Voices on Addiction: Flight Patterns

By

As soon as we heard our army dad’s Huey helicopter roar overhead, my little sister Tara and I sprinted up our backyard’s steep hill, dewy blades of grass against our feet, our white-blond pigtails clamped with pink bows blazing behind us like capes. I jumped on top of an electrical box that said “CAUTION! KEEP OFF!” and hoisted Tara up by the armpits.

We frantically waved our bony arms like antennas. We wanted to be part of his sky, the North Dakota prairie sky. A sky that he related to: stormy, mysterious, unpredictable.

My dad spent more than three years of his life in the air as a pilot for the Army National Guard. He flew Huey helicopters, Blackhawks, C-12s, cargo planes, and fighter jets. He put out fires in Honduras, life-flighted people from rural areas to the emergency room in Bismarck. When he was stationed in Afghanistan and Africa, he carried cargo and soldiers to safety.

My dad taught me that clouds are storytellers, helping us understand weather, altitude, and climate patterns. He roll-called clouds with the care and enthusiasm of a teacher. Cirrus. Cumulus. Stratus.

Lens-shaped, saucer-like, and mistaken for UFOs, lenticular clouds are formed in the clash between rising warm air and colder mountainous air. Glider pilots seek out lenticular clouds to soar to higher altitudes, but most pilots avoid them because they create turbulence.

I’m a girl who knows how to reach for great heights but chose the depths of oblivion instead. My empty hands. The blank sky.

 

When I was twenty-nine, my boyfriend Sam and I camped in a magical town in the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon with lithium water springs. We wore all-black clothes and combat boots, puffing Marlboro 27s, strung out on heroin. I gestured toward a campsite draped in a mandala tapestry. Women swiveled their hips inside hula hoops as men with Grateful dead-t-shirts passed around a joint. I said: “I forgot to pack my tie-dye,” watching as they plucked a banjo and passed around a joint.

We circled back to our tent in a quieter part of the campground. Illuminated by the glowing moon, a man appeared like an apparition. He reached his arms to the sky, then pulled them close to his body as though he was catching the stars. “I’m bathing my hands in the sky.” He explained that Ashland was the perfect place for this sacred ritual that helped him detox from alcohol and drugs.

When we returned home to Portland, we fantasized about moving to that campground to get clean. Narcotics Anonymous dubs this move “the geographical cure,” saying its doomed to fail because it’s an external rather than internal change. But I ignored this advice. Don’t we all dream of leaving home to reinvent our identity in a shiny new place?

I told my boyfriend that I could learn to like the Grateful Dead. Play the banjo. Wear bright-colored clothes. No medicines, no hospitals, no doctors. Just us in Ashland with its healing lithium water, campground, hippies, and the wide sky.

 

One year later, I sat on a window ledge in the hospital looking at the gloomy, gray nimbostratus clouds weeping with rain. I thought about the man who filled his pockets with stars, wondering if I could bathe my hands through plexiglass windows.

But it was too late. I was too far gone to simply hold my hands up to the sky and hope for the best. Earlier that day, the ER doctor said that my liver was the worst that she had seen for a twenty-nine-year-old woman. She warned me that if I kept using drugs and drinking, I’d get Hepatitis C or cirrhosis of the liver.

When a nurse came to check my vital signs, I shifted in the paper-covered hospital bed and replied, “I could get heroin faster than you fucking people are helping me!”

I immediately regretted snapping at the nurse who was trying to help me, but withdrawals were taking hold. The nurse was unfazed. She told me that my pulse was one hundred and forty beats per minute and my Clinical Opiate Withdrawal Score was extremely high. “I know this is rough but hang in there. We are working on getting you admitted to detox. I’ll ask the doctor what she can prescribe to help your symptoms.”

I ached for Sam at my bedside, but my friends convinced me that I needed to get clean on my own. They had been worried about me since I casually told them about my two heroin overdoses. Sam had revived me at home with Naloxone, the opiate overdose reversal drug. We vowed to get clean, disposed of our needles, and told our dealer to stop texting us when he had good dope. But we couldn’t manage to stay clean longer than a few days.

My aches, chills, and dread told me to leave the ER. Get dope. Shoot up. But my friends Dara’s and Justin’s presence at my bedside encouraged me to stay.

