I was shooting coke between chapters of Dostoevsky – but eventually books would save me from addiction | Books
When I was in tenth grade in Tampa, Florida, I was, like millions of other high school students, assigned to read The Catcher in the Rye for English class. Like millions of other high school students, I was extremely fragile. I was holding on by a thread. I was 15 and spent much of my time at school, on the days I would go, doing OxyContin, Xanax, cocaine and speed in the bathroom. I jittered and itched through class, and my internal life was, to say the least, stifled. It would continue to be stifled for the next few years, until it became so claustrophobic that I attempted suicide. Needless to say, I was pretty hit or miss with school assignments. But I had always liked to read. I decided to crack Salinger’s book and read a chapter or two. I stayed up all night and finished it. I came into class the next day wired, eyes wide: it felt as if I had been hooked up to a car battery. I remember walking into the classroom and saying to my English teacher, “What the hell was that?”
I didn’t know anything about the book. I didn’t know that the men who shot John Lennon and Ronald Reagan were both obsessed with it. I didn’t know that it was the subject of endless think pieces debating the ethical ramifications of Holden Caulfield’s character. I didn’t know Salinger stormed the beaches on D-Day, carried scars from his years in war. I just got sucked in. It is a funny, polarising little book. I remember my girlfriend at the time saying she hated it, that she couldn’t get through it. But my teacher told me that every year at least one person does what I did, gets hooked up to the car battery. Looking back, it makes sense that someone in my particular situation would have this reaction to it. In fact, it is almost embarrassing just how cliched it is. But that’s what happened. And, in what would become a theme of my life, what stuck with me more than any of the particular content of the book was the feeling of being sucked in, of losing time trapped in someone else’s words and turbulent emotions.
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My English teacher was a “tough” Italian guy from the Bronx, and he knew what was going on with me. He once told me that if he saw me outside school, “on the corner”, he would kick my ass. I remember laughing at the idea I spent my time “on the corner” like I was selling drugs in a movie, but the sentiment was sweet. He was extremely adoring of the books we read, and he was pretty compelling. If I had been maybe a shade less lost, it might have been enough for me to devote my life to the study of English right then and there. But that isn’t how it went down. He did, however, hold me back after class and start feeding me extracurricular books.
First was Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which I am ashamed to say affected me. Once again, I was unaware of any of the larger political discussions surrounding the book, which was written as a testament to individualism and self-will. I don’t think I even knew the word “libertarian”, but I found the book’s ego-bolstering philosophy useful as my life started to fall apart, as I grew more distant from my loved ones and found myself inside the rigid structures of psychiatric hospitals, rehabs and jail. Then, even more affecting, was Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Here was a character getting pushed and pulled through the world, shaping his identity in spite of and in relation to everything and everybody else. He ran from the world but was always drawn back. As I was reading, I could tell that the book was vital and important. I felt that it was changing me in real time.
In 2008, the number of “pill mills” in Florida almost tripled. These pain management clinics prescribed exorbitant amounts of opiates and accepted only cash payments with little to no regard for symptoms. In the last six months of the year, 45 doctors in south Florida prescribed more than 9m pills of oxycodone, which crept across the entire country. People started dropping like flies, overdosing or getting sucked into their own personal orbits of addiction and isolation. As this machine started to whir to life, I was 16 going on 17. The sudden influx of these pills made them cheaper and more ubiquitous. But even before this, while my peers were experimenting with weed and drinking at parties, I had been doing coke and “oxys”. I had tried these things after doing the more normal drugs in middle school. Like everyone else, I really enjoyed feeling good, but I didn’t appear to have any brakes.
David Sanchez. Photograph: Zack Wittman/The Guardian
In this time of unprecedented addiction, my story is wholly unremarkable. Drugs, rehab, jail, self-help groups. I would guess that just about everyone in the US went to high school with at least a few people whose lives were on the same trajectory. In the midst of the inherently isolating circumstances of acute addiction, I felt no camaraderie or togetherness with them. In my self-absorbed world, books were my company. They gave me something that everyone needs: the thoughts and feelings of others. They didn’t just help me to understand myself, they provided me with messages from someone who had nothing to do with me. The temporary escape from self was intoxicating.
