Harvard and heroin

I coasted to an Ivy League degree as a drug addict, but forever damaged the bond between mother and son.

Published August 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When I was 13, 14 and 15 years old, I used to give my mother my homework assignments. Ostensibly I was asking her to proofread, to fix grammar, tighten up unwieldy constructions, suggest ways to tie together disparate thoughts. She would give them back with her neat, rounded print quietly annotating the pages. Her comments were always gentle: Maybe this sentence should be a little shorter. I think the reader gets lost in all your words.

Those years certainly helped my writing, but I was doing more than asking my mother for help and she was doing more than offering it. We have always connected best over the written word. The first time I really read Shakespeare -- it was "Romeo and Juliet" -- I remember coming into my parents' room late at night. I was 13. My mother was reading, and I paced around her bed. "There's so much there," I said as if I was the first person to discover this. And she smiled at me, and we talked for a bit and then went back to our reading.

At around this time, in the years before I started shaving and the months before I began using drugs, I decided I was going to be a writer. I remember when I came to this decision: I was wandering through my house, clutching a just-finished copy of William Carlos Williams' "Paterson," a book my mother had given me. It was around this time that she began writing seriously, going back to school to get her MFA, joining poetry workshops, giving readings. These mutual decisions were a source of pride, I think, for both of us. My mother was going to be a poet. And her son was going to be a writer. I imagined the years ahead: We would discuss our successes and failures, mail our manuscripts back and forth, perhaps give readings together.

Six months later was the first time I got high: I was a freshman in high school and a trio of junior girls asked me if I wanted "to go outside" with them before class. I had never smoked pot, and was even vaguely afraid of trying it; as a child, I used to be terrified of reports that perverted psychopaths dressed as clowns were feeding kids LSD out of ice-cream trucks. But the girls were cute and I was curious. And I immediately loved it. I loved the rituals associated with getting high: Packing delicate, gamy buds into an ornate pipe, passing it around, holding your breath until you choked. I loved the feeling: Floating slightly above everything but still able to cope with the world, sensing that I was somehow special, or at least different, that I belonged to a secret and exclusive club. Most of all, I loved the fact that it slowed me down.

For years, I had suffered from insomnia. Starting when I was 10 years old, I would get four or five anxiety-addled hours of sleep a night, convinced, every time I lay down, that I had to go to the bathroom again. I tried everything during those years, including hypnosis, psychotherapy, relaxation therapy, counting sheep. But nothing worked until I smoked pot. Suddenly, I could sleep at night -- or during the day, or in class, or behind the wheel of a car, for that matter. I became less obsessive. I felt more controlled and less anxious, although the opposite was probably true.

I had friends who smoked pot and seemed to love it as much as I did, friends who discussed their highs in loving detail. Some of these same friends were also obsessive and couldn't sleep and walked around a bundle of nerves. But none of my friends reacted the same way I did to that first time. Within a week of trying pot, I was smoking it every day. Within a couple of months, five and six times a day. Within a year, I was selling it, and using other drugs to try to pick me up or slow me down: cocaine, mescaline, LSD, speed, prescription painkillers. Two or three days a week I would drink as well, usually a six-pack or so of beer. I knew this wasn't normal; I knew that I was an "alcoholic" or a "drug addict" or whatever label described my behavior. But this didn't bother me. I just accepted it. Here I am, Seth Mnookin, teenager, budding writer, drug addict and alcoholic.

These new labels fit so comfortably because none of the classic "warning signs" associated with drug use seemed to apply to me. I was doing well in school, editing the school newspaper, starring in plays, dating pretty girls. I had lots of friends and people thought I was cool: I was the smart, witty kid who smokes pot all the time and somehow still gets straight A's. DARE didn't just seem like a joke to me, it seemed like a farce. When I wore DARE shirts to school, some teachers assumed it was in earnest. In a high school that had its share of pregnancies, suicides and overdoses, I was clearly not someone to worry about. Everyone knows that drug addicts are not co-chairs of their student government or advanced placement students.

In fact, often I wondered if I would be able to cope nearly as well without drugs. Maybe the booze and the weed were necessary sedatives, my over-the-counter valium.

