More Songs About Cornbread and Jail



Harvoni treatment, month 1

My history with drugs is a colorful one. The colors are mostly shades of dark. For a very brief time, forty years ago, I was an iv drug user. It all ended a long time ago, I stopped shooting dope not long after I started, and I stopped drinking and all other drugs twenty one years ago, but those days of hard living weren’t without lingering consequences: hepatitis C, and, I recently learned, stage 1 cirrhosis of the liver.

There are, finally, new wonder drugs that will cure hepatitis C without crippling chemo-therapy like side-effects. I started on those treatments a month ago today. The first installment of this story is here.

This is more about forty years ago, and more about today, one month in.

Texas speed

I was studying geology at UT Austin, when I could get my shit together to go to class, which wasn’t often, so I took a break, got myself a job and an apartment up on North Lamar, and a roommate named Frank to help pay the rent.

Frank was an awful guy but a great roommate. He was never around. It wasn’t safe for him to enter Travis County, and so he’d slip in once a month in the middle of the night around the 3rd and leave his share of the money in cash on the TV set.

Frank was the guy who introduced me to shooting speed. Back when he could still safely enter Travis County we’d cop good Texas biker meth, pick up needles at the hobby shop (we’re building a model airplane!) head to this chick’s place, and all shoot up in the bathroom and play new-wave 8-track tapes and shoot up some more; the rush was like being fucked by God, this giant body fucking meth and adrenaline blast that would leave me spent and quivering and dying for more. I’d wind up shooting so much speed during a two day period just to keep experiencing that God fuck rush over and over that I would be far too loaded to even move.

It couldn’t last long.

Frank started fucking this very sad woman who worked at Le Femme massage. She had two kids. She wanted to open a clothing store. She was making decent money as a whore, and giving him whatever she had left for free, so he started coming back into Austin. He got busted in a huge raid just on the other side of I-35 in East Austin; the cops blocked off the entire street and went in there with guns. I never knew what he was wanted for.

As far as drug users go, I was young and naive and very much a non-hardened criminal. The bikers we would cop from made me nervous. I knew I didn’t have much skill at reading people, and I also sensed that they did, and that this made me a target. I still had this idea that I could somehow fit in and join the herds of normal American kids, and I sensed that shooting up drugs was not really gonna get me there. I felt like those scabs on the inside of crook of my elbow weren’t something I would find on other kids riding the UT shuttle bus to geology or engineering or political science classes.

Frank’s arrest was the end of my IV drug days, nearly 40 years ago. It didn’t last long, but it doesn’t need to. Austin was a small town. We were part of a small scene. Nearly everyone I know from those days who shot drugs ended up with Hep-C. A few of them, like Big Boys singer Biscuit, died.

Audience at a Black Flag show, 1983.

Audience at a Black Flag show, 1983.

Take me to the river.

Take my money, my cigarettes
I haven’t seen the worst of it yet
I want to know that you’ll tell me
I love to stay
Take me to the river, drop me in the water
Take me to the river, dip me in the water
Washing me down, washing me down
— Al Green.

Burn Center, Austin, in front of my house, 1983

Burn Center, Austin, in front of my house, 1983

It’s an epidemic, man

About 3% of baby boomers test positive for Hepatitis C.

The Center For Disease Control recommends testing for anybody born before 1965. Up until recently, the CDC only recommended testing for people believed to be at risk, a strategy that didn’t work because of the stigma; not too many people want to come forward and say “That’s me! I used to shoot dope!”

It’s also a little hard to believe that something you did so long ago, and have probably put behind you long ago, could be causing such dire consequences only now.

Here’s the thing: when I shot drugs, we could buy needles at hobby shops. Whoever was the least strung out or tweaking looking one of us that could still lie convincingly (which means it was never me – I’m pathologically honest) would go in and score them, pretending to be building a model airplane. We did not know about AIDs – AIDs would not be officially discovered for another few years, (other than folks had already noticed a weird “gay cancer”) – and Hepatitis C (HCV) was only recognized as non A, non B hepatitis. It would be a decade before the virus would be identified.

In 1979 the only consequences to shooting dope were immediate: overdose or arrest. Okay, with heroin there was the probability that you would get strung out, but cocaine was still officially considered non-addictive, and the biggest danger from speed was the bikers you had to buy it from. That and that crazy tweaker chick who thought she was in love with me and would throw rocks at my window trying to wake me up, breaking them. I’d likely have drunk myself to sleep and would be out cold, and would wake up freezing, with a bad hangover and glass on the bed, and would have to explain yet again to the apartment manager that I really had no idea how my bedroom window kept getting broken, week after week. The broken window really was a mystery to me at first. I learned what was going on because my neighbor Bill was a little paranoid and had trouble sleeping. Bill knew everything that went on in the parking lot at night.

