An Interview With Patrick O’Neil
Gun, Needle, Spoon follows a punk rock pioneer on his slide into drug abuse and life as an armed robber, all the way through life in recovery and what it’s like to look back on those times. Hawthorne/Dzanc intern Alexis Woodcock talks with the author, Patrick O’Neil, about the book, his life, and rehabilitation.
Alexis Woodcock: You note at the end of Gun, Needle, Spoon that not only names, places, and other identifying details but also the chronology of events was sometimes altered in the making of this book. Can you talk a bit about what went into making those decisions, what that process was like?
Patrick O’Neil: The actual details of an average junkie’s day are pretty damn mundane and highly repetitive. Seriously, if I had written it all out exactly as it happened, it would have been page after of page of “woke up dope sick, went out and scored, shot up, and nodded out”—on an endless repeat. And that would have been so boring that no one would have read it, and I wouldn’t have been interested in writing it. The more interesting aspects of my story were the robberies, drug deals, and interactions that happened with friends, cops, weirdos, and assorted acquaintances. And in the beginning the robberies weren’t as frequent as in the end, when it was a daily occurrence. So I had to omit a ton of the repetitiveness. Not that I didn’t write all of that into the first draft. But there are only a few ways you can write a shooting-up scene, and really, it has been done before, and probably better. You can be graphic and describe the blood, the needle, the rush, and yeah, yawn . . . I included one in GNS because you sort of have to with a junkie memoir; I probably left another in because it was grossly graphic. Okay, I used too many—fuck me, I’m a cliché (laughs). And it’s the same with the robbery “scenes”—I could’ve written about the robberies that netted large cash and went smoothly and came off looking like a master criminal—but they really didn’t interest me either. I craved the hardships, the scary stuff, the parts where it was all going a hundred miles an hour off the end of a pier into deep water, and I didn’t know how to swim.
Alexis Woodcock: In the time before most of the events in this book, did you have strong opinions about drug use, one way or the other? How did you get into using initially?
Patrick O’Neil: You could say I was predisposed to be a drug addict. Not only is my heritage filled with drunks and addicts, but I suffer from clinical depression, both of which make me a genetically inclined candidate for addiction. I also have a deeply ingrained sense of alienation from a very early age, as my family moved a lot and I was always the new kid on the playground. We probably lived in twenty different cities and countries before I was fourteen. This allowed me an internal perception of never fitting in that kept me feeling like an outsider well into adulthood. Add that in with my depression and the aforementioned genetic disposition and you have a psychological profile for a person who most psychiatrists would agree would become the drug addict that I eventually became. Did I have strong opinions about drug use? Hell yes—I was all for them, any and all. I smoked marijuana from age eleven on, and I really never liked the crap. Always made me socially awkward and introverted, and those were my default settings to begin with. As a teenager I took LSD and experimented with whatever drugs were available. It wasn’t until I was seventeen that I discovered heroin. I thought I’d found the missing element in my life. Of course, I also went through that period where I believed heroin helped me be creative, and maybe in the beginning it did? But after years of using, nothing creative was happening, just addiction and the total enslavement that comes with it.
Alexis Woodcock: You make a living writing, editing, and teaching writing, as well as working on some film and music projects, and it’s mentioned in this memoir that you also went to art school early on. Did you always picture yourself in creative professions? Did you see yourself in your current occupations at any point prior to getting sober?
Patrick O’Neil: If anyone had told me when I was twenty years old that I’d be doing what I am today, I would have said they were insane. Although I was always into storytelling, I was a visual artist first. I drew comics as an escape from reality. Home life wasn’t exactly ideal and I would just lose myself in my art. At age fourteen I was the youngest nationally published cartoonist in America—uh huh, I was going to be somebody (laughs). Then my drawings started to deal with movement, and the natural progression was into animation, and then filmmaking. After art school I put all my creativity into music, and once heroin addiction took over it turned into talking about what I was going to do, as conceptually, I had very grandiose ideas and plans that were just pipedreams and all talk. It wasn’t until I was incarcerated and had kicked drugs that any sense or desire for real creativity came back, and then my choice of media was severely limited. I took an adult-education writing class and started writing. It was an immediate connection, much like my earlier mention that heroin was the missing link in my life—writing became the creative outlet I’d always been looking for. Years later I went back and got my MFA, and from there I’ve slowly progressed to what I do now. Yet to get to where I am today, I had to work in numerous non-creative positions and dead-end jobs. And each and every one of them instilled in me that I was a creative person. I didn’t belong there. Being a writer and a teacher was what I needed to do.
Alexis Woodcock: What would you say is the most significant effect that the events included in this memoir have had on you? How have these things most heavily impacted your life going forward?
Patrick O’Neil: Obviously the opening “scene” where the cops kicked in my door was a pivotal moment that instigated significant change that I, albeit reluctantly at first, followed through with. I quite literally was saved by that event. I was unable to quit heroin, my criminal activity was escalating to the point of no return, and I seriously thought that the rules, any rules, did not apply to me. And then there I was getting arraigned in court, and the DA was throwing around three strikes and twenty-five-to-life, and that reality that I am not a fan of landed so hard on me that I couldn’t ignore it. The ensuing years locked in a jail cell not knowing what the future held, and haunted with bad memories and even worse regret, was the biggest learning curve of my life. When the final outcome was not as severe as doing life in prison, I made the decision that I was never coming back. Incarceration is the most boring waste of time imaginable, and being surrounded by “lifers” who in one way or another were locked up forever made me realize that I had wasted a huge portion of my life. There were a million things I wanted to do before I died, and that time was seriously running out. When it was all laid out in front of me like that, there was no other decision than to make the radical change that I did: quit heroin, clean up my past, and make a future for myself.
Alexis Woodcock: In the chapter “The Gun,” when you first acquire a gun as a form of payment, it’s unloaded. As I read, I wondered whether it remained unloaded through all the robberies or if that was just the case for the first few. Are you interested in divulging, or was the omission of that particular detail deliberate?
Patrick O’Neil: Wow, you’ve asked some really good questions, but this one is the most unusual and insightful question I’ve ever been asked in an interview—I like the way you think, thanks. I never intentionally thought to omit that information, it just never really came up, or seemed pertinent at the time–although now that you’ve asked, it does seem odd that I never wrote about it. Yet with the progression of robberies getting more and more intense and my drug use and ensuing paranoia increasing as well, I eventually loaded the gun. I’m not exactly sure what the logic was behind putting bullets in the gun. Was I really going to shoot it out with the police? Definitely wasn’t going to shoot anyone that I was robbing. Sadly I have to admit that I started to believe my own hype and strived to get as hardcore as I could. It was all a survival technique, almost like getting into character. Seriously, these days I look at who I was then and I don’t recognize the person that I had become. How did I get so far out there? How did I get so cold and void of compassion? And then, when I was writing GNS, I had these horrendous reoccurring dreams about the police shooting me, yet I never shot back. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t follow through with it in the memoir? I just want to let that part of me go.
Alexis Woodcock: With so many years between most of the events in this book and the present, do you find that sobriety is still a difficult thing to maintain? Or has it been made relatively easy by memories of what life was like prior to getting sober?
Patrick O’Neil: My first few years getting clean off drugs were very hard. I had put in over twenty-five years of using and I really didn’t know any other way to live. And to be totally honest, I’m not that big a fan of reality, and doing drugs is a definite, although temporary, escape from reality. So yeah, there I was faced with life drug-free, and it wasn’t a whole lot of fun. Plus I didn’t really know how to live in the “straight” world. I was accustomed to the criminal life, which oddly enough affords you a certain freedom to just live (leach) off of society while still not really being a part of it. And so I’d be saying things to myself like, “Now I have to work at an hourly wage and pay rent and fucking taxes, really?” There were plenty of times where I’d be at some menial job bored out of my mind and wonder if this was all life had to offer. And if it was, then was getting clean and going straight really worth it? Yet that was really just my addiction talking to me—it’s like someone who was in an abusive relationship only remembering the good sex—and the reality is that every day that I am not strung-out on heroin or incarcerated is a gift. So when I keep that in perspective, it’s all good, and over the last fourteen years, being in recovery has become a whole lot easier. I have made some profound changes in my life and that old lifestyle no longer seems attractive. Yet every once in a while, that same old ungrateful, entitled attitude reemerges and I have to smack it back into the hellhole it came from.
Alexis Woodcock: There has been a huge resurgence of heroin use across the US in recent years. Do you think this influenced your decision to write this memoir at this particular point in time, to get a raw, first-person account of the unpleasant details inherent in this sort of lifestyle out to the public? Or was the decision to write it more personal?
Patrick O’Neil: Throughout history, heroin has always had a “resurgence.” It just hasn’t had such a prolific resurgence in the populace that is using it now: average-Joe, middle-class white people. America likes to ignore or downplay its immense history of involvement with drugs . . . But did any of that weigh in on my decision to write GNS? Well, no. I wrote GNS because it was my story to tell. Regardless of what anyone gets from reading it, I still needed to write it. If I can help someone along the way by giving them a first-hand account of what it’s really like and in turn they decide not to go down that same path, then that’s an added bonus.
