Busted: Brother Ray, Meet Sister Midge

 Posted by on October 12, 2010 at 10:58 pm  Characters, Other Culture, Season 4
Oct 122010

(video of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash duetting on “Busted,” from Cash’s TV show, 1970)

Personally, it was harder for me to give up cigarettes. I know that sounds crazy, but I mean it. At least once I was through with drugs they weren’t always in my face. With cigarettes, someone is blowing smoke at you every minute of the day. You never escape the lure of tobacco.

Ray Charles, Brother Ray

Ray Charles’ 1963 hit, “Busted,” written by Harlan Howard, wasn’t about his well-publicized drug busts of the 1960s (lyrics here), but by the mid-1960s, people would start thinking of it that way; in 1965, he was America’s most famous junkie, having kicked for good that same year. In Brother Ray, Charles stated that his desire to kick had more to do with the desire to stay out of jail than it did with concern for his health (remarkable, considering that other people prepared his works for almost 20 years and he had to trust that one of them wouldn’t screw up and give him an overdose).

Midge Daniels, on the other hand, probably knew all about heroin long before Charles was ever busted; in the circles she ran in, it’s likely everyone read William S. Burroughs and knew how bone-chilling a junkie’s life could be. But there were probably also people in those same circles who thought it was “daring” and “edgy” to try it, that it was just one more tool to expand consciousness. Despite her marijuana use, she didn’t have a gateway drug so much as she did a gateway community; if you know junkies, and like them personally, and even manage to fall in love with one, that increases the likelihood of getting caught up in the life. And Burroughs had managed not to bite it all those years (he would be on and off the drug for the next several decades), so how dangerous could it be?

Plenty, if you didn’t have the kind of money Burroughs or Ray Charles did. In 1968, former child stars Frankie Lymon and Bobby Driscoll both OD’d, and both died penniless, Driscoll so much so that his body was found in an abandoned tenement not far from Midge’s hovel. Meanwhile, all around Midge are, or are soon to be, junkies either rich and famous or well on their way: Lou Reed, Deborah Harry, James Taylor, Jim Carroll. Was it money that kept them alive until they could finally get clean?

Granted, having money didn’t keep Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin from succumbing to their addictions a few years hence, so it was no guarantee; they had to deal with depression and self-loathing on top of everything else. But there’s no doubt that a rich junkie’s chances of survival far outstrip those of a poor one. Not only can it afford you multiple cracks at rehab, with no waiting, but you can also pay to have people follow you around 24/7 with a clipboard making notes on exactly what you’ve ingested, lest you next take something that will do you in. And of course, there’s a much softer landing after detox if you have money and a career you love. There’s something to go back to, not just run away from.

Midge, now “busted” in the sense of Ray Charles’ song, living in her tenement with no money, no identification, and a husband who is similarly dead broke and jonesing, faces a crossroads with Don’s $120 burning a hole in her pocket. If she wants to survive, she needs to get out of there pronto, go somewhere Junkie Hubby can’t find her, and detox. It will be brutal. It will damn near kill her, all the vomiting and twitching and sweating and itching. She won’t be able to do it all alone. But if she can find an NA meeting before she needs her next fix, she can find people who have been there and done it. The odds are against her, but it’s not impossible. (Of interest is that the closing song for this episode is “Trust in Me” by Etta James, who herself managed to break free of a 10-year habit and is still alive today, at age 72.)

The question is, does she really, really want to? Ray Charles didn’t want to go through heroin detox. He HAD to, or there was a good chance his children would grow up with a “jailbird” (his word) dad. Midge hasn’t been busted in the drug sense yet (that we know of). She has no children. Her career is at a standstill. Her husband has nothing to offer her but body warmth. She doesn’t even know where her purse is! She has talent, yes. Will Don tell her that his painting inspired him, got him to understand the nature of addiction like he never did before? Will he tell her that her most desperate hour blasted him out of his own dark hole? Given how private Don is, probably not. But if he did, he might just be able to save both of their lives.


  14 Responses to “Busted: Brother Ray, Meet Sister Midge”

  1. Did NA exist in 1965, or was it still just AA?

    As a (precocious) child I read some of the junkie lit, starting with Alexander King’s May This House Be Safe from Tigers.

    So there was awareness, somewhat, even in the late ’50s — if no actual rehab. Alexander King detailed going cold turkey both on his own, and some sort of federal facility after being busted.

    Tried heroin myself while I lived in New York, in 1979 or so sniffed $10 worth of heroin split with a friend.

    Even in 1979 that wasn’t much heroin, although Midge’s description didn’t quite fit, but it was lovely experience.

    A little too much so, and I remember thinking, “I can’t afford this.”

    I’d read that at a certain point heroin stopped feeling good, as one built up a tolerance, and more and more would be needed to keep from feeling sick.

    I also knew a junkie, a hipster writer, who was a street hooker to support her habit and her young daughter.

    And at six, the daughter had had to call the ambulance when mommy overdosed.

