Breaking Bad doesn’t show you any middle-class crystal meth addicts, but there are plenty of them in America. Greg Stevens has met them.
The enormously popular television show Breaking Bad exposes several cross-sections of society that come into contact with crystal meth. Through brilliant writing and equally adept acting, the audience is given a view of characters ranging from hooker junkies with rotting teeth who live in squalor, to gun-running cartel bosses, to clean-cut businesswomen who oversee international drug distribution empires.
Operating chaotically within this milieu is the main character: a struggling high-school science teacher with cancer who never uses crystal meth, but begins manufacturing it in order to help support his family.
What you do not see on this show are intelligent, educated upper-middle class adults who are crystal meth addicts. Fortunately for you, I’ve met some of them. This is what I know.
* * *
J lives in a comfortable but unremarkable one-storey house in the Westwood neighbourhood of Los Angeles, adjacent to Beverly Hills. There is a small yard with a koi pond near the front door. The koi are all dead. The window shades are drawn tight.
The window shades are drawn tight because J usually stays awake for 70 to 100 hours at a time. He knows that if the neighbours can see light coming from his house at all hours of the night, they will begin to suspect something. J has also placed a folding room divider covered with tinfoil in the hallway just inside the front door. This is to block any kind of infra-red or other types of electromagnetic spying equipment that the neighbours might be using.
When he sits very still in the dark at 4.30 a.m., hardly daring to breathe for the sound it might make, he is sure that he can hear the neighbours talking about him.
J is, or rather was, in the entertainment industry. Part of his job involved reading and reviewing scripts, and passing them on to members of his client base. Much of his job could be done from behind a desk, on the phone or at the computer. Scripts might be mailed to him as hard copy or sent over email, and social networking and hobnobbing could be done over the phone. As a result, J has been working from home for many years.
J is, or rather was, a very social and well-connected person. Witty, assertive, intelligent and well-educated, he had all the charisma that one needs to survive in the fast-paced entertainment industry of Hollywood. He was very successful, and if asked he would have described himself as a superstar. He was cocky, and thought that he deserved to be, because he felt that his grip on life was stronger than most.
One day, or perhaps it was night, J spent ten hours wiring every single room in his house with quick-cams.
His home office looks like an explosion of half-assembled electronic debris. Three computers (one of which is functional) and four monitors are stacked on his desk, which is cluttered with wires, cameras, multiple disconnected keyboards (one of which is functional) and other accessories. His workspace is the result of hundreds of hours of tinkering and playing and “enhancing” his home office.
One day, or perhaps it was night, J spent ten hours wiring every single room in his house with quick-cams. He never liked leaving his office to go into the rest of the house. With the cams, any time he heard a suspicious sound, he could pause the pornography that was playing on his television set and sit in utter silence while he stared at the grainy, dark images transmitted to his computer monitor from the other rooms.
Sometimes he would sit for hours, motionless, watching the movement of static on the screen until his limbs and neck cramped up from being held in rigid stasis for so long.
The only clean space on the desk is the centre, where he sets out lines and baggies of crystal meth to share with his friends when they come over. J says that he is not a “dealer”, he is simply a well-connected person who helps out his friends when they are looking to score. J has a large and ever-increasing circle of friends.
J is still witty, intelligent and engaging. He will sit for hours and tell gripping tales or engage in intense philosophical or political debate. Nothing that has happened in his life can hide the fact that he is well-read and well-to-do.
But the scripts and work-related phone calls come less often now, if they come at all. J still keeps one or two hard-copy scripts stacked ostentatiously on the corner of his desk, just in case someone asks him “what do you do for a living”? Most of his income now, however, comes from the help that he gives to his friends.
For J, one life has blurred into the other, without a sharp dividing line. It was a decline that literally took years of imperceptible changes in social habits, work habits and levels of drug use. In part because of technology, the outside world never noticed. J’s life was a bright shiny apple that was rotting from the inside out. When you can conduct every aspect of your professional life over the telephone and internet, the rot doesn’t show publicly until the very end.
Now, J is afraid to drive his car, because he doesn’t trust his senses or his motor co-ordination. Or the biggest fear: that of being pulled over by a police officer, because on some level he knows that he looks like a meth addict.
There was a time when K owned a large house in Orange County. Having made an enormous amount of money in banking, by the age of 35 he had a large home in an expensive neighbourhood, drove a high-end car, and took care of a dog that played in a yard with a white picket fence around it.
That was when he realized that he was bored, hated his job, and wanted no more of it.
He quit his job, sold the house and car, gave his dog to his sister, and moved into a reasonably-sized modern apartment in Hollywood. With the money that he made from selling the house, he felt no pressure to find work for many years.
