Tuesday, January 24, 2006

500,000 Little Pieces

I'm almost exactly halfway through James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces, in which he discusses in graphic — and mostly truthful — detail his experiences with drug addiction and rehab. Yes, I've heard about The Smoking Gun's exposé of the embellishments on what was sold as 100% truth. Yes, I bought the book and am still reading it because it was featured on Oprah; her October interview with James Frey recently re-ran. Yes, I'm still reading the book, even though I now know that some of the important details are exaggerated or even fabricated entirely.

James Frey 1992 mugshot

But really, what do you expect from a crack addict? Unadulterated truth?

I've never known any crack addicts personally, but I have known several crystal meth (speed, Tina, crank, tweak) addicts, one of whom was also rather fond of heroin, at least until it killed him. That was my friend Miss Violet Plague, also known to many as Tug, a nickname his parents gave him as an infant for his favorite pastime involving his private parts. Hardly anyone knew him as Frank — outside the criminal justice system, anyway. The name Violet Plague was one he chose himself. Violet was a remarkably creative artistic sort, but also a remarkably obnoxious drunk. His body chemistry came with a simple volume switch: add alcohol to make him louder, add marijuana to quiet him down again. I did my best not to know the effects of speed and heroin on his personality. On one occasion he had been crashing on my sofa for a few days when he announced that, out of respect for my household, he was going to go out and about to do some things he knew I didn't approve of. I wasn't sure exactly what he meant, but I figured it had something to do with finding a vein, so I told him that I'd really rather he not come back still under the influence. My home has a "Speed Limit Zero" policy: not on you, not in you. Violet was very polite and agreeable, respecting my house rules, but all the same he wanted the drugs more than he wanted a roof over his head, so he made plans to visit some other friends for a few days.

Miss Violet even realized the havoc that bad drugs were wreaking in his life, and set about to pull himself out of the gutter in the best way he knew how. He performed a voudoun ritual, invoking every god, demigod, and demon with whom he felt he had some connection, and pledged his very life on a pact: get me a place to live and something to live on, and I will find a way to stay off the speed and the heroin. I won't speculate which loa came through for him, but he managed to get subsidized housing and SSI benefits, just before Christmas 2002. On New Year's Eve, he went out to celebrate his good fortune and his last night of homelessness with one last fling of narcotic bliss. He never saw the sun rise on 2003. Voudoun demigods and demons don't take kindly to being trifled with, I guess.

Some of Miss Violet's ashes now reside on an altar in a pagan sanctuary. The last time I visited, I left a cigarette (one of her less troublesome addictions) pinned underneath the bottle of ashes. I told the others at the sanctuary that if they were ever jonesing for a cigarette, they only had to quite literally pry it from Violet's cold dead hands. I think you'd have to be pretty desperate for a nic fix to take up that bargain.

So I started reading A Million Little Pieces with Miss Violet in mind, as well as a couple of other speed freaks I've known over the years. As The Smoking Gun makes excruciatingly clear, James Frey has a talent for embellishing his encounters with The Law. I don't doubt that some of his other anecdotes were magnified by the lens of literary license. However, much of his elucidation of the inner workings of an addict's mind, rings true to what I've seen in my friends. He delves into the immense emptiness, beyond all hope of filling, that an addict feels.

I've never been an addict, and I've never used the addictive substances Frey tells about (cocaine, methamphetamines, PCP, and glue); I have had alcohol, but never to the point of passing out, much less considering myself an alcoholic. No needle has ever gone into my veins except on a doctor's orders. I've never been to the bottom of the abyss of despair, but I have many times stood on its brink and peered into the darkness, and even occasionally walked a ways down the well-worn trail. I have known the feeling of being completely alone, even in a sea of other people, including family and friends. I have known the emotional certainty that life will never get better, held in check only by the feeble voice of reason telling me to hold on. I've never been arrested for anything worse than 68 in a 55 [110 km/h in a 90 zone], but that's largely thanks to the mercy of the juvenile justice system on a non-violent teenage first offender. I faced a police detective who was determined to have me tried as an adult and sent to grown-up prison; tough guy that I was, I'm sure I would've lasted at least 10 or 12 hours. (Fortunately for me, the officer's superiors didn't share his lust for vengeance, so I got off with probation and psychotherapy and no formal criminal record.) I've entertained the fantasy of being the last human colonist left on Mars, with no one to talk to, but also no one to talk at me. I've never held a gun to my head, but I've often gone to bed wondering why I should bother waking up the next day. Sometimes it's only inertia that keeps me going.

I'd like to tell you about another addict friend of mine, though. He's still alive, last I heard, so I'll just call him Twinkie, since he pretty well embodied that archetype. He grew up in SoCal and moved to San Francisco when he was 18. He was already quite a party boy by that time; when I first met him, he was reclining naked in a leather sling suspended from the ceiling, enjoying the company of a procession of men who happened to wander by that corner of the dungeon. He finally stopped not because of exhaustion or running out of safer-sex supplies, but because he accidentally poured a bottle of poppers up his nose instead of leaning forward to sniff the fumes. (I hate poppers. Just being in the same room with them gives me a sick headache.) Even though I didn't join the procession of men — I prefer to seek sexual congress with partners who view me as something more than "Next!" — I chatted him up while he was getting some fresh air on the back porch. He was cute and bouncy and quite affectionate, and we even had some non-sexual interests in common. I didn't see him again for about four years, though; I gather he bounced back and forth between SoCal and NorCal, but finally came back to SF and checked into rehab.

In the interim, Twinkie had managed to get his own apartment and a computer system capable of doing video editing. On the minus side, he had become addicted to crystal meth and he had been infected with HIV — the one causing the other. As part of his rehab program, he had to submit urine samples for drug testing, but he managed to work around that obstacle. I don't know if he gave up on rehab or vice-versa, but eventually he was back to using. He called me one day as he was coming down off of a four-day speed binge — 96 hours without sleep. I walked him over to Burger King® and bought him a Whopper®, but I also told him a couple of things that I felt needed saying. First of all, if he was only going to call me in the bad times, I wasn't up for that. Friends share good times and bad times. Secondly, he needed to find some way to stop using speed. I told him, I know it's not as simple as "Just say No!" and I don't know that 12 Steps is the answer either, but one way or another he had to find some way to stop. About three weeks later, he called and told me that he had moved to Washington, D.C.

Three years rolled by without word from Twinkie, so I pretty much assumed he had OD'd or succumbed to HIV/AIDS or somehow died an ignoble death. I saw him at a party and found out he had moved back to SF more than two years earlier, without bothering to drop me a line. So much for sharing the good times. On the other hand, I don't know how good the good times are with him any more — he had gone in less than a decade from bouncy, photogenic teenager to haggard, care-worn twentysomething going on 50. It was as if every puff from the crystal meth pipe burned another day off his life, with the HIV and the HIV meds to compound the effect.

Given what I know about them both, I'd much rather spend an afternoon with James Frey than with Twinkie, even if Twinkie is still prettier. Even though James Frey plays fast and loose with some of his biographical details, his tale of addiction and renewal rings truer than Twinkie's hollow life. I also read James Frey and think about Miss Violet Plague and what he could have done with his life.