An Indie Superstar's Slow Road to Sobriety
Soul Coughing was one of America's most acclaimed (and drug-addled) indie bands. In a new memoir, The Book of Drugs, its lead singer describes how the 12 Steps saved his life.
I met Molly Escalator at a gig in the early 1990s, when Soul Coughing was just a local band. She had been sober for years. She told me stories of her salad days as a runaway in the old, weird New York—shooting dope on the Lower East Side as a teenage punk rocker and weaning herself off heroin on her mom’s farm in Delaware, facilitated by shooting up horse tranquilizer with gigantic veterinary needles. By the time we were dating she figured out that I had a major weed appetite. Which she tolerated.
On New Year’s Eve, I heard about this disagreeable guy who had bought a shit-ton of cocaine and was throwing a party. He let people have his cocaine so they’d hang out with him. But, alas, I was just stopping by. Molly had lent out her tiny East Village studio apartment to her twin brothers, and therefore had to stay the night at my place in Brooklyn.
So I packed my face with this guy’s cocaine, fast as I could get it in. Then I went to Molly’s, sweating like a monster, looking so freaked out that I concocted a lie about getting accosted on the subway. Molly and I went to a boring party that most people had already left, and I kissed her, and then dove into a long babble about Wow, Molly Escalator, you’re really special, and I just want to tell you . . .
“How much cocaine did you do?” she asked. She could taste it in my kiss.
A little while later when I was on tour, I went to sleep in a motel in Akron, Ohio, on a warm evening, listening to soft rain; when I woke up, it had turned into a violent snowstorm, and I got an e-mail from Molly saying she’d left me for a famous artist from the rooms.
The rooms were twelve-step meetings. They’re shorthanded as “the rooms,” or “the program,” or “the fellowship,” among other things. I find calling the rooms “the program” to have a Huxleyan vibe, and “the fellowship” sounds to me like something involving a skull-faced man screaming about Jesus. So I’ll go with “the rooms.”
I sat in a hotel in Wisconsin, shaking because I hadn’t had my morning drink yet, and I typed Molly an e-mail. I told her that I went through a bad heroin binge, and it nearly killed me, and now I have to be drunk all day. I could accept being a drug addict, but I can’t accept being a drunk. Can you please take me to one of those meetings of yours?
(I’m going to walk a line between talking about my experiences in the rooms, and not violating other peoples’ anonymity. Twelve-step programs are not called, for instance, Narcotics Talk About It in Your Book, or Alcoholics Reveal Themselves Publicly, but it would be disingenuous to pretend I’m not riding a line by talking about it. The danger is that you’re going to read this book and think that I’m speaking some kind of party line. I wouldn’t be anybody’s spokesperson, it’s unlikely anybody would want me to be their spokesperson, and there is no party line, truly, definitively, absolutely none.)
(More likely, you might think: fuck this guy, if I ever was interested in twelve-step programs, I’m not anymore, because those rooms are chock full of self-righteous Mike Doughtys. That’s not the case. There is variety in the people, just as there is anywhere else in life—you can find people who reflect your experience, or people who reflect something completely unlike your experience. I found freaky intellectuals who cultivated their insanity, whom I wanted to be like.)
(Here’s the other thing: like I said, I might get fucked up again.)
When Molly talked about the rooms, my mind’s ear heard a prison door clanging shut. There was something sort of alluring around the edges when she’d talk about a meeting she’d just been to—a sense of peace and grooviness, like the meeting had done some sort of magic—but mostly I saw it as a weird cult.
It exasperated me, for utterly no reason. She told me how she’d met a famous ex-junkie singer at some event, and later he knocked on her hotel room door and said, “Want to go get some soup?” Soup! What’s romantic and reprobate about soup?
After Molly dumped me, I moped around, listening to the Teddy Riley remix of Mary J. Blige’s “Changes I’ve Been Going Through” over and over. Tiresomely, she kept calling. “You have to be my friend,” she said. Like fuck I have to, I replied.
Molly kept showing up now and then, and she’d always have something new going on: she had fallen in love with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, so she’d learned to play piano; she read all these mystery novels, so she started corresponding with the authors; she’d gotten interested in horse racing and was writing a book about it.
I was the rock star, I was the one with the things going on and the awesomeness. What business did she have with an interesting life?
In fact, what I was doing was getting high alone in a room, getting high in the back of a bus, getting high as I lay in bed.
I sat in a hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, shaking because I hadn’t had my morning drink yet, and I typed her an e-mail. I told her that I went through a bad heroin binge, and it nearly killed me, and now I have to be drunk all day. On some essential level, I could accept being a drug addict, but I can’t accept being a drunk. Can you please take me to one of those meetings of yours?
That’s why she kept that line open all those years.
I woke up on the third of May 2000, looking at a half-full glass of Jack Daniel’s. I had passed out before the task was through. Somehow I managed to pour it out into the sink.
The tour manager drove me home, and I was shaking and stuffing myself with chalupas. The trip took a day and a half; when I got home, there was beer in my fridge but I didn’t touch it. There was dusty weed on my bedside table, glued to a sticky layer of NyQuil. A half bottle was my longtime nightcap of choice.
I sat across from Molly at Kate’s Vegetarian Joint on Avenue B. She was staring at me curiously across my plate of tofu Buffalo wings. She was about to take me to my first meeting.
(The unisex bathroom at Kate’s Joint had two amazing pieces of graffiti: Yaphet Kotto Fucking Crazy. Which meant—Yaphet Kotto is fucking crazy? Or an echelon of crazy, like, “Man, that shit isn’t just crazy, that’s like Yaphet Kotto fucking crazy.” And in silver pen: “Robot” is a Czech word. It means “worker.” Next to it, sardonically: Did you learn that at NYU? Next to that, in shaky script: no Larry told me.)
So, I asked Molly, why should I stay clean if I go to these meetings? Can’t I just go between binges?
She made a wistful face. “That’s what I was going to do,” she said, sincerely.
It disarmed me. I had grey skin, dead eyes, and anybody with half a mind would’ve slapped me. But Molly had loved drugs; she just knew they had stopped working, would never work again, and she didn’t want to die.
I had a bottle of Valium in my pocket; I had hustled a prescription from the Cocaine Papers doc earlier that day.
You see movies and think that a twelve-step meeting involves somebody holding a clipboard. There was no clipboard. A guy who used to be a wasted drug fuckup read something at the beginning, another guy who used to be a wasted drug fuckup told the tale of his addiction, and then a roomful of former wasted drug fuckups spoke, each in turn—nobody interrupting anybody— about where they were at, or what happened to them, or where they wanted to be, about their lives both with and without getting fucked up.
Every variety of person was there. One guy talked about living in a shelter. Another guy talked about owning a business, but feeling trapped by it. A woman I recognized as a goth icon sat in the back row, knitting. She raised her hand and spoke of anguish over a crackhead ex.
There were heroin people, coke people, meth people, weed people, prescription-painkiller people, liquor people, beer people. Most of them, actually, a mixture of the whole list, serially or simultaneously.
The atmosphere was reverent, but not pious; it was both ritual and intimate. Whenever something borderline corny went down— the phrase “we share our experience, strength, and hope,” a reference to god, the room saying, en masse, “Thanks for sharing,” when somebody had finished talking—Molly turned to me and rolled her eyes sympathetically. But actually I felt an incredible warmth.
“Now’s the part where we all hug and pray,” she whispered into my ear, half sarcastically, as the meeting came to a close. “I should’ve mentioned that.”
Everybody stood up in a big circle and put their arms around each other. “Let’s have a moment of silence,” said the guy who’d told his addiction story, “for the addict still sick and suffering, inside and outside of these rooms.” And then everybody said the serenity prayer. I half knew it. And it made sense to me.
I typed the serenity prayer here, but then I deleted it: you’ve read that prayer thousands of times. I beg you to see it like this: you want to get high. You know that it’s going to kill you, or humiliate you, or drive you to desperation, that you’re not really going to get high at all, but every part of yourself wants to. You want to get out from under it, and you’ve tried, but you don’t have it in you to do it alone. You’re willing to take a half step towards something big and weird, something that you don’t even know you believe in, hoping that it, or they, or she, will help.
I met a guy named Leon, who knew the moment he looked at me that this was my first meeting. He gave me his number and a meeting list, and told me to call him the next day. I went to a diner and sat in the window, amazed to feel hopeful. I found another meeting to go to, late night, far on the West Side.
There was a deranged man in headphones dancing obliviously in the middle of the room; somebody shooed him away. Homeless guys slept in the back. There were two glamorous women, dazzlingly made up, in dresses and heels. Two men spoke: the first talked about how he had spent his life fantasizing about having a farm to grow his own weed and mushrooms, but then, bafflingly to him, had become a crack addict. The second guy had recently been homeless and had worked as a gravedigger before his life went haywire. His story went like this: “I went back to the shed and had a couple of belts. Then I went back to digging the grave. Then I went back to the shed, and had a couple of belts. Then I went back to digging the grave. Then I went back to the shed . . . ”
Back at my apartment, I put the beer in front of my neighbor’s door and went to the roof. I pitched the bottle of Valium; it arced upward, barely missed the streetlight on its way down, and exploded dramatically in the intersection, whereupon it was run over by a taxi.
It was the fifth of May—Cinco de Mayo. The day the Mexicans defeated the French. In the years to follow, I would think of Cinco de Mayo as my day of surrender. The beer industry celebrates the anniversary every year with commercials about boozing up on Mexican beaches.
From The Book of Drugs by Mike Doughty. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press.