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'In the Face of a Jumpy Coke Addict I See a Dead Man'

November 29, 2000|ANTHONY BOURDAIN | Anthony Bourdain, an executive chef in New York City, is author of "Kitchen Confidential" (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000)

There is no one less sympathetic to the trials, tribulations and humiliations of an addict than an ex-junkie. No emergency room triage is more immediate and unforgiving than the way an ex-junkie sizes up a still-in-the-grip former colleague.

I hear that familiar, whiny tone of voice. I see the pinned, cartoon eyes of the smack user or the jumpy, twitchy, molar-grinding, gibberish-spewing face of the coke fiend. I see a dead man. I'm not listening anymore. If I pay attention at all, it's to make sure they're not rifling through my coat.

Cold? Yes. But then, junkies are used to stone-cold logic. Life, for someone whose body, brain, nerves and cell tissue requires (rather than desires) his drug of choice in order to get out of bed in the morning, is actually a very simple matter. You have one job: Get drugs. There's only one thing you have to do each day: Get drugs. One's priorities are always straight. Simply put: Nothing else matters.

Those of us who have been addicted to heroin and/or cocaine (and I've been addicted to both) understand this better than anybody. You know, without question, that your best friend in the world will, given the opportunity, steal your drugs or your money or snitch you off to the cops. You know, without question, exactly how low you would be willing to go to get what you need. Chances are, you've been there already. More than once.

Stories about drugs and rehabilitation are boring--particularly when it's some Hollywood actor, grinning out from the cover of People magazine, yammering about Clean and Sober and his new project.

We've heard it all before. Some people live; others die. Who survives and who doesn't seems most often to have been determined long before the junkie enters treatment--when he looks in the mirror one morning and decides that he really, truly wants to live. If there's any question in his mind, before he even walks through the methadone clinic or rehab facility doors, about how badly he wants to turn things around and what he's willing to do to accomplish that, then lose my number. I know you in my bones.

The memory of the bitter taste of heroin in the back of my throat, the smell of burning candles, the taste of paint chips mistaken for a pebble of dropped crack, a whiff of urine and stale air from long-ago tenement drug superstores on the Lower East Side all came back when I watched Robert Downey Jr. being hauled off again in handcuffs. And this time, I actually cared a little.

"This guy must really hate himself," I thought, reading of cocaine and speed allegedly found in his room. That he is, to my mind, one of the finest actors working in Hollywood, matters not at all. That he's spent some time in jail was, if anything, a recommendation.

I'd hoped he'd be cast in one of the film versions of my books as he seemed to have the perfect resume for the job. My first thought, though, was, "Cocaine and speed? That's not comfortable oblivion; that's pedal to the metal, headed straight for the wall."

It's more panic, paranoia, the inevitable crash. If there is a faster route to the dung heap I don't know of it. It can't even be fun anymore. After years of having as much cocaine as you want, you find yourself just chasing that first pleasurable hit, looking to recapture that first pleasant rush. You never find it.

More than likely, you wind up squatting naked by the front door, listening for the tunneling probe microphones that aren't really there.

"Ally McBeal" can't have helped. If I was an actor of Downey's caliber, I can't say I'd be too happy with myself, mugging and lip-locking on that silly, faux-heartwarming exercise in cynicism. I wondered immediately: "The guy's right out of the joint! Who let him work a job where he's going to have damn good reason to hate himself?"

People are very fragile when they leave rehab. For the first year, it seems like the pleasure centers of the brain have shut down for good, like your oldest and best love has died. This is not a time to acquire new reasons for shame, fear, regret; you've had plenty of that already. It's time to get away. Far away from old friends, old haunts, old temptations. In the jargon of rehab, "bottoming out" is mentioned frequently and annoyingly often as a prerequisite to treatment.

When life is at least as unbearable with drugs as without, when the thought of a fat stack of glassine envelopes or an eight-ball promises only more misery, some people make that hard choice to tally up the betrayals and the wreckage and keep living. It's not easy. Many--if not most--fail. Most times, you really have to do something terribly shameful, experience awfulness in previously unimagined degrees before you see a life without drugs as a preferred, even necessary, option.

Jail, in Downey's case doesn't seem to have been enough. Hopefully, "Ally McBeal" was.

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