“I try to pinpoint the moment when I started to die instead of live, when I became the bad guy and started hating the world around me. But I can’t and maybe that’s what means everything, when we become drifting ghosts and only catch glimpses of the memories when we were at our best. Those nights when I would stay up late and stare out the window wondering if they were going to get us before the morning and never really caring as long as we were together.” ~ Wasting Talent by Ryan Leone (2013)
I read Wasting Talent (https://www.amazon.com/dp/0692028161/ref=cm_sw_r_fa_api_76q-ybH6X2NJ4) in one sitting. It was recommended to me by a writer I respect so I knew I had to read it but once I began the book, I couldn’t stop. This is not an easy read. It is well written but dark and often ugly. Some chapters were like opening the door of an abandoned building and witnessing horrific scenes. I wanted to slam the door and run away but I couldn’t. I had to go inside.
When I finished the book I wanted to know more about its author Ryan Leone, the writer, ex-addict, and ex-offender who had created Wasting Talent. I learned the book was conceived and born while Leone was serving 4 years on drug charges. Somehow that context made it all make perfect sense.
Leone is a moving target. When we commenced our first interview for The Fix (https://www.thefix.com/wasting-talent-ryan-leone-heroin-addict) , Leone was approximately three years sober and engaged. By the completion of the interview Leone had relapsed, his relationship had ended, and our interview was concluded while he was in detox.
What became clear to me was there were 2 sides to Ryan Leone. There was the gifted and prolific writer and the addict who remained deeply entrenched in the addiction battle and all that included – John O’brien finishing his Magnum Opus as he slipped under the tide.
I had a chance to interview Leone again (http://honeysucklemag.com/talking-drugs-prison-and-writing-with-author-ryan-leone/) and learned more about his history and almost life long addiction to drugs. Leone was back on track by the end of that interview and at work on his second book. The future looked good.
But Leone remains a moving target. The allure of heroin was too difficult to resist and the months that followed were dictated, once again, by his addiction. He impulsively married, moved, wrote, used, cleaned up, relapsed, wrote, used, wrote.
I had the chance recently to once again catch up with Leone. He was different, more subdued and seemed older and both tired and renewed.
Regina Walker: Since our last interview, a great deal has happened. Tell me about your marriage and the state of your addiction.
Ryan Leone: My first stint in federal prison elicited PTSD and rendered me emotionally damaged. I had intense paranoia, separation anxiety, jealousy, and suicidal ideation. Somehow I managed to stay completely clean for three years. I was engaged to a woman during that time, we had our problems like any relationship, but it was the happiest period of my entire life. She is a photographer and has her own following so it was cool being in a creative partnership. She helped shoot and conceptualize the cover for Wasting Talent and we nurtured each other’s artistic endeavors. Penitentiary life commands a constant facade of bravado, you can never show your true feelings because it can compromise your safety. I feel pain like anyone else but it’s tucked away deep internally. After four years of practicing being a stoic statue, it was incredibly uncomfortable for me to lay my emotional cards down on the table for anyone to see and I had become stunted, forfeiting the ability to grow with her. Her father was dying and my inability to express empathy really pushed her away from me. She went on a trip to Pittsburgh so that she could visit him in the hospital before he passed away. I relapsed on heroin while she was there. I think a lot of my relapse had to do with how much pain I felt for my partner and how much I loathed myself for not being able to express it or comfort her. I was watching her drown and I forgot how to swim to save her. She left me and I went down the proverbial rabbit hole.
I started going to rehabs. I met a former call-girl at one of them and we went on a predictably disastrous crystal meth and heroin run. We got cellulitis from shooting bad speed, lived with a violent transgendered alcoholic, went back to rehab, left again, I overdosed and was hospitalized, she attempted suicide and ended up in a psych ward, I pretended I was suicidal and snuck heroin up my ass into the institution and we shot dope together while mentally-ill people watched us with listless and medicated eyes. Needless to say our relationship didn’t work out. During our time together she would always tell me that although she was a heroin addict, alcohol was her first love and that I could get the same escapism for a fraction of the cost if I became an alcoholic. She literally taught me how to be one. We drank screwdrivers in the morning and drank ourselves to sleep. This is all while doing heroin, the dangerous duality was like lighting the wick at both ends. Alcohol was never my thing but after my time with her I started to gradually pick up the habit.
