In April and May, Voices on Addiction is partnering with Writing Our Lives (WOL) and its creator, Vanessa Martír.
WOL came out of Vanessa’s deep want to see stories like her own out in the world. Vanessa had always been enamored with creative nonfiction, but despite her desperate searching, she couldn’t find many by people who looked like her and came from where she came from: brown and black, poor and working class, educated and not, immigrant and second generation, LGBTQ, and all things marginalized and underrepresented. Vanessa launched WOL in NYC in the winter of 2011, and has since worked with hundreds of writers. She brought the class online in 2017.
We are proud to have Vanessa guest curate these installments of Voices on Addiction.
It was May 28, 1994, and I was sitting on the stoop of a five-floor, walk-up tenement building in Brooklyn. It was 11 p.m. There was no one around. It was the only apartment building on the block. Next to it was an abandoned gas station. A brick, windowless wall stared at me from across the street. I had just left the apartment of two sisters I’d been hanging out with. We didn’t know much about one another beyond one common thread: we liked to smoke crack. We met at the copping spot, struck up a conversation, and they offered a safe space to smoke. I took them up on the offer. It turned into a three-day binge of smoking crack nonstop and not sleeping. After turning a few tricks and exhausting all means to get more money we eventually ran out of drugs.
I was sitting on the stoop on my one-week unbathed ass, smoking a cigarette underneath a very clear sky, thinking about where I was going to get the next hit. You would think after seventy-two hours of no sleep and getting high I would be exhausted but nope. I was running away from myself. As long as I could feel, I was going to get high. Emotions and I don’t do too well together. I was in the grips of the chase, as they call it.
It only takes one hit. Once you inhale that drug, everything changes; in seconds you become a different person. The chase begins and you are like a robot with only one objective—where and how will I get more? The desperation has you conjuring elaborate schemes as if you are a kid with no concept of consequences. You take no prisoners. Your self-worth is never part of the equation. Worth talks too much sense and doesn’t like what you’re doing.
There I was sitting on the stoop trying to figure out how to get more. I was looking up at the heavens, hoping some crack would fall from the sky and hit me on the head like an apple from a tree. I was a total mess. God must’ve thought I had lost my mind. In the nine years of being addicted to crack and heroin, and four years as a prostitute, there was this one thing I always did, and that was talk to God. I know you’re probably thinking: What the hell is the lowliest of low doing talking to God? But, I always did. My relationship with him never changed. Sure, our conversations were always one-sided—me talking, venting, and God not answering—but I always pictured him listening, and sighing or nodding at the things I said.
Most of the time I got high by myself. I’d go out into the night, get high, and have full on conversations with God. I’d explain my worries and woes in detail. I’d tell him how tired I was of living. What was the sense of it if I had three huge strikes against me: I was Latino, I was dark-skinned, and I was gay; I was everything the world hated. I can remember days I would find a corner in a crack den, pull out my five-subject yellow notebook, and write God letters. They all started with a “Dear God” and went on and on, with me asking for forgiveness as I drank my tears in between taking deep inhales from my crack pipe. I’d ask God to give me strength to stop because I couldn’t on my own. I’d write about how unfair the world treated me with their judgmental ways. They never gave me a chance; once they saw how flamboyant I was, they pegged me as everything but human. I was tired of living like this. Every part of me ached. I must’ve looked insane talking to myself, hoping maybe I would be heard. I thought maybe this ever-present thing called God would speak to me like those scenes in the movies where the actor is looking up at the sky, crying desperately, when a deep, bass voice tells him where to go and what to do. Needless to say that epiphany never happened, and so I went back to scheming for my next hit.
It was in that moment, sitting on that stoop, that I realized the date, May 28. It was the day before my twenty-sixth birthday. I pulled out the watch from my pocket I had considered selling to get some more crack. It was 11:45 p.m. In fifteen minutes I was going to be twenty-six years old, the age my sister was when she died of active addiction. The same age my mother thought all her children would never get past because of what happened to her daughter. It didn’t take long for the feelings of sadness to overcome me. It was like a wave coming over me and knocking me down. Anger followed. There I was, this brown, six-foot-tall gay man who looked like a cadaver, unbathed and at just one hundred and twenty-five pounds, sitting on a stoop with no connection to family nearby, and I was about to celebrate my birthday, alone. What the fuck am I doing, I thought. It was the loneliest I’ve ever felt in my life. I looked up at the sky. It was clear, no stars, just darkness. I started talking to God out loud.
“Listen you! In fifteen minutes I’m going to be twenty-six. If you think I’m better than this, you have till midnight to show me. If you don’t show me something I will devote the rest of my life to smoking crack and I’ll die a crack whore. I am fucking tired of this life and need a sign. Let me know you have something better for me. You do this and I’ll give up drugs and live my life right.”
What happened next was divine intervention. You might call it coincidence but I’ve lived far too much and am way too smart to believe that. I was miles from home, in a whole different section of Brooklyn. No one I loved, not friends nor family, knew where I was. After that prayer (because having a conversation with God is always prayer), I sat on the stoop, numb and quiet. A calm came over me. I placed my head between my legs and sat there, waiting. I looked at my watch. It was five minutes to midnight. Five minutes until I turned twenty-six. When I looked up, I saw a car sitting in front of the building. I didn’t notice it pull up and I don’t know how long it was there. The car door opened. I heard my brother in the softest voice say “Come into the car. Let’s go home.”
