At first there were nine...

Thousands of veterans have returned from the war in Vietnam addicted to heroin.

What happened that turned these men to drugs?

The answers aren't simple.

To cope with the problem the Veterans Administration is opening 13 new drug centers sometime in October, including one at Topeka VA Hospital.

Twelve more will open within a year.

But the problem couldn't wait for official action. Several addicts at the Topeka facility recently approached VA officials about setting up a therapy group.

The size of the group, led by Dr. Stuart Twemlow and Richard Reinking has changed constantly.

Who are they, these addicts to drugs? What do they feel, how do they think? Figures too often hide the humans behind them.

Listen to nine heroin addicts involved in the Topeka therapy group. Their identities have been changed to protect them.

But their stories are real.

by Stannie Anderson

Topeka Capital-Journal

September 12, 1971

At first there were nine drug addicts…

Perry was brought up to hate. His father died before he was born. His mother put the two-week-old baby into his grandmother’s arms – and walked away without looking back.

“I grew up hating,” Perry says now, his tone icy. “My grandmother turned me loose to hate. In the service, killing was the easiest thing in the world to do. I was just killing people who were trying to kill me. But hating makes you a little less than human.

“In the service, when I killed my first man, I was 19 years old. Afterward, I felt empty. But I felt proud, too. Like a man.

I some ways, hate is a wholesome thing. It’s a basic emotion, just like love. Hate is an all-consuming thing. It’s all you can think of, and you can’t live until you’ve done something about it. It gives you enough drive to keep going.”

Perry leaned back in his chair. He closed his eyes, thinking.

Then he said softly, “I just hope that I’m capable of loving as strongly as I can hate.”

When Perry left the service, he couldn’t stand to be around people. He sat around and drank and brooded. He disliked going to bars. There were people there. He bought his liquor and took it home with him. Sometimes he even ran his grandmother out of her own home when he was drinking.

Perry turned to drugs as one way to help him tolerate other people. He injected morphine – skin-popping mostly – in amounts large enough to do a lot of normal men in. He also peddled dope to others, to support his growing habit.

“You feel like a million dollars after taking morphine,” he said. “I never did have a bad trip. It’s all been beautiful for me, except it got too expensive. It just got to where I was feeling more than I was earning, and I couldn’t go that way.”

Perry hasn’t taken dope now for several months, nor has he sold it. He’s always believed that money and status symbols are important. He thinks of himself as being “just plain, ordinary, everyday, greedy.” Being broke, as he is now, hurts. But still, he doesn’t want to go back to taking morphine or peddling dope.

Perry now wants all the things he once scorned:  A loving wife, a nice home, a new car, and a 9-to-5 job. He has a near-genius IQ, but has difficulty finding a job. Employers are afraid he’ll go back to the needle.

Perry is uncertain whether he’ll be able to stay away from dope. He wants to, but says, “life is tough.”

“I wonder what will happen to me when I get out of the hospital,” he said. “I don’t have any friends. There won’t be another human being.”

Perry doesn’t blame others for his troubles.

“The problem wasn’t the world. The problem was in me. I went sour. I couldn’t deal with people.”

After a long moment, he added, “When the rosy glow is gone, how do you learn to deal with people?”

Lee, a young black man who writes poetry, is bitter about the war and racial prejudice. One of his poems tells of his anger at fighting for his country and the returning to the United States as a “third class citizen.”

He attended one group therapy session.

Then he left the hospital without a pass.

And then there were eight drug addicts.

Sam began taking drugs when he couldn’t stand being with people. At first he would stay in his apartment. Then he would stay in his bedroom. And then he began to shut the bedroom door.

“I put the telephone in the refrigerator, because I didn’t want anybody to call. I couldn’t hear the phone ringing in the refrigerator. I knew if I cut the wire, I’d have to pay for it,” he said.

Sam left the group after about three meetings.

And then there were seven.

Lenny, on the surface, is a carefree, hippie type, with long flowing blond hair, sandals and tied-dyed shirts. He first got “turned on” to marijuana by some friends when he was 18.

LSD, mescaline, cocaine – name it, and he’s tried it. But “speed” (Methamphetamine) is his favorite.

Lenny isn’t too impressed with U.S. government in some respects.

“It’s got a hell of a lot of things wrong with it – and a hell of a lot of things good with it,” he said. “But I’m not happy with the United States being in Vietnam. I think the government should abolish the draft into the military service and instead should draft everybody at 18 years for things like construction, Job Corps, and volunteer Peace Corps. Then, after they get done with 18 months to two years of service, let them go on with school, if they want.”

