“Possible Side Effects” by Jerry Stahl (from The Heroin Chronicles)
Possible Side Effects
by Jerry Stahl
(from The Heroin Chronicles)
Bad Penny, She Always Turns Up. That was one of my most popular campaigns, back when the porn business was referred to as Adult Films, not “triple-X content.” Not that I’m a porn guy. I’m not. Anymore. I’m the kind of writer you don’t hear about. The guy who always wanted to be a writer—who read the backs of cereal boxes as a kid—dreamed of being Ernest Hemingway, then grew up and wrote the backs of boxes. You don’t think about the people who write the side effect copy for Abilify or Olestra ads . . . It’s not as easy as you think. You need to decide whether anal leakage goes best before or after suicidal thoughts and dry mouth . . . I take a ribbing from some of the guys (and gals) at the office—which, I have to admit, gets to me. They know I’ve been working on a novel, but it’s been awhile. I guess I should also admit that the heroin helps with some of the shame I feel about writing this stuff. Or life in general. I’m not, like, a junkie-junkie. I use it, I don’t let it use me. And I’m not going to lie, it helps. It’s like, suddenly you have a mommy who loves you. You just have to keep paying her.
Not that life is bad—I’m making a living, and not a bad one, considering; when I got my MFA I thought for sure all I had to do was start writing stories and things would just kind of take care of themselves. I realize now that it probably wasn’t smart to use my “craft” to make my living. “Don’t use the same muscle you write fiction with to pay the rent,” my professor and thesis advisor, Jo Bergy, advised. Of course I ignored her. I wanted to be a writer! In New York! But gradually, as the years passed, the bar for what counted as writing got a little lower while the pay, occasionally, got a lot higher. Why is that? Why should I be paid more for vibrator copy than my searching and personal novella about growing up the son of a blind rabbi and his kleptomaniac adulteress wife in Signet, Ohio? Sure, I placed a few “chunks” of the book as short stories in the beginning. That’s what made me think I could do it. Though why I thought the three free copies from Party Ball magazine, or the two hundred I got from Prose for Shmoes, out of Portland, was going to make a dent in my living expenses, I don’t know. I had some encouraging correspondence from The Believer. But ultimately they ended up printing the letter of protest I wrote when they rejected my twenty-first submission. Again, the drugs helped. I feel a terrific sense of shame about my whole life situation. I see other people my age making big money doing memoirs, getting screenplay deals based on tweets, and here I am bouncing around from porn dog to New Media Guy to Uh-Oh Boy—industry lingo for Side Effects Specialists, a.k.a. Sessies.
And yes, just thinking about this, the knife-in-the-chest regret I feel at chances blown, assignments fucked up, books unwritten or written badly . . . public scenes (more than once involving kneewalking, twice on a plane) when I was, you know, more high than I thought I was, it all twists me up. On smack, sometimes, you feel so perfect, you just assume everything you do is perfect, too. And when you remember, and the remorse kicks in, it’s like a razor-legged tarantula crawling upside down in your heart, cursing you in dirty Serbian for being a lame-ass dope fiend who blew every chance he ever had and ended up in the world of incontinence-wear and catheters. (Referred to, just between us girls, as “dump-lockers” and “caths.”) Well, do a little heroin, and you can remember the good things. On smack, everything feels good. I would gladly slit my own throat, attend the funeral, and dig my own grave, if I could do it all on decent dope—and not have to actually cop it. As William Burroughs said, it’s not the heroin that’ll kill you, it’s the lifestyle.
But we were talking about the good things! Reasons for me to like y-o-me.
