Chasing the High: A Firsthand Account of One Young Person’s Experience with Substance Abuse by Kyle Keegan and Howard Moss, MD is both an absorbing memoir and a useful resource for adolescents suffering from substance abuse. Keegan tells us his personal account of overcoming drugs and Moss lends his professional expertise from his position as Associate Director for Clinical and Translational Research with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health. The excerpt below introduces us to Keegan’s struggles.
Looking back on those years I spent barely surviving on the streets as a heroin addict, it’s hard to believe that I’m here now to tell you my story. But I want you to know what it was like, and what a drug addiction really means. I’m going to start not at the beginning, but in a place that stands out in my mind above all others in the haze of my drug using days: Long Beach, California. My experiences there represent my addiction at its very worst. Next I’ll tell you how I ended up there, the son of a loving, hard-working, middle class family, born and raised in a small town in New York State.
Finally, I’ll show you how I was able—with a lot of help—to find my way back to a decent and healthy life. Along the way, I’ll also be giving you an idea of what science knows about addiction in young people—like why teenagers are at higher risk for abusing drugs, and how even a ruthless addiction like mine can be overcome. When people, especially kids, start using drugs, they often don’t understand how dangerous this experimentation can be—even if they’ve been using for a while with no serious repercussions. But I’m going to level with you throughout this book, and the real truth about the worst seems like the best place to start.
So, back to Long Beach. I ended up there because I’d stolen some cash and drugs while I was living in Arizona. My friends (other addicts I was hanging out with at the time) and I came to the conclusion that we’d better relocate. After acquiring a stolen truck, we headed west to California.
The weeks we spent in Long Beach flew by, but our daily schedule didn’t change much; the routine was getting high and stealing what we needed to survive. Friends and I would meet in front of a laundromat every morning to purchase wake-up shots of heroin. The supply of the drug we planned to save until morning somehow never made it through the night.
I’d been sleeping on a rooftop for several weeks now. I felt there was some kind of security in sleeping above everything. Not that I was safe, of course—it was just as easy to get robbed on a rooftop as it was in an alley, where I also spent many nights. I had a setup on that roof of a few milk crates, an old couch frame, and two cushions that smelled horribly of urine from the prior inhabitants. I kept a small garbage bag containing my possessions nearby. When you’re homeless, the less you have, the less you have to worry about getting stolen or lugging around with you.
Unlike in New York, where drugs had been available at any hour, in Long Beach heroin had to be bought on a schedule: once at night and once in the morning. On this particular night, as I was finishing up a round of shoplifting from some convenience stores in the Korean section of Long Beach, I noticed that I was running a little behind schedule. I quickly made my way to a fence who bought stolen goods, getting enough money to then go and try to secure a relaxing evening of speedballs—heroin mixed with cocaine—on my favorite rooftop. Unfortunately, I was too late. As I rounded the corner, I watched in horror as my fellow junkies scurried off and the dealer’s car sped away.
My first instinct was to catch up with slowest of the receding bunch and ask if I could purchase something to hold me through the night, since the next delivery wouldn’t be until morning. Instead of getting the fix I had hoped for, I was offered a matchhead of cocaine. Against my better judgment, I accepted it and made my way to my roof. You see, though I knew that cocaine without heroin would only make me feel sicker, I was an
addict, and therefore unable to turn down any drug. Once back on my couch overlooking West Long Beach, I quickly fixed up the shot of cocaine.
After about fifteen seconds, the cocaine euphoria began wearing off. This was the part I hated most, and the regrets started to roll in. My mind raced and I panicked. How was I going to make it until morning with no more drugs, when it was barely 8:00 p.m.?
For a moment I thought about my life up until then. My drug addiction had left a trail of destruction in my wake—I’d robbed, stolen, cheated, lied. My family had long since disowned me. I felt more and more overwhelmingly that my days were numbered, and at the rate I was going, something had to give soon. Back on my rooftop, I started feeling something that I would have given anything to avoid. The cocaine had worn off and a sickness was quickly spreading through me. That was bad enough, but when I began to shake violently and to feel as if my body temperature were dropping rapidly, I knew that I had what we called ‘‘cotton fever,’’ an extremely unpleasant physical reaction to the drug I’d just taken.
Caused by a bacterium that infects certain cotton plants and is then injected accidentally through a cotton filter and into the body, cotton fever was maybe one of the worst feelings imaginable. For the hour or two that it lasted I could look forward to every muscle and nerve in my body tensing up to the point of excruciating pain, along with extreme cold and uncontrollable tremors. Add that to the crash I was experiencing from the cocaine, and the heroin sickness from not getting my nightly fix, and I was in for an evening of great misery and despair. And just when I thought that I had finally reached the lowest possible level of physical and emotional agony, I realized it could get worse … I felt the first drop of rain.
I drifted in and out of consciousness for most of the night, not sure where nightmares left off and reality picked up. Several times I hallucinated, thinking someone was calling me from the courtyard down below. I would find myself teetering on a ledge two stories up, yelling into the darkness of the cold rain. If I’d had the nerve I would have just hurled myself off the edge and put an end to this insanity. But the insanity was far from over. Somehow I made it through that awful night and scored my wake-up heroin the next morning. I was at it all over again. You can’t possibly know how bad addiction feels unless you’ve been there. You can read a hundred books, see a thousand movies, even work with addicts every day as a counselor or therapist. You still know nothing about the nature of the beast, the power, the emptiness, the broken heart, the numb mind. That voice that forever speaks in your head. That voice that pushes you, that beats you, that empties you—that voice that, in the end, is your own.
…. How did I get from that rooftop in Long Beach to where I am today, reconciled with my family, happily married with a beautiful child, working at an exciting career doing something that I love? The famous philosopher Søren Kierkegaard tells part of the story. ‘‘A man may accomplish many feats and comprehend a vast amount of knowledge, and still have no understanding of himself,’’ he wrote, ‘‘yet suffering directs us to look inward; if it succeeds, then there, within us, is the beginning of our learning.’’ I had to learn about myself, to look deeper into myself than I could ever imagine, in order to get free of drugs.