On Drugs

As long as I can remember, my heroes have been drug addicts. There were some confused messages when I was little, when my parents were trying on the one hand to share with us their favorite artists, singers, and actors, but on the other to share with us their gruesome ends. All I connected in my head was that if you want to be a poet, a painter, a songwriter, a genius of whatever kind, you’re probably going to find yourself at some point dying with a needle hanging out of your arm or a bullet in your head.

I knew what was happening when Kurt Cobain died. I’d been prepared just a few months earlier when I saw my mother cry through the death of Harry Nilsson. Nilsson didn’t die from suicide directly, but from a suicidal kind of life that I knew about since I was four and Mom was using “Jump into the Fire” to wear us out dancing before bedtime. I knew I wanted to be a bassist or a drummer from all the times I listened to that song, but I couldn’t decide, so I became a writer instead.

Nilsson should probably be better known for a lot of reasons; one is that he wrote the original breakup pop song (unofficially) called “Fuck You” before that was conceivable, and the others go on forever and ever (for real). What he didn’t write, he sang better than anyone else, and what he couldn’t perform in front of an audience due to crippling anxiety, others would make the centerpieces of the diva routine. I am thinking about him tonight because I watched the recent documentary about him, but it sucks. Save your time and buy Nilsson Schmilsson on vinyl and play it over and over.

I was raised on stories about Toulouse-Lautrec and Tennessee Williams, and when Mickey Rourke started going south, I heard the familiar tune from Maman—these brilliant artists, they can’t take it; life is too intense for them. “What a tragedy,” she’d say, and what I heard was “Genius.” And so I planned my decline.

All my mother’s favorite artists had in common that they were sex perverts of some kind, and that they had a weird relationship with God. I knew pretty early on that I was some kind of sex pervert, and God had weird feelings for me, so I thought I was good. I read as much as I could about how to add drugs and sex into my life, under the guise of researching the evils of such things. Portnoy’s Complaint, Trainspotting, Howl, Lolita—how could I ever become a proper drug-addicted sex pervert without doing the required reading?

I started imagining my future life in high school, writing stories that invariably got published in the school literary journal, despite having no content drawn from any life experience I could have possibly had, as the most faithful member of my Baptist church youth group. (Do you see a contradiction here? I didn’t.) I imagined all kinds of suffering and loss and desire that I couldn’t really have, not only because I was a “good” girl, but because I was seen as a “good” girl and no one would have touched me with a stick, nor offered me drugs on a stick. It was a waste of some of the best-looking years of my life and I lament it. I planned to get a lot more drugs and sex done in college. How was I going to become Harry Nilsson unless I made my life terrible?

In college, I learned the devastating truth that I suck at doing drugs. Some of you are (I’m sorry) empirically familiar with this phenomenon. I’m not much better at drinking. Thank God I’m pretty decent at sex or the whole experiment would be a wash.

The other devastating truth I learned was that life already sucks. You don’t have to do anything to make it suck. I had my first little couple of chaste breakups by misogynist nerds, plunged headlong into a brief and disastrous affair with a bisexual European, and then spent a year trying to avoid getting murdered by a seemingly sweet boy with Dissociative Identity Disorder. It really sucked. And what it made me realize, after the fact, to my great joy, was that my life has always sucked, not because of anything external to me, like substances or circumstances, though I have had those too, but because I suck. I’ve always been crazy and unpleasant and anxious, and I don’t need drugs to make me miserable. I’m high on life!

What I saw as my “privilege”—which, don’t get me wrong, I totally acknowledge; we were never bourgeois, but we weren’t hungry—was blinding me from the fact that I already had what I needed. My real privilege, in my eyes, was that I was an antisocial loner with no desire to reproduce. What couldn’t I do? Harry got married three times. As a woman, I figured, you had to choose.

Last week, I had an interview for a (very nice) job, and my future colleagues and students asked me what I wanted to do with my life when I was in school. It’s pretty obvious I wasn’t raised to be an academic. I can’t and don’t want to imitate those cadences, so I don’t bother trying. I can talk about my work, but when small-talk hits the table I revert to my oldest art, telling horrible stories about my horrible self.

What did you want to do when you were young?


Reader, I got the job.

13 responses to “On Drugs”

  1. Rachel says:

    Congratulations on the job, AWB! Hope to hear more soon.

    w/r/t drugs: when I realized that sobriety itself could be an altered state (if drugs were one’s default setting)–the sun, so bright! everything so loud!–my whole perspective changed. Yes, life itself is a TRIP.

  2. LP says:

    Huzzah, AWB! Is it in NYC?

  3. A White Bear says:

    No, I will be moving a few hours away. I think it will be good for me! It’s just a one-year position, but it’s otherwise a very nice thing.

  4. LP says:

    Well, a big congrats to you! Nice to have a happy ending after the frustrations of the hiring season.

  5. Tim says:

    Congratulations! Honesty is always the best policy, right?

  6. PB says:

    When I was a kid I wanted to die a martyr. Reading this . . . not much different from drugs. Illogical rapture is pretty much illogical rapture. I really enjoyed this post.

  7. k-sky says:

    I’ve always been crazy and unpleasant and anxious, and I don’t need drugs to make me miserable. I’m high on life!

    is my new favorite thing.

  8. k-sky says:

    huh. that was supposed to have italics like a quotation.

  9. swells says:

    I love the quick twist at the end of the post, when we thought it was about one thing all along and at the end we get a little present. Really happy about your news, after following the saga through your posts, and that what’s posed as a potential liability in the post ends up being the bait that hooked’em.

  10. Dave says:

    Heh: a post for 4/20.

  11. A White Bear says:

    I wrote this post totally drunk! I’m glad it came out OK.

  12. lane says:

    i really tried to get into blase,,, but, so many words.

    and then scrolling down it get to “DRUGS” yes! my pathetic non-reading brain says!


    (this has been a problem since about sixth grade…)

  13. lane says:

    10,,, nice!

    11. !

    and way to go on the job…

    watch wonder boys a lot where ever you are going. i love that film; how it combines drugs and art and sex and obsession and life suckyness into a great melange.

    those blase about their melange just don’t fuckin’ get it!

    Rock on u crazy Kansan!