Shutting the Door on My Coked-Up Past

By Sam Lansky August 5, 2011

While my dad was recovering from a massive heart attack, I was on a coke run. Since then, I’ve tried to become a better son, while still struggling to shut the door on memories I want to forget.

I’ve been sober for several years now. But once a month, or maybe even more frequently, my past sneaks up on me and reminds me of the person I used to be. Always, I carry with me a low-level simmering anxiety, a flame that flickers now and again—when a man on the street looks familiar (didn’t I steal pills from that guy?), or when I’m walking down a side street somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen and suddenly remember stumbling down the block in a drunken stupor—but some fires burn brighter than others. Though I have made my amends, there remain transgressions that are unfixable, regardless of whatever 12-step dogma says about not regretting the past or wishing to shut the door on it. I regret many things in my past; I would shut the door on it if I could; and I am wary of the rhetoric of regretlessness that is so pervasive in recovery circles. “I wouldn’t take any of it back, because it made me who I am today,” people say of their addicted histories, with a certain smug intonation, as though this idea encapsulates some epiphanic life wisdom. To me, this has always sounded like specious, self-congratulatory bullshit. I would gladly trade whatever insight or humility was gained by my offenses a thousand times over to go back and simply do the right thing in the moment, to keep from hurting the people who I hurt.

I always chose what I thought was the right thing, and this almost always turned out to be the wrong thing. I spent the summer that I was 17 bouncing in and out of treatment—first a wilderness boot camp, then a residential facility, and finally a psychiatric hospital—before deciding, rashly, to accept the offer of admission I had received that spring from Vassar College. Vassar, I thought, was a prestigious enough school to command nominal respect but wouldn’t actually require me to work all that hard. (It was probably this very attitude of lazy, elitist entitlement that kept me out of Princeton and Yale, who had rejected me outright.) My mother begged me to defer for a term, since my mental health was very poor and I had no intention of staying sober, and ultimately my father said that he just wouldn’t pay for it, so I countered by taking out loans, which shut everyone up. This, of course, was a foolhardy, selfish decision, and once I arrived at my fancy private liberal arts college with a pissy outlook and an insatiable hunger for liquor and pills, I sank fast. I don’t remember what classes I registered for, because I never went to class. I spent all day in my dorm room taking what I (rather preciously) called the Seven Sisters Speedball, a cocktail of amphetamine and hydromorphone pills which I crushed into powder, mixed together, and snorted off my desk, sometimes dancing around my room to Swedish pop music in a giddy blur while the metronome thudding in my chest slowed and quickened dangerously, other times collapsing on the floor into hysterical crying jags that continued for hours. On the weekends, I took the train into Manhattan, where my father was living with his girlfriend on the Upper East Side. It would not have occurred to me to let him know that I was coming into town, unless I needed money. Psychiatrists across the Hudson Valley wrote me more prescriptions to treat hysterical afflictions I’d convinced myself I suffered. Inside me was an emptiness so enormous that no amount of drugs could fill me up.

One weekend in October, I headed into the city to party with my high school buddy Garrett, whose parents owned a townhouse off Riverside Drive. I arrived with a mélange of pills, uppers and benzos and painkillers, and we drank gin and tonics, and we must have called for coke at some point, because magically, one minute, it was there. I do remember swallowing two Ambien, which had become my most essential party favor. When paired with stimulants, the two chemicals synthesized to produce a near-psychedelic euphoria, with the value-added bonus of retrograde amnesia; which means that it caused a near-instant blackout without the sloppiness of binge drinking. I would remember very little of what happened after I took Ambien, only that I had been blissfully happy, and when I came to (because I never really “woke up,” but rather, “came to”) in the morning I wouldn’t be ashamed of what I had done, because I wouldn’t really remember it. For someone with self-loathing as profound and corrosive as mine was, the allure of total dissociation for an evening was too seductive to deny. (I have a private theory that Ambien doesn’t actually have any soporific effects, but just blacks you out so you can’t remember that you haven’t been sleeping and have, instead, been binging on a two-pound bag of raw walnuts or falling down a flight of stairs at Grand Central Station, as I was prone to do.)

In flashes, little glimmers of memory across a period of hours, I remember my friend Aurelia dancing, half-naked, and The Knife blasting on the stereo; and I must have texted a guy in the neighborhood who I occasionally slept with in exchange for the drugs he always had (not that this transactionality was ever articulated), because I can see myself stumbling out of his apartment while the sun was rising, electrified, my jaw wired and that sour chemical taste in my mouth; and then I found another guy, a handsome banker in the West Village who had posted an ad online saying that he wanted to go “skiing,” which was code for sex on cocaine. Somehow I made it down to his apartment, and there was a platter of cocaine that looked mountainous, gleaming iridescent white, and I thought how wonderful it was that we wouldn’t run out for hours, days even, and now memory begins to cohere a little bit more, which means that the Ambien must have worn off. I was in bed with him, this stranger—funny, if not altogether surprising, that I can’t recall his name or face or anything about him—when I got the first call, from my father’s girlfriend, Melissa. I silenced the ringer and let it go to voicemail. She called several more times over the following hour, leaving messages, which I ignored. I didn’t know what she wanted, but it seemed unlikely that it was more important than what I was doing.

The calls began to irritate me, and eventually I picked up my phone to listen to Melissa’s messages. Her voice was grave and rough from crying.

“Sam. Your dad—he’s had a heart attack. We’re taking him to Mt. Sinai. You need to get here as soon as you can.”

“Sam. Where are you?”

“Sam. We’re at the hospital. Call me as soon as you get this message.”

“Sam. Call me, Sam.”

I hung up the phone and tossed it onto the floor. “My dad just had a heart attack,” I said, to nobody; it wasn’t really directed at the stranger in bed next to me. What did I feel? Nothing. Nothing that I can recall, except perhaps a minor annoyance, a sense of being inconvenienced, the absurdity of what poor timing this was.

“Shit,” the guy said. “Do you need to, like, go?”

“No. It’s fine.”

“Are you sure you shouldn’t—”

“It’s fine,” I said curtly. “I’m gonna do another line.”

How could I leave? It seemed that as long as I stayed there, in that anesthetic inertia, the morbid reality of what was going on just a few miles north wouldn’t become real, wouldn’t end this bender on a sour note. I pulled the stranger close into me and kissed him, frozen-mouthed, the sound of our teeth clicking against each other, and I pretended like nothing had happened. And that was where I stayed for the rest of the day, while my phone kept buzzing on the floor, over and over again, just loud enough to hear.

We ran out of drugs sooner than I’d expected—it was odd how that always seemed to happen—and so I left. Standing outside on Christopher Street, in the blearily sore-throated daze of the second day of a cocaine run—this was, I was sure, the worst feeling in the entire world—it occurred to me that there was nowhere I wanted to go. Fear paralyzed me. It had been hours since Melissa had first called.

I went back uptown to Garrett’s house to clean myself up, but once I got there, I just settled on the stoop outside. For the next hour or so, I remained there, staring out stupidly, speechlessly. The sun was shining; it was hurting my eyes; I was coming down hard; I felt like a vampire; Aurelia was telling me that I needed to go, needed to go be with my family, what if my father died, she said, what if he was already gone. Strange feelings were beginning to claw at my throat and there was nothing to stuff them down with, no more drugs left to take. no more booze in the fridge. Thinking about showing up, trashed out, to the hospital, I resolved I really, really couldn’t couldn’t move. I croaked, “I can’t go, I can’t.” And then, with the wearied, self-pitying gravity that we addicted do so well, I took a cab across town to Mt. Sinai.

In the hospital room, my father was hooked up to wires and tubes, loking small and oh-so-frail in that paper gown—my father, who had always seemed to me a silhouette of well-tailored confidence, now looked so broken—and as numb as I felt in that post-comedown melancholia, my breath still stuck in my throat when I saw him lying there. Melissa’s face was red from crying, and my brother looked me up and down without saying a word. (He had easily beaten me to the hospital, and he had come from Philadelphia, while I’d only had to travel from Bleecker Street; it had been nearly six hours since Melissa’s first call.) As I leaned down to hug my dad, it occurred to me that I probably reeked of liquor and sex, and my nose was running—and I prayed please, God, let that just be snot instead of another nosebleed—so I pulled away rapidly, wiping my nose anxiously, coughing as though I was suffering a head cold. When I looked back at my father, his face was contorted in a mask of concern and pain. I wouldn’t claim to have recognized this at the time, but I don’t think that pain was for him, and I stood by my father’s bed while monitors beeped and halogen lightbulbs hummed and I tried not to dull a flurry of competing thoughts. How strange that this extraordinary human drama had been unfurling in my absence, how strange to confront such intense emotions, when my day had started off so ordinary in its mundane debauchery.

The memory of this day is at once everywhere and nowhere; it ghosts through me sometimes, in the firmness with which my father refuses decadent foods at restaurants, in the affectionate way Melissa rubs his shoulder, in the way my stomach hurts when he tells me that he is proud of me. In these moments I feel ashamed, perhaps because it’s impossible for me to revel in the sheer pleasure of being loved without introducing some note of self-excoriating doubt into an otherwise happy moment but also because I simply cannot forgive myself. At first I was struck by the irony that this blacked-out bender, which served the sole purpose of delivering pleasure without the shame of memory, was something I would have to remember forever. But memory isn’t a book that I get to read and reread; memory is a tape that grows grainier with each repeated viewing, until I’ve polished it into a blank reel of film—so that now, all I really remember about my father’s heart attack is the ritual of remembering it, and how lacerating that experience was. Time has mercifully wiped clean many traces of my memory, but my feelings about that event still burn as hot as embers.

Years later, when I finally made amends to my father for my crimes, I knew that the only thing I could do was promise him I’d try to be a better son, which I have tried to do in earnest. The fiction that I would like to impose onto this experience is that my father loves me more because of it—that one time, the time when I was too coked-out to come to the hospital when my father had a heart attack—that our relationship is stronger because of it, or that I am stronger because of it. This is a small comfort, when the past sneaks up on me; it is comforting to think that my father would rather have a son who climbed back from the selfishness of addiction into a half-decent life than a son who had always been exceptional; comforting, even if it isn’t, well, true.

Sam Lansky is an editor at Wetpaint and a regular contributor to The Fix who also wrote about his sobriety in relation to Britney Spears and dating in sobriety, among many other topics. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/samlansky.