Life as a Tweaker
In my early twenties, I discovered speed. The affair was short but not at all sweet—unless you count the all Caramello bars.
At 24, I was a hard-drug virgin living in San Francisco. It was 1994 and I had fled up north after getting fired from my job in LA and feeling like I was suffering from a second nervous breakdown. I needed a new start, fresh grounds to muddy, and I was determined to find both myself and my life’s purpose. How did I plan to do that? By saying yes to every opportunity that came my way. Yes to every job, every kiss and every drug. I was going to find out who I was by who I wasn’t: identity, I thought, through deduction.
I distinctly remember the first time I tried speed. I had stayed up all night doing ecstasy with an 18-year-old pierced couple and was thoroughly exhausted by the time I had to go wait tables at an Ethiopian joint the next morning. My neighbor offered me a line of some white/pinkish powder that he said would give me energy and help get me through my shift. Without much thought, I snorted it and went to work. Soon I was shaking and overly energized and irritable. I vowed not to do it again.
I felt right in my skin, vibrant, whole, the way I had always hoped Prozac would make me feel. Speed was Prozac with wings, I’d joke.
Fast forward a few months and I was deep into the spoken-word scene, which involved a lot of poets who were junkies and tweakers and alcoholics with nicknames like Stinky and Mike Prophet and Dick Ranger. Again I was offered a line of this powder and, despite having sworn off it before, I took it. But this time the effect was different: I felt right in my skin, vibrant, whole, the way I had always hoped Prozac would make me feel. It was Prozac with wings, I’d joke. And from that moment, I was hooked. Within seven months, I was completely strung out but of course I had no idea what would happen then. I never saw it coming. Just like you don’t gain weight overnight, you don’t become a drug addict overnight. You wake up one day and you’re fat. You wake up one day and you’re a tweaker.
I had never been a drug addict nor had I been around them. I had no idea what drug addiction looked like. I was convinced that I was “experimenting” even if that “experimenting” was all day every day. My denial was that thick and all encompassing.
Not soon after I developed this speed habit, my normie roommate kicked me out and I ended up living in the Lower Haight with skinheads and gutter punks across from the projects in what could only be described as a flophouse. To support my habit, I began running drugs for a local dealer. For a well-bred Jew from LA, it all seemed very exciting and Tarantino-esque. I was somehow blind to the seediness of it.
One day, I began to get very congested and my face started to swell—slowly and then suddenly, just like my addiction. Within a week, I looked like Eric Stoltz in Mask, swollen and deformed. After a visit to the clinic, I learned I had an infection from snorting dirty speed. It turned out that I was allergic to the antibiotics they gave me for it and the swelling was soon joined by hives. My parents swooped in and ushered me back to LA.
For a few months, I stayed off speed but took to drinking two bottles of red a night. I called my abstention from speed my “fast” and I broke it, ceremoniously, on Thanksgiving. Once the monster was unleashed, it was on again with a fury. I quickly navigated the speed scene in LA, finding my dealers and fellow tweakers, and reading Speed and Kentucky Ham by William Burroughs Jr. And I wrote. A lot.
A bisexual buddy from San Francisco came down to LA and we stayed up a ridiculous 17 days together. By the end of it, we were writing a new Bible based on Emerson and Nietzsche and thought we had the mathematical equation for God. He pierced my lip with a safety pin as we swigged Jack Daniels and made a blood pact. Then we drove to Seattle in my '67 Thunderbird, so high for so long by that point that we could barely speak English. Driving was a dumb and dangerous move but we were overly brave and arrogant, as only young drug addicts can be.
I eventually settled into the speed lifestyle, buying large quantities from Mexican gangsters and then selling off enough to break even and support my growing habit. I would stay up for five days in a row and then sleep for three. Even my cat got used to the schedule. But unlike other tweakers, I ate. I lived on Mexican cheese and tortillas, Caramello candy bars and the favorite drink of speed freaks, Mountain Dew. But I was still skinny. My busy schedule of collage-ing and taking apart electronic equipment kept me moving.
As I quickly learned, most tweakers are broke and truly considered the bottom of the barrel as far as drug addicts are concerned. And for good reason, as it turned out. I got ripped off numerous times and became more and more reclusive. I would dumpster dive, find old furniture and then stay up all frenzied night refinishing it. Sometimes the depravity and degradation of my life would seep below the buzz of the meth, and I would lie in the bathtub for hours, crying, smoking speed off tinfoil, and playing Nirvana on loop.
