An 8-Year Opiate Addiction Fueled His Love for Games. Now, He's Quitting.
Games have helped (and hindered) Larry's addiction for nearly a decade, but he wants to be a better father, a better partner. He's just not sure what it means for his favorite hobby.
Art by Sunless Design
For Larry, video games aren't just a hobby, they're an escape, a chance to run away from his problems. They've also gone hand-in-hand with his drug addiction. He hasn't played a game without being high in nearly a decade. Larry has spent the last eight years addicted to opiates, powerful and habit-forming substances found in many pain-relief drugs. Opiate addiction is epidemic in the United States, and despite draining his body and bank account, and nearly costing relationships with his son and girlfriend, his addiction reigned. The question is whether, after all this time and repeated failures, he can actually quit.
"One of the reasons I loved gaming so much is that no matter how bad things became, I could do a few lines and disappear into another world for a few hours," he said. "What happens when that need is gone? The goal is to always avoid withdrawal at all costs. Don't be sick. Whenever [drugs] are that much of your life, they get intertwined with everything you love—like a ritual, if you will. And video games are at the top of my list."
But it's proven a dangerous ritual, one that's strained the patience of those who love him.
"The problem with video games," said Larry's longtime girlfriend Katherine, "especially the type he likes, is when you're running a mile a minute because of opioids, it's easy to lose track of time and also lose track of how much medicine you're taking. His sleep schedule was completely destroyed and flipped upside down. He'd stay up all night playing, and the insomnia really took a toll on his physical and mental health."
(Both Larry and Katherine asked to be anonymous, as not everyone in their lives are aware of Larry's struggles with addiction. Their names have been changed to reflect that wish.)
Larry grew up "as a Sega kid" until getting an original PlayStation, which introduced him to a whole slew of genres he'd never heard of. Cash strapped by his addiction and unable to properly work, one of his small goals for the immediate future is to buy a PlayStation 4 that he can play with his grade-school age son.
That was the plan for last Christmas, actually. Both Larry and his son would get identical consoles, one for each of their rooms, and they could play enjoy playing games together.
"But when you're spending hundreds every month on drugs just to function," he said, "things like that take a back seat."
Shaking an addiction to opiates is hard enough, but potentially losing another important part of his life has continued to give Larry pause. As good as being high feels, he knows it's wrong. But what if his enjoyment of video games wasn't pure, that being high was a key component? Or what if his brain can't separate the two, and video games prompt a relapse?
"I'm just really hoping I can find a way to continue gaming without being high," he said. "Some people might consider it a trigger even. It's like, 'Well, I've been high every time I've played this, every memory I have of this game involves drugs.' So, what happens when you take the drugs away?"
The Witcher 3 lets him leave the world, and his problems, behind for a few hours. Call of Duty allows him to focus on a single goal: killing the other team. The two habits are intertwined.
Like Larry's addiction, America's opiate crisis didn't happen overnight. Since 2000, more than 300,000 Americans have been killed by an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An opioid investigation by Frontline in 2016 found that starting in 2014, drug overdoses accounted for 40% more deaths than car crashes. Our sister site, Tonic, has been covering this extensively.
Larry's story of addiction is archetypal opioid crisis. 29-year-old Larry has lived in the same town in Arkansas his whole life, and his family's roots in the state go back to the 19th century. His childhood marked all the boxes: a loving family who instilled values about right and wrong, 12 years in Little League baseball, summers as a Boy Scout.
It was, as he told me, "a very usual middle class upbringing."
It's Just One Pill
In high school, Larry started experiencing regular back pain, but as an invincible youth, he brushed it off. As the years went on, the pain became something he couldn't ignore. Fueling his curiosity was the birth of his son; Larry had every intention of being an active father, whether it was rolling around on the floor or tossing a football. Doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong, and many dismissed his concerns. Eventually, one discovered the problem, confirming what Larry had long suspected: degenerative disc disease (DDD).
DDD, in which the spinal discs located in-between vertebrae begin to break down, usually happens to someone who's suffered a traumatic injury or the result of old age. Larry didn't fall into either camp, which is why doctors hadn't thought to test him for the disease. DDD can't actually be cured, but it can be managed over time, as the discs fall apart.
Working in a lumberyard at the time, Larry was constantly using his back. It hurt like hell, and he'd been purchasing pills to manage the pain. But that's all it was at the time: pain management. When the doctor suggested surgery might make things easier, he signed up as soon as possible. And when the surgery went well, it seemed like Larry was good to go.
"I [now] consider myself an addict," he said, "but for the majority of those years, I was just a patient that happened to be dependent on my meds, not addicted to them."
