The Day Heroin Tried to Steal My Arm
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because weakness is a disease we all get every now and then.
By Dave Wahlman
I knew the abscess in the crook of my left elbow was getting bad when it became the size of a lemon and I woke up one morning having trouble extending, rotating and flexing my arm. Even in my heroin-addled, 21-year-old mind, I was like, “Oh, shit, maybe I should get this looked at.”
The skin covering the abscess had taken on a yellow hue and felt spongy, kind of like a zit ready to be popped. I was young and stupid, but something got through, like, “Dude, take this seriously.” It wasn’t my first abscess, but I had definitely leveled up with this one. Looking at my arm now, I can see the scar, even though it has been tattooed over and has shrunken with time.
It was 2003, and I was living on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Broadway was still pretty much an open-air drug market. I was used to seeing humans in all states by that point. Punk rock/Dawn of the Dead/junkie/tweaker mutants with all sorts of wounds were everywhere, so I wasn’t exactly afraid to go to the emergency room.
Which is to say that I got to the ER and my arm was nothing to them. People were routinely getting pieces of them cut out/cut off/drained because of junkie bullshit. I sat there and waited my turn, and the doctor finally came in. He looked at my arm and said something like, “Well, it’s good you came because if you hadn’t you more than likely would have lost your arm at the elbow.” Well, fuck me, right?
You ’ve got another arm, not to mention a whole body of viable injection sites, so rumble, young man, rumble.
A nurse came in with a tray of instruments and at that point I was thinking, I know I’m not ever going to forget this. The doctor injected the abscess with lidocaine, and as he withdrew the needle, a trickle of thick yellow-green fluid began oozing out. After making sure the area was numb, the doctor took a scalpel and made a 1-inch slice. The abscess opened up and basically burst.
The doctor took a suction unit and began vacuuming out the hole. My eyes went back and forth from the hole to the container that all the extracted fluid was emptying into. There were streaks of something black in it. It was oddly psychedelic, and I was rather alarmed at the amount being pulled.
The doctor finished and said, “Check this out.” He pointed at the hole in my arm, and I looked down. First of all, it was a big and deep fucking hole.
“That’s muscle, that’s tendon, that’s ligament and that long white piece is your humerus bone,” the doctor said. “The abscess was at a location where, if you had waited, you would have lost your arm below your elbow.” All I could think was, ”’I’m looking at a piece of my own skeleton while it’s inside me.’”
He packed the hole with a wick, explained how to treat it and wished me good luck. I was sitting there, waiting for paperwork, when an older nurse came in and laid some come-to-Jesus talk on me. By that time, I had already snapped back to my normal 21-year-old asshole status. So I cut her off.
“Hey, Nurse Ratched, I don’t give a fuck.”
I bounced out of there and immediately went and bought more heroin because hey, it’s not every day that you get to see a piece of your own skeleton while it’s still inside you. And, yeah, you’ve got another arm, not to mention a whole body of viable injection sites, so rumble, young man, rumble.
The cool thing about Seattle is that they get it and are very progressive in the sense that “OK, we can’t stop heroin, meth, pick your poison, but we can mitigate factors.” Hence, easy access to needle exchanges: physical locations you walk into and mobile ones, vans where you drop your shit off responsibly and get new gear because, kids, clean needles and safe sex always.
So after buying more dope, I dropped by one of the mobile setups and got in line with the rest of the mutants. By the way, I was no better or worse by any means; I was a fucking mutant too.
What happened next had more of an impact than the whole abscess experience. As I write this I’m watching it play out in high-def in my mind.
I was three or four people deep in the line. A girl dropped her dirty needles in the bucket, then screamed, “Oh, fuck!” She had also dropped her bag of dope into the bucket. The whole line, myself included, took a deep breath and screamed, “Nooo!” We all knew what was about to happen, and it did.
The girl stuck her arm into the bucket and rooted around until she found her bag. When she drew her arm out of the bucket, needles — dirty, used needles — stuck out of it.
She plucked the needles out, dropped them back in the bucket, grabbed clean needles and walked off.
Everyone was quiet. Because everyone had just watched someone basically kill herself for a $15 hit of black tar heroin. Recently, I was talking with someone about teachable moments in life. I had learned something right then. It didn’t click for a long time, and even now I can’t quite articulate it, but I learned … well, something. What I learned that day is that survival is subjective to the individual.
Anyway, I got my clean gear, went home, got high and listened to the Deftones, because what the fuck else do you do after that?
- Dave Wahlman, OZY Author Contact Dave Wahlman