous weekends, no crazy hallucinations. Pills are done alone. Pills are private. Maybe that’s why addicts from Elvis to Eminem to Rush Limbaugh to Michael Jackson to Paula Abdul to Jamie Lee Curtis have never bragged about their addictions at the time, even when it was obvious. Their debauch is not fascinating and gritty like that of Lady Day or Edith Piaf or Keith Richards, with their back alley needles and spoons and jail time. To tell my friends about my growing reliance on anti-anxiety medication and sleeping pills would be like dominating a dinner party with the gory minutiae of hip replacement surgery: “I’m old. I give up.”
But mostly I didn’t talk about my addiction because I didn’t see myself as an addict. It wasn’t the plan for who I was supposed to be. Addicts are numb. Addicts are predictable. How could I possibly be that?
I was supposed to be like my father, the thrill seeker who had escaped from a Mexican prison and told stories about what it felt like to shoot people. An international drug dealer, he was impervious to addiction. For him, drugs were all about the game. Of course his chosen lifestyle meant he spent the majority of my childhood in various prisons, leaving me with a stressed-out mother and no child support. But all I knew was how glamorous he looked on visits, with his speed-freak hangers-on and his eternal lack of restraint. He was my hero, this literal outlaw, and a template for my life. (Being female, however, my adventures were more with sex, less with violence.)
Meanwhile, my mother was a pill popper, a life-duller with no friends and no money. Drugs were not a way to live for her; they were a way to avoid living entirely. She was a “doctor-shopper” — firing the ones who advised her to change her attitude and diet, keeping ones who prescribed pills or surgeries to treat the symptoms rather than the underlying problem. Over the years she acquired about 30 addictions, including one to the steroid Prednisone, which made her mean and her bones so brittle that toward the end of her life they broke anytime she fell down (which, considering all she was gulping down, was often).
Leaving home at 16, I wanted life — in all its curious pain, chaos, uncertainty, wonder. I didn’t want to be like my mother, of course, but I also didn’t want to be like my peers, so many of them numbed out — on booze, pot, “Twilight Zone” TV marathons, booty calls. It was like a vision of the future from “A Clockwork Orange”: everyone dulling their consciousness with illicit substances, brainwashed by ads, eating frozen dinners in front of the TV, disconnected and alone.
I refused to take even an aspirin for a headache; I never had a cup of coffee till I was 19. When I worked in a brothel, I was the only one not doing downers or trading a blow job for a line of coke. I enjoyed the job — the atmosphere, the clients, the girls. When it became a drag, I didn’t numb myself out to keep doing it; I quit. Years later, after a boob job, I threw away my doctor-prescribed Percocets and lay there on the couch thinking, “So this is what wanting to die just so the pain will stop feels like.” But wanting to die is part of life, too, and I had no desire to miss out on that.
I do believe in drugs — for fun and enlightenment. I’ve tried PCP, LSD, speed, poppers, mushrooms. (I even wrote a book called “Drugs Are Nice.”) If it weren’t for a one-time use of Ecstasy — which I believe opened up intimacy passages blocked by childhood trauma — I may have gone an entire lifetime without understanding why anyone would want to kiss anyone. E unlocked a door for me. But I didn’t understand taking something over and over, walking back and forth through a door already opened wide. That’s like watching reruns all day. I’ve occasionally drunk to black out, only to discover what I was capable of when inhibitions were deactivated. (The answer? A lot!) But I would no more smoke or drink as a daily habit than I would throw darts at my eyes. I was against stupefication in any form — doing computer blackjack at work till you’re fired, having compulsive sex with exes who don’t care about you. Why would you want to escape life? Life is everything! Nor did I want to escape who I was, no matter how fucked up. I was infinitely interested in strange me, in strange life.
So how did I go from 35 clean, bright years to becoming exactly what I detested? I fell into a trap, and there was no longer strange me and strange life to be interested in. During a several-year custody battle, my ex used my writing against me in court and with Protective Services to try to prove neglect and abuse of my daughter. Not one time, but five. Approximately every six months it would start again, with them in my home, in my stuff, in my words; workers had stacks of printouts of my articles given to them by my ex. At his request, I was tested for mental instability; a chunk of my hair was cut off and tested for drugs. Even the contents of my refrigerator were examined. For the first time in my life, I was more scared than I could handle. I couldn’t write my way out. I also couldn’t hoof my way out of it. The judge ordered me not to relocate from my home in Dover. If I were truly like my father, I would have bolted anyway, even though it would have meant abandoning my daughter. Instead, I understood for the first time the pressure my mother felt — to bend down to rules you don’t like and stay bent because it’s the only way to protect somebody. No one says thank you. No one admires you. They feel scorn for you, because you become miserable and lose all your zest.
