• On Struggling with Drug Addiction and the System of Incarceration

    Chris Dennis: "The war on drugs is also a war on the poor, and the addicted, and the mentally ill."

    There is a lie, thin as paper, folded between every layer of the criminal justice system, that says you deserve whatever happens to you in the system, because you belong there. Every human at the helm of every station needs to believe it—judge, attorney, jailer, prisoner—and part of the process involves each of them continually convincing one another that this lie is true. I certainly believed it, most of the time at least, even when it took months for a medical officer to finally administer an antidepressant I already had a prescription for. Even through the withdrawals from Effexor—anxiety, agitation, vomiting, and sensory disturbances that people often accurately describe as “brain shivers”—and this was on top of the withdrawals from the illegal drugs I was addicted to. It took three weeks of asking a correctional officer every day before I could be seen for a kidney infection. Compared to many inmates though, my grievances were minimal.

    Correctional officers are habituated to deny care, to dismiss the needs of inmates. Because we’re criminals, we must also be liars. An inmate’s persistence is meant to serve as proof that their pain is real. Though even then, if you’re too emotional, or seem rude, this too is grounds for a guard to deny you. I can’t count the amount of times I heard a correctional officer say, “If you ask me one more fucking time…” Then of course he’d get halfway down the hall, having been asked several other questions, and forget you’d said anything to him at all. There was a senior officer in the facility where I was held who responded to every request—for fever reducer, food allergies, a visit to the library—with the same question, “You know what my suggestion is?” And nearly every inmate had heard it so often they knew the answer: “Don’t get arrested.” If you want your needs met, don’t be a criminal. But isn’t that the very reason so many people commit crimes? Because their needs aren’t being met? Because they don’t know how to meet their own needs? It’s no coincidence that this lie runs so easily alongside the lie of capitalism: You’re right where you belong. You get what you deserve.

    You’re led to believe that part of the punishment is not having access to basic things: healthy food, medicine, privacy, physical safety. When I first read that Covid-19 was affecting correctional facilities at staggering rates, I immediately remembered this message: You don’t deserve care. You don’t matter. Who are you gonna tell? No one is going to know this is even happening to you. The most insidious part is that in county jail most of the inmates are being held on bond. So the real issue is, if you had money, you wouldn’t be here. If you have money, you’re not a criminal. If you had money, you could pay an attorney to adequately argue your case. If you had money, you could leave at any moment, walk right out into the sunshine and down the street, like any other normal day. Poverty stands between you and a better version of justice.


    I have had a hard time with beginnings. I have to wait a long time for the first sentences of a story to come before I can begin writing. It’s as if I’m waiting for the initial flash to start a fire that will hopefully burn a little out of my control. I think often of that moment in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours where we see Virginia Woolf stumbling into the beginning of her novel, Mrs. Dalloway, and she says finally, with a kind of surprised relief, “Leonard, I believe I may have a first sentence.” For me, the idea for a story comes long before the language to describe it. I consider most things for a terrible amount of time before taking action. I am a fearful person. Inaction, though, is a form of action. It’s taken me a long time to accept this.

    This resistance might also explain why I had been thinking and writing about drug use and addiction long before I understood my own predisposition to it. I began using drugs heavily for the first time in my life at almost forty years old. I had been offered drugs, especially methamphetamines, countless times before I actually tried them. I was afraid of how they would make me feel. I was unsure of where they might lead. Most people who try drugs move on after the experience, but a small amount eventually find themselves at the mercy of a singular, blinding craving. I was one of the latter.

    There is a lie, thin as paper, folded between every layer of the criminal justice system, that says you deserve whatever happens to you in the system, because you belong there.

