On Drugs, Part II
This is the second installment of Chris Fleming’s account of his drug addiction, and the modes, mechanics, and madness of legal and illegal drug acquisition. Although he has been clean for many years, the fourteen years he spent as an addict left a permanent imprint on how he thinks and moves around the world – his interactions with people, substances, and how he reads social space. Read the first installment here .
Have you taken these before?
With illegal drugs, acquisition is necessarily fraught. As a rule, drug-dealers aren’t dependable. They don’t really have to be: their customers will do and go through almost anything to get what they’ve got. And so service is often terrible. Perhaps being unreliable is a tactical necessity; being reliable in the conventional sense requires the dealer to be more predictable – and therefore more vulnerable – to being set up or raided by the police, or by disgruntled or desperate customers. Legal drugs therefore have several advantages when it comes to reliability of acquisition – as long as one prepares well for the complexities of purchasing large amounts of them. The illegal drug dealer relies on your addiction; the pharmacist is obliged to be wary of it. For me, legal drugs also had the advantage that I didn’t have to spend time with pharmacists in their homes and pretend that I found them funny, highly perceptive, even creative geniuses.
In my case, the amount of codeine I was taking was about as difficult to acquire as it was to afford. Once upon a time Nurofen Plus came in packs of twelve, 24, 48, and 72 tablets. (The 48 and 72 packs have now been withdrawn from sale.) At the time, a pack of 48 cost about fifteen dollars – and if you were taking the maximum recommended daily dose (six tablets), that would mean you could only legitimately return to the chemist for another pack about once a week. Even then, the medical information on the pack cautioned that the tablets ‘weren’t for extended use’ – and, predictably, that ‘If pain persists, see your doctor’. I was taking, on average, 48 tablets of Nurofen Plus a day, although on occasion I took up to twice this quantity.
I couldn’t simply turn up to the same chemist daily and buy my packet of 48. I had to vary where I bought the drugs, and I honed a range of skills related to getting them. I quickly became aware of the opening hours of a huge number of pharmacies, and then at estimating how good individual staff were at remembering me; in this way I was able to decide how often I could return without raising suspicion. For some pharmacies – particularly those close to where I lived – I memorised the shifts particular employees were working so that I could choose to some extent who sold me the drugs. Experience taught me that casual staff were, by and large, less vigilant than part- or full-timers; Sunday was, therefore, a good day to shop. The best possible question I could get from a sales-assistant was ‘Have you taken these before?’ Once I felt so excited by the question I told them the truth, staged as a joke: ‘Yes, in fact I can swallow twelve tablets at once!’ She looked concerned and I laughed, and she reluctantly joined in with the joke. I could actually swallow about twenty tablets at once. It’s a skill I still have, although there’s no call for it.
The large, supermarket-like pharmacies were the best; they had the biggest variety of staff and staff turnover, as well as the most number of customers coming through their doors. They also seemed to prioritise moving product. Conversely, the worst were generally the dingy, one-person operations: the drugs were more expensive, the employees had better memories, and the pharmacists were more suspicious. Usually, too, codeine-based medications were kept behind the counter; one had to ask permission to even touch them. This tended to make the buying of the drugs less consumer and more proprietor-based – less casual, more serious. One didn’t present something at the counter so much as ask permission to present something at the counter. In a couple of these small operations, one had the sense that lack of commercial success was considered by the proprietors themselves to be a sure sign of moral and professional rectitude: they wouldn’t – like that pharmacy across the road – just sell anything to anyone. So I went across the road.