"As with most people, he started out with a prescription, and took them exactly as directed," said Katherine. "I know, because I was the one in control of his medications, and I would give him his doses throughout the day."
Everything changed when Larry encountered Opana, a drug that sparked an HIV outbreak in 2016, after its manufacturer, Endo Pharmaceuticals, introduced a special coating to discourage snorting crushed Opana. Instead of ditching Opana, people simply worked around the chemical coating by injecting the drug—and shared needles.
"I consider myself an addict, "but for the majority of those years I was just a patient that happened to be dependent on my meds, not addicted to them."
Despite the increased potency, it didn't take long for Larry to start burning through his entire prescription before the month was up and he could get a new one. His solution: finding a friend who had a similar prescription—same drug, same dosage—and bought supplements.
At the same time, Larry was dropped by his doctor because, according to Larry, the practice was more interested in"patients that need more regular care," and they needed to make room for them. For the next two years, he lived off his friend's prescription, selling some pills for money and using the rest to feed his addiction.
This created huge hassles. He currently works at a local used gaming store part-time, but it doesn't pay well, and between the drugs and child support payments, he's not left with much. (Though separated from the mother, he's involved in his son's life. Upon marrying his high school sweetheart, they quickly had a child, but the relationship didn't last much longer.)
"I want my life back," he said, "I want to be a father my son can be proud of and I want to marry my girlfriend of eight years, who has seen so, so, so much, and put up with the same, staying by my side all the while."
"We've almost called it quits more times than I can count," said Katherine. "We tried everything to get it under control. I would lock them up, and that was hard, because it caused resentment. He'd resent me because I wouldn't give him the key, and I'd resent him because he wanted it. I can say without hesitation that sometimes I felt like I was with someone entirely different than who I signed up to be with, but on the other hand, some days I felt like a different person, too."
A Cry for Help
I started talking to Larry in March. He'd been searching the Internet for stories about addicted video game fans, seeking an emotional lifeline. If someone else had made it to the other side, maybe he could, too. But Larry wasn't able to find any stories, so he considered telling his own. Larry's story didn't have an ending when our first email exchange took place. That was when his supply of opiates was almost dry—two weeks left, to be exact.
"If I can help someone like me, who's a father or a mother, trying to hold down a job and get their life back, who feels alone, then it'll be worth it," he said. "I just want people to understand that addiction—opiates and heroin especially—are seeping into every corner of our society, including gaming, and nobody's talking about it."
Like many who fight addiction, this was not the first time he'd tried to quit. But this time was for real.
"I was tired of the driving around with something in my car that could send me to prison, and spending unholy amounts of money. I was tired of feeling dead emotionally."
Kicking an opioid addiction is hellaciously difficult on both a physical and psychological level, but there's another dimension to that struggle: lack of resources and help for recovering addicts. (This has proved a point of contention, as Trump and a GOP-led Congress have tried to pass health care reform, and a desire for draconian ran counter to rural states needing more money to help this crisis.)
Those addicted to drugs often find they are left to their own devices when it comes to treatment, and people like Larry have to find ways to fill in the holes that effective therapy and medication would typically provide. Larry's plan was to use an herb called Kratom, which can produce a high similar to opiates. It's used in-between fixes and, according to advocates, help people to get off the drug. Arkansas banned Kratom in early 2016, however, which left many like Larry without alternatives to the pain medication that'd gotten them in trouble to start with.
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced it would follow in Arkansas footsteps in September 2016, banning Kratom nationwide, but after a massive public push back, the DEA relented. It's still banned in Arkansas, however.
"My plan is to take the Kratom for about a month," he said. "I make tea out of it, and I'm going to taper the strength of the tea until I can stop drinking it completely. That's where I'm at now, about to begin that month."
That was the end of March.
Fool Me Once, Shame On You
But again, this wasn't the first time Larry has tried to get clean, and he worried it won't be the last. In the past, getting "clean" usually meant biding time between another set of pills.
"There was one time I can remember when I was really down on myself and wanted to quit," he said. "The problem was I knew medicine was coming the next month as always and withdrawals suck, so I didn't have the will to do it. 'There's always next month' was a motto."
The problem with withdrawal: He doesn't want his son to see him while it happens.
Larry's son comes up all the time in our conversations. The relationship is deeply important to him, and he's acutely aware he hasn't been the father he'd like to be because of drugs.
People with a history of addiction often talk about a "rock bottom" moment, and while Larry was fortunate to avoid anything particularly catastrophic, he described the process of hitting emotional rock bottom.
