How a Life of Addiction Ends
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How a Life of Addiction Ends


How a Life of Addiction Ends

This post was originally published on April 15, 2015.

In 1989 I left New York City after a rough year of trying to stay clean off drugs. Within a month of returning to California I was back on heroin, just like I’d never stopped. It was the first time I truly realized I was powerless. But even after coming to that obvious yet depressing conclusion, I still couldn’t quit. Returning to my hometown of San Francisco just wasn’t the same. In my absence my former girlfriend had gotten clean and wanted me to as well. I had friends in Los Angeles—friends that weren’t so invested in whether or not I was strung out. So I moved south, telling everyone I was once again pursuing a career in the music industry. But really I just came to Hollywood because there was nobody watching over me.

At first I actually did return to touring with bands. But then as my drug habit grew and the inevitable tunnel vision of addiction took over, I slipped further away into an even seedier life than I’d ever known before. Back then, central Hollywood was a much different place than it is now. The once glamorous “Entertainment Capital of the World” had turned a little ugly. An army of prostitutes, speed freaks, transvestite hookers, junkies and teenage hustlers occupied the streets. The hotels and apartment buildings famous for housing actors and models had become shooting galleries and tweaker pads.

Shunned by my former co-workers for not adhering to their concepts of recreational drug use, I sought out new companions. All my new friends were either methheads or junkies and not so surprisingly, none of us had gainful employment. We all lived marginally outside the law; we weren’t what anyone would consider crazed career criminals but hustlers and low-level drug dealers—anything to pay for our habits. We were all on the road to ruin, although at the time you couldn’t tell us that. But even then I was excelling into depravity quicker then everyone else. I remember the other addicts warning me, “The way you’re going, you’re gonna get locked up or die.” And I’d tell them they were crazy. Not me. I had a handle on it.

Took me three years to hit bottom in LA and I’d like to say that I got clean then. But I just did another geographic, again returning to San Francisco, where I continued using for way longer then I’d care to admit. And yeah, that was 25 years ago, yet strangely enough I’m back living in Hollywood and the memories and ghosts from the past haunt me. Although I have no idea what happened to most of the people I hung out with then. I’m only too sure they’re either dead or incarcerated. Yet every once in a while I recall a certain event, one of those people or a place I got high and I relive it all over again.

Sheri lived over in West Hollywood, across the street from Barney’s Beanery, in an apartment with her newborn baby and a husband that would later hang himself. I’d known Sheri for years; we even dated for a minute. Only we were on different paths—mine was heroin, hers meth and alcohol and they didn’t mesh. I eventually ended up with a friend of hers and all of us used drugs together—one big happy family all down and out in Hollywood.

Then it all fell even further apart and that’s when I left town to try and clean up again. Months turned into years and then decades as I struggled in and out of various institutions and rehabs. And Sheri? Well, our paths crossed many times over the years, different cities, different variations on our relationship: adversaries, conspirators, accomplices. Yet with the passing of time, we went our separate ways.

Then recently, I was standing in the courtyard of my barely-lit building, juggling a bag of Chinese take-out as I fumbled in my pocket for the keys to my apartment. Just as I opened the door, there was a chime from my phone telling me I had a text:

Hi Patrick, was just at the hospital with Sheri she’s pretty bad off. It does not look good!? She’s in a coma! Will keep you posted…Very sad.

I was standing in the living room, staring at the phone, feeling numb. It was hot and I was having trouble breathing. The windows had been closed all day and the apartment was claustrophobic. I turned on the small fan to blow the stale air around and that helped a little. But there was a huge knot growing in my stomach and I was almost physically sick. It had been so long since I’d even heard anything about Sheri and I didn’t know what I was feeling. Was it guilt from never thinking of her until now or just the fear of death that we all share? Slowly, as if by remote, I punched in a response:

What!? Sorry to hear this! Very sad is right. Yeah, please keep me posted.

My apartment was silent. Oddly, even my noisy neighbors weren’t making their usual racket. The whir of the fan was the only audible sound until my phone chimed again.

Not much we could do for her…might drive back Friday to check in, but it’s not looking promising, she stopped breathing, her heart stopped, it took 45 minutes to revive her! She was without oxygen the whole time…Was so sad to see her in that condition. So lifeless! 

I was still staring at my phone when it shut off and the room went dark.

Last time I saw Sheri was 17 years ago. She’d come by my place in San Francisco with a friend. They wanted me to get them drugs. But I was so strung out that I kept most of what I scored for them. That was not what friends do to one another but it is what strung out addicts do to anyone they come in contact with, if they can. Sheri called the next day screaming that I’d ripped her off. But I knew her heart wasn’t in it—stealing drugs wasn’t something new to Sheri. She was always lying, manipulating and conniving when it came to getting high. Sheri was crazy like that and the years of meth and alcohol hadn’t helped.

The next time I heard from Sheri was five years later. I’d just gotten out of rehab and she called. I don’t even know how she got my number but I was a nervous wreck being on my own and afraid of possibly relapsing. I was scared to be around people I’d used with—like their addiction would somehow grab hold of me and I’d be strung out again. Hearing her voice was uncomfortable and I was hesitant to even talk with her.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “Haven’t had a drink in so long and I’m not even using speed.” We made plans to meet when she came to the city. Two nights later she called, drunk as hell, screaming, “You don’t love me!”

I hung up on her.

It took me years to finally be comfortable being off drugs and in recovery. In the beginning I was unnerved by sketchy people and risky places and I avoided anything that even remotely resembled my past life. Then one day realized I was essentially hiding from life and decided it was time to start living again. Yet there’s no stopping my memories and when I think of all the bad shit I’ve done, I wonder who that person was. Because it isn’t who I am now and when I see my reflection in the mirror, I don’t see that guy who did all those insane things. Still, why someone like me can get clean and someone like Sheri couldn’t always amazes me.

It was early evening when I was outside in the parking lot after a meeting. My sponsee was asking when we could go over his fifth step and I checked the calendar on my phone to see what day I have free. When the text alert chimed, it startled me.

Results of the brain scan came in, Patrick…Sheri’s gone forever…

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About Author

Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir Gun, Needle, Spoon (Dzanc Books). For the past 17 years he has lived and worked in the recovery community as a recovering addict/alcoholic, a drug and alcohol counselor, a college instructor, group facilitator, and a narrative healer. In 2015 the State of California granted him a Certificate of Rehabilitation. In 2016 California Governor Edmund G. Brown awarded him a Governor’s Pardon. He has taught writing workshops in numerous correctional facilities and institutions and continues to be of service to his fellowship and community. O’Neil lives with his wife Jennifer, a rather large Maine Coon, and a squirrel, in Downtown Los Angeles. For more information, please visit: