Voices on Addiction: All the Ways to Save Your Life



The first time I was confronted with my mortality, I was five. I don’t think I fully grasped the question the doctor posed to me, but I obviously understood it well enough because I told him I wanted an angioplasty that would, according to him, prevent me from dying young. I was born in a birthing center in Riverside, California in 1982. My parents were devout Christians, and birthing centers were popular among evangelicals at the time.

The problem was that, being outside of a hospital, the midwives—who didn’t have the advanced equipment common in hospitals—missed that I had a heart murmur. It wasn’t until my six-month checkup at Loma Linda Hospital that the murmur was discovered. My mother learned I had a webbed pulmonary valve. The thickened flaps required twice the pressure to push blood through the valve’s misshapen opening.

We had to wait for the surgery until I was five, when my valve would be large enough. Until then, I would have echocardiograms every three months to monitor the condition. Angioplasty—a relatively new option at the time—was thought to be a perfect remedy. They would send a small balloon through an artery in my groin that would then stretch and tear the pulmonary flaps open and hopefully fix the issue. The surgery, according to my doctor, would allow me to live.

Once I turned five, my mother took me to the doctor to discuss the surgery. The doctor decided to treat me like I was actually in the room, which I appreciate to this day. I remember it vividly. They were going over the risks of general anesthesia and balloons in the arteries of a child, when he leaned toward me and said, “David, we have two options. One, if we do nothing, you would live until about thirty-five. But, with the surgery, there is really no limit. You could live until you are ninety.” My mother says she doesn’t remember this and yet I remember it so clearly it’s almost preternatural. It was a choice between living to an indefinite age or knowing that I would die too young. I told him, yes, I would do the operation.

There was no way to know then that, just after my thirty-fourth birthday, I would still almost die from a heart-related issue, but not in the way my doctor would have guessed given my valve trouble as a child. Still, it was scary that his estimation of my life span was so accurate. But we can make choices if we want to live. I believe that.



I was fifteen when I took my first drink of alcohol—it was given to me by my father after my mother left. We had moved from Southern California to a farm in Woodlake, California, when I was about nine. Five years later, my mother left, taking my two younger siblings with her. My older brother and I stayed with my dad, who became deeply depressed and erratic. I became completely baffled as to who this person was. My parents, until the divorce, had maintained such stoic religious personas that I hadn’t allowed myself to imagine them beyond their beliefs. But here he was, getting loaded on whisky and Vicodin, driving to LA weekly and sometimes daily to rekindle romances with old flames.

I remember my father slamming the hallway phone down after speaking to my mother a few weeks after her departure. She had filed for divorce. She was living with a friend in Visalia, about forty-five minutes away from our citrus and olive farm. He came to my older brother and me and asked if we wanted to try alcohol. We said yes, vehemently. He took us to the Gas Ranch in town and let us buy whatever we wanted. We’d been inundated by commercials for Zima—a sugary malt beverage popular in the 90s, so we went with a six-pack of that and some chewing tobacco that I found out later tasted of bile and manure. My father said we should try Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. It was the first thing he had ever gotten drunk from. We went back to the farm, where I drank the Strawberry Hill and I wondered if the cloyingly sweet beverage tasted the same as he’d had back in the 70s. I had a buzz for sure, and I liked it and I indulged in a couple of Zimas, too, and then some of the chewing tobacco. I hit a stride in my alcohol-induced euphoria and I recall loving the sensation. Until that point in life I had no idea how fantastic it felt to depart from reality this way, and with something so readily available. But the peak was short and, with the combination of the manure taste from the tobacco, the clear malted beverage, and the syrupy Strawberry Hill, I got sick. Very sick. I puked until 2 a.m. It may seem counterintuitive to the end result, but all I remembered was that stride, that blissfully detached feeling—and I loved alcohol from that point on. There was something about that the comforting numbness it provided that shielded me from everything else, all the stuff of the world that was starting to poke holes in my reality. It became a daily mission to secure and consume copious amounts of alcohol, and over the next twenty years, I would practice finding that perfect spot between a heavy buzz and being sick. I got very good at it.