I went to rehabs a few more times and was invariably kicked out for drinking each time. I moved out of LA for a while and went to live on my best friend’s couch in Santa Barbara to cool off. We would split 6 packs of IPA at night and I started drinking malt liquor in the mornings. I clearly remember his trash can being full of plastic 40 oz bottles one morning. He was concerned about it and was the first one to ever tell me that he thought I had a drinking problem. I vehemently disagreed but it kept progressing and eventually I moved on to whiskey. It started with a pint a day but my thirst for liquor seemed to be getting increasingly unquenchable. I was doing drugs here and there, but trying to just stay on Suboxone to stay away from the heroin. I figured if I was only drinking and doing prescribed medication that I was solid. I’m one of those people that rarely acts drunk, so when I am it’s easy to conceal.
My writing career was starting to take off. I was doing events, getting favorable press, and meeting a lot of my favorite authors. I felt like I found a place in the literary community and several established writers took me under their wings. I was making money from the first book, getting stuff published in foreign languages, and taking meetings with the film industry. I was still reasonably functional at the time.
I got a fan letter from a girl in Denver. She was a single mother, only a couple of years younger than me. She flew to Los Angeles and we ended up going to the court house and getting married only ten days after we met. I went out to Denver for a while. A lot of my friends moved out there to get in the legal pot business and I relapsed on heroin with some of them right when I got there. At this point, the alcohol had become problematic. I was up to a fifth a day and I had to drink to start my mornings. My wife didn’t seem to notice that I was always incapacitated. I kept the heroin from her at first. She wanted me to be sober the first time I met her five year old son and made me stop drinking that morning. Later that night I snuck in the bathroom to shoot up, I didn’t have a cotton or cigarette filter so I used a tiny amount of bunched up toilet paper. After I did the shot, I didn’t feel right. I was sweating profusely and starting to shake. I thought it was cotton fever– which is when you get cotton fibers or bacteria in your injection by mistake– and you become deathly ill and shake violently. I got in bed with her and I was shaking so badly that it woke her up. It was like a scene from The Exorcist. She was petrified and asked what was wrong, at that point I was having an anxiety attack with buggy hallucinations. She googled it and told me I was having delirium tremens from alcohol withdrawal. I didn’t think I drank enough to be physically dependent but she gave me some beer and as soon as I drank it my symptoms stopped instantly, I was returned to normality just like that. It was comparable to getting well after being dope sick from opiates. That’s when I knew I had a legitimate drinking problem.
We moved to Los Angeles together and I would get off heroin for a week or so and then get right back on. I really wanted to have a family. I wanted to be normaI. I tried hard to kick but I just couldn’t seem to do it. I wasn’t living in reality and the alcohol addiction was foreign to me, I wasn’t used to being that depressed. I don’t want to say anything bad about my ex-wife but we were horrible for each other and had a whirlwind of a marriage. It was seething with toxicity and I became more and more suicidal during the course of it. I had to figure out ways to beat my drug tests for parole and it was incredibly stressful on my marriage, there was the perpetual threat of going back to prison looming over me and I was up to almost two fifths a day. I have hepatitis C from being an IV drug user and my health started to be frighteningly affected by the amount I was drinking. My stool would come out black, I was swollen and bloated, my skin became jaundiced, every morning I vomited blood because the lining in my stomach was receding, and I constantly got the shakes. Even when I wasn’t shooting heroin, I would inject my suboxone– which is sublingual and not meant for injecting so my arms and legs were festered with lumps. I didn’t realize how fucked up I was until my ex-wife showed me a video on her phone of me blacked out, slurring drunk and covered in blood, digging for veins in my legs. I blew my first film deal because the screenwriter and producer simply couldn’t work with me in that state. I was “impossible.” My