They cancelled appointments and took the day off work to take me to the ER at Sunnyside Medical Center, which sounds like a fictional name but isn’t. Justin packed peanut butter sandwiches and carrots, Dara brought fruit and pretzels, commenting: “It’s like an ER Picnic.”

After we checked in and began eating, a yellow-vested, gray-permed volunteer with a therapy poodle walked across the ER to ask us: “Have you seen the doctor yet?”

“No?” I petted the poodle that had pink bows on her ears.

“We didn’t get a chance to eat breakfast. We figured we’d be waiting a few hours, so we brought food,” Justin added.

“It’s a hospital policy,” the volunteer gestured to a blue placard that read: No eating or drinking.

“They might need to do lab tests, which work best when the patient has an empty stomach.”

“Sorry about that, we didn’t know,” Dara said.

The volunteer narrowed her eyes. “Well, now you know. But there’s not much I can do to stop you.”

As she walked away, Justin tucked the plastic containers in a tote. “I never knew hospital volunteers could be so militant.”

“Or that poodles could be therapy dogs,” I said, finishing my sandwich.

We laughed. For a moment, I forgot that I was in the ER. I forgot that I had alienated my own family who were thirteen hundred miles and two time zones away. They had no idea that I was being admitted to the hospital.

I ran to the bathroom to puke. Dara followed me. “Sorry you’re feeling shitty, T. This is a brave thing you’re doing. We just want you to be okay, you know?”

The doctor recommended that I take Suboxone, a medication for opiate withdrawals and dependence. I said yes to the twenty-four-milligram dose, watching as the nurse pulverized three construction-orange pills with a mortar and pestle like narcotic guacamole. She poured the powder into a paper cup, instructing me to wait in the nurse’s station while it melted under my tongue. This was the hospital’s solution to prevent patients from trying to sell or trade it.

I said yes because I was full of edges that wanted to be smoothed, hands that needed to be steadied, a stomach that wanted to be filled. I said yes because I loved my family and friends. I said yes because I was determined to start writing again and publish a book. I said yes because it was a step to recovery. I said yes, not knowing that I’d be shunned by twelve-step programs like Narcotics Anonymous. Most of all, I said yes because that day Suboxone was the closest thing I had to hope. Chemical arms that held me through the shakes.

 

Clouds appear to float, but the truth is that they are slowly falling, intoxicated by the force of gravity. Swirling. Morphing. Merging. Shifting. Rising. Transforming.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote an ode to clouds:

I am the daughter of Earth and Water, / And the nursling of the Sky; /  I pass through the pores of the oceans and shores; / I change, but I cannot die.

 

The next day, I shuffled down the hallway to relapse prevention group wearing teal slipper socks. A silver-haired addiction counselor wrote on the marker board: “Welcome to the First Day of the Rest of Your Life!” Since he was dressed in khaki cargo pants and leather crocs, I felt like he was taking us on a safari rather than helping us with addiction. Let’s call him Rehab Crocodile Dundee.

I studied the room full of gaunt faces metallic with sweat just like mine and began to walk out of the room because I was in no mood for his inspirational quote bullshit. But my treatment mom, who had taught me to make detox cheesecake, blocked me from leaving. “You know that group’s mandatory, right? If you don’t go to group, you can’t have visitors.”

I stayed because I wanted Justin and Dara to visit. For the first ten minutes Rehab Crocodile Dundee droned on about the purpose of the group. I tuned back in when he asked us a question that made me feel like I was back in a writing workshop rather than rehab. “When was the first time you used? When did your addiction begin? I’ll give you ten minutes to write, then we’ll share.”

I couldn’t write a synopsis of my addiction. Addiction is what it means to be lost. There was no map, no compass. Just me, the needle, and heroin. I ran to my room to puke and skipped the rest of group. The addiction team recommended that I stay twenty-eight days for intensive inpatient treatment. I lasted five.

I left the hospital against medical advice with a one-month supply of Suboxone and an outpatient follow-up appointment. When Sam picked me up, we went straight to see our heroin dealers who sat on milk crates outside the organic grocery store.

As soon as our dealer saw me, she said: “Shit girl, you’re finally back.”

“Yeah, I just got out.”

“We were worried about you dude.”

“I’m alright man. I don’t have Hep or anything like that. I just needed a break.” I handed her a cigarette.