I spent the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school with my mom and her friend in Visalia. The summer of 1997 was a hot and a formative one. I hung out with a group of skater kids; listened to Tupac, Nirvana, Sublime, Puff Daddy and the Family; tried weed; swam; kissed my first girl; and nearly broke my arm trying to skateboard. I came back to Woodlake and looked for a new clique that could help keep me in weed and alcohol. This led me to Scott, who had a constant weed supplier and a few friends who were good to know. One was Derrick, a star football player my freshman year, who had graduated but stuck around. Derrick introduced me to crank, a low-grade methamphetamine usually cut with household cleaning products and sometimes—it was rumored—human feces. The drug, when smoked (or freebased), felt like a lightning bolt of pure pleasure to the brain. It’s extremely addictive and has precipitously diminishing returns.

I developed an unhealthy admiration for Derrick during this time. He was everything I wasn’t: masculine, popular, handsome, and charismatic. I was skinny, with stringy blond hair and crooked teeth. I could have passed for a twelve-year-old. But he was my friend, and I looked up to him like a surrogate father.

My awkwardness about our friendship infused our times doing crank together—memories that still make me cringe. Once, after a three-day bender with him, when I hadn’t slept or eaten, I came home fiending. For hours, I moved all the furniture around my room, trying to find a dropped crumb of the stuff, picking up pieces of lint and tasting bits of plaster for potential meth. It was revolting. I actually found a piece or two of the drug, but eventually I laid down on my bed and prayed for sleep as a nervous trickle of anxiety and need pulsed through me. On another fiending mission, my friend Juan told me he had ditched a ten bag on campus near the locker room when he saw the cops a few days before. I drove with Derrick to the school at 2 a.m., and we scoured the grass for hours looking for the baggy. We never found a thing.

After nearly a semester of using not just meth but whatever drug Derrick and I could get our hands on, something happened that I still have a hard time reconciling. After a four-day bender, I stood in front of Derrick’s bathroom mirror and stared at myself. I was thin and sickly, with sores on my face. As I stared, my already skeletal face became an actual skeleton—one that began to speak through my mouth. Its message was simple: “Stop doing drugs.” At that moment the apparition felt tangibly real, and dark, and otherworldly. It scared me so badly and deeply that when I emerged from that bathroom I vowed never to touch another drug for the rest of my life. It took me decades to realize that this was a projection from my subconscious mind—but at the time it couldn’t have felt more real if the figure reached from behind the glass and touched me.

I told Derrick that God had come to me with a message, and I was out. I found other friends with whom to hang out. Later that year my father’s house was robbed. They took everything, even my meager belongings. It was a strange and violating feeling, and I couldn’t figure out who had done it. I had a list of suspects in mind but felt like the ultimate burden was on me. I’d invited people into my home who wished harm on me and my family. The forerunners of my list of suspects were Jack Evans and Jason Rennet, two tweaker/football players who’d pretended to be friends of mine but were known to commit small criminal acts in service of their addiction. In fact, I felt like I knew it was them, and, from time to time, I fantasized about getting revenge. Especially when I found out that Jack Evans was living in a rental owned by a close friend of mine. I thought maybe I could confront him or hire some guys to kick his ass. But these were just the kind of fleeting thoughts that worm their way into your mind and disappear just as quickly. Still, it bugged me that they’d gotten away with robbing my family home after I’d invited them in all those years ago.



After high school, I became vehemently anti-drugs. I did, however, continue to drink heavily. Every day, I tried to strike the perfect balance between buzzed and drunk. Chasing the peak. I went to school at two universities over the course of six years. Shortly after graduating, I began working at an insurance brokerage in Salinas. I met John Turner there. He was a coworker who later became my boss. John was an insurance magnate in town and brought in nearly half a million dollars a year in personal commission. He was the type of good old boy who made your stomach turn. He smoked cigarettes, sexually harassed the support staff, and drank whiskey on the job. He was a nightmare for the Mormon company that purchased our insurance brokerage. I did well at the company and brought my brother on after about a year. He wasn’t long for the effort, but he did manage to help John Turner source some pharmaceutical-grade opioids without my knowledge or consent. John, I found out later, was recently out of rehab for opioids. Within months he was full bore into the drugs again and began showing up to work sweating, disheveled, and slurring his words. He was full on into his addictive behavior and began using his company credit card to rack up four or five thousand in debt a month, and even brought a woman who was not his wife on a company excursion. After he got drunk at a conference in San Diego and caused a scene during a presentation, I had to report his behavior to upper management. They terminated him immediately. The shock fueled his drug use and depression and his heart gave out three months later. He was forty-seven years old when he died. I felt complicit in his downfall. I still do.



During these years and prior to my own heart incident at thirty-four, I tried multiple times to pick up writing. I had been a voracious reader as a child but stopped around the time of my parents’ divorce. I had taken creative writing courses in high school, during undergrad, and later at Stanford Continuing Studies. The problem was that being drunk from the moment I got off work until my head hit the pillow made it hard to focus. I would turn out a short story every couple of years and take a stab at a novel during white-knuckled bouts of sobriety. But alcohol always won its arguments with me.

By the time I was thirty, the mornings became a lot harder after nights of heavy drinking. Also, my blood pressure started ticking up. At thirty-two, I was denied health insurance because a lipid panel showed abnormal liver enzymes and high triglycerides. Once I edged closer to thirty-four, other changes started to occur. I began to have severe sleeplessness, waking up in the middle of the night with my heart racing and skipping. I would also wake up confused and disoriented, and it terrified me. I felt like I was losing my mind, like I was going to die at any moment and leave my wife a widow. I knew I couldn’t let it happen, yet I felt powerless against the desire that rang out every day around four thirty. During the day I would try to concentrate on work, but my heart felt thin and glassy, like a slight scare might cause it to shatter. On July 8, 2016, my wife and I had an argument, and I went to bed drunk after a bottle of tequila. I woke up the next morning to take a shower and felt my heart skip worse than it ever had. And then it stopped.

I was still standing, I could breath, I didn’t have chest pains, and yet I felt for a pulse and there was nothing except a strange buzz. I had no idea what was happening, but I was certain I was a dead man.

Because I was still conscious, the absence of a heartbeat caused a wave of anxiety that felt like death itself. I took a Xanax and told my wife we needed to go to the ER. I paced in the living room while she dressed. I took my blood pressure even though I still couldn’t feel a pulse. It read 190/120: heart attack level—stroke level. I realized I might actually die at thirty-four, and my mind raced back to that childhood doctor. How could he have known all those years ago in his office at Loma Linda that my heart would last until thirty-five? Maybe he had cursed me in one of those psychosomatic ways—implanted it in my subconscious. The next thing I thought about was how sad my thirty-one-year-old wife would be as a widow. I thought of how much I loved her. Then I thought about my incomplete novel, my incomplete life. Maybe I was concerned that I would be leaving no legacy, just a trail of forgotten parties and empty bottles.

In the emergency room, the doctor asked about my drinking as I went through a battery of exams. One was a long-overdue echocardiogram where he mapped my webbed heart valve on a little black-and-white screen. The image was pretty clear. I could see what they were describing, the vibrating, beating muscle and the little darkened area that represented the valve—I could even see the flaps as they opened and closed with the passing blood. He said the valve was fine, that this had nothing to do with my condition. This had to do with my drinking.

He handed my wife brochures for rehab clinics, and I said I didn’t need them. I would never drink again. He looked skeptical but took them back. After nine hours in the hospital and medication administered via IV, my heart rhythm came back to normal. I would survive. They told me atrial fibrillation wasn’t that uncommon overall, just for someone my age. I haven’t touched alcohol since.

They next day I felt the need for some solitude and self-discovery, so I left for Portland, Oregon. I had a few friends I could stay with but decided to stay in a hostel. I spent my time meeting travelers from England, Canada, Australia, and Spain and sketching out short stories on a legal pad.

After I returned home, I was cooking eggs for my wife, and she said I was doing it wrong—I hadn’t scrambled them first. She was right; they looked terrible and lumpy. She said she wouldn’t eat them, so I threw them in the sink and walked to the bedroom, sunk facedown on the bed, and sobbed like a child. Deep, visceral sobs and I didn’t know why. Things were flooding back that had been numbed and locked away since I was fifteen. I cried for the twenty years of my life I would never get back. Twenty years lost to alcohol.



