Speed demon

Steroids aren't the only drug that help you on the job. As a 28-year-old freelancer, I had a special friend that helped me crank out stories: Meth.

Published March 21, 2005 8:30PM (EST)

Ten in the morning. Sunlight, filtered by a philodendron's leaves, played across my desk. The computer hummed, a loud noise in a room where the only other sound was the squeaking of a razor blade as it chopped chunks of speed into a line on the back of a CD. I remember, clear as crystal, the way the sight of the drug made my heart beat faster and the tips of my fingers go dry.

I remember lowering my rolled-up twenty and hoovering the drug up into my right nostril -- the good nostril (for reasons unclear, the left one never worked well). I remember the sinus burn.

And I remember my headache lifting, my brain shifting gears, energy levels soaring. Why did I love speed? Because it made me productive! Pot sent me to the couch to ooh and ahh at stupid TV. Psychedelics taunted me with glimpses of faux profundity. Alcohol just made everything sloppy. But speed made things happen.

I remember bouncing out of my chair, hiding the blade and the little baggie and the CD with its tell-tale pattern of cross-hatched razor cuts.

And then I remember waking up. Lying in bed, my wife sleeping beside me, heart racing, palms sweaty, mind confused. What had just happened?

I must have been dreaming, I realized, dreaming of speed. I hadn't done a line in six months. I had quit, sworn off the demon drug, cut myself free from the people who could get it for me. But though I had pushed it away, the drug wasn't ready to let go. My subconscious knew exactly how to simulate the feeling of pumped-up dopamine levels. The craving endured. I was both frightened and sad as the memory of speed-driven glee began to fade. Frightened because I was trying to kick this drug, which was screwing with my marriage and my health. But sad because I could recall from the dream how clearly I'd been looking forward to that buzz, that boost, that charge of energy, that icy clarity.

Dawn was beginning to break. I shook off the nostalgia like a dog trying to get dry, got up and started making coffee.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Crystal meth, plain old meth, crank, ice, glass, chalk: This particular white powder has gone by a lot of different names, but to me, the drug is always "speed," because that's what it does.

I first got turned on to it by a precision machinist, a guy who custom-made parts for antique automobiles. A working-class white guy, the classic profile for a speed user, back in the day (though less so today, now that upscale Bay Area fathers are writing about their addicted sons in the New York Times Magazine). For my friend, the drug wasn't just a jolt of social energy like, say, a toot of coke. It was part of his toolbox. Snort some speed, crank up the metal lathe, work all night.

I didn't see the point of that, at first. Drugs were for fun, not for work, and my efforts, on a couple of occasions, to do some writing while under the influence of cocaine, or even more laughably, psychedelic mushrooms, had been pathetic. But I was happy to do some lines and watch my friend explain to me the purposes of his vast armory of metal-working tools. That was cool.

There were other, obvious things to like. Speed was cheap and it lasted a lot longer than coke. For a 28-year-old freelance writer struggling to pay the rent, that made a difference. Sure, it burned like a motherfucker when you snorted it, but you got used to that. I scored some from the machinist and shared it with my friends and girlfriend, using it, late at night, washed down by many a beer, to break on through to the other side of socializing, that place in the wee hours where the down and dirty stories of your life get shared and acquaintances become recognized as soul mates.

And so it went for a few months. Then, one morning, I sat in front of my computer monitor, utterly uninspired. I had an assignment to write a 1,200-word piece on a suite of software applications known as Microsoft BackOffice. It was borderline P.R. for a trade magazine -- a critique of Bill Gates as evil monopolist wasn't what the editor was ordering. And I didn't want to do it.

I considered the fact that some speed remained from a blowout the night before. That there was any left at all was unusual; typically, the night ends when the last trace of powder has been licked clean from inside the baggie. I decided to do a test -- in the interests of science. Hadn't I watched my friend the machinist operate tools on speed that required total concentration and delicate control? And it wasn't as if I was trying to create lasting prose that would awe the poets of the land.

I did a couple of lines.

Two hours later, my story was done, the dishes in the kitchen sink were clean, the laundry was folded, and the house plants were watered. I had started a grocery list and a to-do list and was trying to decide what was next: reorganizing the icons on my desktop, alphabetizing my CD collection, or spending the rest of the afternoon organizing a master plan for getting healthy, wealthy and wise. Speed, without alcohol as a buffer, or friends to interact with, was something completely new to me. On speed, I could get shit done.

Right away I knew I'd never met a drug more dangerous.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Speed, like any other stimulant, is fun going up and miserable coming down. And once you've done too much, the focus and precision go out the window. Think about the feeling you get when you've drunk one cup of coffee too many. You're a little jittery, a little headachy. Multiply that by 100 and you've got an inkling of what it's like when you're maxed out on speed. You're grinding your teeth, your mouth is feeling dry, your sweat starts to feel toxic and metallic. You take a shower, to try to get clean, but it only works for a few minutes. You start drinking water and find that you can't get enough, but it seems to go through your system without even stopping for a chat with your inner organs.

The crash is horrific. Massive headache, depression, dehydration. Speed is not good for you, and your body tells you that in every possible way. But your mind... your mind is more amenable. Your mind is always saying, just a little boost would be OK.

From the get-go, I was aware that I was dancing with the dark side. Even as I continued doing it socially, now that I was using it for work, I wasn't putting it all on the table, so to speak. I was setting some aside, secreting away baggies inside obscure audiotape cassette boxes. I didn't want anyone to know that I was doing lines in the middle of the day by myself. I also didn't want to share, even with my girlfriend. Getting high with her was a blast, but meeting my deadlines was a necessity.

But it was good for my work. Making a career as a freelance writer in the teeth of a recession is a challenge, and I needed all the help I could get. I was working seven days a week, for anyone who would pay me, always under deadline pressure.

And the stuff I wrote wasn't bad! At least, not judging by what my editors and readers told me. It was quality shit. I was my own best editor and critic on speed, scornful of lazy writing. Transitions had to be perfect, arguments airtight.

I once finished a massive, hundred-page project in a four-day-long speed-fueled frenzy, doing huge fat lines every couple of hours, from early in the morning until past midnight, sleeping uneasily for three or four hours at a time. Midway through the home stretch, it occurred to me that there was an underlying tension in the piece that, if drawn out and made explicit, would tie everything together in one brilliant stroke. Only problem was that it would require rewriting the entire thing from top to bottom. My speed-intensified brain couldn't back away. I did a couple more lines, and rammed my way through, like a hopped-up fullback knocking tacklers hither and thither as he rushes for the end zone. Nothing could stop me.

Yeah, there was that one moment on the fourth day, when, moments after a line, I sat at my desk feeling my heart beat like a tribal drum and I thought to myself -- I am in complete control. I could stop my heart from beating with a single thought right now. But I soon dismissed that fleeting epiphany as paranoia and returned to my current task of removing every single passive construction in some 40,000 words of writing. And making sure the margins were just right. And the footnotes. Don't get me started on the footnotes.

Some months later, I went to a bar where I had arranged to meet a guy -- let's call him "Al." Al was a little shifty. He had a nice grin but a hard time keeping a job as a landscaper. His shoulder-length hair was a little scraggly. I didn't know him all that well -- he had worked for another friend of mine who was also a landscaper.

Al was supposed to know a guy who could sell me some speed. My machinist friend was getting a little flaky and wasn't returning phone messages. There was another guy I knew, a biker dude whose claim to fame had been playing bass for the third incarnation of a second-rate Southern rock band, but he was in jail, and there was no telling when he'd be out. So I was down to Al.

Al had me drive to a part of town I hadn't been to before, where the buildings were mostly warehouses with boarded-up windows and the street gutters were littered with ripped-open condom packages. It was broad daylight, around 4 in the afternoon, but the stark light made the scene more uncomfortable and freaky than pitch darkness. After pulling up to one warehouse, reputedly the shared residence of a once-famous punk band that had fallen on hard times, Al told me to stay in the car while he went inside with a couple hundred of my dollars.

"These guys are a little paranoid," he said. And then disappeared.

I sat in the car, imagining what I would say if a cop passed by -- and this was the kind of neighborhood where cops did roll by, often -- and ask me what I was doing. What was my cover story? What would I say?

A few minutes later, a car did pass, going about 10 miles an hour, and both the driver and the passenger gave me a long hard look. I just leaned back in my seat, avoiding eye contact, feeling the sweat break out on the back of my neck. Where was Al? Why was I doing this? Was this the stupidest thing I'd ever done in my life, or what?

The answer, obviously, was yes. But the adrenaline of scoring overrode whatever tiny reservoir of common sense was still lurking inside me. I was addicted -- to that sense of control, that sense of total focus -- and if that meant going completely out of control to get there, so be it.

Al finally returned. Was he gone an hour or just ten minutes? I have no idea. All I know is that he made the deal. I gave him a cut and got back home.

And it was all good.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Except I knew it wasn't. I knew, all along, that I would have to quit. I could see other people around me getting fucked up by the drug, displaying the same patterns of selfishness and paranoia that I was developing -- the hoarding and the secrecy. And when I saw some old friend clumsily sneaking a line when she thought no one was paying attention, or getting agitated at the thought that she wasn't getting her fair share, it alarmed me more than when I saw that same behavior in myself. Is that what I looked like? I wondered.

Somehow, I never let the physical impact of the drug get too out of control. I'm not sure why, but it's possible that the same obsession with work that drove to me to speed kept me from submerging completely into its embrace. There was a limit to how much I could do and still keep it together. My body required time to recuperate if I was still going to meet my work obligations -- and I never failed to toe that line.