“Well if you want, come back at ten tonight and we’ll hook you up.”

Thus, the cycle of heroin spun me back in its orbit. We quickly blasted through all of our money and sold most everything we owned.

Our once sunny, light-filled apartment was always darkened. My skin was ashen, sallow. The crook of my arm became carved with a crater filled with blood from plunging the needle in my arm. The bookshelves were littered with syringes, q-tips, and empty cigarette packs. Our apartment that used to smell like incense was filled with smell the vinegary tang of black tar heroin cooking on our spoons. All of our spoons were blackened, our silverware drawer empty. We had dreamed of being in a band, but now we were just rock-band-reckless without the rock band. We teetered on the edge of eviction after our rent checks bounced twice.

My family and a few of my friends begged me to come back to North Dakota. My friend Chainsaw Dave texted me: “You need to get away from that heroin bullshit. You should come be a live-in nanny this summer for Evalyn. It’s two weeks on, two weeks off, but you can stay here all summer if you want. Free rent. You and Eva will have a blast. You can start writing again.”

I thought that maybe the geographical cure would work this time. Maybe sometimes running was better than staying in place. I decided that if I wanted to live, I had to break up with Sam and leave Portland.

 

In addition to alleviating withdrawals, Suboxone can also be used for long-term treatment. Unlike short-acting opiates like heroin and painkillers which require constant dosing to maintain euphoria, both of these medications are long-lasting, stabilizing the brain and body. Withdrawals and cravings are curbed by binding to the brain’s natural opiate receptors. Suboxone is only a partial opioid agonist, so it prevents patients with an existing opiate tolerance from feeling high. If someone tries to use heroin or painkillers while Suboxone is in their system, they will not get high. Suboxone also includes the abuse deterrent Naloxone, which causes excruciating withdrawal effects if snorted or injected.

Despite the fact that 32,000 people died of opiate overdoses in 2017, only three out of ten people in treatment for opioid addiction are prescribed an FDA-approved drug like Suboxone or methadone. Most treatments prefer 12-Step based, abstinence-only models of recovery, shunning medication-assisted treatment.

 

Back home in North Dakota, there were no mountains to hide behind. Georgia O’Keefe wrote: “Nothing but sky and flat prairie land—land that seems more like the ocean than anything else I know.” O’Keefe described driving through clouds as: “riding through the holiness.”

I was gobsmacked by the sprawling, vast prairie sky as I drove to Chainsaw Dave’s apartment in the North Dakota oil patch.

Even if I had cravings, heroin would be nearly impossible to find in this one-stoplight town with more pick-up trucks than people. I planned to taper off Suboxone with my remaining supply from the hospital.

Starry-eyed, Chainsaw Dave’s four-year-old daughter Evalyn woke me up each morning by pulling the blinds open. Sun spilled on my face. She jumped on my sweat-soaked bed, tugging on my pajamas. “Hey Tessa, can we go to the pool? Can we? Can we? Please!”

“Sure, we can go when it opens at noon,” I crawled out of bed.

“Well, can we make up a dance and do a music video?”

I played her dad’s favorite song, “Where is My Mind?” by The Pixies. We danced. A chorus of flailing limbs, twists, cartwheels, and flying white-blond hair.

Walking to the pool, I pointed at the sky. “Eva, look! See the big puffy cotton ball ones with the wispy edges? Those are called cumulonimbus clouds. We might get a storm.”

Those pool-floating, cloud-naming afternoons were like a salve to my wounds. I started writing again, exercised, and read recovery books. But I was running out of Suboxone. I only had five eight-milligram pills left. My recommended dose was eighteen milligrams per day, but I cut them into tiny pieces to try to make them last. Withdrawals capsized me: flesh-peeling itchiness, stomach-emptying nausea, constant vertigo. Common household things triggered my cravings. I salivated at the sight of an upturned spoon on the kitchen table, a belt on the floor, or q-tips in the bathroom. I thirsted for heroin even though I knew this time it would destroy me. Sometimes I spent hours watching addiction documentaries on YouTube, longing for the poetry of the hypodermic syringe plunging in my arm.

I decided to find a Suboxone clinic in North Dakota and discovered there were only two in the entire state. I got on a waiting list for a clinic that was six hours away from Chainsaw Dave’s apartment. I loved Eva, but summer was almost over. I couldn’t do a good job of taking care of her when I could barely get out of bed in the throes of withdrawal.

