Incomprehensible Demoralization

By Dorri Olds 07/31/16

Hitting bottom in my addiction.

Incomprehensible Demoralization

Cockroaches scampered up the bed and scurried across my Greenwich Village apartment floor. I knew I was hallucinating. The empty liter of Bacardi rum glared at me next to barren packets of coke.

I was 26, sitting cross-legged like a child on my queen-sized bed. It was 6:00 a.m. and I hadn’t slept. It was 1988. A frigid March wind blew in from my windows facing Minetta Lane. Every nerve roared for more cocaine.

I watched with terror as a tarantula writhed on top of my dresser. I closed my eyes, hoping it would disappear. Tarantulas don’t live in New York but when I opened my eyes, the hairy black thing was still there.

My lap was littered with confetti-like shreds of eight-by-ten glossies. My painting portfolio. How could I have done that to the only thing I was proud of? I’d painstakingly assembled each page of the spiral book, with photos tucked safely under plastic sleeves in the hopes of finding a better job than waitressing. On one of the ripped pieces, I’d pressed down so hard with a pen that it left indents on the image. Hendrix lyrics: I don’t live today.

My mind scrabbled at the events leading to this last bender. The day before, my roommate Frederic had confronted me in the apartment. His long elegant fingers dug into my upper arms so hard it hurt. An angry vein popped out on his forehead and he shook me like a ragdoll. With tears streaming down his face he said, “If you don’t stop killing yourself, I’m leaving.”

In his eyes I could see the reflection of what I’d become. Disgusting, pathetic. Shame and self-loathing buckled my knees.

Frederic was the only person that mattered. Boyfriends came and went like subway riders. If any got too close, they’d see who I was. Or I’d decide a man’s hands were too hairy or he chewed too loudly. I’d break up with the poor bewildered fellow and return to my plague of loneliness. Then I’d fixate on a new crush and brood when he barely noticed me.

Happy couples on the street were a mystery. I wanted to run up and say, “How do you do that? What’s wrong with me?”

But Frederic, he was my best friend, like a loyal older brother who’d adopted me.

Our railroad apartment placed his room at the opposite end. Now, as I sat on my bed with jaw clamped in a coked-out grip and eyes bulging, I begged the universe not to let him wake up and see me like this. I’d sworn to stop after he threatened to move out. I had to because life would be unlivable without him. He was the only reason I didn’t jump out a window.

I remembered stopping off at Jimmy Day’s bar on West 4th Street for just one drink. The rest of the night was a blank.

My ashtray overflowed onto the nightstand, reflecting another broken promise to Frederic. Ever since he’d quit, he hated when I smoked. Gone were the days when we’d drink vodka together and play Scrabble for hours, chain smoking and laughing. He’d quit the cigs, cocaine, and vodka.

I emptied the ashtray into my leopard-pattern tin wastebasket. Suddenly, billowing puffs of smoke and high flames shot out of it. I closed my eyes and rubbed them hard. Slowly, I opened them again. Still roaring flames. I got up from the bed and put my palms on the sides of the tin to feel for heat. It was cold. Relieved there was no fire, I was terrified there was no sanity either.

I heard the long-ago voice of my cousin Angela, “You’re so lucky you can handle the drugs, Dor. But if you ever have a problem I’m the one to call.”

I picked up the phone and dialed.



After bursting into tears I slurred, “Uncle Carl had the right idea. I’m gonna get a gun and shoot myself.”

“Wait,” Angela said. “Do you have any more alcohol or cocaine?”

I had only the specs of coke that lined the empty packets and a few airplane-size bottles of Absolut stashed in my underwear drawer.

“Finish everything,” Ang said.

That was a first. People never told me to drink more.

“I’ll be there soon,” she said and hung up.

Her brother Brad called.

“Hey Sweetiepie.” It was soothing to hear his voice. “I reserved a bed for you in Florida.”

“Ooh, Florida?” I said, “Is there a pool?”

I heard the front door slam and realized I’d awakened Frederic. My throat went dry but I kept doing what I was told, scraping the last snortable flakes and downing the vodka minis.

Ang arrived at the apartment and yelled “Hey Dor!” After a bear hug she scanned the closet, grabbed a knapsack, and began to pack.

While she yanked t-shirts out of my dresser drawer I moaned with agony, “I’m out of cigarettes.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “Everything is fine.”

Being exhausted and stoned made me pliable and obedient.

Angela carried my backpack while I navigated the four flights down to the lobby, gripping the banister to keep from wobbling. When we got to her double-parked car on Macdougal, she helped me into the passenger side and buckled me in. Sure I was going to puke, I unbuckled.

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

The thought of eating made me gag. I managed a slurry “no.”

“We have to eat something,” she said. “It’s a long trip to Florida and when did you last eat?”

Before I could answer or stop her, she hopped over to the shake shop across the street and came back with two vanilla shakes. I got down about half of it before I bolted from the front seat and barfed on the pavement. She came around and helped me back into the car.

We headed off to JFK airport. As soon as Ang started to drive, I passed out. I have no memory of the airport or boarding the plane. I came out of the blackout while Ang was checking me into the rehab. There was a pink-skinned lady at a desk with a dopey soccer-mom hairdo who told me to sign paperwork. Then she led me down the hall to a room. Before she closed the door, I asked her to get Angela but the woman said she’d left. My tired bones collapsed on the cot’s thin mattress and I zonked out on the flat pillow till morning.

When I awoke, I tried to piece things together. Only isolated snippets. Frozen snapshots of laughing with a bartender, making out with somebody. I looked around the sparse room and wanted to go home. I got out of the bed and walked to the door but found it locked. There were no lights on. I peeked through the Plexiglas window in the door and could see a woman at a desk. I rapped hard on the window. She smiled and came over to me.

“Where am I?” I said.

“You’re in the detox room at the Hazelden Center in West Palm Beach.”

Her voice sounded like it was coming through a cloud of cotton. I could hardly decipher what she was saying, much less comprehend it.

“What am I doing here?”

She didn’t seem surprised by my question and patiently explained I’d come the day before and my cousin had checked me in, then left, and I’d be staying with them for the next 31 days.

I told her I had to go home and needed to leave right away. I demanded she find my purse. She retrieved it from a locker and handed it to me. I looked for the sliding Bayer aspirin container with my emergency line of coke and mini straw. I couldn’t find it and became frantic. She looked at me kindly and explained they’d searched my purse and disposed of the drugs they found.

Irate, I yelled, “You can’t do that!”

“Yes, dear,” she said, “we do that for all of our patients. You’re here because you’ve agreed to stop taking drugs and you signed the intake permission form.”

I demanded to leave.

“Okay,” she said.

To my horror, I found only two dollars and loose change in my wallet. I was a long way from home with no access to money. Dizzy, I asked the woman if I could lie down again.

“Of course you can, dear. That’s a good idea.”

She helped me back into the creaky cot and I stayed for 31 days.

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and numerous publications including The New York Times.

(This is an excerpt from a memoir in progress.)

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