Ten years later, Tobias and I are still together. It’s been 13 years since I’ve done heroin or speed, and that one night with Sasha was the last time I even tried to get any.
Things were going pretty well, living in New York. I moved in with Tobias and his mom. Introduced him to my parents, to my grandmother. Spent my lunches with Amy and Laurent. Started reading sci-fi again, searching out vintage cyberpunk paperbacks at St Marks Books.
Cooked dinner and drank red wine with Tobias every night. Hosted Christmas and Easter for our combined families. Volunteered at a needle exchange on Saturdays. Then went home and had sex with Tobias, knowing that his mom was in the next room.
I could feel myself getting more and more high strung as I settled into being a grown up. Everything mattered. Everything was my real life.
My mother moved to New York for graduate school and called me all the time asking for some favor (fixing her computer, helping her host a party, helping her move from one sublet to another, or just listening to her cry about some mean thing my grandmother had said). It was hard to set limits. I was trying to be a good girl again, and I didn’t really know how much people could expect from me.
I finished my PhD. At my thesis seminar, overheard a member of my committee saying, “Well, that all came together better than I expected.”
We moved to Boston for Tobias’s graduate school and my postdoc, and started planning our wedding. One drunken night in New York, walking home from a bar, I’d told Tobias that if I was going to chose my postdoc based on when he got into graduate school, I wanted to get married. I was 32 and in a stable relationship. I wanted to have a child, and wanted some legal structure in case things went bad between me and Tobias.
In Boston, I started getting depressed. My work wasn’t going well. After 12 years of not driving, I had an hour plus commute each way. I didn’t have time to volunteer anymore. And planning the wedding was a nightmare. So many details, so much money. And none of it really what I wanted. My mother made it very clear that the wedding wasn’t about me. My grandmother was dying; we needed to get everyone together one last time. She didn’t want Tobias and I to invite too many of our friends. We needed to save space for cousins I’d never met.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to be buying into the institution of marriage, the misogyny, racism, homophobia, the spectacle, the consumerism. A family friend who had been so horrified when I was dating Djuna, who had taken me aside one night and told me to break up with her (Didn’t I want children some day?) wanted to play a major role in the wedding, and that was the one thing I said no to, disgusted that he might think his lecture had turned my life around.
After the wedding, we moved to the suburbs. More space. A garden. A shorter commute for me. I went off birth control, got pregnant 8 months later.
I was worried about what would happen if they gave me opiates during labor, but didn’t talk to my doctor about it, didn’t want her to decide that I couldn’t have pain meds if I needed them. In the end, I ended up with no meds. After all that prenatal yoga, the labor went too fast and it took the nurse an eternity to find a vein in my forearm for the drip (I could have told her they were all rollers, but didn’t want to seem too knowledgeable about my veins) and then they didn’t have time to give me an epidural.
Looking after a baby was terrifying. She didn’t even seem human. In my exhausted mind, she was like some hairless kitten. I didn’t want to get too attached. I couldn’t see her sleeping without a wave of panic that she was dead. I would wake up in a sweat, heart racing, and have to go check on her. Here was a person that I really was responsible for, a person who had a very real risk of death. It wasn’t enabling, some misplaced sense of responsibility; it was motherhood.
I started crying at my 6-week postpartum OB/Gyn appointment, my first day back at work, and was diagnosed with postpartum depression, was referred to a therapist who specialized in CBT, started taking Zoloft, convinced that it wasn’t just for me. Me being a mess would hurt my baby.
When our daughter was two, I had my IUD taken out, started weaning off the Zoloft, made a push to lose the baby weight, preparing to maybe get pregnant again.
And that fall, anniversary effect hit me hard, a combination of the anniversary of Michael’s death, which I had been marking every year, but also the anniversary of the first time I shot heroin. Something about fall in New England, the sudden crispness of the air, the smell of dead leaves, was so evocative of 1994. What had, in previous years, been a little melancholy, a little overwrought nostalgia, bloomed into something all consuming.
It started with unrelenting dreams about getting high. Kate was there but she’d quit, and I was left to try to cop on my own in a maze-like pastiche of cities. Or Sam was getting high again and she wanted me to inject her in the leg, a slow grueling process. She gave me some heroin but it was cut with so much brown sugar, I had to pack my nostrils full of it. Or the dreams with no plot, just flashes of powders and needles, track marks and wounds, endless futile searches and bunk drugs. And when I woke up, I would think, that’s not the way to cop. I just need to find someone who’s using, maybe one of those guys with the bad tattoos and the puffy hands and the mesh bandages covering their infection wounds who are always smoking next to the No Smoking sign at the hospital.
And then I would remember that it had been 12 years since I got high. That I didn’t want to get high. That it sucked. That I’d put a lot of hard work into having a sober life, with the garden and the jam and the job and the husband and the daughter. But I didn’t really believe it.
I went through the motions of eating, of working, but I felt like it was a stupid charade and no one was buying it anyway. I would see the orange cap of a needle lying on the floor at work and I get a physical shock, like a slap. I would look at other people’s arms and think their veins looked like nice juicy worms. Thinking about drugs seeped into everything. I couldn’t focus and I couldn’t sleep. I would find myself grinding my teeth and clenching my fists all the time, my shoulders so tense I could almost feel my shoulder blades touching. I drank coffee until my stomach hurt, but I still couldn’t concentrate. Everything tasted like cardboard, or worse.
And even my daughter couldn’t cheer me up. It made me feel worse that she was seeing me like this, that she was getting damaged by my depression.
I began to resent my 20 year old self. Why had she done this to me? Why had I done this to myself? I started working on a project, putting old photos together with old journal entries, trying to piece together the fall of 1994, which seemed, much more than when I moved to New York in 1996 or when Michael and I moved in together, like the moment when I could have just chosen to walk away and never try heroin. I started posting on Tumblr, inspired by a casual quip in the New Yorker, saying that Hélène Grimaud’s hair was “tucked behind her ears, in wan, heroin-chic strands,” frustrated that something that I was so intimately entangled with, so conflicted about, the pop culture glamorization of heroin in the 90s was now a snide comment on messy hair.
But when I did get pregnant, in February, I felt too terrible to obsess about the past. The nausea just bowled me over. I would lie curled up in bed, moaning, unable to move, feeling like an injured animal, nothing human left. Thinking over and over again, I cannot bear this, wishing in the first couple weeks of being pinned under sickness for a miscarriage, an abortion, my own death, anything. I stuffed myself to keep the nausea at bay, constant snacks and then snacks that morphed into whole extra meals of pizza and peanut M&Ms. And I knew the whole time that I would have to pay back every bite.
The pregnancy lasted for 4 months. The amniocentesis started a slow burning disaster, cramps, pain, mucous, then no amniotic fluid, no chance the child’s lungs would develop, no chance he could survive, a race to find a doctor who could perform an abortion after 20 weeks, and then the news, a relief, that the baby was dead. The miscarriage. The second time I’d seen a dead body, or really only the foot, because I couldn’t bear to look at the whole body lying on the metal tray at the hospital. The nurses said they took pictures. Was I sure I didn’t want them, to remember?
Again, the nurse couldn’t find a vein for the drip, fooled by the rolling veins on the back of my hand. This time I tried to tell her, but after she hit a nerve and gave me with a bruise that covered the back of my hand, she had to call in an expert. The placenta wouldn’t come out and I had to go into surgery. Two nurses and then the anaesthetist needed to know about my history of drug use. All of the most private parts of my life on display. But as soon as they realized how many years it had been since I did drugs, they lost interest. Later they offered me a codeine prescription and I declined.
I was already numb from the waist down from the spinal anaesthetic when they realized the operating table was too short for me (at the weirdest times I remember how much taller I am than most women) and everyone scrambled around trying to figure out how to extend it
At first, I just felt so much physically better, after 4 months of morning sickness compounded the last three weeks by feeling sick and exhausted because there was a dying and then dead baby inside me. When I got out of the hospital, I just felt full of energy, and went on this kind of manic months-long canning spree, and just did a million things at once all the time, but was unable to focus on anything.
And when the summer heat broke, everything I had been struggling with the previous fall and winter came flooding back. The dreams. Thinking about drugs. Feeling alone with my experiences. In the suburbs. At work. Further complicated by the miscarriage and my decision to stop taking Zoloft all together and to try to get pregnant again.
I decided to write something about Michael’s death and post it on Tumblr, because it was anonymous, so I could tell the story the way I remembered it. My therapist thought maybe I had some kind of pent up grief, about finding Michael’s dead after so many months of worrying every day that I would find him dead. So much shit swept under the carpet when I quit drugs and just tried to make myself small and quiet and hard working. So I kept writing, 60,000 words in four month. Getting sucked into old journals I’d been avoiding. Deeply ambivalent. Not wanting to think too much about drugs, not wanting to remember too clearly, but trying to piece everything together.