But even in the larger pharmacies I still had to be careful; the person serving might not have seen me for a while but someone else working the same shift may have. In these cases, I had to time my approach to the counter – choosing a particular employee while trying to ensure that the someone else I was trying to avoid was serving another customer or otherwise preoccupied. Hopefully, the one I was avoiding would be engaged in some kind of conversation with a customer and wouldn’t be moving to the register until after I had departed. This strategy didn’t always work. Sometimes the other customer would leave suddenly, prematurely, not buying anything – or they’d cut their consultation short and decide on purchasing something faster than I would have liked. In most such cases, however, the attention of the employee was focused on their customer; and even if they did notice me, oftentimes my drugs would already be bagged, leaving ambiguous what exactly I’d purchased. As I left, I sometimes worried that a discussion between employees might ensue: ‘What did he just buy?’ ‘Nurofen Plus.’ ‘Really? I just sold him some of that a couple of days ago.’ The sheer amount of drugs I was buying – even with varying my suppliers as much as I could – did result in occasional questions, rhetorical and otherwise:
Have you seen a doctor?
You seem to buy a lot of these. You’re not supposed to take these for long, you know?
You’re only taking six a day, aren’t you? They’re very bad for your stomach.
What exactly are you taking these for, again?
The last of these questions sometimes seemed more like an expression of suspicion than a genuine inquiry. I didn’t like either. The former embarrassed and the latter irritated me. And although I had the conceit that I was an excellent reader of body language, I sometimes had a difficult time distinguishing between accusations, the dutiful discharge of professional responsibilities, and expressions of genuine concern. Genuine inquiries were often the most time-consuming, as they usually involved me being recommended another, ‘equally effective,’ medication. In these situations, I pretended to listen carefully before thoughtfully asserting that, unfortunately, I’d already tried X and found it ineffective. There was an undeniable subtext in particular lines of questioning, but no one ever asked me directly: ‘Are you addicted to these?’ Not once. I’m not sure, apart from never again returning to that pharmacy, how I might have responded to that question.
Shoulder pain was the most common reason I gave for the Nurofen Plus, at least in the early days. However, this explanation tended to carry with it a risk of people suggesting other medications to take; as a result, I came to rely more on migraine. This worked for a while, until Nurofen Migraine Pain Tablets became available, which had no codeine; after that, it was tension headaches. The last was a pretty useful pathology to use; it’s only disadvantage was that chronic tension headaches are usually treated by prescription medicine; one cannot keep returning with this complaint without inviting strong recommendations to see a doctor. Explanations of chronic shoulder pain tempted people less into offering referrals – so it was, at least on a law of averages, my favoured explanation. There was another advantage to this account: it allowed me, to a small extent, to justify the drug use to myself – at least in the beginning. My shoulder did hurt, actually; years of playing cricket had taken its toll on my left rotator cuff. So it was a natural enough excuse, and not without some truth. I did, in fact, first take the drugs for shoulder pain – and discovered that they were even better at addressing some kind of vague existential malaise. I think my first dose was six tablets. I was in the habit of taking more than the prescribed dose for painkillers, typically exceeding recommendations by 100-200%. (I was actually in the habit of taking more of anything than the recommended dose.) It’s likely that I took four or six tablets rather than one or two, liked the way it felt, and so took three or four more. In any case, although it has been years since I bought the drugs, one pharmacist in Enmore still sometimes asks me about my shoulder. I tell him it’s fine. It is fine.
Most times I bought the drugs, I talked to pharmacy employees while holding my shoulder, occasionally punctuating my statements or requests with a slight wince. I reasoned that it would be harder to deny someone medicine when they’re so obviously suffering. I’ve got a somewhat caricatural face (a flatmate once said that I looked as if I’d been designed by the children’s illustrator Quentin Blake), and so I had to be careful not to produce some hammed-up burlesque of pain – because that was what an addict would do: report to their local pharmacy moaning like they’d just severed a limb. There was a kind of Stanislavskian objective in my dramatisation: I conspired to look less like I was expressing pain than attempting to cover it up; a paradigm of masculinity, I was trying to hide my agony from the pharmacist, not reveal it. If I was seen to be engaged in bad acting, then seeing through this acting would be equivalent to seeing the pain which the poor acting sought to obscure. There was a kind of homeopathic logic here: the cure for bad acting was to layer it with more bad acting – voila: genuine suffering. Because my visible behaviour was so obviously suggesting that I was pretending – very badly – to not look to be in pain, the worse my acting was, the more it would secure the validity or truthfulness of my pain. That’s what I hoped, anyway.
In terms of structure if not panache, my strategy here is akin to those often used in certain kinds of intelligence operations. In his remarkable book, The Double-Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945, John C. Masterman – historian and former member of the ‘Double-Cross Committee’ of the British Intelligence Service – provides a kind of bible of deception, a how-to manual for spreading disinformation. Instead of shutting down captured agents, who could simply be replaced, Masterman talks about the value of ‘turning’ them – engaging them in the spreading of disinformation. Aware of the danger of captured agents being ‘turned’, agents were, in the event of capture, instructed to omit a specific group of three to five letters at the beginning of a message to alert the receiver of their predicament, to signal that following communications were not to be trusted. The strategy the Double-Cross Committee employed to combat this was to deliberately ‘blow’ an agent, to indicate to the enemy that he was under control, thereby giving the Germans both a false impression of British methods of running captured agents, and convincing them that other captured agents were, in fact, genuine. Here, working with the suspicions of the Germans, the British created a form of intelligence work that was neither strictly espionage – obtaining information about the enemy – nor counter-espionage – preventing the enemy from obtaining information – but spreading disinformation. Here, a genuine deception is poorly covered up with a further deception, with the cover up functioning to establish the truth of the former in the eyes of the deceived.
Another example of strategic reverse-logic: just as I reasoned that an imposter might act out the pain, and a genuine case would act to cover it up, I was of the view that, where an addict might tend to play down their purchase, the non-addict/legitimate sufferer would celebrate it. If an addict bought their drugs by sidling up to the counter like they were after pornography, I’d approach directly, smile – stoically, of course – and enthuse to the person behind the counter about this wonder drug. Nurofen Plus – what can I say? It’s amazing. Do others say the same thing? My enthusiasm for the effectiveness of the medicine would then be tempered by my complaints about having to take it.
It’s just too expensive.
I really don’t like taking drugs.
I’m seeing a good physio, though – and things are definitely improving.
On some occasions, when questioned about my use, I asked if they were addictive. I wanted to give the impression of being an appreciative but reluctant customer, one who appeared so frequently by virtue of sad necessity, not choice. Before those who sold me the drugs, I was also the eternal optimist. I had to be: things were ‘improving’ for years.
But all the talking – variably-executed and successful or not, was a poor second-runner to comfortable, efficient, near-silence. The perfect transaction was one where the drugs were cheap, the service was fast, and the employee – either surly, shy, or distracted by something else – said virtually nothing. This happened rarely however, especially as my addiction progressed. At some point, legislation was passed that required pharmacies to advise customers to take medicines like Nurofen and Nurofen Plus with food because they irritated the stomach lining. Even if I was in a hurry or feeling low, I’d still feign concentration and nod in a thoughtful, appreciative manner; with more time or exuberance in reserve, I might engage the employee by asking questions: ‘That’s because Nurofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, isn’t it? So, should aspirin be treated similarly? Are these a similar sort of NSAID?’ (My faux curiosity was trained on the non-addictive component of the drug I was taking.) About half the time, the person behind the counter wouldn’t know the answers to my questions, so I’d ask if they could check for me. This kind of approach allowed me to ingratiate myself to pharmacy employees by taking seriously their expertise while gently chiding them for their ignorance; it also allowed me to convey the impression of being an intelligent, responsible, and informed consumer of medicines.
But talk, however artfully constructed and well-delivered, had its limits. Even the smoothest rhetoric couldn’t clear a way for me to just turn up to the same pharmacy every day. And travelling around a lot to buy the drugs was exhausting; if I happened to be going to some out of the way place (as I often would, occasionally teaching across distant locations in the greater Sydney area), I’d stop to get my supply. In parts of the outer west, I didn’t have to go through my routine – at least not all of it: I could just buy the drugs. I remember many times when I was in an unfamiliar area, buying packets of drugs from all the local pharmacies, consecutively, to stock up. Once, on Darling Street, Balmain, I went to four pharmacies in the space of about fifteen minutes. Two of these were directly across from each other, on opposite sides of the road. After purchasing a 48-tablet pack of Nurofen Plus from one pharmacy, I immediately crossed the road and walked into the other. While at the counter, however, I heard a louder than normal voice coming from the entrance: ‘Hey, what’s going on? What are you doing here?’ I turned to look towards the entrance of the shop; the pharmacist from the shop I’d just visited was walking in. I felt sick. He’d seen my chemist-hop and followed me across. Or so I thought. In actual fact, he was haranguing the other pharmacist, whom he was surprised to see for whatever reason. And although our eyes met briefly, he either didn’t recognise, or chose to ignore, me. If he had – and identified my purchase – it’s hard to imagine what kind of explanation I might have tried on. Perhaps I would have said that I’d meant to get a couple of packs but had forgotten this, crossed the road to pick up my dry-cleaning and then remembered. I have no idea whether I would have been that fast. And, in any case, why would I have needed a couple of packs?
It’s odd, in a way, that I didn’t actually consider this danger a possibility and prepare for it; I was used to scanning everything for danger. Life then required an enormous amount of preparation, not least of excuses to account for the multitude of possible circumstances where I could be found out. Even well after I quit, the impulse to create excuses where none were required stayed with me. Addiction produces a number of such shadows: reflexes that persist despite the disappearance of the context in which had their origin and function. I always had excuses ready. And I saw landscape in terms of deals, of drug-friendly architecture, of seeing interactions between people as deals, seeing fights as deals gone wrong, reading space in terms of pharmacies, drug dealers, and landmarks, scanning footpaths for freebies dropped by users. I once picked up from the gutter in Blacktown a small ziplock bag with three tablets in it. I had no idea what they were, but they looked like drugs like me; why else would they be stored like that? I took them home, put them on my bookshelf, and stared at them for a long while. Then I went to the rubbish bin and put the bag in the rubbish, telling myself that taking them without knowing what they were would be crazy. But rubbish night was not for a few more nights, so I’d sometimes go to the back of the house and visit them; I’d open the bin, pull away whatever was obscuring them, and stare. Then one night, drunk, I went out, pulled the bag from the bin, took them in a single gulp, and waited. Nothing happened.
The freebie presents an allure nearly impossible to avoid. I smoked so much dope that I was often asked why I didn’t grow it, and so not be beholden to dealers and overdrafts. I can’t recall how I’d reply, but the answer was that growing it would amount to an admission that I’d decided to accept pot as part of my life, to actually invest in it. But my fantasy was always that I was about to stop – almost every deal was the last one; I really believed that. But scavenging was a different matter. While staying at my sister’s house in Goonengerry – in coastal northern New South Wales – I went hunting for magic mushrooms, which bloom on sunny days after rain, usually springing up out of cow shit. Friends told me that as long as I opted only for the mushrooms located in the shit, I’d be safe. They were referring to the safety of the mushrooms; I hadn’t thought much about the safety of being around large animals. After collecting and bagging a small stash, I looked up and saw a bull moving toward me, slowly increasing its pace, eventually starting to charge; I ran the way one does when being chased, something entirely different from the running one does in any other context. I eventually dived, arms outstretched, over the barbed wire fencing, tearing myself up on it, lacerating my torso and thighs, but landing softly in sludge and grass on the safe side of the boundary. As I was lying there, I heard a voice. The farmer had seen what had happened and yelled out redundant advice: ‘I wouldn’t do that again if I were you.’
Not all freebies were as dangerous to acquire. One of my habits was to pick up half or three-quarter smoked cigarettes (‘bumpers’) off the street and smoke them. My father has been a life-long opponent of the excesses of Pasteurism (‘the organism is nothing, the host is everything,’ he would often say) and so I never thought that I might catch a disease doing this. But the purpose here was slightly different; this way of acquiring cigarettes entails that the only ones you can smoke are those that can be found on the street. It provided a useful way of limiting my intake and getting me out of the house. (I was later gratified to discover that Einstein had used a similar strategy when told by his doctor to cut down on his smoking.)
