Fresh out of rehab, he was a store manager for a big company. Clean for a few months he got the urge to use—time to go on a drug run. A few days pass. He’s burned through all his cash and hasn’t shown up for work. The place is running on its own and he’s probably lost his job. With his dealer waiting in the car, he walks into his store and goes straight to the washroom to do a hit of crack. He goes downstairs to the office and asks the assistant manager to open the safe, which is quickly emptied into his bag. In the money’s place he leaves a piece of paper that says IOU $10,000 then runs back to the car. He had no way of paying it back but he needed this money and if he left a note, he couldn’t be charged with theft—this is the logic of an addict. A few days later, after the money was gone and he was sober, the guilt set in—what he did was wrong, so he went to the police. Who does this?
Over a lifetime, we cross paths with many people. Most will have no influence on us at all while with others, we create bonds that stay with us forever. To me, Mario falls into the latter. I’ve known him since birth and although our lives intersected, our paths were very different. I spent most of my life raising a family with my wife and developing my career. Mario also has a son, two marriages and has had huge successes in his various careers. He’s also struggled greatly with addiction. His highs are the things we all wish we could have but his lows are a dark page out of Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries.
Last year Mario showed up at his parent’s home after spending time on the streets begging, using and trying to survive. The drugs had worked their magic, beating him into a thin, paranoid mess who was certain someone was coming to hurt his family—and it was his fault. He hitched rides with people he knew and traveled the 300 kilometres back to Toronto in an attempt to “save” his parents and son—the reality was they would save him.
When I caught wind of his return, I sent a simple message through various people, “have Mario call me if he wants to chat”. Nine months later, he did. We met many times since—drank lots of coffee and chatted while I tried to figure out why our lives were so different.
Although we’re only separated by three years, growing up, Mario was the cool older cousin who would visit from Toronto or if I was lucky, we’d drive into the big city and I’d get a sneak peek into his world. Back home, I’d try to emulate his style and lacking an older brother, I’d spend weeks bragging at school about our (mostly made up) adventures. Unfortunately, by the time I was 11, Mario was a teen and at 14 he would pop in and out during our visits—he was obviously a big man around these parts, so I’d follow him to his room and look through his record collection as he’d get ready for what was certainly a big night out. I admired the way he took command at home—he was a picky eater, so when he turned his nose up at my aunt’s dinner, she dug into her purse and handed him some money to get a pepperoni pizza. He’d reappear later, pizza in hand, some cakes from one of the local bakeries and no change. The power this man had was unbelievable. My mother made me eat whatever was put in front of me, but luckily this would only last for another few years. Soon, I too would be handed money to purchase my own dinner, so I thought.
At family dinners we would have a glass of wine with the adults, which was very normal in Portuguese homes. What I didn’t realize until much later was that by the age of five, Mario had noticed that the adults at family gatherings were always laughing and having fun—the common denominator was the liquid they held in their hand. “I started sneaking drinks and since then, I continued using different substances to feel good.”
The worse thing that can happen to a young addict is nothing—when there are no consequences they don’t see anything wrong and the addiction escalates. Our conversations revealed this was the beginning. Sneaking drinks at five evolved into smoking pot with his buddies at 14 which evolved into bigger, much more dangerous substances.
Cocaine was prevalent in the Toronto dance clubs and there was no hesitation to trying this new high. Fueled by cocaine and alcohol, the night was his—he felt great, probably talked a bit too much but had the energy to dance all night, and that’s what was important. The negative effects of the drug only hit you after—the anger, hostility, depression, paranoia and psychosis. That, of course, wasn’t a concern because being young = being indestructible = trying everything, so when a friend took an 8-ball of cocaine they had bought and started cooking it on a spoon with baking soda, he was curious. “I had no idea what he was doing. He asked if I’d ever tried this—I hadn’t, but I had just spent all this money on dope, so of course I was going to try it…then I fell in love with it.” Crack-cocaine immediately became his drug of choice.
Enter the kid from the suburbs. At 18 I was going to clubs and when the opportunity to go out with the cool older cousin presented itself, I jumped. Making my debut at Stilife was especially alluring, this club was legend—an edgy mix of concrete and steel with chains as divider walls and eclectic sculptures everywhere. A place where the beautiful people were selected from the lineup to get in, but not Mario—we walked up to the doormen and were immediately waved into this living Dalí painting. I was walking into the basement club where Madonna and Prince had hung out—surreal. We drank, he danced, we mingled, he’d disappear and reappear, I assumed he was off chatting with someone, or maybe he had a small bladder, why else would you keep going to the washroom? Two a.m. and time to leave but too early for bed so we take a detour and visit an after-hours club in Kensington Market—my first glimpse into the seedy underbelly of Toronto. As we walked towards the door, Mario seemed on guard—looking around corners and behind cars—he seemed paranoid, which 18-year-old me found peculiar yet mildly entertaining. Up the stairs to a locked door with a peephole, this was the stuff from movies—super exciting. Once we got in the reality and fear set in—everyone we were locked in this room with was strung-out—everyone but us, then he disappeared again. At the time, Toronto was full of after-hours clubs which the police largely ignored, serving up prostitution, drugs and gambling. As I stood alone I focused on a man who spent the whole time quickly pacing between the window and the centre of the room, muttering to himself about people who were coming to get him. Jesus, what was Mario doing mixed up with this crowd? I was happy to see him return, we could leave soon, but first, we sat at a table where he unwrapped a tiny packet and dumped its contents on the table making a few small lines—coke. He used in front of me but didn’t offer—he wasn’t a religious fanatic trying to convert people to believe in his views, he was a man that didn’t want to give his problem to other people—respect.
This night has played over and over in my head for the last 32 years with many different opinions. Eighteen-year-old me looked at Mario as eclectic party guy—he walked both sides of the fence and could have a great time with the beautiful people and the degenerates—but he definitely wasn’t an addict. Fifty-year-old me is a little more understanding of what actually was going on, is less judgmental of the degenerates and more critical of the beautiful people.
There’s a romance that is associated with certain addictions—Sinatra sipping a bourbon, Bowie holding a cigarette, and even though it has a tragic ending, Johnny Depp playing George Jung in Blow. Pop culture has made these things seem sexy and acceptable—we don’t perceive them as addictions. People look down their noses at addicts. People judge addicts. Watching my cousin do a couple of lines made us so much cooler than the crackheads and heroin junkies that surrounded us. He wasn’t an addict—this man had his shit together. He had a great job, was always stylishly dressed and in a few short years he’d be married. This of course was not reality. He spent 60 of his first 90 nights as a married man away from home. His wife naturally assumed he was out sleeping with other women but he came clean and told her the truth—it was drugs. She was relieved, “just quit.” It wasn’t that simple. It’s never that simple. Rehab, repeat.
Years passed and we’d occasionally see each other. I got married, we had kids and Mario’s life quietly spiralled in and out of his control. I’d occasionally hear from a relative that he was or wasn’t doing well—not much more. This was a cross the immediate family chose to carry quietly. When I heard he was down, I’d send the occasional message—happy birthday…Merry Christmas…hey….nothing back.
A long overdue cleanup finally happened—there had been many before, but this one seemed different. A move away from the temptations of the city was in order; followed by a career change and another wedding. I silently cheered as the years passed—one year clean, two years clean, three, four, five, six, seven, eight years clean, repeat. What? How?
I didn’t expect the 2014 relapse, yet I wasn’t surprised since there was always a pattern. Once hitting bottom, he’d enter rehab where he would find the clarity he needed to get healthy. Once clean he would re-enter the work force which was always followed by success in business. At this point he felt in control and the ego would kick in—time to use. Repeat.
How does a person who’s eight years clean, and is living well fall back into the clutches of drug addiction? He developed another addiction—gambling. “I had weeks where I’d clear $10,000 and I’d spend it all because I knew more would come in. I looked at the casino as an escape—I worked too much and wasn’t happy with my life. The ego kicked in and I started playing the “big shooter”. One night on my way home from the casino, I was on the phone having an argument with my now ex-wife, and thought, “Fuck this, I’m going to find some dope and I’m going to get high. I had no craving to use, it was a ‘fuck you’.” A phone call to an escort service and within no time, he was meeting one of their girls who was more then happy to take his money in exchange for drugs rather than sex. Two days later he was a missing person. “I don’t go out for one night. If I go out, you may see me in a week because I’ll keep going until I’ve exhausted all my resources. I become a menace to society because I’m wandering around looking for ways to score dope. You feel judged but you don’t care because you’ve accepted that lifestyle.”
He’d pick fights with his wife so he could storm out of the house to go use. The addiction doesn’t want you to have a relationship; it doesn’t want you to go to work; it doesn’t want you to have friends. The addiction wants you to hang out with other people like yourself and isolate yourself from your family. He listened to his addiction, left his wife and moved in with a girlfriend who was also his dealer. He tried to be a functioning addict—go to work and use at home but this didn’t work out. This time, addiction would lead him straight to the bottom—he’d burned through hundreds of thousands of dollars, lost his wife and possessions then within a 24 hour period it would spiral deeper then ever before. “I lost everything in one night. I was making $6000 a week and spending it all. My boss fired me that week and owed me $14,000 he didn’t pay me, my girlfriend threw me out and kept my car because I had it in her name to avoid paying parking tickets. I was broke overnight—gambling and using.”
He’s seen 18 rehabs in the past 30 years—it’s the high cost of low living that most of us can’t comprehend. If the cure for cancer was going to a few meetings every week and abstaining from drinking, most cancer patients would say, “Thank you very much,” yet an addict, who also suffers from an often terminal illness will say, “Are you crazy? Why do all of that? Why should I stop everything if I only have an issue with one thing?” Alcohol may not be your issue, but it can put you in a state where you’ll be willing to take risks which will lead you back to the all too familiar path; addiction, rehabilitation, repeat.
Researching this story gave me the opportunity to spend time with my cousin—more uninterrupted, quality time than we ever had in the past—drinking coffee and chatting, about past and future. I’m finishing this story just after he celebrated his one year anniversary of sobriety. Leading up to it he told me that he felt it was a bad idea to celebrate something that most people achieve without trying. I quickly shut that conversation down, knowing all too well that each of us is one bad decision away from becoming what we fear. Following suit, one step towards betterment always merits acknowledgment. One year clean and Mario seems to be enjoying life as a normie and I for one am proud of this new direction: addiction, rehabilitation, hope.
IF YOU’RE STRUGGLING WITH ADDICTION, THERE IS HELP WAITING.
ST JOSEPH’S HEALTH CENTRE: 416.530.6141
WORDS & ILLUSTRATION: DAVID GANHÃO