If I wrote a sequel to my memoir, I might start like this.
Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Trying to consolidate a life into a well hewn, tidy narrative is pretty damn hard. You don’t want to describe six trips to the same town and four meetings with the same person when one of each will do. It may have happened that way in “real life,” but in books, even memoirs and non-fiction narratives, you have to play with timing and structure if you hope to compile the myriad scraps of a life into anything resembling coherence.
Which is why I lied a lot in my first memoir.
I didn’t lie in the way James Frey lied, which is to blatantly make up shit to make his addiction sound far worse than it was. If anything, I went the other way, downplayed my heroin problem by reducing it to a series of entertaining, interconnected vignettes. There was no other real choice. You have to pick your spots, and writing about actual heroin addiction, which is mostly a prolonged state of misery, or a “permanent midnight” as Jerry Stahl calls it, isn’t as catchy. Then again, I can’t get that fucking book published (despite my agent being told by publisher after publisher that the writing is brilliant) because the term “junkie memoir” doesn’t translate to sales.
I changed times, streamlined trips, made up dates, conflated a couple lovers, therapists. For instance, I couldn’t cover all eighteen trips to rehab, so instead I took the doctor who made the greatest impact on my recovery, and put him in the hospital where I stayed for six months, even though one is in Connecticut and the other one is in Vermont, where they wouldn’t let me stay for even a day let alone six months after I threw chairs at the staff because they wouldn’t let me see my girlfriend, Becky, who they had stashed on the second floor/psychiatric ward after we came in together when we’d run out of money and other places to stay. The last time we’d been in together, we’d left together. Hence, the separate floors. The smoking porches were enclosed and I stayed out there singing love songs to her on the guitar until they made me stop. Then I threw the chairs.
There were more Greyhound bus rides, and more lonely nights in shelters, more hanging out at the soup kitchen slopping oatmeal into cut up Gatorade bottles found on the street; long stretches where nothing much happened. Just watching the clock, waiting for financial opportunities to present themselves, dreading the sickness that comes with the morning light. There was a lot more walking. Wake up wherever you may be, in a camper, in a stairwell, in a gas station bathroom you pried open to get out the rain. And you just start walking. It’s cold, because it is always cold in San Francisco in the morning. You have nowhere to go, no place to be, no one is expecting you, and more importantly no one wants to see you. You have no money, or maybe you have .25, so you get a Home Run pie, and you go down 24th Street walk toward the gangs and dealers even though you don’t have money, and you won’t even ask for a front, which you know no street dealer is giving you, no delivery dealer either, but you look for them anyway, like driving by an ex-girlfriend’s house, pointless, pathetic, scanning the gutter for cigarette butts, and maybe you find one or two, and those taste pretty damn good, until the nicotine triggers the first wave of withdrawal, which happens about ten hours after your last hit, and if you woke up in a 76 Station bathroom it’s been at least ten hours since your last hit, and now you’ve got to find a bathroom, or you’ll have to shit in an alley like an animal, and I’ve shit in alleys like an animal, but it is what it is, and when you are done, you straighten up best you can, pull the hair out of your eyes, put on your shades, and you walk out of that alley with the best strut you got, and you go find those dealers, hoping for a miracle, and when they see you walking down the boulevard, they say, “Hey, meng, hey vato, here come the rock star…”
I wanted to write a book about that time, because there were some great stories, if spread out and mixed with a lot of bad, a lot of great people and friends I met, made, loved and lost along the way, without succumbing to the conventional “drug addict makes good” format, which has been trampled to bits. So I chose to focus on the final seven months of a rock ’n’ rollercoaster of a ten-year drug run, give it a soundtrack, as I fled an East Coast rehab with a girl named Becky, still in love with my (first) ex-wife, Hadley, filtering in only what was essential backstory, cutting all the fat like my father and upbringing, the long, uneven road to recovery. That book clocked in at a lean 57,000+ words.
I left out a lot of details that first time, like, most importantly, why I ended up where I did, as I adhered to the familiar male literary trope of fall and redemption.
It’s true I got clean, went back to school, but the process wasn’t so neatly delineated as I presented it. Getting clean has a lot of stumbles. “Relapse is part of recovery,” they tell you in rehab. And it’s pretty fucking true.
But my most egregious offense, my most disingenuous stroke was the inference of a happy ending, a fairy tale send off where all is right in the world. Normal, well-adjusted, happy people don’t one day decide to pick up a needle and spoon, and just putting those things down doesn’t turn you into a normal, well-adjusted happy person. Maybe if you go to AA it does. But I didn’t, too incapable of being honest with myself, the Big Book would say. Yeah, AA got me sober. Because I knew if I didn’t, I’d have to go to those fucking meetings.