When I first began buying Nurofen Plus, the largest packets available had 48 tablets in them – four white sheets of twelve. After a couple of years, it went up to 72. Given that one is only supposed to be taking them for a few days, that is an extraordinary number of tablets, unless you are buying for a large family of chronic pain sufferers. It seemed like an admission, I thought, that a proportion of the people who buy them have drug problems; pharmaceutical companies perhaps rely on drug addicts the same way that poker machine companies rely on problem gamblers. Even though buying 72 tablets was a legitimate purchase, I thought it might seem excessive to simply request a pack. I knew what I wanted, but had to give the impression that the decision was a difficult one. In view of the sales attendant, I would run my eyes across the packet sizes and pretend to size up the relative cost. ‘It’s cheaper buying the larger pack, isn’t it?’ Admittedly, it’s not a particularly intelligent question, given that that’s the whole premise behind larger packs of anything – from washing powder to chewing gum – but I thought it signalled that I was temperamentally inclined towards sober, restrained, long-term judgement, rather than impulse. The ‘thinking out loud’ was a means by which the virtue of restraint could be communicated, and the legitimacy of my purchase legitimised through the soundness of my character. I needn’t, in most cases, have said anything at all – but the strategy of talking more than the person selling me the drugs I thought conveyed the impression of openness. I avoided at all costs the manner of the man-in-the-long-trenchcoat sidling up to the counter and talking in sleazy whispers.
If a pharmacist or an employee didn’t know me very well, I might try to purchase two – or even three – packs. It was a relief to know that I didn’t have to visit a pharmacy for another couple of days. (Taking more than 24 tablets at a time was difficult, as I tended to vomit everything up over that dose.) But usually, even the most relaxed of employees would tend to raise eyebrows at bulk purchases. One of the ways in which I attempted to set up a context favourable to my demands was to ask – before I had brought anything to the counter – whether I could take Nurofen Plus overseas with me. Apart from justifying buying multiple packs of drugs, it implied a degree of wealth or worldliness that didn’t quite comport with being a drug addict; and asking it before I took anything to the counter belied the urgency and the nerviness that often accompanied these ambitious kinds of requests.
Where are you going?
The US. I know you need a prescription to buy codeine-based medicines over there, and I’m not particularly keen on running around seeing different doctors for a bit of shoulder pain; I’ve got enough to do over there as it is.
That should be fine. You might want to get a note from a GP explaining your condition.
Yeah – no problem.
How many packs did you want to get?
Well… I’ll be there until late July, so three should probably do it.
Of course, there was an element of risk in this strategy; it was quite likely that I’d be back buying drugs in that pharmacy well before late July. And, if the pharmacy was nearby, I’d have to risk having the person who sold me the drugs spotting me on the street. I was usually careful – at least for a little while – to cross the street and not walk directly in front of that particular shop. I’m amazed now at my memory for employees, shops, and stories told – and somewhat puzzled that I managed to stay on top of the lies, employee cycles, and, roughly, my own movements. But, I guess, nothing was more important then than getting the drugs, and so nothing was so central as masterminding how acquisition was to be managed. One option was to write it all down. But I never took this route, probably because it represented too concrete a confirmation of me having a ‘drug problem’. And, though it sounds contradictory – because of all the planning involved – buying and using drugs never lost a sense of always being an impulsive act for me. In one sense, it had to be; thinking clearly about any of it would have quickly lain bare how insane it all was.
There were other ways of getting larger quantities of the drugs which were not as plot-driven as my (non)travel stories. One would proceed by expressing surprise, even delight, at the bargains on offer in a particular store: ‘Oh my! This is a good price!’ I’d say as I dropped the box down on the counter, hoping that my exclamation was explanation enough for the bulk purchase. If I sensed awkwardness – or even if I was in a good mood – I might volunteer calculated misinformation: ‘My dad swears by these. He gets bad tension headaches. But he said they’d cost more than this. Now – do I pocket the change or what?!’ I talked like someone out of a bad Australian soap opera.
Even so, that was usually enough. If not, at worst, such a strategy might provoke exasperation that I was buying this quite serious medicine for my father and that he should come in himself. I’d explain that he lived in Wee Waa (or Narrabri or Forbes), was recommended the medicine by his GP, but couldn’t get it at his local pharmacy. I might even add that I wished that he could get it himself, that I didn’t really fancy doing his shopping – and that this wasn’t the sum-total of it: that I also had to get Weston’s Ginger Snaps and some dried apricots from Woolies. (The bother.) Sometimes I would add an authenticating purchase, like laxatives or toothpaste for sensitive teeth. My accent would be broadened out to reflect that I was a rural boy. The technique of presenting myself as a proxy for others was one I’d tried a number of times before. While living in Bondi Junction I returned repeatedly one night to the same bottle shop, complaining about being the runner for the party, that people should be considerate enough to buy their own drinks, and so on, each time returning with the same explanation, albeit more drunkenly delivered. It’s hard to know whether the sales clerk believed me – or even cared. I only didn’t return when I couldn’t; I almost always drank to blackout. I was home alone that night.
Most of the time, it wasn’t hard to charm people – or so I recall. At worst my banter would be met with quizzical looks. I suspect that my somewhat manic manner that invited these; codeine wasn’t the only drug I was abusing at that time, and I often wasn’t in a good state. But outright failure to secure a purchase only occurred once in three years: I was refused the drugs once when I went back to the same Marrickville pharmacy twice on the same day. That was stupid, admittedly; but it was a kind of last hurrah – I was, by then, booked into the outpatient detox unit at Bankstown Hospital and was due there early the following week. Even so, it was embarrassing to be caught. The sales assistant had no elaborate speech prepared. She just looked at me said ‘No way,’ knowing that we were both aware of why. I was utterly outraged. I wanted to say: ‘Fine – but I’ll just go and get them somewhere else, you know?’ I didn’t say this, of course, except to myself. And then I went and got them somewhere else.
There is always a space between acquisition and use, one oriented by a concerted destruction of the evidence, tampering with the scene and suspect, and endless ablutions: essential oils, hand-washing, teeth-brushing, hand-washing again (this time with dish-washing detergent or fabric softener), breath freshener, cologne (or any liquid that could be so worn), changes of clothing, application of Vaseline Intensive Care (which has the advantage of being a sweet-smelling moisturiser, which is not as immediately suspicious as a strong-smelling aftershave), showers (if time permitted), eating raw garlic (or anything else), storing, grouping and disposing of packages.
Acquiring the drugs was only the first stage of the operation; with the tablets, I had to get them back to the house, swallow them, and then get rid of the blister packs and boxes. This might seem like a fairly simple matter. It’s not – at least when you’re taking a lot of tablets and living with a partner. Of course, the mere presence of something like a packet of Nurofen Plus, by itself, isn’t enough to raise suspicion; nor is actually taking a few of the tablets. (Indeed, I would make an occasional conspicuous display of popping a few tablets, perhaps to demonstrate just how above board my self-medication was.) But I was taking between 48 and 96 tablets every day. The physical act of swallowing this many without being seen was itself not a hard thing to do. For one thing, I was pretty efficient: building up my capacity over time, I could eventually take two sheets – 24 tablets – at a single swallow. More difficult, however, was getting them out of the packaging.
