It didn’t seem very harmful to me, cocaine. It popped up sometime in the ’90s in San Francisco, and compared to the other stuff floating around – heroin, crystal meth – it seemed quaint, a retro throwback, something slinky and ’70s and not too serious. There was a reason people called it a “party favor,” “nose candy,” or “booger sugar.” These were cute nicknames for a drug, all sparkly and sweet, like a pair of earrings from Claire’s at the mall. Cocaine was sexy – the joke of doing it off someone’s butt never got old, perhaps because it wasn’t really a joke. Snorting cocaine off someone’s ass always struck me as a seriously excellent idea, the height of decadence, if decadence was what you were into, and I was.
First I did coke on special occasions. New Year’s Eve, for example, is a great time to do coke. With the assistance of the magical powder I could drink three times as much alcohol! And the alcohol somehow tasted better, more refreshing, more crucial. Know what else was fun to do on coke? Smoke. Oh, I could devour a pack of cigarettes after a line. Breathing became intense on cocaine, like I could really feel the air being pulled into my body. Throw a cigarette into it and it was perfect, like food for my lungs.
And talking? In third place, after drinking and smoking, talking was the very best thing to do whilst on cocaine. Every thought became a golden jumble, with the delicious challenge of smoothing it out and releasing it from my mouth, a fat red ribbon of words endlessly unspooling. Talking was wonderful!
I don’t know when cocaine moved from special occasion party treat to weekend party treat, but no big whoop. Why couldn’t a simple weekend be a special occasion? For that matter, why couldn’t any day at all?
SNORT AND REPEAT
Portrait of me, 1998: The faintest crust of sparkle around my nostril, maybe just misplaced makeup. A giant bottomless pint glass of beer and a cigarette freshly lit from the last. My mouth is open, I am beaming, I am telling everyone about how amazing it was to see Marilyn Manson at the Cow Palace. I relish the telling – the performance – of my story, so ecstatic to tell with the cocaine lighting me from the inside. And then my audience rebels.
“We know you saw Marilyn Manson at the Cow Palace,” says a friend, all patience lost. “You’ve been telling this story every night this week.” Embarrassed, I shut my mouth, clamping it around a cigarette. This was when you could smoke in bars.
You could buy cocaine there, too. At the old Albion bar, an ex-government agent – FBI? CIA? – sold bindles of cocaine from a brown paper sandwich bag. You would go with him into the women’s bathroom, where oftentimes there would be a lone female sitting on the busted armchair, sobbing. The agent would take from his pocket an origami envelope, and he would dunk it into his bag of cocaine. He would fold the top and hand it to you, and you would thank him with a twenty. There in the bathroom, on the long piece of marble by the mirror, you would lay out your line. Sometimes someone would come in and see you, ask for a bump. Sometimes I would be that someone, all my cash spent on beer and cigarettes, looking for that missing element.
It was at the Castro-Mission free clinic years later
that I learned what a
missing element the cocaine really was. For the first time in my life,
a bit nervous about my drug intake, I decided to fill out the medical
questionnaire honestly. Do you use drugs? Yes. What kind? Ecstacy,
pot, speed, heroin, cocaine. How often? Hmmmm. Ecstacy was a special
occasion drug, just every so often. Speed, maybe once a month. Heroin,
maybe six times a month. Cocaine? Every day. The doctor reviewed my
answers and asked if I would like to speak with a drug counselor, and
to my own surprise, I said yes.
I had been thinking about drugs. Bringing heroin into
the repertoire seemed
like a real crossing over, but what about cocaine? How had it gone from
a sometimes drug to a weekend drug to a Hey-it’s-Wednesday-let’s-party
drug? I knew that people who did drugs every day were drug addicts,
but I didn’t feel like a drug addict. I felt like, I don’t know, a hedonist, a
libertine, something cooler than a drug addict. An adventurer! Would my
family think I was a drug addict? They would, I realized. The thought made
me feel sort of bad.
The drug counselor, Penny, wore a black cardigan with
fluffy bits of
marabou at the wrists. She reviewed my questionnaire. I assured her I
didn’t shoot the heroin, I snorted it. I rolled my eyes with a little laugh,
like we were on the same page – Oh, don’t worry Penny, I would never
do that! I’m not crazy! Penny didn’t give me the high five I was looking
for, she just nodded gently and made some notes. She moved onto the
cocaine. Why every night?
I thought about it. A couple sips of beer and there
it would be, the craving.
As antsy as the drug made a person, I felt antsier without it. I’d become
obsessed: Was the agent around? Any of my friends have anything? I
could barely carry a conversation once the desire for it rose up. I didn’t
know when it happened. I just knew that now, cocaine was as normal as
my morning coffee and my nightly drinks. No big deal, I assured myself.
But then why was I talking to Penny?
“When you use alcohol and cocaine at the same time,
it creates a new
chemical inside of you,” Penny explained. “Soon, if you have one of those
things – like, alcohol – your body will want the cocaine to create the chemical.”
This felt true. Once I drank enough alcohol for my
body to register it, the
craving for the next part of the equation came on strong. Only then could
I relax into my night.
I left my counseling session with nothing –
no plan, no appointments,
just this information. I’d created a whole new chemical inside myself.
In my heart, I knew it was a monster. It would take me years longer to do
something about it.
Waiting in Lines
It is a bizarre thing to be in the midst of a habit and not believe that you have one. Where once a single line would have me flying all night, now I would need a second line pronto to ward off the terrible crash. Oh, the crash. It loomed just around the corner, the deepest, darkest existential void known by philosophers, Buddhists, depressives, and drug addicts. A black hole would begin to open around my feet and I’d need another line quick, or else. Or else what? Well, there was the time the coke-fueled game of strip poker devolved into a cut-rate orgy, and my then-boyfriend got a little too interested in a stripper with fake boobs. “Hey.” I remember grabbing his shoulder, dislodging him from her stony bosom. “Hey, I want to kill myself.” Hot!
I remember calling in sick to work after a coke binge because the morning after I just could not stop crying. I wondered if I had a problem. How bad would it have to get before I called it what it was – an addiction? Like a lot of people, I had a cartoon idea of an addict in my head: an unshaven man trembling in the gutter. That wasn’t me. I was an unshaved woman, trembling on my bedroom floor. Totally different!
When I got sober I worried about how I’d get by
without chemical help.
How does a person stay up all night without cocaine? Um – a person
doesn’t. A person needs sleep. And after a decade of partying with
chemical help, I needed a nap. It took years for me to want to pull a
sober all-nighter, and when I finally did it was at Pride. I got tanked on
sugar-free Red Bulls and hung out with an array of younger people,
all on cocaine. I watched them like an anthropologist observing a strange
people. They had no idea how gross and sweaty they looked. How
unaware of themselves they were. Emboldened by the drug, people I’d
seen around but never spoke to babbled at me, bared their souls.
I recalled how anxious I’d always felt walking into
a bar. I never pegged
it as anxiety, thought it was just how it felt to enter a bar. Once I had a
drink and a line, it went away.
“It’s so cool that you can hang out like this
sober, without drinking or
anything,” more than one person marveled that night.
“I know,” I agreed. I hoped that someday they’d
figure out that they