All Photographs + Text copyright 2006 Christopher Keeley
An Anonymous Recovery Story
William K., MD
I still don't know how to tell my story. Chris has all this cool artwork on his site, so maybe I'll try a collage, a few anecdotes. The picture I'm trying to paint isn't about me. It's about this disease. This fucking disease. And the only treatment I know of that works. is an Anonymous Fellowship of recovering addicts helping eachother.
It's five years ago. I've decided to take morphine before going into work. I am the cheif of oncology at this hospital and I know they have to test me before seeing patients. I've decided I don't want to work anymore. Ever. This should do it. My career is over and my life as I knew it. Big deal. Now I can devote myself to what I really want to do.
Things have not been going well. Nothing I can put my finger on, except drugs. I can't get off them. For the past ten years I've had an inexhaustible supply of free narcotics. This is a poor rural hospital. When my patients die, their families often bring in their leftover pain meds so they can be given to others who can't afford them. My nurse has been storing them in my desk, the safest place she knows. The drawers are full of fentanyl patches (my DOC), morphine (liquid, tablets, and sustained release), dilaudid, demerol, oxycontin, methadone, codeine, various oxy- and hydrocodone preparations, ativan, xanax, and marinol (which I don't think works very well). I've sampled all of them, and so far, haven't gotten caught. Even my nurse, who is in my face all day, every day, suspects nothing. I know I'm addicted, but it seems like the affected circuits are deeper. Things like judgement and conscience, and things beneath my consciousness, that I can't see. The dark recesses. Where my demons live. Simple things- like acting normal and practicing medicine- don't seem to be affected. To me they don't. I can still convince myself that I'm keeping it together. I'm doing OK. Sort of OK.
It's been a particularly bad week. The hearing for my separation "agreement" didn't go well. The judge said that of the $15,000 per month that I'm bringing home, $14,000 will go to June and the kids. I can live on $1,000. Right. All I remember is, when I heard that, standing up, looking down at the floor, and walking out of the courtroom. If anybody thinks I'm going to work like I do for that............! That's it. I'm out of here. And I'm not coming back. Those were the unassailable truths in my head. The world no longer made sense, and things were tilted against me in a way I couldn't understand. June wanted everything. "Every last dime" was how she put it. And it was starting to look like she might get it.
And, of course, Laura was dying. Laura was the only thing that meant anything to me. My lifeline. Her body was being consumed by cancer. She'd had three major abdominal surgeries, removing everything that was expendable. She couldn't eat, and would be maintained on TPN for 6 months before she died. Sips she swallowed passed through
her stomach and out an ostomy that never sealed right. She was always leaking something or other. She had another leaky ostomy to decompress the short nonfunctional bowel segment that remained. All of her pelvic organs had been removed, and she had a
nephrostomy. Urine was never a problem. Neither was sex. There wasn't any. She had a chest tube draining to a pleurevac by the bed. She was on fentanyl patches and had a bottle of morphine at the bedside. Laura's patches went on the skin. Mine were cut into neat 1cm squares, peeled, and placed under the tongue. I never took any of Laura's medication.
She had been moved from her apartment in Bethesda, to her brother's comfortable estate on Lake George. I'd been driving the 8 hours to visit her every weekend. Work was down to 3 or 4 days a week. Laura was my last remaining connection to this world. She would die the day after 9/11. September 12, 2001. My plan had always been that when she left, I would follow her. I didn't know exactly how. I would just disappear somehow. An overdose. Painless. Graceful. A quiet, peaceful death. There was no doubt about it. I thought this was the end, but it was only the beginning.
