Voices on Addiction: Nineteen


This is what you do when you’re nineteen. It isn’t terribly shattering, what you do, not the kind of thing, if you wrote it down, that the critics would call “searing.” It’s just a road you take for a time. And then, in most of the ways, a road you leave behind.

It will start when you’re living in that shitty apartment, that place in the hippie town north of San Francisco. Only it’s not hippie days, it’s punk rock now. Your hair was long a few years ago, but then someone cut it extra short without really checking with you first, and so the guys from two towns over, the pickup-truck guys, went from shouting, “fucking hippie!” as they drove by one day to shouting, “fucking punk!” the next. You can still hear the snarl in their voices. Fucking suburban rednecks. Anyway, you enjoy the irony, and punk suits you better, you decide. You can thrash, you can lose yourself in the pit, you can fuck shit up. You can get drunk and do some meth and grind your teeth, you can crash, pass out, piss the bed. You can peer through the bristling eyelids of your hangover and find the scars, still red. The scars fit that lifestyle better, anyway.

Years later, you will wish it had been different, but this is what you do.

It’s nothing, really. It’s the loneliness. You drive a cool car, a 1966 Oldsmobile Cutlass you bought from your uncle. White with a red interior and a powered black convertible ragtop. Bucket seats, but whatever. You drive it to the two jobs you work—at the coffee shop and at the pizza place—so that you can afford the rent on the shitty apartment you share with your two friends in the suburban complex in the hippie town. You bought the car on payments to your uncle, $200 a month. It wasn’t that long ago, and you’re still paying it off. You’ll never make the last payment, for some reason, and then you’ll both forget about it. Thirty years will pass. When you finally offer that final $200 to your uncle, he’ll only laugh.

This is what you do. You drag yourself out of bed and go to work at the coffee shop. You’re a little young to be working there, but you love it, you really do. You feel like you belong there. It gives you an identity, your first. This is at a period of ancient history during which there are hardly any coffee shops in the world. Starbucks is barely known outside Seattle, and in New York it’s still just late-arriving beatniks and aging revolutionaries. You’re well armored behind the big red three-group Gaggia machine and the clever sign you make each morning for the tip jar. You’re the vanguard. You flirt across the counter. You go out with girls. (This has appeared to you until now to be impossible, with one or two exceptions.)

Sometimes the mornings are for sleeping in, and you do that as much as you can, depending on your hangover. The hangovers are rough, but not rough enough to really concern you. One day—not yet, but one day—you’ll come to enjoy the hangovers. It’ll be the only time of day your mind lets you off the hook, the only state of being in which you think you think more clearly.

You should be taking better care of yourself—not because you’d live longer or because you owe it to your family (though those things are no doubt true)—because you’d feel better. Your days would be more tolerable. You’d get more done, more of the things you think you want to get done, play more of the music, write more of the words. But you’re not ready to hear these things—even from someone who can empathize because they’ve been there, they know how you feel.

There are a lot of things you’re not ready to hear. For instance: It hasn’t yet occurred to you that you have trouble seeing the world around you for what it is. You’ll have trouble with that for years, possibly forever. You’ll look back and you’ll think the scars seem almost invisible, like maybe they’ll be gone one day. But then you’ll realize you’re just looking at the smaller ones, and yes, the bigger one is still right there. It isn’t huge, isn’t florid; you might miss it if you weren’t looking. But that one, at least, it isn’t going away. They’re very reliable, the scars, as you meant them to be. You can give yourself that much credit, at least. Mom always told you not to pick at scabs, which is how you know that’s the thing to do with these once they form. Whose empty apartment are you in at dawn with your cheap pretentious switchblade—a girl’s? have you broken in?—reopening the places on your arms you’d opened a few days before?

What’s strange is that most of the time, you think you’re happy. You really do. But the lows are so very low, and the dissonance between the highs and the lows creates so much noise-music static in your head that you want to put your knuckles in your eyes and rub til you erase yourself. When exactly do you get your first inkling that something might be wrong? Are you even aware of the moment that happens, or do you just wake up one day and call for help?