It took me two months of working odd jobs to save $450 for my first appointment at the Fargo clinic. Because the clinic was in my old neighborhood, I didn’t want anyone to recognize me so I wore a black-hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses even though it was a hot August day.

When I opened the heavy glass doors, I was pelted with icy blasts of air conditioning. The receptionists chatted about the latest Fargo scandal as Barry Manilow played in the background. I read the placard at the reception desk: PAYMENT DUE DAY OF APPOINTMENT. WE DO NOT ACCEPT PAYMENT PLANS, CHECKS, OR INSURANCE. After a few minutes, one of them finally acknowledged me.

I barely remember these appointments because they were so monotonous and only lasted about ten minutes. Dr. McCoy asked me the same four questions every month: “Any relapses? Any side effects? How’s your dose? Any questions?”

 

A year later, I decided to move to a small town in Minnesota to get my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. When I asked Dr. McCoy for a referral to a new clinic, he looked at me blankly. “I don’t do referrals. It should be easy to find one. Just google it.”

He was wrong. There was no master list of Suboxone doctors, only a smattering of hotlines and rehabs. I spent hours on the phone, dialed nearly fifty numbers, and left at least twenty voicemails.

The calls went something like this:

Hotline #1 from Recovery Village: “Our treatment centers do not believe in Suboxone, but we can help you detox.”

Opiate Addiction Hotline: “You know that being on Suboxone is just replacing one drug with another. It’s just like heroin.”

Person from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting: “You can’t share at meetings or volunteer for any committees. You are not clean if you’re on Suboxone.”

A Facebook Recovery Group: “Suboxone is just another evil drug! It’s not recovery.”

Another opioid addiction hotline: “Why do you still want to be on Suboxone? Many of our patients have made it without the help of other addictive medications. Can’t you do recovery with support groups and taper off Suboxone on your own?”

I replayed his question in my head. “Why can’t I do this on my own?” A week later, I reached a nurse who helped me schedule an appointment for a clinic in Minneapolis, eighty miles from my new apartment and graduate school.

 

Under the glare of a bright August sun, I circled the block, triple checking the address for my new Suboxone clinic in Minneapolis. I walked past a liquor store, a check-cashing place, and a lady pushing a shopping cart filled with cans and a plastic Jesus. Finally, I saw a dilapidated house with a sign that read: “Clinica de Medico.” After walking up the stairs, I opened the glass door with crooked golden letters: “Suboxone Program.”

The first thing I heard when I walked into the house was: “You do know that our actions have consequences? Then why would you act like a moron?” The People’s Court blared from a bulging TV. I didn’t see anyone sitting behind the reception desk, so I plopped down on a faded floral-patterned chair.

With the old TV, the geometric squiggly-lined wall-hangings, and mismatched chairs, I felt as though I’d been teleported back into my babysitter Becky’s living room circa 1991. There was even a fake fireplace, a mantle with an empty fishbowl, and a yellow plastic dinosaur on the top. Patched together with duct tape, the window AC-unit leaked onto the beige carpet. There were no gossipy receptionists, no Barry Manilow on the speakers, or passive-aggressive signs.

My thoughts were interrupted by creaking stairs and a door across the room opened. A man with shoulder-length chestnut hair introduced himself. I immediately recognized the warmth in his voice from our phone call. He motioned to an old weight bench plopped next to the front desk. “Can you have a seat, so I can get your blood pressure?”

As I rolled up my sleeve, he pointed to my Banksy tattoo with a girl holding an umbrella pouring with blood rain. “That’s truly dark. You really don’t see stuff like that much anymore.”

 

By now, I’ve been going to the Suboxone clinic for a year. I know that Matthias will greet me and hand me a plastic cup for a urine-analysis drug test, take my vitals, and lead me to the nurse practitioner, Katie. Katie will ask about my recovery, writing, and grad school. She will tell me when her son is in the hospital with asthma, how she hates hosting holidays at her house, and how diabetes runs in her family.

Then, I will see the addiction counselor, Shanti, in the old kitchen. We will talk about all the difficult topics you’d expect, but we laugh, too.

After months of dancing around the fact that I still haven’t told my family about taking Suboxone, Shanti asks me: “When are you going to tell them?”

