I’m roaming around Ferentari with the mother of a drug addict. “He might be dead somewhere. Maybe he found a cozy spot and never came out of there…”
Alex, her 24 year-old boy, went missing four days ago. Other times, she’d find him, waiting for her on the curb or sleeping on a bench. Now, without his oxygen tube and heart treatment, he can’t hold on for long.
I’ve been spending the last four months with Alex in and out of hospitals. I witnessed him battling AIDS, TBC, hepatitis, heart problems. And, most of all, the urge to pump himself full of legals (translator’s note: synthetic drugs that didn’t fall within the confines of drug laws and were legally acquired).
Then, one day, he stopped answering my calls.
The last time he spoke, it was with his mother:
“How are you, Alex?”
He replied: “Fuck you”, and hung up on her.
So now we’re putting up posters with his picture in the entrances of the four-storey blocks of flats on Orchard Alley, near the ground floor windows that churn out little envelopes if you put in cash.
“Don’t be afraid, no one’s gonna hurt you”, a yellow-eyed man tells the mother. Another one with bombarded arms claims the boy “sleeps rough in the bushes, he’s got a busted temple, but he looks better than he does in the photo”. The boy’s mother thanks them and hands him ten lei.
It smells like garbage roasting in the sun. The urine on the pavement dissolves into streams of soapy water from the carpets that are washed on the street.
Alex’s mother, wearing a black leather jacket, sits on the curb, rests her head in her palms and sighs: “I think he’s gone for good this time.” She pulls out her cell phone and calls up the hospitals to ask whether an ambulance brought in a boy with tattoos on his arms.
We keep on asking around at the shaorma joints and shops, but no one can give us specific information, so we head to Unirii square, at the other dealer of legals, on Anton Pann Street.
Four days ago, Alex was in the gallery of a run-down villa, hunting for his thin veins with the needle of a syringe.
The boys hanging around in the courtyard heard him scream: “Motheeeeeer, come get me, motheeeer.”
He lay on the cement and started coughing badly. The boys gathered around him and panicked – lest the police come and find him dead from an overdose in their courtyard.
One guy wanted to drag him to a public restroom at the end of the street.
Eventually, they called an ambulance and Alex made it to the hospital alive.
I get a call from Alex’s sister: “Matei, my brother is dead…”
She stops for a second, she trembles as she breathes and continues: “They called me this morning from the police. I didn’t want to tell mom, didn’t wanna hurt her. Please, take care of her when she gets to the hospital. Call me up when she’s there.”
I make it to the ER of Floreasca Hospital. In front of me, there are twenty ill people – some are crouching in pain, others are sitting on the floor and playing on their cell phones.
„We have an unidentified boy at the morgue, he came in on the 16th in a very serious condition, intoxicated, he was intubated and went into a deep coma”, the doctor whispers to me when she reaches me.
She tells her assistant: „You need to go to the morgue with this boy, explain to them that he needs to see the young man who passed away on the 18th. If his mother shows, we don’t want to subject her to see a dead person who might not even be her kid.”
In front of the morgue is a car that’s got written on it, in white: „Whether you want or not, you’ll end up with us”.
Alex’s mother enters the hospital’s courtyard. She’s on the phone with his sister: „We lost him, didn’t we?”
She wipes her tears with her sleeve. „Don’t worry, I’m strong. I have to be, I’ve got no choice. Come on, we’ve got each other. I’ll come up with the money, never mind, please, settle down.”
She pulls a folded picture of Alex out of her purse, from when we were looking for him. „It’s like a vacuum cleaner went inside my heart and pulled out a piece of my soul.”
The father’s sister comes along too, a lady dressed in a black traditional Romanian outfit, sporting Ray-Bans. Alex’s mother caresses his picture and tells her sister-in-law: „He shouldn’t have died alone, he was supposed to die in his bed, with me taking care of him.”
We all go inside the morgue, in a room that’s all tiles. The assistant disappears into a chamber, metallic clunks are overheard, then he comes out pulling a stretcher on wheels.
