This was not what I’d planned for my life, to be kicking Fentanyl, a schedule II narcotic, 50–100 times more potent than morphine. I’d spent the previous month sucking the drug from a patch that was supposed to go on my skin, and now found myself in a world of concrete the Mexicans called a jail.
The descent had begun years before, but the downward trajectory was only recently spiraling out of control. For a long time, I was able to steer my way out of drug-addict-tailspins, but it was time for a crash.
About a year prior to hearing the guards yell out “Yay-son Smeet” each morning so they could wake me up and beat the shit out of me, I woke up one day in my Northern California home and couldn’t feel. Anything. Nothing. My world had gone gray overnight, a complete and total mental breakdown I kept a secret. I left my job and spent a year laying on a couch.
An entire year of nothing.
I remember thinking about taking the trash out, and the energy that would take. I didn’t have it. You might as well have told me to go run a 10K. Walking outside was a task I was not up for.
It was crazy.
I had always assumed that depression was sadness, simply the opposite of being happy. I learned that, for me, depression was nothingness. Sadness, in fact, would have been a welcome feeling, in that it would have at least been a feeling. Instead I was in a deeply depressed land of no emotion, no feeling, no heart, no ambition, no strength.
Family would stop by asking what was wrong and I’d tell them I was fine, that the homeless look was in fashion, to leave me alone, to please quit staring at my blacked-out windows. My home went into foreclosure because paying my mortgage required too much effort.
Don’t get me wrong, I had the money. I’m talking about the act of getting out a checkbook, writing a check and placing it into an envelope — I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the energy.
I told myself that I didn’t know what was wrong, but I was lying. I knew exactly what it was. It was those fucking Fentanyl patches.
Following a back surgery, my doctor told me to wear one 25-microgram patch and change it every two days. And I did. Until, of course, I didn’t. Under his supervision, I climbed and climbed in 25-microgram increments over the course of six years, until I was wearing 175 micrograms at a time, demonstrating an impressive tolerance to all things opiate.
What I didn’t know at the time was these patches were approved to be used on terminal cancer patients for no longer than six months. I was on them for more than half a decade, in combination with Norco and Xanax, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, pieced together with narcotics and benzodiazepines. Unwittingly, I’d pushed my brain to a chemically-induced point that it couldn’t handle. So it shut down completely, leaving me on a couch without enough energy write a check.
It’s a strange thing to know the source of your misery but be too afraid to remove it from your life. Laying on my couch, I knew exactly what the problem was. I was like a battered wife, beaten into submission and wanting to leave but too afraid to face the world alone.
One day while laying on my couch I was watching Intervention on A&E. There was a guy on there who put the patches in his cheek instead of on his skin, since that let him absorb the entire dose of the patch all at once.
You know you’re a drug addict when you watch a show like Intervention and your only take away is hey, I never thought of doing drugs like that.
I decided to skip the second half of the episode and try this method for myself.
Euphoria. Instant Euphoria.
For the first time in a year, I FELT SOMETHING. Sure, the high was great. But I was just relieved to be able to feel again. I had energy. I could eat. I could leave the house. I could interact with people again. I had life.
I should have watched the second half of that Intervention episode.
The problem with doing Fentanyl patches orally is the patches don’t last. A patch that is prescribed to last two days on your skin instead lasts only four hours in your mouth. Running through four to five patches a day meant I ran out of my presciption early. Very early. And these weren’t like pills that I could scam out of some Urgent Care facility at will. These were Schedule II narcotics, meaning the DEA got copies of each prescription, making them impossible to get from multiple doctors without getting caught up.
It was at this time I got a call from a friend in Germany, who I’d met a few years earlier while teaching English in Prague. He was one of my business English students while he interned at a Czech bank.
“Hey, Jason! How are you?”
I skipped over the living on a couch and sucking on Fentanyl patches parts.
“I’m good man, what’s up?”
“My friend Terri is in California right now, traveling around. He really wants to go to Mexico and asked me if I knew anyone who could take him.”
Ding Ding Ding.
Mexico. The den of all things chemical. You can get anything in Mexico. Remember that feeling of walking into a Toys ‘R’ Us as a kid? That’s what it feels like for a drug addict walking into a Mexican pharmacy. Or Farmacia. Whatever.
Crossing over the border in San Diego at San Ysidro, I felt free. Free from the DEA’s oversight, free from all responsibility, free from the family and friends I was forcing to watch me deteriorate. It was liberating in a really sick sense.
We drove to Rosarito Beach, where we got a room at the Rosarito Beach Hotel. I knew better than to try and get Fentanyl from a farmacia directly. Even for Mexico, that was a heavy order. Fentanyl is stronger than heroin and I was just some gringo off the street. I needed someone on the inside.
I approached the guy cleaning the hotel pool as he used a skimmer to get bugs off the surface.
“Hey man, do you speak English?”
He just looked at me blankly, shaking his head no.
“You wanna make $50 dollars?”
Suddenly he spoke English.
“You know anybody who works at a farmacia?”
He just nodded. “My tia.”
I paid him $50 to gather a little intel. I needed to know how many I could get, what strength, how much. The basics.
He reported back, and it was a jackpot. It’s what I imagine Californians felt in 1849 as they struck gold for the first time. Coincidentally, leading us to take California from Mexico.
Whatever I wanted, however many I wanted, for dirt cheap.
I handed him a wad of cash and followed him from a distance to his aunt’s farmacia. I paid a teenager $5 to stand behind the building and yell if anyone came out the back, just to make sure I didn’t get ripped off. For five minutes I waited, eyes jumping back and forth, watching for policia. Finally, the pool-cleaning guy exited the building with a bag of 100-microgram Fentanyl patches and a few boxes of 1 mg Xanax tablets.
After five days in Rosarito, where Visa and Mastercard generously funded my drug habit, we loaded up the car to come home. The pool-cleaning guy made one last trip for me the morning we left, so I was stocked up. I was all lined up for a few months of personal drug-consumption. Unfortunately, the Mexicans would see it as trafficking.
Getting into Mexico is easy. Getting out, not so much. Crossing back into San Diego from Tijuana you sit in a line of cars just waiting, inching your way toward the giant American flag waiting just on the other side. As you wait, there are people who roam the aisles of cars, selling various things: Soccer jerseys, Virgin Marys, Chicklets, pinatas, churros.
All of a sudden there was a knock on the backseat window, passenger side. Standing there was a woman, dressed provocatively, doing her best to look seductive. Seeing that she wasn’t carrying anything to sell, I assumed she was selling herself.
“No, gracias,” I said, mouthing the words so she could read my lips.
She walked to the front seat, where Terri was sitting.
Knock, Knock, Knock. She was bent over, looking inside the car.
“NO GRACIAS,” I yelled. I cracked the window, and said it again. “Fuck Off!”
Reaching over, she opened the rear passenger-side door. I lost it.
“No quiero una puta!” I yelled. I don’t want a whore.
This lady snapped and started screaming at the top of her lungs. Every passenger of every car in the vicinity was looking our way. She caught the attention of a police officer standing off to the side of the road. As he walked over, I closed my eyes. This was not good.
“What is going on,” the officer asked in English.
“I don’t know, man. This lady…” and she cut me off, speaking to the officer in rapid-fire Spanish. I’m not sure what she said, but whatever it was, it caused the officer to ask me to turn off the car and step outside of the vehicle.
With my hands on the hood, the officer patted me down. He found patch, after patch, after patch. I was wearing cargo shorts, and every pocket was stuffed full of them.
Handcuffing me, he put me into the back of a pick-up truck. There’s no comfortable way to sit with handcuffs on, and having to sit in the back of a pick-up just added to the hurt.
He told Terri to follow us. Sitting with my back against the cab of the truck, I stared at Terri, who tailed us closely. Terri had no idea of my exploits while we were in Mexico. This poor German tourist just got sucked into the chaos that my life was becoming.
The truck drove away from the bustle of Tijuana, eventually pulling off at a stone building that was not near anything. He took my cuffs off, almost apologetically.
“Ok, you must pay a fine for this. Five hundred dollars and you go home,” he said, looking at both of us.
“Five hundred dollars? Are you serious? We don’t have five hundred dollars,” I told him, half-considering just bolting and taking my chances in a chase.
“No,” he said, seeming annoyed. “Five hundred you,” and he pointed to me, “and five hundred you,” he said pointing at Terri.
“A THOUSAND DOLLARS? I asked, incredulously.
And then, without thinking, I opened my mouth and said something that I wanted to take back but could not.
“FUCK YOU,” I said, immediately regretting it.
“You,” he said, pointing to Terri, “go home.” Shit got serious, quickly. He cuffed my hands behind my back and walked me toward the passenger side of the truck. I looked back at Terri who just looked at me with a look on his face that begged for answers to what was happening. I had none. None that I was willing to admit, at least.
He opened the passenger door and placed his hand on the back of my neck. I assumed he was making sure I wouldn’t bump my head. I was wrong. Grabbing me by the back of the hair he pulled back and slammed my forehead into the frame of the truck above the door.
I was dazed, and fell to my knees. Reflexes forced me to try and put my hands in front of me, which tightened the cuffs to the point that they were cutting into my hands. I could feel blood dripping off of my left wrist. He swung and hit me on the head behind my right ear, turning me around and flat on my ass. I looked up, confused and my head rithing in pain, just in time to see his right hand cocked back before he swung again, hitting me just under my left eye. I could feel blood gushing from my left cheek.
Everything went black. When I woke up, I was laying on my stomach in a Tijuana Jail cell. I lifted my head up just long enough to see that there was another white guy in the cell with me.
“Aye man, are you all right?” he asked.
I tried lifting my head. When I blinked I could feel throbbing in my cheek, so I decided to keep my eyes closed. And when I went to talk, my jaw hurt, so I decided to keep my mouth closed.
I was anything but “all right.”
The guards had taken the Fentanyl patches off of my stomach, and emptied my pockets of their contents.
The pain I felt from the punches didn’t come close to the pain I was about to endure in the coming days.
Drug addiction is a love affair. Pure and simple. It’s hot, and passionate, and seductive, and engrossing. It’s captivating, in that it makes an addict think about the drug non-stop, never content because you know what you have won’t last, regardless of the size of the most recent score. Maintaining an addiction is a game of chess, ever-contemplating the NEXT move, the NEXT score, for fear that when what you have is gone, you’ll be without.
Oh, God, that fear.
Being without means getting sick. And getting sick is something that, short of being locked up, you just won’t let happen.
Well, I was locked up. In jail. In Tijuana.
The cell was beige, with two beds, angled chains holding one above the other. At the ends of the beds was what, I suppose, could be considered a toilet. The floor angled into a hole in the ground.
No toilet seat. No toilet paper. No toilet. Just a hole.
When I opened my eyes, my cellmate was gone. I’m not sure he was ever there in the first place.
Sitting up, my head throbbing, I surveyed the scene. It didn’t look good. My cell faced a long, narrow hallway, with cells on the opposite side facing me. Their cells were packed with inmates, all in for various crimes, mainly drugs and alcohol. I was the only white guy.
“Good morning!” one guy shouted, in accented English, as he laughed. “Man, they fucked you up good!”
I just smiled. Ironically, it was the only facial expression I could make that didn’t hurt.
I was still wearing the clothes I was arrested in: cargo shorts, T-Shirt, and a pair of white and black Adidas with the laces removed so I wouldn’t hang myself. The jail was hot and filled with artificial light, making it impossible to know if it was day or night. Realizing my predicament, I figured I’d have at least a few days without getting sick because I’d put a few Fentanyl patches on my stomach that morning.
Reaching under my shirt to make sure I’d be OK—something you do constantly when you’re wearing the patches—I felt nothing. I felt skin where patches should have been, a sticky residue left behind.
I had nothing. Realizing the guards had taken them off of me, I panicked.
Jumping off my top bunk, I called for a guard. “Hey, man, I need a doctor. Necessito un doctor. Hello?”
What appeared could have been a casting for a bad movie. Overweight guard, handcuffs dangling, spinning a nightstick around in his hand, thick, bushy, black mustache.
“You need doctor?” he asked, arching his eyebrows.
“Yes, PLEASE. Por Favor.”
He motioned for me to turn around and put my hands behind my back. I stuck my hands through a slot in the bars, and he placed the cuffs on me. I turned around, facing him, eye-to-eye, through the bars.
He pulled a clipboard from a slot on the wall and read.
“Yay-son Smeet.” And then looked at me, as if awaiting confirmation.
This was no time to dispute pronunciation.
I nodded my head, “Si.”
Placing the clipboard back in its slot, he opened the cell door. I stepped forward, thinking we’d be walking somewhere. He placed a hand on my chest with more strength than I’d anticipated, forcing me to stumble back. I looked at him, slightly confused. Reaching back, he hit me with an uppercut to the stomach with much more force than someone his size should’ve been able to produce. His punch dropped me to my knees, taking all of the air out of my lungs. I knelt with my chin on the lower bunk, gasping, trying to catch my breath.
The prisoners on the other side just watched, silently.
That was all. He took the handcuffs off of my wrists, which were rubbed completely raw by this point, and casually left the cell, turned around, locked it, and walked off, swinging his nightstick as if none of that just happened.
Laying down on my back, I outstretched my arms above my head, letting oxygen slowly return to my body. From my cell floor I stared at the ceiling, and it stared back. I realized I was going to have to do this and it wasn’t going to be pleasant.
It’s a sad state to contemplate suicide from the deepest part of your being, only to realize you don’t have the means to carry it out. Which only left one alternative: severe withdrawal.
When you start to kick opiates, the mental anguish sets in before the physical. The anticipation of the withdrawal is actually its first stage, where anguish commences. Misery’s coming-out-party. The only thing worse than a journey through hell is knowing that you’re about to go on a journey through hell.
Everything about withdrawal is the complete opposite of the high. As good as you feel on opiates is as bad as you feel coming off of them. I’ve heard people compare detox to the flu, which is comical. When’s the last time you had a flu that made you contemplate suicide?
Detox is your body fighting like hell to get back to normal, while your brain fights like hell to stay high. You’re simply caught in the middle, an innocent bystander whose innocence was lost long, long ago.
That feeling of warm water running through your veins that you get when high—now it’s ice cold and screams at you, relentlessly. Every vein in your body burns. Your skin hurts. That’s right, your fucking skin hurts. You’re vomiting up something awful and your joints feel like they’re made of cold steel. You’re sneezing and your eyes feel like they’re going to burn out of their sockets while pumping out a seemingly endless amount of tears.
You’re yawning, regardless of the fact that sleep is the last thing you’re going to get. It’s almost like your brain is teasing you with the things it would do for you, if you would only just find a way to get high.
I lay myself on the bottom bunk, which had no mattress or pillow or blanket. The metal bed was cold to the touch as I tried to dig my face into it as hard as I could, knees to my chest, curled up, trying to redirect the pain to other parts of my body. I was laying in the fetal position the first time the guards did their morning roll call. That’s the only way I knew it was morning.
I lay curled up, facing the wall of the cell beneath the shadow of the top bunk.
I just lay there, noticeably aggravating the guard. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do in response, but it was obviously different than what I was doing.
“YAY-SON SMEET?” He raised his voice.
When you’re kicking, it doesn’t take much to piss you off. Everybody is an enemy because your sole desire is to get high, and anybody offering anything but that is a fucking nuisance.
“Yes, I’m right here. Jesus, there’s one person in this cell. Let’s use some fucking deductive reasoning skills to figure out if “Yay-son” is here.
I couldn’t see the guard’s face because I was facing the wall, but I heard him enter, and I felt him grab the back of my T-shirt. He pulled, dragging me out of the bunk. He didn’t even bother cuffing me because I was obviously in no condition to fight back. He turned me around so I was sitting on the bunk but now facing out and hit me in the exact same spot, under my left eye, that the cop who’d arrested me had hit me. My head snapped back and hit the metal side of the top bunk, which hurt much more than the punch did. I put my hands over my head and lay back down. I heard the guard exit, lock the cage, and continue down the line of his roll call.
Kicking at home, it’s bad, but not this bad. At home you know in the back of your mind you can make a phone call, visit a doctor, pull the old “Ibuprofen hurts my stomach” bullshit, and get what you need. But this was a different kind of kick. My brain knew this was it; there was no phone call to make, no doctor to visit, no dealer to call. I mean, shit, where was I going to go?
The worst part about getting through day one was knowing there would be a day two. Day two was vomiting and diarrhea. With a hole in the ground and no toilet paper. Thankfully, I was wearing long socks.
Losing this much fluid meant I needed to put something back in to feel any relief. But that was, shall we say, a problem.
Every morning, one of the inmates was tasked with mopping up the spit and vomit and whatever else found its way onto the floor of the jail. As they went by with the mop it became hard to breathe. My throat closed up, but I thought that was just part of the detox. I noticed, however, the inmates across from me coughing as well. On day two the same thing happened. It made me gag and dry heave, but in a different key than my previous gags and dry heaves.
A man who introduced himself as Jorge and spoke pretty good English looked at me from his cell.
“Is lye,” he said.
“Si. Is lye,” and he motioned to his throat. “Is hot.”
My throat was burning and I needed a drink, but there was no water in the cell.
“Do we get water?” I asked, slowly emerging from my bottom-bunk cavern.
“Si.” He grabbed a large McDonalds plastic up that was perched in the upper-left hand side of his cell. I looked up and saw that I had one in my cell as well.
I was confused. “Where do we fill it?”
Jorge yelled something in Spanish causing the guy mopping the floor to come back his direction. Handing over the cup, the guy with the mop bucket dipped the plastic cup into the mop bucket and passed it back to Jorge.
I looked on, stunned. Frozen. Speechless.
Jorge gave me a look that suggested Don’t you know where you are right now?
My body was screaming for water. I was dehydrated, vomiting, and sweating because the jail was hot.
The man holding the mop looked at me, waiting to see if I had a cup for him to fill before he could go on his way. Broken, dried blood on my forehead and face, I handed him my plastic McDonalds cup. He handed it back me, full.
I drank from it. It burned, but it went down. I drank some more.
I’m not sure what day it was because time wasn’t really broken into days in that jail. It was broken down into segments between roll calls. We were never let outside, never allowed to shower, and all we ate were plates of rice and bread.
It was a day when my body was beginning to feel a little better, so it had to have been more than three days. Day three is the detox climax, where you know that it’s not going to get any worse than that. I was losing my voice from drinking lye-laced water, but I could feel life starting to enter my body. I could stand up, walk around, and only occasionally have to throw up.
That morning when the guard walked by I asked if I could talk to a US consulate. Before he cuffed me and hit me in the stomach, however, he flashed a look of concern. That was the first sign that something was amiss.
My stomach and chest were bruised, but the punches began to get redundant. They kept hitting me in the same spots, which by that point were totally numb. I felt an element of strengh that I hadn’t felt before, and the stronger I felt, the more confident I felt pushing the issue.
“Hey,” I barked at the next guard that walked by a few hours later. “I want to talk to a consulate representative.” He looked at me sideways, cocked his head back, began to open my cage, but decided instead to re-lock it and scurry off to some part of the jail that I was unable to see.
I began to identify the guards by how they beat me. There were three different guards. The skinny one with the goatee liked to hit me in the face, so I didn’t push it with him. I just waited until his shift was over.
The two other guards, both with bushy mustaches, would hit me in the stomach and chest, which I could deal with, so I started insisting on talking to someone from my consulate when they were on duty.
I began to feel more mental strength. I knew that were I not cuffed I could handle both of these guys. Knowing this gave me the will to endure. Knowing that they knew this made me feel even stronger. On day one they could drop me with one shot. I liked knowing that as days passed, it took more and more punches to drop me to my knees. I liked, even more, knowing that they knew this as well.
One shift they called my name, but it wasn’t during roll call. “Yay-son Smeet?” It wasn’t a guard. He was a gentle-looking older man wearing a white medical coat and a long, straggly, gray goatee.
“Si,” I said, hopping off of my bottom bunk.
“Come with me,” and he motioned for a guard to unlock my cell.
I followed him down the line of cells, overflowing with people, making me question why I’d been alone the whole time. Finally I got to see what the rest of the jail looked like, since I was unconscious when I came in.
The man lead me to a small, smoke-stained office with wooden floors. I sat down on a chair, uncomfortably, since I was still cuffed.
He looked at me and tilted his head back, leaning back in his chair. “I’d ask you how you are doing, but we both know the answer to that.”
We both laughed. It felt good to laugh.
“Why do you speak English so well?” I asked him out of curiosity.
With a look of pride he stated, “I went to San Diego State for undergraduate studies.”
“No shit? That was the first school that ever recruited me to play football for them,” I told him, doing my best to match his level of pride.
“You played American football? You look like it. You look strong, which, just so you know, is why the guards beat you so often. It makes them feel better about themselves,” he smiled.
I didn’t know who this guy was, but I liked him.
“Jason, you concern me. That was a lot of Fentanyl they caught you with. Why do you take so much?”
Nobody had ever asked me that question before.
“I had back surgery, and it just sort of got out of control,” I explained. Strangely, in this surreal environment surrounded by decrepit conditions, I was actually being honest with somebody about my addiction for the first time in my life.
He scooted his chair forward and looked at me. “Jason, I’m the doctor for the jail, and I’m going to issue your release on medical conditions. Because of the withdrawal we witnessed you go through, we know that the Fentanyl you were caught with was for yourself, not for sales. But I want you to promise me that when you get home you will get help.”
“I promise,” I blurted out immediately, not really sure if I meant it or not.
“You have to promise me you will be finished with this Fentanyl,” he said, waiting for my response.
He looked me in my eyes until he believed me.
“OK, follow me,” he said, standing up, opening his office door, and leading me toward what looked to be the processing area.
The doctor handed some paperwork to a guard who I didn’t recognize. The guard motioned for me to turn around and took the handcuffs off of my wrists, then looked at the paperwork one last time. “Yay-son Smeet?” I prayed that was the last time I would hear that. “Si,” I nodded.
Opening a wide, steel door that lead out into a humid waiting room, the guard handed me my drivers license and that was it. It seemed a very anti-climactic finish to the week.
No wallet. No phone. filthy clothes. A bruised body. A bloodied face. And Adidas with no shoelaces.
It was like the most fucked up Run DMC video ever.
I left the jail with no physical addiction to any drug. I’d gone through the most horrific kick of my life, in the most disgusting of conditions, in what amounted to a third-world jail. This was a chance to start anew. Free from addiction, free from Fentanyl, free from doctors. This was my chance.
I hitched a ride into town with a guy who was there to pay a traffic ticket. I had him drop me off at a bank, where I went inside and had my bank wire me $100 from my savings account. It was my last $100, since the police had spent the entire duration of my incarceration draining my checking account and maxing out my credit cards.
Leaving the bank with the last $100 to my name, I walked toward the border. At a gas station I bought a giant bottle of water and a large Arizona Iced Green Tea. I finished both drinks before I got to the counter.
This left me $98 to get home. I would need this money to get from the border at San Ysidro to the airport, where I had a ticketless reservation with Southwest. It wasn’t much, but it would be enough.
As I walked past the vehicles waiting in the same line of cars where I’d been arrested, there were signs everywhere. “Farmacia.” “Discount Drugs.” “Generic Prices.”
Don’t do it, Jason. Be strong.
As I walked by, pharmaceutical carnival-barkers stood outside their respective pharmacies, inviting me to come in.
“You want drugs? Steroids? Sudafed? Amphetamines?”
No thanks. Not my thing.
I kept walking, passing another farmacia.
Viagra, what? Fuck you.
“You want Ritalin? Adderall?”
Just keep walking Jason. Just keep walking. You got this.
My ears perked up, like when a dog hears a siren in the distance.
“Vicodin? Norco? Soma?”
All of a sudden, the distance to the border seemed entirely too far to walk unmedicated.
“You have Norco?” I asked the man, like a fish toying with bait.
“Si, si. Come in,” he said, setting the hook as he opened the door for me.
“How can I help you?” asked the old man behind the counter, knowing good-and-goddamn well what I was after before I even said it.
“Do you have Fentanyl?” I asked, in a defeated tone. Pool-cleaning guy was nowhere to be found, but I figured I’d give it a shot. A drug-addict hail mary.
He looked at the man working the door, who nodded his head and locked the door.
“Si, I have it, but this is very strong medication, senor. How much do you need?”
I paused, thinking about the entire last week and how if I gave in now, I’d just have to eventually do it all over again. My chest was bruised to the point where it hurt to breathe and I could feel the dried blood on my face. I hated this fucking drug for what it had done to me. To my core, I hated it.
“How many can $98 get me?”