Shutting the Door on My Coked-Up Past

By Sam Lansky 08/05/11

While my dad was recovering from a massive heart attack, I was on a coke run. Since then, I've tried to become a better son, while still struggling to shut the door on memories I want to forget.

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I've been sober for several years now. But once a month, or maybe even more frequently, my past sneaks up on me and reminds me of the person I used to be. Always, I carry with me a low-level simmering anxiety, a flame that flickers now and again—when a man on the street looks familiar (didn’t I steal pills from that guy?), or when I’m walking down a side street somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen and suddenly remember stumbling down the block in a drunken stupor—but some fires burn brighter than others. Though I have made my amends, there remain transgressions that are unfixable, regardless of whatever 12-step dogma says about not regretting the past or wishing to shut the door on it. I regret many things in my past; I would shut the door on it if I could; and I am wary of the rhetoric of regretlessness that is so pervasive in recovery circles. “I wouldn’t take any of it back, because it made me who I am today,” people say of their addicted histories, with a certain smug intonation, as though this idea encapsulates some epiphanic life wisdom. To me, this has always sounded like specious, self-congratulatory bullshit. I would gladly trade whatever insight or humility was gained by my offenses a thousand times over to go back and simply do the right thing in the moment, to keep from hurting the people who I hurt. 

I always chose what I thought was the right thing, and this almost always turned out to be the wrong thing. I spent the summer that I was 17 bouncing in and out of treatment—first a wilderness boot camp, then a residential facility, and finally a psychiatric hospital—before deciding, rashly, to accept the offer of admission I had received that spring from Vassar College. Vassar, I thought, was a prestigious enough school to command nominal respect but wouldn’t actually require me to work all that hard. (It was probably this very attitude of lazy, elitist entitlement that kept me out of Princeton and Yale, who had rejected me outright.) My mother begged me to defer for a term, since my mental health was very poor and I had no intention of staying sober, and ultimately my father said that he just wouldn’t pay for it, so I countered by taking out loans, which shut everyone up. This, of course, was a foolhardy, selfish decision, and once I arrived at my fancy private liberal arts college with a pissy outlook and an insatiable hunger for liquor and pills, I sank fast. I don’t remember what classes I registered for, because I never went to class. I spent all day in my dorm room taking what I (rather preciously) called the Seven Sisters Speedball, a cocktail of amphetamine and hydromorphone pills which I crushed into powder, mixed together, and snorted off my desk, sometimes dancing around my room to Swedish pop music in a giddy blur while the metronome thudding in my chest slowed and quickened dangerously, other times collapsing on the floor into hysterical crying jags that continued for hours. On the weekends, I took the train into Manhattan, where my father was living with his girlfriend on the Upper East Side. It would not have occurred to me to let him know that I was coming into town, unless I needed money. Psychiatrists across the Hudson Valley wrote me more prescriptions to treat hysterical afflictions I’d convinced myself I suffered. Inside me was an emptiness so enormous that no amount of drugs could fill me up.

One weekend in October, I headed into the city to party with my high school buddy Garrett, whose parents owned a townhouse off Riverside Drive. I arrived with a mélange of pills, uppers and benzos and painkillers, and we drank gin and tonics, and we must have called for coke at some point, because magically, one minute, it was there. I do remember swallowing two Ambien, which had become my most essential party favor. When paired with stimulants, the two chemicals synthesized to produce a near-psychedelic euphoria, with the value-added bonus of retrograde amnesia; which means that it caused a near-instant blackout without the sloppiness of binge drinking. I would remember very little of what happened after I took Ambien, only that I had been blissfully happy, and when I came to (because I never really “woke up,” but rather, “came to”) in the morning I wouldn’t be ashamed of what I had done, because I wouldn’t really remember it. For someone with self-loathing as profound and corrosive as mine was, the allure of total dissociation for an evening was too seductive to deny. (I have a private theory that Ambien doesn’t actually have any soporific effects, but just blacks you out so you can’t remember that you haven’t been sleeping and have, instead, been binging on a two-pound bag of raw walnuts or falling down a flight of stairs at Grand Central Station, as I was prone to do.)

In flashes, little glimmers of memory across a period of hours, I remember my friend Aurelia dancing, half-naked, and The Knife blasting on the stereo; and I must have texted a guy in the neighborhood who I occasionally slept with in exchange for the drugs he always had (not that this transactionality was ever articulated), because I can see myself stumbling out of his apartment while the sun was rising, electrified, my jaw wired and that sour chemical taste in my mouth; and then I found another guy, a handsome banker in the West Village who had posted an ad online saying that he wanted to go “skiing,” which was code for sex on cocaine. Somehow I made it down to his apartment, and there was a platter of cocaine that looked mountainous, gleaming iridescent white, and I thought how wonderful it was that we wouldn’t run out for hours, days even, and now memory begins to cohere a little bit more, which means that the Ambien must have worn off. I was in bed with him, this stranger—funny, if not altogether surprising, that I can’t recall his name or face or anything about him—when I got the first call, from my father’s girlfriend, Melissa. I silenced the ringer and let it go to voicemail. She called several more times over the following hour, leaving messages, which I ignored. I didn’t know what she wanted, but it seemed unlikely that it was more important than what I was doing.

The calls began to irritate me, and eventually I picked up my phone to listen to Melissa’s messages. Her voice was grave and rough from crying.

“Sam. Your dad—he’s had a heart attack. We’re taking him to Mt. Sinai. You need to get here as soon as you can."

“Sam. Where are you?”

“Sam. We’re at the hospital. Call me as soon as you get this message.” 

“Sam. Call me, Sam.” 

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Sam Lansky is the West Coast Editor at TIME. He has written for Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, The Atlantic, Grantland, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, OutBillboard and more. He is also the author of The Gilded Razor. You can find Sam on Linkedin and Twitter.