“I know a lot about computers,” he told me when we first met. “I can help you fix yours. Or customize it. I know a lot of tricks.” K often spends days at a time in the computer room of his apartment, staring into the screen. He downloads registry cleaners and memory optimisers. He customises desktop icons and fonts.
He sometimes needs to reformat and reinstall Windows four or five times in a single sitting, because of all of the tinkering he does. Then he has a new idea, and reconfigures the computer again. It passes the time.
K is one of those people for whom crystal meth provides intense levels of focus for his obsessions. He is always on the look-out for a project to work on, preferably fixing or tweaking a computer so he doesn’t have to interact with other people. When he is working on a project, he doesn’t have time to think about how directionless his life has become.
He never uses the word “addict”, but in more serious moments, he will make allusions to the impetus that brought his life to where it is today. “I had to pick up my sister at the airport yesterday, and I was late,” he tells me on one occasion. “I never used to be late, before… you know, before. But it’s not like traffic is any worse now than it used to be. I guess it’s just that I planned better. I can’t plan for shit any more.”
K has been coasting for many years, and knows that something has to change. The money from the sale of his house ran out one year ago. He made an emergency withdrawal from his 401K, which will allow him to continue to live without work for another year.
Going into public during the daytime makes him skittish and worried, because he feels like everyone can tell that he is an addict.
But he’s stuck, like a bug in a jar that keeps running around in circles, frantically retracing its steps even though there is no chance of finding an opening. Going into public during the daytime makes him skittish and worried, because he feels like everyone can tell that he is an addict. He knows he would never be able to pass a drug test, so applying for a “normal” job is out of the question.
He fantasizes about making money doing freelance work on computers, but the only people he knows are other crystal meth addicts, and none of them have money to spare.
My laptop had been having problems, so I offered to let him look at it for me. He obsessed over it for days, and then weeks. He ran optimisations, he cleaned the registry, he added virtual drives and CPU enhancers.
Once I requested that he not perform one of the “optimisations” that he wanted to do on my laptop. He screamed at me, his face inches from mine. I could smell his breath. He physically pushed me out of his apartment without returning my computer to me.
From that point on, I meekly agreed that he was the expert, and should perform whatever adjustments he liked.
A short while later, he declared that he had discovered a horrible, devious and destructive virus on my laptop that I apparently had been completely unaware of. This would necessitate him keeping my laptop for several more weeks, while he sorted things out.
Eventually, he concluded that the virus was called JBuilder, and after much effort he was able to eradicate it from my machine.
L lives in central Los Angeles, near south La Cienega Boulevard. Although it is a “bad neighbourhood” by pampered white middle-class standards, L enjoys living there because he can have a larger house at a lower cost.
The house is warm, cozy, and filled with artwork and trinkets. L is an artist and a designer, and this is reflected in the soft colors and ornate decorations that fill every corner of his home. One look around any room of the house, and you can tell that L has a sense of style that has developed over many years, and that it is a sense of style of which he is very proud.
Currently, however, he is trying to figure out how to use eBay. By now, you already know the basics of L’s situation. He does not have a steady job that he is able to hold through the binge-and-bust cycles of crystal meth use. He doesn’t feel comfortable around “new” people, because of the constant anxiety that they can tell that he’s a drug addict. He can’t pass a drug test.
Just like the previous two characters, J and K, he uses crystal meth every day. He needs it in order to function. He knows that if he were to stop using the drug, it would mean weeks of not being able to function at all, and possibly months before he could function normally.
So he has a friend who is moderately famous and well-connected in the entertainment industry who is helping him out. The friend gives L access to photos, records, and other items signed by famous people, which L then sells on eBay. He takes a share of the profit for himself, which slows down the gradual decay of his ever-depleting savings account.
Of course, the problem is one of focus. Through the intense buzz of the crystal meth high, L edits his eBay store page, changes the styling, takes and re-takes a couple of pictures. He spends hours trying to figure out how to change the font size, or how to edit the picture to make it stand out more. By then, it’s time to do another line, or smoke another bowl. He has yet to post any new items for sale that day.
Maybe he’ll do better tomorrow.
* * *
It’s possible that characters like J, K and L do not make an appearance in Breaking Bad because ultimately they are boring. Once you get beyond the shock and dark humour of their idiosyncrasies, they no more interesting to watch than an ant farm.
They behave like insects with their heads chopped off: mindless, purposeless, with bodies mechanically scurrying to and fro with preprogrammed motions until finally the energy that fuels them peters out.
I don’t blame them. They ended up this way because they were looking for a good time, they were bored, and they were arrogant. Above all, intelligent economically privileged meth addicts are victims of their own bloated egos.
Life is too easy for me, they think to themselves, Other people can’t handle having this kind of fun, but I can.
To quote Philip K. Dick in his epilogue to A Scanner Darkly, they are merely children playing in the street.