I'd already had a little trouble with the authorities. As part of the hemorrhage that was my divorce, we had obtained a fancy $12,000 evaluation of my suitability as a parent to my three children. He recommended June have full custody and that they have as little contact as possible with me. No visitation privileges. None. I went ballistic. On a bright, sunny afternoon, I took my umbrella from Harrod's, in London, with the big wooden duck head (the police report on the internet says it was metal, but it wasn't), and walked down the street in Bethesda, into the psychologist's office, demanding to speak with him. The waiting room was full of mothers and their young children. When he refused to open the door, I got upset, and started yelling. I dented up his metal door with the duck, and started smashing pictures and making holes in the walls. Someone screamed " Call 911!". As I calmly walked out someone else screamed " It's a mental office! There's a madman in there!" As I walked out into the sunshine, a nice gentleman held open the door for me and asked me kindly if I was OK. I walked back up to my apartment building, but rather than going upstairs, where I feared I might have uninvited visitors, I went down into the garage, got into my red BMW and drove out to the driving range to hit some golf balls. I had a lot of energy and was enjoying it, so I stayed until closing. In the middle of the night there was a knock on my door, and voices. After a while, someone said " I'm detecting movement in there; Does he have any pets?" So I let them in. They did one of those stupid riot squad takedowns. They searched the place for weapons, but left my fentanyl and other drugs in the freezer. Idiots.
One of many lock-up psych admissions. Some kook had just shot his wife and kids and himself on the Dulles toll road, and they were worried I might have similar ideas. Actually, I had already had a couple of restraining orders-the details aren't important. But I had been leaving strange messages on June's answering machine. She wouldn't speak to me so I would sit in my car and take samples off of Eminem and mix them into my own rap. I wanted everyone to think I was crazy so they wouldn't expect me to work,
and would just leave me alone. I also thought it was kind of funny and would probably scare the hell out of them. So they had me evaluated by three forensic psychiatrists. They had transcripts of my recordings which seemed to amuse them. Clever things like " I wonder how you're going to take care of those kids with both your legs cut off". Cute. Anyhow, they decided I wasn't homicidal because I never said I was going to kill her with my own voice-
that was Em. But as a condition of my discharge I did have to report myself to the medical board, which led to all kinds of problems. And really pissed me off. So, after Laura died, I really didn't care about anything. I wrote some prescriptions for fentanyl, in her name, and filled them under her insurance, figuring they probably wouldn't have thought to cancel it yet, and anyhow, what difference did it make? She was dead. My dead girlfriend. The police report describes me as a "dishevelled, middle-aged man with long, shaggy, brown hair". They always say that. I must have been arrested, but I don't remember any details.
What I do remember is that now I had a problem. Where would I get drugs? Prescriptions had gotten too risky, and I didn't know anything about how normal drug addicts got drugs.
So I thought about it and decided to go to Amsterdam to get myself hooked on heroin. Literally. That simple. And that's what I did. Things got interesting real quick there. Outside the bars where the kids go to get weed and hash and mushrooms, there's just a small area, a few blocks, where they sell real drugs. There are only two: "white", which is crack, and "brown", which is what I wanted. It's all good raw dope and everyone smokes it off of aluminum foil. As a result, foil is illegal in Amsterdam and it costs $5 for a little square. The people who live there tolerate the potheads, but they hate drug addicts with a passion.
In town, they just sell little dime bags, and I wasn't interested in that. It took me about a week to make my way to the person I was looking for- out in a rundown, immigrant suburb. There was a little restaurant, where I was introduced to the proprietor, a respectable, dark-skinned Arab with a mustache, and a nice suit. They had me sit alone, at a small table in the back, for what seemed like hours. I was watching them- all the young guys that looked like waiters, and I guess they were sizing me up somehow. It was a Sunday, and what with the language problem and everything (we were speaking French, which was not native for either of us), he thought I wanted $20,000 worth of heroin, however much that is. The proprietor eventually took me down into his dark basement. Just the two of us. He brought out a large shoebox full of what looked like hard packed dirt. I had never seen dope before, so what did I know? Maybe heroin comes in shoeboxes? I was completely non-plussed. I eventually explained that since it was Sunday I could only get so much out of the ATM's and would have to go to the bank in the morning. He broke off a corner the size of your fist and I left.
Before coming home I went to Paris for a few weeks where things got ugly quick. I should say "uglier", because dope fiends are the same everywhere. For the past few years, Paris had been my secret home. As my marriage had been going downhill, I'd been spending more and more time there. Recently it had been six or seven times a year. My main occupation was rollerblading in Paris. Also skiing every year in the French alps, summer cycling in Provence, and excursions to anyplace that interested me or had a good wine list. My girlfriend was an Algierian Berber prostitute from Briancon. We had a room on Montmartre and she didn't have to work as long as I supported her. Sweet. Anyhow, with my newfound
habit, I was skating backwards down the median at four in the morning and caught a wheel,
and couldn't get up. A psychopathic junky happened to be passing by and helped me up to my room. I couldn't get out of bed so we fell into one of those deals I would know so many of- you take care of me and I'll take care of you. Finally made it home and had surgery on my broken leg. Life was good again. I could sit around my parents' house recuperating and I had an inexhaustible supply of drugs (again!). For a week or two. Then....Oh my God, what do I do
now? What I decided was to go down to the worst neighborhood I knew and do what other people do. Sursum Corda, "Raise up their Hearts!" Decided to try crack, to kick dope, and that worked OK the first time. Then, in no time, I was living in a crack house on Capitol Avenue, in Northeast DC. The first time I heard gunshots, I thought they were firecrackers. The first time I walked out and saw pools of blood, I was fixated. I said to myself, geez, it's not like in the movies. There's this huge puddle here, and another over there. What happened? Homicide had already stopped washing down the scenes by then. The first time I met Big Man, he'd just been released from prison and he asked me for the $20 I owed him. My buddies were there, so he backed down. The next night, I was on the stoop. He got behind me and held a big knife, hard, across my throat. "It's $30, now". I had about $300 in my wallet, so I tried to stall- begging the passersby on the street- somebody give him $30! Finally I brought my wallet out a little and took $30 out of this big wad. He was happy, so I guess it was just a $30 hit! After that we became good friends. Another night, I was wandering back before dawn. Two of my old hobo type junky friends were all upset. "William, we just found Edgar, with his skull smashed, behind this door! What should we do?" For weeks, we'd been sitting on the stoop there, with this stench getting worse and worse. They'd ask me what it was and I told them not to worry about it. "It's just the rats," which by that time were swarming all over each other and were getting pretty bad. Edgar was just the other side of the plywood door, rotting away.
Towards the end, there, I moved in with Brandy, the only other white person on the street. She needed a new boyfriend because hers had just gotten sliced up, killed, while they were sitting in a car over at Ivy City, waiting to cop. Brandy was a real junky and I liked her. She'd spend an hour every morning, wrapping up her legs, which were real swollen, and draining. Brandy would get up at five every morning and walk over to the graveyard entrance to service the guys on their way to work. That was sweet of her and then she'd bring me something back before I got up at seven. Then I'd take care of her for the rest of the day. We slept on the floor together and we didn't have to worry about sex, either, because by that time I was a complete eunuch. At first, when Laura died, I thought I was just impotent. That she had taken my sex life with her. But this was different. Sex didn't exist. An alien concept. Kind of gross, but innocent enough. I'd been chemically castrated and just assumed it was permanent. It didn't bother me.
I could have gone on like that forever. Then one night Big Man paid another visit. I was in someone else’s crackhouse in those pre-dawn hours, when someone kicked down the door.
There were two big trenchcoated guys with stocking masks and shotguns. "Everyone down!",
they shouted, and I figured I was OK because I was kind of near the back of the room. But I was also the only white guy. They dragged me to the doorway, where they stood and took off all my clothes. Someone had set me up who knew where I kept my shit. In any seam, anywhere, so they just took all my clothes. I'm lying stark naked on the floor, with this big guy standing over me with his shotgun in my eye. He's screaming "Don't look at me!", which I really was trying not to. Then he kept pressing the gun harder and harder into my eyeball and I remember thinking "Oh shit! My eyeball's going to pop". And I remember not caring. And I remember wishing he would just pull the trigger instead. So he kept pressing harder, and my eyeball popped, and they left, and someone found me a pair of pants, and I was just glad my shit was all gone before they got there. So, Brandy knew my days were numbered. She didn't want to see another boyfriend murdered. So one night she arranged to have me kidnapped and taken away. A group of guys came in, wrapped me in blankets and carried me out through the alleyway, and put me in the back of their car. They took me from northeast to northwest DC and left me on the sidewalk, saying only "Don't show your face over there ever again." I was homeless, on the sidewalk, where I would stay for almost another year.
I ended up mainly at the corner of 17th and H streets. It was a nice sheltered spot, in front of the Verizon building. I felt safe there. I ate mainly at soup kitchens- Miriam's kitchen every morning at 6:30 and Mary's Table when I passed it on my way to my dope man at 14th and V. Smoked cigarrettes off the sidewalk and wasn't above eating out of trashcans. Don't recall it as a horrific experience, except when it got real cold and the hypothermia guys ran out of blankets. I remember waking up every morning, peeking out from under my grey blankets at all the people on their way to the office and thinking "Sure am glad I don't have to go to work today". Most days I had heroin and crack, and I wasn't getting arrested anymore since I'd traded my BMW for $1000 worth of crack. I'd been arrested countless times, always in my car. The cops knew me and my car and that all they had to do was pull me over and they'd find something to take me in on. They'd say crap like "Doc, you know you don't have to live like this." And then I'd have to kick again, on nothing, in some shithole. The worst was for sleeping in my car, with a couple bags in a big snowstorm. At first they took me to the mental block, like they always did, thinking I was suicidal, which I wasn't. Then they took me to an isolation cell. I didn't say a word. A cold concrete floor with a grate for waste. No matress, no sheet, no clothes, just a plastic vest with velcro straps. Nothing. Fortunately, I had a few grams of dope and a fifty piece in my shoe, but it was out in the hall. I got to visit when I took a shower, so I was always saying "Look, man, I'm really dirty. Let me take another shower!" I'd snort a little and suck on some crack cause there was no way to smoke it and things would be OK again for a little while. After a few days they gave me a little half-roll of toilet paper. I remember staring at it, thinking how this was the first time in my life when I could see all my worldly possessions like that. A little roll of toilet paper. But it was better than nothing. I used it for a pillow and I could keep my drugs in it. Then they ran out and I was sick as fuck on that cold concrete floor, and I couldn't imagine how it could be any worse in one of Saddam's prisons. No windows so I didn't know if it was day or night except by the trays they passed through which I didn't touch.
I was just trying to hold out till June 1 (2003), when I knew I'd get a check for $35,000 from the sale of my house. My plan was all set. I'd get a little room, spend all the money on drugs and that would be it. I'd just disappear. But first, things were getting tight. So I went to the VA to get on methadone so I could save the half I was spending on dope and have more money for crack. You had to be in their rehab program and I told them from day one there was no point talking about stopping crack because I couldn't. After enough positive urines they started to wean me. After about a month I had lost about 50 pounds and I calculated my weight would get to zero before my meth dose. So I went back on dope.
The money lasted 6 weeks. I had a little room with no furnishings. Just some plastic milk boxes from in front of 7-11 and a couple of cushions from a dumpster. No food. Nothing in the fridge. Just my bike. Everything else was gone. Over $2 million to June. She couldn't get my IRA, which was about $500,000. That's what I had lived off and it was all gone. I was trying to save $700 for the last day. That's what I figured an OD would cost. But something happened and I just ran out.
I stayed on that floor for 19 days. Sick for the first week. Then I just stayed there. I was very weak. I was afraid to go outside because I owed everybody in the neighbor hood and the word was out. I had nowhere to go, noone to call, and no ideas. So I just lay there, basicly, waiting to die. My last memory is someone walking out, maybe a week before the end and saying "William, do you ever look at yourself in the mirror?" All I could think was "Get the fuck out!" Then one day, at sunrise, I just got up. As I was passing the bathroom I glanced in at the mirror. Shit, it must have been a long time. I was horrified, and didn't recognize myself. Dead eyes. Dark sockets. Sunken cheekbones. I will never forget feeling that I was not human anymore. An animal. So this is what it means to have no soul? No spirit? In my quest to disappear completely, I had almost succeeded. Just a mass of protoplasm. Alive, but barely. I went out and somehow made it to my parents' house. They took me to the VA long term facility at Perry Point, MD.
