Patrick O’Neil shouldn’t be alive. Statistically, at least, he should be either dead or locked up for the rest of his life. That he is neither dead nor in jail given the life he’s lead is a testament to the power of the human spirit.
That, and a good lawyer.
I first “met” Patrick in that causal online way you do these days, following him on Twitter and Facebook, over on G+ (yeah, it still exists for those bold, or lazy, enough to be there). At first, he was simply someone whose wry observations on daily life and self-deprecating humor made the online experience a little more pleasant, and unusual—seriously, his recounting of his ongoing “battles” with the TSA are worth the follow alone.
But then I started to dig a little deeper, beyond the witty tweets and goofy selfies, and began exploring his writing via his Los Angeles and San Francisco essays. From there, I ventured into his blog, Full Blue Moon Dementia, which Patrick has been writing for over a decade at this point. It quickly became apparent this was a person who’d lived an immensely interesting, complex and challenging life. He’d been in at the ground level during the early punk scene in San Francisco, struggled with eating disorders and drug addiction, and done some questionable things to support that drug addiction along the way. I thought I had a pretty good handle on who Patrick was.
I didn’t have a clue.
Whether these memories actually happened exactly as I recall is possibly subject to discussion. Yet it isn’t as if I’m lying, or just sort of making shit up as I go along. Given a polygraph test I’d pass. In a court of law I’d swear on a bible. And from me to you—this is my truth.
Patrick O’Neil’s truth comes in the form of Gun, Needle, Spoon, a memoir so raw and intimate in its recounting of a life gone off the rails it is sometimes difficult to read, the feeling of being a voyeur bordering on overwhelming. Too often, memoirs about a life as dysfunctional and hectic as O’Neil’s has been end up at one extreme or the other: wallowing in self-pity, or blurring the rough edges into a revisionist romanticism. Not O’Neil.
Using the same wit and wry observation on display daily in his social media, O’Neil matter of factly describes his descent from art school graduate with a burgeoning career in the music industry into the life of a dope addict so broke and strung out he spent time living in a camper shell on the back of a pickup and committing crimes almost daily to support his heroin habit. Along the way he sees friends die from overdoses, lies to, begs, borrows and steals from everyone he knows, including his family, and escalates from simple thefts and shoplifting to armed bank robberies. It’s not many people who can say ending up in jail was the best thing that ever happened to them, but in O’Neil’s case it may well be the truth.
After spending nearly two decades chasing the dragon, and suffering no fewer than half a dozen ODs in the process, O’Neil’s criminal escapades finally caught up with, landing him in jail for over two years while his case worked its way through the legal system. Forced to get straight while inside, O’Neil left the system drug free, but with a new monkey on his back. As part of his plea deal, O’Neil ended up with two strikes on his record—one more and he goes to prison for life. Motivated now by not only the desire to live life unencumbered by addiction but also to stay out of prison, O’Neil has been clean for over fourteen years. The process he went through to get there, first falling to the deepest depths and then climbing out of the hole he’d dug for himself, is a remarkable story of survival.
Gun, Needle, Spoon is a work of tremendous courage, one which strikes a perfect balance between bluntness and beauty—O’Neil is a truly gifted storyteller—and gives readers a peek behind the curtain of a life most have only ever seen in fiction. And as the saying goes, O’Neil’s unvarnished, unsentimental look back at his struggles demonstrates all too graphically that truth is often far stranger, and more outrageous, than fiction.
Gun, Needle, Spoon is available from Dzanc Books (978-1936873579).