As everyone was keen to remind me during this period, addiction is progressive; it gets worse over time. Once the needles came into play, I was pretty much helpless. By the time I dropped out of high school, I was shooting coke and meth, and things were starting to look very dire. There is a very real precipice there, a line that, once crossed, makes it hard to ever live a normal life again. It seemed like I was crossing it. My internal life was dominated by an all-consuming desire for drugs and fantasies of suicide, each one feeding into the other. Reading was the one activity that seemed to temporarily extract me from this cycle. It felt like a way for me to preserve something of myself – like trying to build a fire, guarding it from the wind and stoking it, trying to coax it into something bigger. Books engaged my brain, but also bypassed it, distracted it, so they could touch my heart and stir up sentiments that I might not have been able to access otherwise.
I didn’t have a TV – half the time I didn’t even have a room. My living situations were temporary: motels, rehabs, couches, jail, the sidewalk or public parks. I passed through these places like a ghost. But the library was always there, always available. It also proved extremely useful because a book typically takes longer to get through than a movie. Time was crucial to me, or rather, escaping it was. And so, I continued to return to the library. Reading for hours, lost in the shelves.
While opiates were the drug of choice for my demographic, the uppers I was hooked on gave me more energy than a person needs to live a life. I have always attributed the paranoia and psychosis that often follows these drugs as a side-effect of a pattern-seeking brain provided with too much energy. Starved of information, it starts to build systems of interpretation out of nothingness. Books helped me here as well: omniscience became something I craved, more information to stave off paranoia, and rich fantasy worlds to supplement the bare life in front of me. Yet there was an aspect of masochism in it. I punished myself with difficult books I couldn’t quite understand. I read The Idiot by Dostoevsky in two days at a public library, shooting coke in between chapters. I remember very little about the book, but I forced my eyes to touch every word. It became like that old punishment when you catch your kid smoking cigarettes and you make them smoke the whole pack. “Oh, you like reading, huh? How about you read it all in one sitting then?”
In the institutions I was frequenting, my reading was viewed as a sort of idiosyncrasy, just a personality tic of a weird and troubled young man. After I was arrested for robbery in 2011 and no one bailed me out, I read compulsively. At first, I was in a cell where the lighting was dim, so reading was difficult but not impossible. My bunkmate hoarded books even though he had trouble reading them. He would lend them to me and ask me to tell him what they were about. They were mostly romance novels: engaged woman moves back to her home town and falls in love with a humble country boy; young widow is swept off her feet by an honest contractor, etc. I found it easy to immerse myself in them.
I started college with the aim of getting a degree that would get me a well-paid job, but found myself sidetracked by creative writing
They moved me to another facility that was open dorm, and, thankfully, they kept some lights on all night. I slept a lot during the day and read in silence most of the night. I read the Bible, I found an old copy of The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, I read a Twilight book and one of the Game of Thrones books, I read Eckhart Tolle’s self-help book The Power of Now. It was an absurd syllabus, but I didn’t care. As Valentine’s Day approached, someone in my unit asked me to help him write a love letter to his girlfriend. He told me what he wanted to say, and I wrote it down for him, embellishing and adding things as I saw fit. The content got a little more explicit, and after he sent the letter, he wanted me to write him something else, something more explicitly explicit. He described the type of woman he wanted me to write about, or rather, her body. And I indulged him with three pages of pure sexual fantasy. We negotiated a price for this service: two “soups” (ramen packets) and a bag of Doritos. My first advance. He was grateful, and word got out. I wrote a few more of these stories for other guys in the unit, each one of them approaching me and giving me prompts about how they wanted their story told, what they wanted it to include. I only wrote four of them before I was transferred to another facility, but I could feel myself getting better each time, more attentive to detail but never allowing myself to get too far from the main point.
The next institution was a facility focused on addiction and co-occurring mental disorders, and we weren’t allowed to have books. I was halfway through Moby-Dick when they confiscated it. I was livid – it felt like someone took away my pacifier – so I passed some of the time when I wasn’t reading doing the next best thing I could think of: writing. I wrote a few poems and a short story that strangely mirrored the novel I would write years later. It was very amateurish, but the preoccupations were the same: muddled perspective, first and third person fighting with each other, body and mind disconnected, and the chaos of amphetamine psychosis.