About eight months ago I received a phone call from someone I thought I would never hear from again. It was Derrick, the football star from high school. I had heard he continued to use and sell crank after I moved away and had done five to seven years in prison for a couple of felonies. Nevertheless, I wanted to see him. He wanted me to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with him.

We met in a parking lot in Monterey, near where I live. A crowd of rough-looking tattooed people ambled around in front of a rented space, smoking cigarettes. Derrick was waiting with a broad smile and a healthy color to his face. He was wearing a nice suit and trimmed beard. My admiration for him flooded back, though I could see how dramatically different we had become. We shook hands and he rattled off a brief history of his life after we had parted ways. He had gotten clean after prison, and the only thing that could keep him straight was AA—he went almost every day, and he also had a sponsor. I told him I was sober, and he offered to be my sponsor. I told him I would think about it, but I hadn’t needed a sponsor at that point. I just knew that if I took up drinking, my heart would stop, and that was enough. Derrick was now a sales rep for a medical device company out of Exeter, California. He was married with three young children. He started to tell me about the steps of the AA program, one of which was why he’d invited me here: Make a list of those you have harmed and make amends to them.

At first, I thought he was going to apologize for introducing me to crank, but I never blamed him for that. Doing those drugs was an escape that I needed at the time, albeit an unhealthy one, and I didn’t see any culpability on his part. But, that wasn’t why we were here. He started slowly, telling me that his mother had won the lottery a few years back and that she’d wanted him to be the executor, but he’d said no. He knew what would happen, and the worst did happen. His whole family spiraled back into addiction, went broke again, and ended up in prison. But he’d shown amazing resolve in that situation, kept his boundaries, and stayed clean. He told me that he knew what addiction did to him—it turned him into somebody he wasn’t. He then told me about his rock bottom; it was just before he got arrested. He had seriously planned to kidnap the six-year-old child of a rival dealer who owed him money. He started to cry at this point, and he told me again, he didn’t know who he was when he was using. It was that moment he had a self-realization about what kind of person he’d become.

I wondered why he was telling me this, but he made it all clear. He told me he was that same monster, that person he couldn’t recognize, that person who doesn’t exist anymore, who had robbed my house. He told me that every time he thought about me for the past twenty years, he felt like he was choking on shit (his words), and that I was the hardest person, and the last person, he had to make amends with. I told him I forgave him, and that the insurance company made us whole, but I was still in shock. I think I still am. I do forgive him, of course, and I still, after all these years, felt a pulse of that childish admiration for him I’d felt as a fifteen-year-old.



A year ago I went back to the doctor for a lipid panel. Even without alcohol I still had high triglycerides and high cholesterol, was borderline diabetic, and was about thirty pounds overweight. I decided to make more changes to my lifestyle. I took up surfing, started a ketogenic diet, and got a health coach to help me monitor my diet and activity. In the past twelve months I’ve lost thirty pounds and learned to surf. At my last appointment, my levels were all in the green, and my doctor said, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”

Since then, many of my friends and acquaintances have made offhand remarks about diets never sticking or that I’m too thin now and that I’m boring now that I don’t drink. But it’s about me understanding my body. I know that the decisions I’ve made are permanent and necessary because I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to be on dozens of pharmaceuticals, either. I’m thirty-six now, and I’ve finally lived past that doctor’s prediction. I had the surgery, but still, it’s all the unknowns I’ve had to overcome. The impulses that have to be continuously checked. Those impulses to self-destruct.

Every so often when I’m watching a movie or reading and the characters are drinking and having a fantastic time, a sadness wells up in me. The desire pulses through my cells, and I think about having a drink. I realize how important my mental clarity and physical health are to me. I remember those night terrors and the confusion. I remember that elegiac death angel looming over me since the age of five, and I remember what my old friend Derrick overcame. And I reject the impulse. I pick up my laptop and tap away instead. Because you have to find that reason, that desire to live. An awareness of all those little decisions you make each day. All the ways to save your life.


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.

David M. Olsen is a full-time insurance broker, writer, editor, and surfer. He is an alumnus of Stanford’s OWC program in novel writing and holds an MFA in creative writing and writing for the performing arts from UC Riverside-Palm Desert. He is at work on a collection of linked short stories, a novel, and a chapbook of poetry. He resides in Pacific Grove, California with his wife, Jackie, and cat, Sophie. More from this author →