Voices on Addiction: Need and Smoke

By

We clambered up into the loft bed, kissing and discarding clothing. The loft swayed beneath us like a creaking ship.

Abe paused and propped himself above me on his elbows. “I’ll be right back,” he said, raising his dark eyebrows and smiling. I tucked myself into a ball so he could get past me. He swung his legs over the edge and pushed off, sending the bed into the wall in a gentle rebound as he jumped down onto the pile of jeans and shirts we’d flung on the floor below. He’d nailed the loft bed together from naked pine two-by-fours. It wasn’t exactly a kid’s bed or unsafe, but it did have a slap-dash quality, with space below for a desk with supplies for his kinetic sculptures, clipped images, and twists of wire strewn on the white Formica surface. Abe was clearly a man—in his thirties, working a real industrial job as an electrician. Yet the rock posters on his bedroom door and the snapping energy in his eyes promised he had found a secret way to protect the essence of freedom.

Sweat cooled on my skin, and as I lay there, time folded in on itself. Could I have imagined a year ago that I’d be living in a new city, in bed with a punk-rock electrician? I wasn’t yet thirty, and I’d buckled down for graduate school in journalism and some practicality, but I felt like I still had time for adventures in loft beds—as long as they held a promise of going somewhere or teaching me something.

I opened my eyes. Two feet from my face, the paint on the ceiling was a rippled moonscape.

Silence. What was he doing: watching TV? Baking a cake?

I pulled the jersey cotton sheet over my body, took in a breath and tried to relax, but my attention went to the knots in my neck and the ever-present tightness around my sternum. What was this saying? You could get naked with a punk-rock boy, but you’d still be the same prone-to-panic, to-do-list self? I listened for a flush or faucet, but nothing.

I jumped down from the bed and stepped, naked and shivering, around the corner into his living room.

Abe sat on his black-and-white houndstooth hipster couch, hunched over a squat glass bong, his mouth pressed to the spout. He clutched a lighter in an angled grip toward the base. Lavender smoke turned lazily in the bong’s chimney. His curled bare spine showed through his skin in the window’s pale light. He looked up, smoke trailing from the O of his mouth.

I broke into tears, slung on my jeans, shirt, and shoes as fast as I could, and tore out of the apartment.

 

I ran down the two blocks that separated our apartments, berating myself. I’d made things so awkward! Calm down, calm down! This was me and my weirdness, me and my panic, me and my support group for those who loved people with addictions, me and my baggage. Breathe.

Abe knew I was touchy about all kinds of stuff. At twenty-eight I considered my baggage some freakish thing to apologize for. I had the imprints of wild men on my days, and my sense of what a man could and should be was hemmed and shaped by the way alcohol had shaped those men.

I mulled the opposing viewpoint: maybe sneaking off to smoke was his version of considerate, he was avoiding the subject so as to not freak me out? Or maybe he didn’t see it as a big deal. I didn’t have a road map; that’s what I’d always felt was missing. And I was generous, empathetic, willing to give him the benefit of every doubt.

 

A few weeks before, shortly after we’d kissed for the first time, I had laid curled in a circle of lamplight on the couch in my quiet apartment holding the phone receiver to my ear. I was tired from a long day of classes, writing, and dodging projectiles and mayhem with the undergrads in the newsroom. On the other end of the line, Abe laughed and rambled in loops about an idea I could barely follow. He said something about how snow drifting across a road reminded him of spirits, an image that sounded simple and sweet. But his voice was higher and pinched, unlike the deeper and clipped sentences I’d exchanged with him face to face.

He’s high, I thought. The truth winked at me like a lighthouse beam on dark water.

I felt a turn of nausea or fear, not because he was high but because he sounded different than the Abe I knew.

Did I like this version of him? Did I have a right to even have an opinion on this version of him? Why did this freak me out? How bad could it be? So he was high. I knew lots of people who smoked pot. My meetings, rather than making me rigid about substances, had taught me to toe a different line: don’t give advice, respect that every situation is different, and everyone deserves love. He probably just smoked every once in a while after a hard day’s work. I listened to my own warring voices as I added an “uhh-hhh” or occasional laugh to my end of the conversation.

 

I’d been mocked for my sober devotion to slants of light. I didn’t like being high but felt a strange kinship with hazy states and spacey sensitivity. Was this really the worst thing in the world, a little loopy-ness?

I looked around my apartment, studying the spines of books in jagged rows. I was tethered by the phone cord, wanting to end the conversation but strangely compelled to study this secret view into another version of Abe. Did dating always have to come back to this, a man and his secret selves? I figured it was better to know the secrets, because they were always there. I had little hope of ever finding a guy who wasn’t busted into fragments, and Abe had good qualities. In my own hopeless way I was loving, patient, kind, tolerant, hopeful—all the so-called virtues, the desire to see the best in every moment.

His sentences unspooled slowly. This was familiar, at least, the devil I knew. Was he home or was he danger? Those two categories overlapped in a way I simply had not had the years necessary to unsnarl.

Above me, the lamp’s incandescent bulb provided a tiny bit of heat. The previous tenant had left the lamp, which was old, with a frayed cord and a plug that kept falling out of the outlet and making sparks. I kept the lamp because its scrolled metal base looked fancy and adult. Beyond the incandescent light I was wrapped in the protective shell of the apartment’s aluminum siding, and beyond that the blue night, which hid the orange flaming leaves that smelled of healthy decay. Fall was a good time to fall in love, a time for stocking the larder of the heart and for imagining a future, for making a future with whatever happened to lie at my feet.

And I thought this: if Abe had a weakness I could see, then I could trade it for a weakness of my own. This was love and tolerance. We’d allow each other our failings, like a game of Go Fish.

 

I was grateful, then, that Abe didn’t mind my weirdness. I was tuned to a hair-trigger of anxiety but didn’t consider that my new boyfriend might be triggering it. He’d been through a hard time before me and had just gone off his antidepressants. This screams danger, I know, but for that young woman at twenty-eight, Abe’s raw ache counted in his favor. I imagined or saw judgment and panic in the eyes of nice men I’d dated before who widened their eyes at a strong emotion. So was smoking up before sex such a big deal? No. In response, adrenaline continued to burst its fireworks in my brain. I knew Abe smoked pot. And after dating drinkers and coming from drinkers, I told myself, pfftt, pot? How could a little green herb be trouble, thank God it’s finally kind of legal, end the War on Drugs and racial disparities in sentencing and all that. Why was I freaking out? I liked him, and now I was ruining it by being scared.

I didn’t even know what I was scared of. We’d kissed on the couch, in the car, and out in the wind. We fell into bed and backed each other up against walls. He made me laugh. He invited me over for dinner and cooked chicken in his crockpot. Our bodies fit together with my shoulder nestled in the crook of his muscled arm, my head tucked beneath his stubbled chin. These simple feelings seemed like signs to be read, like coins sparkling up from the dirt.

Abe gave me signs about who he was—and though he was not a criminal, he scared me. What I can’t quite solve, even now, is why I went in anyway, went right toward that fear instead of away. But I have a sense of it, the sense that fear smelled like home, that if I could master this fear I would find a sense of home in this world.

Our simple stories might hang it on a woman’s stupidity: she wanted a project or she loves bad boys. Simple stories don’t keep anyone safe, don’t help us understand our complicated world. And even when we would later try to pull away from each other, our stories about ourselves twined tight together and wouldn’t let us go.

 

I washed dishes in my apartment, and my heart thrummed in my throat. I brushed tears from my cheeks with the crook of my elbow, my hands covered in suds. Being productive wasn’t working. Full of restless energy, I grabbed a sweatshirt and headed toward the rickety wooden steps that led down to the ravine behind my apartment. I followed the asphalt path along the bank of the wide, slow river.

I said a little prayer I’d learned in my support group meetings to calm me down. I’d been going to those meetings for years, meetings to soothe those who had loved addicts and alcoholics. See me there, on the path: armed with counter-stories that might have helped. I said the prayer five more times just to have something to do with my brain, like chewing gum, a hamster wheel. I walked a half an hour up the path under branches of oak and maple, the tall peeling arms of a towering sycamore. Sweaty runners passed as I walked, racing bikers barked on your left!, and dog-walkers passed on the grass with eager beasts pulling, tags clanking.

Most days I paced to calm worries about a job search or school. I churned my feet and sometimes cried as I walked.  But today what was I afraid of? A gut feeling—but I didn’t know whether this was panic or insight. I didn’t know how to trust myself. I only knew that every impulse was wrong.

I reached the wetlands, curved around the marsh, and crossed the bridge. I leaned on the railing and looked down at the water, bright with rapids. I paused only a few minutes because I needed motion. In that time before cell phones, I was unreachable beneath the swirls of falling leaves. I passed a wide mowed area and turned to double back. The apex of the walk felt for a moment like giving up and retreating. The life I had fled re-knit around me as I faced homeward, but at least I could breathe.

 

I shut the door and peeled off my sweatshirt. The phone rang. Abe’s voice was edgy, quiet and concerned. He wanted to talk, so we met halfway between our apartments and traced a loop up toward the main street of the college town, then back down the hill. We came to a stop at the corner opposite my apartment. We’d meandered in our talk, and I’d cried, blamed myself, said, I’m just too nervous. But I knew that wasn’t all of it. It took me half an hour to get to an honest question.

“Why would you need that stuff right then?” I asked, meaning right as we were about to have sex. “Why not just be with me?” What about me was not enough?

He was silent, his lips held together, thinking.

“I’m not trying to judge you,” I added. “I just have a history. So maybe we shouldn’t be together.” I knew what was coming, in a way, this threesome riven with jealous and hope in equal measure.

“I probably should quit,” he said. He looked at the sidewalk, then down the empty road. “I know it’s bad for me.” His voice sounded sincere, as if he were grateful I had said something. As if this was a turning point, and as if life were made of turning points. I anchored myself to that moment—to the idea of epiphany and change, because I love a good story.

I believe now that Abe meant what he said about quitting. He meant it hundreds of times later. He did want to quit, and but he knew, as I did not, what he was up against. I had spent years of my life earning a love of those who happened to be temporarily—for days or years—in the process of abstaining. Stop seems as obvious as a red octagon with white letters. But imagine a person who takes a drink from a glass of beer and then sets it down on the bar. Every time the circle of the glass touches the moisture beads in a circle on the wood, there is a pause that might be the beginning of a new way of life.

I knew—intellectually at least—that Need couldn’t be beaten, but my heart refused to agree. Need had carved out specific contours in my personality, and then it returned like a curse to fit in those spaces.

And so I stayed.

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Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.

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Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.


Sonya Huber is the author of five books of nonfiction, most recently Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System, a collection about living with chronic pain, as well as Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir. More from this author →