They were in blister packs – and popping tablets from blister packs is noisier than one might suspect. It’s very easily identified; it doesn’t sound quite like anything else. Popping a few tablets out wouldn’t have raised suspicion, but hearing that ‘pop’ continuously, perhaps 24 times, would be very odd. I could extract two tablets simultaneously, but when you’re taking 24 tablets at a time – as I was – twelve pops is still way too many. As a result, I worked out a way of removing the tablets from the blister pack without making much noise. If I supported the tablet above and below, pushing it through the foil with my thumb while simultaneously supporting the foil with my index finger, this reduced significantly the sound of the foil popping, although the muffling of this sound left a far quieter one: of plastic crumpling. But this method was incredibly slow; the process was just too laborious. For a while, I employed the same method, but doing it faster, which increased the volume somewhat. However, I did this while lying on a bed, using my left hand to hold the blister pack and remove the tablets, and my right hand to muffle the sound with a pillow. The main risk here was being caught; if someone walked in, the only option would be to quickly lie on the pillow – which would have looked odd. One variation on the pillow-method was to wait until my partner Mindy had gone to bed and use the huge pillows in our lounge room to muffle the sound. The size of the pillows meant that the whole operation could be covered up quickly – and, at that time of night, Mindy would only be passing through the lounge-room, on the way to the toilet or to get a glass of water. I’d have a book ready or the television on (at very low volume, so that I could hear her coming), so that it looked like I was actually doing something other than popping tablets. There were still risks: What if she wanted to talk – and so sat down next to me? What if, while trying to ‘tidy up’ on hearing her approach, I managed to knock a dozen or more tablets onto the wooden flooring?
I would occasionally accidentally drop tablets onto the wooden floors and sometimes I’d be unable to locate them. For years after I stopped using I’d find a Nurofen Plus tablet in a strange location: under the driver’s seat in the car, wedged under skirting boards, even one in an old shoe. Some were bound to go missing and turn up later for no other reason than the sheer volume of tablets being consumed. After having found a few of them, Mindy asked for an explanation. I told her that before I took Nurofen Plus – which, in itself, wasn’t suspicious – I usually took one tablet and threw it on the ground, trying to get it to bounce to around knee-height; this would render the tablets ‘safe’. Here I took cover behind a pathology I’ve suffered on and off since childhood – obsessive compulsive disorder. Parts of my childhood were nightmarish because of it: already suffering eczema, I often washed my skin – particularly my hands – until it bled; the skin on my hands, raw and bleeding, would stick to my woolen gloves in the winter, so I would wrap my fingers in glad wrap before putting them on. If my hands were, in my opinion, too dirty, I would count 50 washes (a wash was a two rotations of the soap on both sides of my hands, and then a rinse) and then flush the soap down the toilet. I counted almost constantly, with different numbers possessing different moral and metaphysical valences. I often tried to coordinate my breathing with my thinking, trying to avoid thinking unpleasant thoughts while breathing in, especially on odd numbers. In a kind of compound compulsive act, sometimes I’d be obsessed with coordinating my breathing, my blinking, the thinking of good thoughts, even numbers, and turning off lights. I often couldn’t go to sleep until these were in sync and that sometimes took up to an hour to achieve. My father would get cross and could not understand why it was that I insisted on continually turning my bedroom light on and off. By the time I’d met Mindy, much of this had calmed down, but some of it was still present. I’d still count touches of things (having to touch everything an even number of times) and spent some time and effort trying to avoid getting my ‘string’ caught: a huge imaginary thread which came out of my back and was liable, I thought, to get tangled up on a whole range of things on the street, especially pylons and telegraph poles. Initially I managed to hide these behaviours, but when I asked to leave buildings by the exact same route that we entered, she wanted an explanation. Eventually these things came out – and amazingly, to me at least, she somehow accepted of all this.
