Editor’s note: The Pioneer Press published this essay by David Carr on Feb. 5, 1989, with this note: David Carr, 32, is a resident of the Eden House treatment center in Minneapolis, where he is making his fourth attempt to overcome an addiction to cocaine. Carr is a well-known Twin Cities writer and editor and has worked extensively for such publications as the Twin Cities Reader, Corporate Report and Viking Update.
Carr died of complictions from lung cancer in 2015; he was 58. This essay will be included in the upcoming book, “Final Draft: The Collected Work of David Carr,” edited by his widow, Jill Rooney Carr, and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April.
I often hear the sounds of sirens at the rehab center where I live, but for the most part, my emergency is over.
No more scrambling to score cocaine, lying to cover up, or sitting down with the boss to explain why the work never gets done.
The place where I live isn’t pretty. But then, I came from hell anyway. Although the treatment center is jammed with recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, it seems relatively quiet compared to the insanity I left behind. This is the place where the merry-go-round stops, and something resembling life resumes.
I spend my days on simple things. Preparing food. Picking up ashtrays. Talking about what life was like on the “outs.” The “outs” meaning the outside, where most people go to work, raise families and spend their leisure as they please.
That wasn’t what life was like for me. I have a primary relationship with cocaine. That makes me dysfunctional as a human being. Not that I didn’t try to imitate a human being.
I’d be sober for a while, hanging on by my fingernails. Then I’d gradually lose my grip, and finally the wheels would come off. I’d hit the wall. My drug use wore down the most understanding of bosses, the most supportive of parents and the most giving of lovers. They all found out what I had known all along: Cocaine was the most important thing in my life. No matter how much they cared, I would always end up choosing to feed my monkey.
The words of the people who supported me echo in my head: “I think that THIS time, David is really serious and he’s going to do what it takes to remain sober.”
The sad fact is, I WAS serious, each and every time. I left treatment with an earnestness and determination that even I found convincing. But three separate times I started using again, throwing away months of rebuilding and hard work. Even after 10 years of cocaine addiction, I am at a loss to explain it myself.
Everyone has read the disheartening stories of young urban kids who turn to coke as a source of contrast to their dreary existence. That wasn’t me. My life had no gaping holes. I came from a warm, loving family, received a better-than-average education, and was blessed with a talent for writing. I worked for a weekly newspaper covering cops, robbers, media darlings and the powers that be. Every day was different. I was good at my job and I was recognized as such on a daily basis.
It wasn’t enough.
I can clearly remember my first exposure to the drug. On my 21st birthday, a customer at the restaurant where I worked gave me a little coke as a birthday treat. I knew right away that I had found a friend. I stepped out into the evening with a feeling of power, a smile fueled by the knowledge that I had a little extra edge on anybody I was likely to encounter.
I needed to have that racer’s edge in my pocket, the little paper bindle of powder that told me that I could go faster, have more fun and go home later than anyone else.
It made for some tough mornings.
I would race the sunrise home, mumble a not-so-convincing excuse to my significant other, and then lie in bed for a few hours, maybe dozing, maybe not. I usually decided to head for work when the anxiety of being later and later became too much. If I had any, I’d do a toot of coke to get me started, and then I’d head into work, talking and laughing as if there were nothing wrong. If I was really in bad shape, I’d quickly hop on the phone so I’d look like I was working. More often than not, I was calling the dope man, not the sources for the next story. When the boss came in looking for copy I had promised the day before, I’d explain that I had one more lead I wanted to check out before putting the finishing touches on the story.
In reality, I hadn’t made the first phone call. But somehow, some way, I’d pull it off. By the afternoon, with my head clear enough for a flurry of calls, I’d get a story together. Then, about the time everybody else was going home, I’d make plans to write.
The plans usually began with cocaine.
I’d slip out, score some coke and come back to the office with a new attitude. I came to feel that cocaine was an essential ingredient in my formula for success. There were a lot of stories that I was paid $200 to do that cost me $300 to write.
Cocaine’s effects on my life were subtle at first, but grew to be profound. Because cocaine intoxication has little effect on the user’s motor skills or speech, for a time I was able to abuse cocaine and work without getting in trouble. If I tended to be a little glib and hyperactive in my role as media critic and news reporter, people wrote it off as youthful enthusiasm or hyperactivity. I was competent enough both as a reporter and interviewer to overcome lapses in preparation and thinking, but the stress began to show.
I can clearly remember interviewing a sitting governor and having my nose begin to bleed as the result of the previous night’s abuse. Deadlines began to get stretched to the breaking point. My editors’ nerves got more than an occasional workout. A gradual increase in both dosage and frequency of use cut into work time more and more, to the point where both co-workers and bosses expressed their concern. I would shrug off their good intentions, mention something about “slowing down a bit” and plunge out into the night for another tour of the dark side.
Although my days were spent with cops, reporters, mayors and legislators, my company changed when it got dark. I’d be out with night people – dealers, rockers and women who gravitated to people who had cocaine. I often marveled at my schizophrenic existence and even reveled in the reputation I was developing. I took pride in my image as something of a “gonzo” journalist, a local echo of Hunter S. Thompson. But even if I managed to keep myself employed, my personal life was a mess.
An early marriage to a supportive woman fell apart under the weight of drug abuse. I was losing track of my old friends. I began to think of myself as some kind of half-assed gangster, buying and selling drugs and intimidating those who didn’t have the money when I needed it.
After a time, it’s difficult to avoid a sense of isolation and detachment from the people around you. The transition from abuser to addict is costly in terms of money, sanity and relationships. A habit that grew out of a need to have just a little edge on the people around me was now leaving me alone in a crowd. My little secret became a big, ugly secret that wasn’t so secret after all. Family and friends intervened and I found myself admitted to in-patient treatment.