"The rest of my life was going fairly well," he said, "but I knew inside that this couldn't go on forever. I was tired of the driving around with something in my car that could send me to prison, and spending unholy amounts of money. I was tired of feeling dead emotionally."
"One of the reasons I wrote to you," he told me, "is that I knew if I started this [conversations] it would help make it harder for me to change my mind or give up. One more reason to keep going."
The first withdrawal days were "rough," but hope—a chance to regain control—fueled him.
Three weeks in, the biggest problems were mental, not physical. Larry spent a night with a friend at the bar, shooting pool and drinking beers, as Led Zeppelin played in the background. He hasn't been able to drink for a while; it doesn't play well with opiates, as it tends to exaggerate the effects of the drugs and alcohol. It's a dangerous multiplier, but without opiates to rely on anymore, the chance to briefly numb himself proved cathartic.
"My mood swings are definitely connected to games. It's the reason I play one thing or another. I think I'm currently digging Metal Gear so much because of how complicated it can be."
"After years of bombardment on the brain via painkillers, your brain takes a while to readjust," he said. "The time in between opiate-brain and back to normal-brain can feel like you're going a little nuts. [You're] getting very angry at nothing, followed by deep depression, followed by feeling good for a couple of hours—which is cruelly ripped away soon after."
Larry has done the research on how his mind and body will react to withdrawal, but it's one thing to read about it, another to experience it for yourself. It'd be a lot easier to say fuck it.
"Friday will be three weeks clean," he said, "which feels good. I hope three months feels even better."
As Larry approached a month off opiates, he struggled to feel a sense of accomplishment. The years spent battering his system had given his body demons that would not be exorcised quickly, and thoughts of getting high continued to race through Larry's head.
In-between asking me questions about what fantasy RPG to buy—I tried to sell him on giving Nier: Automata a try, of course—he mentioned how this was the first time he'd felt interested in playing video game since the whole ordeal began. Though frustrated at how long it took for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain to get going, he was enjoying his time with it.
"My mood swings are definitely connected to games," he said. "It's the reason I play one thing or another. I think I'm currently digging Metal Gear so much because of how complicated it can be. It requires a lot of thinking on my part, which hit the spot when I started playing [a few days ago] because I hadn't been having the best day. But after taking down a couple of outposts and deciding how I was going to do it, I felt better."
Just days before being clean for a full month, Larry almost relapsed. While hanging around a friend who used to provide pills, he felt an overwhelming urge to ask for one. He managed to resist, but it sent him into a "violently low place" for hours, forcing him to stay away from his girlfriend and son, as he listened to podcasts and chain smoked through the moment.
"I feel toxic," he lamented.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
But he also felt that moment coming. Despite best efforts and encouraging signs, Larry was convinced he would, at some point, relapse. The question was how badly it would set him back. A few months ago, while working a long shift at the used game stores, which has him on his feet all day, the pain started creeping back, the pain that put him on pills in the first place.
Larry found himself around someone with access to pills that day. He agreed to take one.
"Thankfully, it was a very weak pill I took," he said. "A lot of addicts need to know that one of your greatest chances of an overdose is when you're trying to get clean. Your body has a low tolerance compared to when your going hard every day, but your mind is still in that 'I need to take enough to get a really good buzz' mode."
He "fucked up," but it didn't throw him off the rails or, as one reasonably fears, prove fatal.
Four months later, he only has that one incident to his name. He's managed to stay (mostly) clean, and all of his relationships—games, people, drugs, his body—have changed for the better, too. He claims to feel stronger every day, even as that familiar back pain continues to flare.
"My girlfriend will be the first to tell you that I'm better to be around these days," he said. "Apparently I smile more, am funnier, and don't jump to anger as quickly."
"I'm so proud of him," said Katherine. "He's come a long way to get to this point. 2017 Larry is light years away from 2016 Larry, and even further from 2015."
He's been spending time with Bloodborne, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and watching streams of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. That fear of being unable to enjoy video games without the familiar feeling of being high has, thankfully, proven unfounded. An interesting side effect of the change: He's connecting to games on an emotional level. He can feel more while playing.
And though things are pointing in the right direction, it can't change the past. His son is still too young to understand what happened, and Larry's still wrestling with the consequences, physical and emotional, related to the addiction.
"I hope one day, when he's much older, to sit him down and explain all of this to him," he said. "So he knows how sorry I am, and so maybe he can learn something from his dad's mistake. I know what I've done by getting clean is best for him and everyone around me, but I still feel quite a lot of guilt about it. I can't change what's in the past but I'm going to be the best father I possibly can going forward."