The Longform Guide to Addiction
Drugs, smoking, gambling, and booze —a collection of stories about dependency.
A cigarette burning in an ashtray.
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Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.
Seven stories on various forms of addiction, told from various vantage points:
Me & My Monkey
Anonymous • Washington City Paper • Jan 1995
Confessions of a white-collar heroin addict:
“Free fall. Nine months on a major mission. Fifty thousand bucks' worth of narcotics since Labor Day last. Heroin and cocaine. White powder for white people. Mighty white of you, Mr. Jones.
Hitting bottom. Pulling cash off credit cards. Ten grand of the most overpriced greenbacks this side of La Cosa Nostra. Most of the 50 Gs, savings from the Fuck You Fund. Souring beyond consolation on Washington journalism. Years of free-lancing on the side like a lunatic. Stashing bucks away like an immigrant. Buy my way into a new way of life.
Wouldn't you know it? My brilliant career turns to shit. My midlife crisis turns into the smack habit that ate the national debt. My Fuck You Fund is fucked. The Master Planner, that sarcastic shit, is sniggering up his long sleeves.”
Video Games: The Addiction
Tom Bissell • Guardian • March 2010
Three years lost to Grand Theft Auto:
“Once upon a time I wrote in the morning, jogged in the late afternoon and spent most of my evenings reading. Once upon a time I wrote off as unproductive those days in which I had managed to put down ‘only’ a thousand words. Once upon a time I played video games almost exclusively with friends. Once upon a time I did occasionally binge on games, but these binges rarely had less than a fortnight between them. Once upon a time I was, more or less, content.
‘Once upon a time’ refers to relatively recent years (2001-2006), during which I wrote several books and published more than 50 pieces of magazine journalism and criticism—a total output of, give or take, 4,500 manuscript pages. I rarely felt very disciplined during this half decade, though I realise this admission invites accusations of disingenuousness. Obviously I was disciplined. These days I have read from start to finish exactly two works of fiction—excepting those I was also reviewing—in the last year. These days I play video games in the morning, play video games in the afternoon and spend my evenings playing video games. These days I still manage to write, but the times I am able to do so for more than three sustained hours have the temporal periodicity of comets with near-earth trajectories.”
My Addicted Son
David Scheff • New York Times • February 2005
A father on his son’s meth problem:
“Nick now claims that he was searching for methamphetamine for his entire life, and when he tried it for the first time, as he says, ‘That was that.’ It would have been no easier to see him strung out on heroin or cocaine, but as every parent of a methamphetamine addict comes to learn, this drug has a unique, horrific quality. In an interview, Stephan Jenkins, the singer in the band Third Eye Blind, said that methamphetamine makes you feel ‘bright and shiny.’ It also makes you paranoid, incoherent and both destructive and pathetically and relentlessly self-destructive. Then you will do unconscionable things in order to feel bright and shiny again. Nick had always been a sensitive, sagacious, joyful and exceptionally bright child, but on meth he became unrecognizable.”
Bath Salts: Deep in the Heart of America's New Drug Nightmare
Natasha Vargas-Cooper • Spin • June 2012
Distributed in college town head shops, snorted and injected by hardened addicts and high school thrill seekers alike, bath salts may be the strangest and most volatile American drug craze since crack:
“In some sense, bath salts are an exercise in decriminalization. Buying drugs, especially hard narcotics, is often a seedy experience: You have to go to dangerous areas to obtain them, make the transaction with active, often violent, criminals, and then sweat at stoplights, hoping to make it back home without a felony possession charge. But the way the synthetic drug market currently exists, you can walk into a climate-controlled shop, slide your ATM card under the glass, and walk out. Or you can skip all that and just order online. The casualness of the purchase, the sterilization of the exchange, is part of what makes bath salts so pernicious and appealing. And the ease with which key chemical compounds can be disseminated, and thus adjusted to stay one step ahead of the law, ensures that the drug stays decriminalized.”
The High Is Always the Pain and the Pain Is Always the High
Jay Caspian Kang • Morning News • Oct 2010
Giving yourself over to poker:
“Pain in poker comes in many forms. There is the loss you feel about living off of the dregs of a societal illness. There is the gambler’s moment of clarity when you realize you have become just like the old, sad men that you ridiculed in your younger, luckier days. There is the tedium of sitting at a filthy felt table for hours, sometimes days, feigning a studied intensity. There is the anxiety over explaining to a loved one exactly how you lost $30,000 in the course of a weekend. There is searing unease that comes from watching that same loved one twist uncomfortably whenever you give them a gift bought with the spoils of gambling. But none of poker’s daily pains are deadly or instructive, really. What’s more, all of guilt’s iterations can be cleansed by one monster score. Hit a set of 6s on a J-6-2 rainbow flop against the Donkey at the table, the one who is wearing a fake Versace rayon shirt whose outrageous patterning is the only thing taking attention away from his Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses and the poor, doting, usually underage girlfriend who sits behind his right shoulder, awash in the illusion that her boyfriend is Paul Newman from The Hustler—well, win $5,000 off a guy like that and you stop worrying about ethics and your misspent youth.”
David Sedaris • The New Yorker • May 2008
On quitting cigarettes:
“By late afternoon, after a pack or so, I’d generally feel a heaviness in my lungs, especially in the nineteen-eighties, when I worked with hazardous chemicals. I should have worn a respirator, but it interfered with my smoking.
I once admitted this to a forensic pathologist. We were in the autopsy suite of a medical examiner’s office, and he responded by handing me a lung. It had belonged to an obese, light-skinned black man, an obvious heavy smoker, who was lying on a table not three feet away. His sternum had been sawed through, and the way his chest cavity was opened, the unearthed fat like so much sour cream, made me think of a baked potato. ‘So,’ the pathologist sniffed. ‘What do you say to this?’
He’d obviously hoped to create a moment, the kind that leads you to change your life, but it didn’t quite work. If you are a doctor and someone hands you a diseased lung, you might very well examine it, and consequently make some very radical changes. If, on the other hand, you are not a doctor, you’re liable to do what I did, which was to stand there thinking, Damn, this lung is heavy.”
Secret of AA
Brendan I. Koerner • Wired • June 2010
Seventy-five years after its founding, it’s still hard to explain exactly why Alcoholics Anonymous works:
“There’s no doubt that when AA works, it can be transformative. But what aspect of the program deserves most of the credit? Is it the act of surrendering to a higher power? The making of amends to people a drinker has wronged? The simple admission that you have a problem? Stunningly, even the most highly regarded AA experts have no idea. ‘These are questions we’ve been trying to answer for, golly, 30 or 40 years now,’ says Lee Ann Kaskutas, senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group in Emeryville, California. ‘We can’t find anything that completely holds water.’
The problem is so vexing, in fact, that addiction professionals have largely accepted that AA itself will always be an enigma. But research in other fields—primarily behavior change and neurology—offers some insight into what exactly is happening in those church basements.”
Max Linsky is the co-founder of Longform.org.