It didn’t take much sober time to figure out how important drugs had become in my life. Virtually every aspect of my adult life had come to be focused on cocaine; while I was taking coke, the coke was taking me, in agonizing bits and pieces. In treatment, I resolved to reclaim myself and my future. I managed to remain sober for eight months.
My relapse was accompanied by a gnawing sense of fatalism. Even in my deluded state, I knew I could no longer be functional on a drug that had demonstrated tremendous control over me in the past. To make a long story short, my next treatment resulted in six months of sobriety. The next, a mere two days. In that time I chewed through automobiles and credit cards, and when there was no money left, the people around me.
My addiction reached the point where I was willing to sacrifice the relationships that had kept me alive in the past. I lost an important job and screwed up a number of lucrative outside assignments. My reputation as a journalist was trashed. I responded by being utterly consumed by the cocaine lifestyle, scraping to feed my habit and lying around watching cartoons when I couldn’t do that.
There was plenty of time to figure out that I had no future if I continued to use, but I had lost the capacity to care. Then, about three years ago, I – along with the rest of the nation – was introduced to smoking cocaine.
Crack, as it has come to be known.
There was no honeymoon with crack. Crack is like smoking death. Each puff increases, rather than reduces, the craving for the drug. In its smoke form, cocaine reaches your brain in four seconds and winds the user’s mind up so tight that he can’t think past much more than where his next hit is going to come from. Crack users are universally paranoid consumptive eunuchs who show little interest in things unrelated to their addictions.
Because the drug must be smoked in fairly obvious fashion, the user becomes a prisoner of his own space, rarely leaving home. Going to a bar to hear a band was out of the question. Just going to the 7-Eleven for a pack of smokes was a genuine challenge. When the user is on a binge, the only outside trip that seems do-able is the trip to the dope man’s house.
And I was drinking. I used alcohol as a leveler and a type of medicine, a mood-altering depressant that was strong enough to hew some of the rougher edges.
Cocaine enables, and in fact nearly requires, the user to drink enormous amounts of alcohol. There are times when the body reaches the upper limits of its tolerance for a blood pressure twice the norm and a heartbeat that threatens to explode its source. That’s where alcohol comes in. Alcohol was about the only way I was able to end a binge when the coke ran out. I would drink past the point of intoxication and into an oblivious state where the mind became less obsessed with getting high.
Cocaine people tend to operate at the upper limits: the upper limits of their credit cards, the law and their health. Even as a well-paid professional writer with a steady gig and lots of free-lance work, I was constantly scratching for enough money to buy cigarettes or food, on the off chance I had an appetite.
All of which testimony would seem to offer compelling motivation to stay away from the drug once the body heals and the spirit is revived.
There is no more grateful recovering person than someone who has come off years of cocaine abuse. The financial and emotional burden of maintaining the addiction is so corrosive that it is initially just a pleasure not to have to fight to live. Recovering cocaine addicts experience a particularly powerful “treatment high,” a sense of well-being, and a wish to share it with everyone. Unfortunately for the user and society as a whole, this state of bliss and this commitment to wellness evaporates when the user is exposed to cocaine. Let me state flatly that in the periods of sobriety I have managed to put together I have never been exposed to cocaine.
Unlike an alcoholic, a cocaine addict is not confronted with his drug of choice every day. That’s a damn good thing because I have never looked at cocaine and not done it. Just as surely as Pavlov’s dogs came to salivate at the sound of a bell, the coke user will use if he is presented with the opportunity.
In support groups for alcoholics, it’s not uncommon to encounter people with years of sobriety. In support groups for coke people, someone with a year of sobriety is a miracle. Cocaine addiction is highly resistant to treatment and rife with the potential for relapse. Former cokeheads are continually plagued with dreams of using, and deep-seated, palpable cravings for the drug.
That kind of reality makes cocaine’s initial press as a relatively harmless, non-addictive euphoric drug almost laughable. There are tons of doctors who will tell you that cocaine, and especially crack, is the most addictive substance they have encountered.
A wise counselor once told me that “You just aren’t going to go that fast ever again and you might as well get used to it. You liked cocaine because it made you feel good and there’s nothing in the world that is going to make you feel like that again.”
I am now approximately 60 days into recovery. Life is sweet and simple compared to where I came from. I get up when the sun does and start to yawn not long after it goes down. Just a few months ago, I would have been tuning up for a night in an ugly little subculture of crack pipes, $20 bills and people who were being destroyed from the inside.
Near the end of my last run, I didn’t even mix with other users. I would spend my nights with my nose pressed up against the window, searching for signs of approaching trouble. In retrospect, the real menace was the reflection in the glass. I managed to destroy myself more efficiently than any cop or robber ever could.
But I’m surprised by how little that last relapse matters now.
The contrast between my old life and my current sobriety is immense. At times I feel good to the point of giddiness. Simple things please me enormously. As an addict, I was missing out on almost everything. Skiing, horseback riding and going out on passes… all those little activities they have recovering people engage in, bring me great joy. Friends who noticed a while ago that I had fallen off the map are beginning to find out where I am and are checking in. They all say the same thing: “It’s good to have you back.”
It’s good to be back. Having membership in the normal things of life is more than enough for the time being, and I’m at a point in recovery where the cravings of addiction are infinitely quieter. I watch people come and go from the place I will likely be for a few months, and some make it, and some don’t.
No one here is telling me that “this time” is the last time I’ll be in treatment. But that’s OK. I sit on the edge of my skinny little bed and hear the chatter of a therapeutic community in the background while I type. It isn’t exactly the highlight of my professional career, but it feels right for now.