I was working on a lecture a few years back about crack cocaine and people's stories related to it. I met this gentleman who was dealing with a crack addiction in the Grady emergency department one day, and he was nice enough to let me interview him. "I want people to see the people and not just the addiction," I implored while doing my best to get his permission to tell his story to others.
"Knock yourself out," he replied with a confident smile. "Tell my story 'cause I'm not your average crackhead."*
(*note: I am not keen at all on the term "crackhead." I am using it in the context of this patient's words which are being shared with his permission.)
No, he wasn't your typical street drug addict. This man was a college graduate that had once held an excellent job with excellent benefits. Back then, his two kids were in private school, and he had a college-educated wife that he described as a "strong black woman" and "the shit" (in a good way.) This whole former life of his fit perfectly into a "four sides brick" and "built from the ground up" house complete with a terrace level and three car garage in an affluent Atlanta suburb .
He'd lost it all after getting "caught up" with crack three years before.
During the time of our interview, he was unstably housed between shelters, couch-crashing, rooming houses, and "lady friends." He was no longer in touch with his family and he described his ex-wife as "terrified of him." His parents were alive, but also "too shell-shocked to fool with him" and he was quick to let you know that he didn't blame them. "Crack is no joke," he said while shaking his head hard. "No joke."
He was handsome with a youngish face that couldn't have been more than forty five years old. He had a cropped mane of shiny prematurely gray curls with a mustache and eyebrows that had the exact same distribution of salt and pepper as that on his head. His teeth were surprisingly white, but the minute I looked at his hands I could see his story. Burns on his thumbs and finger tips. Fingernails with dirt so deeply lodged under them that they looked like some reverse version of a french manicure. Oh well, scary fingernails or not--he was charming for sure and even with the profanity, his buttery use of the English language was believably consistent with his report of graduating from "one of the best historically black colleges you've ever heard of."
Normally, I would have started asking things like, "What college?" or other random things to give myself a better idea of his other life. But this gentleman was sitting in the ER for reasons other than my interview and since he was both generous and loquacious about his personal truths I decided to get to the things I really wanted to know while the getting was good.
My main question was, How? How does an educated, successful, and good looking dude like you use crack cocaine even for the first time?
Sure, I've encountered countless fifty and sixty-somethings that were blindsided when someone took the ultra-pricey powder cocaine that they'd occasionally toot on holidays and birthdays, cooked it on a stove with baking soda, and made it go further by making it into "free base." The story is usually that they tried it way back when nobody knew how addictive it was. That was in the early and mid eighties, so their excuse was that they didn't know what hit them when they hit it.
There's also the younger people from horribly disadvantaged backgrounds that I've met who grew up seeing it so much that they became desensitized to it. Then, after existing in what was surely a living hell, decided to escape it on a five minute, five dollar rocket ship straight to the moon. Even if it meant ruining their life, depending on the day and the reality connected to it, just maybe there wasn't a whole lot to lose.
So, yes, I've seen those individuals and heard their stories and kind of got it how they ended up "caught up." And oft times, the majority of the people I meet who are under the stronghold of crack fall into those categories. But every now and then, I've met someone like this man--someone whose life I can very much identify with--which completely terrifies me.
So I asked him. How? How does someone like you even try crack for the first time? How does this happen? Is it like they say? Where you try it once and then from the very first second you are hooked? Like you spend your life chasing the first high? Is that true? But even if that is true, hadn't you heard that? Didn't you know better? How could this have happened to you? You are young enough to know that crack is bad news and old enough to have heard Mrs. Reagan wag her finger and tell you to "Just say no." How? How did this happen?
Yeah, it was a lot of questions. Thank goodness he was in the mood for questions since I was in the mood for answers.
"I was drinking and smoking weed one night," he recounted. "Vodka, tequila shots, all that. We were getting f--d up that night. It was me and a couple of my buddies. Smoking blunts, playing Spades, talking shit. You know how folks do when they getting it crunk." He chuckled. I kept listening, waiting for Act 2.
"So, then, my homeboy says, 'Man, you ever smoked a primo?' and I was like, 'What's that?' So anyways, he explain that this is like a blunt that has some cocaine in it. You know, and I was like, 'Cocaine? Aww, hell no!' I'm sayin' because I never had got nowhere near no cocaine. As for weed, I mean, sure we did that all in college and after, but cocaine? That was some other stuff."
"So you got hooked from the first time you tried it?"