It’s nothing. It’s the loneliness. You’re in a band. You have a girlfriend. The band is great. You have a girlfriend. But you have no real ambitions. Dreams, yes. But ambitions are different. Dreams are things that might happen or might not. Ambitions are things you can work toward. But no one has explained this difference to you, at least not in a way you’ve managed to internalize.

You try to get off the road you’re on, now and then. You call the recovery program (give yourself that much credit at least), and they tell you to take things one day at a time. This is good advice, but can you imagine putting it into practice? There are those dreams. And what does it mean, to take things one day at a time? Today is one day, tomorrow another, the day after that is one more. And so on and on. What the kind people in the recovery program are really asking you to do is keep it together for the rest of your life. But how can anyone hope to do that?

Fair enough. But what you don’t realize at the time is that they aren’t asking you to keep it together at all. They’re asking you to let it all fall apart. They’re asking you to stop trying to fix what you think is wrong, to stop telling yourself anything is wrong at all. They’re asking you to throw everything you think you know right out the window and be open to what can happen, open to the world. This is good advice at any time of life. But when you don’t know that you’re hanging on so tightly—and you don’t—how can you even think of letting go?

To let go is to give up, to surrender control. But that’s the one thing you’re afraid you don’t have enough of. There’s a measure of control in the blade traveling down your arm, or you tell yourself there is. You like doing it because it wakes you up, you tell yourself. It gives you something to feel. You’re missing the point, of course. All the knife does is take you further from real feeling. Or maybe that is the point, not to feel at all. Hm. You’re smarter than you look, aren’t you?

You have a sewing kit you picked up in a hotel room on a family trip. You wrap the thread around the needle, leaving the point bare, a sixteenth of an inch or just a little more. The tiny ball of thread wrapped around the needle holds the India ink from the fountain pen that was a birthday present years ago. You press the point of the needle into your wrist, slow but firm. Who told you how to do this? You press hard, hard enough to cause pain but not hard enough to make yourself cry out, or even really wince. You drew a little cross on your wrist a few days ago to see how it would look, wore it around to see what it would feel like. But this is different. It doesn’t hurt exactly, but as the needle reaches down, carrying the ink below the surface of your skin, as the cross takes shape, as the point enters your body over and over, you start to react. You get hot, your breath comes thick between your lips—you can feel it even now—you start to transport, you start to go elsewhere. This is what you’re looking for, this is what you want. You’re away, you’re nowhere, nothing touches you, you’re just alone. Alive.

This is the problem: How to live without people. How to live without feeling. How to live without living. This is what the knife is for. This is what the drinking is for. The music. The hangovers. The arrogance. The act.

In the end you can’t accomplish it. The best you can do is achieve some level of apathy in which you don’t care about the pain, you don’t care about the fear that comes from nowhere, about the shame that has no reason. It’s not as good as not feeling those things, but it’ll do, at least for a while. This is what the tattoos are for. Why a cross? they ask you. Why not? It’s punk rock. Just tell them to fuck off.

Anyway, the tattoos are cool when you’re done. They still are all these years later. Give yourself that much credit at least.

Other things are not as cool. Remember, this is ancient history: You can still use an ATM card to withdraw more money at the cash machine than you have in your account. You need that money—cocaine is expensive. In the recovery program, you stopped drinking for three weeks—one day at a time—but that first cold beer back was so good, and now you’re crouched in the bushes of a city park snorting coke with a blonde girl called Paula you vaguely want to fuck, but you’re so high and it doesn’t seem like Paula’s interested in you that way, though you’ve found you can never really tell, plus she’s so high she would probably sleep with you anyway and what the fuck are you doing, doing coke in the bushes anyway? What the fuck is going on?

Do you remember the first time? Drunk with your friends in that shitty apartment in the hippie town? What inspired you? You’d heard about something similar someone else had done. You roll up your sleeves and finally find a good use for that switchblade. There’s a snapshot somewhere. You look a bit of a mess. Four long red lines on either forearm, oozing droplets of blood Your shirt is all bloody, your friends are giving you nervous sideways looks, but they’re laughing too. If anything, you’re good at laughing things off. Nothing serious, you tell your friends. You tell yourself.

