My long, desolate journey TO HELL AND BACK
My long, desolate journey
The writer's name is withheld for reasons that emerge clearly from the opening paragraphs.This is the story of an extreme case—but it documents a growing menace in our way of life: the retreat from reality into alcoholism and drug addiction
I AM A WRITER by trade, forty-three years old. If this revelation seems less than earth-shattering, let me add that this is the first writing I have done in twenty years while not under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Of course, during those twenty years there were long stretches when I did no writing at all, when my only occupation was tortured self-analysis as I tried to understand why I had exchanged a promising career for a course that led to several prison terms; and why I had chosen a way of life so irresponsible, so blurred and distorted by addiction that for weeks at a time oblivion was my only happiness and death my sweetest dream.
I would like to be able to say now that my troubles are over, that I’ve been cured ; and I want to believe this is so. But I know that, in reality, only time can tell. For one thing, I went through one "cure” before and it marked the beginning of a whole decade as a drug addict.
Now, far more hopefully, I’m "hooked” on the very idea of enjoying an ordinary, everyday kind of life—which is a pretty safe addiction.
If there’s a moral to my story, it must be the
old-fashioned one (with overtones of modern sociology) that nobody can sink so deep into degradation and despair as to be beyond redemption.
If it’s hard to say whether the worst of my troubles are over, it’s easy to say when they all began. They started, literally, at birth. I was born in Toronto, a premature twin weighing only two and a half pounds, and I have always been underweight. My twin brother lived only a short while. As a child I was so skinny that I became the butt of other children’s jokes. I hated to go to school because of the way they ridiculed me. My thin legs won me such nicknames as "Stovepipes” and "Matchsticks,” and some of the most humiliating moments of my life were spent in the school yard with a cluster of children jeering and taunting me. I struck back, of course, with my fists, but I was too frail a fighter to win. At school I collected one bloody nose after another; at home I flew into tantrums of frustration until my parents consented to let me hide my skinny legs in long pants, at an age when most boys were wearing knickers or short pants. Physical-training classes, too, were
painful experiences for me
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As I did better, my sense of guilt grew: I felt I did not deserve success
TO HELL AND BACK
continued from page 11
because I was obliged to wear a skimpy costume and strip for showers, again exposing myself to ridicule. I soon learned to shun any athletic activity that wasn’t compulsory.
In all my school years I never had more than one or two friends at a time. With girls I was shy to the point of being tongue-tied—a feeling l have never overcome completely.
Being neither athletic nor sociable, 1 plunged into school work and managed to lead my classes. Such success gave me a certain pride of accomplishment and provided an excuse for me to sneer privately at the classmates who ridiculed my physical shortcomings. But it never really made me happy.
When I was fourteen, our home became a most unhappy place. My father took up with another woman and wanted a divorce. For nearly a year, 1 and my younger brother, five years my junior, lived in an atmosphere of hostility and hatred. I can still remember how it felt to lie in bed upstairs and hear my parents shouting at each other, my mother insisting, “The children need a father — even one like you,” and my father declaring, “I don’t give a damn about the kids.”
Ultimately, my father won the argument by moving out and steadily reducing my mother’s household allowance until she agreed to legalize the separation. Then my mother, my brother and I moved into a flat over a store; but we couldn’t live on the eighty-five dollars a month my father was paying in alimony. My brother and I, both still in school, got parttime work, and my mother had to take a full-time job.
When I turned eighteen, my twenty-dollar portion of the monthly alimony was cut off, and I was forced to quit school in grade eleven. I got my first full-time job in that year of 1940—and took my first drink. I was hired as a copy boy at the Globe and Mail. in Toronto, by an uncle. E. George Smith, who was then managing editor. During my first weeks there I spent every spare moment copying stories out of the paper on a typewriter; that way, I got both the feel of the machine and some notion of how to write a news item.
On the last day of the year a cousin at the University of Toronto invited me and a former school-mate to a New Year’s Eve party at his fraternity house. That was when I got my first drink. It was a rye-and-ginger-ale and I still remember the pleasant
prickly sensation T began to get before 1 had even finished drinking it. My friend and I had only three drinks apiece all evening, but between the alcohol and the hilarity of the party, we were convinced we felt just as intoxicated people were supposed to feel, and we acted accordingly.
A week later 1 managed my first real drunk. My friend and 1 told our families we had been invited to a party, and would be staying overnight. Then we packed our bags, headed downtown, and took a room at the Ford Hotel. In a nearby liquor store we approached a man, told him we needed a bottle for a party, and he got us a bottle of Scotch on his permit. Back at the hotel we downed a couple of drinks. Then we headed out on the town. We took in the burlesque show at the Casino Theatre. Thirsty again, we walked boldly into a beer parlor, half expecting to be thrown out for being under age. To our surprise and pleasure, we were served six drafts of beer, which we somehow managed to get down before 10 p.m. closing.
Back at the hotel room we settled down to some serious drinking.
Next morning we both felt a little rocky. There was still some Scotch left in the bottle. My friend couldn’t bear to look at it but I lapped it up eagerly. I didn’t realize it then, of course, but I was on my way.
However, for a couple of years I was seldom more than a weekend drinker; I was too wrapped up in my work. After about a year on the Globe, I had badgered the assistant city editor, Tommy Munns, to the point where he began letting me do some “scalping” — rewriting small items from the afternoon papers. Then a flu epidemic hit the staff and T talked my bosses into letting me cover several evening assignments on my own time. I won them over with the argument that if I didn’t cover those stories, nobody would, and if my stories were no good, nothing would be lost anyway. But the editors liked my stories and published them. Soon they appointed me a suburban reporter and doubled my salary — to eighteen dollars a week.
1 didn’t know 1 was hooked on alcohol in those days, but I sure knew I was hooked on newspaper work. 1 worked hard at it — reporters were on call day and night in those days— and I loved every minute of it. My writing improved and so did my assignments. 1 got a kick out of traveling. meeting interesting people and covering dramatic and tragic events. For the first time in my life I began to feel useful and important.
But beneath this new feeling lay the same old fears of inadequacy. I was hypersensitive about my lack of formal schooling, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was competing in a job that was actually beyond my true capabilities.
And so I spent every conscious moment trying to create the illusion that I was just as clever as the next guy. I became abnormally concerned over what other people thought of me. World War II had broken out by this time, of course, and as many of the best reporters left the papers to serve in the armed forces, I moved up quickly in the ranks of the Globe. But the higher I went, the guiltier I felt. Such success, I knew, was more than I deserved. Early in the war, I was offered a commission in the Royal Canadian Navy but failed the medical because of a leaky heart valve. Later I was drafted and rejected a second time for the same reason. Then, when the war was all but over, I got a second draft call and was accepted. By then, I was determined not to lose everything I had gained through years of hard work. Through a friend, I paid a fifty-dollar bribe to have my papers conveniently “lost.” I still feel ashamed of myself for that.
In 1942, Gerry Brown, city editor of the Toronto Daily Star, hired me away from the Globe, and I was treated like something of a boy wonder. I was covering city hall when I was barely out of my teens, and at twenty-one I was the youngest reporter in the history of the press gallery at the Ontario legislature. But all along I had the feeling that events were moving faster than I could control them, that reality was something I couldn’t quite cope with. By now, drinking was taking up more and more of my time. I kept a hefty supply of booze at home, I stayed downtown to drink every night until the bars closed, and I never let a weekend go by without getting thoroughly drunk. But I never considered alcohol my foe. On the contrary, it sharpened my wit and enabled me to enjoy the little things for which I had no time or patience when I was sober. Alcohol made me see myself as the good reporter I secretly feared I was not.
As most people realize by now, the old stereotype of the hard-drinking newspaperman is, like most stereotypes, a pretty unfair cliché. But it is a fact that newspaper reporting is one of those occupations that offer plenty of opportunity to drink if you’re so inclined. Certainly that was the case for me when I was covering
the Ontario legislature. Most members of the legislature are from out of town, and the majority of them stay at the Royal York Hotel when the House is sitting. They like to have a good time while they’re in Toronto, and their rooms are always open to the press gallery. I literally moved into the hotel. That way, I could drink nearly all day without much interruption and not have to sneak drinks at lunch time, the way I did when I was working at the newspaper office. The hotel room was a convenient place to fall into bed, drunk, every night, and a good spot to enjoy a bracer every morning. I needed that eye-opener to get straightened up for another day.
A brief good-by
Inevitably, the whole thing caught up with me. .It started at the provincial government’s annual dinner for the press gallery. When the festivities broke up there, a diehard group of us returned to the Royal York. By 6 a.m., the only diehard left was me, and I was staggering from room to room, scrounging drinks from members I knew.
By 3 p.m. next day when the legislative session opened, I had such a case of the shakes I knew I couldn’t work. So I sent a telegram to my city editor, Tommy Lytle. It was one of the most economical pieces of writing I’ve ever done; “I resign.”
Lytle, I’ve realized since, had no choice but to send the equally economical reply that came by wire a short time later; “We accept.”
I was twenty-eight years old, and for the first time in my life—but far from the last — I had managed to drink myself out of a job. My reaction to this bad news was predictable: I went on another binge.
My drinking bolstered my self-confidence so much that, strange as it sounds to tell it now, I was convinced that the Star couldn’t possibly get along without me. Soon, they’d be begging me to come back. Much later, I learned that they would, in fact, have taken me back if I had had the guts to walk into the office and discuss my problem candidly. That’s the kind of a guy Tommy Lytle was. He, among others, had been fully aware of what had happened to me. And, like several of my other colleagues at the Star, he had tried to help me see where I was headed. But I had rejected these efforts, resenting them as attempts to interfere with my private life.
As I waited for the phone call from the Star—which of course never
came—I fell into a listless routine. Each day I slept until noon. Then I started my day with a couple of shots of rye. Most afternoons I spent drinking in the beer parlor of the Jolly Miller, on north Yonge Street. I would help close the place at 6:30 p.m., head home to cook myself something to eat, then go downtown in search of any moneyed pals who might be willing to stand me an evening’s drinking.
I had drifted along like this for eight months when Doug MacFarlane, the city editor of the Globe and Mail, decided to try to salvage me. Since the Globe is a morning paper, the setup seemed ideal. Working evenings, I could drink the rest of the night and sleep until noon. And soon I was back on the city-hall beat, with plenty of opportunity to drink on the job as well. By now I had persuaded myself that T had to drink along with the politicians in order to keep informed on civic affairs.
But in less than a year after rejoining the Globe. I made a couple of my inevitable gaffes. First, one evening I was late getting back to the office with my city-hall copy, and the editor sent out a search party. They found me easily enough, in the city-hall press loom—and of course I was drunk. But as a special flourish, I had with me one of the more attractive civic employees. Fortunately, she was fairly sober; but unfortunately she was wearing no clothes.
Back at the office, I got a severe warning.
But it wasn’t long before a second incident occurred. And, for me, this one was much more serious. It happened at my favorite oasis, the Royal York, at a civic reception (for whom, I don’t remember). Of course I had fortified myself in advance, and continued drinking steadily after I got there. Eventually, I passed out, falling right at the feet of Mayor Hiram McCallum and several other dignitaries. The mayor had already had several private chats with me about my drinking, and for him this was the last straw. He telephoned my office and complained indignantly. Then the assistant city editor got me on the phone. Don’t bother coming back, he told me, not even to write your story.
For the second time in my career, I became a fully unemployed drinker. I sank into such a depression of alcoholic despair that I’m sure now I would have soon wound up in an institution if I hadn’t got an unexpected new chance. Earl Smith, a former Star man who was by then city editor of the Vancouver Sun, came to Toronto on a visit. 1 had known him during his Star days, and we were still friendly. Would I like a job on the Sun? he asked me. Would 1! Suddenly the horizon to the west— figuratively, I mean—looked more attractive than I’d ever seen it before. Earl made arrangements for my transportation west. To me it seemed like a real turning point in my life. And, in a way, it was. But everything was about to turn for the worse. My plane ticket said I was on my way to the west coast. 1 had no reason to suspect then that I had two other destinations beyond that—jail, and the hell of drug addiction.
I was drunk when 1 boarded the
plane for Vancouver, and I had two mickeys in my pockets to make sure I stayed that way until we landed.
