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The White Noise


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A Family’s Struggle: Heroin, a Life Saga

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.

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In late January, Michael traveled with his friend Pepsi, Chris and I to visit his parents in upstate NY. Both Michael and Pepsi are homeless heroin addicts. The italicized are things Michael did or said out of sight from his parents over the course of the trip.

Michael’s stepfather gave him a motorcycle when he was young. Back before, before he was Shelly and she. Michael wrecked it, like he wrecked most things. He hit a tree, a dog, a deer, a mountain. Michael, the boy with excuses. But still, his stepfather tried: tow trucks, pickup trucks, sports.

The span between that childhood and tonight’s dinner was one of 25 years, the interim comprised of drugs, prostitution, calls to and from the police station, failed rehabs and interventions.

Michael searched the car, rabidly turning over objects and spilling out bags. “Shit, Pepsi threw out her crack in the McDonalds bathroom. It was in a tissue. We still have the dope though. We need to make sure it lasts, so we’re not sick on the way back.”

Pepsi smoking: New York
Pepsi smoking crack: en route to upstate NY. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Michael’s stepfather and mother live in a raised mountain home, one they carved into the rocks a few years ago, with heated floors, big rooms and an elevator. The couple owns and operates a towing company in their tiny Northern town, a life’s work.

By contrast, Michael lives homeless in Hunts Point, time spent beneath a bridge or on the sturdiest floor of an abandoned house without electricity or plumbing. A life constantly on the move. Still, wherever he goes, he seems to take in others, giving them shelter and clothing, sharing the food he steals, the persona of a caretaker, a mother.

Michael shot up dope in the bathroom, pulled up the sleeve of his sweater for a vein, the only usable one left, the one inside his left forearm. “When I was little, I always used to play Store and be the mom. Ha.” He licked away the stray blood leaking down.

“Michael never did an honest day’s work in his life,” Michael’s stepdad said, gruff words paired with kind eyes if they met yours, which they often didn’t.

At a diner, Michael and Pepsi disappeared for 45 minutes, enjoyment found in equally dividing a bag of heroin in a closed-off bathroom. When they returned, Michael stole packets of grape jelly and Sweet ‘N Low, all his pockets could hold. “I wouldn’t take the waitress’s tip. Are you kidding me?”

When he was young, Michael dreamed of being a surgeon and went to costly lengths to protect his hands. At least, that’s why he told his parents he couldn’t do any outdoor work for the company. He was a bright kid, one that could sneak out of tasks with a sly word or loophole.

Around the house, between Mickey Mouse trickets and Nutcracker collectibles, hang photos of Michael’s sisters’ graduations, weddings and families. Michael’s photos were easily spotted, the ones yellowed from the 1970s and 80s, not fresh, computer-spat white like the others. His images exist only as relics of childhood, life development stunted when he ran away at 15. There was one recent snapshot of Michael, photo shot in the jail parking lot with his mom: his release day, 2004.

Michael and his mother: New York
Michael and his mom present day: upstate NY. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Over the hum of a “Two and a Half Men” TV episode and homemade spaghetti, his stepfather, Eddie, looked up from the head of the dinner table. “He always has an excuse. He can’t blame other people for his mistakes.”

“I do want to get clean, but it has to be on my time and on my terms,” Michael said. “It has to feel right.”

The problems, his parents noted, began with Michael discovering a different form of sexuality, when he started to like boys and wanted to dress the way girls did. The drugs and addiction followed suit.

“When I was 13, I used to go hang out with my friend who was a stripper in the next town over, next to all the car dealerships. I loved it.”

His mom believes he could get clean if he straightened the rest of his life out, that is, find happiness as a heterosexual man.

“I like being a woman and prostituting. I don’t want to stop. I’m good at it, and I like the thrill.”

Michael was once clean for a seven-year stint, back in the early 2000s. His parents set him up with a rehabilitation center in Manhattan after his release from jail, where, by nature of being incarcerated, he had been through a forced detox. It stuck for a while, until he found Hunts Point and its heroin.