Even more pernicious, my persona as a drug-addled protigi was becoming my identity. If I stopped getting high all the time, if I stopped showing up to school drunk, wouldn't I just be another staid, over-achieving suburban teen? Would people still be as interested in me if I was simply playing the part I was expected to fulfill? Drugs added a sense of danger, a sense of daring and excitement that is not often aroused by the manicured lawns and two-car garages of Newton, Mass. Without that, I was just another cookie-cutter, upper-middle-class success story.

Because I was exceptionally good at keeping up outward appearances, I was able to hide my drug use from my parents for a long time. But in my junior year of high school, I was arrested for breaking and entering; a couple of months later, I passed out while interviewing the principal for the school newspaper. My parents' reactions to my drug addiction were different: my father furious, my mother betrayed. During the years when my dad wanted to be harder on me, my mother had pushed to give me more freedom, arguing that I was doing fine and just going through normal teenage rebellion. He wanted me home by midnight; she said I had earned the right to be out late. So the fact that I had been deceiving them hurt them both, but it was like a personal "fuck you" to my mother. We were supposed to share a bond. We were both creative, often wildly unpragmatic, dreamers. If I was out late at night, I was supposed to be wooing a girl, or skinny-dipping in a lake, or playing in a field. I wasn't supposed to be smoking coke.

Even with my arrest and my years of drug use, I graduated from high school with the highest honors possible. I was accepted into Harvard early decision and graduated in four years with a semester's worth of extra credit. I wrote a thesis for the history of science department and graduated with honors. Still, for most of this time -- from 18 to 25, save for about 23 months in the middle of college -- I used drugs every day, beginning when I woke up in the morning and ending when I passed out at night. Mainly, I smoked pot: At one point during my sophomore year, I set up my dorm room so that I would never be more than 5 feet away from a pipe or a bong. When I ran out of weed, I would rip apart my furniture and scrape my floors in a desperate attempt to locate an errant bud or a forgotten joint. I also started drinking more. For most of freshman year, I drank daily, usually a six-pack of beer and then as many rum and Cokes as it took me to pass out. I would drink in the mornings, before tests, for theater auditions.

In many ways, I found college easier than high school. I was not worried about getting A's -- I knew I wasn't going to law school or med school -- and with a minimal amount of work, I could get B's, regardless of how fucked-up I was. There were some embarrassing moments -- like the time I passed out in my freshman writing seminar and the class turned out the lights and left me there, or when I vomited walking through Harvard Yard at 2 in the afternoon. But for the most part, college was like high school, only with more freedom and less demands on my time.

In November of sophomore year, something snapped. I would smoke pot, and five minutes later need to smoke again. I would drink, but as Tennessee Williams so accurately described it in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," I never got the click. So, at 19, I checked into an inpatient drug detox and rehab program at McLean's Hospital in Belmont.

I only stayed at McLean's for eight days, but it was the first time I had been clean for eight days in more than four years, and, as trite as it sounds, when I got out, I knew I was capable of staying sober. And I did, for the rest of sophomore year, for all of my junior year, and the first months of my senior year. I turned 21, sober. I fell in love for the first time, sober. I wrote poetry, sober.

But at the same time -- despite copious psychotherapy and countless antidepressants -- I remained fundamentally unhappy. The relationship I was in ended and that woman still refuses to talk to me, despite my annual entreaties. I was never able to focus on my writing -- be it poetry or essays or academic papers -- as clearly as I thought I should be able to, and so always I felt that I was falling a little short.

I didn't have the faith, or the patience, to deal with the hard times. Besides, I was only 21: No one really expected me to stay sober forever, right?

So eventually, one Wednesday night at around 11, I went and bought a bottle of vodka and sat in my room alone until it was done. The next morning, I bought a bottle of red wine and drank it down before lunch; by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, exactly two years after I went into rehab, I was once again smoking pot every morning.

I was high six months later when I graduated from Harvard, as I had been when I graduated from high school. My thesis, a speed and adrenaline-fueled affair on epilepsy and ax murderers and 19th century American jurisprudence, was, needless to say, not the crowning academic achievement it might have been, but I did finish it.

After college, I moved to New York. I moved without a job, and freelanced for a couple of months until I landed a gig as the managing editor at a start-up kids' entertainment magazine. I was living on the Lower East Side, just south of Alphabet City, and one Saturday afternoon, while walking around, I decided I wanted to try heroin. Part of this impulse stemmed from the enduring, romantic image I nursed of myself, a sort of renegade, gonzo writer, snorting and smoking and boozing his way through his freewheeling 20s. After all, I had really not suffered many consequences, at least externally. I had an Ivy League degree, no criminal record and steady work. And heroin didn't scare me so much as it excited me, all the unknown, seedy glamour, William S. Burroughs and Thomas De Quincey.