Instead of feeling thankful for my new break and eager to rebuild my career, I arrived in Vancouver full of drink - inspired arrogance. The way I saw it, I had been spurned by the two biggest and best newspapers in the country; now I was going to have to work on a smaller paper in a smaller city. Who wouldn’t be resentful? I got a hotel room and stayed thor-
oughly drunk for two days before I even phoned the Sun.
After my second day on the Sun, one of my colleagues invited me out for a drink. It became an all-night binge, and when I showed up for work the next day I was still drunk. Why I bothered to go in at all, I don’t know, but my “solution” to this latest predicament was to hole up in a darkroom in the photography department with a bottle of rum. Soon I was fast asleep beneath a table, bedded down
under several big sheets of the blotting paper they used for drying photographic prints.
Suddenly I was aroused by a thick Scottish accent, barking commands over the intercom. It was Jack Webster, whose heavy Glaswegian accent is now familiar to west-coast radio listeners. At that time, Jack was assistant city editor; and at that moment he was ordering reporters and photographers out to cover a fire in downtown Vancouver. Suddenly all the
arrogance and resentment I felt toward Vancouver and the Sun was focused on Webster. I cut in on the intercom and began telling him—and everybody else within earshot of the intercom hookup—how we used to cover a fire properly, back on the Star.
Then I slumped back to the floor for another nap.
Once coverage of the fire story was under way, Webster came looking for me. it took him a while, but he finally found me. Again, I was unconscious until 1 heard his harsh voice.
“You're finished!” he was shouting, as 1 roused slightly, “You’re all washed up!” And he leaned toward me in anger, ripping pieces of the blotting paper off me and flinging them wildly about the room.
“You’re finished here!” he repeated. “And I’ll see you don’t get started anywhere else in BC.” And another sheet of blotting paper sailed across the room. Many a Sun reporter of those days could recall Webster tearing a strip off him, but I doubt if anybody else ever had it happen quite so literally. But another cx-Star man, Don Carlson, helped me postpone the end to my Vancouver career by offering me a job on the News-Herald. then the city’s morning paper. There I enjoyed the same advantage I’d had on the Globe: I could sleep off each morning’s hangover and doctor myself with a few drinks before starting work around 4 p.m.
1 lasted just three months—until the day I was sent to interview Barbara Ann Scott, the famous skating champion. I was drunk when I set out on the assignment, and I never reached her room. The hotel turned me away and complained to the NewsHerald. Back at the office, I was offered one more chance, if I’d agree to join Alcoholics Anonymous. I refused.
This time I didn’t just go on a binge —I stayed drunk until I was flat broke. Twice after that I raised money by wiring home. Then I got a letter saying I’d had my last dole from my family. I pawned my typewriter, my camera, my watch — one possession after another, for drinking money. Then, piece by piece, I sold my best clothes to the secondhand stores along skid row. But I couldn’t buy liquor and pay my rent, too. My landlord began badgering me. There was only one thing to do. Late one night, I skipped out, leaving the last of my belongings except for one suitcase.
What do you do when you’re out of work, broke, drunk, homeless, and desperately wondering how you’ll raise the price of your next drink? There are no satisfactory answers, of course; yet 1 still had one ally—my suitcase. With it, I could check into a hotel. I found a cheap room. It didn’t matter much anymore that I had no money to pay even one night’s lodging.
Late the next afternoon, when I knew the banks would be closed, I went to a restaurant where they knew my name and got them to cash a cheque for ten dollars. The liquor I bought with that money helped me forget what I knew they’d soon find out: I had no bank account.
On four more occasions, over the next few days, 1 used the same system, always cashing cheques for small amounts in places where they knew
me, and always signing my own name. 1 was sitting in a beer parlor the day the police walked in and arrested me. The charge was false pretences. I pleaded guilty and got six months in Oakalla Prison.
As disgusted as I was with myself, I felt an enormous sense of relief at being sent to prison. Here, for the time being at least, I could break out of my old habit pattern and accept the punishment I knew I deserved. I was assigned to work as a clerk in the prison hospital, and I settled easily into the monotonous routine.
In Oakalla, I formed an alliance that will sound strange to anybody who has never been in prison: I developed a fierce passion for a woman I could never see. Just a couple of hundred yards away from our building was the women’s prison. All the baking for both prisons was done by the men. Each morning a truckload of bread was sent over to the girls. And they got a special kind of nourishment out of one particular loaf each day; it was hollowed out and filled with notes from the men. Each man was writing to a particular girl and getting an answer back. I was able to get on this “kite line” and soon I was matched with one of the women. As far as 1 know, none of our notes ever dealt with any subject but the one that was always uppermost in our minds: sex. Day by day, the notes that passed between me and my girl friend grew more torrid. We were promising each other fantastic ecstasies when we got out.
I had served only two months when once again, I got luckier than I deserved to be. Word of my predicament had reached my family, and somehow I was released on a governor-general’s pardon. It was a double stroke of luck; a few days later, my girl friend was released, too. I was waiting at the gate for her when she got out.
She was pretty and she wanted me. And at that moment, even money was no problem. My family had relented and sent me two hundred dollars. And Rose herself had a bankroll. Eagerly I escorted her to the hotel room I had selected and stocked with liquor. T felt only mildly guilty about using my mother’s money this way. My main concern was to experience all those promises I remembered from those jailhouse notes.
Rose proved to be one of those women with no inhibitions of any kind. Yet, even while we were fulfilling the promises we had written to each other, the experience somehow wasn’t the ultimate in pleasure I had fancied. Soon I found I needed liquor less to stimulate pleasure than to numb my growing feelings of guilt and futility.
Nevertheless, our orgy liquor lasted three weeks. Then one morning I awoke to discover Rose gone and a note beside the bed. She was on her way back to Saskatchewan—to her husband and children. I suppose I should have been sad; actually, I felt relieved.
In the next period of my life, I behaved in what I suppose experts would call a predictable pattern for an alcoholic cheque artist just out of stir. I got and lost jobs in Kitimat, Edmonton, Regina and Port Arthur. I
went on sprees in Vancouver and Calgary. And, for the bad cheques I wrote whenever my legitimate income ran out, I served time in Lethbridge and Prince Albert.
It was during this period that T made several startling discoveries about myself. During a spree in Vancouver, I suddenly found one evening that no matter how much I drank I could no longer get that marvelous glow. I remember hitting every cabaret and bar I could find and realizing 1 was still cold sober. Then I went back to my hotel room and sat down to drink all I could hold. I couldn't even get feeling good.
What do you do when you’re an alcoholic who can’t get drunk? In my search for an answer. I was ready and willing to try anything. In the process, 1 discovered my reaction to heroin—supposedly the most lethal of all narcotics—is far from normal. In fact, the whole experience seems ironical now, considering the innocent way in which I later got hooked on drugs.
I got introduced to heroin one day in Vancouver when I ran into Trudy, one of my favorite prostitutes, as she was hurrying along Granville Street. She told me she’d just “scored” (bought some narcotics) and asked it I wanted some kicks. With alcohol losing its magic for me. T accepted eagerly. She took me to a cheap hotel room, and while I “stood point” (kept a lookout) she went to the community washroom and got her paraphernalia. We locked the door and lowered the window blind.
Then Trudy went through the ritual that is repeated a hundred thousand times a day by addicts across Canada — the preparations with the needle, the eyedropper, the spoon and the capsule of heroin in the inevitable rubber prophylactic. When she had the powder dissolved and ready in the eyedropper, she yanked off her neckerchief.
“Wrap this around my arm and pull it tight,” she ordered. As I tightened the cloth, she tightened her fist and a vein in the crook of her arm began to stand out. Carefully she injected the fluid. When blood began to trickle into the dropper, she shouted, “Loosen it! Loosen it!” And when I let go, she squeezed the rubber bulb and gasped.
“Oh, God!” she whispered as the dropper slipped from her fingers. Then, in the next breath, “Scratch me, honey, scratch me! Scratch me all over!” 1 did as she asked, and she giggled and moaned with delight. Then she collapsed on the bed and lay there, her eyes glazed and her face wreathed in a beatific smile.
Ten minutes later she sat up. Laughing softly, she repeated the whole ritual. But this time she let me join in. Since 1 had never been “turned on,” she felt sure that all I would need this first time was a “skin pop. ’ She plunged the needle into my shoulder muscle.
I don t feel anything,” I said in surprise.
“It’ll take a while,” she assured me.
Trudy took a second fix herself, and soon was '‘coasting’’ again. My fix suddenly hit me. I vomited with unbelievable violence, clear across the room. I spent the next two hours
hunched miserably over the wastebasket.
Trudy and 1 stayed in the room for several days, and every time she took a fix, she offered me a shot. But after seventeen shots I realized 1 had only twice experienced a “blast” — that breathtaking, glorious shock when the narcotic hits your heart and those waves of indescribable pleasure roll over your whole being. It was then that I realized with surprise and disappointment that heroin provided me
with scarcely more kick than alcohol.
Trudy was even more disappointed. Drug addicts are the most selfish of people on earth, and I should have known that Trudy wasn’t being goodhearted when she invited me to share her kicks. Finally, she told me the truth: she had been in court a few days before, charged with vagrancy, and the magistrate had given her a “floater"’ — an order to get out of town or go to jail. Now, to avoid being picked up, yet to maintain her
source of drugs, Trudy wanted to get me hooked, then persuade me to move with her to New Westminster. She could stay there while 1 kept running into Vancouver for heroin.
Disgusted at my lack of reaction, Trudy ordered me out of her room. 1 cashed a cheque and bought a coach ticket to Calgary, where the ex-con’s friend, the John Howard Society, staked me to a room in the YMCA. It was there that 1 discovered that although alcohol had lost most of its
kick for me, I still needed it badly enough to do almost anything for a drink. This led to what I will always consider the most degrading experience of my life.
My roommate was a youth whose effeminacy was unmistakable. Y e t within a few minutes after we had met, I was quite willing to overlook this, for he produced a bottle of whisky. By the time we had finished the bottle 1 found him quite acceptable. When he asked me to go to a party down the hall, 1 agreed eagerly.
In the other room were four men in their twenties. We had several drinks and sat around listening to a hi-fi set. The atmosphere was friendly and convivial and yet there was a forced gaiety about it. A few more drinks and two “couples” began dancing. Soon they were engaged in unabashed necking. None of this evoked
much emotion in me, except curiosity. Then, my roommate began making advances toward me. I suddenly felt disgust and revulsion. But I couldn’t leave that room and all those drinks, no matter what.
As my roommate became more aggressive, I became more acquiescent, i knew what was going to happen; I made no move to leave. 1 closed my eyes, trying to imagine I was somewhere else, and this wasn’t happening to me. 1 couldn’t believe such a fantasy, and so I tried to convince myself that this didn’t really matter, that no harm was being done.
With this kind of rationalization, I became the submissive partner in an episode that haunts me still. It was a fleeting experience but this memory of how low I would stoop for a drink shames me more than any other.
But the shame was no cure for my
terrible thirst. Eventually I decided there had to be a cure for it, and I had to find it.
I came to this conclusion in Port Arthur, where I had been offered a job on the News-Chronicle. My first reaction followed the same old pattern: arriving in town ahead of schedule, I went on an eight-day bender and ended up in hospital. But my new employer was far more understanding than most. He came to see me in hospital. The job was still mine if I wanted it, he said, but I’d have to quit drinking.
I vowed I would — and I meant it. But when I got onto the job, pressures began to build up. I was desperate for help. And for once, at least, I did what seemed like a sensible thing: I went to a doctor. Wasn’t it possible, I asked, to get something that would help control my drinking,
something that would carry me over my periods of tension and depression?
As a matter of fact, there was, the doctor told me. And he wrote out a prescription for a barbituate I’d never heard of before—tuinal. I’m sure the doctor felt he was doing the wisest thing possible for my condition. How could either of us suspect that with my first dose of tuinal I would embark on a new kind of addiction which, in many ways, would prove far worse than my alcoholism? If I could have foreseen the ten years that were to follow, I would have torn up that prescription right in the doctor’s office —and marched out to the nearest bar.
In the next issue of Maclean’s, the author tells how tuinal ruled his life for a decade — and how a new treatment centre for addicts gave him fresh hope of leading a normal life.