Thingish Things

Amy’s Addiction

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Jul• 30•11

One more word on Amy Winehouse.

In a day or two we will learn what officially killed her.  But regardless of what is listed as her cause of death, it will have been the disease of addiction that did her in. She almost agreed to sign up for Coastline Behavioral Health outpatient program, when the worst happened.

It is an animal I know well, and it’s a common story theme in my life, why not read more… It has killed a number of my friends, and it damned near killed me in my teens. Mike R., Dave M., Gary L., Tara G., Seth M., Tommy D., John S., Edmundo P., and Jeff R. are a few that come to mind.  Four were tagged as suicides; two died of AIDS; one never woke up; one was killed in a late night auto accident, and one, at age 17, was tied to a chair by Colombian cocaine dealers and shot in the back of the head. But one way or another, they all died of addiction.  The two that were taken by AIDS had beaten the needle, or at least long kicked it, but HIV, an unnamed mystery disease at the time, paid them a lethal visit after they had put it down.  Both helped save my life before it did.

I met them 31 years ago, at the age of 16, in a hard-core rehab center where I had been sent after screwing up stints at three pretty good high schools. I was a disaster. I knew everything.  No one could tell me a thing.  I’d lie at the drop of a hat. And I didn’t have a problem. Especially that.

A year before, at the age of 15, I had had a seizure on the floor of a Metro North train station after inhaling photography chemicals. I didn’t tell anyone because I thought they might not let me do drugs any more. I did get into the programme to get cured later and realized that despite all of it being fun, I should have enrolled into it long ago. One would think that would make an impression on a young mind.  But a week after that, while I was supposed to be in Spanish class in Rye, NY, I found myself trying to beat a Jamaican drug dealer named “Slim” in the second floor bathroom of a 42nd Street McDonalds.  I was offering to trade him misidentified Lidocaine for LSD.  Slim was none too pleased.  He was kind not to toss me off the balcony of the place.  

Behavior like that, and worse, had become regular.  It had come to seem normal, if not perversely romantic, just months after trying drugs for the first time.  From day one, I was getting high every day, any way I could. My fellow travelers and I would strip our parents’ medicine cabinets of prescription drugs and take handfuls of them – mixing God knows what  — as soon as we got to school. We would smoke, swallow, and snort anything and everything with zero thought to the consequences.  It was behavior, I later learned, that does not promote longevity.

In the movie Marathon Man, there is a famous scene where Laurence Olivier, playing a sadistic Nazi dentist, drills into the teeth of protagonist Dustin Hoffman, causing him excruciating pain. At intermittent points, he takes mercy on Hoffman in applying Oil of Clove to the exposed nerve endings, instantly alleviating the agony.  Drugs, and later alcohol, were my Oil of Clove.  They were temporary relief from all my perceived shortcomings.  Once I knew it was available, nothing was going to deprive me of respite.   

I spent three years at the rehab.  It was a rough place.  Many of the practices used at the time have long been prohibited – shaved heads, humiliation, sign wearing, and lots and lots of screaming – all of which were doled out by tough former junkies, most of whom had done considerable time in the Big House, and later by me to the newcomers. It was just what my prep school a** needed. It taught me for the first time how to be honest with myself, and it put me on the path to a life that could not possibly be more different than the one to which I thought I had been predestined.

It was estimated that one person in 10 who came through those rehab doors stayed and completed the program. I don’t know if that’s true, but that feels about right. Only a handful of people I started with “graduated” with me, and last year, on the 30th anniversary of my walking into the place, I held a reunion.  All but one attending was living a clean and productive life. Almost none of them, including me, drank alcohol. That, too, was tried and given up years later.  I like to think that some of those who did not stay eventually found other ways to address their addictions.   But statistically, most of them did not. We are the very lucky few.

I almost never think of those days anymore.  Even when passing that McDonalds to and from Grand Central every day.  It was 31-years ago, and I am too busy to waste time on the past. But whenever I hear about an Amy Winehouse or a Heath Ledger, or someone far more anonymous, having succumbed to addiction, I cannot help but feel a profound sadness at the waste of life.  For some inexplicable reason, they were not among the lucky few.  They never got it, or “it” got them before they did.

There are millions more out there.  Some will find a new path.  Most will not. But it is important for them all to know that a path is available.  Those of us who, through the grace of God, have made it through can do nothing other than to raise our hands from time to time and affirm, “yes, I was once there, too.” 

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  1. Daniel Suib says:

    There aren’t enough words in my limited vocabulary to tell you, and all those in my life that went through the hell we did how much I love you. 31 years of looking backwards over my shoulder, counting the days since the last…”whatever” and somewhat reliving the past on a continuous basis so I do not revisit the horror of addiction. The issues we face on a daily basis far pale to the issues we saw others face as we went through the counting of lives that were lost to the addictions. The people we knew, the people we loved. The people no longer with us. I love you for saving my life Bill. I love you for giving me a purpose to wake up and cherish the time you gave me with my fantastic children. All those that I depended on to save my life 31 years ago…I owe you my eternal happiness.

  2. Arnie Annunziata says:

    I love you Bill, and you too Danny! And the way and strength and depth of it is something I only feel for our GROUP. We went thru amazing stuff together! We found ourselves, our Emotions, and we shared them with each other KNOWING that we would never betray the trust that was gained in those moments. As I sit here reading and re reading this thru tears now, I can’t imagine how my life would be had we not ever met. Would I even be here now? Probably not. Thank you 30 years and I love you guys more today than ever. Oh yeah and Billy….It’s HEATH not Keith Ledger….

  3. Pugsley says:

    I count myself lucky to call you my friend.

  4. Nick says:

    This is an honest post written by one of the bravest people I know.

  5. Your Friend says:

    Lovely. It’s frightening to think of how many other names could be on that list. I often find myself thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I.” And I don’t even believe in God. Posts like this can evoke the outline of her face, though. Thanks, Billy.

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