A black bag with an open zipper, an arm with a tattoo, a diaper around his waist, a shoulder with mud on it, his chest bruised, his head laying on one side, his mouth bloodied.
„What did you do, my child, did you die smiling? He’s smiling! He died smiling, didn’t he?
The assistant remains quiet. He reaches for the piece of paper on his belly that reads UNIDENTIFIED and writes his name below.
Alex is one of the thousands of victims of the ethnobotanicals fad that stretched between 2008 and 2012.
The authorities have tolerated the shops that „sold dreams” and the legal trade of substances more dangerous than heroin.
Thousands of people died and many more now have serious health issues.
Doctors are sending them back and forth from psychiatry units to infectious diseases, until the hotbed becomes an epidemic.
Many an addict’s story begins with childhood abuse.
„The consumer who is born into a problematic family isn’t developing properly in regards to emotion control, frustration management”, says Eugen Hriscu, a psychotherapist specialized in addiction. “Whenever life gets stressful, they have this vulnerability, a fragile psyche.”
These children’s minds consume themselves trying to cope with violent situations.
“We ran some tests”, says Valeriu Nicolae, special envoy to the European Council: “An MRI on the brain of a three-year-old who grew up in a positive environment and another MRI on one who grew up in an impoverished area. They differ a lot. The latter is smaller. We measured the weight, height, reading and math skills, and I was terrified. Those children are one or two years behind the international median.”
Most youngsters have access to drugs, many will try them out, and those with emotional trauma have a higher chance of ending up as an addict. It simulates emotional warmth.
Heroin floods the brain with endorphins, they feel intense pleasure for a few hours, and then they shoot again.
After the communist prohibition, Romania opened its gates to heroin and thousands of its citizens became addicted to the merchandise considered to be “cheap and good”. Somewhere in the 00’s, heroin went bad, but other drugs popped up, even more dangerous, and perfectly legal, meaning they weren’t listed as being banned. One could easily order it online.
In 2008, a 22-year-old from the city of Galați took it to the next level and opened up the first ethnobotanical shop in Romania. He went on to have hundreds of customers daily and a yearly income in excess of $500.000. Shortly after, more than 400 have sprung up across the country. We had more “dream shops” than Carrefours.
In every large-ish city they began selling drugs under names such as Special Gold, Diesel, Crystal or Cox, which came in colored little envelopes, on which it was falsely specified that they’re destined for “ethnobotanical study”. All the office for consumer’s protection ever did was handing out fines for “infringement regarding information on label”.
It took the authorities two years to list the new drugs under banned substances, and another year until they managed to shut down the stores.
During that time, several thousand people died and there was an of AIDS.
But, in reality, they’re sent from one place to the other until they give up on the treatment. Or they’re simply discarded, so they don’t take up space better suited for those who “actually want to live”. They only come back to the hospital when they end up in a serious condition, and the government ends up spending more money on them.
Lacking an adequate treatment system, the patients are asked to muster their “willpower” to get through it. But willpower is exactly what an addict has none of.
Research indicates that addiction isn’t an individual choice, but a disease that springs up socially.
Those who die aren’t losers in a fair natural selection game, but, rather, citizens betrayed by society.
They don’t merely vanish, but also leave behind them family-destroying traumas and cast a dark cloud over the entire community.
It’s the night before Easter. I’m walking around the hallways of Matei Balș Hospital with plastic foil on my shoes. I brought along a pirated copy of Trainspotting. Alex hadn’t even heard of it. I told him “Come on, bro, what kind of a junkie hasn’t watched Trainspotting?” and I put my laptop on the edge of the bed and we watched it.
In the first scene, the main character runs away from life, from work, career, family and meaningless existence. In their stead, he chooses the drug. “Reasons? There are no reasons”, he says as he lies on the floor in ecstasy.
Alex sits by my side with a needle in his hand and his chest pulsating. I’m gonna ask him, why did he choose drugs?
Or better yet, I’ll ask him when did he first give it a try.
It was twelve years ago, in the hallway of a block of flats, that a twelve-year-old kid struggles to put together his first joint.
Alex is with a friend and his sister, who was just leaving to school, but realizes she’s too wasted for classes, so she wanders around the streets of Militari (t.n: a neighbourhood in Bucharest) and ends up home, where everything starts to swairl around her, she almost pukes, but then she plays a song which lifts her up, among the clouds, and takes her above the neighborhood…
It was the 2000s, when weed had become more and more accessible on the streets of Bucharest. Alex’s sister says she doesn’t quite recall what she did in the last decade, but she does know that, between the ages of ten and fourteen, she smoked “at least a joint a day”. And between fourteen and nineteen, “non-stop, from dusk till dawn”.
It is known that marijuana, consumed at a young age, affects the teen’s growth. But for him, it’s more important to forget about the troubles back home.
Alex grew up in the same neighborhood as I did, somewhere between the tree-shaded streets and the tall blocks of flats.
In school, he was misbehaved, had an appetite for rule breaking and got into fights with his colleagues. He failed to get passing grades in the third and sixth forms, so he ditched it altogether.
At home, it didn’t get any better. “I don’t have many pleasant memories”, he told me on the hospital bed, with fatigue in his voice.
His mother recalls the times his father would shove him in the bathtub, soak him in cold water and whack him with his belt. Either that or he banged his head against the bathroom tiles until they cracked.
Sometimes, he’d also turn to her: “He’s the reason I’m toothless’, says his mother. “He’d laugh at me for not having the guts to fight back.”
“Once”, his sister tells me, “my brother was late from buying bread and it got cold. Dad whooped his ass for it, blood was gushing from his nose.”
That’s when the mother decided to file for divorce.
The man remarried and started another family.
Now, Alex’s mother, sister and girlfriend blame the dad for the state the boy is in.
I met the man at a gas station café and asked him whether he’d really abused Alex before abandoning him.
“In short, it’s all lies. My ex-wife is a pathological liar.”
The father works in the justice system as a procedural agent. His hair is grey and his eyes round, just like Alex’s. He considers himself a man who doesn’t beat around the bush, down-to-earth, excessively correct, attached to culture and faith, “maybe that’s why I’m a bit insufferable”.
He says he hasn’t spent too much time with Alex because he and his mother got divorced while he was still an infant, but “that doesn’t mean I neglected my family, there’s no question of not loving them… I loved them as if they were my own”.
He admits having served Alex “the occasional slap” whenever he’d do something serious, such as cursing at his mother or stealing.
“I don’t adhere to the saying that you gotta beat the evil out of children, but that’s how many people came out grounded, not six feet underground. His sister should have told me «Dad, you should have beaten him worse».”
The man weeps.
“What did you do, Alex boy, you thought you were immortal?” He pulls out his phone and shows me a pic of his son. “If you see a human being in this state, does it look normal to you?”
In the picture, the boy is in a hospital bed; his face is deformed, trying to put up a smile.
“I think, when all is said and done, that he was a weak child.”
Rewind back to the night before Easter, 2016, in one of the wards in Matei Balș Hospital.
We’re halfway through the movie. The main character explains why he’s taking drugs: “People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that shite, which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fucking stupid. At least, we’re not that fucking stupid.”
Alex shot himself with heroin for the first time when he was seventeen. He was crazy in love with a girl and he boasted in front of her that he’s shooting smack, even though it wasn’t true.
Then he got ahold of some and they shot it for real, in front of his block of flats.
The effect it had on him was as if “nothing can go wrong; it warmed my soul, it was so good”.
On her, it was frightful. She said never again, and if he continues shooting, she’ll leave him.
He wanted to shoot, but he also wanted to be with her. “That’s when it went blank for me. I mean, I was feeling my brain evaporating in thin air, I could feel myself declining, declining, declining…”
He nearly ended up homeless. He’d vanish from home and his mother would find him sleeping on some bench, covered in dust and wearing blood-splattered clothes.
Once, his mother went over to the drug dealers to give them hell for selling drugs to her child. They got scared and wouldn’t sell him any stuff ever since.
Alex cussed his mother and made the switch to legals; you could find those easily, in countless outlets.
On heroin he could manage somehow, his sister recalls, but it was the legals that brought him down completely.
When Alex got weak and weary, his mother would allow him to shoot up at home. “I accepted even this situation because I knew he was ill. Better at home than in the streets.”
While she’s recalling this, she’s crumpling a plastic bottle in her hands.
“The problem was that when he came to, he’d steal something from the house and be on his way again.”
Alex got into all sorts of trouble from a young age. A childhood friend recalls him setting fire to an abandoned car, or him stealing paint and decorating an annoying neighbour’s car. He would steal “to stand out”, even though his folks were very well off at the time – his mother brought home stacks of cash since she owned a bread factory and a chain of bakeries.
That is until she started roaming the streets at night to retrieve him, thus failing to keep the business up.
One day, they found him in a garden, far from the city center, his sister recalls. “He’d dig up the earth and tell mom «look, mom, I found you the gold I stole from you! »”
Alex was hell-bent on acquiring money to buy legals around the clock. He got to the point where he’d rip people off on the street. “He just strolled to you”, his sister explains, “ask for your phone and walk away with it to trade it for dope.”
One day, the police knocked at their door and rounded him up.
He was nineteen and weighed 39 kilograms. They gave him three years for theft.
They selected 24 inmates who were addicts, but behaved, among which there was Alex as well.
The social workers took them to another wing of the building, so they couldn’t acquire their drugs. There the inmates have flat screen TVs, PlayStations, microwave ovens, ping pong tables.
The social workers assigned them with handy work, making little wooden boats, bracelets, and so on. “I can paint your portrait in a jiffy!”, Alex says to me proudly.
“Inmates start off with using dark colors, but as they get rehabilitated, they begin applying happy colors”, says their psychologist, Cătălina Cana.
It was, probably, the only stretch of time when Alex had a sense of fulfillment.
„You wake up in the morning, you eat, it’s a proper eating regimen. Aaaand there’s this big hall, we put 24 chairs in a circle and we start: «Good morning, Alex, I wish you a nice day». And I reply in the same manner.”
Participants get grades for their diligence and good conduct, and they either go up or down the hierarchy. Every group has its own headmaster, deputies and workers. “Just like life. Like a workplace”, says the psychologist. “Workers stay in the big room. The little rooms are for headmasters and deputies, it’s a privilege.”
It’s as if they trained for real life. Breaking the rules means a drop in rank. Failing to apply yourself means you’re out.
Alex didn’t apply himself. First off, he cursed at a colleague and had to spend a couple of days on the “penalty bench”, wearing a T-shirt that said “learn to love”.
“Dude, the community really helped me and I liked it in the group”, says Alex. But he kept on breaking the rules. He wasn’t doing it on purpose, the psychologist says, but out of carelessness. “It’s common among former consumers – they can’t control themselves and their focus levels tend to be zero. In their words, they’re fried.”
So they sent him back to the normal prison, where he did the rest of his time with no pets and no posters with Steve Jobs telling him that “Life matters!”
Alex got out of the slammer at the age of 22 with muscle on him, blood in his cheeks and the gaze of a healthy man.
For a year, he stayed almost completely clean. Then his girlfriend got pregnant and had an abortion without telling him because she didn’t trust he could raise a child.
“I like children”, Alex says bitterly. “It was a girl; she had hands, feet, head, the lot.”
That’s when he turned to drugs again.
“I was angry.”
Shortly, his body began to fail.
“Do you want to live?”, his mother asks him in the courtyard of the hospital.
“No? Why not?”
“I just wanna puff a couple of smokes.”
