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The Nightmare of Cocaine
By A Former "Snow-Bird"
North American Review, Vol. 227 (April, 1929), 418-22.
In 1917, along with many other Americans, I went to France as an officer in the A.E.F. I was glad to go; not that I was anxious to fight and die, not that I was possessed of any burning patriotism, but because I saw in the war an opportunity to get away from an unpleasant domestic situation, a situation to which I had failed to adjust myself. In France and at the front I soon learned that cognac was a powerful support for a timid spirit. I was honestly frightened many times. There came an harassing week; rain, mud, shells, no relief; literally Hell. Cognac gone! Spirits lagging! Not exactly frightened but fearful. Oh, for one big drink! But none was there.
A fellow officer of the French army stood beside me in the rain. His spirits were high, he was happy. I saw him occasionally put a pinch of something in his nostrils, and a moment later his eyes were bright, he was levity in the face of disaster, he was confident. I shuddered-snow! We watched our posts hour after hour, the drizzle became sleet, the gray day became foggy dusk, the Germans increased the intensity of their fire, there was a tenseness in the darkness, a raid was imminent. Cognac! I fairly prayed for it. I reached out my hand and my companion smiled as he placed in it the tiny box. I was awkward, but I took one, two quick sniffs of the snowy powder. There was a momentary burning sensation, quick free breaths, a suffusing warmness, and with it my timidity disappeared. The whining shells became louder-I smiled. A few broke near-I laughed. Half an hour later we were successful in driving off a well-organized raid. I patted the shoulder of my French benefactor-God, how I cursed him later! He merely shrugged his shoulders, held out the box, and I accepted it once more.
Excuses! I hear the word. Not at all; I off er none. I wanted relief. I knew exactly what I was doing. I merely substituted cocaine for alcohol, a bad bargain at the best, but at the particular moment the only one possible. No, I write no excuses. I have merely described an incident as it occurred. Unfortunately, cocaine was easy to obtain in France. A small package, conveniently carried in a side pocket, was a long supply and more powerful than bulky bottles of cognac. Alcohol was deserted, cocaine took the whip, and a more pitiless taskmaster man never had. A rotten trade!
A week later we were relieved and I fell back on my ever present outlet, my voluminous diary. Hour after hour in the rest camp I wrote, wrote of every conceivable subject, of myself, of life, of war, of the soldiers. My pen would lag, ideas would grow leadenfooted; cognac, again plentiful, I scorned; snow-ever it was snow. The sombre skies of Northern France mattered not; the cold, sodden turf, the driving sleet, the heavy twilight; either they did not exist or were entirely overshadowed by the roseate warmth of my own being-the glow of snow. Mine was another world. Alluring fancies, elusive ideas, a rapid procession; I would try to catch and hold one for my own, but with an aggravating and charming fleetness a new one would crowd the other from view. A thousand pictures flashing across the silver screen of my mind, the endless cinema of stimulated fancy, the pitiless drive of a tireless driver. Yes-yes-I must write that story; many of the aviators had told it, that strange apparition they had seen, her hair flying, her black eyes flashing, spreading a wild courage as she would lead them higher, higher to victory. No, not victory, disaster! Ridiculous, stupid! Here on our side we prayed with vehemence to the God of justice for strength to give those dirty Huns a good drubbing, while over there they did the same thing in exactly the same way. How God must have held His sides and laughed! Far into the night I wrote and dreamed, often until gray dawn came sludgily from the East and the stirrings of life around the barracks announced another day.
The war ended. I was sent to Berlin, where I worked as I never knew one could. There was time for nothing but the daily routine, a thousand petty details, but each one important. Here I made my first and unsuccessful stand against "snow". One month, two months I held out, and my weight was coming back to normal, my appetite returned, I enjoyed long nights of undisturbed sleep. Yes, I missed my fancies, my dreams. I had been haunted from time to time by weird fears; cocaineurs became morally degenerate, physically careless. Would I? Time and again I wondered. But with abstinence came new respect for self; I found time to write a great deal and I note in those old diaries new and sane ideas, a clear outlook which was refreshing after many pages of maudlin and incoherent imaginings. I played polo, I swam, I read. One day I threw an ounce of "snow" into a great pond where a dozen graceful swans were preening themselves. With an inward glow of self satisfaction I walked slowly back to the Hotel Adlon through the gathering dusk.
Two days later the Adjutant handed me orders to return to America for discharge. It was a blow! True, peace had been signed for nearly a year, though I could scarcely realize the fact. I had landed in France in August, 1917; here it was May, 1920, after nearly three years eventful, crowded, and happy after a fashion. I had hoped to go to Poland. In fact I would have gone anywhere on earth to have kept away from New York, the old pictures, the old surroundings again. My blood grew cold. For half a day I wandered the streets. Little groups of German schoolboys with whom I often chatted were unnoticed. New York-I tramped on slowly. America -it meant all that old unhappiness again. There, directly in front of me (how insidiously clever one's unguided feet can be) was the little pharmacy. Two grams? Yes, yes, that would be enough. In an hour I did not care!
Before leaving Berlin I purchased nearly four ounces of cocaine, a small fortune in America. Being an officer I knew my own belongings were safe. I had decided.
I landed in New York in mid-June. It was late before we were allowed to go ashore; even then I knew I could not go home. Instead I went to a hotel. I must have looked terrible. For nights I had paced the decks of the transport, my "snow" and I. A million illusions had danced from crest to crest of the endless waves. With a killing forcefulness the drug drove my fagged brain pitilessly, tirelessly. Far out in the utter solitude of spaceless void, out where only souls exist, somewhere there must be peace. I know that at times I was only a dull machine attached to a wandering spirit by the very flimsiest of threads. I would watch the swirling wake at nights, I was tempted to plunge into the restless water. Food was revolting. Sleep impossible. I wrote endlessly. Today I can laugh at those pages. An incoherency understandable only to me, a mendacity which is charmingly naive, and through it all a powdery trail anyone with an experienced eye can detect, the trail of snow!
The clerk assigned me a room, and with genuine concern asked if I were sick and did I wish the house doctor. I mumbled some reply and hastened to the upper floors. For an hour I watched the lights of the city. Home-but not mine. I listened with ears acutely drug-tempered to the many ever present but unannoying sounds of a city. Home? I reached for a vial. One sniff, two, three-funny thing, home. Silly sentimental old codgers wrote about it-folks seemed to like it-if they could write, why not I? For an hour I did. To this day that hour's writing is one of the seven wonders to me. Not a single capital letter, not one punctuation mark, often whole lines without a break for words. It was as if someone had taken a long strip of light-fogged motion picture with unbelievable rapidity and then had translated it into words. Yet from somewhere in my drug-befuddled brain one definite idea took shape, Home? Why not?
I heard the distant ringing, a few hasty words, that was home! Half an hour later my wife, white eyed, horrified, tight-lipped, walked from my room. Her burning, hissing words I still hear. "You degenerate! My God, you are loathsome!" She was right!
Two days later I was normal, but far from well. My fortune, if any, was my education. I needed no strong box. I took my slender savings and there began a search which eventually ended in a little boat yard up the river. I still own that boat; she is my sacred holy of holies, for she carried me out of the world of slavery to a very real freedom. I left my books behind and I would not go back for them. Early one morning I drifted down the Hudson, out past the Goddess who holds high her symbolic torch proclaiming her everlasting message to all the world, and there, one by one, I emptied my boxes of "snow" into the surging waters and silently watched the last fleck of white disappear. With a sigh of real relief I laid my course for sea, caught the first of a light morning breeze, and soon lost the lines of the city in the mistiness. Perhaps a needless gesture, probably cheap dramatics, but it was done honestly and earnestly. Free from any taint we, my boat and I, went to sea and there we stayed.
To write of struggles would be boastful. I recall too vividly the wild exhortations of the "reformed" drunkard as he told in lurid words of the dreadful depth to which he had been dragged by the demon rum. I think there was an element of the braggart in his almost maniacal emotionalism, and certainly a state of mind not far removed from his detested intoxication; he had only made a trade.
It is hard to write of those days for fear the sense of boastfulness will creep in and ruin the truth. There were days when I would lie hour after hour on the deck of the boat, hungrily looking past the top of the swaying mast into that great realm of fancy where lived my many friends. Around me stern reality; that other land was there, but, alas! the door was locked, and the key-my last fleck of "snow" was where I had put it.
Mercifully, Nature usually took a hand, bringing a sudden gale and high seas which demanded long hours of cautious tiller work, much toil on ropes and sails, with at last a warm morning, the storm over; and exhausted I would sleep the clock around. With wholesome fatigue and rest came new strength, so that for weeks I was conscious only of the joy of living and the joy of freedom. I threaded a thousand narrow straits, I explored untold deserted harbors, I saw Voodoo rituals. I tramped the country of Morgan, I sailed the seas of Drake, I sang lustily every song I had ever heard. I was living, I was free. Sometimes with the relentlessness of Javert from nowhere would come a bad day, but I noticed they happened less often. Came a time at last when a year slipped by without one. I had learned. Then and then only I trusted myself in a city. The rest was easy. For nine years "snow" and I have lived apart. At no time have I ever felt a physical call for cocaine, none of the racking struggles of withdrawal.
I want no sympathy, I did the one thing which was as logical as were the steps leading to the first contact. But I hear the question, "Is there any way out for the majority of addicts who can't buy a boat and sail the Seven Seas?" Most emphatically, yes!
In approaching the addict himself there should be a sympathetic attitude. Once we understand how and why he began, we are in a position to help him intelligently. Often he is not conscious of any real reason, but I feel certain that it does exist and can be found, and once exposed to clear light the fearfulness often disappears. The next great step is isolation; the addict must be moved to new and wholesome surroundings; old friends, old scenes, old contacts, must be left behind and in the new place there should be hard work a-plenty. Quite naturally it means absolute abstinence from the drug.
I have long dreamed of such a colony, well removed from the world at large, where men can go and find help along the tedious road of rehabilitation. Not a penal colony but a great workshop with work for all, in time self-sustaining, a refuge for those who will come and find the great joy of that greater freedom. Many would never leave but would remain to help others along the way. I know of no finer work that some man of millions could do than to endow such a place. No man could ask for a greater monument!
But I forget. I must finish my story. For four years we stayed at sea, down the Atlantic, across the lovely Carib, meeting a few storms but mostly just good wholesome ocean and plenty of hard work. At last I came home, to my home, mine only. Here I work and the years are full.
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