Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Bitter Taste of Dying: A Memoir (Book Review)

(Note: This book review also appears on The Huffington Post Books site as "The Bitter Taste of Dying...and Addiction.")

At the age of 14, Jason Smith got his first taste of addiction. Literally. While his parents were away for the weekend, his uncle--a heroin addict who was living with Jason and his family--overdosed, and Jason had to perform CPR on him.

Performing CPR on a dying relative is bad enough, but Uncle Mark had "yellow shit coming out of his mouth and nose," and it soon coated the insides of Smith’s cheek and the back of his throat.
"That taste is unforgettable. Death tastes bitter, with a texture that falls somewhere between gritty and horrific, staining the memory for good. There’s no going back from it. Once there, it remains. Forever. All the therapy in the world can’t erase it." 
The bitter taste of dying indeed.

Three years later, Smith inadvertently stumbled upon the warm, comforting effects of drugs when he ended up in the hospital following a car accident that injured his back. One shot of Demerol and Smith was hooked.
"That first hit. There’s nothing like it in the natural world. I was in love. This feeling? I didn’t want it to stop. I wanted to feel this way forever."
Welcome to the start of Jason Smith’s 16-year roller coaster ride of addiction. You'd better fasten your seatbelt and hold on tight.

The Bitter Taste of Dying is a gripping, no-holds-barred memoir of Smith’s experiences while in the throes of the beast known as addiction. He takes the reader along on his journeys to Europe, Mexico, and China, documenting his innermost feelings and the crazy, mixed-up thinking that goes hand-in-hand with drug dependency. Smith’s days and nights are filled with desperation and recklessness as he constantly chases a high while simultaneously running away from life.

Smith can’t live without drugs--Norco, Soma, Fentanyl, OxyContin, Xanax, etc.--but he can’t live with them, either. At least not in a manner that most human beings would want to live. His addiction is his constant companion through college, allowing him to shed the shyness and anxiety he felt while growing up. Drugs make his life easier, but at the same time they make his life a living hell.

Some of the situations Smith finds himself in are nothing short of terrifying. His time spent in a Tijuana prison--where he was beaten by guards and given drinking water from a janitor’s mop bucket--and his encounter with the Russian mob had me overflowing with empathy. The lengths Smith goes to in order to stay high are beyond what most people can even comprehend. He explains:
"It’s insanity. It’s insanity in its most obsessively-compulsive form. And maintaining an addiction for a single day requires more thought, planning, and on-your-feet problem solving than many ‘normal’ people use in a month….[Addicts] are problem solvers to our core."
Jason Smith is a guy who manipulated every person in his life and every system he encountered, all for the sake of getting high. A guy who chewed on Fentanyl patches that were meant to be stuck on his arm, because his method gave him a quicker, better high. A guy who at one point wanted to die but didn’t, because he couldn’t even commit suicide right. His life and addiction got so bad that he was devoid of any feelings.
"I didn’t feel anything. They use opiates to mask pain, but they’re not smart-bombs. They’re carpet-bombs and they annihilate anything in their path. They’re not able to pinpoint which pain to hit, and which to ignore. They just numb all of it, and when you do drugs as long as I did drugs, there comes a point where there’s nothing left. I couldn’t feel."
But 16 years after that fateful shot of Demerol, Smith finally got clean and sober. As he states so eloquently: “It took me losing everything to appreciate anything.”

Smith is an excellent storyteller and The Bitter Taste of Dying is an enthralling read. The end-of-chapter conversations with his sponsor, Bryon, are almost as compelling as the words that precede them. They add an insight that I haven’t found in most addiction-related memoirs, and show the evolution of Smith’s thought process as he moves from addiction to recovery.

Like so many people, Jason Smith turned to drugs when life and the feelings that go along with it got too hard to manage. Self-medication numbed him and allowed him to navigate what he previously thought was unnavigable. But he’ll be the first one to tell you that the magic didn’t last.
"My problem was the world and my inability to deal with it, the real-life shit that people go through every day. I found a secret off ramp on the crazy highway that is the world, and I took it, parked, and nodded out for 16 years. This worked for a while. Until, like always, it didn’t."
The Bitter Taste of Dying isn’t just a riveting story of addiction and recovery. It’s a story of self-discovery and hope, too. Make no mistake: Your life can be in complete ruins, but if you try hard enough you can rebuild it. The transformation of Jason Smith is proof of that. It may have taken him 16 years to find the light at the end of the tunnel, but the important thing is that he found it. “It’s taken its sweet ass time,” Smith writes. “But it’s happened.”

(Note: Excerpts from The Bitter Taste of Dying: A Memoir are Copyright © 2015 by Jason Smith. All rights reserved.)

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