In 1978, I was in the Army in Germany, having arrived right after New Year’s Day the year before. From the first day I landed in Germany, I don’t believe a day passed without my drugging or drinking, or both. (Brief aside:) (and regular readers know “brief” is a relative term)…) While many older alcoholics, or at least folks who have been in recovery longer than I, draw a distinction between drugs and alcohol, that line never existed for me. Simple logic tells us that if two items are equal to a third item, they are also equal to each other.
Alcohol = a way to escape myself,
Drugs = a way to escape myself,
then Alcohol = Drugs.
That is, whenever I put any substance into my body, it was always simply a Keith Escape Vehicle (KEV). Because I am who I am (and that’s all who I am), I can turn a lot of different things into KEVs – spending, sex, travel, work. For today, for this minute at least, I’m trying to relax into being Keith instead of grabbing the keys and jumping into a KEV.
At first, I was smoking hash – out of bent beer cans with holes made with the pins on my PFC insignia – smoking opium – like hash but without the fog of stoned exhaustion hashish brought – and drinking beer and wine. Within a couple months, though, I had swum far upstream and was snorting crystal meth to stay up for a couple days, smoking hash during that run to keep from losing control, and drinking to pass out at the end. This lingered through the summer, until I discovered the efficiency of shooting speed. Snorting meant having that awful-tasting phlegm always in the back of my throat, knowing I was eating my nasal passages away, and not always getting the KA-BOOM rush. Also, bending over a mirror with a rolled bill in my hand was so, I don’t know, tawdry. Injecting meth solved all three problems – now I had delicious phlegm, a healing nose and a guaranteed lift-off – plus it was so much more glamorous to use a needle.
Still, even the biggest proponent of better living through chemistry has to admit being awake and alert while everyone else sleeps can get tiresome. For example, I can remember spending an entire night bending and breaking metal coat hangers to fashion a sculptured ashtray holder that would keep my omnipresent cigarette at exactly the right height and distance from me. I was proud of my creation until my roommates threw it away the next morning. I knew I needed a break from not ever having to take a break.
Ah-ha, you may be saying, that’s when he quit using drugs. Puh-leeze, there was at least one more KEV in the pharmacological garage, and I knew it was time to take a ride with heroin. My friend, Chuck, a corn-fed Indiana farm boy and serious drug experimenter, had already moved on from stimulants to dope, and he set me up the first time. As soon as the needle left my arm – and I was done puking – I knew I’d fallen into the arms of heaven. Nothing mattered. Everything was perfect. Time flowed as it would – even if I was supposed to be covering a basketball game for the division newspaper, that was okay. After all, nothing mattered, everything was perfect and time flowed as it would.
The problem with all these vehicles, for me at least, is that each vehicle quickly became as uncomfortable as the reality from which I sought escape. Ground teeth, paranoia and psychosis came with speed; heroin brought escape from that but its own set of cravings, yearnings and emptiness. By April of 1978, I needed escape from escape, and sought help for my heroin addiction. I went through “treatment,” consisting of scream therapy and individual counseling. When I completed rehab, I was no longer addicted to heroin, having discovered alcohol as my successful escape vehicle. As I moved from the arms of, first, Johnny Walker, then Alex the Stroh’s dog, and finally the joys of stolen generic mouthwash, I recognized booze worked for me.
Up until I wanted to kill myself.
But that’s another story.
Keith Howard used to be a homeless drunk veteran. Then he got sober and, eventually, became director of Liberty House in Manchester, a housing program for formerly homeless veterans. There, he had a number of well-publicized experiences – walking away from federal funds in order to keep Liberty House clean and sober, a contretemps with a presidential candidate and a $100,000 donation, a year spent living in a converted cargo trailer in Raymond. Today, he lives in a six-by 12-foot trailer in Pittsburg, NH, a few miles from the Canadian border with his dog, Sam. There, Howard maintains tinywhitebox.com, his website, works on a memoir, and a couple of novels while plotting the next phase of his improbable life.