Dope: A Love Story

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I once knew a girl who fell deeply in love at the vulnerable age of 15; her paramour was drugs. The girl would look at you with wide, dark eyes that seemed simultaneously to plead for understanding while pushing you away. There wasn't much room for anyone else in her life. Every time I see another mug shot of Robert Downey Jr., I think of that girl. Those eyes...

I overheard a comment by a stranger last Tuesday, when the news of Downey's latest arrest was released. "Did you see his mug shot?" the man was saying to his companion. "More like a smug shot. He was practically smirking."

No, I wanted to say. You don't understand. He was wishing that he could hide.

I knew a girl whose lover came in several disguises--white cross Methedrine, orange triangles of Dexedrine, "black beauties," long white lines of coke. She followed her lover everywhere--into parking lots with strangers, into dark cars, into the shadows along steep mountain roads, into apartments that smelled like stale smoke and had three or four locks on every door. When her lover wasn't with her, she was left with her own terror of how to move through the world alone. She didn't know how to deal with people alone; she needed her partner, her other half. You need to know this about drugs: unlike people, drugs don't judge you or look at you too closely, too intimately. They don't ask you to reveal yourself or confide your secrets. They just take you away--far away; they let you hide, which is what frightened people want to do.

One night this girl's terror became too much. She sat alone in a bathroom, dark except for the blue-white light of the streetlamp outside spilling across her hands, her wrists, the small square of the razor blade as it moved closer to her soft web of veins. She imagined blood spilling over white porcelain; she imagined the end. But someone had told her something long ago when she was a child--that God put each of us here for a reason. A thought took shape in her mind, even through the jangle of nerves and the blur of her emotions, ragged by then from years of drug use. She felt God's heart breaking at the touch of cold steel on her soft young wrist; a little more pressure was all it would take. She felt like she was betraying him. She put the blade back in the medicine cabinet.

That girl was me. I never got arrested like Robert Downey Jr.--more because of dumb luck or chance than anything else. But if I had been arrested, my eyes would have looked the same as his--a hard, puzzling, faraway stare into the camera. It isn't smugness. It's actually honesty, as strange as that sounds. It's a look that says, There, now you know who I really am. I'm not lying and pretending I know how to live in this world. I don't. Not alone, not without my lover.

Remember how Robert Downey Jr. described his relationship with drugs at one of his hearings? He said it's like he has a gun in his mouth, and he loves the taste of the gunmetal. You will never understand drug addiction unless you understand that it's a love story.

My story would be neatly tied up if I said that, after that night, after I put away the razor blade, I never did drugs again. But stories are rarely that neat. It was years before I stopped. I lost work, I risked my life, I even stole prescription drugs from people's medicine cabinets. I would reach past the razor blades and grab the pills. Dying can be accomplished in many ways.

I finally stopped because I kept feeling I was letting God down. Because I didn't want to die like that. Because even though I was in love, my lover was cold and cruel, and hardly faithful.

But I never fell out of love. Every time I see a movie in which people are doing coke, I want it. I can almost taste it in the back of my throat, and I still love the taste. You don't get over drugs; you don't ever fall out of love. You just--somehow--tell yourself every morning that you can go through that day, that night, without the one lover who took away your fear. If Robert Downey Jr. ever leaves his lover, you will see a different look in his eyes--more frightened, I suspect, but with a bravery that will move you to tears. I don't know why the world is so hard for some people, why some of us run for the refuge of drugs. I do know why some of us quit though. I followed the white lines of coke laid out on mirror after mirror. In the end there was only the mirror left. I had to look at myself.

Patti Davis is the author of The Way I See It, about her life as the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan