The pain was agonizing. I told the doctor in the emergency room to slice open my thigh and drain the pus. Once he could do that, I would be on my way. There was an abscess deep in the muscle and my thigh had swelled to almost twice its normal size. The doctor told me I needed surgery and a three-day IV drip of extra strength antibiotics.
I could lose my leg or die, he pleaded. I wasn’t so sure. Maybe he was wrong. I was terrified of not having heroin, and a stay in the hospital would be annoying. He then told me that I would have plenty of pain medication. I reluctantly agreed.
Abscesses are puss-filled infections that junkies get all the time. They form when an intravenous drug user injects bacteria-infested drugs or when the dirt and grime on the skin is pushed through by the puncture of the syringe. They are nasty and dangerous, and I got them all the time.
It wasn’t my first abscess, so thought I could handle it myself. Injecting black tar heroin, with dirty needles, by an inexperienced hand had caused most of my more accessible veins to collapse or harden. I had taken to injecting heroin into my muscles, like in my ass, shoulders and thighs — all of which at one time or another had deep intramuscular abscesses.
When I came to after surgery, I had a hole in my left thigh the size of two grapefruits. The surgeon said he removed over a liter of pus. Two drainage tubes were inserted in my leg above and below the rotten wound. The gaping hole was packed with gauze, which needed changing daily. Before the nurses could change the dressing, they would increase the dosage on my morphine IV drip, plus give me an extra shot of morphine from a syringe to help with the pain.
It wasn’t enough. They had to hold my leg down, pull out the gauze and pack clean ones in. I screamed, clenching the metal rails of the hospital bed.
The doctors and nurses had saved my leg. But just barely. I had waited until the last minute before finally going to the emergency room. For weeks, I hobbled around on a cane, hoping the abscess would just go away. The pain was so intense that I would wake up in the middle of the night in agony, my thigh throbbing. It was unbearable.
Instead of seeking medical attention like a normal person, I went and found the largest syringe I could. The abscess was deep in the muscle tissue, so I had to jam the needle in, all the way to the hilt, before I struck pus. I pulled the plunger, drawing up a yellow gooey liquid. Then I unscrewed the barrel of the syringe, leaving the needle sticking out of my swollen abscessed thigh, and squirted the pus out into an old aluminum can. I did it again and again until the pain subsided.
Sometimes I forget how bad my life was as a junkie. While I rarely think about getting high or drunk anymore, I do struggle with the rigmarole of normal daily living. I get caught up worrying about my school grades and wonder if I’m on the right career track. I’m still haunted by what people think about me. Do my old friends still like me? What about my new ones?
When my self esteem drops, when I feel like I’m just not good enough, this is when the doubt and fear comes flooding in and I can easily get overwhelmed and drown in self-loathing. My perspective begins to shift for the worse. Like the time I was walking around my neighborhood in the Tenderloin and I saw a scraggly, hunched over man snatch up a tiny piece of tinfoil littered in the street. I thought “what a score!” He probably found some drugs. My body filled with warmth and I wished that it was me who found that piece of garbage. I was jealous.
Sometimes I catch glimpses of people shooting up on the street. I see the brown liquid in the syringe and the blood dripping down their arms and I remember the excitement, the relief, of hitting a good plump vein and the hot rush of heroin.
In times like this, I don’t think about the abscesses or the infections. I don’t think about the junkies who die from infections or the countless limbs hacked off because an abscess went too long untreated. I just think about the escape.
Today, the struggles of sober life are challenging. But when I really think about it, and compare my life now to the pus filled one of my junkie past, everything seems pretty good. My life is truly wonderful, thanks to having set the bar so low.