At this time, 1995, heroin still littered Downtown's East Side. Junkies shot up on street corners and thumb-sized glassine bags colored the streets. I brought the single, $10 bag to my apartment, emptied out half of the eggshell colored powder and snorted it. When I didn't feel anything, I snorted the other half.

True to form, within a week, I was using every day. First, it was just at night, and then, soon enough, it was as soon as I woke up. By January, less than a year since graduating college and three months from my first "score," I was regularly vomiting up cereal and orange juice as I walked the 20 or so blocks to work. No big deal. The vomiting was more than worth the dreamy, narcotic state that heroin induced. This, I thought the first time I truly went into a nod, is what drugs are supposed to be about. Total physical bliss. Thoughts a blur of pointillistic free-associations. Music that sounds as if it were being played straight from Orpheus' lyre.

The next three years are more or less a loss. At some point I moved out of Manhattan and back to Boston; once in Boston, I started shooting up because the heroin there was not as strong and I was running out of money. During this time, there were some incidents I tried to color as romantic, or at least exciting, like a trip to Mexico, paid for by a magazine that wanted me to undergo an experimental detox and then write up the experience. Or the furtive drug deals conducted at midnight in deserted downtowns.

But I knew that my life was not romantic, or exciting. It was filled with bloodstained public bathrooms and collapsed veins. For a couple of months one summer, I got into crack because I thought that would help me break my heroin addiction; instead, I ended up smoking pieces of linoleum I carved from my kitchen floor, hoping there were bits of crack stuck in the tiles, and shooting speedballs in my bed. And I stopped writing, save for an occasional freelance music review. Sometimes, in my fleeting moments of being high -- after being addicted to heroin for a while, it's impossible to ever really get high; instead, the best you can hope for is to get "straight," or un-sick -- I would imagine the books I would write, the sonnets I would spin, the flowing, expressive articles I would pen. But for the most part, I was not thinking about poetic expression, because when you are a heroin addict, the only frame of reference is heroin.

What time is it? Heroin. What are you doing tomorrow? Heroin. Why are you going to the hospital? Heroin. What are your plans when you get out? Heroin. Written anything lately? Heroin.

The apartment I lived in was littered with bloodstained rags that I collected to damp the flow of blood as it seeped out of my veins. I strategically hid needles around my apartment so I would never be without one, reminiscent of how I used to stash wooden pot pipes around my dorm room. Oftentimes, the tips of my works were so blunt they could barely break my skin. If I didn't use every six hours, I became violently ill, vomiting, shaking, with a horrible aching in my bones. Day and night, I wished I would die, or at least fall asleep for a very long time.

In October 1997, I checked into a local hospital for a short-term detox. It was the eighth time I had been hospitalized in less than a year. During that same time, I had held more than a dozen jobs. I worked at three bookstores, two cafes and a liquor store. I edited a book on Chinese history, worked with a biologist researching brain function and fed monkeys being used in psychological experiments. I was fired from all these jobs: for leaving syringes in the employee bathroom, for bleeding in the coffee, for forgetting to feed the monkeys.

When I checked into the hospital that last time, I didn't really think that I would get sober. Over the past year, a pattern had developed. I would go to a hospital when I was too sick to cop or too poor to buy food. After a couple of days of methadone and grilled-cheese sandwiches, I took a cab back to my dealer's house and started all over again. Still, at this point, in some recess of my mind, I knew I couldn't last much longer: A couple of months earlier, I had ended up in the emergency room after injecting myself with PCP I thought was heroin. I almost died. "I've never seen anyone come in here in this condition and live," the doctor told my parents, a fact that didn't make them feel any better. I bit a policeman that night, came home from the hospital with bruises across my torso and hallucinated for days afterward.

