When I Tried to Save a Friend From Heroin
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everybody makes mistakes, but if you’re lucky, yours are not fatal.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Karl found me after hearing my band OXBOW in the early ’90s. “I hated your first record,” he said. He took it back to the store, but the record’s compacted existential horror drew him back. He bought the album again, recorded it, scratched it and took it back for a full refund. He told me this later, earnestly, honestly and with a trace of a smile. He also told me he was a videographer and if the band had any video needs, he was our guy.
Something that had been completely forgotten when, several years later, a promoter hustled in to find me at a show we were playing on Haight Street in San Fran. “Some guy named Karl from England and Florida says you put him on the list and …” I nodded him in, and over he came. Handsome kid in his 20s, about 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, close-shaved, gray eyes. Haunted. Which was not unusual. OXBOW is not easy music and attracts like-minded listeners.
But he was happy to be in, and his story ended up being as wild as his accent. Karl’s mother was British, his father Persian. They had lived all over the place, but most of his life had been spent in Britain. He had been looking at prison time in the U.K. for an armed robbery: He had pulled a gun on a cabbie and was promptly locked in the back of the cab and taken to a police station. The gun was a fake. The cops were real.
“Why the hell were you robbing a cabbie?” I asked.
“I didn’t want to keep asking my father for money,” Karl said.
“What did you need the money for?”
He was hinting — more than hinting — at suicide. But he was working, and his drug tales were oft-told.…
The family had moved again, following the father’s business to Florida and leaving Karl with the wildest accent, an amalgam of something plummy and English and sort of drawly and Southern. But Florida didn’t work out much better. Crack was Karl’s drug of choice and he found his way to it in some of the Sunshine State’s seedier spots. So he moved again, to Northern California, to the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin. A neighborhood where no one in their right mind would have moved if they wanted to stay off drugs.
Predictably, Karl found himself in the thick of things. First week? Getting chased by people who steal shoes like his Air Jordans (he was out trying to score). Second month? Selling $10,000 worth of video equipment for $100 (he was using again), and filling his small Larkin Street apartment with fellow travelers (he was partying).
My benchmark of failure, though, has always been work, and since Karl was still working, well, I figured he was OK. Maybe. OXBOW would hear from him in spurts. He had directed a video he wanted the band to see, or he had an idea for a video he wanted to make. And then one day: “I have some German video producers coming over who are interested in an OXBOW series or something. Could you come over?”
I was reluctant. Talk was exceedingly cheap and Karl had been burning up my phone lines lately. Intimating that he had started to hate his lifestyle and Narcotics Anonymous meetings weren’t helping, trying to stop wasn’t helping and stopping wasn’t working. He was hinting — more than hinting — at suicide. But he was working, and his drug tales were oft-told and sounded more like “adventures.” Enough so that I thought the advice I offered was sufficiently motivating: “Well, suicide’s not the right choice for me, but if you don’t want to stop.…”
“I CAN’T STOP!”
”Look, man, there’s no problem so big that you can’t run away from it.”
He brushed me off but said that the Germans were going to be there at 6 p.m. and could I make it? I could and did. Ringing the downstairs apartment buzzer, we heard … nothing. Rang for a good five minutes until the Germans appeared at the gated entrance.
“Karl ist … um … could you come up?”
On the white tile of the bathroom floor, Karl lay, unmoving. On the sink top, a burned spoon and a glassine baggy. In his arm, a needle. Karl wasn’t a heroin user, but he had said he was going to use heroin to kill himself and so here we were.
I called a doctor friend. He had just sat down for dinner.
“Say … what’s the smartest thing to do when you find someone OD’d?”
“Give him mouth-to-mouth!”
“No? Look, if you’re afraid of getting vomit in your mouth, just hold his mouth shut and breathe in through his nose.”
“What, like that’s better? Can I just leave?”
“You’re going to feel guilty if he dies!”
“No I won’t.”
“OK, this is no time for homophobia!”
“This is not homophobia. He’s screwing Tenderloin hookers, shooting up junk, addicted to crack. He wants to die. Not me.”
“Well, slap his face. Can you do that?”
I can, so I do. Nothing. My doctor friend says, “Call 911,” and I try to beg off. “They will not bother you. JUST CALL.”
So I do. They’re there faster than I ever thought possible. They shoot Karl up with Narcan, an opioid antagonist, and slap his face until we hear him murmur, “Chill, chill.”
That was the last time I saw Karl. He got out of the hospital the next day, went home and immediately handcuffed his girlfriend to the bed because he didn’t want to die alone, and tried it again. She dragged the bed to the door and screamed for help. The next night he got out of the hospital, and his neighbors volunteered to watch him, his girlfriend being too freaked. He tried to kill himself again. His neighbors saved him, but fled the building afterward, too freaked as well. The fourth day and the fourth attempt? He was finally successful.
His girlfriend called me with funeral details and to give me something, she said, “I know Karl would have wanted you to have.” It was a Walkman with an OXBOW tape in it. “He was listening to it when he died.”
“I don’t want it.”
I didn’t then, or now, but not a week goes by that I don’t think about him.
If you are dealing with suicidal thoughts or know of someone who is, you can receive immediate help by visiting global resources such as iasp.info, or by calling 1-800-273-8255 in the U.S.