But even as I avoided becoming a tweaked-out wreck, alarm bells were ringing. My girlfriend -- now my fiancée -- and I were both having a little too much fun. She and I discussed what was going on -- I shared all my furtive secrets of the past year in an all-night, speed-fueled heart-to-heart. We agreed to a pact a few weeks later -- in the middle of our honeymoon.

We were going to clean up. Quit. Put that shit behind us, together.

As far as I know, she didn't do another line of speed from that moment onward.

But less than a month later, I was back to it. I was on to a huge story that needed to be done on an absurdly short deadline. A friend of mine was helping me out. He laid out some lines. I didn't even think twice.

In the months that followed, I can remember coming to bed before I was sleepy, because I knew that if I stayed up any later working she would start to wonder if I was back on the drug. And of course she would be right, because I was. And I would lie there, wide awake under the blankets, concentrating on regulating my breathing so as to seem asleep. It is not really a productive use of one's time to fake being asleep. But it seemed to make sense at that moment.

Of course she found out. And was angrier than I'd ever seen her -- I think it was the first time I'd ever really disappointed her. If I could go back in time and change anything in my life, I think I might go back to that first pact-breaking line and slap myself around a few times. You know what they say: The first cut is the deepest -- there's really no coming back from that initial breach of faith. Not all the way, anyway. That kind of damage may not be the kind that can ever be fully repaired. Over the course of the next year, I did finally fight my way clear of the hold that speed had over my waking, and sleeping, hours. How did I get free? I'm not sure -- I'm not even sure that now, some 15 years later, I am free. I just stopped myself from scoring. I drank a lot of coffee.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Speed is much in the news these days. The tweaker who blows himself up in his jerry-built meth lab has become a kind of cultural cliché, like the burned-out stoner, the coke-addled yuppie, or the blissed-out E raver. But in the 21st century, speed has come a long way from where it was when I fell under its spell. Meth: It's not just for white trash any more. The intelligentsia are starting to pay attention. It's a gay man's party drug, for crying out loud!

I haven't touched the stuff in more than a decade, but I don't doubt that speed abuse is spreading. What I don't see is a whole lot of appreciation for why. Understanding why people do speed is more complicated than just noting that, as with any recreational drug, speed is fun, and when fun is combined with the likelihood of physical addiction, you have a problem. But speed isn't just about fun, and addiction isn't something that happens just because you try something once, and boom, the shackles are in place.

For some of us, speed answers deeper needs. I think one reason why it used to be situated mainly in blue-collar circles was because speed is a workingman's drug. Gotta pull another eight-hour shift at the factory? Speed can help with that. Gotta drive another thousand miles in your big rig? Speed is great for that.

Speed, for me, was that workingman's drug, updated for the hypertechnological age. It's a busy time, these days, busier than it's ever been, and it is hard to keep up. In a 24x7x365 digitally networked wireless world there's always another e-mail, another voice mail, another item on the to-do list.

The more powerful our computers and information-management programs, the more we try to do -- and the more we are asked to do, because of course, there is a huge economic incentive to have fewer people do more. That's called productivity -- and everybody likes productivity. You can go all the way back to good old Max Weber and "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" -- we get closer to God when we get lots of stuff done. Speed, man, it's holy.

We're a nation that's hooked on speed for very good reasons. It is no coincidence, I think, that speed abuse is burgeoning at exactly the same time that the pressure on each and every one of us is ratcheting up.

After all, you'd better be productive if you want to flourish in the outsourced, downsized, globalized and completely deregulated 21st century economy. Just the thought of competing against a couple billion Chinese and Indians makes me want to reach for the razor blade, and I'm sure I'm not alone. Take out that second mortgage, work that second job, learn that extra skill -- got to add value if you want to survive, but where are you going to find the time?

I suppose there could be another way. A good Zen Buddhist might encourage us to assume the lotus position, eliminate our desires, and purge ourselves of need. Speed isn't going to solve anything, anyway, even if you can achieve the unlikely feat of controlling your habit so you don't kill yourself. There's always going to be more to do, more competition, more distraction, more pressure. Just don't do it, the sage would tell us. And while you're at it, ease up on the caffeine, why don't you?

- - - - - - - - - - - -

If someone laid a line out in front of me right now, I'd be hard put to say no. And there are times, when the deadlines shower down and the hours start slipping away, that a little voice in the back of my head says, "If only I had some speed..." There's always that delusion of drug grandeur -- I can stay on top of this. I can control it.

But when you wake up in the middle of the night sweating because your body is riding a drug high that never really happened, you should listen to the whispers of the demon. I'm lucky I did, but I still miss it.

By James Maier

James Maier is a pseudonym.

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