    I was writing into that fear before I had fully encountered it, as if sensing the possibility. It feels similar, in some ways, to an aspiration, a dream that one slowly works toward over the years, as if hope and fear are each arrived at in the same slow accumulation of moments, a steady habit of mind that allows us to creep up on the outcome until we overtake it, or it overtakes us. In my case, addiction and incarceration were tandem fears that I mostly tried to ignore, uncomfortable phobias I suspected were common and irrational. Bound up in this fear is the idea that our desires are sometimes larger than us, that they have the power to take full control over a person, rather than the other way around.

    I tried to exorcise each by writing about them, which is what led to the title story of my book, Here Is What You Do. The title reads like an omen to me now. The entire story is written in second person. “The guard put you in a small room by yourself, a concrete cell with pale green walls and no windows. You lay down on a metal bench that was bolted to the floor. You drifted in and out of the thing the pills made you feel.” Looking back, I couldn’t have chosen a more ominous point of view. Parts of it read like a younger, easier version of myself is casually dictating a tragedy that awaits me ten years in the future. There are jokes, comedy made out of scenarios that would later come to be the most devastating events of my adult life. I signed the contract for my book a few months before my second arrest for possession. I’d been there seven weeks when a guard came to my cell with an envelope. My dad had brought a check for me to sign. It was from my agent, the first installment of my advance, and it was $63.00 more than the amount of my bond. My body felt like it was in freefall.

    My understanding of the prison system, of detention centers, was based only on the experiences of a couple family members who’d been incarcerated, and the fair amount of research I did while writing the story. But the environment I describe is a setting for the more central drama of a relationship between two cellmates. Their emotional conflict is the story’s centerpiece. What I was truly unable to comprehend before it happened to me, was the impact being incarcerated has on a person’s ability to make meaningful connections at all. It was extremely difficult to connect with people in jail, the whole experience too fraught with discomfort and stress and protective posturing.

    I shared a cell with a self-proclaimed Odinist who tried to argue the racial inferiority of black people. He had “Fuck You” tattooed across the side of his shaved head in very elegant cursive. He called me a “faggot” every day in a way that was meant to be endearing. He’d been incarcerated off and on since he was a teenager, and both of his parents died while he was in prison. People make friends there, and bond regularly over criminal activity, but the constant mental disorientation that occurs when you’re confined to a small space for extended periods is often so consuming that the other inmates are secondary to the larger conflict between an inmate and their freedom. Each of us seemed always on high alert, like some alarm was ringing in our heads even while we slept. Some days this ringing, for me, made it hard to even talk.

    The gallery is a long hallway with about twenty cells, and four to five inmates in each cell. All day long, even into the night, people yell back and forth at one another, talking mostly about their charges, retelling the story of their innocence, or the state’s inability to prove their guilt. It was the first thing every inmate wanted to talk about upon arriving, and they would go over the details that led to their being charged, revising them, refining them constantly over the course of months and years. It was an argument against captivity. It was their story against the story of the system, and it was always clear that neither had it exactly right. The truer thing was somewhere in between. We were poor, lacked legal expertise, had limited contact with our court appointed attorneys, and so became one other’s readers in an ongoing distressing narrative of defense.

    “Capturing wild animals can stress them to death. This kind of death is caused by a condition called capture myopathy, which occurs when overworked skeletal muscles—the ones that power the fight-or-flight response—start to break down and release a protein called myoglobin.” We were animals in a cage, involuntarily detained, and always, instinctively, concerned with how we were going to escape. Not literally escape jail, although that was often a half-serious conversation. But how we were going to post bond, beat our cases, or reduce our sentences. Most of my cellmates would fight, to some degree, daily. If things got physical, inmates were moved. Many of the inmates had to be moved weekly, because no matter who they were in a cell with, they were violent.

    In my case, addiction and incarceration were tandem fears that I mostly tried to ignore, uncomfortable phobias I suspected were common and irrational.

    “On any given day, up to a fifth of incarcerated American adults suffer from serious mental illness. Personality, mood, trauma and psychotic disorders are prevalent; substance use disorders are widespread. These disorders often are linked to impulsivity and violence. Overcrowding contributes to deficits in the neural mechanisms needed for managing stress. Noise pollution increases stress hormones and cardiovascular risks. These factors negatively affect brain regions responsible for emotion, cognition and behavioral control and worsen already problematic behavioral tendencies.”

    I’d been traumatizing myself for years before I ended up in jail. Three winters ago, I woke up in the frigid courtyard of the Delmar Apartment Complex. I couldn’t see very well out of my right eye. This happened sometimes when I’d been awake too long. My peripheral vision would shrink my eyesight to a pinhole, making the world dark at the edges. Sitting on the snowy steps in front of the apartments, and still not entirely awake, I frantically tried to recall what it was I did for a living. I was unemployed, and had been for two years, but I thought if I could remember this detail, I’d also remember who I was, and know what to say when I asked someone for help. When I finally did remember my name, I also remembered that before I’d gone entirely unconscious, I had tried to open every door in the building even though I didn’t know a single person who lived there and was 150 miles away from home.

    Months later, I would sit in a chair for three hours while a woman with a box cutter threatened to kill me if I didn’t explain why there was a group of people standing outside her living room window. There was no one outside. But before she would sell me the drugs I came to buy and allow me to leave, she wanted an explanation. I went back to her house multiple times after this. I’d put myself in dangerous situations with desperate, unstable people on a regular basis, and would go anywhere with almost anyone if they had drugs.

    So it was particularly confounding that I was now under the control of a government that also wanted to traumatize me, to restrict most movement and volition, to treat even the tiniest concession like a rare gift begrudged to us by the authority of a tired, underpaid guard. I’d been homeless, my family was angry and afraid and distant. The strangest part: during the last year of drug use, the drugs barely worked. There was rarely a moment of real ecstasy after shooting up. I always wanted more. And when I did more than what made sense, I was so uncomfortable in my own body that there was no room for pleasure. I degraded myself anyway, on a false promise.

    Even after more than a year of sobriety, I still felt an ongoing sense of grief, a grave concern that I would never again feel the sort of pleasure, the merciful alteration of mood that drugs afford. Particularly for the addict with severe, long term depression and suicidal ideation there is an intense period of mourning during the early stages of sobriety. I abstain from drinking, and marijuana, even cold medicine. All of these have the capacity to make me long for more—for a bigger unmitigated high. Sobriety becomes then, in part, a growing terror that one has relinquished all future occasions to feel intense, unbridled elation. When you have been sad for a long time, drugs can serve as a reminder that joy is possible, that pleasure of any kind is real and obtainable.

    But the addict forfeits every other thing in their life in the pursuit of these chemically induced episodes of happiness. An addict’s life is unsustainable, and the body adjusts to the ritual of use. The ceiling of intoxication is a trick, because it’s constantly rising, until eventually it reaches an unlivable atmosphere. Near the end of Steve McQueen’s Shame, a film about an out-of-control sex addict, there’s a moment, amidst a blurry three-way, where the camera zooms in to capture an expression of near-agony on the protagonist’s face. His life orbits around his constant search for new sex, but there is a trembling undertone of exhaustion—as if he’s trapped in a body possessed by an unseen force, at odds entirely with his own frantic impulse to fully inhabit real pleasure. At times it seems as if he might tear himself apart to find the fleck of gold hidden somewhere inside his body.

    We were poor, lacked legal expertise, had limited contact with our court appointed attorneys, and so became one other’s readers in an ongoing distressing narrative of defense.

    An addict will follow this impulse until everything around us is ravaged. This is what I was doing when I stole from my family, when I shared syringes with strangers, when I phoned every friend I have to ask for money. I look back and can see how little control I had. Long term drug use diminishes function in the areas of one’s brain that governs self-control. In jail I was under the control of poorly trained correctional officers making low wages to care and contain a vulnerable population. Jail can’t teach us how to readjust to the world. It can’t reconnect us with our family. It can’t change the people, places, and things that come to represent and eventually trigger more drug use.

    For the most part, the days are identical in jail. The lack of variation, the fact that no new information comes in, no new experiences, made me incredibly confused about the penal system’s larger aim of criminal rehabilitation. There was a TV in our cell. There was a sad library filled with Debbie Macomber novels and long-form religious tracts disguised as apocalyptic action novels. But we couldn’t walk down the street. We couldn’t see the sky. We couldn’t hear outdoor sounds, only the constant noise of other inmates yelling on the gallery. I shared a cell with five other men. Some of the men would walk in circles, for hours, around our tiny cell, to relieve their need for physical movement. Some inmates would sleep for 12 to 14 hours at a time. After four months I was approved for a position as a kitchen worker. The kitchen was maybe twice the size of my cell. Preparing the meals occupied me, but some days looking at the rows of identical trays with their colorless food neatly portioned into each compartment made me want to die. There was a radio in the kitchen. Sometimes Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water” would play on the local station and I would have to stand beside the giant industrial refrigerator so that the other workers wouldn’t see me cry. We cooked ground turkey and chicken dispensed from giant plastic sleeves that read FOR USE IN INSTITUTIONS AND ZOOS ONLY. The gray meat smelled like vinegar. We mixed it with rice or pasta and ate it with almost every meal.


    It makes me incredibly angry that I had to be held down, as if some giant foot were on my back, holding me against the ground for months on end. And that this was the thing that stopped me from using—because it was violent, and miserable, more miserable than being a homeless addict. Jail is a deprivation chamber, all of the natural stimulus in the world suddenly reduced to a single concrete room. That is the point of it. It is meant to deprive us. I cannot say that jail is good, but I can say that it is a bad place to be high. There were drugs in jail, all of the time, but I could not use there. The lack of stimulus made it excruciating to be intoxicated. Imagine doing a line of cocaine then being locked in the trunk of a car for eight hours. And yet other inmates continued to use, for the same reasons addicts always use: to feel something other than what we’re already feeling. I am puzzled by the purpose of prison, by the incarceration of addicts, by the criminalization of poverty. The war on drugs is also a war on the poor, and the addicted, and the mentally ill. There is a ridiculous amount of evidence that proves incarceration doesn’t rehabilitate people. Too many convicts use again after they’re released. I believe what journalist, Johann Hari, says about how the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, but connection.

    And there are so few meaningful connections in jail. When you’re newly sober and struggling enormously to see some good thing, to wake up to the connections you abandoned while you were high, to reignite all the receptors in your brain that signal pleasure on their own, being locked in a concrete room where nothing new occurs and there’s no sunlight, or trees, or person who truly loves you, it’s hard to agree that a life without chemical dependency even makes sense beyond the obvious legal repercussions. I hated that incarceration was the final reckoning in my years long struggle with self-destruction and drug abuse, because I’d thought it would be something else, something like love, or purpose. Being alone, and isolated emotionally was the thing that led me to drug use in the first place. Jail pinned me down. Our habits are born out of a routine understanding of the way we think the world works. My understandings were flawed. My perceptions had made me an addict. Jail was an uncomfortable reorientation of those perceptions. It was restrictive, and rage inducing. Everyone there was in a constant war with their fight or flight responses, like any animal when they’re trapped. I was frozen, and dumber for having experienced it. I could never have envisioned entirely beforehand how horrible being incarcerated would be, how my fictionalized version would compare to the disabling reality. Or that it would be the horrible experience that also saved my life, that against all odds, one would somehow release me from the other.

    Chris Dennis
    Chris Dennis
    Chris Dennis' work has appeared in The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Granta, Literary Hub, and Guernica. He holds a master’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, where he also received a postgraduate fellowship. His debut short story collection, Here Is What You Do, is available now. He lives in Southern Illinois.

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