Karen was down to 100 pounds. She wore long sleeve shirts to work to hide the marks on her arms. It had gotten so bad that one day, her boss pulled her aside and said, “What can I do?”
”Don’t. I’m a big girl. Life just sucks right now, you know? I’ll handle it. . . . please don’t give up on me.”
That night, Karen and her best friend Belinda decided to shoot up some coke. They were experienced users, but they were sloppy drunk and high, and a tiny piece of cotton got in the syringe and then into Karen’s bloodstream when she injected.
She knew something was wrong right away, but she didn’t mention it. She had been taught from the time she was a little girl to take responsibility for her actions and deal with life on her own terms. It’s what her father had demanded of her. She was afraid to tell anyone anything, even Belinda.
“You should just stay right here tonight,” Belinda said. “Be sensible, baby.”
”I can’t. I just don’t feel sensible right now, Brenda. I have to go. I don’t have a choice. Wish me luck.” Then she walked back to her apartment to weather the storm on her own terms.
She spent the entire night shivering with fever, vomiting, and fading in and out of consciousness, alone, terrified, and confused. She didn’t call anyone, and she refused to go to the hospital. At one point, curled up in a fetal position on her bed, she screamed over and over, “Don’t let me die!” somehow knowing that none of her neighbors would hear her.
The morning found her sitting on the floor, drained and numb, her dried sweat cold against her luminous skin, her clothes soiled, and her arms wrapped limply around her knees. She gazed into the eye of the rising sun, feeling transcendent and victorious.
Karen reprogrammed herself. She treated her drug habit as a behavioral issue instead of as the symptom of a disease. She didn’t know how else to make what she wanted to do work. Convention didn’t matter.
First, she quit shooting up cold turkey. Next, stopped doing drugs altogether. This took a few months, but she managed it as others like her had managed before.
Other things changed, too. Her boyfriend Oscar was usually happy and always had money. He never physically abused her and respected her thoughts, especially when he was stoned. But he was obsessed with drug culture and didn’t want to change.
One day, she asked, “Will you quit for me?”
“Karen, these are the best years of our lives. There’s no way I’m going to waste them by missing out on the party. Sorry, but this is me. I don’t wanna change.”
”You won’t remember any of it, Oscar,” she said, and that was the end of things.
She started reading voraciously. First, she read the entire Harry Potter series, then Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time books. After a while, she was reading a book a week, and her selection of literature grew more diverse and sophisticated with every passing month. Eventually, she fell in love with Jane Austen’s works, and halfway through Emma, she realized her calling—she would become a writer and English professor. She started posting all sorts of different stories to fanfiction sites, and she re-enrolled in college.
After several years of hard work, she completed the Colorado State University MFA Program in Creative Writing. Soon after, she secured a position as an adjunct composition instructor at a Denver community college and managed to get a few short stories published in literary journals. She was on her way.
Although Karen dated every so often, she chose a quiet, solitary life. She had put herself through enough. She didn’t even own a pet. Writing mattered, but not much else. She did her best writing in the dead of night, usually beginning at around 10 p.m. and continuing well into the early morning hours. Her students and readership became her only real community, so she worked hard to grow her audience in order to share in a broader relationship with those who cared about her message. She even started her own blog and promised herself she would never let her readers down by writing empty, low-grade stories for the sake of attention or money.
On the fifth anniversary of her last cocaine injection, she composed the first chapter of a memoir, beginning with a description of the night she nearly died.