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The Good Junkie

Updated on April 23, 2010

The Good Junkie

The first hospital I worked in was affectionately known as "the heroin addict's graveyard." The experience I had at the time with substance abusers whom I knew was limited to recreational marijuana users, who occasionally dabbled in harder drugs at parties. No one I knew personally at the time was fully committed to the junkie lifestyle. Working at the hospital though, I got to meet the professionals, those that really had what it took to hang in there and go the junkie distance.

Coming from so sheltered a background as my own, I imagined that the average drug abuser would look like a hardened criminal. I envisioned tattoos of pentagrams and wicked laughter, and aversion to light. I was young. When I worked with this group of people, however, I learned quickly that they simply didn't have the visible distinctions of evil I was hoping for. They carried no pitchforks, they didn't have any special membership cards, and they had no nubs on their heads where their horns would come out. In fact, no eyes are more earnest, more grateful, or more pleading than the eyes of a junkie. They are a desperate people. They came from all walks of life, and by the time they came to us, they had learned that their walk had led them to critical illness, and possibly death. Even so, the hospital was an oasis of sorts for many of them. Our staff was attentive to them, we cared for them and about them, and we had food. So naturally, we had frequent flyers.

Intravenous drug abuse often leads to a very weakened, very sick heart. Therefore, my unit being a cardiac unit saw substance abusers regularly. They were young, old, male and female. All of them had stories, many of them were highly intelligent, and no one on earth would appreciate what they were given more. They had McGuyver-like ingenuity, and knew anatomy well enough to go on our payroll in some instances. While our staff was often completely puzzled about how on earth an IV was going to make it into their weak, and seemingly non-existent veins, junkies came up with suggestions and were quick to find solutions. I once told one that if he got cleaned up we could get him a lab coat and a stethoscope and try to pass him off as a vascular surgeon when we had tough IV sticks to do.

I had at the time, the nickname of "Blair" from my co-workers, due in part because I came from a small town named Bel Air, and also do to the fact that I was just so very suburban. Well, I still am actually. Junkies happen to have a suburban-o-meter that they get once they get deep enough into the lifestyle. They live a life that is sustained by manipulation and desperate acts, as the fine print that is often missed about this lifestyle is that it is very, very expensive. You won't get off cheap abusing drugs, that's for sure. I don't know if it's enough to keep kids away from drugs, but I'm trying to sell teachers I meet on the idea that maybe they should take the 'kids, don't do drugs, it's a really bad economy,' approach for the D.A.R.E. program.

This leads me to Brian (name changed), who was admitted to the hospital for endocarditis, a bad heart infection. He was 18, very, very thin, and had eyes that looked as though he was on the verge of crying. He was nice, he had great manners, and said he was afraid of needles. Yes, afraid of needles, despite tracks going up both arms. He was my first junkie. He quickly became my favorite patient, as he was just so appreciative, and he was just so sad.

"You left this the last time you were here," he said in his very soft voice. It was my pen. Pens go to pen purgatory when they leave your pocket in a hospital. Staff members, visitors and patients themselves all steal pens without shame, it's just how we do things. I do it myself pretty regularly. I sent one of the hospitals I worked for years later a pen bouquet after I left them. It was full of all the pens that I'd found in my apartment during my move that I'd stolen from the hospital. It had to be at least a hundred pens in that bouquet. But this teenage boy, with the tracks on his arm was remembering to give me a pen I'd left the night before. It made me think.

I noticed a lot about this boy, but what was most notable to me was that he didn't have anyone visiting him. Where was his family? Where were all those people that had promised him that drugs would help him cope with his life? He was a teenager, and there was no one visiting him while he was critically ill in a hospital. There weren't flowers, or cards, or obnoxious phone calls to the nurse's station about his well-being. When people in my congregation growing up went to the hospital they were overwhelmed with these tokens of concern. Life is a team effort, who was on Brian's team, and WHERE were they?


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