I didn't want to go back to treatment. There was no point. I'd tried everything. Inpatient, outpatient, short-term, long-term, good places, low-life joints. Usually, I'd be asked to leave. Sometimes I'd make it to the end, and relapse right after. Couldn't put together any time no matter what I tried.
No matter. I was there and there was nothing I could do about it. Rehab is rehab. There are no secrets how to make it work, and it's not complicated. I was lucky because I was so weak, and I couldn't think straight, and I just couldn't fight anymore. So I just sat there, looking out from behind my eyeballs, and did what I was told. Why didn't I ever try this before? I was too weak to sit in a chair so I'd just lie down wherever I was. I didn't feel like talking to anyone. Some really important things started to happen.
I found myself in with 60 other bottom rung homeless addicts, mostly scraped off the sidewalks of Baltimore. I realized "Shit, you are right where you belong." These were my
people. This was what my mother had warned me about. I was a drug addict and that's it. These guys weren't going to be impressed that I was a doctor and all the really cool shit I had done in my life and where the fuck is Paris? It wasn't about cool anymore. It was about being alive and that was all such an incredible relief. I had a chance and even though I was starting at absolute, rock-bottom fucking zero, for once in my life I knew exactly where that was, and what I had to do.
And that was basicly what I was told to do. I didn't even have to think. How cool is that? Listen up. Three times a day you gotta walk over to the nursing home and feed your little man there. Even if he's rude and unappreciative and spits in your face. No problem. You got to sit in some classes. You gotta go make pottery. You gotta play volleyball. You gotta go to group, and go to a meeting every night. Do that and you got a chance.
What I didn't have to do was speak. I didn't have to run my mouth and have some smart-assed remark and always be cynical and sarcastic. I could get rid of my nervous smiles and stupid quips about everything. If someone asked me a question, I'd try to give them a straight answer. I'd never done that before. My first day there, my psychologist told me not to feel like I had to speak in groups. He said they're not going to understand me and it will just piss me off. Better he had said “William, you’re not allowed to speak here. We’re not interested in all your brilliant ideas.” At the start of groups we recited the rules. Mine was always "Get to your point." It became kind of a joke, but to me it meant "NO MORE BULLSHIT!" This was serious and I knew it.
Something weird had happened to me while I was lying on that floor waiting to die, and it had opened up a whole new world. Some might call it a religious experience, but I'm not a religious person, and technically an atheist. Maybe it was just that I got really sick and had a near-death experience. Or maybe I had a really weird nervous breakdown. I favor the latter, but it doesn't really matter. Something big had happened, and I knew it.
They said say something nice to someone every day and I did that. Before long, I noticed that people were treating me different. It was like they were actually trying to help me. I told myself the story that everyone, everyone at Perry Point, was there to help me! I know that's silly, but what happened was that it didn't bother me anymore when people acted like jerks. That's their problem. Major revelation. Four months in, Lisa, one of the councellors, gave me a ride to get cigarrettes after group. She asked why I still wasn’t talking and I told her I still wasn’t feeling it. She says “So, OK, William, you’re going to do the program vicariously, is that right?” I gave her my best “white bitch” stare and said “That’s right.” She went on about how this is supposed to work and I must have said something clueless and charming because she said “William, you’re scaring me”. And that pissed me off because I used to hear that a lot and it didn’t make any sense to me. Lisa was terrific and I respect her a lot. I must have still been afraid, though I wouldn’t know it.
I read and I wrote. A lot. 350 pages in three months. Then I was done. Every morning at 5:30. Not really a journal. I tried to avoid anything I called "The News". Almost nothing about the past or what happened. I tried to stick to what was fresh. Right now. And there was plenty. I'd been asleep for so long. My three favorite themes were paying attention, time, and Radiohead. Paying attention had to do with waking up. Seeing things differently. Mindfullness. Dissecting all those lies I'd been believing all my life. Like thinking that self-gratification is the way to happiness. That living out your childhood fantasies is a good thing to do. That impressing people makes you a better person. That pain and suffering are bad and to be avoided at all cost. That life on drugs is better than life off drugs. Time was mainly about what I call "experiential time", from the perspective of long term incarceration in a mental institution. Things like Magic Mountain, where time, if it doesn't cease to exist, is altered in a way that was fascinating to me. And there was also Einstein's time, so I read a lot about subatomic physics and cosmology. Radiohead was about.....well....if you don't know Radiohead, I can't explain it. Addiction. Alienation. Existential angst. I got fixated on Heart of Darkness, which is still the closest thing I've found to what I went through. And 2001, with my first second step: "Open the pod bay doors, Hal". Let me in. I want to be part of the human race. That line isn't in the book, but there's a better one: Both when mankind is first created and at the end, when he's destroyed the world, someone, maybe God, asks- "holy shit! What is Man going to do now?" and the answer is "He doesn't know, but he'll think of something." We always think of something. Especially us addicts.
They gave me a job, working in the greenhouse for $5 an hour. I did that for 8 months. After I'd been there for maybe 6 months, I started to deal with my real-life problems. I got up the nerve to call the MVA to see about my license and found out that I had three outstanding warrants for my arrest. So I'd have to go straight from rehab to jail. Bummer. I came back to DC for a weekend and hunted down my old sponsor. He told me to call him everyday. So I did. We wrote letters. If I'd bitch about meetings, or getting numbers and calling other addicts, or anything, he'd write back: "TAKE YOUR FUCKING MEDICINE, EVEN IF IT TASTES BAD! Do you want to stay clean? Do you want to die?" I told him I would do anything he said, under one condition: that he had done the same thing at the suggestion of his sponsor. Deal.
I stayed there for nine months. Since I had never felt mentally ill, even when I obviously was, I didn't trust my judgement as to when to come home. I told my sponsor I wouldn't leave until he and Donna, my councellor, agreed it was time. Very third step. Smart move, William.
I can't say it's been easy since then. I went to jail for a couple weeks, then moved back in with my parents. Mom died last year and now I take care of my Dad. Work has been a huge problem. I went to taxi school for a couple of weeks but couldn't get an ID because of my record. I did telephone interviewing for a few months, the delivered the New York Times for six months. I managed a recovery house for a while. For over a year I've been looking for work full time. I have over 1500 pages of correspondence. Countless phone calls and some interviews. The problem is that I can't hide from this story. I'm a convicted felon (a dime of
crack), and there's some ugly stuff on the internet. Maryland Board of Physicians, under
William K. K., D39979. There you can see board actions, arrest reports, psychiatric
records, what I was doing in 7th grade, rehab records, court transcripts and stuff my wife said about me. It's OK. It's to protect people like you (the public) from people like me (a drug addict). You can read that I apparently drove my motorcycle (gasp!) to Farley where my urine was positive for “butalbitol, phenobarbitol, benzodiazepines (including Lorazepam) and opiates, including morphine, hydromorphine, Oxycodone, and hydrocodone, with a breathalyzer of .086". Big deal. I say this because I know you won't look there because if I had anything to hide I wouldn't have told you all this. I have no secrets. I am free. I still own nothing. I’ll file for bankruptcy as soon as I can afford to. And I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.
Stigma. I have a lot of problems with stigma. About addiction. But it's getting better and I do know how to deal with it. I have (finally) been offered a real job as medical director for a cancer research company. Life has never been better. Recovery is my life today. Just like they say: meetings everyday, lots of service, network, help other addicts, pay attention to your spiritual condition. Work the steps. I know they’re dumb. Do it anyhow. Do you want to stay clean? Do you want to die? And don't use, no matter what. It works. This is what I did. You can try it if you want to. If you want what I have. I do. I want it bad.
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