I didn’t hesitate. There was no fight in me left. I knew this was the end of this life of active addiction. I surrendered. I got up, looked up at the sky, and with a smirk on my face said, “You got it. You showed your ass. You answered me so I’ll keep my side of the bargain. I got you.”
I got in the car. The silence was thick from my brother’s anger. I was tense, waiting for him to bombard me with his disappointment, hurt, and fear but he didn’t. I could tell there was so much to say but it was all too heavy to speak, so we held the words in our mouths. We rode for blocks, saying nothing.
I finally spoke. I said I was done with getting high. I told him I was starving and ready to go to rehab. We found one that night. They said they’d have a bed for me the following morning. On my twenty-sixth birthday.
The first thing my mother did when I walked in was hand me a plate of red beans and white rice with fried chicken. I remember the hug she gave me right after. A desperate hug, full of all the conversations of love we never had. Her hug had an apology stuck to it. She touched me like a child that has gone to war and returned back home. She didn’t say anything to me and I didn’t say anything to her.
That night my brother slept on the floor next to my bed so I wouldn’t try to leave. It was seeing him on the floor that made me realize how my addiction had affected the family. My brother is tough as nails; his poker face is on all the time. That night stands out as one of the most memorable moments in our relationship. We weren’t the type of brothers that hung out together, and we weren’t the brothers that dressed alike. We were complete opposites in every way: he was a jock and I was feminine. He was ruthless; I was compassionate. That night I saw an entirely different side to my brother. Maybe he wasn’t who I’d always thought he was.
The next morning my brother and nephew drove me to Penn Station so I could take the Metro-North to the rehab. I was told there’d be someone to pick me up at the station. We parted with kisses and hugs, and my nephew gave me his rosary that my mother had blessed for him. I left them on the platform with their sad eyes looking at me as I boarded the train.
I grabbed a seat by the window and prayed no one would sit next to me. I didn’t want any human contact. The hour-and-a-half train ride was riddled with rewinds of my years as an addict. I thought of my mom and what I put her through, the robbing and stealing, the selling of my body mercilessly. It was overwhelming, and I found myself going through yet another pivotal moment in my life alone.
I had never gone to rehab so I didn’t know what to expect. I had been using drugs for nine years and had lost touch with the world. I remember looking out the window at the plush greenery so full of life, and thinking about how I was dead inside. Though I was still coming down from the three-day binge and my anxiety was on full, I was certain of one thing: I was not going back to drugs. God heard me and had given me a sign. I had to give it my best.
When I finally got to my stop I knew exactly who the person picking me up was because he was holding a sign with the name of the facility across his chest. He shook my hand, put my bag in the back. and told me to get in the car. On the ride there he gave me the speech: no drugs, no contact with the female population, I can go whenever I want, no fighting, no violence, and definitely no sex. The last thing he said was: “This going to be your home for a month. Good luck. Make the best of it.” It wasn’t the warmest of welcomes but it was straight to the point and what I needed.
Those thirty-seven days were some of the hardest of my life. The amount of inner work I did remain some of the scariest things I’ve ever done. This work required me to look at myself for what I really was. I learned I was broken in pieces, and that I was never given the tools or the know-how to deal with what life threw my way. It was in the rehab I saw my pain was rooted in fear. I feared loving, I feared living, I feared intimacy, I feared commitment, and I feared I would never succeed in anything.
In rehab I had to dig deep. There was no room for anything superficial. I was fighting for my life. I went back to the rapes where I lost my voice. I went back to the beatings that took away my will, and the bullying that made me accept I was worthless. It was in rehab I saw clearly how I was physically, mentally, and sexually abused for thirteen years of my life. This inner work I did helped me see my flamboyance was a defense mechanism. It explained why I couldn’t be alone, because I was scared there would be no one around when bad things happened. It helped me accept my sister, Gladys, my Wonder Woman and best friend, was no longer here to hold and protect me. It gave me an understanding that death, though physically final, is not the end.
Out of the forty men in rehab at the time I was there, only two stayed clean. I am one of them. I kept my promise. I have never gone back to drugs. It’s been years since I even had the desire to use.
The journey has been a long and arduous one. There is still so much work to do. The peeling back layers and reacquainting myself with who I really am is ongoing, even all these years later. Just when I think I know myself, a deeper reason for why I am an addict surfaces. I go in with a microscope and a feather, to fix and heal and hold and love and nurture those parts of me fear etched in like a tattoo. Each day is not a guarantee I’ll be clean, but each day is filled with hope as long as I confront and tackle life as it comes instead of running. Daily, I remind myself to forgive the man I was and that in order to help anyone else, I must put myself and my needs first, second, and third. I’ve learned self-care is essential. If I don’t take time out for myself, I risk losing myself again. I can’t go back there. It is with these tools I entered recovery and have managed to stay clean all this time. Twenty-five years.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.
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.