ex-wife left me and wouldn’t come back unless I quit drinking. I tried to stop cold turkey the day she came back. I had a seizure in the middle of the night, I woke up on the floor. It was like 3 or 4 in the morning and they don’t sell alcohol past 2 am in California. The only thing we had in our house was mouth wash and cologne and I downed them both. It was pathetic and embarrassing. I never thought I’d hit that kind of bottom with that substance. I decided to check myself into a medical detox the next day. In the morning I got a pint of Jack to get me through until I could check into a program in West Hollywood. I wanted to get high one last time. I went to meet my heroin dealer and I got in a three car accident on the 101 freeway. I blew a 0.06 and the CHP officer arrested me for a DUI. The legal limit is 0.08 and I beat it at trial on the state level. The problem was that I was still on federal parole and my PO told me I was going back to prison regardless of the fact that I wasn’t convicted of a crime. I didn’t know how long it was going to be. It could have been a month, or it could have been three years. I put the violation hearing off as long as I could and the worst drug and alcohol addiction of my entire life ensued. I overdosed a couple of times and attempted suicide. I drank until I blacked out each night, I was spending $200 a day on heroin and burned most of my dealers with whatever scam I could conjure up. I had to start going to Skid Row in downtown LA to score and got strung out on PCP. I didn’t want to feel like I existed anymore, the alcohol distorted my life in horrific totality. I was eventually sentenced to three months in federal prison and the judge allowed me to surrender after the holidays. My marriage was hanging on by a thread, I knew how severe the withdrawal was going to be in prison. The day I turned myself in I said goodbye to my ex-wife and stepson. I knew I’d never see them again. I knew what we had was fake. I was playing house and I really sucked at it because of the condition I was in. I liked having a family, as phony as it was. Daddy and Husband were both precious labels to me. I hope someday I’m healthy enough to be able to be great at both of those roles. I wish nothing but the best for my ex-wife and her beautiful little boy. There aren’t hard feelings. We both made many mistakes, namely getting married impulsively to complete strangers.
The Feds medically detoxed me in a hospital in East LA. I was handcuffed and shackled the entire time. I was essentially crucified to the bed as armed US Marshals watched me flop like a fish for 9 days; Donald fucking Trump was getting inaugurated on the TV above the bed as I screamed in agony. That was my hellacious reality. It was gnarly.
I got in a fight in prison and had to go to solitary confinement for half of my sentence. It was a time for intense and painful introspection. My ex-wife and I decided it was best for everyone involved to call it quits. It was the only healthy choice we ever made together as husband and wife.
“Some men tie a t-shirt around their eyes but I’ve always found the horrors of the penitentiary brighter playing on a black screen. The way dry blood goes brown on a shank; the tith-tith of someone getting stabbed, tith sounding even longer when the wounds overlap; that sad and vacant look in a lifer’s eyes when he has been completely hypnotized by routine.” from Folsom Prison Blues by Ryan Leone (short story 2016)
RW: Sobriety, Recovery, Harm Reduction, whatever one may want to call it, has been elusive to you. Where are you in that area of your life now?
RL: I think solitary confinement is inhumane and should be outlawed. We need to acknowledge it for what it is: cruel and unusual punishment. But I find it paradoxical that it was the catalyst for my three year period of sobriety and it certainly helped this time around. I needed to be physically removed from substances. I needed the lucidity and the insights that come with it.
After my fiancé left me in 2015 and I started going back to rehabs, I was force-fed 12 step dogma again. I’ve been exposed to the “program” for over half of my life. I’ve been to over 20 different rehabs and each one has tried to sublimate me with the same limited formula. I want to be clear that although 12 step programs have never worked for me, I’ve seen them save innumerable addicts over the years and I have a lot of respect for the healing it can help provide. Some of the most important people in my life are members of AA and NA. I’m a proponent of anything that helps you stay clean and fosters positivity.
The Big Book has some profound insights about the disease. I’ve always gravitated towards the book literalists of the fellowship. It seems that the program has been perverted by the human ego. I don’t agree with some of the ways addicts have translated the source material, it seems that they have created phantom rules that have nothing to do with the actual steps. It’s a god-help program, not a self-help program. A sponsor is there to take you through the steps and be a lifeline if you are feeling shaky, period. They certainly aren’t de facto therapists, they aren’t there to act as dictators and tell you that you can’t date until you reach a year or some other arbitrary mile stone. You love who you love, and your feelings are yours. You can describe them, and maybe if you’re a gifted artist you can even invoke a similar emotional response in another human being but we are all unique and so are our feelings. This whole notion that our minds are broken, that we can’t make sound decisions for ourselves is just as destructive as the concept of having a bondage of self. We only live once, I’m not going to base where I move or who I date on the the demands of another sick alcoholic. I know that some are sicker than others, but I’ve been around recovery culture long enough to know that we never stop being sick, we just get better at managing it. When we think we’ve healed and get that false sense of hyper-optimism or unwarranted superiority, that’s when we die from this. It’s that serious. I also disagree with sobriety dates. I had been conditioned through the years to put this heavy importance on the date. And if I fuck up that date, then I have to start over. I may have only taken a hit off a joint or had one beer, but here I am feeling like I threw away this marathon of perfection. I’m sure that those dates and all the celebratory validation that comes with them, have killed a lot of people. I know what it feels like to screw it up, you just want to die, and you use it as an excuse to go all in. Part of addiction is finding excuses to give up. Every day is a battle if you’re a true addict. If you make a mistake, you need to take it on the chin, get up and try again. We are inherently resilient creatures, sustaining a habit is a full time gig. I don’t ever want some momentary lapse or mistake to define me and give me an excuse to give up.
If AA or NA works for you, that’s great. I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from the approach because it is tried and true and it works for a hell of a lot of people. I’m just describing my own personal opinions and experiences in recovery. However you get clean, you have to work hard to maintain it. I love doing heroin but I hate the consequences I’ve endured from being addicted to it. It’s far too easy to get that euphoric recall and say fuck it and get nice and cozy on a rainy day. For me there are three pillars that help me stay away from all of it: fitness, nutrition, and creativity.
The first time I got clean I turned into a fitness freak. They had a weight pile in the federal prison I was in and a few guys showed me the ropes. Drugs obviously affect neurology, when you have dopamine and endorphins firing rapidly in your brain after pressing the plunger down on a syringe, you’re instantly rewarded with pleasure, and over time your neurological wiring becomes crisscrossed. You become more susceptible to situational depression and any underlying psychological issues are shuffled and exasperated to a point where your cognitive and emotive DNA are almost unrecognizable. Some drugs are more neurologically damaging than others, crystal meth and cocaine really wreak havoc on your brain. Heroin is a little less of a detriment but they all take years to even begin to refurbish. Fitness is clinically proven to expedite neurological repair and improve cognitive function. As an addict, I always “needed” something: a drink, a cigarette, a line, whatever. I feel naturally high after a good work out and those compulsions seem to lose their intensity. I feel more centered and less impulsive. It also makes you look good physically. I’d say insecurity is the most common thread among addicts and anything that can help repair a damaged self-esteem will undoubtedly help give you another reason not to use drugs.
I am also on a strict Paleolithic diet. I’m not a nutritionist but this diet worked for me last time I tried it and I’m doing it again now. It gave me more energy and cut a lot of fat off while maintaining lean muscle. It’s essentially what cave men ate before the agricultural revolution. You can’t eat grains or dairy or anything refined. It’s a lot of meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, and almonds. It’s restrictive and most noticeable when you eat out. The way it correlates with my recovery is that it forces positive decisions and discipline every day. It gets me in the routine of saying “no.” — a word I wish I learned about 17 years ago. It also goes with the fitness and self-esteem thing. A good physique is 80% diet. Diet compliments fitness, not the other way around.
Creativity was instrumental last time and is proving to be on the second go as well. I’m a writer. It’s my therapy, meditation, and outlet all at once. I’ve learned more about myself through my writing than by the actual experiences that inspired it. It allows me to perform a retrospective autopsy on my life and articulate all of its wonderful complexities. I’m incredibly humbled by the fact that I have an audience to speak to. I write about ugliness and beauty simultaneously and when you juxtapose the two of them, you realize that one can’t exist without the other. There would be no point of reference if everything was ugly and we would never realize just how bright beauty can blaze. Literature has kept me company at some of my loneliest and darkest periods. I think that a truly great writer can make you feel less alone by providing observations that the reader can only meekly describe themselves. It’s like the writer has an antenna on the human experience. There’s nothing more gratifying than when your art profoundly affects another person. People come up to me at readings and literary festivals and tell me how something I wrote meant something to them and it beats any high I’ve ever experienced from doing drugs. They say that you learn the best by teaching someone what you already know. I am able to cleanse painful regrets and write eternal apologies to all the people I wish I hadn’t hurt along the way.