Like, not to brag, it was my idea to refer to the discharge from the rectal area as “anal leakage,” rather than actual “intestinal discharge.” Which, technically (if not linguistically) speaking, are two different things. My thinking was—and I said this to Cliff and Chandra, the husband-wife team who took over the agency—my thinking was, bad as “anal leakage” is, at least it’s vaguely familiar. Tires leak, faucets leak, it’s round-the-house stuff, and we all have anuses. (Ani?) But discharge is never good. Try and think of one situation involving “discharge” from your body that is not kind of horrible. Perhaps, hearing about my life and “career,” you think they sound pretty horrible. Or maybe you’re thinking to yourself: okay, he has some problems, he’s had a bumpy career path, but he doesn’t seem like a heroin guy.
Exactly! It’s no big deal! Everybody has their little rituals. Miles Dreek, the other Sessie, walks in with his raspberry cruller and chai tea every morning. When I come in, I have my own stations of the cross. I go to the men’s room, cook up a shot in my favorite stall, grab coffee in my ironic Dilbert mug, and amble back to my cubicle where the latest batch of American maladies awaits. Today, for example, is Embarrassing Flaky Patches Day. I watch the moving drama the clients have already filmed, showing a nice white lady with other nice white people in a nice restaurant, and listen to her VO: It was a weekend to relax with friends and family. But even here, there was no escaping it. It’s called moderate to severe chronic plaque psoriasis. Once again, I had to deal with these embarrassing, flaky, painful red patches. It was time for a serious talk with my dermatologist.
Here’s where I roll up my sleeves. (Well, at least one of them—haha!) From a list of heinous side effects I start cobbling together the Authoritative-but-Friendly PSE (possible side effects) list. HUMIRA can lower your ability to fight infections, including tuberculosis. Serious, sometimes fatal, events can occur, such as lymphoma or other types of cancer, blood, liver, and nervous system problems, serious allergic reactions, and new or worsening heart failure.
I had me at cancer! Seriously. I don’t care if bloody images of Satan bubble up on my flesh, I’d have to do heroin just to stop worrying about the lymphoma and heart failure I might get for taking this shit to get rid of them. But that’s me. That’s the dirty little secret of TV medicine spots. The people who write them wouldn’t go near the stuff.
Of course, people will tell you heroin is bad. But let me tell you my experience. If you take it for a reason, and you just happen to have a reason every day, then it’s not exactly addictive behavior. It’s more like medicine. Or a special survival tool. For example, there may be a thought that crops up in your head. (We’re only as sick as our secrets!) Like how, lately, I have this thing, whenever I see a pregnant woman, especially if she’s, you know, exotically dimpled, or has a really great ass, where I just sort of see her in stirrups, giving birth, her sweaty thighs wide open, the doctor and nurses with their masks on, the doctor reaching in, up to the wrists. It’s better if it’s a female doctor, I don’t know why; I’m not proud of any of this. Once there’s the actual pulling out of some bloody placenta-covered screamer, I’m gone. But still I think about—this is really not cool, really not something I want to think I’m thinking about—but nonetheless, what I think about, almost against my will, is how her vaginal walls—for which the Brits have a singularly disgusting word—will just be gaping. I remember it from when my ex-wife gave birth to our son Mickey. (She left me, years ago; last I heard she was running a preschool for upscale biters. Which is a syndrome now; Squibb R&D has some meds in development. But never mind. Kids’ drugs take a little longer for the FDA to rubber stamp.) Anyway, I just picture the gape. As riveting as Animal Planet footage of boas dislocating their jaws to swallow an entire baby boar. (The same arousal, it goes without saying, does not apply during a caesarean; I’m not an animal.) But still . . . when my thoughts—how can I put this?—veer in this direction, some nonwholesome wouldn’t-want-to-have-my-mind-read-in-front-of-a-room-full-of-friends-or-strangers direction, I need something to get rid of the thoughts. I need the heroin.
Worse than fantasies are memories. Which may, arguably, qualify as disguised fantasy. Didn’t George Bernard Shaw say, “The only thing more painful than recollecting the things I did as a child are recalling things I did as an adult”? Or was that Cher?