An assistant steps in: “You’re on oxygen; I can’t allow you to smoke while you’re on oxygen. Why can’t you understand? Just like you said you’d quit drugs, quit the smokes as well!”
The boy in the wheelchair bursts into a fit of rage: “Yo, mom, if I don’t puff two or three smokes, I’m gonna get off this wheelchair and split. I take full responsibility!”
“What are you doing, Alex, blackmailing us with your life? Suit yourself. I’m going home, I can’t take this anymore.” The mother zips up her coat and walks to the door theatrically.
“Bitch!” The assistant can’t take it anymore and lets him smoke if he promises to go to sleep at once. Alex’s girlfriend lights up the cigarette and hands it to him.
The kid blinks calmly and puffs out of it with thirst. “See, I’m calm now.”
Alex’s heart is beating too fast. It pulsates under the skin – you can see it bubbling over on the other side of a hole the size of a cork pulled out from his chest bone, from the time they cleaned up a heart infection and they mistakenly cut into a vein.
He didn’t think it was such a big deal the first time he checked himself in, he did it because his sister urged him. He ran off after a few hours, when he heard he’s not allowed to smoke and that he’ll be tied up to his bed if he continues to raise hell.
One night, he came home after losing his little envelope and started a racket, I’ll kill you, I’ll break your windows! His sister called the police and an ambulance and told them Alex is drugged up, ill and violent, so that they’d take him by the wings and shove him into a hospital.
The cops cuffed him and took him to Obregia, the madhouse. They kept him sedated for a few days, so that he’d survive the withdrawal, but his fever wouldn’t budge, so they sent him to infectious diseases.
That’s when the diagnosis hit him: AIDS, Hepatitis C, TBC, endocarditis. He began sticking to his meds and promised his girlfriend he’d quit drugs and get back on his feet.
The doctors at Matei Balș stabilized him and sent him home with the treatment, but the disease of addiction never left him, always coercing him to the other treatment; he’d end up wasted at the hospital again and again… until they ceased to be willing to admit him.
“He ran off from the hospital eleven times”, Adrian Abagiu, a doctor specialized in addiction, explains. “After stepping on the last nerves of four of the hospital’s seven wards, one cannot expect any compassion.”
Dr. Abagiu is one of the few doctors in Romania who knows how to handle addicts. But he’s overloaded: “They check in most of the users in our ward because I’m there. And all my colleagues curse me: it’s things like you and your junkies.”
So he’s compelled to do a Darwinist triage: “I’ve had patients willing to live, I’ve had patients reluctant to live. Unfortunately, he’s from the latter group.”
A patient like Alex “costs the hospital 30.000 lei per week”, Abagiu calculates. Had he stuck to his treatment, it would have cost just 3.000 lei per month, with a chance for a normal life. Now, there’s not much that can be done.
Thus, they lied to Alex and told him they’re full, and handed him over to the lung hospital; doctors over there freaked out when they saw his roster of diseases and sent him over to infectious diseases, where they realized he also has addiction and paranoia, so they flung him over to Obregia, the madhouse, where they ran some inconclusive neurological tests, and then sent him back where he left off, at Matei Balș, only this time they didn’t beg Abagiu to take him in; they turned to the kindness of a female doctor and finally managed to check him in.
“We feel like our work is in vain”, doctor Adriana Hristea tells me, who took care of Alex for nearly two years. Whatever they manage to fix, the addicts break right back if the mind is left to torment.
“Whatever I can do in three weeks’ worth of hospital time is like a drop of water in a desert.”
The doctor from Matei Balș says a coherent program is needed, a facility with psychologists and treatment for the addicts.
“We only treat infectious diseases here, it’s a communist model”, says Adriana Hristea. “But whoever checks in here doesn’t have just that. Maybe one has a heart condition, requires counseling, how can we keep him here when he’s having a seizure?”
Matei Balș does have a psychologist, but he only gets there twice a week, spending a few hours. He’s seen Alex just twice in two years.
Checking yourself in at the Psychiatry ward while being high means they’ll pump you full of pills until the withdrawal subsides, then they’ll kick you right back onto the streets, bye-bye! The part where they talk to you is compensated by pills; as for the rest, God help us!
All of the psychotherapists, medics, social workers and former addicts, all have concurred with what the source inside Obregia claims: Hospitals for drug addicts only prescribe medication for withdrawal, which, in the absence of a therapy program, is almost useless.
“It’s dreadfully ineffective”, an employee from Obregia claims, under the cover of anonymity (!). “That person gets out, goes back to his real life, with his real problems and goes right back at it.”
You’re playing with my brain, aren’t you?
I want to speak to the lady doctor!
She’s keeping me here and she’s lying to me, says she can’t talk to me. These guys are hiding something from me.
They’re putting in water instead of treatment.
Well, now I’m agitated.
He wants to tear off his perfusion and run off, but he’s too weak.
He’s a blonde, sweaty boy, with abrupt breathing, connected to a machine that measures his heartbeat.
“150 BPM – it beats like electronic music”, his sister jokes and adds, on a serious note: “You’ll die if you don’t stay in the hospital.”
Alex begins to get the suspicion that he’ll die anyway.
But he also suspects his mother of poisoning his food; also, that the services implanted a chip inside his brain… There are way too many suspicions; you’re not even sure who you are anymore.
The only certainty is that moment when you feel the warmth when the soul flares up.
And there they discharge him again; it’s almost as if he feels a little better, too.
One day we go bike riding, but after a while his heart makes a fuss and he heads back home.
At home, he sits at his computer. He scrolls Facebook, checks out the articles I’ve written before.
These are the last pages from his browsing history.
He leaves his home, never to return.
These are the curses from God for all the abortions I’ve had and the times he’d rip my panties off. I’d sleep with him and get an abortion.
That’s why this child is like this. God punished me.
Or maybe he wanted him by his side, ‘cause he was such a good kid…
The sun heats up the stone crosses at the Giulești Sârbi cemetery.
In front of the chapel are a few dressed up youngsters with neat hair, who talk about childhood happenings. “Those guys are not on smack”, Alex’s mother whispers to me.
She walks among the people and quickly goes from one state to another. Now she’s pissed at Alex for not having stood by her side ‘til the end.
And at his father for not even attending the funeral, “at least so there won’t be any gossip”. Alex’s girlfriend gave him a call yesterday to ask him to come, but he had already planned a “mandatory” meeting in Germany. “It’s a long time in the planning”, he said to her. “Nothing I could do. Things don’t just happen like we want them to.”
It’s getting hotter and hotter. The sister rents a coffin lid with air conditioning, “otherwise he’ll sizzle”.
Inside a scrawny chapel, a little kiddo listens to a lady who performs draws up a census of the group of friends:
Two young boys.
They both threw themselves off the balcony a few years ago, in Sălăjan.
They joined hands and leaped. From the drugs.
They were shooting legals.
And he sold, and he had a bad case of paranoia, the kiddo explained.
Peteme also died a few weeks ago.
Tică too, from the drugs.
Also Angi, from our block.
She was upstairs and a friend told her to come down, «I can’t get down, momma locked me up», and leaped.
As for me, whenever I go to the cemetery, that whole alley turns me right over. Only youths, left and right, only junkies.
Dead or locked up.
A story by Matei Bărbulescu
Matei was born the same year as Alex.
They grew up a few blocks from one another.
They only met in the hospital’s triage.
They kept on wondering, what if their roles were switched?
Casa Jurnalistului is a collective of independent reporters based in Bucharest. We create in-depth feature stories about social issues in Eastern Europe.
This material was done within our residency program.
Help us fund our future stories!
Illustrations: Giorge Roman
Translator: Victor Bitiușcă
Mulțumiri speciale Alinei Dumitriu și la toată Casa.
Alex agreed to publish his life story – maybe it’ll serve as a lesson for someone. But he did ask us to change his name so that his family won’t suffer even more than they already have.