On more than one occasion, I was convinced I had bugs in my skin; one of the gutter punks in San Francisco had had scabies so it wasn’t that outlandish an idea. I collected the black flecks that I dug out of my arms and put them on a napkin and demanded to see a dermatologist. He concluded that it was just “debris.” Failing to mention that I was a drug addict, I exclaimed, “What the fuck? I never had ‘debris’ coming out of my skin before!”
During this year-and-a-half amphetamine debacle, I was writing a drug memoir, all about my love affair with speed. And as with any love affair, speed and I had our down times. I would try to kick but without the drugs, I couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t move. And I would quickly cave in and be back up and running again within a few days.
I saw a psychiatrist and tried to swindle her for a prescription for pharmaceutical speed, figuring it would be stronger and definitely cleaner than the crank I’d been scoring. I told her I was lethargic, had ADD and possible narcolepsy—whatever I’d read would work in the Physicians' Desk Reference. She gave me some slow-release tablets and sent me on my way. Slow release tablets were useless so I went back for a second round. She quickly saw me for what I was and suggested I go to AA. I told her to fuck off.
When I explained the situation to my father, adding that I had never been and would never go to AA, he made an appointment for me to see an “addiction specialist.” This “specialist” interviewed me for about an hour. I was high in the session and had come in prepared, with lots of studies citing amphetamine for the use of borderlines and severe depression and he bought it when I rationalized my drug use as self-medicating a mood disorder.
As my parents saw me deteriorate both physically and mentally, they urged me to go into rehab. I refused but I knew the end was near. Then I had a massive grand mal seizure in a market, which scared me into rehab, a sober living house and AA.
My father was so disgusted with me and frightened by my addiction that we couldn’t be in the same car together for 10 minutes before a heated argument would break out. So my stepmother flew into town and together we checked into a tiny hotel on La Cienega. I detoxed in that hotel for a week, sweating profusely, too weak and delirious to get out of bed. Most of the time I was sleeping. Two years of staying awake had taken a toll on me.
It was only once I was physically off the stuff that the mental detox could begin. I was sent to a dual diagnosis treatment center for two long months, where the most horrific depression and feelings of rage I’d ever experienced descended upon me. I had screaming matches with my therapist where I would kick chairs across the room.
There were a few other drug addicts in this treatment center but most were just severely mentally ill. I lived in a house with a short bald man who would have conversations with himself outside my bedroom window. Another housemate was a schizophrenic kid who walked around naked and was convinced he was the illegitimate son of Jimmy Page. (I’ll admit he could play the guitar but just not very well.)
It was at this treatment center that I was first taken to meetings and introduced to AA. Like every newcomer, I thought it was creepy and religious. And I couldn’t understand why the treatment center didn’t want me wearing my vintage beer T-shirts to meetings.
After those two grueling months, I was sent to an all-female 12-step sober living house run by a nun. I was the youngest, the only Jew and the only drug addict. The nun hated me but she hated my car—a '69 Dodge Charger with primer and no side windows that made a horrible rumbling sound you could hear from blocks away—even more. Whenever she would host her “garden parties” (read: fundraisers), she would send me away for the day; I’ll admit that my short 1970s dresses sans underwear and thigh high platform boots and my stomping around and smoking might not have been great for her pristine reputation. I was kicked out after four months for being “non-compliant” but thankfully by that time, I had a tidy six months of sobriety. I moved in with another girl from the sober living and together we started a clothing line and stayed sober, for years.
Though I’ve been through my share of other drugs since then, I’ve never actually used speed again. It absolutely fried my nervous system and that first seizure turned out to be the first of many—in fact, I have a seizure disorder because of that meth abuse. I know there are people that shoot speed for years and are fine but that’s not my story. I have a delicate system, I guess.
And, of course, I can collage like a motherfucker.
Amy Dresner is sober comedian who liberally pulls material from her depressive illness and drug addiction. She performs all over Los Angeles and is also on a national recovery tour called "We Are Not Saints." She's also written about sex and dating and managing chronic pain in sobriety, among many other topics, for The Fix.