Jason Smith / Author, The Bitter Taste of Dying
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, “Sí.”
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.
“Sí. 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.
“Sí.” He grabbed a large McDonalds plastic cup 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.
“Sí,” 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.
“Sí, 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.
“Sí, 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 much can $98 get me?”
About the Author
Jason is heavily involved in the recovery community in Northern California as a speaker and a writer. He is a frequent speaker at the California Medical Board and California Board of Pharmacy, sharing his experience, strength, and hope in getting out of the hell that is addiction.
His book, The Bitter Taste of Dying, is now available for pre-order.
Jason is @mrjayzone on Twitter