Eventually, I was cleared of all child abuse charges and even won sole custody, but I lost the ability to write. Without that, what did my life mean? And how would I earn money? Writing is who I was, ever since I was a child. I had no other professional skills. (I hadn’t needed any others.) Writing was something I could always cling to, no matter how emotionally, spiritually, financially bereft I was. And while I had always suffered from insomnia, now that I was unable to scribble my way through the lonesomest hour of the night, my suffering began to seem senseless to me. I could understand, for the first time, the appeal of finding a nice, warm hole and lying down in it.
My primary care physician, recently divorced herself, knew what I was going through. She thought she was helping when she put me on Xanax at the beginning of my divorce when I was 35, not telling me it was addictive, encouraging me to do more when, a year later, the old strength didn’t work anymore. Xanax didn’t get me high. It didn’t do anything except pull a shade over the terror. At first I only took it at night. I’d tap out a pill or two while my new beau was brushing his teeth, and I’d swallow fast so he wouldn’t know.
After three years, I started needing occasional daytime usage — Valium from a different doctor, supplemented with alcohol. Never enough to make me drunk or pill-stupid. Just enough to get through the day. I stuck it out in Dover. I stuck it out through a relationship that went bad. And I did this by exiting my body, my life, my situation for a few hours; when I came back, things didn’t look so bad. I’d had a vacation. And I started to take those vacations more frequently. I watched a lot of TV. I became a dishonest person. Once, in an interview, I pretended I’d never seen “L.A. Law” when, in fact, I’d watched every episode!
I was pathetic. Dependent, half-alive, secretive, accepting of the unacceptable. I didn’t see it that way, because I was in too much of a haze to see much of anything. That’s the problem with anti-anxiety medication: Its purpose is to help you ignore internal danger signals that aren’t real. Once in its velvety thrall, however, how are you supposed to recognize the warning signs that are real?
Then one day I did see.
There was nothing special leading up to this epiphany. I remember staring at the unattractive old-person vines-and-flowers wallpaper in my bathroom and suddenly realizing I didn’t have to keep staring at it every day, immobile, waiting to move so that I could stare at another wall in some nice, new life. I remember thinking that my ex-husband and the legal system had invaded my privacy, rifled through my writing, and curtailed my movements and what thoughts I could express in almost exactly the way my mother did when I was a child, using my diary and my opinions against me, grounding me when I didn’t agree with her reality — but I hadn’t been half-dead as a child. My imagination was everything back then. There was nothing to escape; I was already free. I could be now, too.
I bought some paint for the hideous bathroom and made the decision to cure both my insomnia and my writer’s block instantly, by force. I dumped the pills and alcohol, all of it.
The first substance-free day, I was excited to get back to life, but I was distracted by a nagging headache and flu-like joint pain. That night things got bad. The second day, I hallucinated that I was an ant trapped in a pit deep inside myself and the window to escape was closing, closing, closed. And then I didn’t care anymore. I could have killed someone or been killed; it didn’t matter. (Luckily there was this whole “unable to move” thing, so no murder occurred.) Apparently that is depression, one of the withdrawal symptoms. But I didn’t understand what was happening — that I was an addict, that this was withdrawal — until a friend told me that after throwing away her Xanax, she ended up in the mental hospital.
How could someone whose career depended on acute self-awareness and extreme self-disclosure not have realized something so obvious? But my dependency had developed incrementally. It moved softly, slowly. It felt legitimate. Treating anxiety with pills was a normal, everyday thing — more and more so in this recession. (Which creates a certain irony, I suspect: Button-down financiers, fearing bankruptcy, medicate themselves to the point where they start slipping and bring on the disaster faster, just like hipsters fearing aging and the accompanying irrelevancy do more and more drugs until they and their art get more bloated and irrelevant than nature alone would have made them.)
My father was a machine who gnashed his way through life. Nothing trapped him; everything (including drugs) and everyone (even me) was an experience to master and then leave behind. I thought I was just like him, flying above the feeble mortals, although I told myself I was a slightly better person, capable of some emotion or, at least, loyalty. And it was loyalty that brought me down.
My mother looked like the weak one: She was sensitive, and she fell under the wheels. But she was also the one who stayed. Only now do I understand what she did for me when she buried her head from what was cornering her into her sad life rather than spit in its face and run. And now I know I can be like her, too.
I am humbled by my addiction. And, in a way, I suppose I am proud, too.
Lisa Carver is the author of "Dancing Queen," publisher of the magazine Rollerderby, a stage performer in Suckdog and contributing editor of the online magazine Nerve.More Lisa Carver.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)