18 Years

Cooking Heroin, Echo Park

Cooking Heroin, Echo Park

Once upon a time, I drank a little bit too much liquor and used a little bit too much drugs.

1997. I lived in a one room apartment in Hollywood. I’d usually black out before I could get into bed and wake up on the floor, or on the sofa, wondering where I was, even though I was always in the same place. Perhaps that was habit. Up until a couple of years earlier I’d been living out of a suitcase, and “where am I?” was a legitimate question. What city? What country?

April 1 1997 I woke up in my one room apartment and said “This is it. I can’t do this anymore. I’m getting clean today.”

This was a slight departure from what I’d said every morning for the previous year and a half. The day before, and the day before that, and the day before that…I’d stumbled out of bed bleary eyed and hung over and said “This is it. This is my last day. Tomorrow I am getting sober.”

Suddenly, there was no tomorrow.

18 years later I’m still not sure what it was that changed. I guess at some point you really truly finally do have enough.

The day filled up immediately with signs that this was the correct decision. My assistant (I was a somewhat successful photographer) called and let me know that he couldn’t work with me anymore if I didn’t get my shit together. Shit – his job was easy, I thought – all he had to do really was be the barrier between me and everyone else on the set, and then take the film to the lab when we were done. Our shoots never lasted all that long – I could only give so much of myself before I absolutely positively needed to get loaded. We seldom stretched past noon. But the job of finding me behind the studio chain smoking and sweating heavily and telling me that so-and-so was out of makeup and on set was more than enough. My disposition was too toxic, I guess.

My agent called with a few complaints from clients. This was an industry that tolerated and even appreciated a fair degree of diva-like behavior, but I’d slipped from diva to Bukowski, and that wasn’t working.

Barcelona, 1993

Barcelona, 1993

My little sister was the bad one in the family. She was a crack-head with multiple arrests. I was a low-key drunk who used heroin from time-to-time. I stayed deep in the shadows; she tended to stumble frequently into the spotlight, mostly the spotlights attached to the sides of police cars.

I hadn’t heard from her in a while. She called that morning, from jail, wondering if maybe I could come down and put some money on the books for her, but I couldn’t – I was broke, my car wasn’t running well and I was too drunk from the night before to drive.

It was a there-but-by-the-grace-of-God-go-I phone call.

People had been mentioning this AA thing to me for about a decade. I called the hotline and found out where there was a meeting, at 8pm, down in Korea Town, on the corner of Arlington and Wilshire. All I needed to do was hang on for another 10 hours or so.

I white knuckled it through the day. I was pretty sure the whole thing was going to be a load of shit – just a bunch of Jesus freaks, and besides, they were just substituting one addiction for another with all of that God stuff – but I promised myself I wouldn’t drink until after I’d left the meeting with the clear recognition that this stuff was garbage. Because I reckoned I’d really be needing a beer after that ordeal, I went out and bought some. The fridge was minimally stocked for the night. I managed to leave it alone that day.

I got there just a few minutes after 8. The meeting was in a room with huge glass windows, and I recognized enough of the people inside from photo labs and other work places. This was gonna be hugely embarrassing. I had no idea why they were there. There was nothing about them that indicated alcoholic, and they were all well dressed, shaved and showered. I imagined they were the friends and relatives of alcoholics, there to learn something they could use to persuade the alkies to clean up.

I turned to leave, and then turned back again, a little dance of hesitation that lasted a minute or two before I took the plunge and entered the room.

There were a handful of skid row looking guys in the back. I reckoned they were the alcoholics. I went and stood with them. It turned out that everyone in the room was an alcoholic. What made the shiny, clean people shiny and clean was that they hadn’t had a drink in a while.

The room was not set up like the meetings we often see on TV, in which a group of people sit and a circle and prod each other to speak about things that have very little to do with alcoholism. The TV meetings seem to be based on some sort of group therapy thing. Instead, at this meeting, there was an audience of alcoholics listening to a compelling story about alcoholism being told by a dapper old guy at the podium. A guy who hadn’t always been dapper. He was a great speaker, and the story he told was in grainy black and white, a private detective type of story, Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, the stuff of film noir. I wanted to relate, and I did.

Near the front of the room, over on the side, there was a table with literature manned by a guy I’d seen sitting in the audience. He tried to pass off a big blue book with about 500 pages in it. He said it was the core of the program. I reckoned it was their version of a bible, but I wasn’t looking for a bible. I was looking for an easy to read set of easy to follow directions. I found a smaller book with larger type called “the 12 Steps & 12 Traditions”. It looked more or less like an instruction manual. “This is a 12 step program, right?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said, “but – ” I cut him off. I didn’t want a 500 page book. I wanted some clear and simple, something I could take home and read in a few hours and see whether or not I could do this thing. “I’ll take this one.”

The beer stayed in the fridge that night while I read the book.

There was a lot of talk about faith, and about a Higher Power.

People trip up over that stuff.

I didn’t.

I was, and remain, an atheist. Atheism is a statement about belief. An atheist believes there is no God, or else doesn’t believe in God, which might not be the exact same thing but is pretty close. There was this tiny window that opened that day, and stayed open that night and for a few weeks later; a window in which I really truly didn’t give a fuck about my belief in God or lack thereof; a window in which I understood that I believed in nothing whatsoever, and that this was a source of deep and untenable despair.

Bug, Hollywood gutter punk, 1998

Bug, Hollywood gutter punk, 1998

It’s probably a little difficult to understand if you’ve never been there, but when people talk about bottoming out they are not talking about a situation in which everything external is fucked. They are not talking about abscesses in their arms or about homelessness or arrest warrants or jail or waking up covered in their own vomit or having shit themselves. They are not talking about relationships lost or family no longer talking their calls or not putting money on the books when they’re in jail, or friends who lock the door or call the cops when they show up. Instead, we are talking about some existential emptiness, a spiritual condition some people call it, or a spiritual malady. What it was for me was absolute despair.

A few months earlier I’d seen Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves”, which Robert Ebert so powerfully describes here. In this brutal and powerful film (“Not many movies like this get made, because not many filmmakers are so bold, angry and defiant.” writes Ebert) the protagonist’s belief in a God of her own understanding is so powerful that it ultimately results in her death after having been ostracized and tormented by the entire village. Never for a moment does she suffer because never for a moment does she doubt that this is what God has planned for her. She is a simple woman, and she might even be insane (then again, she might not), but what does any of that matter in the face of a belief as powerful as hers? At least her life had meaning. Mine did not.

I walked away from that film knowing that I absolutely had to come to believe in something, because without belief I had nothing.

I walked away from that meeting believing I could get sober.

3 replies
  1. Kellie Murrish
    Kellie Murrish says:

    Reading your blogs transform me to places that I have been and ways that I have felt. Am sharing your experiences with my 22 year old son in hopes that you inspire him as much as you do me. I could never have the courage on the level that you do. Kuddos! Your purpose in life being fulfilled I’m sure!

  2. WalterZee
    WalterZee says:

    Stirring tale of the the view from the bottom and of stumbling into hope. I can dig it. Sublime… a powerful inspiration to the Netherman.


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