Lenny rails against “plastic people” – those who aren’t real and honest, whose values center around a 30-year house mortgage, a new car every other year, whether business is up or down, whether their furniture is as good or better than that owned by the people down the street.

Persons in the drug community aren’t like that, Lenny says. They’re honest and straightforward. They aren’t phonies.

Lenny admitted that he sometimes seems to get himself into trouble unnecessarily  He points to a small verse mounted on a hospital bulletin board and says, “That’s the way I feel.”

The poem reads:

“Wherever I go
I come along
And spoil things.”

Sometimes Lenny does things that almost seem to indicate a wish to be caught and punished. Once he attempted to rob a store.

He threatened a clerk who pursued him.

“I didn’t hurt the dude,” Lenny said. “I’m not that kind of person. I’m a peaceful, easygoing person. I was strung out on speed. And that’s why I got off drugs. I don’t want to hurt anybody.”

Another precipitating factor was that one of his friends “over-amped” (took an overdose), turned white and then purple, fell on the floor and stopped breathing. He was revived at a hospital, but Lenny had seen a graphic picture of the direction in which he, himself, was headed.

“A doctor told me the life expectancy of someone who takes speed intravenously is about three years,” Lenny said.

But speed still attracts him. It makes him feel “zingy.”

“Whenever I’m feeling low, speed makes me feel normal,” he said. “And whenever I’m feeling normal, speed makes me feel super-great.”

Lenny remembers as a child always being at the bottom of the pecking order.

 "The other kids always picked on me,” he said. “I don’t know why. Once I remember, in grade school, another boy died in the shower.  One of the girls in my class walked up to me and said, ‘I wish you had been the one who died.’”

Lenny has sold drugs, making $200 to $300 a week in a small Kansas town. But he doesn’t want to go back to that. He’d like to go to college and study to be a forest ranger or perhaps a worker in ecology. He doesn’t want a 9-to-5 job.

At a 12-hour drug therapy group marathon at Topeka VA, Lenny used clay to make the figure of a woman. She had no face. Lenny continued to work on the figure as he talked to Dr. Twemlow, Lenny said he doesn’t mind living with a woman, but he’s wary of marriage.

“I’d have to be awfully sure she was the right one,” he said.

The doctor watched as Lenny’s fingers worked busily at the clay.

“Will you ever finish her?” he asked softly.

“I don’t know,” Lenny said hesitantly. “I really don’t.”

“If you ever did finish her, would you still be interested in her?” the doctor asked.

“I don’t know,” Lenny said. “I really don’t.”

Carl wanted to get off drugs but he feared he couldn’t. He wanted to get married. But when he used drugs, he beat his girl. He decided to get married anyway, hoping he could stay off drugs.

Carl left the hospital. And then there were six.

Dwight began smoking “hash” while overseas in Europe. Before he entered the service he had taken diet pills for kicks. Alcohol made him sick. But with hash, he had no hangover.

Dwight hated the Army. He lived for the day he would escape it.

He used many drugs after his discharge, but LSD was his favorite. He took it 30 to 40 times before he “flipped out” on it.

Once, while on an LSD trip, he thought he was an atom and had to start the world again. He thought about killing himself – and said he would have if he had had something to do it with.

“Even on my bad trips I had some good feelings,” he said. “I felt I was going to be all right and, boy, did I feel good! I felt real good. I poured out emotions like emotions were never poured out before. I would cry tears of joy, I was feeling so good. Boy, it was something else! Boy, when I found I didn’t wake up for a week, I was in shock!”

Dwight has taken speed since then, but says “it isn’t a thrill like it used to be.”

After a moment he added, “It isn’t very good for me to do it anymore. I guess it’s what caused my head to be like it is – spaced out all the time. I shouldn’t take it anymore. I really shouldn’t.”

Dwight walks around rigidly, somewhat like a zombie. But that is beginning to change. He relaxes more often. Sometimes he smiles. Three or four times he has laughed. More than anything, Dwight wants to get a job and get out of the hospital.

At the marathon, Dwight worked on a clay object representing a woman.

“I made a face,” he explained. “Kind of an ugly face. It has sharp cheekbones. It’s got a bulgy nose on it. I’ve got to try to make something so ugly that it’s beautiful. It’s got a kind of funny mouth – like it’s smiling. Maybe this means I’d like to see more smiles on my face.

Bob is a slender, frail-looking young man. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade. He was in the service – but didn’t like it. Afterward he started taking LSD. Bob doesn’t trust anyone. Strangers might be narcotics agents, and he doesn’t want to be “busted” (arrested).