RW: You are clean and recently released from prison. What is next? What projects are you working on?
RL: I didn’t realize how badly the drugs and alcohol affected my creative output until I went back to prison and cleaned up. I started taking it seriously again and writing everyday. There will be some short stories being released later this year in various anthologies and magazines that I’m really proud of. I’ve been working hard on June Gloom, which will be my second novel, and it should be all wrapped up by the end of summer. It chronicles my last three serious relationships but will be released as fiction. I gave some rudimentary details about these relationships in this interview but they were fairly mild and PG-13 compared to the gory details I go into in the actual book. I’m choosing to novelize it for a few reasons. Fiction affords a more expansive creative license and allows me to make it more literary. It is in the tradition of some of my favorite LA writers: Bukowski, Fante, Bret Easton Ellis, etc. I think that codependent relationships are a fascinating subject for a novel and something that is almost unanimous in the drug world but often ignored in junkie literature. I eventually want to move in a more crime or transgressive direction and get away from my druggie typecast but this story needed to be told while it was still fresh and burning in my mind. It’s much different than WT– in that it lacks the hyperbole, it’s more matter-of-fact and more mature. It goes into the compulsion of jumping blindly into relationships and the tumultuous aftermath that always go with that. I wrote a lot of it in solitary confinement and had to dissect my former relationships. I talk about a lot of uncomfortable situations from my life and I feel if I died tomorrow, it would offer a lot of explanations about myself and the things I did. WT stated the where and what, while June Gloom answers the whys (in a much more honest and less sensationalized way.)
The film version for Wasting Talent is in the works. There’s been several people that have taken a crack at the script and I wasn’t happy with any of the previous attempts. Screenplays are different than novels, there is this almost obligatory redemptive quality that has to exist for the film to work. That’s fine, and I understand that but I don’t want the nihilistic tone of the book to be lost and it turned into some cautionary drug tale with a happy ending. Drug addiction rarely has a happy ending and that was one of the points of the novel. I finally found a screenwriter and producer that I’m comfortable with. The screenwriter wrote the most iconic and celebrated drug film of my generation. I’m contractually prohibited from disclosing who is attached to the project until the “announce” date. But it’s one of my favorite screenwriters and he’s a close personal friend. He has stayed adherent to my original vision and added his own brilliant signature nuances. I’m very happy with what he’s doing script wise and there’s already some actors interested in playing Damien.
I’ve also been collaborating on a single series with my best friend. He is an amazing artist and had done all these fantastic art pieces over the years that captured specific eras of my life. They were just laying around at his house and they inspired me to start this project. I don’t ever want to release a straight memoir but I thought it would be an interesting idea to put out smaller 50-100 page stories as singles. My friend’s art really inspired me to do it and it’s been great working with him. I have two done and plan on completing five more before they are published. I think it’s the perfect time for it, seeing how our culture is addicted to binge-watching shows on Netflix. Short fiction is making a comeback right now and I want to be part of that wave.
I’ve been working on a lot. I’ve realized that to be a professional writer you need to take it seriously and constantly be practicing the craft. I fell off for a while but I’m back, swinging harder than before. I have a pro skater friend that was big in the 90s. There was an entire new generation of talented skateboarders that came after him and he had to almost start over, learn all new tricks to make himself relevant again. I feel like I’m in a similar situation. It’s hard to be a successful writer and there’s a lot of intimidating competition. I have an affinity for great literature so I’m glad that other authors are setting the bar so high.
I was going to commit suicide last December, I had the gun and everything. I got a call from an ex-girlfriend and she told me that I should remember that years after I die my books will still be around. Someone might be feeling alone or addicted or suicidal and my words may keep them company the way other writer’s words have done for me in times of melancholy. It made my work feel important and made me keep pushing. I still have a lot to say before I die. The things we go through can flower into something beautiful or keep us rooted in the ground instead. I think my purpose is to remain bilingual in both so that people can avoid the mistakes I’ve made and hopefully not feel so alone in this gorgeous but cruel world.
“Or maybe I’ll just become another secret ambassador for pain, sprouting life lessons from my grave because I’d rather be dope sick than not in love.” ~ June Gloom by Ryan Leone (coming soon)
Regina Walker is a psychotherapist, writer, and photographer in NYC http://soberworx.com/listing/regina-walker/