Four Reasons to Leave Your Home

CONTENT NOTE

This piece makes mention of prescription opiate addiction and withdrawals.

1

Last year, every other time I left the house, I made sure to time it so that the dihydrocodeine would kick in somewhere between three-quarters of the way through and the end of my bus ride. The warm itch arrived, usually, at Neutral Bay or on the Harbour Bridge, though the specific traffic conditions and content of my stomach produced some variation. On a good day, the granite pylons would roar into view with the thrum of my muscles, my diaphragm, then the water, the white sails, the Quay below where restaurant awnings made expensive shadows in the salt air as thick as cake. It would mantle my skin as I alighted out of the aircon and I would feel dirty, though inconsequentially so in the CBD and the stuffy substrata on which the city’s movement relies. At Wynyard Station, the air is heavy with human notes. Coffee breath, heat-damaged hair, adrenaline. Si by Giorgio Armani evaporated to burnt sugar on somebody’s alkaline décolletage. The gust from the train tunnel howls foetid and accurate.

              I measured most outdoor distances against absorption curves and half-lives. Some days the snug heat of peak serum concentration would arrive in a semi-suburban shopping centre or plaza or arcade, if scarcity willed it so, somewhere with an amply-priced independent chemist that might stock my next bottle of cough syrup. I would stand at one of the main bus interchanges along my route, the ones that all-stops buses stop at, with Maps open at my location. I would type in ‘chemist’.

              The shopping complexes are mostly the same; any variation in their major tenants or décor do little to disturb this. Bridgepoint has an enormous pedestrian overpass and Big Bear does not. Across the border, Northland is glossier, higher-ceilinged than Northcote Plaza. All four answer to the same higher power. That sameness is precisely their role—not only as guarantors of sobriety and safe familiarity, but in what Joan Didion calls ‘the sedation of anxiety’, an aqueous suspension of light and of purpose. You go in for bread and milk and you leave with truffle mustard and a pair of knee-high stockings. Staying on task at the shops is far easier, I’ve found, when you’re there to still your withdrawals.

              You have to keep going to new places, of course, or the pharmacists will recognise you from last time. Chemist Warehouse is a last resort—the pharmacists there are trained to suspect misuse of the last remaining over-the-counter opioid by any young customer. If you’re lucky, you’ll be probed on symptoms, carded and reliably refused the larger bottle that is far greater value for money than the small. The staff at family-owned chemists usually mind their business, but the prices are different every time. The speeches are mostly the same: ‘This one does make you drowsy, so no driving or operating heavy machinery.’ I would nod compliantly, jobless and without a driver’s license. The feeling of conspicuousness among the pensioners queuing for their blood thinners is mostly the same.

2

The streets in Melbourne’s suburbs are all set at right angles to one another, such that I couldn’t get lost if I tried, though they all look mostly the same. I walk automatically, by aluminium roller doors and ugly brickwork tagged in fluorescent pink, by vast empty lots between warehouses where lantana and needle grass erupt through the concrete—squares that are not squares, non-streets. Back in Sydney, the roads curl and undulate; it’s believed that King Street was once a path cleared through the bush by the Gadigal people prior to colonisation. The grids here feel suspect in their straightforwardness. I learn Preston and I learn it again. There are sad little milk bars at the intersections of minor arteries that lead, eventually, to High Street, to Bell Street, enclosed by block upon block of only houses, front gardens, nature strips. Down the deserted roads bristling with prohibitions—chain-link fences, padlocks, no through access, government mandates on existing outdoors—the sad little milk bars offer, if nothing else, something to do. On yet another identical walk, three-quarters of my body takes refuge inside my skull; my heart is nestled firmly against my eardrum where it feels quite at home. I conduct a roll call to ensure that my limbs, guts, mucous membranes are all intact. My legs move independently, without attachment. I buy a pack of gum and I leave.

              On her most recent album Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers wrote a song—the title track—about Elliott Smith. The first verse situates us on the East Side of Los Angeles, where Smith lived before his untimely death, and where Bridgers has taken to idling through 24-hour drugstores on amphetamines and buying nothing. Smith, in ‘St. Ides Heaven’, weaves his narrator between the parked cars of his local haunts after smoking meth through a broken light bulb.