I actually started writing in rehab. (My first one. I’ve been in eleven. Three in Arizona.) And it was awful. The writing, I mean. We were supposed to paint a portrait of ourselves in words. I still remember my first sentence. I AM TAPIOCA TRAPPED IN ARMOR! Followed by: Little Lloyd (that’s my name; well, Lloyd, not Little Lloyd.) “Little Lloyd” has cowered continually, long into adulthood, at the memory of deeds perpetrated on his young unprotected self, scenes of unspeakable humiliation. Which—can somebody tell me why? Freudians? Melanie Kleiners? Anybody?—barge into my psyche at the most inopportune moments. Imagine a big-screen TV that turns on by itself and blasts Shame Porn to all your neighbors at four in the morning. Like, say, I’ll be at a job interview, talking to some wing-tipped toad named Gromes about my special abilities recounting the consequences of ingesting Malvesta, a prescription adult onset acne pill (glandular swelling, discomfort in the forehead, bad breath, strange or disturbing dreams), when I am suddenly overcome with memories of my mother paddling around the house with her hands cupped under her large blue-veined breasts, blaring Dean Martin. When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore! She’s high-kicking while our mailman, a long-faced Greek with a nervous twitch, peers in the window. And Mom knows he’s there. I’m three and a half, and waiting to get taken to kindergarten. Mom’s supposed to drive me, but instead, she starts screaming, over the music: Why don’t you play? Why don’t I play? It makes me anxious. Should the mailman be looking in the window? Where is his other hand? What happened to his bag? Ahhhhhh . . . Not even four, and I already need a fix.
Well, that’s it. After the That’s Amore flashback, I’m cooked. Forget the job interview. I’m like Biff in Death of a Salesman, grabbing a fountain pen and running out of the office. Except I run straight to the bathroom and pull a syringe from my boot. Minutes later, before the needle is out—AHHHH, YESS-S-S-S-S-S-S, thank you, Jesus!—The Mommy-Tits-Amore-Mailman image furs and softens at the edges. Until—MMMMM, lemme just dab off this little kiss of blood—what began as horror morphs into suffused light, savaged memory softened by euphoria into benevolence, to some slightly disquieting, distant image . . . Mom is no longer doing a dirty can-can in the living room, entertaining a twitchy peeper in government issue . . . Now—I love you, Ma, I really love you—now her legs are simply floating up and down. My mind has been tucked into bed. A loving hand brushes my troubled little brow . . . Heroin’s the cool-fingered loving caretaker I never had. I mean, everything’s all right now . . . As if my memory’s parked in the very last row of a flickering drive-in, with fog rolling in over all the cars up front . . . So even though I know what’s on the screen, and I know it’s bad—Is that a knife going into Janet Leigh?—it . . . just . . . does . . . not . . . matter. It’s still nice. Really nice. Provided, that is, I don’t pass out in the men’s room, and they end up calling paramedics, and I wake up chained to the hospital bed. Again. In California they can arrest for you for tracks. Those fascists!
And now—oh God, no! No! Here comes another memory. STOP, PLEASE! Why does my own brain hate me? I’m picking my son up at preschool, and I’m early, and I’ve just copped, so I go in the boy’s bathroom. And—NO NO NO NO—I come to—you never wake up on heroin, you just come to—to screams of, Daddy, what’s wrong! See my little boy in his SpongBob SquarePants hat, his mouth a giant O. He’s screaming, screaming, and—what’s this?—my ratty jeans are already at my ankles and there’s a needle in my arm and my boy’s teachers and the principal of the preschool are hovering over me, like a circle of disapproving angels on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and—
And I hear myself, with my child looking on, like it’s some kind of Aw shucks normal thing, saying, Hey, could you guys just let me, y’know . . . Just give me a second here? And in front of all of them, in front of my sweet, quivering-chinned son, I push down that plunger. And suddenly, everything’s fine. Everything’s awful, but everything’s fine . . . My little boy’s horrified coffee-brown eyes glisten with tears. Goodbye little Mickey, goodbye . . . My wife will get a call from Family Services. I’ll be leaving now. In cuffs. I manage a little wave to Mickey, who gives me a private little wave back. In spite of everything. I’m still his daddy. For years afterward, I have to get high just to think about what I did that day to get high. But it’s okay. Really. It’s fine.
Heroin. Because, once you shed your dignity, everything’s a little easier.
Where was I? (And yes, maybe the dope did diminish my capacity for linear thinking. So what?) When my boss moved to pharmaceuticals from “marital aids,” I followed. (He insisted on the old-school term his father used: marital aids. Instead of the more contempo sex toys.) We’d been taken over by a conglomerate. I cut my teeth on Doc Johnson double dildos (for “ass-to-ass action like you’ve never dreamed of!”) and Ben Wa Balls (“Ladies, no one has to know!”). Then it was up (or down) the ladder to men’s magazines, romance mags, even a couple of Cat Fancy imitators. Starting in back-of-the-book “one inchers” for everything from Mighty Man trusses to Kitty Mittens to X-Ray Specs. (A big seller for more than fifty years.) When I tried the specs, and—naturally—they didn’t work, my boss said, with no irony whatsoever, “We’re selling a dream, Lloyd. Did you go to Catholic School?”
“Methoheeb,” I told him.
“What’s that, kid?”
“Half-Jewish, Half-Methodist, and my mom did a lot of speed.”
“Lucky you,” he said, “I was schooled by nuns. But when I put on those X-Ray Specs, I swear, I could see Sister Mary Theresa’s fong-hair . . .”
Don’t kid yourself, this is a serious, high-stakes business. To stay on top of the competition, you have to know what’s out there. Like, just now, on the Dylan Ratigan Show—What great hair! Like a rockabilly gym teacher!—I caught this: Life with Crohn’s disease is a daily game of “What if . . . ?” What if I can’t make it to . . . Here the audio fades and there’s a picture of a pretty middle-aged brunette looking anxiously across a tony restaurant at a ladies’ room door . . . The subtext: If you don’t take this, you are going to paint your panties.
Listen, I spent a lot of time watching daytime commercials. I had to. (Billie Holliday said she knew she was strung out when she started watching television. And she didn’t even talk about daytime!) Back when it was still on, I’d try to sit through Live with Regis and Kelly without a bang of chiba. Knock yourself out, Jimmy-Jane. I couldn’t make it past Regis’s rouge without a second shot. At this point he looked like somebody who’d try and touch your child on a bus to New Jersey.
Is it any accident that so much of contempo TV ad content concerns . . . accidents? This is the prevailing mood. Look at the economy. Things are so bad, you don’t need to have Crohn’s disease to lose control. But worse than pants-shitting is public pants-shitting. Americans like to think of themselves as mud-holders. You don’t see the Greatest Generation diapering up, do you? (Well, not only recently, anyway.)
Junkies may be obsessed with bathooms, but America’s got them beat. So many cable-advertised products involve human waste, you imagine the audience sitting at home, eating no-fat potato chips on a pile of their own secretions. As Ad Week put it on a recent cover, “American Business Is in the Toilet.”
Right now, the real big gun in the Bodily Function sweepstakes is Depends. Go ahead and laugh. These guys are genius. Why? I’ll tell you. Because they make the Bad Thing okay. (Just like heroin!) Listen: Incontinence doesn’t have to limit you. It all starts with finding the right fit and protection. The fact is, you can manage it so you can feel like yourself again. (Oddly, I used to lose bowel control after I copped. May as well tell you. I’d get so excited, it just happened. So I’m no stranger to “mampers,” as we say in the industry. They could ask me for a testimonial. Though, in all honesty, if it were my campaign I’d have gone with something more macho. Something, call me crazy, patriotic. Depends. Because this is America, damnit!)
