I’ll never forget the first time I met Mama Susie.
She was outside of her Kenmore apartment, caring for one of her plants or maybe one of the many birdhouses she had scattered throughout her “yard.” She stood awkwardly, gently swaying, and there was an odd stiffness to her spine. Her back was to me, and when she turned she had the sweetest, friendliest, most welcoming smile on her face. It seemed remarkably out of place.
I was there, after all, to buy drugs from her.
It reminded me of the first time I experienced a holding cell at the federal courthouse in downtown Seattle. I had been locked in there for hours, and when it was finally time for me to go to court, I was escorted past the woman in the holding cell next to mine.
She was an older woman, in her late 50s, with short, curly salt-and-pepper gray hair. She smiled at me so brightly that I was taken aback. It was bizarre to me. I was miserable and terrified, and I had no idea what was about to happen to me. And here was this woman, who looked like a grandma, in much the same situation as I was, but she had a beaming smile on her face.
It was incomprehensible.
I’ll never forget her. Her name was Karolyn Grossnickle. I ended up on the same unit as Karolyn, which was DA, or Delta Alpha, as they say in prison-speak. I never really got to know her, but she was always kind. She had gone her entire life without even a traffic ticket, and yet there she was in federal prison.
Susie and Karolyn were nothing alike. It was just that Susie’s smile was so staunchly at odds with the circumstances, much like Karolyn’s was that day.
Susie was older too, maybe in her 60s, but there was something very childlike about her. She looked at me with genuine kindness and ended up giving me the drugs on a front, which was even weirder than her happy mood. I guess maybe I had the tiniest bit of credibility, as we were introduced by my sister, who she knew.
Through a very unfortunate set of circumstances, I met all my most recent drug connections through my sister.
Susie was an incredible source, as she had a multitude of serious health problems and was on strong, narcotic prescription painkillers. She would sell me her entire monthly script of “tiny green bombers,” which were 15 mg oxycodones that I could smash up and snort if I wanted. I loved them, and she gave me a great deal. She didn’t need them because she mostly managed her pain with Opanas, and also meth, hence the need to sell her oxycodones.
She had a cramped, two-bedroom apartment stuffed full of things. It was a typical junkie sanctuary; messy, airless and exquisitely disheveled. I love places like that. I always have – I am instantly at home in them. Each room was filled with teetering piles of stuff, stacked with plastic containers that were filled with more stuff. At least one other person officially lived there, but it was mostly Susie’s place.
Lots of people came and went, and they were all junkies, of one kind or another.
She had a sweet dog named Sasha, an older black lab who was kind of fat and very loving. I loved that dog. She was mellow and gave the place a touch of normalcy.
Cooking, feeding the dog, leaving to run errands, eating Starbucks cake pops, walking through the woods behind the apartment building… All those mundane things happened there, but all of that was secondary. That apartment was where you went to get high. That was its purpose. That was what it was all about.
It was black and white. You didn’t go there to achieve, set goals, or work towards future success. You went there to fail, obliterate feelings and to experience a world where everything is black or white. Sick or well are the only things that matter in that world. Are you sick, or are you well? Do you have dope or don’t you? Everything you do is dictated by how you answer that question.
Beautiful in its simplicity.
Susie liked to do crafts and she had fishing tackle boxes and plastic bins filled with sparkling, colorful trinkets that you could make jewelry with. Beads of all shapes and sizes, metal loops, clasps, chains, pieces of other jewelry that had been carefully dissected, and an endless collection of tiny charms.
It was a flailer’s paradise.
I love charm bracelets. I always have. Creating a charm bracelet was the perfect project for us to do together… I got to dig through all her containers and hand-pick all my charms, while she put the whole thing together. It was a project you could really get lost in, and we did. We smoked meth and snorted Opanas and did heroin as we worked.
Crafting and getting high go together quite nicely.
The bracelet was a multi-day project, not something you could whip out in a couple of hours. One of the days we worked on it, we toiled for an entire afternoon, floating in that hazy, delightful space where the drugs are good, you have enough of them, and you don’t have to talk or think or feel.
Sasha snoozed quietly on that floor that day, and I vaguely remember thinking that she didn’t seem quite like herself. She hadn’t said hi to me or come up to get any pets. It never dawned on me to lean down and check on her, which in retrospect, is probably a good thing.
She was dead.
I don’t know when she died, but she was dead when I was there. I spent an entire afternoon, doing drugs, flailing through buckets of charms and beads, and I was sitting next to a dead dog the entire time. And I never even knew she was dead. I left to go home, and when I came back the next day, she was gone. Susie told me that she was dead. We both looked at each other because we had known that something weird was going on with her that day.
She just wasn’t herself.
Every time I think about Sasha I feel unworthy of eventual dog ownership, even though dogs are my favorite thing in life. What kind of a monster spends an entire day crafting next to a dead dog? It’s a relentlessly dark memory, and I feel ashamed when I think about it, but it’s important for me to remember that it happened.
It is important for me to remember how ugly I can get.
Lately, my life has felt completely out of control. It’s making me squirrely, uncomfortable, sad, angry and filled with loathing. I hate not having control. I hate being told no. I hate not being able to get what I want. I hate bullies. I hate when people stand idly and do nothing when others are abusive, cruel, fake and punitive.
The people that allow the unjust to continue are just as guilty, in my view.
“Bad men win when good men do nothing.” – Susie Hollenbeck
Most of all, I hate having feelings and want to kill them so fiercely that they can’t ever again reassemble themselves into something the lives and breathes.
When I get like this, I like to know that failure is still an option. I like to know that the door is there, and I can walk through it – or not. I like to know that my past misery is available to me. All I have to do, to get it all back, is pick up a drug.
It’s inexplicably soothing for me to know that.
And to truly be in control of that choice, I need to know where the drugs are. Knowing means that I have ultimate control over where I go from here. I need to control something so desperately, I can feel it in my teeth. I can feel it in my soul. I can control my sobriety, I can control my muscles, I can control my strength… These are the things I love and embrace the most right now.
Even though sobriety can be such a tedious pain in the ass.
I texted my sister the other day, and asked her about Susie and some of the other junkies that we spent time with at the Kenmore apartment. I just wanted to know where they were, in case I ever need to find them.
Just like Sasha, they’re dead.
Two out of roughly eight of us are dead. Those are bad odds. That means a quarter of us have died in the last six years.
Susie, like I mentioned, had severe health issues, so it’s not too stunning that she’s gone. My sister thinks it was her cancer that finally took her. My heroin connection was a younger girl, nice, always loaded and always friendly. She’s dead too. Overdose.
While it could be viewed as alarming that I made this inquiry in the first place, I’m glad I did. It is absolutely, 100 percent, time for change in my life, but not that kind of change. I’m not going down like that.
I still wear my charm bracelet. And I think about Susie and Sasha every time I wear it.
NOTE: I named this blog “Bad men win when good men do nothing” because it struck me as EXACTLY the right title. My friend Susie Hollenbeck used to say that, and I love the sentiment. In the interest of clarity, Susie Hollenbeck is NOT Mama Susie. They are two completely different people, coincidentally both named Susie.