Drugs

My Father Died, and Then I Fell in Love with Heroin

When my dad passed away, anything good-intentioned, selfless or purposeful in me died along with him.

by Emily J. Sullivan
14 August 2018, 1:58pm

Me after rehab (left) and me in the middle of things (right.)

I never woke up one morning and thought, “I’ll try heroin today.” That’s not typically how it works, and if you’d asked me or anyone who knew me if I’d likely be shooting up in the bathroom of the Rainbow Bar and Grill, while my tables wondered why their drinks were taking so long, the notion would quickly be dismissed with a scoff. In the fall of 2011 though, there I was, frantically trying to find a vein while listening to my manager ask fellow restaurant staff where I’d run off to from the other side of the door. When I completed the task at hand and rushed out to tend to my not-so-patient patrons, one of my regulars told me, “You know you look like Amy Winehouse, black hair, red lips and all . . . of course you’re not a heroin addict though.”

When people discuss relationships, and their success, failure or potential, the issue of timing tends to come up. Well, when I was introduced to heroin, the timing was perfect, our first encounter was blissful and the torrid love affair that ensued swept me off my feet and out of my mind. Love at first sight? No, love at first taste. All my feelings of despair, loneliness, and grief, wondrously fizzled away, a welcome numbness and euphoria taking its place. My dad unexpectedly died in March, I drank myself mad to June and on June 8, I dyed my blonde hair jet black, tried heroin for the first time, and drove to a local tattoo parlor to get “Clyde” stained into my right wrist. Because even when going off the deep end, I had to be an extremist. Clyde was a pseudonym for the man who introduced me to my new love, heroin, so it seemed like a fitting tribute.

It wasn’t long before my friends and family noticed a change. I remember thinking, “Wow, the heroin has really cleared up my drinking like a pirate problem.” I was sleeping better, crying less, and I had lost the ten pounds I gained in margarita weight. It was a dream, a secret dieting and happy tool that only I had discovered. To my dismay, it turned out not to be my best-kept secret. What appeared as glaring and alarming changes in my appearance and behavior to my loved ones were invited adjustments to me. My closest friends initial concern turned into an outright shunning. Whatever, heroin made me happier than they ever did anyway. Living with my wary sister-in-law, I returned home one morning to my mom, who did not live with me, sitting on my bed surrounded by various paraphernalia and balloons I thought were stealthily hidden. I love my mom dearly, she’s my weak spot and I’d lasso the moon for her, but when she looked at me with sincere confusion, tears streaming down her face, pleading for an explanation, I knew I was in too deep. It was premature to end things, It had only just begun. You know how they say love is like a drug? Well, in my case love is quite literally, a drug, and I wasn’t ready to break up. The blow of hurting my mom so profoundly anesthetized by the power of the poppy, I packed up my silver Honda with clothes, makeup, and guitars, and ran away to Hollywood.

I exited the 101 freeway onto Sunset Boulevard, made a left and drove toward destiny. I parked behind Whisky A Go Go and walked up to Rainbow Bar and Grill. I managed to instantly charm the manager and he agreed to hire me on the spot. It was a sign, the first place I drive to, the first person I speak to, and boom—I’ve got an income in Hollywood. Within days I was signing a lease for a studio apartment, with wood floors and an interior brick wall, right off Hollywood Blvd, two blocks from Julia Robert’s corner in Pretty Woman. If this wasn’t meant to be I don’t know what was, it was just so, easy.

Love can be defined in various ways, such as devotion, admiration, attachment, unconditional care, and sexual desire. I felt all aforementioned sentiments for my drug, and not just for the drug but for the ritual involved, the daily adventures it seemed to lead me on, the danger and risk involved. I’d wake each morning and rather than liven myself with a cup of coffee, I’d open my eyes instantly excited to get my fix. Indulging in the high as well as prepping the shot. I felt intense needle romance and found it inherently sexual when I’d pierce my skin with the prick of my beloved needle, draw the syringe back and watch my vibrantly red blood hit the caramel colored mixture of dope and water I’d prepared, signaling I’d hit a vein and could slowly inject myself with the devil’s mirage of heaven. Once satiated, I’d walk to the Metrolink at Hollywood and Highland, and hop on the red line filled with locals and tourists alike. The tourists would excitedly ask me if I was an actor and I would respond with a laugh and say no, thinking to myself, “If they only knew.” After several stops on the red line, I’d switch to the blue line, filled with Los Angeles’s grittiest. At this point my hoodie would come up and my head down until I exited Slauson and crossed the railroad tracks, with a taser slid into one combat boot and a switchblade in the other, knowing without them, my 100 pound self was physically helpless to any trouble I might encounter.

I grew up in an upper-middle-class family with a loving mother, four siblings, a devoted step-dad, and my rock ’n’ roll dad who I saw on Mondays. I didn’t experience childhood trauma that would give me some viable excuse for my addiction, I was just born with a spark in my eye for trouble. I enjoyed shocking people and embracing my hedonistic ways. It started with dropping the F-bomb in preschool, evolved into dating older men with drugging and boozing problems, and then when my dad passed away, anything good-intentioned, selfless or purposeful in me died along with him. I was my dad’s only child and for as long as I remember, I adored and desperately sought his love. I probably inherited my hedonism from him. When he died he left me everything, my room looked like a Sam Ash warehouse, most precious were his guitars.

Becoming a heroin user is like being diagnosed with a progressive and terminal illness—your quality of life deteriorates and your life expectancy reduces. Like most love affairs, the beginning is flush with infatuation, the middle feels like a normal and permanent way of life, and the end creeps up on you bringing anguish, diffidence, desperation, and then finally grief. The beginning of the end came for me when I had developed a tolerance that was costing me over a hundred dollars a day. Without enough dope, I’d start getting sick in a way that inspired panic. The first time I felt resentment towards heroin, was the first time I walked into a pawn shop, disgusted with myself, and pawned off one of my dad’s guitars. It was a Fender Telecaster named Marilyn for its coloring and had been played on stages with Kris Kristofferson and Freddy Fender all over the world. I took 75 measly bucks for it and hated myself as I shot up what little I had left of my dad. A few weeks later I mistakenly injected myself with bleach, forgetting that the cup normally filled with water had been filled with bleach earlier in the day to clean syringes. My phone was dead and my power had been shut off. I had to stumble down the boulevard until I found an outlet to charge my phone and call poison control. It was then I knew, if I were to continue, I would die a junkie that had broken her mom’s heart, made her step-dad cry, lost all of her siblings and friends, and pawned her dad’s guitars. When I pawned away the last guitar I had left, I leaned down to smell the guitar and inside of the case lined with red velvet, as I inhaled his still lingering scent, the lid slammed down onto the top of my head. A deserved and eerie smack on the back of the head from the ghost of my dad.

Still, I went on, hooked and miserable with the stranger I’d become. Once surrounded by loving, caring people of substance who valued me and I them, and now surrounded by the shadiest of Los Angeles dope fiends. I hadn’t seen or spoken to my family in what felt like a lifetime, I longed for my mother, overcome with remorse. Shortly after a depressing Christmas I spent getting a black eye and writhing in the pain of withdrawal, I checked my email. I hadn’t checked my email in nearly a year and when I opened it there was message after message from my dear mom, “I’ll never stop hoping you come home,”; “Please come back to us,”; “I love you and miss you.” I had believed they didn’t want me anymore . . . were better off without me. I burst into tears and called my mom to come get me and take me to rehab.

In rehab, my addiction counselors instructed me to write a goodbye letter to heroin, explaining that losing your drug of choice is much like losing a cherished relationship with a loved one. They talked me through the five stages of grief, articulating how relevant they were to addiction. They also had me write a letter to my dad. For the first time I was processing the unresolved issues that plagued my existence—the complications of loving him in life, and the pain of losing him in death. This was my first of seven stays in rehab. Seven times of failure and serial relapsing, but also seven times of tenacity and perseverance.

The late Anthony Bourdain said about his road to recovery, “I’m a vain person and I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror.” That quote resonated because I used to be beautiful, smart, savvy, always have a few jokes up my sleeve, and have a moral compass that admittedly was of my own design but still entailed substance and character. I wanted to be her again. It took years to get over my love affair with heroin, years to stop romanticizing our time together, and years to stop participating in countless illicit rendezvous. But I did stop, it’s over now and those days are now just a memory and the words I fill my pages with. When I learned that rather than relying on something as unreliable as heroin to make me whole, to just invest in myself, I finally got the lesson. I managed to survive slowly but in retrospect, triumphantly.

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