              Before he left Portland for New York, Elliott Smith told his friends that they weren’t responsible for what happened to him in New York, and that they shouldn’t blame themselves for what he had done there. That was before he’d left for New York. He had started referring to his future in the past tense, as if he were haunting his own body.

3

Something I think about often is the extent to which you need to have suffered in order to talk about a particular experience. I hate talking about things like the eating disorder for which I was never hospitalised and the legally-grey sexual violence to which I’ve been subjected—partly because they feel like such trite manifestations of female baggage, and partly due to fear of being perceived as melodramatic, or desperate for the social capital granted in liberal spheres by such claims to ‘victimhood’.

              My view of my prescription drug habit has been particularly skewed by this feeling of fraudulence. I didn’t fit the popular imagination of an addict, and felt as though accepting that label would mean imputing to myself the same struggles as users who weren’t middle-class and tertiary-educated. Or worse—that I was aestheticising something, because I couldn’t possibly be in deep enough.

              Former addicts of all kinds speak to the significance of bottoming out. You reach a place where your habit can no longer be seen as aesthetic—not a way to pass the time, not a metaphor for attachment as it was for Elliott Smith in ‘Needle in the Hay’, a song written five years before that particular needle had ever pierced his vein—but a need around which most else revolves, a cycle of graft-score-use. Maybe you’re down to skipping two meals a day and buying liquid pharmaceuticals with enough sorbitol to make you sick because there are no more tamper-proof oxies in circulation, or to stealing cash from your friends’ wallets, or to manipulating someone’s affections for you to swipe their lawfully prescribed benzos while they sleep.

              The relationship Elliott Smith had with substances is far from secret; he made a living by carefully enunciating the pain a traumatic youth had left him holding, and the ways in which he self-medicated for it. What is arguably his best-known song is an unambiguous elegy to alcoholism. For him, the suffering was transfigured by his singular musical mind, remaining aesthetic by definition.

              The trouble with double-tracking misery into such gorgeous, infectious verse is that you want to be like Elliott Smith. Phoebe Bridgers admits to this readily in ‘Punisher’, not least in the artistic sense—she addresses him directly, and imagines herself stammering in his presence had he not died in 2003 when she was barely nine years old. She confesses she feels like she knows him in spite of this. You feel a peculiar closeness with an artist whose work touches you—somehow a little more than a father, but a little less than a neighbour. They can permanently rearrange your consciousness but they can’t sell you a pack of gum. I kept Elliott Smith’s company on angsty power-walks set to his self-titled record through earbuds on the way to pick up—I felt fairly pathetic if I felt anything at all, but having a soundtrack at least made the errand seem as if it had some meaning to it.

4

Absence breeds urgency—Robert Hass wrote that we call it ‘longing’ because ‘desire is full of endless distances’. You relate to something you love with a level of intensity when it isn’t in your grasp. Remembering from a place of sobriety what opiates feel like can be difficult to do impartially, for the distance threatens to pull your recollection in several different directions at once. There’s the sepia-tones, of course: that about it which was seductive. The vertiginous spells, strawberry-flavoured pockets between rational days laden with rational fears. You can’t get that feeling anywhere else, and once you’ve tried it you can’t un-try it.

              The more responsible outlook, I suppose, is one of reproach, so as to not risk returning: me, remaindered, lifeless gaze, sickly underweight leper blending with the walls, alone despite the instinctive geometry of the streets with the bears in the front windows, alone despite Elliott Smith and the Spotify algorithm. Gravity’s pull twice as insistent, throat worn red. Another seven amorphous suburban shopping plazas and the stunted bracts of palms in the outdoor car parks. It’s hard to know which angle is real, because they both are.

              We tell ourselves stories, Joan Didion famously wrote, in order to live. ‘We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’ Suffering in particular is rich with wordy speculation. Elliott Smith, too, recognised this. One of his first girlfriends left him because, among other things, he wouldn’t stop wondering aloud what it would be like to be a heroin addict. Later, in ‘King’s Crossing’, he sang that he knew what happened in that particular movie, for he’d seen it before.

Works cited

Didion, J., ‘On the Mall’ in The White Album (1975): 180-86.
Didion, J., ‘The White Album’ in The White Album (1975): 11.
Hass, R., ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’ in Praise (1979).

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE