Parts of this real life story are drug using-centric, and may not be suitable for newcomers.
West 23rd Street, New York City, 1978.
The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious had been arrested for stabbing his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen to death. A Canadian teenager from Toronto, named Patty, was just moving into the location of the crime – the Chelsea Hotel.
Around that time, she started doing heroin. Patty was a punk rocker, who hung out with artists and musicians, like Johnny Thunders – and in the late 70s punk rock scene, pretty much everyone was on heroin, especially in lower Manhattan.
Patty had just arrived in the city and wanted to experience everything her older friends were experiencing. Though her friends didn’t want to turn her on to heroin, Patty found someone she didn’t know, to buy it from and shoot her up.
The next day, Patty bought more, and every day after that looked very much the same.
She lost all of her past connections and spent the next ten years using heroin.
In 1988, she checked herself into a treatment facility in New Orleans, where she spent 42 days, and she has been sober ever since. Her friend Thunders, like many other iconic figures of the time, OD’d three years after Patty decided to get clean.
Patty became Patty Powers — a recovery coach/writer, who has been featured in the A&E series “Relapse,” the NY Times, and the Toronto Star. She has been sober for almost 30 years.
Powers spoke to Addiction Now about how she managed to take control of her life after being addicted for a decade.
Livia Holmblad – Addiction Now: You were a part of Manhattan’s punk rock scene in the 1970s. What kind of drugs were prominent at that time?
Patty Powers: Well, cocaine was a big thing. Studio 54 was happening. You think about it now, and it was pretty outrageous. Cocaine was the beautiful people drug, and it was being marketed as non-addictive. It was all around disco. People wore cocaine spoons, gold cocaine spoons around their neck. It was chic. People wanted to make it known, by their jewelry. Their jewelry said they did cocaine. It was so not hidden, but in the art scene, there’s always been heroin around. It was not crossing over to mainstream culture. Now it’s mainstream culture, it wasn’t then — but it took a certain personality type.
Because it wasn’t from your doctor. There weren’t beepers or delivery services. You really had to know people who were doing it so they’d buy it for you, so you didn’t pay the extra little… Whatever you had to pay to have someone get it for you. It was really dangerous down here, you know. Where did you live in Manhattan?
I lived in Hell’s Kitchen for a long time.
Hell’s Kitchen used to be sketchy, now it’s not so much but, if you went east of First Avenue down here, it got really sketchy. There was nobody out, no stores. On each block from Avenue A to Avenue D, there were maybe two buildings where people lived. The rest were gutted shells, brick shells, with no glass on windows. Entranceways had cinder blocks to keep people from using the buildings to live in or shoot drugs in. Back then, you would walk down the streets in the daytime and be the only person walking down.
Were people using drugs everywhere?
It was hidden. At night, most of the streets where people sold drugs didn’t have street lights. If you got in a taxi and told them to take you to that neighborhood they were mad, and you couldn’t find a taxi to take you out. You had to bring someone to wait in the taxi, with the meter running and the driver would be furious.
As an adult I started thinking, maybe I have rewritten history. Maybe it wasn’t that dangerous. The first few times I went down, I was scared to death, then it becomes normal. You know everyone who’s on the streets, and you don’t see it the way you saw it the first time. So I thought, maybe I made it up. I was talking to this guy in the community center, about the neighborhood back in the day. He said, “I was from Harlem and we knew the dope was good down here. In Harlem, there were a couple of streets where people sold drugs and a bunch of residential streets, but downtown there were three avenues and 14 blocks of open-air drug market. We were too afraid to come down and get ripped off.” And I thought, he was too afraid to come down from Harlem because of the reputation, and I was questioning whether or not it was dangerous! So it really was dangerous.
When was the first time that you did a hard drug?
I started getting high when I was 12. You know, with acid and hash, stuff like that. No hard drugs. Just like, psychedelic drugs. Because that’s what was around and that’s what I was doing. Hard drugs didn’t really start until I moved to the Chelsea Hotel.
Was that when you started using heroin?
Yeah, probably around that time. I had somebody do it for me. Nobody wants to be the one to give it to you the first time. So you have to lie, act like it’s not your first time. I got addicted quickly.
When did you realize you were addicted?
I don’t want to make this sound like an advertising because kids read things in strange ways, but it just provided a feeling that I hadn’t experienced before. So I just wanted to do it again. I was a kid, and impressed by things. You want to belong to groups. In a way, the drugs that you do, put you right in touch with the people you want to be around. It’s kind of the glue that holds social scenes together, and heroin held a social scene, which was really creative and a little bit older than me.
So that was part of what made it attractive, and how it felt made it attractive.
There was also something that was really counter-culture. Ultimately, you felt ultra-cool. It has its own weird romance to it, that no other drug has. You can’t tell someone who just discovered it, how painful it’s going to get because everybody believes it won’t happen to them. They’re “smarter than that,” but it happens. It’s not a question of intelligence. There’s a real seduction in it. When people are in the honeymoon stage, you can’t tell them where it’s going to go, but as time passes you see it take everybody to the same place of desperation.
I remember I read “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, and there’s a scene where there’s a beautiful girl at a party, who is dancing and he knows she’s on heroin. He says something about how she’s dancing but doesn’t realize she’s dying. I remembered that line at a certain point in my using, and I thought that was true. You don’t know you are on this death trip. All of your friends are dying but you still don’t think you’re on it.
Why did you move to Los Angeles?
When I was deep in the eye of the tornado. I was lost and I knew that if I didn’t leave New York I was going to die. So I just ran to Los Angeles.
What made you think you would die if you stayed in New York?
Life in NYC fell apart, in ‘86. My place of employment closed without warning. The landlord from our previous apartment found us at our illegal housing project sublet and was threatening me. My husband packed all of his art supplies, left for his first European gallery show, and never came back.
I left for Los Angeles. My family waved goodbye from the end of the driveway and I was struck with the sense that I was going to Los Angeles to die, and never see my family again. At the same time, the AIDS virus was happening, and I felt in my heart that if I didn’t get out of New York something really bad would happen. I had this big drug habit and a lot of shame around it. Obviously, drugs were making my life fall apart. I wanted to keep the image that my life wasn’t falling apart so much, but I couldn’t even ask friends for help.
That’s what normally happens right? People have shame and get isolated.
Right. And the people I started using with had been getting high for a long time. I was the baby. If I ever got as bad as them, I’d stop. That’s what I thought. Suddenly I’m still around people who are using it, but I’m the one who’s really bad. I kind of just wanted to go away, reinvent myself, and come back having it together! Like it was going to happen! Your mind remembers how you used to have control, so you believe you can get it under control again but the truth is, you can’t.
What happened after you moved to LA?
A friend had moved to LA, so I bought a car and drove to California. I got to LA and my friend had been sent to rehab in New York, so there was no one on the West Coast to save me. This began the worst year of my life in terms of recklessness and self-abandonment.
My plan was to stay there for a few months, get clean and drive back. I don’t know how I thought I could just get clean but that was the plan. So I met some kids and a girl let me stay in her kitchen, with some guy. We shared a single piece of foam. There were dead rats. I had no privacy so I went to an abandoned building.
What happened to the people you knew then?
The guy from the kitchen owns a rehab center in Los Angeles now. In my abandoned building, there was a guy who had been kicked out of Guns N’ Roses the day I met him. We moved into a toolshed together, 24 hours after we met. He took my car out and cracked the windshield. I thought he wanted to kill me. I was so crazy. I hid knives in all the bushes because I thought if he challenged me, I’d kill him. He saw me in the fire escape of the abandoned building, holding a knife. He put my car keys down, got… (continue reading)