Today I have 18 years free from drugs and alcohol. I can safely say no one ever saw that coming. What with the way I was living and the destruction of everything I touched it was becoming more and more apparent I wasn’t headed down the primrose path to a long wonderful life. January 8th 2001 I walked into a long-term residential rehab. My only intention was to stay one step ahead of my parole officer. As a convicted felon I was on what’s known as high control parole, which basically means I was under heavy scrutiny with constant surveillance, unannounced piss tests, parole agents showing up at my work and home whenever they pleased, and mandatory weekly appointments reporting live and in person. Which of course is exactly what “high control” sounds like, and with this kind of “supervision” one would think I would have walked the straight and narrow—at least until I was discharged (especially with the ever present threat of a twenty-five to life prison sentence hanging over my head). Yet this exact disregard for myself, and my wellbeing, was a true testimonial to the pull of heroin addiction (talk about high control). Regardless of the consequences I had stopped checking in (technically called absconding), was again shooting dope, and committing petty crimes to support my habit. It was only a matter of time before I was caught and sent back to prison.
On the day I walked into rehab the counselor doing intake told me they were full and I should come back next week when there’d be an opening. Not that willing to actually quit heroin I took this as a sign I was free to use all weekend and then return on Monday to be saved. Screw those bastards at parole. Checking myself into rehab was a get out of jail free card. I’d be in treatment before they found me, and by then it’d be old news and they’d just let me stay rather then deal with the hassle of violating me. With the entire weekend open and available I was going to shoot dope until I was really ready to quit. The counselor’s words were like a reprieve from hell and I was out the door and around the block just about to call my dealer when my phone rang… It was the counselor I had just left. He had pulled some strings. There was an available bed. I should come back immediately. Reluctantly I returned, and the rest, as they say, is history.
These past eighteen years have been a long worthwhile journey. Not always easy, at times incredibly hard, and others immensely rewarding. I have never regretted making the decision to ask for help, enter rehab, get clean, and stay clean. I now have an amazing supportive group of people in my life. I continue to have a healthy relationship with a cool-ass sponsor who only has my best interest at heart. I socialize with fellow addicts and alcoholics and attend meetings as an integral member of the recovery community. Whenever possible I give back by being of service to others.
Being in recovery has allowed me to actually become a better person. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s the truth. Even on my worst days I’m still in rhythm with the universe and I am forever indebted, humbled, and grateful. Without recovery I couldn’t be in a healthy relationship. Jenn and I are coming up on our two year anniversary of marriage and seven years of being together—which is the longest I have ever been with anyone. We share a deep connection of love and intimacy. We’re totally inseparable and everyday is a gift.
For my day job I’m still working in treatment and I deal with a lot of challenging clients and help them begin their own journey of recovery. It takes a lot of dedication. It’s hard work—but in the end worth every drop of sweat. Although the absolute best thing about working in recovery is that it allows me the time to write that teaching never did. I’ve complete my second memoir titled: Anarchy At The Circle K: On The Road with Dead Kennedys, T.S.O.L., Flipper, Subhumans… And Heroin — it’s all about my punk rock days of touring and causing mayhem in the clubs and on the highways of America. When the dust settles from the holidays and the powers that be in the publishing industry return to their offices I’ll start the process of getting published again. Not a dance I relish. But this is the profession I chose.
I lost loved ones, family, friends, and people I know and respect this year. You will all be missed and continually loved in my heart and memories. I’m getting to that age where people close to me die. It happened with drugs back in the ‘80’s. But these days I’m more present. Life has more meaning. My relationships more valued—every moment that much more precious. I’ve made a commitment to engage with friends and family more. Whenever someone comes to mind, I reach out, because I never know if I’ll see them again. I recently had an opportunity to visit with a friend, but I was tired from work and canceled thinking we could reschedule anytime. That person died a week later. It hit me hard. I’m not going to let that happen again.
Over the holidays I spent quality time with family and friends and basked in the warmth of appreciation and abundance. In a room full of people that matter I can easily be loving and grateful. Yet unbelievable as this may sound I’m not always that positive person brimming with love and gratitude. It’s just not my default mode. I’m quick to see blame and negativity. Some mornings I wake with an intense feeling of impending doom. Other mornings I’m almost happy to be alive—but there’s always a catch—as I calculate my options determining what I’m lacking. If there’s a glass it’s definitely half full.
These are the moments where it is easy to get lost and lose sight of what’s important. When I want for a host of external solutions, as if there’s a missing component that is going to help me find purpose and attain satisfaction, I know I’m just grasping for an answer that can only come from within. Instead of buying another guitar or a bigger flat screen TV, I ask the universe for faith and to be grateful for every aspect of my life. Does this always work? Not always, and definitely not immediately. But much like being present with all my relationships, asking for help is another thing I am practicing. I’m getting older. Time is finite. I care more. I do more.
2018 was abundant with the good, the difficult, and in between—all of which I am truly grateful for.
SUMMARY: Before his life went totally off the rails, Patrick O’Neil was living the punk rock dream, working at San Francisco’s legendary Mabuhay Gardens, going on to become a roadie and then the road manager for such seminal bands as Dead Kennedys, Flipper, Subhumans, and T.S.O.L. But that was before his heroin addiction veered totally out of control. A junkie for eighteen years, O’Neil, the educated son of intellectuals, eventually turned to a life of crime, ending up the ring-leader of a group of armed bank robbers, all in an increasingly out-of-control attempt to keep himself and his girlfriend in drugs. Now, after a stint in prison and fourteen years clean off drugs, O’Neil takes a look back at the experiences—moving, calamitous, and at times both hilarious and terrifying—that led to his downfall and recovery. Told in sparse prose and graphic detail, Gun, Needle, Spoon examines the long road to redemption, and the obstacles along the way, demystifying the “criminal life” so often depicted in film and fiction, but seldom written about from the first-hand point of view of those who have lived it.
THE BACK STORY: I got busted for armed bank robbery in 1997. I was strung-out, physically destroyed and looking at doing 25 years to life in prison. While I was awaiting trial in county jail I was stuck in a cell for 23 hours a day with a serial-killer cellie. He and his girlfriend had been busted for “befriending” old men and then killing them by poisoning them in order to steal their property and wealth. He was constantly offering me cookies and candy and I’d say, “Hell no George, you poison people!” After a few months, I’d do anything to get out of our five-by-10 foot cell. In San Francisco, at least back in the ’90’s, they offered adult education classes, and one of them was creative writing. Now, when you’re incarcerated there’s not a whole lot of options for creative self-expression; I had always been a storyteller as a visual artist and then a musician, so it wasn’t that far-fetched to try my hand at writing. Only I hadn’t read a book or scribbled even a short sentence in many years. I was practically illiterate. Yet boredom and adversity breed creativity, at least for me it did, and I started writing long diatribes against “the man” for keeping me down, and these short stories about the crimes I’d committed and the people I’d run with for the last few years. I was also reading a much as I could get my hands on. I read Edward Bunker’s Education of a Felon, and I knew I could write like that. I’d read George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye or Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and wish that I could write like that. I’d try and read crap like Dean Koontz and end up throwing it across the cell. But I read a book a day and when I was eventually convicted and sent to the big house I kept writing. When I hit the mainline I joined a creative writing group. Every week I’d share my work with my fellow convicts and get nods of approval. My “stories” started to evolve into longer pieces of creative nonfiction, and I started thinking of myself as a writer. Then one day, out on the yard, a giant corn-fed thug, his skin covered in swastikas, sided up to me and handed me this book: “Yo, ya gotta read this, bro.” At first I was just really stoked he didn’t stab me, but then I realized he was a member of my writing group. When I read the book, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, it changed my perspective. It not only made me want to be a better writer, but I knew I was going to be one.
WHY THIS TITLE: My working title was “Opacity” – which was a design reference to a color’s density lacking transparency. I originally intended it as a play on words regarding memory not always being clear. I even submitted the memoir with that title to a few agents and indie presses (and received rejections). When I asked a friend to read the final draft and she wanted to know what the title meant I realized it was confusing and wasn’t working. A few weeks later I was driving in the Mojave Desert up by Joshua Tree with my friend and fellow author Rob Roberge. I was complaining that my title was horrible, but was stumped on composing a new one. He said, “What’s the book really about?” I said, “Guns, needles, spoons…” listing off the subject matter, and then realizing I had the title.
WHY SOMEONE WOULD WANT TO READ IT: You might want to read my memoir if you’re in recovery, thinking about getting into recovery, have a loved one that is in recovery, or know someone that should be in recovery. It’s not a cautionary tale of the horrors of addiction, or even a scared straight after school special. It’s a story of redemption and perseverance. Parents, wives, husbands, significant others, and children of addicts have written to me thankful for the insight into what their loved ones have and are experiencing and dealing with. Forgiveness starts with understanding and compassion. Gratitude comes from how we are able to help one another.
Also, if you’re into junkie lit, true crime, and addiction memoirs, than this book might be for you as well.
And lastly, I come from the original punk rock era of the late ‘70’s early ‘80’s and my memoir might make sense to a lot of aging punk rockers out there – in other words the mom and dads of today. Although I taught English at a community college for over nine years and it saddens me to say that none of my students read. Not for pleasure, not for educational purposes, not newspapers, or even the owners manual for their TVs. So these days I am always amazed when anyone wants to read—my work, or anybody else’s—so I thank you in advance if you do.
REVIEW COMMENTS: “Patrick O’Neil’s recent memoir, Gun, Needle, Spoon, follows [the addiction memoir’s] well-worn narrative tracks but also manages to push out of them in ways that are surprising and significant. — Lindsay Marshall, American Book Review
“The omissions, the prose, and the patience with which he tells his frequently disturbing tale all add up to a whole greater than the sum of its excellent parts. Patrick O’Neil is a fantastic writer, and this is a hell of a debut.”– Michael T. Fournier, Razorcake
“Gun, Needle, Spoon is a work of tremendous courage, one which strikes a perfect balance between bluntness and beauty—O’Neil is a truly gifted storyteller—and gives readers a peek behind the curtain of a life most have only ever seen in fiction.” — Elizabeth A. White
“That’s why I find Gun, Needle, Spoon so compelling. It dramatizes a big addiction in a way that sheds light on our little addictions. We’re addicts, but not heroin addicts. If O’Neil can come back, so can we.” — Art Edwards, Entropy Magazine
“Patrick finds a way to dance on the razor’s edge of emotion while not becoming sentimental.” — Jacob Singer, Curbside Splendor
“O’Neil either doesn’t give a damn what you think, or he simply trusts the reader to be smart enough to make their own judgments. He offers his story with grim humor and unsettlingly vivid imagery.” — Gabriel Ricard, Drunk Monkeys
AUTHOR PROFILE: Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoirs Gun, Needle, Spoon (Dzanc Books) and Hold-up (13e Note Editions). His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Juxtapoz, Salon.com, The Fix, The Nervous Breakdown, After Party Magazine, and Razorcake. He is a contributing editor for Sensitive Skin Magazine, a Pushcart nominee, and a two-time nominee for Best Of The Net. He holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles, and is the co-coordinator for the Why There Are Words, Los Angeles reading series. For the past 17 years he has lived and worked in the recovery community as a recovering addict/alcoholic, a drug and alcohol counselor, a college instructor, and a narrative therapist. In 2015 the State of California granted him a Certificate of Rehabilitation. In 2016 California Governor Edmund G. Brown awarded him a Governor’s Pardon. He has taught writing workshops in numerous correctional facilities and institutions and continues to be of service to his fellowship and community. O’Neil currently lives in the MacArthur Park/West Lake district of Los Angeles, with his wife Jennifer, and two rather large Maine Coons.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: A good sixty percent of the first half of Gun Needle Spoon was my thesis for grad school. I began my MFA studies with a definite vision of the book I wanted to write and I concentrated on completing it. The final draft of that manuscript was a slightly shorter version of what would ultimately become Hold-Up (my first memoir translated into French and published in France). After graduating grad school I wrote a “part two” —a “this is me now” part to the memoir—and I eventually got an American publishing deal with Dzanc and worked with Editor-in-Chief Guy Intoci on a complete re-write/revision that became Gun Needle Spoon. It was a long journey to getting published, but the final results were well worth it.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Patrick O’Neil, Group Facilitator and Narrative Therapist at CAST Centers in West Hollywood, California. For the past 17 years he has lived and worked in the recovery community as a recovering addict/alcoholic, a drug and alcohol counselor, and a college instructor. He is the author of the memoir, Gun, Needle, Spoon, which chronicles his descent into addiction and the ensuing journey to regain his life.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path as a doctor or healer?
I was a long-term intravenous heroin addict. I spent the majority of my adolescence and early adulthood under the influence. I come from a family of successful well-educated people where there weren’t any addicts and certainly not any heroin addicts; my father is an M.I.T. professor; my mother was a social worker. I had successful careers in the art world and music industry.
When at age 40 I found myself incarcerated I literally asked myself, “how did this happen?” Not the how did this happen that I’m in jail, but the “how did my life fall so far off the rails?” It was then I made the decision I would do whatever it took to change my life’s trajectory. After my own stint in rehab and eventually getting sober, I realized in order to stay focused on my own program of recovery I needed to help others and be of service to the still struggling addict/alcoholics.
How have your personal challenges informed your career path?
Getting sober is a process of self-discovery and significant change. I didn’t just stop using substances and call it a success. I had core beliefs that were unhealthy and detrimental to myself and others. I had to address the way I thought and the values I held as my truths. Having the willingness to be honest, practice integrity, and be in acceptance was fundamental in initiating these internal changes. Finding the humility and gratitude deep within me is now a life long practice, and all of the above principles are what guide me with helping others find their own way to sobriety.
Can you share five pieces of advice to other doctors/clinicians/healers to help their patients to thrive?
Passion: I encourage my clients to discover and embrace their creativity and to pursue their passion in whatever medium, occupation, or career it may present itself. I firmly believe that through writing, art, theater, music, and dialogue, we can address self-defeating inner issues and bring about positive change. When the client achieves sobriety there is a huge part of their lives, the time they spend getting loaded, that is now just down time and rife for boredom or the kind of non-productivity that could easily lead to relapse; “I didn’t get sober to just work a nine to five job” etc. When an activity the addict/alcoholic is passionate about is introduced into their schedule and routine there is no longer a downtime or boredom to content with and put them at risk.
Patience: Abusing drugs and alcohol is the addict/alcoholics’ natural state; being in sobriety is not. Expecting clients to “just get it” is unrealistic. Abstinence takes time and patience. As a clinician one has to accept that some clients may need to make numerous attempts at getting clean before they can achieve sobriety. Not giving up on the hard cases is difficult, but needed. You never know when the “light” will go on and that patient of yours will finally understand what they need to do.
Creativity: Recovery is not a “cookie-cutter/one size fits all” solution. Not every client is able to achieve sobriety through a 12 steps based program. But this doesn’t mean they can’t succeed in sobriety. While the 12 step programs do have the highest success rates, there are clients that find it too confining/conforming. Yet to stay clean a client needs a healthy support system and a safe place to process their issues. This support system could be as simple as a therapist and a meditation group. As clinicians we need to find the solution that works for each clients specific needs.
Integrity: I have been clean and sober since January 8th, 2001. During that time I have been a member in good standing of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. In order to stay in sobriety I have also worked with a therapist, nutritionists, and numerous health practitioners. I have experienced a majority of the issues my clients have and I have sought out whatever solution was required to address them so that I can continue to be clean and sober and healthy. I talk the talk and walk the walk and provide an living breathing example of what recovery looks like to my clients so that sobriety is more than just some theory or ideal.
Honesty: I am up front and honest with all my clients. I give them the full aspect of the reality of their success in sobriety or their possible relapse if they continue to engage in their behaviors. I don’t sugar coat the hard work that is in front of them. By being transparent there is no misunderstanding and the client can start to trust in the process by putting in the needed work and gaining results.
Social media and reality TV create a venue for people to share their personal stories. Do you think more transparency about your personal story can help or harm your field of work? Can you explain?
More transparency can only help the recovery field. With addiction/alcoholism there is an overwhelming sense of failure, shame, and hopelessness in the non-recovering addict/alcoholic. Seeing other addicts and alcoholics that have successful stories of maintaining sobriety gives struggling addicts/alcoholics hope and a possible, “if they can do it so can I” moment. I have written a memoir detailing my personal “recovery” story so I am about as transparent as possible even without social media. However, given that less than 70% of America actually reads (the number gets even smaller regarding an actual book being read) and over 80% are actively on social media, getting your story out to a wider audience is that much more possible. Making our stories more accessible and public helps relieve the self defeating and debilitating sense of shame and guilt that non-recovering alcoholics/addicts may be experiencing. By providing them with our stories as a possible solution to their own issues we’re shining a light into their darkness.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant to your life?
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” — Ian Maclaren
I’m a person that needs to be reminded to practice understanding and not be judgmental. Not that I am either all the time, but every once in a while the “old me” will creep back into my consciousness. In my early sobriety I would attend a 12 step meeting and every week there was this one guy that would always raise his hand as a newcomer and I would think, “he’s not working a good program” or some other horrible non-empathetic thought like that. Then one day he shared his story and what he was dealing with on a daily basis was so intense I realized practically anyone faced with his challenges would be hard pressed to even want to get clean and sober, let alone attend a recovery meeting. It was that moment where I realized I would mentally fill in the blanks regarding other people with my own stories and judgments I believed to be true, but were in fact just my own assumptions. Incorporating acceptance and forgiveness into my life was key to being of service to others and helping people.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
To decriminalization all drugs. I’m not really sure what this would look like or entail, maybe something along the lines of what Portugal did in 2001 where the government decriminalized all drugs and substance abuse declined overall, especially among those at the most risk, the 15- to 24-year-olds. Drug-induced deaths there have also decreased as has HIV infection rates. Not surprisingly Portugal saw a decrease in imprisonment on drug-related charges and an increase of visits to health clinics that deal with addiction. America imprisons too many addicts and alcoholics and there is no real chance of rehabilitation or recovery. The war on drugs was lost a long time ago. We need to find a proactive solution rather than continue with policies that have been proven to not work, or worse cause more damage to society.
Bianca L. Rodriguez, MA, Ed.M, LMFT is a soul whisperer, author and innovator in spiritual psychotherapy. Her expert opinion is highly sought after by both online and print publications such as Bravo TV, Shape, Huffington Post and Thrive Global. After receiving her MA and Ed.M in psychological counseling from Columbia University in 2005, Bianca had a spiritual awakening and realized despite her struggles with alcoholism, anxiety and depression she was complete. For the next decade Bianca developed her unique brand of psychotherapy integrating traditional and mystical interventions becoming a prominent leader and teacher in the recovery field. Upon meeting Bianca you’ll be inspired by her effervescent spirit.
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