    No, not the life for me.

  2. NA was founded in 1953, and they published their first “white book” (their Big Book equivalent) in 1962, although it was tough to find meetings until the 1970s because they had a hard time finding spaces that would have them. The Salvation Army also ran its own NA meetings at that time that were separate from the original NA program; they had some issues to work out about whose program could rightfully carry the name. (All of this is via Wikipedia and confirmed by the na12.org Web site.)

    Yikes, what a story. Yeah, from what I gather, Midge must be pretty newly hooked if she still gets that huge rush of pleasure from it. After a while, it’s just about scoring enough not to fall apart.

  3. There was awareness long before the 1950’s–think Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater as far back as 1822, and if you want to go further back, we all have to know there were wars fought between Britain and China which were all about addiction and controlling the production and supply of opiates (by England, of course). Maybe not about heroin, per se; but definitely about addiction and all the extreme cruelty involved on personal and much larger social levels.

    Heroin addiction on its own is not deadly–but the fact that heroin is illegal and people can sell it cut with just about anything in order to boost profits makes an addiction incredibly dangerous. It leaves the addict vulnerable to the supplier, while the supplier is free to bring the goods, compromise them, or deliver nothing at all in the guise of whatever is needed. The supplier can make a fortune because the addict has no chance but to buy what he’s selling.

    Drug trade is just like any trade–when it’s unregulated, with no enforced standards, people will sell it with only profit in mind, without any care for the safety of the addict. This is what makes it potentially fatal, it’s the main reason why “overdoses” occur. And this is the whole point being made about addiction in the last episode.

    Midge certainly wouldn’t have had to spend her days trying to find ways to do anything to get the next dose if she knew she had a clean, safe supply that wouldn’t run out. Just to illustrate this, think about the fact that heroin addiction is still huge right now, there are millions of addicts you’d never know about, using oxycontin and oxycodone (which are pharmaceutical grade versions of heroin) regularly supplied by prescription. These “painkillers” are not designed for temporary use, they’re made for long term use in cases of chronic pain; if they weren’t designed that way, they’re actually being used that way and no one prescribing them seems to worry about it. But what if suppliers just decided to dry up supplies? Or to doctor the drug they sell by mixing it with something inferior, or poisonous, or even something innocuous, but still demand the same amount of payment from the addict? Then the addict would still need the drug, and would probably succumb from the dependency, which can’t be satiated. Midge’s talent and free spirit dies so she can keep getting the next fix; SCDP keeps tapdancing hard to get Lucky Strike and then Big Tobacco to hire them again, in exchange for any little thing at all–and meanwhile everyone involved starves, practically working for nothing while the news about the “addiction” gets out.

    Midge is just a mirror to SCDP, and to Don in particular. We know we’re not going to hear about her again, her part is done–because until she’s able to step back and realize the dynamic of the addiction and her role within it in terms of self destruction, she won’t have a hope. Don, on the other hand, has had that realization and has broken the dynamic by publicly kicking the habit of dependency on Big Tobacco dollars. We already know SCDP may very well pull out of this with a lot more life than it ever had before–now we’re just waiting to see how.

  4. I had some oxycontin recently following surgery, and I didn’t get any kind of high from it, nor did I experience any withdrawal pangs when I stopped taking it. I think you have to be going considerably over prescription level dosages (or mix it with alcohol or other drugs) to ever get that effect, let alone sustain it.

    But what you’re saying about steady supply makes sense, and it’s another reason rich junkies are more likely to survive: They’re more likely to be able to get a steady, uncontaminated supply, and therefore are less likely to OD when they get their hands on some. They’re not guaranteed to get a steady supply, of course, because the drug is illegal, but generally speaking they don’t have to cop out on the streets and take their chances.

  5. I had some morphine recently when I went into the emergency room with kidney stones. It was fantastic, in that it took away most of the pain and made whatever was left of it quite bearable.

    Two blasts of it that day, and when I went home with a prescription for Tylenol 3 (which is also an opiate based acetominaphen plus caffeine concoction) I didn’t bother taking it. Morphine does have side effects, and like every other patient given that drug, I did experience a mild version of them. But after that, no dependency whatsoever.

    Had I chosen to continue dosing with the codeine prescription I’m not sure I wouldn’t be dependent. It was for a substantial number of pills, and since I’d passed the stone I had no further need for pain killing medication at all.

    I don’t think you’d need too much to experience a “high” off oxycontin. Many people get a high from any drug the first time they take it, though they may never feel it again afterwards (so they’ll chase it, if it was that good). For some people the high of feeling the pain subside is sufficient (and I would say that was the case for me–not enough morphine that I was hallucinating dragons with swirling tails, just enough to take the horrible pain away…that was blissful enough). Everyone’s different. A standard prescription for oxycontin or oxycodone is enough to make an addict out of your average person, and feeling a high isn’t the only thing to make you addicted. I know of many patients who experience a variety of side effects from these drugs and only find relief from those side effects by dosing again. There’s no need to augment the dose or add alcohol or other stimulants–it all depends on the individual person’s own susceptibility to addiction, where that particular drug is concerned. It’s not really a safe drug for extended use, but so much of it is prescribed for use indefinitely. As long as those patients can be assured of a steady supply, they’re “fine”.

    The problem is that the addict is never the one who is able to ensure a steady supply, that power is always held by the supplier.

  6. #3, wowee. Thanks for that.

  7. Born on this date in 1925, Leonard Alfred Schneider.

    You may know him by his stage name: Lenny Bruce.

    He was a comedian, a social commentator, a free-thought/free-speech advocate and a heroin addict.

    He died on August 6, 1966 at age 40.

    Now THAT’S obscene.

  8. # 7 – Sorry, that should be August 3, 1966.

  9. I’ve read that when someone is in pain, opiates quell that pain, and there’s little high associated with it.

    When there’s no pain, then there’s a high.

  10. Yes, freelancewoman, that’s my understanding too.

    Using opiate medication for its intended purpose (pain relief) is a very different deal from using it for kicks. Unfortunately, it’s the ones who use it for kicks (or sell/divert it to people who do) who prevent the people who really need it from being able to access it. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to deal with searing, wracking, non-stop body pain every single day of my life, and then have to be accused — even by doctors — of being some dissolute junkie on top of it.

  11. Well, yes and no, #9. When I got that morphine I was out of pain quickly. I’ve experienced the relief of severe pain by using other remedies before and it felt great, but that time, whew, there was a kind of blissfulness about that pain free state on the first dose. The second dose–I didn’t notice it. Drugs of all kinds work this way, and I know some people get a bit of euphoria from feeling so well after taking a medication for any condition for which it has been prescribed.

    But, we do have receptors in our brains for opiates and opiate like compounds or opioids (we also have similar receptors in our brains for cannabinoids). No one knows how or why they got there, but one can know from this physiological reality that human beings have been using these plants as drugs for an unknown number of millennia, and we have evolved some kind of responsiveness (and fondness!) for their effects.

    These drugs do cause a “high” (and note that the high is different for each of the drug substances too–very particular, right down to the delusions and hallucinations–they are precise) but that isn’t their only effect on the body, it isn’t limited to just “euphoria”. The other physiological responses which take place in the body are part of the drug effect AND of the dependency. So it is very possible (and is actually the case) that people do experience some limited form of high (whether that’s from actual euphoria or from the sudden pain relief, it’s the same process that makes the drug effective) AND a growing, lasting addiction. People suffering from chronic disease become addicted to both types of drugs medically every day, the phenomenon is well known, not rare in the least, and well documented.

    Unfortunately, there are some doctors who do accuse their patients of being junkies in those cases (insulting and ironic when you consider who is writing out the scrips). That’s also well documented.

    It’s interesting that in many countries where social awareness and health care is advanced, addiction treatment is delivered using a “harm reduction” model–where people who would have been dismissed as “addicts” for street or prescription drug use are given access to whatever drug they need in safe places, free of charge, with clean apparatus for use, and under medical and social support. Once the impetus to commit crime or risk health is pushed out of the way and the drug is available safely, social support people help the “addicts” back into productive life again, so they’re able to find work, get good housing they can afford, and get access to food they need. Remember, Midge is still a talented painter–but her life is all about getting the next fix at any cost, so the time to create isn’t there and her art and health has to suffer. The harm reduction model shows that it’s not the drug that kills but the problems around supply and access that make prison, poor health, poverty and self-destruction of addiction part of addiction. Many people can function just as others do when they are able to get what they need.

  12. As a society we should have far more compassion for addicts. We should find ways to help them and not judge them for something that may be far beyond their control.

    Drug addiction is just like poverty. It can happen to anyone, but until it happens to you or a loved one, it’s easy to blame the victim.

  13. How drugs are regulated is a very interesting subject. Morphine, of course, was available OTC about a century ago in the U.S. Even heroin itself was sold OTC at one point. Of course, in those days, they had no idea about tapering people off, which is what’s done with a lot of medications now when they’re discontinued, not just opiates. And if it’s the potential for overdoses that makes a drug restricted, why is Tylenol sold OTC? You could die swallowing a bottle of that stuff.

    The problem is, when you have chronic pain as opposed to acute pain, there’s no tapering off. Is relief of horrible constant pain a “high”? I suppose some people might experience it as such. But I tend to think we just have a puritanical prejudice against anybody getting a “rush” from anything except Good Hard Work Followed By A Couple Of Drinks, that we don’t see the money and the lives that could be saved by giving people access to opiates. ODs usually happen when people don’t have access to a steady uncontaminated supply.

  14. […] The Orange County Register used Don’s letter as a jumping-off point to discuss tobacco and heroin addiction with a professor of health services and psychology at UCLA.  The prof. backs up Ray Charles. […]

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