Then again, maybe the macho thing is wrong. Maybe—I’m just spitballing here—maybe you make it more of a convenience thing. Or—wait, wait!—more Morning in America-ish, more Reagany. Take two: America, we know you’re busy. And you don’t always have time to pull over and find somewhere convenient to do your business. With new Depends, you can go where you are—and keep on going. Depends—because you’ve earned it. Subtext, of course: We’re Americans! We can shit wherever we want!
See what I mean about dope making you more creative?
Not that I can mock. Ironically, because of my own decade-and-a-half imbibing kiestered Mexican tar, I got some kind of heinous, indestructible parasites. Souvenir of Los Angeles smackdom. For a while I had a job in downtown LA, five minutes from Pico-Union, where twelve-year-old 18th Street bangers kept the stuff in balloons in their mouths. You’d give them cash, then put the balloons in your mouth. If you put them in your pockets, the UCs would roll up and arrest you before the spit was dry. Keeping it in your mouth was safer. Unhygienic (parasites!), but on the plus side—visit any LA junkie pad, and there was always something festive about the little pieces of red, blue, green, and yellow balloons all over the place. Like somebody’d thrown a child’s birthday party in hell, and never cleaned up.
But now—call it Narco-Karma—I have to give myself coffee enemas every day. Part of the “protocol” my homeopath, Bobbi, herself in recovery, has put me on for the Parasite Situation. Bobbi also does my colonics . . . She likes calypso music, which I find a little unsettling. Though Robert Mitchum singing “Coconut Water” while I’m buns-up and tubed is the least of my issues. Bob knew his calypso.
Like I say, part of my job is recon. And, I’m not going to lie, just thinking about that killer Crohn’s copy makes me a little jealous. The subject, after all, was shame. What does some pharma-hired disease jockey know about shame? Did he have my mother? Scooping his stainy underpants out of the hamper and waggling them in his face, screaming she was going to hang them on the line for all his friends to see? (No, that’s not why I do heroin. Or why I ended up in side effects. Whatever doesn’t kill us just makes us.)
For one semester, I attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I studied advertising with Joe Sacco, whose “Stronger than Dirt” campaign, arguably, sheathed a proto–Aryan Superiority sensibility under the genial façade of Arthurian legend. (For you youngsters, the ad featured a knight riding into a dirty kitchen on a white steed.) White Power might as well have been embossed on the filth-fighter’s T-shirt. See—excuse me while I scratch my nose—there’s a connection, in the White American subconscious, between Aryan superiority and cleanliness. “Clean genes,” as Himmler used to say. Tune into MSNBC Lockup some weekend, when the network trades in the faux-progressive programming for prison porn. Half the shot-callers in Quentin look like Mr. Clean: shaved head and muscles that could really hold a race-traitor down. Lots of dope in prison. But—big surprise—the fave sponsors of Lockup viewers, to judge by the ads, are Extenze (penis size); Uromed (urinary infection); our old friend Depends (bowel control); and Flomax (frequent peeing.) The Founding Fathers would be proud.
You think junkies don’t have a conscience? All the snappy patter I’ve cranked out, and you know what made me really feel bad? Feel the worst? Gold coin copy. People are so dumb when they buy gold—a hedge against the collapse of world markets!—they think it matters if it comes in a commemorative coin. A genuine recreation of an authentic 18-Something-Something mint issue Civil War coin with our nation’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, on one side, and the thirty-three-star Union flag on the other. Worth fifty “dollar gold.” Yours for only $9.99. The “dollar gold” was my idea. I don’t even know why. I just knew it sounded more important than “dollars.” Later, in the running text under the screen (known as flash text in the biz), I deliberately misspelled gold as genuine multikarat pure god. I think this was my best move. Not that I can take credit. Just one of those serendipitous bonbons you get when you type on heroin. This happened when I did too much. In an effort not to fall off my chair, I’d type with one eye closed. As if I were trying to aim my fingers, the way I aimed my car, squinting one-eyed over the wheel to stay between the white lines.