Do you even realize, when you’re nineteen, that something is wrong? Or do you just want to feel better? And what does that even look like? What does that even mean?

You’ve dropped out of school by now, and you’ve dropped out of another school, the community college you fell back on after you left the big state university across the bay. The university asked you to leave once they realized you weren’t really showing up for classes. You didn’t have time: You had a work-study grant and you worked at the radio station. You were too busy meeting idols, too busy staying up all night doing speed. You slept through your finals, in someone else’s dorm room, Pink Floyd blasting on the stereo, unheard. You hated the dorms. Anyway, you were just sixteen when you got there, to a school of more than 30,000 people.

Who sends a kid off to college at sixteen? Not that you didn’t want to go. No wonder you dropped out. But now it’s three years later and you’re just as bad. And, though you may not want to hear this, it stays this way for years. You’ll go on to drop out again and again. You’ll quit the band. You’ll even leave the girlfriend. (Sorry.) You’ll write music and get into a good school. The music will transport your soul, but even that won’t be enough—something else will come up that will capture your attention and you’ll drop out of that too. You never will finish school. Eventually you’ll move on like they do in the movies: You’ll go on the road. Later you’ll move to the big city. You’ll have some successes, sure, even some real and meaningful ones. But you’ll continue to crash, continue to fuck things up. Do you do this any more often than the rest of the world? Well, on balance maybe you do.

You could look back on things now, but is it worth it? Would that help you find out the why? You could go even further back, rewind your young life to look for causes. Is the why contained in those years? And what good would it do if you found it? In the end, it’s not the why of it. The why is for suckers. The what is where it’s at.

What you do when you’re nineteen still lives on your arms, the pale straight lines traced with the knife, just deep enough to hurt, deep enough to draw blood. Deep enough to leave a mark, but not so deep as to do real damage. Straight enough to be traced and retraced through the months, so that they stay with you as pale stigmata.

“Pale stigmata.” That’s just like you, to describe them that way. You don’t really burn with faith, though. You’re a little too cocky, but not so much as to want to take on the suffering of the world. You’re just a kid, you barely know the world. You want to be part of it, but it looks to you like it doesn’t want what you have to offer. Appearances can be deceiving. There is no why of it. There’s just the loneliness. Even when you hear about “cutting” much later, it takes years—decades—before it strikes you that that’s what you were doing too.

In part, this is because you didn’t do much damage. The scars, sure. But you didn’t cut yourself for long. A few months? A few years? Is that long? Not more than that. It’s hard to say. How did you decide to stop? When was the last time? You won’t be able to recall it, that moment will be lost to your memory. Better to tell the truth: That there was never a decision, never a moment you grew beyond it. Not consciously, at least. You just let it drift away, like school, like the band, like all the other things that drifted away. In the end, it was just another thing you got diverted from. Something else came up and captured your attention. Life got better or got worse. Tactics changed.

This is what you do.

What you do when you’re nineteen isn’t terribly shattering. You might be tempted to simply overlook it. Is all this overblown? You could at least forgive yourself the sins of your parents. The mistakes they made, those weren’t your fault. But yes, you took up those things and you did what you did. You might have been able to make other decisions, decisions that might have kept you off that road. Maybe. Anyway, it’s hard to see from where you are, but you won’t regret it. It takes time, but eventually you’ll come to see the value in your experience. Eventually you’ll come to see yourself as less alone.

What happened happened. Your path is set. You play the hand that’s dealt you, or whatever other hackneyed phrase you prefer. In that regard, it doesn’t matter what you wish for—that’s the tragedy and that’s the joy. Your road was your road. You got as lost as you got; it doesn’t matter. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, but don’t pretend you didn’t lose your way. Remember, too, it doesn’t matter: You can still be found. Welcome.



Rumpus original art by Rosie Struve


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.

Mark Wallace is a journalist, essayist, teacher, and arts administrator. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, The Philadelphia Independent, and many other places. He is Executive Director of the Writers Grotto in San Francisco, and holds an MFA from Bennington College. He lives and writes on the rural California coast, surrounded by family, chickens, and goats. Find him on Twitter at @markwallace. More from this author →