This is a personal story I wrote many years ago. You can tell by some of the prices my brother said he paid for drugs. But as I re-read it, I thought the raw story might be helpful to some folks today. This is Part 1 of 3. Part 2 and Part 3 will follow on Thursday and Friday.
MY YOUNGER BROTHER took his eight-shot revolver and loaded it with two bullets placed four chambers apart. Then he spun the cylinder. In the game he played, Russian roulette, he would have one chance in four of taking a bullet to the head with the first shot.
My 32-year-old brother, an alcoholic and drug user, decided on this game a few days after he failed to patch up his marriage. He wanted to return to the wife and two small children he left several months before.
He had gone to his wife’s apartment and had talked with her in the doorway.
“I told her I wanted to stay,” he confided to me. “She looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Well, it’ll be kind of crowded, seeing how there’s somebody else in the bed right now.’”
That’s when he realized there was no going back.
He put the gun to the right side of his head and pulled the trigger. It didn’t fire.
As he sat in an old chair in his tiny living room, the television played it scenes: “Wheel of Fortune,” of all shows.
Without spinning the cylinder, he pulled the trigger again. Nothing.
If the next chamber was empty, the fourth certainly would not be. Again without spinning the cylinder, he pulled the trigger. Again, nothing.
The fourth time would kill him. He knew he was really going to die. But he wanted to die. He figured hell could not be worse than his life. He put the gun to his head. By now tears were streaming down his face.
He pulled the trigger.
In deep rage he flung open the cylinder and saw that the third attempt had been a hit. But it hadn’t fired. He slammed the cylinder closed again, spun it around, and shot the wall. A slug ripped through the plasterboard and sank deep into the wood.
“I remember sitting there thinking,” he said, “I can’t even kill myself right.”
When we were growing up, I thought we were a living version of the idealistic Walton family of TV fame. Folks in church even called me John Boy because I liked writing and was the oldest of the five children. But alongside the four straight arrows flew Chuck, the bent arrow.
“He was the one we had trouble keeping a handle on,” Mom said. “His friends were absolutely opposite of our own family. Sometimes I wondered if we were as close as I thought we were. I wondered what would draw him to the lowest…” Her voice trailed into silence.
Chuck was in fifth grade when he first got drunk. He and Tom, one of the bullies of the grade school, skipped class for the occasion.
Tom’s dad was an alcoholic. “Tom drank,” Chuck said, “because when he come home, his dad would beat him; and he figured if he got drunk, he wouldn’t feel the pain as bad.”
A cousin of Tom called the two off sick. And the boys took a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and hiked half a mile to the woods-shrouded cemetery in the suburbs of Akron, Ohio. Out front was an empty fountain. The two climbed inside, for protection from cool spring winds.
“That was the first time I ever drank and really got drunk,” Chuck said. “I got sick. I remember the taste of it. It smelled and tasted like earwax. It was terrible. I don’t know why I drank it. I guess to get the buzz or to be like Tom. I don’t know, maybe to fit in. It seemed like a lot of people did it.”
Mom had been praying and fasting for Chuck since his young teens. She hadn’t known his drug problem began this earlier – when he was 10 years old. When I told her, she sat silently for a while. Then I asked her what she was thinking.
“That’s the age of his son,” she whispered.
When I asked her if she felt guilty about not figuring out Chuck’s secret earlier, she gently asked me a painful question in response. “Do you? You slept in the same room with him.”
Then I asked how she felt about four of her children staying in the church and one slipping into drugs. She said, “It made me feel like it could happen in any family”
By the time Chuck was in 10th grade, he was smoking marijuana with his school friends. In a couple of years later, in the Army at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he began drinking heavier and experimenting with other drugs. He said he tried everything from sucking dried LSD drops off slips of paper to eating hallucinogenic mushrooms that grew beside cow manure.
“Whenever I went to the ammo dump, I always scarfed up a lot of mushrooms for the guys in my squad,” he said. “Just about everybody used drugs. Everybody partied. Not just the alcohol.
“The mushrooms tasted really bitter, nasty. But next thing I knew, I was down on the ground staring at the grass. You needed to be outside with a lot of room, because you always got a closed-end feeling.”
When his army stint ended, he returned to his hometown with a wife and a son. He also stopped the experimenting. He limited himself to alcohol and marijuana. But even with that, he said he knew he had a problem.
“I remember Dad came over,” Chuck said. “I had just gotten done smoking a joint. I had a real bad hangover from the night before. He came up, and he was talking to Barbara [Chuck’s wife] and wanted to know where I was. She told him I was with a friend or something. And all the time I was in the back bedroom hiding because I was ashamed, and I didn’t want him to find me and see me. That was eight years ago; I knew I had a problem back then.”
He tried to quit, partly because of dad. But three weeks was the longest Chuck managed to stay off the alcohol.
When his marriage collapsed, he sought help by returning to the church of his childhood. All of our family still attended there except me; I had moved out of state. Then one Sunday Chuck overheard two ushers talking in the hallway just outside the sanctuary.
“They were talking about me leaving such a good-looking woman and giving up my family and coming back to church, sitting in there, thinking everything was hunky-dory,” Chuck said. “They didn’t know I was there at the time. When I came out, they knew I had heard them. And it didn’t matter.”
My brother has never returned to that church.
He next sought relief in more drugs. The relief became a vicious, devouring cycle.
“In the mornings I always ate a hit of speed and had some coffee to kick me in. A few hours later I’d take my work break; I’d go to the truck and roll myself a joint to help my hangover headache. Around lunchtime I’d go to the truck and do myself up a line of cocaine to make me feel better and give me energy.
“After work I’d go back to the herb, and then I’d crack my fifth [whiskey]. In the evenings I’d hit the bars, and I’d be doing all of it except the speed.”
These were expensive habits for a factory worker who mixed plastics for living. Chuck said he got behind in every bill. To help pay for the drugs, he sold some to his friends and coworkers, acting as a go-between for the Jamaica-supply dealer he bought from. For this, the dealer rewarded him with some free drugs. Even so he still spent about $1,500 a month on drugs, nearly $1,000 of it going for cocaine.
I asked him where he got the speed. These are prescription drugs used to control weight. He said he got them from a diet doctor in the area.
“You’re not fat,” I replied.
“You’re skinny.” He was about 6’1” and 160 pounds.
“How did you get them from him?”
“I’d just go in there and tell them I needed to lose weight.”
“Did he know what was going on?”
“Sure he knew. [A friend of mine] was getting speed from him too. And she weighs 108 pounds.”
Every other week Chuck would go to the doctor for three “beans.” The pills cost about one dollar apiece. And until Chuck became deeply addicted to them, he often sold some to others for $5 apiece.
“It got to the place where I quit selling them. I just enjoyed doing them so much. Then I’d have to drink at night to be able to pass out. I’d wake up in the wee hours of the morning and go downstairs to make another drink so that I can go back to sleep.”
No one in the family knew Chuck was using drugs this heavily. Not even his work buddies knew. Mom and I knew he drank and I figured he used some “light” drugs on occasion. I was naïve enough to think he took them as I took candy. I had no idea of the inner battle he waged with these powerful chemicals.