"See, that's a myth, doc. That mess folks tell you where they say you hit the rock and next thing you know you're like a zombie?" He laughed out loud and this time rolled his eyes like the very suggestion was both naive and ridiculous. "Naaahh. That's not how it goes down. See, essentially, my man rolls this blunt with rocks in it. Seeing as I don't know nothing about cocaine, I don't even realize what is up."
"Why did you buddy even have crack? What was that about?"
"I'm sayin', doc. . .crack affects everyone differently. You know there's a whole, whole bunch of folks that go to work, go home, do their thing and use crack on the weekends. Some folks are just hardwired to be crackheads. Some can just do it on the humbug."
I nodded my head slowly, recalling this lady I'd encountered once who worked in the post office for twenty years but had used crack "once or twice a week" for the last ten. "So your dude was one of those people who used it on the humbug?"
"Yeah, he isn't really the type that's got the addict gene. But me? My family, we have that gene strong. We have all kinds of alcoholics folks with addictions in our family." I could relate to that part, too. "So yeah. . .my man rolls this primo and I'm f---d up already from the shots and I wasn't driving so I was like, 'F--k it, let's do it.' So we sitting around, like three or four of us, talking shit and hitting this blunt. And essentially, that was it."
"That was it? No ride to the moon or anything?"
"Nope. We even talked some shit about how we had all heard that crack rock makes you go crazy from the minute you hit it and all laughed about it. See, my man who rolled it and had it, after the fact, he was like, 'Y'all know that was rock' and we were all like, 'That was rock?'"
I sat there staring at him with my eyes squinted. I was waiting for the part where he lost his house, his wife, and his job. This sounded a lot less dramatic than what I'd imagined.
He went on. "You know what did happen, though?"
"What?" I quickly replied.
"The next day, I kept thinking about it. It was crazy. It was kind of like when you sneak off and have sex with a chick when you know you're married. Well, maybe not you, doc, but you know what I'm sayin'. You tell yourself you tripped and it was a one time thing but then you keep thinking about it. Like nonstop."
"Hmmm." I pressed my lips together and continued to let him have the floor.
"So after a while, I'm thinking about it so much that I think about casually asking my homeboy about it, but I don't want him thinking I am fiendin' for it or anything. . . .so. . .I say, 'F--k it, I'm just gonna get me some weed and roll through the hood and get a little five dollar rock to roll into my joint.'"
He went on to describe how his thoughts of his extramarital romp/drug habit became more and more frequent. He couldn't get it off of his mind, and once per week became twice per week. Twice per week became once per day. Once per day became without marijuana, and eventually in the end it was any chance he could with any pipe he could get his hands on.
"The whole time it was like watching a slow train wreck. It wasn't fast like people tell you. It was slow enough for me to say, 'What the f--k am I doing?! I can't believe I'm f--king doing this!' And the day I knew I was out there bad was when I withdrew the last $1500 from my savings account one Friday and had smoked it up by Sunday. It was so f--ked up."
Wow. This was so different than everything I'd ever heard about people getting mixed up with things like crack and methamphetamine. A slow train wreck? Wow.
"You look like you saw a ghost, doc!" he laughed. "Don't worry, I'm not contagious."
I stared at him and widened my eyes. "Honestly? Your story terrifies me because I have sons and they're no different than you. I mean. . .I'm no different than you. That--what you just told me--could have happened to anybody. Everybody's done something stupid at some point."
He rubbed his youthful face with his tell-tale hands and sighed hard. "You know, doc? All you have to do is make sure you talking to them about being careful with anything that messes with their thinking. Like, it's okay if they drink, but you might want to talk to them about getting pissy drunk." He narrowed his eyes and his face grew serious. "Doc, you have any addicts in your family?"
I nodded sheepishly. Do I?
"Damn. Then talk to them about that, too. Tell them that it's not the same for them, so know that. Before they even get in high school, tell them. Hell, tell them all about me and what happened to me. Tell them I been to rehab and jail and still can't shake it."
I sat there silently taking it all in. Finally I took a deep breath and spoke. "I will. I will tell them exactly what you said, I promise. As soon as they get old enough, I really will."
"Yeah, you should. I think if I hadn't been so drunk and if I had been afraid of drugs a little more I might've not even f--ked with it. Who knows? But yeah, if your mind gets twisted from something totally legal, don't think you can't get caught up on some illegal shit."
Real talk, man.
So that was that. That was how. That was what went down and that's how a super successful gentleman finds himself kneeling down in the corner of an abandoned building and having no idea how to reach a single member of his family.
So. . . what did I learn that day? A lot. I learned a whole lot.