This time, after I had been in the hospital -- McLean's actually, for the third time since I first entered as a 19-year-old pothead -- for about a week, my parents came to meet with me. It had been years since I discussed a book with my mother for any reason other than to make her think that I was OK, years since I had wanted her to read anything I had written or cared about what she was doing in her life. And recently, she and my father had also stopped pretending. I was no longer invited on family vacations, and my parents didn't try to come up with a plausible reason why: We just don't want to be with you, they would tell me. And I didn't even care. (Indeed, this past year, I was surprised to be told about a trip to Alaska my parents and siblings had taken while I was still using.) Whenever anyone in my family went out of town, they had to check in at least once a day in case I died. This wasn't maudlin, just the reality I had imposed on my family's lives.

That day at McLean's, my mother sat down across from me in yet another well-meaning doctor's office in a yet another institution. She adjusted her gray glasses, played with her hands and said: "This is it. Either you go to long-term treatment, or we are going to have to cut ourselves off. I will always love you," she said. "But I will not watch you kill yourself, and I will not let you do this to my family."

And without knowing what I was doing, I agreed to go to Florida, to a long-term inpatient program my family had first heard about when I was still living in New York. I wish I could say that it was something in her words that made me decide to go to Florida, some parental tug that made me want to do right by her and my father, but it wasn't. It was desperation, pure and simple: desperation that if I ever did decide to get sober, I wouldn't have a family to turn to, desperation that I would need money or food or shelter and there would be no one there to give it to me.

So I went to Florida, to a rehab that felt like a combination boot camp/cult. But for some unknown reason, the program there seemed to help me. Maybe it was because I didn't know where to get heroin in Palm Beach County. Maybe it was because, for the first time, I was in a treatment program that pushed me harder than I pushed it. But I really don't know; one day I woke up and realized I had been clean for 30 straight days, and that was longer than I had managed to put together in years.

In January, less than three months after I arrived in Florida, my parents, brother and sister came down for a "family weekend" of therapy and group sessions. I was proud and excited. My track marks had healed, I had gained some weight and, for the first time since I moved to New York, my hands were no longer shaking. But I did not get the reception I had been fantasizing about. My mother refused to hug me; when she first saw me, she drew an imaginary circle 5 feet around her and said that was her comfort zone. It is not OK, she said, over and over during those two days. I do not forgive you. On Sunday, before she left, she told me that a manuscript of poems dealing with her relationship with me and my addiction had been accepted.

I fought that program, and eventually got kicked out, but today I am one of five or six people in the program -- out of more than 50 -- who have been continuously sober since that time. I wish I knew why this was the case. I wish I knew so I could tell my best friend in Florida, Jordan Hall, a 23-year-old who was smart and funny and charming and energetic. He overdosed last July. I wish I knew so I could tell Colin McGinty, one of the boys I was arrested with in high school. He was found dead, crumpled in the bathroom of a Burger King in downtown Boston with a needle in his arm. One very simple part of the answer is that the three months I was in treatment gave me enough time to get all the heroin and clonopin and trazedone out of my system. Another part of it, for the first year anyway, was probably stubborn pride: My mother seemed so convinced I wasn't going to make it and I was damned if she was going to be right. And part of it was my sheer desire to live and write again, a desire that has been slowly reawakened over the past 22 months.

I didn't read my mother's manuscript for another nine months, until I had a job and a car and an apartment and my family didn't wonder whether every phone call would be the grim reckoning they'd half-expected to get for years. At first, she wasn't sure if she wanted to send it to me. Later, I wasn't sure I wanted to read it: I was sober, but that didn't mean I wanted to deal with the wreckage of my past. But slowly, gingerly, my mother and I began to share our lives with each other again. She clipped out obituaries when Andre Dubus, one of our favorite writers, died of a heart attack, and I talked to her about Lorrie Moore's new stories.

Still, when she sent me her manuscript, she wasn't asking me for comments or suggestions, as I had imagined, years before, would be the case; she had asked my younger sister, who is headstrong and reliable and still angry with me, to give her feedback. She just wanted me to see it, to read what she had written, because it is about me, because I am her son, and because I am a writer. Her poems make me cry, but I do not tell her that. These articles are the first pieces my mother and I have worked on "together." This is not the way I imagined our writing careers would evolve in tandem. Still, there is some of the old breathless exuberance about the process. "Can I see what you've written?" my mother asks in her daily e-mails. I'm so excited, she writes. She asks me what protocol is for freelance work, how to deal with an editor, what she is expected to do. "Do I need to come up with a title?" My mother and I are still wary of each other. She is wary of the startling tenacity with which I can embrace addiction, and I am wary of her love, which will always be there, but is not unequivocal.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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