One way that much of the difficulty could be avoided was to remove the tablets from the blister packs prior to arriving home. I could remove them fairly inconspicuously by placing a tray of tablets in my hip pocket and, using one hand, pop the tablets out, one by one. I could then remove the empty blister pack while moving and place it into the next rubbish bin I passed. This way, I could arrive home with only the tablets on me; there would be nothing else to dispose of. Another way would be to park the car in some quiet location and then pop them out undetected. To get out of the house to purchase them in the first place I’d say I was going to Marrickville Metro for a coffee; sometimes I’d simply take a used coffee cup with me so that I could use it as a prop when I got home. Much of the time I used an empty vitamin jar to put the tablets in. If a vitamin jar wasn’t available I’d place them back loose in the box and then store empty blister packs separately (usually in a side-pocket of a bag – or, if I thought this was too risky for some reason, underneath the masonite board in the boot of the car that covered the spare tyre). Late at night, after Mindy had gone to bed, I’d wrap the empty blister packs and the cartons in plastic bags, put these bags in the bags containing our normal rubbish, tie the top, and put the whole lot in the bin. Two layers of plastic bag did an excellent job of disguising the packs. Given the lengths I went to to hide the evidence from everyone, I’d always notice empty blister packs of Nurofen Plus in the street. It seemed that more and more of these were appearing over time; I was, I thought, finding traces of other users. Even now I still notice empty packs on the street sometimes – or a pile of sheets at the top of a rubbish bin.
The addiction supplied me with a whole way of looking at the world – indeed, of being in the world: of suspicion, protection against the threat of embarrassment, pervasive guilt, the rigorous practices of prevarication: strategic concealment and sophisticated deceit, the utterly endless rehearsal of excuses. This storing up of escape plans was inversely proportional to a sense of ease in the world, any feeling of being at home in it – or safe in it. And I was right; as things would play out, I wasn’t safe within it. Not by a long way. At the time, though, the feeling of threat only appeared in terms of a threat to supply; even the threat of being found out represented the possibility that I would have to stop living the way I was. Potential humiliation was very little compared to cleaning up; in any case, I became well-practiced at humiliation. Losing face was easy; losing a dealer a far graver matter.
With the illegal drugs, the two most common ways for me to lose a dealer was for them to ‘go out of business’, or for me to destroy their contact details – after smashing my bong – in a faux-revolutionary attempt to stop smoking. Ceramic bongs were easier to smash; I’d just wrap them in a towel and hit them with a hammer. Plastic-based bongs, however, were more challenging; one red plastic bong I had was unsmashable, like a deep space bong, designed by NASA. After breaking a mallet over it, I had to melt it over a gas hotplate, producing toxic fumes that blinded me for a short time. The great thing about ‘giving up’ was how hard I could use, sparing no drugs, oblivious to rationing, and how guiltless that use was, sure in the knowledge that it was the last go. I did drugs hard for almost twenty years. I sometimes got myself into situations that were dangerous, occasionally even life-threatening. And I saw people around me die or come very close. My best friend from high school, a heroin addict, attempted a double-suicide with his girlfriend. They sold everything they owned – and some things I owned – to buy heroin. They then piped fumes from the exhaust of their purple Kingswood into the cabin of the vehicle, shot each other up with a fatal dose, and then waited to die. Both survived. I went to see Con in the psych ward of the Prince of Wales Hospital in Randwick the day after the attempt. I’d smoked a joint and then gone to the Royal Hotel beforehand to ‘relax’ before seeing him. I walked into his room and immediately fell over. He looked like he’d never looked before; frail, pale, and drained, he said he still wanted badly to die, that surviving the attempt was worse than dying. I was so out of it I could barely speak. I think I gave him a book about meditation or Buddhism.
Unlike Con, I didn’t want to die; but neither was I particularly interested in living. This ambivalence about being alive became more and more pronounced, and hit me for some reason most often when I looked in the mirror. The contraction of perception that is part and parcel of certain kinds of drug highs, especially pot, began to manifest as a contraction of vision more generally. At some point I’d concluded that I’d die before the age of 35. I wasn’t quite sure how – but Robert Lowell’s words rang true:
if we see a light at the end of the tunnel
it’s the light of an oncoming train.
If the train is still coming, it’s late. I turned 45 this year.
This is the second installment of Chris Fleming’s account of his drug addiction, and the modes, mechanics, and madness of legal and illegal drug acquisition. Read the first installment here.