America Loves The Freedom, Austin Tx, 1980

America Loves The Freedom, Austin Tx, 1980

Hector the Dealer.

We used to score weed from Hector. Hector was this brooding hispanic guy with long hair and a constant tweaker paranoia about having his phone tapped by the FBI. This was back in the days of 8-track-tapes and tall tower speakers, and Hector would often drag his speakers out onto the lawn of his apartment complex, lay them down on the ground facing each other and fall asleep between them, Lynyrd Skynyrd 8 Track playing full blast on loop all night. The neighbors were frightened of Hector so nobody would say anything. Half of them probably bought weed from him.

Hector’s weed made me paranoid, too. Well, all weed did, actually. I really hated that stuff. What I hated even more was turning down drugs, so I would smoke it anyhow if a joint was being passed, and then retreat quickly into my mind, and then to my apartment, where I would sit still and quiet in the dark, hoping nobody would notice I was home. Once the tweaker chick came around and started throwing rocks, and I couldn’t deal with her, so I sat there as still as I could and tried to will her away by extending the quiet out beyond myself and into the world at large, or at least my area of apartments down off Riverside Drive, but the only thing that would make her leave was the sound of the glass of my bedroom window shattering.

Sinners Welcome, Highland Park

Sinners Welcome, Highland Park

What does it mean to live in a human body today?

The mind is this kind of amazing thing that works in harmony with the body. That’s why mental stress brings on heart attacks. That’s why quitting my job last year actually brought down my blood pressure. That’s why autoimmune disorders tend to flare up when we are agitated for prolonged periods.

Most of us think of our bodies as though they were cars – just something to transport us around, or containers for our brains – except that we tend to take better care of our cars than of our bodies. For those who believe in God, and think that God created us in h/His own image, it might pretty fucked up how so many of us have let ourselves go, with cigarettes, alcohol, obesity, sugar, processed food, anger, self righteousness… There’s not a picture I’ve ever seen of God where He looks like Jabba the Hutt with a MAGA hat. Aren’t we dishonoring h/Him with our Cheetos and Poptarts and hormone filled factory farmed meat and Bud Light and Marlboros and guns?

Yeah, I know, I’m a fine one to talk, with my HCV due to iv drug use, and my cirrhosis of the liver, recovering alcoholic, recovering two-pack-a-day smoker; I’m one of those fucking obnoxious, sanctimonious reformed dudes trying to shame people into looking after themselves.

Don’t bank on starting over and doing it right in the afterlife. Get it right now. This might be the only life you’ll have, and it surely is the only body you’ll ever have. I might be lucky, because I only have stage 1 cirrhosis, and the liver is the one and only major organ capable of regenerating itself. Maybe once this HCV virus clears, it will be able to. But a heart, or lungs? Once those are toast, that’s it. You’ll need to fetch new ones…from a corpse, at great expense, unless you become a corpse yourself first.

Some shit just isn’t fun and games, kids.

Cedro Peak 50K

Snow on singletrack, Cedro Peak 50K

Snow on singletrack, Cedro Peak 50K

Mile ten or so, and my middle-of-the-pack had settled into a nice evenly spaced groove, all of us about fifteen to twenty feet apart on the soft singletrack. Nobody talked. This was notable, and welcome. For once in a race the trails were mercifully quiet, except for the sound of our feet, labored breathing, and the wind. Nobody talked about their training plans. Nobody talked about beer. Nobody talked about their shoes, their race schedules, their close calls with DNFs, or the Latter Day Saints’ Boyscouts. Nobody talked at all. It was soothing, and I was grateful.

This was the first morning of my fifty-ninth year on this planet. It was a cold, dry desert morning. All I knew about where I was going was that in thirty-two miles I’d be right back where I started, which is a kind of perfect summary of life itself.

Around mile 12 or so, my quads were aching. This was very early in a race for this to happen. I’ve slowed down a lot the past year. I wasn’t sure what was happening – some combination of being undertrained, not used to the elevation, on a medication of which the most common side-effect is muscle weakness, and just plain getting old, but I knew the race was gonna be a slow one. For once, I really didn’t care. There’s something about the expansiveness of New Mexico that makes me open up. A lot more seems possible there than typically does in LA.