“I hate the drugs. It’s a choice to live like he lives,” his mom said. “The first time he relapsed broke my heart, the second time shattered it, the third time I couldn’t even find all the pieces to put it together.”

Eddie’s speech on the subject was quiet, rare and measured, words of a man whose philosophy was built upon hard work, providing for many loved ones, for kids not even his. Michael’s father had left when the kids were small. Eddie had been there through it all.

Though he wasn’t sure Michael had ever been truly clean, he felt that if his stepson had been once, he could do it again. The barrier: Michael’s excuses.

“If I get clean, I could work in a laundromat. I like folding clothes. And on the side, Cassie, you could be Pepsi and I’s madam. What do you think? We could pay you $500 each a month to bring dates to your apartment. And Queens isn’t Hunts Point, we don’t know how to get drugs easy there.”

“I’ll always have hope for him and will always pray for him. He’s my baby boy,” his mom said. “And the way he is, Michael will always be a child.”

“I love my mother and my stepfather, but they don’t understand what it’s like. I could never wear my tits in front of them. But that’s okay, they’re good people.”

Weeks Later

Michael had been through a seven-day detox, and an appointment awaited him at an in-patient rehab facility after an eventful three-day gap period. He applied and removed mascara only to reapply because it looked bad. He scrubbed counters and boiled water. He hauled clothes out of an abandoned house for storage, lobbing disdain at those helping him.

“I am really stressed out. I’ll be fine as long as I get off the dope, which I want to do, of course. What’s the harm in doing crack in the meantime? I’ll always do crack. Dope’s the problem.”

Michael in Relapse: Hunts Point, Bronx
Michael in relapse after detox: Hunts Point. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Michael didn’t go to rehab. Maybe another time when he feels ready, when he feels as if he won’t disappoint himself and those he loves. He can’t do that again.

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Please Read Related: Policy Made Me Involved: We Need a Better Public Health System (Michael’s gap between detox and rehab)
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More Hunts Point Addiction Writing
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Chris Arnade’s Photos and his Facebook feed

Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ColdDimSum 2:39 pm 03/9/2013

    I encourage anyone who is dealing with opioid addition, or knows someone who is, to research ‘Ibogaine’.

    It’s not magic, it doesn’t cure addiction — but what it does do is remove the physical addiction and withdrawal symptoms related to opioid addiction. This can allow someone who is serious about breaking their psychological addiction a window in which to work on that without fighting the physical pain and craving. There is also some evidence that the intensely challenging experience of Ibogaine can give someone a unique psychological perspective that might help them in that process.

    Note well, Ibogaine is a very powerful hallucinogen and it is physically dangerous in that (much like acetaminophen) a dangerous dosage level is fairly close to an effective dose – for this reason you should seek treatment under close medical supervision. However, it has been in use in Africa for thousands of years, it comes from the root bark of the Tabernanthe iboga plant.

    Of course, in our infinite wisdom (acting out of ignorance and fear) this drug is Schedule I in the United States – thus preventing research and treatment here in the States.

    Only by raising our voices to be heard can this change.

    Link to this
  2. 2. MovingViolation 2:43 pm 03/9/2013

    Yawn. Dullsville.

    Link to this
  3. 3. The Ethical Skeptic 10:45 pm 03/9/2013

    Great expose Cassie, thanks. As we begin to hand our children this hopelessness, rather than a life of discovery or business opportunity or journalistic prowess, we had better get more and more used to seeing this occur.

    I am all for reducing the negative impact of religion on our grasp on the natural realm, but if all we hand our children in its place is elitism, exclusion, disconnectedness and dependency, then start preparing addiction clinics. We need less protective exclusive myopia in our science community. These kids have no idea how utterly fascinating our realm is. They have inferred from our arrogance that we have it all figured out – that they exist in a soul-less beautiful gilded green cage.

    – TES

    Link to this
  4. 4. Veronica336 10:09 am 03/14/2013

    This article is so poorly written that it’s difficult to read.

    Link to this

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