When I left the facility after two months, I think I made it a few weeks before I was back shooting coke. I wouldn’t write again for three years, and I stopped reading. The world was harsh, and I couldn’t find a place in it for myself. I hated using drugs and I couldn’t stop. I was 19 and I was alone. I had five years of intense drug use behind me, the last two of which were so extreme and tumultuous that I couldn’t make sense of them. They itched and burned in my head like a wound that wouldn’t heal. It just felt like the machine of my self was totalled. Whatever little fire I was trying to build in that deep corner of my soul seemed to be extinguished. I was so exhausted by the cycle of my life, my imagination so eroded, that I couldn’t think of any way to get out of it except for one. I tried to kill myself, and when it didn’t work, the fatigue enveloped me again.
I spent the next year like a zombie, bloated and groggy from the anti-psychotics. I slept close to 14 hours a day. My probation officer was on at me to take my high school equivalency degree test, and after I did, I started to wean myself off the anti-psychotics. I finished Moby-Dick and started to go to college. My teenage years had been full of teachers and counsellors warning me about the dangers of “squandered potential” of not “applying myself”. These types of comments have a way of boosting one’s ego, being heard as: “I am so special and smart that everything bores me,” and I think I did originally take them in this way. But as everything progressed, the comments stuck with me on a deeper, more spiritual level. Not “potential” as something special to me, but just regular old human potential. And the prospect of a life without “application” seemed like the most existentially terrifying sentence I could imagine.
David Sanchez: ‘While writing, I would enter a sort of trance. I would lose my sense of time and space.’ Photograph: Zack Wittman/The Guardian
I started college with the aim of getting a degree that would help me get a cushy, well-paid job, but within a few semesters found myself completely sidetracked by the humanities and creative writing. Finally, in writing, I applied myself easily. I didn’t have to force it; every aspect of myself switched on comfortably. I exhausted every little bit of my intellect and emotional and spiritual being every morning as I wrote. I spent my afternoons reading, filling my brain with other people’s words, finding that battery that lives in language, the one I felt years ago. I started to see writing as something I could hand myself over to fully. As with reading and drugs, there were mornings where I would enter a sort of trance. I would lose my sense of time and space, and I think if someone were to burst through my door in those moments and ask me what my name was, it would probably have taken me a few seconds to come up with the answer. It was a beautiful feeling.
Paradoxically, it was through these solitary activities that I found myself able to finally start engaging with the world and others. In sobriety, I met people who shared my desperate experiences with drugs. In college, I met people who shared my love of reading. The companionship I found in reading started to give way to real relationships with other people.
In the past few months, I have turned 30 and celebrated 10 years of sobriety. My life is richer and deeper than those few miserable years when I was younger. In my day-to-day existence, I don’t think much about them, and even when I was writing a book that was born from these experiences, I didn’t think much about them after I was done writing for the day. My life is full of relationships, ideas and feelings wholly unrelated to addiction, a luxury I couldn’t afford back then. But I can’t deny the formative power of those experiences. What I take from them is this: having a brain can make you pretty self-centred. But the meaningful presence of others, at its best, can keep that in check. In the absence of others, in my isolated, solipsistic little world, I found a way to challenge my brain through reading, and, in doing so, preserved a faraway corner of my heart.
All Day Is a Long Time by David Sanchez is published by Sceptre at £16.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
In the UK, Action on Addiction is available on 0300 330 0659. In the US, SAMHSA’s national helpline is at 800-662-4357. In Australia, the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline is at 1800 250 015; families and friends can seek help at Family Drug Support Australia at 1300 368 186.
In the UK, contact the Samaritans for free from any telephone on 116 123. You can call even if you don’t have credit on your mobile, and the number won’t show up on phone bills. Or you can email email@example.com or go to www.samaritans.org to find details of your nearest branch, where you can talk to one of our trained volunteers face to face.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org