Thirty eight years after the days shooting biker speed down in Texas, twenty one years after my last drink, weighed down just a little with the new knowledge that I have stage one cirrhosis of the liver from those days and the hepatitis C that they resulted in, there I was, down by Tijeras, New Mexico, just south of Albuquerque, in the Manzanita Mountains. It had been cool and windy the past few days. There’d been a light snow overnight. 32 degrees at 7am. A cool, beautiful morning. My birthday.

Two races started together – the 50K and the marathon. Both shared the same course, which is more-or-less an out-and-back, except that those of us running the 50K had an extra loop after the high/mid point, on Cedro Peak. The marathon runners turned around and headed back to the start. The 50K runners did a beautiful, rough, rocky and mountainous loop, by far the nicest part of the course, that brought reminded me quite a bit of the back of Strawberry Peak, one of my favorite runs in the San Gabriel Mountains front range.

I finished with my second or third slowest time ever in a 50K, although it was a slightly long 50K, by a couple of miles. There wasn’t much run left in me at the end. I’d enjoyed the race, but I was also very happy to get to the finish line.

The next day I could barely walk. We did a short loop just outside of Santa Fe, so that I could get a recovery hike in, and it was quite a struggle. I felt like I’d run 100 miles.

Cedro Peak singletrack

Cedro Peak singletrack

Side Effects.

Compared to the old treatments for Hepatitis C, the side effects of Harvoni are mild.

The old Hep C medications involved interferon, which are naturally occurring proteins that the body produces when it senses infection. It involved a weekly injection of man-made interferon that kicked the immune system into overdrive, fighting not just the HCV but everything else it could find with typical fighting-an-infection side-effects like having a severe flu with fever, fatigue, muscle aches, except that this flu didn’t last a week. It lasted a year, and during that year you would also experience abnormal blood counts, suicidal thoughts, aggression, maybe psychosis, and possibly system-wide damage to vital organs like the liver, kidneys, bone marrow, and heart. Not fun. On top of that, it only cured Hep-C in one-in-four people with genotype 1.

The new drugs are anti-virals, which means they specifically target the Hep-C virus, or HCV. It’s a 12 week treatment rather than 48 weeks, the cure rate is 95%, and the side-effects are mild: nausea, mild stomach ache, headaches, insomnia, and, most commonly, muscle weakness.

I’m feeling the side-effects.

I often have a slight stomach ache, and feel gassy and bloated. My muscles feel weak, and tire easily. Not so weak that I can’t run a 31 mile race in the mountains, but weak enough that I tire earlier and it hurts more than usual. Running Cedro Peak 50K, my quads felt really tired at the 10 mile mark. I was undertrained for the race, and it was at (slight) elevation for a sea level boy (7,000 – 8,000 feet), but I should have enough base fitness and mileage and I regularly train at that elevation. I’ve never had muscle soreness that early in a race. But I finished. The side effects are mild enough that I am still running 50+ miles a week. In the aftermath, I felt more beat up than usual, and I thought I might have injured myself. I could barely walk the next day. None of that is usual.

Muscle weakness is relative. I am still able to finish a 31 mile race on rough, rocky trails. That I can do it at all is a truly wonderful thing, even with the hard work I put into it. That I can do it on Harvoni is awesome.

I run in the mountains, on trails, and, occasionally, on the road, because it is one of the most natural, fundamental things there is to do. The human body was made to move. This thing where we sit at desks is a new development. We spent a lot longer hunting mastadons with clubs and spears. Evolution designed us to run around the plains hunting bison, not sitting at desks typing shit into Microsoft Word. It feels good to run. It feels good to draw the deepest gulps of breath I can into my lungs while my arms and legs pump as I run along the Pacific Crest Trail, or in the Manzanita Mountains, or up and down rolling hills in Griffith Park. This is where I belong. It’s where we all belong, most likely. I should have sore legs at the end of a glorious day. What I shouldn’t have is Hep C and cirrhosis of the liver. What I shouldn’t have done is shot up speed. What I shouldn’t need to be doing now is taking Harvoni. Nevertheless, those are my circumstances, and I am grateful that I can get this medication, and also that I have had and will continue to have the ability to move across long distances on foot in the mountains. For all of that, I am blessed.

Take me to the river, reprise.

Talking Heads, from the album More Songs About Buildings and Food.

6 replies
  1. Kellie
    Kellie says:

    Your writing draws me in Geoff. I feel like I have experienced your past and am experiencing your present.


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