Alexis Woodcock: What was the hardest part of writing this memoir? What was the easiest?
Patrick O’Neil: The hardest part was reliving the memories. There were many nights where I’d be awake in bed staring at the ceiling, stuck on a certain memory or event that I’d written about that day, and relive it over and over obsessively in my mind. Torturing myself with what-ifs well into the night. What if I had done something different? What if I hadn’t wasted twenty years of my life? What if someone hadn’t OD’d? What if, what if, what if . . . over and over and over. It isn’t easy to literally return to the “scene of the crime.”
If there was an “easy” part, I’d say it was the fact that this was my story. There was no research involved. I didn’t have to interview people. I remembered what I remembered and I would just write.
Alexis Woodcock: I noticed that the relationships with Jenny and Marisa, despite being mentioned at the end, remained unresolved and generally unexplored beyond pre-incarceration memories. Was that another decision made to protect privacy, or did the outcomes just feel less important to write about than the trials? I thought it was fitting where it ended overall, but I wondered about the inclusion of these people at the end if there wasn’t more to be said for those relationships post-incarceration.
Patrick O’Neil: I was not the healthiest of people to be in a relationship with, even with a few years of recovery under my belt. Relationships were just an extension of my self-centeredness. Sadly, it was more that I was afraid of being alone rather than wanting to be with somebody. I mean I loved Jenny as much as I was capable of then, but I had a hard time with intimacy—that said, when I was finally arrested, our relationship ended. I knew I was not getting out anytime soon. I was looking at possibly doing life in prison, and during our one and only visit in county jail, I told her to not wait for me. And up until a recent reading for my book tour where Jenny was in the audience, I had only fleeting contact with her, the amends letter, and one phone call. And she, like me, has moved on with her life. The relationship we had is what you see in the book, and with junkies people are in your life one day and gone the next. It is not always a happy ending that you can just wrap up and put a bow on, and I wanted the reader to experience that sense of impermanence. Now with Marisa, even though it was years later, I still wasn’t capable of getting into a healthy relationship. I was attracted to the same damaged women as when I was a drug addict. My perception of love was the attraction of lust and sex and after that I was lost. There’s no way you can maintain a relationship if that’s all there is to it. And in the book, she and I are at that place where we are no longer in a sexual relationship. It has run its course, and now we’re two people that shared something but now barely talk to each other. So it might feel unexplored, but that was all there was, and it took me another few years of heavy internal work on myself to be able to have a healthy relationship. Hmmmm, perhaps that’s another book? (laughs)
Alexis Woodcock: Finally, can you talk a bit about your certificate of rehabilitation and governor’s pardon? What has that process been like? And how does it feel to have it nearly done with?
Patrick O’Neil: I was granted a California state certification of rehabilitation, which in itself is unbelievably awesome, and I am eternally grateful. As of yet, I haven’t been granted the governor’s pardon**—it’s on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, and it can sit there until 2019 when he leaves office, and of course he can sign it, or not. So my two felony strikes have not been cleared, but I have all my rights back. And yes, I still have to check the “have you ever been arrested” box, but I can own a gun again—yeah, go figure. That’s not going to happen anyway, so who cares. Yet if I do get the pardon, I’ll be able to travel again, and maybe when I apply for that next professor gig, I won’t get passed over due to my felonies. The process to get here was slow and arduous, with a ton of paperwork. Luckily I had an incredible lawyer, Natashia Deón, who is also a wonderful writer in her own right—keep an eye out for her upcoming debut novel*—and she put in the work pro bono. But what was more important was that she believed in me. As you may well imagine, my experiences with the criminal justice system and the legal world haven’t been that wonderful. Even my own former lawyers were not the greatest of human beings. Yet this time, in court, the judge congratulated me and wished me the very best while signing the certificate—usually there’s more red tape involved, but he just did it right there in the courtroom. I was sort of speechless. No, I take that back—I got a little teary eyed. I experienced an emotional level of calm and wellbeing I’d never felt before. And standing at the docket with Natashia and looking around at the DA and the lawyers arguing the fate of others—it all felt surreal, and then last week the certificate arrived in the mail, and yeah, I feel pretty damn grateful to have survived all of that and to come out of it alive.
* Natashia Deón’s novel, GRACE was published by Counterpoint Press in 2016
** Patrick O’Neil was granted a Governor’s Pardon by Governor Jerry Brown in 2016
Photo Credit: Gloria Villegras
Interview originally published by Dzanc Books, October (2015)