So now, now, now, now, now, what do I do? I mean—shut up, okay?—I did leave out a key detail. Like, how it all ended?
Okay. Let me come clean. (So to speak.) I got caught shooting up on the job. Dropped my syringe and it rolled leeward into the stall beside me, where my archrival, Miles Dreek (can a name get more Dickensian?) found it. And, long story short, ratted me out. I couldn’t even plead diabetes, because the rig was full of blood, and everybody’s seen enough bad junkie movies to know how the syringe fllls up with blood. (Generally, on film, in roseate slo-mo, Dawn of the Galaxy Exploding Nebulae-adjacent Scarlet, which—come on, buddy—does not happen when Gramps drops trou and Grandma slaps his leathery butt cheek and sticks in the insulin. That was my first experience of needles: Grandma spanking Grandpa and jabbing the rig in. Grandpa had it down. The second his wife of his sixty-seven years geezed him, he’d pop a butterscotch Life Saver and crunch. Hard candy! Sugar and insulin at the same time. A diabetic speedball. These are my people!)
But wait—I was just getting busted. At work. (People think only alcohol can give you blackouts. But heroin? Guess what, Lou Reed wannabe. Sometimes I think I’m still in one . . .)
I remember, right before the needle-dropping incident, I was just sitting there, on the toilet, with a spike in my arm. Suddenly I jerked awake, feeling like one of those warehouse-raised chickens, the kind photographed by secret camera in Food, Inc., on some infernal industrial farm, feet grafted to the cage, shitting on the chicken below as the chicken above shits on them.
You don’t think they should give chickens heroin? Don’t think they deserve it? Well, call me visionary, if they’re already pumping the poultry full of antibiotics and breast-building hormones (rendering, they say, half the chicken-eating male population of America estrogen-heavy, sterile, and sporadically man-papped), then why not lace the white meat with hard narcotics? Chicken McJunkets! Whatever. Give me one night and three bags and I’ll Don Draper a better name . . . Or I would, if I had a place to live. Right now I have enough to stay at this hotel, the Grandee (an SRO), for a couple more weeks. After that I don’t know . . . Guy behind the cage in the lobby looks liver-yellow. Doesn’t talk much. But never mind, never mind . . . Me being here has nothing to do with heroin. Just bad luck. But weren’t we talking about heroin chicken? Believe me, plenty of clean-living junkies would hit the drive-through—provided Mickey D’s could take those other damn drugs out of his birds. Hormones, antibiotics, beak-mite repellent . . . No thanks! That stuff could kill you.
Don’t worry. I won’t be out of the business for long. I have a plan. A new campaign. Look: Camera pans a modest but nice house. Outside, a sweet LITTLE BOY swings on a swing. Stressed-but-pleasant-looking MOM looks on, wiping her brow. Mommy, watch! yells the boy. I’m watching, says the pretty-but-tired woman, casting glances back toward the second-floor window. In which—REVERSE—we see our GUY peering out. We push in on him. He looks down at a foreclosure notice in his hand, then back out at the scene in the yard. His face registers complicated feelings: pain, regret, sadness . . . But we know what he wants. He wants relief. The man sits down on the bed, pulls out his works, and prepares a shot. We hear, in V.O.: When I have emotions I don’t like, I take heroin . . . CUT TO: Man and wife together, in front of the swings. The man has his arm around the woman. The boy’s beaming.
Heroin. It makes everything good . . .
JERRY STAHL is the author of six books, including the memoir Permanent Midnight (made into a movie with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson) and the novels I, Fatty and Pain Killers. Formerly the culture columnist for Details, Stahl’s fiction and journalism have appeared in Esquire, the New York Times, and the Believer, among other places. He has worked extensively in film and television and, most recently, wrote Hemingway & Gellhorn, starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, for HBO. He is the editor of The Heroin Chronicles.
Posted: May 30, 2013
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