“I feel empty …. Without hope,” Bob said in his subdued voice. “I don’t fit in anywhere any more. I’d like to get a high school diploma. But I don’t know if I can do it – or if it will make any difference if I do. When I try to get a job, I don’t know what to tell a prospective employer about myself … What is there to say?”

Bob abruptly left the hospital, without a pass.

 And then there were five.

“I have two problems, man! I’m black and I’m poor!” Don’s voice was belligerent.

“A drug addict always needs money. Man, you can’t afford to be broke when you’re on drugs. Why should I work for $30 a day when in 15 minutes of hustling (selling drugs) I can pick up $30 or might even make $100?”

Don started smoking marijuana in the service. While in Vietnam he sniffed “smack” (heroin) for the first time.

“I’d come in from the field all dirty and tired. There was nothing to do. Couldn’t go to a movie. So I blew grass… But I was a good soldier. My CO (Commanding Officer) said he had no complaints about me in the field, but said when I came in from the field I started role-playing.”

Don said the roof fell in on him when he got back from Vietnam.

“I lost my girl, I wrecked my car, I got laid off from work, and I had a fight with my old lady,” he said. “So I started smoking marijuana. Pretty soon I didn’t care any more … I like smack. I’m afraid of speed and acid. When you’ve taken smack, you just want to sleep.”

Then, somewhat angrily, he said, “If they start making this hospital into a place where they lock me up, man, I’m leaving!”

He added softly, “But I don’t want to go just yet.  I think I need something that is here in this hospital.”

Under all the anger, obviously, is gentleness.

“I am a sensitive man,” Don said. “I care about people. I care a lot.”

After two meetings Don left the hospital.

And then there were four.

Tim doesn’t recall ever getting a word of praise from his father. He didn’t whip or punish him, but he was always critical.

“It seems as though he thought I should be perfect and was disgusted when I wasn’t,” Tim said.  “I guess I just got to where I wouldn’t do anything. Then I wouldn’t be giving him any reason to criticize me.”

But a rebellion broke out when Tim was 17. He and a friend vandalized a park in their small hometown. Neither had been in trouble with the law before, but both were sent to reform school.

“If I’d lived in a larger city, it probably wouldn’t have happened that way,” Tim said. “We would have been put on probation. But things like that don’t happen in a small town very often, and it gave people something to yell about.”

Tim was scared. And he had reason to be. The first night in reform school a welcoming committee of four young toughs worked them over. Tim and his friend didn’t reveal the identity of their attackers – and this made some friends for them.

Tim was released early for good behavior. He finished high school and enlisted in military service.

He hated the Army and pored over a manual listing reasons for honorable discharges. Then he went to a chaplain and told him he was a homosexual. It wasn’t true, Tim said, but he wanted out. He stuck to his story, through interviews with three psychiatrists. Tim was given an honorable discharge. He was 21 years old.

Tim roved over the country, just working long enough to pick up a check and move on. He married and things looked better for awhile. But then he became restless and upset, left his wife and quit his job. And he turned to drugs.

“I probably ‘dropped’ LSD between 200 and 300 times in four years,” he said. “I sniffed it or snorted it a lot. Sometimes I snorted enough at one time for about five trips. Five hits of anything is quite a lot. Sometimes I would stay up a couple of days.”

His last trip, before coming into Topeka VA for treatment, lasted two weeks.

Tim has difficulty remembering things sometimes and wonders if he may have suffered brain damage from LSD.

Once, in a therapy session, Tim observed, “I wouldn’t want to be a judge. I wouldn’t put myself in that kind of position. I would say ‘not guilty’ to everybody. I wouldn’t make choices. I never have. I just don’t make decisions most of the time. I find it is easiest when I come to a crossroads and have a hard time, just to turn and go back.”

Tim described his clay model of the opposite sex:

“I made a woman. She’s got on a slouch hat. She’s kind of out of proportion. She has big hips, broad shoulders, big feet. She’s got a very strong backbone … I don’t think she’s the figure of anyone I know … She almost looks like she’s pregnant. I can see a lot of beauty in her. I think a pregnant woman is physically attractive, is beautiful. Sometimes I think about having children of my own. In my conscious mind, I think that children are too big a responsibility to handle, and I don’t think I’d … “ his voice trailed away.

Tim was asked to draw a picture of “where I think I am now.”

He drew a seahorse, with a large question mark in its head.

“I think the seahorse is asking, ‘What next?” Tim said. “There is no water, so the seahorse is in bad shape.”

After the marathon, Tim said he was leaving the group to go into individual therapy.

And then there were three … Perry, Lenny and Dwight.

Therapy continues for them. The pain and problems continue. But they’ve reached a point in their brinkmanship game in which they realize they either must go deeper into their problems, or back off and go back to where they came from.