“I don’t know if I’m ready,” I said, my gut twisting.

“But Tessa, I know you. It’s making you sick, keeping it inside like this.” Normally this kind of direct advice from a therapist would anger me, but Shanti had a special fairy-godmother power over me.

“It is. But I don’t know how I can tell them. Things are finally better with us and I feel like this will be taking a huge step back. And I remember when I was home and a segment came on the Today show about Suboxone. My mom said that she thought Suboxone was just replacing one drug with another.”

“Maybe she feels that way now, but she might change her mind once she knows how much it’s helped you. You won’t know how she feels about it until you tell her.”

 

Four months pass. My parents tell me that they are coming Minneapolis for a Jimmy Buffet concert in June, which happens to coincide with my Suboxone appointment. “You should join us for dinner,” my mom says.

By this point, I’ve been taking Suboxone for twenty-seven months. I give them a vague invitation to join me at my therapist’s office. I promise my mom that it was nothing tragic or earth-shattering, joking that I’m not pregnant and haven’t relapsed. They agree to join me.

I board the bus at 6 a.m. to go to Minneapolis, watching the inky black sky transform from dark to light. It looks like a watercolor painting, a pink sea filled with wavy cirrus clouds. Or maybe they are cumulous? I begin doubting my decision to tell my parents. I re-read a practice script of the conversation that I have written like Shanti suggested. The script feels stilted, formulaic. I hear Shanti’s velvety voice in my head. “Just speak from the heart. I know you can do that.”

When I give up memorizing the script, I read about clouds for distraction and assurance. Mark Strand writes, “Clouds are in love with horizons.”

After breakfast, we head to the Suboxone clinic. I put my shaking hands in my pockets and breathe. As the clinic comes into view, it seems shabbier and dingier. I notice the rickety stairs, then the bowing floor in the waiting area.

At 10:05 a.m., Matthias greets us and hands me a plastic cup.

My dad jokes, “So that’s why you were drinking so much water this morning.”

I laugh and excuse myself to go take my drug test. The fruit and bagel that I ate for breakfast churn in my stomach, but I resist the urge to puke. I pace around the lobby until Shanti calls my name. We walk past the blaring People’s Court on TV, past the old weight bench, and into Shanti’s office in the kitchen.

After introductions, I cut to the chase. “I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you this sooner, but I wanted to wait until I was in a better place. Things got really bad in Portland and I started shooting up heroin. So, when I went to the hospital, the doctor prescribed me a medication called Suboxone. I’ve been taking it since then.” I trail off as the refrigerator hummed in the background. “I’m sorry. I know that I really hurt you.”

I avert eye contact. My mom’s hand squeezes mine. “It’s okay. I’m sure this was very hard for you to tell us.”

I squeeze it back. Hot tears fall from my eyes.

My dad pulls his raggedy blue handkerchief from his cargo shorts, putting it in my lap. “I’m sorry that things got so bad for you. We were so far away it was hard to know what was going on. But Tess, we’re just glad you’re okay.”

I talk through sobs. “Thank you. I’m so grateful for you guys. I’m not going to be on it forever. The side effects are pretty rough and someday I want to have a family.”

“We will take that as it comes, okay? We just want you to know that we are so proud of you,” they say.

After the appointment, we go to a sushi restaurant in downtown Minneapolis where we are seated at a booth with floor-to-ceiling windows. The cirrus clouds have bloomed into incandescent cumulous clouds. The sun bursts through them, prisms of light dancing across our table.

“You must feel so much lighter,” my mom raises her wine glass. “Cheers!”

My dad and I raise our cokes. We clink our glasses together as more tears flow down my face.

I’m running up the hill with outstretched arms. I know each cloud by name. I’m a girl who knows how to reach for great heights.

***

Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.

***

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, interviews, and book reviews 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.


Tessa Torgeson is a writer currently living in Minnesota. Her writing has recently appeared in The Star Tribune, The Fix, Manifest-Station, Brevity Blog, and others. She's hard at work at her first creative nonfiction book, which fuses elements of memoir, reportage, lyric essay, dark humor, and pop culture. Embracing an alternative form of recovery, she explores addiction, mental health, healing from trauma, and recovery from a harm reduction perspective. You can read more of her work here and hop on the feelings train on Twitter @tessa_tito. More from this author →