“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life but I have very few regrets. I regret heroin.” ~ Ryan Leone
Ryan Leone wrote his first book, Wasting Talent when he was 25 years old. Now 30, Leone is working on his second book while still fighting the demons that have plagued him for more than half his life.I first interviewed Leone for The Fix (https://www.thefix.com/wasting-talent-ryan-leone-heroin-addict) several months ago. We remained in touch and during these months, Leone has shared with me how drugs and alcohol have once again taken over his life. Leone spoke to me with great candor about where he has been, where he is now and where he wants to go.
Like his main character in Wasting Talent, Leone appears to walk on the razor’s edge of success and self-destruction.
Regina Walker: When did you start using and what were the circumstances?
Ryan Leone: I grew up in the skateboarding culture in Southern California and some of the neighborhood kids thought it would be funny to get me stoned for the first time when I was nine. It didn’t do much for me and I didn’t start experimenting with drugs again until the summer from junior high into high school. That summer I started abusing over the counter drugs with my friends. We took Coricidin (DXM) and Marizane (a motion sickness medication that makes you hallucinate if you take enough.)
There was also the obligatory marijuana and booze. I think it was clear that I was an alcoholic and drug addict from the very beginning. It was hard for me to go to school without being both drunk and stoned. I was introduced to LSD my freshman year and I took it much further than my peers. My parents let my best friend move in with me and we used to set the alarm clock for 4 am, drop acid, go back to sleep, and then my mom would wake us up and we would go to school tripping.
I started to get into a lot of trouble and I was expelled from three high schools within the span of a month for drug-related offenses. My parents were out of options and they hired a couple of burly men to snatch me up in the middle of the night and send me away to programs for troubled adolescents. The first place they sent me was a wilderness program in Idaho. While I was there a kid used rocks to sharpen a peach can lid and slit his wrists in front of everyone. He bled out and died as they tried to sew his gashes closed. It is an indelible image that has been hard for me to shake ever since. Next I was sent to a residential treatment center in Utah. The kids that inhabited that program had a wide range of issues that were foreign to me at the time. I was introduced to eating disorders, self-mutilation, and chemical dependencies that far surpassed my own problems. I spent 9 months in Utah and when I was released I felt even more alienated and insecure. I went right back to partying.
I was at a high school basketball game when I was a sophomore and a couple of older girls asked me if I wanted to smoke a cigarette. When we went outside they were snorting something out of a plastic bullet. They offered me a bump and my entire life changed. I fell in love with cocaine: the rapid loquaciousness, the way it inflated my self-esteem, the heightened sex, and everything else about it. I have fond memories of the early days. There weren’t a lot of consequences back then, and the party seemed like it would last forever. I started as a weekend warrior and it eventually carried over to the weekdays. I had to start selling drugs to sustain my habit and some of the early warning signs of serious addiction emerged. At the end of my sophomore year I was doing over three grams a day, there were the nosebleeds that left nickel-sized stains on my pillows, sleepless school nights, and my introduction to the world of stimulant invoked psychosis. In hindsight, it was a fairly interesting time to be a coke-head. This was 2001-2002; the collective conscience of the country was in the grips of post-9/11 hysteria. I didn’t feel so strange peeking out windows, when there was some far more malevolent global boogeyman out there.
In my junior year, I started dating a girl who was a few years older than me and was selling ounces of cocaine. We experimented with a lot of different psychedelics, crystal meth, and designer drugs. There was this innocent passivity back in those days and we never said no to anything. She was the one that introduced me to heroin. We smoked it off of aluminum foil one night with a large group of friends. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life but I have very few regrets. I regret heroin. My entire life up until that point had been drafty with insecurities and I had finally found a warm blanket to quell them. I started smoking heroin everyday with my best friend. I would smoke it in my high school’s bathroom and go back to class high and sleepy.
This went on for months until I had an altercation with my father and my parents gave up custody of me for a few weeks. I went to an orphanage and continued to use while I was there. When I finally came home, I was escorted back to the residential treatment program in Utah. I remember getting sick right when I got there, completely unaware that I was experiencing opiate withdrawal for the first time. I spent four months in Utah and graduated high school from the program. I was accepted into a writing internship program outside of Boston. The internship program had a pretty artsy social scene that was infested with drugs. It wasn’t very long before I started scouting the ghettos for heroin. On the east coast they have China White, which is much different than the black tar I was used to doing in California. I started snorting it with my girlfriend at the time and eventually I was turned on to the needle. The needle fucking destroyed me.
RW: How did it escalate? Where did it take you?’
RL: I had a tumultuous relationship with my first serious girlfriend that I had met in Massachusetts. We went through a lot together in our one-year junkie relationship. We experienced bouts of homelessness, abortion, overdoses, and jail. It was a very formidable period for us and I truly loved her. My heroin addiction would come to ruin every relationship I’ve ever been in and it started with her. She left me and I spiraled out of control, I had never felt so empty in my entire life. I started smoking crack and doing deplorable things to my family. I was kicked out on to the street. I survived by shoplifting and selling fake acid to college kids. I started frequenting the Santa Barbara County Jail. Eventually I hit a bottom when I was 19 and found a rehab in Delray Beach, Florida. My parents and I hadn’t spoken for a few months and when I finally showed up at their house, they were mortified that their only son was emaciated and peppered in track marks. They agreed to pay for the rehab and sent me to Florida where I made a tepid effort to get clean. I would always find the easiest girl and convince them to leave rehab with me to get high. This started a viscous cycle of going to treatment, finding a girl, leaving, going up in flames and landing me back in treatment. I must have gone on six or seven serious runs with rehab girls while I was living out there and the last one ended with me in jail for a felony possession charge that I served sixty days for. I moved to Monterey to try and attend community college but spent most of my days boosting appliances from Home Depot so I could support my habit. I tried more attempts at rehab and relocated to Orange County and then to Los Angeles. I would get clean for a month and then go back out. Eventually I gave up and returned to my hometown of Santa Barbara. I started dating a girl who didn’t use heroin and she was desperately trying to get me to get off of it. She would flush my dope if she found it. She liked to snort coke with me and drink hard but she was freaked out that I was an intravenous drug user. I had already contracted Hepatitis C a couple years before and there had been some hospitalizations for overdoses. I went back to selling drugs. Initially it started off small. I found a guy that had a steady supply of MDMA and MDA. I started selling 1 vegetable capsules for $20 a pop at the night clubs and bars around Santa Barbara. This is in 2007, when Molly was just being popularized in the drug/party cultures. My connection’s connection noticed that I was moving a considerable amount and he essentially recruited me to start working for him. He gave me kilos of Molly, grams of LSD in crystal form, pounds of mushrooms, etc. I went from being a broke dope fiend to making ten grand a week. My girlfriend and I got really involved in the rave and festival scenes in L.A. and San Francisco.
We were hanging out in a crowd of drug dealers and everyone was making a fuck ton of money. I was also living a double-life and it was clearly stated to me not to sell or use the “bad drugs.” My girlfriend knew that I was using but my new crowd of friends knew nothing about it. I signed up for a Methadone clinic. Like most heroin addicts, I continued to use while I was on the Methadone and consequently they would raise my dosage. I had to go to the clinic every morning at 5:30 and it increased my heroin habit substantially.
It got to a point where I had to pick up large quantities of heroin from East L.A. because my dealers couldn’t keep up with me. Just like the club drugs, the heroin started out relatively small and I got to a point where I was selling a few pounds a week. My girlfriend was more exposed to the culture after I started selling it and my using became more overt. One night, we were in L.A. and we were staying at some fancy hotel for our anniversary. I got belligerently high and she started crying and said, “Shoot me up. If you love that shit more than me, I want to see what it’s all about.” And then I proceeded to give her heroin for the first time. She became a junkie and I was okay with it because I didn’t have to hide it anymore from her. She died from a heroin overdose a little over a month ago and I feel completely responsible. We were together for years and she was my anchor to functionality, as I tried to sell drugs and juggle my habit. After we started using together we became sloppy and I think it was inevitable that we would get caught. The woman that I was getting heroin from was directly connected to an international cartel. The feds started watching her and she got caught smuggling drugs into a California state prison.
They caught her with a kilo and she started snitching on a number of people involved with the operation. She wore a wire on me and the DEA and FBI came swarming around my car and busted me. I was caught with a pound and indicted on two separate counts; the one that stuck was Conspiracy to Distribute Heroin. I was sentenced to five years in federal prison and I served four. My ex-girlfriend decided to go on the run, evaded authorities, and died a fugitive in Las Vegas by herself. I can only hope that wherever she is, she’s laughing at all the times that we hustled life for whatever we could get it to afford.
RW: When did you know you were a writer?
RL: I think the writing thing was always there. I have a severe case of ADD and it actually took me a lot longer to learn how to read and write than my peers. Racing thoughts are symptomatic of the learning disability and I think I was always looking for an outlet to slow them down. I started getting recognition for short stories that I was writing in school early on. I got a short story published when I was 11. In high school I wrote a lot of poetry and got a couple of poems published, which later helped me get into the writing internship program in Massachusetts. There were rumors circulating around the program that I was a heroin addict and I refused to take a drug test so I was expelled. As the drugs increased, I became more and more delusional. I had met an underground film maker when I was homeless. We became drug buddies and I conceptualized and wrote a project that I always thought we would make together. There was a girl that I had met at the treatment center in Utah when I was 15 and we had very innocent mutual crushes on each other. We had reconnected during this period and I began writing a documentary about me and the film maker going cross country, strung out on drugs, to chase this long lost love. It was a fucking absurd idea and I’d be embarrassed if anyone ever saw the writing from that period. I would fill up journals with what I intended to be the narration of the film. I had these ideas of grandeur, that this was going to be the definitive counter culture film of my generation and I was going to be celebrated as some sort of drug icon (I was smoking a lot of crack cocaine at the time.) I met a guy at a rehab in Orange County and he showed me basic screenplay structure. I spent a lot of time during the drug dealing days writing scripts that I never intended to do anything with. I was just trying to perfect the craft. After I was busted by the feds and I knew I was going away for many years, I decided to write a full length novel. What else was there to do? I was already a voracious reader and I had read the quintessential junkie literature. I started writing Wasting Talent in hopes to bring something new to the overly saturated genre. I would write for five hours each day and it took me three years to complete. I had to essentially rewrite the book over and over again to learn how to write one. There would be a lot of nights that I would stay up and think about the story. I guess that’s when I knew that I was an actual writer.
RW: Tell me about prison.
RL: When I was arrested they took me to a holding station somewhere in Los Angeles. I was asked questions about my involvement with the Mendoza cartel. I had spent a lot of time hanging out with my connection and it wasn’t uncommon for an assault rifle to be on her kitchen table. Men would come by the house and have guns peeking out of their waistlines. I knew that I was connected to some rough people and the last thing I was going to do was cooperate and put my family and loved ones at risk. The feds let my girlfriend and I go. We were only detained for six hours and we assumed that they had released us because they had searched our car without consent. It looked bad and a lot of people in my inner circle became wary and thought that I had turned into a federal informant. I would later find out that the DEA were getting a number of arrests on record so that they could present the conspiracy case to the federal grand jury. I continued to sell drugs and assumed that I had somehow eluded the situation with the feds. Four months later I received a voicemail from a DEA agent that said they had indicted me on two separate counts. I was facing ten years and if I didn’t surrender they would find me. I was making copious amounts of money at the time so I contacted one of the best defense attorneys in California and worked out a retainer. My lawyer said that it would be more conducive to the case if I surrendered to the US Marshalls. I stuck almost 9 grams of heroin up my ass and turned myself in. I went to a place called Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles.
It was one of the most morose environments I have ever been exposed to; it was as if my karma had imposed a living hell on me for all the bad things that I had done to others in the course of my addiction. I had been on the Methadone program for almost three years and I was on 180 milligrams. The heroin that I smuggled in only lasted a few days and it did little to soften the withdrawal from the Methadone. I had turned myself in under the pretense that I would make bail and be allowed to fight my case from the free world. I was denied bail because of my extensive history of failing to appear and having a multitude of probation violations. They gave me low doses of Methadone for the first three days and then I had to endure the most intense withdrawal of my life. It felt like I was a burn victim. There were muscle spasms making every inch of my body hurt in a way that I never thought possible. There was no sleep. There were hallucinations. There was constant watery shit spewing down my legs, and spittle from vomit caked on my face. I would scream in pain in the middle of the night, thrashing in my bunk, trying to comfort my bones that felt like they were being split apart at their seams. It was nightmarish. It made kicking heroin seem like a low-grade cold. I started having seizures after a few days of no food or sleep. I ended up falling down some stairs in the middle of the seizure and they rushed me to the hospital. My legs were shackled to the bed as they gave me IV morphine. I was in the hospital for a month with two armed guards, they gave me small doses of Methadone to taper me down but the withdrawal was still intense.
My attorney told me that I should get out of the hospital so that we could try and get bail again. I left the hospital against medical advice and got denied bail. Without the low doses of Methadone the withdrawal came back and I literally didn’t sleep for a month. I went into some sort of strange paranoid psychosis and I thought everyone was after me. It didn’t help that the detention center was highly combative. There were a significant number of people facing life-sentences and there was a very violent and tense atmosphere. I had been to jail in Santa Barbara and Florida but I wasn’t prepared for a place like this. Everyone was going away for years. There was a racist and homophobic overtone that dictated everything in a prison politic way. I saw stabbings and beatings. People would get paperwork on informants and bust their teeth out with a combination lock in a sock. It was a scary place and I was almost relieved when I had my sentencing hearing and was sentenced to five years. There was a 9 month drug program that knocks a year off the sentence if you complete it and I was eligible. So I was looking at serving 3 years. Of course I fucked it up and did over 4. Because I was 23 at the time, I was sentenced to one of the worst federal prisons in the system. I hate that about the classification system; this false assumption that I have a propensity towards violence because of my age.
So I went to a place called Victorville in the Inland Empire – basically the armpit of California. I had spent 8 months at the detention center and it was junior high compared to real prison. Prison is a hellacious place. You can feel the fragments of lost souls in the air – men who have been either inflated or quieted by the survival mechanisms needed daily. I was young and impressionable. I instantly fell into the bad crowd because they were all doing heroin. Drugs are ubiquitous in prison, the guards bring it in and people get passed balloons during contact visits. But it’s incredibly expensive, a gram of heroin is $400 compared to a gram in L.A. for $60. We would shoot up with makeshift syringes called “binkies.” I already have Hepatitis C but HIV was prevalent in prison.
There were times that there would be six guys in a cell and we would just pass the binky around carelessly. Sometimes I would shoot up heroin visibly laced with someone else’s blood. I was completely strung out for years in prison. I have no idea how I didn’t contracted HIV but I’m incredibly grateful that I’m negative. My only hustle was writing rhyming poems for people’s girlfriends or wives. I would charge $15 and I actually made a lot of money each week. That coupled with the money that my friends and family would send was enough for me to chase dope around in there. I would get in debts and beg my family to wire money to my dealer’s family. I got up to $3,000 at my worst and my parents paid it out of fear that I would get killed over the debt. I saw a child molester get stabbed to death the second day I was there. There would be a lot of people getting jumped over debts and if it was serious enough they would get stabbed with a shank. Everyone had shanks.
They were made out of rusty slivers from our bunk beds, electric tape coiled around the end to make a handle. We had to hide them in a draw string because the guards couldn’t touch our crotches. There were metal detectors so there were also shanks made out of plexi-glass and wood so we could take them out to the yard. It was an absolute nightmare. One day I was watching TV with one other guy. Another inmate came up and changed the channel without asking us. He was much bigger than the guy I was watching TV with.
The small guy confronted him and they started fighting, he ended up beating up the bigger guy and they both went back to their cells. Later that night the big guy filled his coffee mug up with baby oil and put it in the microwave until it boiled. He went up to the small guy and splashed the boiling baby oil on his face. I’ll never forget the scream, it was horrific. His face became flushed in red and instantly blistered. His eyeball came out of the socket with a tail of gore. It was dangling like a loose earing. I had never been exposed to that kind of violence. When you see real violence and transcend the abstraction that occurs in a sheltered suburban upbringing, it changes you. You look at the world through a lens of paranoia and fear. It made me empathetic towards war veterans. Violence eventually became blasé and I became pretty desensitized to it.
I still have lingering post-traumatic stress and I feel that prison exasperated the underlying mental illness that I was already dealing with. Eventually they transferred me to a place with the 9 month drug program. I was shipped out to a medium security prison in Wisconsin called Oxford and had to take Con Air to get there. There were gangs but it lacked the fierce politics of California. The atmosphere was much nicer and there weren’t a lot of drugs. They had weights there and a computer lab where you could do correspondent work for college.
I spent five hours a day in that lab and that’s where Wasting Talent was conceived. I made some great lifelong friends and saw a lot less violence. I was expelled from the drug program because I suspected my celly was a child molester and demanded to see his paperwork with what he was charged with. He told on me and it cost me a year. Some China White heroin came in and I got strung out again. Someone gave me some for free one day and an hour later the guards drug tested me. I was obviously set up by the guy. I had to spend two months in solitary confinement and it was the most visceral introspection I have ever endured. 23 hours a day in a cell and one hour in a recreation cage to do pullups. I had no books, I had no music. I talked to myself and tried to sing entire albums to pass the days but time stood still. I couldn’t differentiate night between day and I went literally fucking crazy. It was cathartic. I was in jail in prison and I had reached an emotional, material, and spiritual rock bottom. I swore off drugs and actually stayed sober for three years after that experience. After I got out of the hole I took fitness seriously and I think it was an indispensable part of my recovery.
I finished Wasting Talent the day before I was released and the manuscript is one of the only things I took with me when I was released. The whole four year journey was tough; I had to watch the world change through family photos and magazine ads. I hate mass incarceration. I detest the fact that we are warehousing non-violent drug offenders and bloating the system with the mentally ill. The war on drugs is a sad and failed effort. We are stigmatizing people with a disease and giving them felonies, which creates a cyclical system and promises recidivism. Prison made me worse, and after the buffer of drugs and alcohol was gone, I was left with PTSD and terrible separation anxiety. I’m darker and more jaded now. Prison changes a person and shows them the barbaric part of the human experience that only the true barbarians should ever see.
RW: What was life like after you got out of prison and what your you doing now?
RL: When I got out of prison I had already been clean for nine months, which was a really big deal for me. I was in the best shape of my life and it felt really great to be home again. I was on house arrest for six months and I used the time to catch up with family and friends. I started going to 12 step meetings and got involved with the recovery scene. On June 13, 2013, I celebrated one year clean and sober. Coincidentally, June 13th is also my mom’s birthday. It was an emotional day for everyone and I received a lot of support from the people of my past that I thought would never return to my life. I jumped into a relationship with a photographer and I became disillusioned with the 12 step program. I didn’t feel like I needed it anymore, I simply didn’t want to use. My girlfriend was a recovering alcoholic and we promised that we would keep each other sober and chase our creative endeavors together. We moved to Los Angeles and created a really great life. We went to the gym five days a week, went to concerts, and did a lot of traveling. In April of 2014, Wasting Talent was published and my life changed. I finally had a tangible accomplishment and something to be proud of. I started doing readings and networking with other writers. But some of the ugly emotional consequences of being incarcerated started surfacing and it was clear to everyone around me that I was suffering from mental illness. My girlfriend gave me an ultimatum and I got on anti-psychotic medications. The meds offered some manageability for my extreme paranoia and delusions. I was still in an incredibly toxic and co-dependent relationship and I wasn’t working on the underlying issues that made me use drugs in the first place. I was the proverbial dry drunk and I think a lot of my inner circle saw how miserable I was becoming. I had everything I ever wanted: a nice place, a beautiful girl, and recognition for my writing. I just wasn’t happy after a certain point and I’m sure that monster of addiction was always brewing strongly inside of me. In December of 2015 I proposed to my girlfriend and we were going to get married the following November.
That summer some LSD came back around and a lot of my friends were doing it, espousing idealism from the 60s and claiming that it enhanced spirituality. LSD had never done that for me. Honestly, I just took it to get fucked up and for the escapism. After three years of total abstinence from drugs and alcohol, I decided that it would be a good idea to drop acid. I took three hits of blotter and had a very intense trip. It wasn’t a bad trip per se but I felt this uneasy ambivalence towards the choice I had made. I just didn’t feel sober anymore and it wasn’t very long before I did heroin again. My girlfriend’s dad was dying from years of unfettered alcoholism and she was in complete disarray. She was the one that had been my rock and had stopped me at various times throughout the years that I remained sober when I had tried to use. Her guard was down and she was vulnerable and I think it was inevitable that we would relapse together after the LSD. We did heroin once. And then we weren’t clean anymore. We would smoke pot and take painkillers. I was still getting tested by the feds because I was on supervision but I was taking the risks anyway. My fiancé went out of town to see her dying father and it was the first time we had been away from each other in two years. I met up with some old friends and we started shooting speedballs. With heroin, people will always try and do it for only two days so that they don’t get physically addicted. That was my plan but once I started I couldn’t stop and when I finally picked my fiancé up at the airport there was no hiding the fact that I was strung out to the gills. My face was festered in acne and I had fresh track marks. She left me and broke off the engagement. In retrospect, I don’t think I was available for her enough emotionally when her dad was dying, the heroin just reinforced the notion that I lacked the ability. It was the end of an era and I was propelled even deeper back into addiction. I went on a ten day run that culminated into a disastrous rock bottom while I was doing a reading up in Berkeley. I ended up smoking crack on the Tenderloin in San Francisco with some homeless guys. I had lost a lot materially: the condo, the fiancé, the dog, and trust from family and friends. The entire life I had constructed for myself became dismantled in a little over a week and I checked myself into a detox in Orange County. My ex-fiancé sent me a text message the day that I checked in and said, “Sending you good vibes and good luck with your efforts to clean up again. Don’t be wasting that talent!” It was the last time I ever talked to her.
One of my friends had gotten me in the detox on a scholarship and I ended up staying there for six weeks. I decided to leave and do a reading in downtown Los Angeles with Joe Clifford and Jerry Stahl to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Permanent Midnight. Opening for Jerry Stahl was the highlight of my career because his books had been so influential for me in my own work. Jerry and Joe are both fantastic people who have gone out of their way to help me out along the way. The day after the reading I checked myself into a residential treatment center in Thousand Oaks. I was 40 odd days clean and I figured that I needed an emotional timeout to handle the breakup. I stayed there for an additional six weeks and I met a girl. As history would repeat itself once more we ended up going on a tornadic drug run together. I had 70 days clean when I relapsed. We spent four grand in a week and both caught a bad case of cellulitis from injecting meth. I got a call from my federal probation officer during the middle of it and I had to come in and test. I got a violation and before anything I could happen, the girl and I checked into the rehab in Thousand Oaks again.
When we arrived they took one look at the shape we were in and demanded that we go to the ER. My new girlfriend had a heart rate of over 200 and because she was also bulimic. the cellulitis had sepsis going to her heart because of depleted potassium levels. The doctor came in my room and told me that she might not make it. She had a 40% chance to survive and was carted off to the ICU. I went through an awful detox and the rehab made sure that I couldn’t talk to my new girlfriend. My ex had just died from an overdose and I was petrified the new one wasn’t going to make it. Thankfully, she pulled through and we figured out ways to communicate with each other the entire time we were there. I got sixty days clean and my girlfriend said that she was leaving. I was facing more prison time but I didn’t want this girl to be alone on the street. I left rehab AMA and we went right to the liquor store and got drunk. We got a ride to Santa Barbara and bought some heroin and got a cheap motel room. The older I get and the more progressive my disease gets and the more of a pig I become with heroin. I did way too much and was turning purple.
I was in-and-out of consciousness all night. It made my girlfriend really concerned and she said that she didn’t want to do drugs with me anymore out of fear that I was going to die. The next day she got picked up by her dad and went back to San Diego. I didn’t want to have a long distance relationship so I broke it off a few days later. I was alone again and feeling it. My probation officer said that I could move to a sober living in Los Angeles but that I was out of chances. If I get one more dirty drug test, he will have no choice but to send me back to prison. With all the treatment that I’ve been to throughout the years, I’ve been equipped with innumerable coping skills and defense mechanisms. I’ve seen what three years clean looks like and I desperately want to get back to that place. Unfortunately, the addiction is back in full bloom and governing my life once more. The one thing that I have going for me is that I am realizing my dreams and actually getting paid to write. I’ve been working on a second novel about prison and I’m back in that gleeful place where I actually think about my story before I go to bed. Sometimes this life has felt just like a dream, sometimes a nightmare, but I know that as long as I keep looking forward I can get to wherever I’d like to be.–
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